A Letter from Israel Right Now
Much of this is taken from an email to a good friend.
I am glad that you got this conversation started. I need to be thinking this way about making a positive impact on the world as humans and as Jews. I have been working hard lately, getting the next round of “Achvat Amim” participants ready, and covering the situation from the border areas with Gaza, Ashkelon, and Tel Aviv. I’m sorry it took me this long to write back. I’ve been learning an enormous amount about me and about the media. Writing and sitting in the studio gives you a chance to go through an analytical process, not a complete one – TV may not be built for thorough analysis at all – but something. Being in the field involves a lot more communication about what you see around you, what others say around you, and how it feels. It’s a strange and interesting world. The other day, I was walking to work and cool breeze, unusual for July, was blowing in from the West. It reminded me that I needed to write you back and it reminded me of all the pain and progress over where you are and the overbearing feeling of chaos over here.
You wrote about Mississippiand the 50th anniversary events for Freedom Summer. I’ve been thinking a lot about North America and about the Civil Rights movement; how far everything has come and much needs to be done. Last month I thought a lot about Andrew Goodman. I grew up hearing stories of the 3 Civil Rights heroes, murdered because they stood for equality in a time and a place where that was dangerous. My mom used to tell us about him and I would listen, impressed and hoping to do something important for the world as well. I grew up with the book, “We Are Not Afraid” sitting on the shelf in our house, clear and present all the time. Here, in Israel, anti-war protests have been met with fascist street gangs, ready to attack. It sounds like an embellishment, but it’s not. That spirit, the mood here, as the death toll mounts is sickening and it is also why I moved here. The fear of being publicly calling for equality, of being what Israelis call a “Leftist”, is why I think it is important for me to be here right now; to help push forward, away from racist nationalism. I have witnessed racism on the bus and on the street and at cafes and at work and as people ran for cover from rockets.
When I chant peace and justice slogans at demonstrations with hundreds and sometimes thousands of others and others call for my death and the deaths of all Arabs and Leftists I get the feeling that many of those calling for blood have been smothered in hate by fear and they are looking for violence to as if it will grant them a moment of respite from the feeling of helplessness. They see Palestinians as less than human and Leftists as traitors in their midst, and I truly don’t understand what drives that. These days in this climate kids are the targets, and racism seeps out from behind closed doors. The fear I feel for those I know on the front lines always leads me to oppose war, so I have trouble understanding the call for more war as somehow supportive of those fighting. The tension has gone international. We are now bearing witness to what seems to me, from here in Tel Aviv, like a global wave of protests, digital arguments, and racist violence. People I know that never talk about politics or conflict are ending friendships; people have had to put up disclaimers on their facebook walls letting the world know that calls for genocide are not okay. I recently caught the tale end of a propaganda ad put out by the IDF and I literally felt sick.
Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalemare, as I write this, taking to the streets. It seems something is different. And as destruction mounts in Gazaand sirens ring out here, I repeat: In the “only democracy (is that even still true?)” in the Middle East people are getting beat up in the streets. I thought about what I wrote the last time violence escalated, to a lesser extent, like this. It’s all still true. After a failed round of peace talks, teenagers being murdered in terrible, cold blood, and hate-filled sentiment in the streets all of is still true.
But this time is different. I can feel it in my bones. It’s not just the involuntary panic of hearing a car accelerate and thinking it is a red alert siren. It is more. It feel like a wave and no one controls a wave. Not Netanyahu, not Obama, not Abbas, Not Meshaal. Instead of cultivating a bit of foresight among the so-called “leaders”, we are witnessing a massive failure of moral courage or strategic action. And again, no one can control a wave. That can be good or that can be really, really bad. No one really knows where this is all leading. This isn’t the most violent it’s ever been, but what we are witnessing – what we are a part of – is new.
A few days ago I wrote to a friend that it feels, the world over, that we are seeing a dark cloud and some are looking for a fight with some “other” as a response to that. I doubt that there is some definable good and evil in reality, but if there is it is most likely a divide between those looking for violence and those looking for peace. The problem with that theory is that the truth is that there is no such thing as violent “thugs”; there is only us.
Life would be much easier if we were fine with the world as it is. We could be firmly focused on taking of only ourselves? After all taking care of only one’s self is built into the ideology of the current power structures – and a core component of the pain inflicted on us by capitalism, racism, and supremacist ideologies.
As far as this particular situation Gaza and South Israel goes, I recently wrote that it’s time to build a mutual agreement (something that involves all parties at the writing table) that includes self determination for all the peoples seeking that. It needs to be something that focuses on economic development plans (based on equity and inclusion) and educational programs toward justice and peace so that interest in extremist violence wanes. The military simply cannot completely end rocket fire. The more violence, the more extremism grows and the more terror will be felt. Ending the occupation and the blockade, building space for development, creativity, and progress will beat violent extremism every time. Though it will take time to work and it will be challenging given obvious extremism and violent intentions from all corners, it is in fact the only thing that will bring lasting and just peace. Peace may be a far off idea for many Israelis though. A friend who was drafted to the Israeli army years ago and was released early told me once that people enter at age 18 and never get out in the sense that, for him, the culture ranks and egos built in those precious years between 18 and 21 years of age permeate everything.
