A curious thing happened to me tonight. I was sitting at a hostel in Israel eating dinner with a nice young Mexican woman.
She’s not Jewish and I explained to her in Spanish great Christian sites to visit in Israel. We had a great chat for about an hour and a half about tolerance, the complexity of conflict here, and the beautiful sites to see in Israel.
Then she said it: “Mexican Jews are rich.”
I wish, wish, wish this was the first time I had heard this comment. And for those who think this is some deep insight into the wealth gap in Mexico, she then followed up by saying: “like Jews in all countries”.
Israel is a place where it is pretty easy for an open-minded person to get discouraged. The level of hatred here, if I’m honest with you, feels much higher than America where I grew up. Particularly the diverse melting pot of suburban Maryland where people of all races and religions interact, date, learn, and play together. Not that it’s without its problems, but it’s a pretty stable and peaceful place compared to the Middle East.
To be a progressive-minded Jew, or for that matter Israeli, is a difficult position. On the one hand, I want to offer meaningful, important critiques of my government. A government which, I feel, often seeks conflict rather than resolving it. One that, for all the problems that surround this country, would sometimes rather pour fuel on the flames. And sow internal discord by discriminating against Druze, Arabs, LGBTs, refugees, Reform Jews. The “other”. It should go without saying, but it must be said, that this government’s recklessness extends to its policies towards Palestinians. Certainly a complex and multifaceted conflict (I’ve never seen a Tibetan suicide bomber), but one which this government exacerbates with great callousness. We can’t live in peace or elevate moderate voices if all our neighbors are grouped together with terrorists, deprived of human rights, and live in a void of economic opportunity.
Now comes the other side. Israel’s founders envisioned Israel as a paradox. We were meant to be both an “or lagoyim”- a light unto the nations. And also, to be a nation “like all others”. Both exemplary and insistently normal.
The young woman’s comment tonight exemplifies this conflict. For so many years- 2,000+- Jews have been subjected to some of the most horrific discrimination in world history. Banned from owning land, kicked out of country after country, robbed of our property and our dignity. Not to mention mass killings- the Holocaust is not the first of its kind. It’s the grand finale of 2,000 years of Christian European incitement. And a whole lot of trial runs.
And the Muslim World, while more tolerant than its Christian neighbors until recently, has certainly persecuted us as well. Especially in the past 150 years. It’s telling that almost every Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemenite Jew is in Israel and not in the place they called home for two millennia. And these Israelis can’t even legally enter their homelands.
If we’re really honest, every nation is about colonialism and conquest. To differing degrees, perhaps. And certainly at different stages of history. But no country is “natural”. Borders shift- and not by accident. Cultures are exterminated or promoted to suit political interests. To this day, the French government won’t sign a treaty recognizing minority languages. That almost every other European country has signed. Because despite being a global power with 60 million people with a language spoken from Quebec to Senegal. They are afraid French is “under attack”. I’ve never heard something more absurd or colonialist in mindset in my life.
But if we’re honest, nationalism is built on fear. I remembering campaigning for Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary in 2008. And door after door voters told me their number one concern: “illegal Muslims and Mexicans crossing the border.” I had to do a double take because the only border between their state and a foreign country is Canada. And I don’t see many Quebecois sneaking across the Washburn Forest to get inferior healthcare and higher-quality gun violence.
The point is not that international migration isn’t an issue. It is- for the migrants, for the host countries facing rapid cultural and economic change, and for the countries that send them. Which are often in chaos or devoid of opportunity.
It’s that New Hampshire is the third whitest state and the seventh wealthiest. So why are people so worried about Mexicans and Muslims who aren’t even there?
For me, it’s the same reason Benjamin Netanyahu passed a racist law to protect the (already well-known) “Jewish nature” of Israel while alienating almost every minority here. Why American settlers demonized and massacred Native Americans. Why Arab countries kicked out their Jews and continue to suppress indigenous minorities like the Berbers, Coptic Christians, and Yezidis.
Fear. But more particularly- fear is a tactic. Used to divide people. It is, in and of itself, not the goal. The goal is control. Perhaps living out wild psycho-dramas as well. It’s to run things. It’s greed. It’s anger. It’s a desire to be the boss. And for others to show obedience.
So when I look at Israel, I see some exemplary traits. Abundant hospitality, a creative spirit, flexibility, intimate relationships where when you really need help, your good friends provide it. Not in a transactional way, nor with the feeling that you’re “imposing” on them. Just because they want to help.
