One Perspective of Israel

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In September, my husband and I traveled to Israel for a family wedding. Neither of us had visited the country before. For those of us coming from the US, my cousin planned some fascinating experiences. Thanks to him, we got a much better picture of both Israel's glory and her pain than the typical traveler might see. It was our political education though that stands out.

* A Day with the New Israel Fund
* A Likud View of Gaza: Avi Dichter
* An Orthodox Perspective
* From the Kibbutz

A day with the New Israel Fund

The New Israel Fund is a foundation that supports Israeli non-profits doing progressive work within Israel. We spent some time with three of those organizations.

Council for Peace and Security
We met with Gadi Zohar, retired Brigadier General, and Aviv Feigel, retired Lieutenant Colonel, of
the Israeli Defense Forces. During their service, they could not criticize Israel's foreign or internal policies. In retirement however, hundreds of high-ranking Israelis from the security and diplomacy fields have joined the Council. They oppose Israel's current aggressive policies as counter-productive and harmful to Israel's long-term security needs.

"There are three elements to Israel security: #1: our relationship with America, #2: our relationship with America, #3: see #1 and #2." The generals bemoaned Prime Minister Netanyahu's actions driving a wedge between the US and Israel, including his recent appearance before the US Congress to blast President Obama.

"There is no existential threat to the existence of Israel from Iran. Iran wants nuclear weapons to be a superpower, not to threaten Israel. Furthermore, the agreement with Iran would delay a nuclear Iran for ten to fifteen years."

"The existential threat to Israel is within Israeli society itself, not from Iran or any other foreign nation."

Association for Civil Rights in Israel
We toured East Jerusalem with Ronit Sela, the Director of the Human Rights in East Jerusalem Project of the ACRI. The ACRI is akin to our ACLU and fights for civil rights for all Israelis.

East Jerusalem was captured by Israel during the 1967 War and is under Israel's control. Arabs in East Jerusalem are refused many of the basic tenets of citizenship. Since 1967, they have been refused the right to build new homes and businesses. This means that additional generations of Arabs must squeeze into already crowded homes owned by their grandparents and great-grandparents. There has been no investment in maintaining public services to Arab communities: power, water, sewer and other services have not been upgraded or maintained for over fifty years. Arabs in East Jerusalem are not citizens, but rather "permanent residents". The poverty rate for Arabs in East Jerusalem is 75%, compared to 21% in the nation as a whole.

On the other hand, Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem have sprung up wherever land is available, (and sometimes made available by Israeli bombings of the homes of suspected terrorists). These settlements have all the modern features you would expect: reliable water, sewer and power access, high speed internet, good roads and other community assets like schools and community centers. We visited one of these (below) where another relative lives.

We also visited the wall that divides neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Conditions on the other side of the wall (and through the checkpoints) are much, much worse. The Israeli government ignores conditions there and construction is entirely illegal (since there is no legal construction allowed) and therefore unsafe and unsanitary. Now we read that those living behind the wall are to be punished still more.

While we were at the wall, we watched children pass through the long prison wire route to the checkpoint that adjoins the two sides on either side of the wall. I tried to imagine what growing up where this checkpoint is your access to school must do to a child's sense of self.

Pervasive throughout Israel but especially in Jerusalem are the Israeli military forces, young Israeli soldiers armed with automatic weapons patrolling everywhere. Harassment by these forces is endemic for Arab communities, particularly at or near checkpoints and Jewish areas. We watched a car being surrounded and dozens of soldiers who seemed to materialize from nowhere descending on that car.

Yet what disturbed me the most was something I saw that wasn't even mentioned by our ACRI hosts. Above the city, I saw what looked like a full moon, barely visible in the sky. I blinked a few times and refocused to be sure it was not just me hallucinating after too little sleep. Then I asked my husband to confirm that he too could see it. When I finally asked, I was told it was a balloon, one of several suspended over the city, armed with cameras that watched Palestinians around the clock.

Shatil Haifa

We had lunch with the head of the New Israel Fund and the head of Shatil Haifa. Shatil is an organization rather like the Nonprofit Association of Oregon (NAO) that provides technical support to other non-profits. We learned from Fathi Marshood more about the disparity between Arabs and Jews in Israel, but particularly about the difficulty of getting information out in Israel. As an example, Mr. Marshood told us there had been a protest at the Education Ministry the day before where thousands protested education policies, yet the Jerusalem Post did not cover it. Freedom of the Press in Israel--while superior to many places in the world--isn't at all what Americans are used to. The Post is closely tied to the Likud government.

