For those of you who haven’t been reading American news (which would be most of the world- America is 4.3% of the world’s population), it has been a politically charged week. Immigrant families detained at the border have been separated- children from their parents. This is incredibly sad– the journey to America was probably scary enough for these kids, and now they’re without their parents. Even in jail.
What’s also sad is how the American Left, which I once called home, has been reacting to this news. In opposing the President’s policy, I’ve seen friends on Facebook suggest moving to Canada (and that Canada should build a wall to keep Americans out) and that Trump is “pure evil destroying civilization itself”. I’ve seen people pouring out rage, scolding others for being silent- saying silence is assent. I’ve seen many- too many- Holocaust references. One person wrote “it starts with 2,000 and ends with 6 million”. Another person called the detention centers “concentration camps”. I wrote to her that I also opposed the policy and wanted her to consider rephrasing because my family was murdered in concentration camps. She wrote back “I’m sorry your family suffered that but…” and then quoted me a dictionary definition of concentration camps.
The American Left is sick. Not sick like disgusting- sick like ill. Perhaps partially in the face of an equally bombastic President unwilling to consider other points of view, they’ve become a mirror image of his rhetoric. “Facts have a liberal bias”, “which side are you on?”, “silence is complicity”, “no tolerance for intolerance”. Trigger-happy accusations of racism and any -ism which actually obscure when those isms are a true danger. People are afraid- this is a confusing time for America. Unfortunately, some people in the ideology I once called home are using it as an opportunity to engage in a witch hunt against anyone who disagrees with them. Which only prolongs the conflict plaguing that land.
I grew up being taught liberal politics- at home and at school and at synagogue. There are still values I identify with- diversity, gender and sexual empowerment, fairness, and others. And there are some really problematic ones I’ve come to discover as I’ve embarked on my own journey of visiting communities I knew little about. And in discovering the multifaceted texture of living in Israel, my home.
Some of the problems are that liberalism, progressivism, left-wing activism- when practiced in an orthodox fashion- promotes diversity, but not diversity of thought. People who stray from the “path” are labeled as prejudiced and ignorant, in need of education. Rather than understood as full human beings capable of disagreeing for reasons both based in fact and not. I know what I’m talking about because I used to think this way. Like the people in the Democratic party who rail against any elected official who strays from their views. They are called “DINOs”- Democrats in Name Only. While I think some politicians modify their views for insincere reasons, I don’t think we should call out every elected official (or private individual) who happens to have a different point of view. Like a pro-life Democrat, or a pro-gay rights Republican. Or an independent, like me at the moment, who doesn’t really care for party labels and rooting on Election Day like it’s a national sport. Although it is kind of fun to watch the votes come in 😉
When I worked in progressive politics (for Obama twice, for several immigrant rights groups, on many Democratic campaigns), I noticed something problematic from the start. Democrats and Republicans function as teams. When one of yours is in power, the vast majority of voters and elected officials on your team don’t openly criticize him or her. Obama, for instance, deported more immigrants than George W. Bush, one of the reasons I left his Administration. There are complicated reasons for this- I disagreed with the policy and I also think (in retrospect) that governments have an obligation to secure borders and provide safety to those who reside within them.
At the time, even the Latino advocacy group I worked at mostly stayed silent. While there weren’t the heart-wrenching pictures you’re seeing today on social media, Obama’s policy separated hundreds of thousands of families. And I didn’t see any superstorm of rage on my social media or accusations of treason. There are many reasons for this- for advocacy groups, they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them (both elected officials and liberal foundations). They want access, and the Administration told them (I recall specific conversations with other non-profit colleagues) that if they openly criticized the President, they’d be invited to fewer White House meetings. The dynamics and economics of politics and non-profit organizations is a difficult one- people have reasons for acting the way they do. And I feel it’s deeply hypocritical to only call out behavior you disagree with when the person in power is from the “other team”- in this case, Donald Trump.
The other day I was lucky to be on vacation in Italy. I was on a train winding through the South when I happened to sit next to an American. She was an Italian language professor in the States in Italy for a conference- paid for by her university. Not bad. We had some friendly chit chat- I often am nervous talking to Americans these days since so many on the progressive end of the spectrum hate Israel. Often obscured by politeness but never far beneath the surface. Who love the beaches of Tel Aviv and then go build their “Israeli apartheid walls” on campus.
The professor’s face looked grave. “It’s hard to teach in the humanities these days. We should enjoy it while it lasts. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come to the conference next year.” She paused, an empty silence, waiting for my response. And I let the silence stand.
Here’s some cold dark truth for you: you’re lucky to have a job where someone pays you to go to Italy. Yes, funding for the humanities I’m sure is down and job opportunities are decreasing- I considered a PhD in Linguistics and the odds aren’t great. And I live in a country where 50 rockets fell on my friend’s kibbutz while I was on vacation. Where Iran fired missiles at our northern border a few weeks ago. Where I live alongside Darfur genocide survivors and Jews expelled from Iraq and Syria. I have a friend who’s a Burmese refugee who hasn’t been home in 20 years because of his country’s ruthless dictatorship. I’ve personally lived through air raid sirens, being racially profiled at a checkpoint (which was awful and I think also protects people overall), rocket alerts on my phone, suspicious packages being disarmed in front of me, and I’ve actually watched bombs go off in the Syrian Civil War. Meters away from where I stood. A war which, by the way, the American Left practically ignores. I can’t remember a single picture of my friends rallying for Syrian lives. Because that doesn’t fit into a simple picture, a black-and-white world vision. And because, let’s be honest, it’s not in America. America’s problems come first for America, no matter how small they truly are in comparison with the rest of the world. Just ask the 350,000 Syrians who can’t read this right now.