I also see things that are not so flattering. Things that resemble other countries- but perhaps not in the way I would like. When I see our policies towards Arab Israelis and Druze, and most certainly towards Palestinians, I can’t help but think of my other homeland- America. It’s not by accident that there are only two Arab villages left on Israel’s entire northern frontier and the Jordanian border. An Arab-less corridor. For safety, perhaps, but also to steal in the name of safety. Whatever security rationale people might propose dissolves when you realize Druze who served in the IDF can’t even build homes in their own towns. While nearby Jewish villages are granted tons of acreage for building. For, if we’re honest, colonization. If you take even a brief look at Area C, the part of the West Bank Israel directly controls, you’ll see land use is not an incidental issue here. Palestinians aren’t even allowed to build in this area, locking them into tiny corridors with limited freedom of movement. A suffocating social and economic existence. For the sake of territory- of control.
And then you hear voices like this young woman tonight. A Mexican woman who- while speaking to a self-identified Jew- somehow thought it was appropriate to stereotype my entire people. And it’s not coincidental. Latin America shows one of the highest levels of anti-Semitism despite there being relatively few Jews. Kind of like New Hampshire with its “Muslims and Mexicans”. Maybe because since 1492, their own Jewish blood has been drowned in the flames of Catholicism. A tactic by the ruling Spaniards to purify their country and exert control over their new empire. At the expense of my people then. And sadly, to this day. As I was reminded of tonight.
A Palestinian friend of a friend told me recently that “Israel and America are the racist countries”. Emphasis on the “the”. First off, this demonizes millions of people in the name of their governments which they often don’t agree with. Secondly, yes- these governments use racism to divide people. Like every government on the planet does or has done to varying degrees. To pretend this is only a problem is two countries is racist in and of itself.
Diversity is a threat to nationalism. It’s a threat to the ability of cruel leaders to exert control over vast masses of people who know little about each other. But are taught who to fear and what to hate.
I’ve seen this in practice in Israel and if we’re truly honest, there isn’t a nation on this planet that at some time hasn’t practiced such black magic.
So what I’m asking for is a little humility on all sides. For my fellow Israelis to realize that for all our exemplary characteristics and our understandable desire to be normal, we ended up a bit too normal. A bit too much like the people who oppressed us and a bit too callous. Is it possible to avoid such cruelty in nation building? Probably not- though it’d certainly be worth trying. And other people’s crimes don’t excuse our indifference.
And for other people- look in the mirror. The virulence of racism here is a reflection of your hatred of us for countless generations. Mutated by extreme forms of Jewish nationalism, but with roots deep in your own bigotry. The West isn’t wealthy because it’s smart. It’s wealthy because it’s built on the BMWs that Jewish slave laborers built in World War 2. It’s built on our synagogues and land robbed by Europeans and Arabs and turned into discotheques and barns. Not to mention the dozens of countries they colonized. And it’s built on my hometown of Washington, D.C. An entire capital made by African slaves.
I’ve come to hate the tribalism here. A tribalism yes, much stronger than in America. Certainly with its social benefits of belonging and support. But with warmth that often turns to fire when it brushes against the neighboring shrubbery.
So I’d like to suggest a new tribe I belong to: the tribe of reason and kindness. When I’m with Israelis, I will encourage them to think of the “other”. The Sudanese refugee who escaped genocide and has no rights here- who will perhaps be expelled if this government gets its way. Perhaps to her death.
The Arab man I met in Beit Jala who is a citizen of Israel but whose wife is Palestinian. And as a result, can’t get an Israeli driver’s license. I.e. make a living. While Jews like me are given instant passports. Not that it’s easy for us either when Sabras ridicule our accents and culture like they’ve done for 70 years.
And I’ll encourage non-Jews to think of the other. To think of us. To think of our history, to think how they’ve benefited from our oppression. For Palestinians to recognize us as fellow human beings and not stereotype us all as “killers”, thus justifying their own fanatical violence. For Westerners to remember that the conflict here is complex and simplistic solutions and one-sided blame will only anger our spirit and make us feel justifiably scapegoated. While you go on vacations to dictatorships like China without even the slightest pang of conscience.
I’d like to encourage us to be the voice of reason. To challenge each other with the voice we need to hear. The voice that encourages us towards nuance, towards understanding, towards texture.
For a long time I thought I was a hypocrite for telling Israelis to be more sensitive to Palestinians and Palestinians to be more sensitive to Israelis. Was I just overly critical? Was I somehow a hypocrite? Inconsistent? Never happy?
In reality, I’m just trying to be kind. Every country is a contradiction.
What I want in the end is for the rest of the world to see us as a little more normal, and expect us to be a little less exemplary.
And I’d like us to be a little more exemplary and a little less normal.
Normal can be good and sometimes what’s normal isn’t right.
My cover photo is of a rock from a destroyed Palestinian well house in my neighborhood. Where I put clothes to donate. That’s my religion.