A Likud View of Gaza: Avi Dichter

We were fortunate that the groom's family are friends with the prominent Israeli Likud politician, Avi Dichter. Mr. Dichter met us at Ashkelon, near Israel's border with Gaza. He is the former head of Shin Bet (Israel's internal security apparatus) and a former Knesset member. Mr. Dichter is a prominent Likud leader, aligned with PM Netanyahu. Our meeting was to be with a view into Gaza, but that was the day of the worst sand storm in many years and we could barely see each other, let alone the skyline of Gaza City.

Avi Dichter emphasized the threat to Israel from Palestinian terrorists. He discussed the tunnels into Israel and, in spite of numerous clarifying questions, would not agree that the tunnels had any other purpose other than the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and terrorists out of Gaza. He did not believe Gazans used or needed them for regular commerce. Given the sea and land blockades imposed by Israel (and Egypt), goods needed for the Gazan people are scarce. Food, building materials, fuel, travel, and other needs are brought in (or out) through these illegal tunnels. There is one checkpoint for trucks to pass to Gaza from Israel and it was Mr. Dichter's opinion that this was sufficient to meet their peaceful needs.

Mr. Dichter's talk focused on the need to protect Jewish Israel and the danger from Palestinian people. He did not acknowledge any of the hardships faced by Gazans, nor did he believe that harsh responses from Israel exacerbated the conflict. His fortress mentality -- perceiving Palestinians as evil terrorists and not as people struggling under difficult conditions -- was echoed by others we met in Israel, including some relatives.

He ended by assuring us that Israel was creating a weapon that would soon turn the many tunnels into the "largest terrorist graveyards in history".

An Orthodox Perspective

One afternoon, we rode a city bus to Har Homa, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, where a cousin of mine lives with her husband. Har Homa has been the subject of multiple United Nations Security Council challenges and is regarded by much of the world as an illegal settlement. Israel of course disputes this, insisting that 80% of the land was already Jewish owned before the settlement was built.

My cousins are Orthodox Jews, immigrants from America. During our visit, we were asked about our adventures thus far. I shared that we were getting an excellent education in Israeli affairs, having heard from both the left and right already. My cousin's husband asked who those were and I explained we'd first met with the New Israel Fund. He commented "so you've heard from the far, far left." I went on to explain we'd also met with Avi Dichter. He observed, "that's not the right, that's just the more moderate left."

At that point, I changed the subject to safer family topics.

From the Kibbutz

Our last few days were spent on a kibbutz in the northern Galilee where another cousin lives. This was a rather wealthy kibbutz (they aren't all), very different from the impoverished one where his father farmed from the 1950s to the 1970s. His father is conservative, aligned I would say with Likud. The son we stayed with however, is not at all. We were there for Rosh Hashanah and other family came for dinner as well as a neighbor.

Everyone around the table was secular, liberal (more so, I would think, than the NIF), and outraged by much of what is happening today in Israel. The most vivid example was the daughter and her fiance. They plan to be married in May, but are furious that they must -- by new Israeli decree--have an orthodox rabbi perform their marriage. They had considered getting married outside the country, but it was important to them that friends and family be able to attend.

Other Observations

Every Israeli we met loved their country, worried about their nation's future, and held strong opinions about politics. That included cab drivers, relatives, and waitresses. All were willing to share what they thought if asked. There is a deep division though between factions in Israel.

The wedding we attended was a very large but very warm, lively affair. The groom's family are Misrahi, or eastern Jews, hailing from Iraq. They live in the West Bank in a community we visited for the henna. We found them delightful. It is often the Misrahi communities that are most conservative in Israel. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, hailing from Europe, with perhaps more staid traditions but politically more liberal.

Many Israelis were quite open about their separateness from Israeli Arabs. One even commented how disturbed she was to be brought to a hospital emergency room where most of the patients were Arab. Arabs make up a large minority in Israel--and most would like to remain there--but they are not remotely equal in the eyes of the majority of Israelis. Nevertheless, the cuisine and cultures of Israel are much more Middle Eastern than New York Jewish. I for one had looked forward to being surrounded with the flavors from my grandmother's table and rarely saw any of them. The typical menu reminded me more of Istanbul than Chicago.

There are Jews, including some of my relatives, who reach out to serve Arab communities and exhibit the volunteer spirit we are accustomed to in America. I don't want to overlook those, the doctors who do pro bono work in Arab hospitals or the lawyers who advocate for Arab rights. But so many Israelis spoke of Arabs with disdain that it was troubling. It is true that terrorism is an intimate reality to them, something I have not experienced, and their reaction may well be human nature.

But I do believe that for peace to happen in Israel, Israel must undo the worst of its abuses against Palestinians, ending the illegal settlements and providing normal civic support for Arab citizens and communities. Israel was on its way to doing so under Yitzhak Rabin. His assassination however--many believe incited by Benjamin Netanyahu's inflammatory speeches at the time--put an end to those hopes, or at least suspended them. Yet all the aggressive measures in the world have not made Israel safer.