Despite the terror that Israelis, that Syrians, that Kurds, that so many people face- on a level Americans can’t even imagine- I don’t see any progressives rallying for us. When hundreds of rockets fall on my country, I don’t see Facebook light up with support. In fact, I don’t see anything at all. The only time it does light up is with sympathy for Palestinians. Which I think is totally fine- if you also sympathize with us. With all human beings. The problem is that’s not what’s happening. Israeli lives don’t matter to large swaths of the American Left. That’s how I feel as an Israeli who once called that community home. Who voted and volunteered for Bernie Sanders, who was a pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention that nominated Barack Obama. Perhaps I partially left you, Left, but I think you know you also left me. If my vote is up for grabs, you’ve got issues.
I understand the appeal of easy answers. When I was struggling to find my steadiness, ideology helped me feel a sense of sturdiness. I read with great passion anarchist, socialist, communist- any -ist- readings. Some of the ideas I think are stimulating and I try to find something to learn from in every community or background.
And there is a dangerous, if comforting, continuity to these ideas. If we just did A, B, & C, everything would be ok. If we pulled out of trade deals, if we had open borders, if we passed Obamacare, if we removed all our military bases, if we (as people have suggested in rally signs this week) dismantled our border control. If we, if we, if we. Then everything would be great.
This is a lie. It is a lie to make people feel stronger and I think it ends up inflaming conflict rather than softening people’s hearts and creating shared hope. I used to feel quite confident in my prescriptions. And now, I’ve learned to live in the space where I’m not sure there are solutions. Or the solutions that exist require great empathy for all parties involved because they’re complex and people have reasons for their feelings.
The thing I most see as contributing to a healthy world is understanding. Including of those who disagree with you. So that even when you argue, like my Israeli atheist friend who studies with a Hasidic rabbi, you can pat each other on the back and say “see you next week”. That’s not a fantasy- that’s everyday life for many, many Israelis. Who sit on top of a gift that America would be wise to learn from. Israelis, Jewish or Arab, secular or Orthodox, are not shy about their views. We’re much blunter than Americans- we’re famous for it. And I’ve noticed that Israelis, on a day-to-day basis, manage to interact with people of very different backgrounds with a lot less conflict than Americans. And a lot less passive aggressive withdrawal.
Yes, that might sound shocking given what people see on CNN, but Israelis actually mostly get along. Perhaps because we live with conflict, we know how to manage it better. And live our lives in deeply fulfilling ways. Appreciating each breath as a gift. Without obsessing over every racist tweet or faux pas for days on end. We might feel sad (or cheer) and move on. If we took extended mourning periods for every loss or problem, we wouldn’t move. So instead, we live our lives. In a way that Americans could really learn from. From us- we have something that can help you. It’s not America’s job to wander the world lecturing other countries. God’s voice is sprinkled all over this planet.
Barack Obama, whose first campaign I worked on, had a positive contribution to the national dialogue: hope. Whether or not you agree with him (I’ve felt both ways at different times), he brought a certain optimism to the conversation. He used to say “there’s nothing wrong in America that can’t be fixed with what’s right in America”. A kind of brightness lacking in the activism I see in today’s progressive thought.
When I look at America from afar, in my homeland of Israel, I feel deep sadness and anger. A distance. Sadness because I see society falling apart. People unable to get along with each other. A poisoned conversation among people who barely seem to recognize the humanity of someone who thinks differently. I know there are Americans who feel like I do, it’s just hard to find them when living in the Mediterranean now that I’ve come to this understanding. I wish you luck in healing that place- you have a friend in me.
I feel anger when I see American leftists bashing my country, comparing every Donald Trump action to the Holocaust, pulling their hair out without even acknowledging drastic problems affecting the rest of the world. Yes, problems worse than a racist Roseanne Barr tweet.
America- I don’t miss you. Although your Thai noodles are superior to Israel’s. This is my home. And I do want you to find serenity. A way forward that acknowledges the best in progressive and conservative thought. Because both (and many other types of thinking) have value and deserve an honest debate. Rather than, on both extremes, a hate fest worthy of the 1860s. When Americans killed each other at the other end of a barrel. Instead of at a polling booth.
The last thing your country- or the world- needs is another group of people peeling apart at the seams. I don’t have the solution, just try to see each other as humans. Each interaction throughout your day can bring a bit more hope to the world. Love, even when it’s hard.
I’m rooting for you America, even if my heart is deep in the East.
p.s.- the cover photo is from a coexistence mural in the Israeli Bedouin village of Jisr Al-Zarqa. Maybe it’s time to get painting on the other side of the ocean as well 😉