About a year ago I was watching a young Israeli physician examine an Eritrean boy at the Physicians for Human Rights clinic. The boy sat looking at the ground as his cousin explained that he wasn’t sleeping at night, often waking up sweating in terror. He said the boy was wetting the bed and that he couldn’t keep his food down. When he was asked to get up and walk to the examination table, he wrapped both his hands around his thin right thigh and lifted- left, lift, right, left, lift, right. Only 13, he was thin and weak because of his trek across the Sinai desert. Along the way he was kidnapped and held captive for three months by a Bedouin criminal organization where he was tortured, deprived of food and water and forced to wait as his family in Eritrea was extorted of thousands of dollars. That day in the clinic, wearing donated clothes that hung off his frame, was his second day in Tel Aviv.
Dr. Anne Marie Slaughter, a professor of political science at University of Princeton, mentioned her experience growing up in Virginia in the 1960s briefly at a speech here. “That was not a democracy,” she said. “But, look at it now, and look at how far this country has come.” Her statement boldly compared Israel’s current situation, or at least the direction in which it is going, to that of America right before the civil rights movement. American came far. Israel must come far.
I appreciate her comment because I have told people that my observations at a Palestinian organization, living in Palestinian neighborhoods in Haifa, and witnessing my Palestinian friends’ experiences, paint a picture of what I imagine aspects of 1960s US to have been like. The structural and political racism against 20% of Israeli citizens is obvious. It manifests in unequal funding for schools, for transportation, for health facilities and for utilities in Arab communities. We see this when we look at the Israeli education system and the blatant absence of the Palestinian narrative. It is demonstrated by the fact fact that when my Palestinian friends come home to Israel, they are treated like security threats. We see this in the paucity of Palestinian MKs in Knesset, and the fact that their capacity is hampered by how easily they can be accused of being traitors for representing their community.
On a personal level, I think of when I ran into an old acquaintance from childhood- my age, from a wealthy, well educated Jewish Israeli family- looking for houses in Haifa. I told her to look into the “German colony” neighborhood for an apartment. She shook her head and told me, “there are Arabs there.” I think about when Israeli friend asked what organization I was working for and I told her about the Mossawa Center, and she asked, at 24 years old, if there was a problem with racism in Israel. I think about two going away parties: one in Haifa where only my Palestinian friends attended, and one in Tel Aviv where most of them felt uncomfortable coming to because of their discomfort in a city inhospitable to their Arabic and dark skin.
I woke up Saturday morning feeling a little bit of an overenthusiasm hangover-a little foggy, and a little confused about what happened during the fun filled night before. Usually pretty critical, I may have been a little seduced by the well-chosen speakers at the plenary. In front of me were three Israelis promising that change was afoot and that seeds of hope were being planted among an increasingly worrisome atmosphere. And while there is an element of what was said that will continue to motivate me, there are things that I am going to continue taking with a grain of salt.
I don’t agree with Amos Oz’s comparison that what will happen and what is needed is a “divorce” between two people. These people were never in a happy marriage, and this divorce will not be made on equal footing. One side has expensive, powerful lawyers, is abusive and hasn’t demonstrated lately any great investment in ensuring an amicable and equal separation. The other side really wants to get out of the relationship, is suffering from symptoms of abuse, doesn’t have the resources of expensive lawyers and has very little with which to negotiate. Maybe this is a small detail, but comparisons are powerful tools in rhetoric.
So, today I was pretty darn inspired. And I feel a little bit like a sucker for it because I went into this conference somewhat cynical (if that wasn’t obvious from my first post) but right away, from the first day, J Street did give me exactly what I asked for (and doubted I was going to get.) The three speakers during today’s plenary session were Israeli and they were brave, intelligent and moving in their own right.
Amos Oz, a prominent Israeli author and thinker represented an older liberal. He is honest and blunt. There are two endings, he said. One is Shakespearean. Everyone ends up dead on the stage but there is some justice happening up above. The other is Chekhov. In Chekhov, everyone is sad and miserable and depressed and whiny, but they are alive. A two state solution is the Chekhov ending, he says. It will be difficult and painful, but it is the right thing to do. Needless to say, I appreciated his honesty. I have no doubt that any solution that awaits us will not feel good. Its definitely too late for that.
When I lived in Israel, I was an activist. I felt engaged and informed. I went to protests and meetings and worked for organizations that represented controversial and important topics. My friends and I were inundated in politics- our conversations over dinner always touched by the situation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We were passionate, and it was exciting.
But when you live in Israel and you choose to be involved in politics, it’s also difficult not to feel like you’re drowning under a heavy, ever growing weight. Sitting on the plane back to the US after a year and a half abroad, I could feel this pressure float away. Now, if I don’t choose to open Haaretz.com, I can go weeks without knowing anything about Israel. It’s a seductive ignorance that is light and freeing, because I know that when I open the news, I feel stuck, angry and very, very sad.
So when I am asked to talk to young American Jews and motivate them to advocate against certain policies or for steps towards peace, I am hesitant because I know the costs of getting involved in this issue, and I doubt why young American Jews should feel inspired to do so. Questioning and challenging the policies Israel and the US together make is far more difficult, taxing and consuming than simply supporting Israel or obviously, avoiding the topic all together. American Jews my age (mid-20s) do not have thesame relationship that our parents and grandparents have with Israel. We don’t fully grasp how incredible it was for Jews all over the world to watch the building of this nation and thus, we don’t feel the tragedy of its failings.