Some respond to the above as traitorous terrorism. People get really upset when military force is proven to be wrong, not only morally but strategically. It is hard to fathom what to do instead. That is something intertwined with the militarism here, but certainly not only here. Some respond by simply saying that any country has a right to defend itself and its people. That’s true. Still, the operation going on now in Gaza, with a mounting death toll including a vast majority (according the UN) of civilians, cannot be said to be limited to self defense by any honest observer from any background. Indeed, it is only serving to cultivate extremism.
Without a doubt, Hamas aims is to create terror and killing in Israel, and in this recent campaign it has had much success in the former mission, even with little success in the latter. Indeed, the majority of Israeli deaths are from the ranks of soldiers fighting on the ground inGaza. Some respond that it is simply an optimistic fantasy to imagine living in harmony. I couldn’t disagree more. The only fantasy is believing that the current path we are walking down (to be clear the situation is not static, we are walking down a path) is sustainable for Israel, Palestine or anyone else. International isolation, growing unrest between Right and Left, Jew and Palestinian, and regional instability are all working against us. Some believe that means building a fortress and hoping for the best. Those kinds of regimes only last a few years, at best a few decades before fizzling out or being overthrown by someone slightly worse or slightly better. The reality is that this operation is not even aimed at removing Hamas from power, and given the scope of its aim to weaken it, I can only feel sick and tired at the obvious reality that the operation will serve to strengthen them. The only chance we have is long term thinking toward a fair and just peace. It’s naïve to think that it is an optimistic fantasy. It is the pragmatic reality. There are no other options for a good life for this place and the people that call it home.
Building a sustainable peace demands a just foundation. That means ending the occupation and the blockade. This will create a better (the only) environment for a cultural shift, something that both peoples need in relation to one another. As I wrote above, it will take time, but it begins with rights for everyone and goes from there. You can’t build trust without that starting point, and though I doubt anyone will forget any of the traumas and tragedies they’ve been through anytime soon, moving forward in building a better world is a necessity.
None of this negates the need for solid defensive ability. Not much more needs to be said about it. Hamas is bad and if one really wants to acknowledge that fact then they should stand against offensive (as opposed to defensive) force. If one agrees that violence creates more extremism, something literally everyone I have spoken to agrees with, it is not enough to pay lip service to the idea that violence, in its destruction, prepares the ground for more destruction in the future. One must act on the real analysis that that in the real world we can only actually move forward by ending the occupation and working to build (a) working society(s).
Sometimes it is worth getting into the details of a good plan for this place and these peoples. For example, two distinct states with their own national institutions and open borders so that people can work, live, and pray where they want, or a union of states, or a network of villages and kibbutzim and cities or something. Other times, like now in this chaos, I feel it is more important to say “we are fighting for equality now, determining what that looks like on the ground can be a fun building project for all of us– but equality is not open for debate”.
We have multiple avenues for this struggle and we need to use them. As I wrote, people are out in the streets but it is becoming harder and harder to so much as speak out against violence in a peaceful and public way. I have been spending my time connecting people to the protests and actions that are already going on here, creating spaces for learning and talking and planning so that new people can find their way into this movement. It is hard though, there is so much going on – African refugees are still being jailed, Palestinian citizens of Israel are still being targeted for discrimination, the occupation continues, class inequality grows, and ethnic divides persist – and it can prove challenging to hold on to something and fight the current.
Success here and now is found in convincing another person from the diaspora that the occupation is destroying so much of this place and these people. Success will be found in legal equality and educational processes to set those changes in stone. Success here and now is found in moments of pulling this society back from the abyss of racist fascism in the streets. A few weeks ago we feared that a massive rally would be marching through the streets of Jerusalemto tell the people of the city that the Jews are the only true owners of that place. 1500 people had said they were attending on facebook, luckily only about 150 showed up. A small group of anti-racist activists sat on the steps at the center of the square where the rally was supposed to take place and they never left their post. The crowd of racists never swelled. I overhead a police officer tell one of the Kahanist demonstrators that he agrees, but that it wasn’t a good time to march. The police often use this tactic to settle unruly crowds. Our fears about that evening did not come to pass. I am happy about that, but I also know that our resistance is vital to protect all of us from a march like that.
You concluded your letter to me by saying that it is time to get the revolution started and with a sign off from the movement we come from, “strength and courage”. All of this happens in the midst of what is happening here around us, which is incredibly devastating. Crying, for many, is a courageous act because it may just be the moment that our emotions are catching up to what our intellect knows about the realities around us. But we also have to strengthen one another to struggle against violence and supremacist movements. To be sure, people still go out together, talk and laugh, enjoy culture and comedy and food, but something is different now. There is a heavy weight and we have to say ‘Not in My Name’, and then we have to follow that up by describing what it is that our names do stand for and acting on it here and now.
This piece was originally published in two parts on allthesedays.org. The first part is here, and the second part is here.
A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth