This blog might sound a bit strange after I just wrote one celebrating my first year in Israel. The reality of being in Israel, though, is that I find my emotions yo-yo on a daily, often hourly basis. Things go from very bad to very good to bad again- sometimes minute to minute. The shifts in mood are palpable- and far more frequent than I experience in any other country I’ve visited.
In the past week, Israel has experienced multiple earthquakes, hundreds of Hamas rocket attacks, Syrian refugees crowding the northern border desperately trying to escape their own government, settlers attacking Israeli soldiers, Haredim attacking young women for being “immodest”, the increasingly psychotic government refusing to give gay men the right to surrogacy. And trying to pass a law that would allow communities to bar members of the basis of religion, race, sexuality, or any of a number of identities. It was subsequently watered down, but still pretty bigoted, and now is successfully winding its way through the Knesset.
Through all of this, I’ve tried to speak out, mostly in Hebrew. One, because that’s what most people speak here- people who follow these events and can influence them. Also, because there’s a problem. The far-left in America and Europe has made it nearly impossible for left-wing and centrist Israelis to successfully rally support for their causes or criticism.
Why? Because there are people who are committed to our destruction. Who are unceasingly and at times irrationally critical of Israel. In a way they aren’t of other countries- or sometimes even their own. One can even view the recent shenanigans of IfNotNow in this light. A far-left American Jewish group who, in the face of serious global challenges like the Syrian Civil War or Hamas rocket attacks, has instead decided to disrupt Birthright trips for not being left-wing enough. Ruining the Israel experiences of other young people because the trips aren’t tailored exactly to their tastes like the SweetGreen salads they custom order at lunch for $15. Excuse my cynicism- I just don’t think that just because someone has come to political conclusions about the situation here (which is their right), that means they get to force an entire organization to adopt their stance. No one is forcing them to take a free trip to Israel. If you want to see Palestinian and Arab perspectives, all you have to do is extend your ticket and hop on a bus to Bethlehem. It’s not complicated and it’s way less confrontational than aggravating a bunch of young people on a trip with an explicit purpose that they simply don’t like. Stop acting like entitled children. If you’re really serious about your beliefs, you can buy your own plane tickets.
When people like IfNotNow or groups even more extremist dedicated to destroying Israel harm us, it makes it much harder for those of us on the inside to enact beneficial change. Because when we speak out about discrimination against gays, Arabs, foreign workers, or refugees- some of these extremists use it as an opportunity to say everyone here is rotten. Which then gives ammunition to the far right here to silence us- we must be traitors, just like those troublemakers abroad. It’s not true- but it has resonance in a country under attack with little taste for nuance.
So I’m going to try to offer some criticism of Israel- but understand it’s with the purpose of actually making change. To help steer this community in a stronger direction. Not simply to make noise and masturbate my ideology. I can’t control if you’ll take my words and use them to hurt me. Just know that I will use every bit of my being to stomp you out and protect us- with the same level of passion that I use to fix what’s wrong here.
So what is wrong here? A lot. The earthquakes I can’t do much about- God, stop punishing us, we’ve had enough. The Hamas rockets- I’m exhausted with our patience. The world sits silently, mostly unaware as the media ignores our fate. If Western Liberals showed one tenth of the passion for our lives as they do for immigrant children (which is justified), then the rocket fire would be condemned from wall to wall. And maybe even pressure Hamas to stop. Now would be the time to speak up. For moral reasons. For Israeli lives. Frankly, also for Palestinian lives- they’re going to suffer increasing pain as they pay the price for Hamas’s games. And if you want to get practical, 300,000 American citizens live in Israel. And we vote. So if you want our support, show that you give a shit.
Now on to our idiotic government. I’m not a reactionary far-left voter. At times in the past, I frequented this space. I still find some of the ideas important. And I’d say, while I don’t fit into a box, I’m somewhere left-of-center or centrist in Israeli politics. And I appreciate some ideas that come from the right- I’m not orthodox in my politics. Nor in my synagogue, though I have davvened in Bnei Brak.
But this government is leading Israel off a cliff. The latest Nationality Law seeks to enshrine discrimination in Israel’s Basic Laws- laws that are not exactly a constitution, but are incredibly hard to repeal. While the law did innocuous things like recognize national holidays, the controversial aspects surrounded a downgrading of the status of Arabic, restrictions on where people can live, and antagonistic attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Jews abroad and at home. With strong implications for Arabs, LGBTs, and other minority communities. Until the text was altered, I had to live with the idea that I could be denied residence in a community for being Reform or gay- an almost unthinkable legal reality. If sadly, the unspoken truth in many places in the world, even democracies. Enshrining it in law certainly would have given malignant social practice a dangerous boost.
The saddest thing about this law is not the text itself. Nor is it the future it could portend. It is that it describes an existing reality. I’ve traveled extensively in Israel- over 100 different communities in one year. From every single possible linguistic, ethnic, and religious background. Places few Israelis visit- Israelis who’ve lived here all their lives in insidious narcissistic bubbles. Bubbles sometimes created by fear- sometimes even understandable because of that fear. Bubbles nonetheless.
This is the greatest problem with the law- it makes explicit existing social practice. Israel is a tribalistic nightmare. It is filled with rich ancient cultures. Cultures preserved through insistence on maintaining community and tradition. In ways unseen in the West, where cultures meld into creative fusions and, if we’re honest, mostly oblivion. I’ve met rather few Irish-Americans who speak Irish, and not a small number of 3rd generation Latinos who can’t speak Spanish. The gift of America is its vibrant churn. Its curse is the evaporation of cultural heritage.
In Israel, that heritage is preserved. To shocking degrees. There are Christians in the north who pray in Aramaic- some actually speak it. Just like the Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem. And every day Hasidic Jews study 2,000 year old texts in the very same language. That Jesus spoke.
The problem is that this preservation, this conservation comes at a price: social understanding. Israel is divided into tribes: secular, traditional, Orthodox, Haredi, Druze, Christian Arab, Muslim Arab. Left-wing, right-wing, center. With lines that occasionally are breached, for example by my friends who grew up Orthodox and are now Reform. But this is by far the exception. When people plant themselves here, they leave themselves little room to wiggle. And often little curiosity to explore other pastures.
This is the greatest problem with Israel. One I recognized half a year ago. And I have even more evidence for now. This isn’t a society. It is a collection of societies. That mostly don’t talk to each other and are largely content to avoid each other. From every possible direction, lest someone pretend their tribe doesn’t follow this pattern. I’ve met Druze who say they keep their Muslim minorities “under control”. I’ve met Christians who say they keep their Muslim neighbors “in line”- and if there are problems, they’ll “take care of them”. Muslims have used religion as a wedge against Christians in Nazareth, of all places. It’s safe to say almost no Muslim villages here would be thrilled to see Jews moving in. With the exception of welcoming Abu Ghosh, where a woman wanted to know why I didn’t want an apartment there. Unfortunately, a woman from there was beaten by Jewish girls in Jerusalem for being Arab this week. When it rains, it pours. You can extrapolate the same patterns of voluntary segregation among all types of Jews- among themselves and towards Arabs. Lest you think it’s only right-wing Jews who feel this way, I’ve never ever met an Arab who was allowed to live on a Kibbutz. And they largely understand they won’t be allowed on a moshav, or village. I’ve yet to see my wealthy friends in North Tel Aviv show interest in setting up an African refugee community in their neighborhood.
People here are generous- about giving directions, about hosting strangers, about feeding you, about giving advice. And they are utterly selfish when it comes to defending the interests of their community above the dignity of the individual or, for that matter, the well-being of the nation.
If America is far too individualistic, Israel is far too communal. With pluses and minuses in both directions. I’ve noticed that not all societies are so extreme- my travels in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have revealed places somewhere in the middle.
Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel is what allows it to be a Jewish state. The reckless, gung-ho attitude of its early pioneers, the native-born Sabras, is what allowed the state to get on its feet.
But those very pioneers contained a fatal contradiction. Their disregard for rules, their utter contempt for the Diaspora and all things foreign- it has become limiting. Because if you look at who can best contribute to the cultural dialogue here that could strengthen bonds and ease tensions- it’s people like me and thousands of olim who’ve chosen to make Israel our home. People who, at our best, have the sensitivity of having been a minority, as well as the pride of choosing to make this our home. People who know how to navigate various cultures and come with less preconceptions about different communities. More often than not, understanding the value of pluralism, or at least the power of listening. Something sabras struggle to do as they lecture us about how we’re wrong and they know better. As the country they built rages with fire- fire from the outside, and fire kindled from within.
It’s high time the sabra realized he’s not the only fruit in the field.
p.s.- the cover photo is from a Druze village. It says: “it’s my fault that I love my sect”. A kind of Middle Eastern “sorry not sorry”.