Thursday, March 17, 2016

Competing Narratives

In any good story, there is one clear perspective that effectively grabs the audience's attention. From any fairytale, for example, the viewer can clearly distinguish between the good and evil sides of the story, which makes it easier to identify with the story's hero. If only real life were that easy. Particularly while living in Israel, I have learned that no story is complete without exploring all the different sides involved. Wherever there is one powerful narrative, there are always other significant ones to challenge it and make the story as a whole more nuanced. Though all these narratives make the story more complex, it also helps the audience decipher the core of the story and what its resolution should be.

There is no place in Israel where the idea of competing narratives is more apparent than Jerusalem. I have been to Jerusalem many times, and even lived there for four months, and each time I go I am always amazed by all the different layers the city has. Whether I'm looking at its ancient history, diverse cultures, or rich Jewish presence, just for example, I can always think about a subject with a new lens and learn something I didn't already know.

One place where I have been able to do so is the Knesset, the building that houses Israel's Parliament. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a ceremony there remembering Ariel Sharon, one of Israel's great Prime Ministers. As one who is very familiar with Israel's history and contemporary politics, I absolutely loved this event because it was a great opportunity to witness a session of Israel's main governing body and see famous Israeli politicians up close after hearing about them countlessly in the news. However, the most interesting thing I took out of the ceremony were the speeches by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog. Coming from two completely opposite sides of the political spectrum, the right and center-left respectively, Netanyahu and Hertzog drew from very different aspects of Sharon's legacy and conveyed completely contrasting messages while remembering the same man. Netanyahu, delivering one of his typical nationalistic and "security of the Jewish people"-focused speeches, focused on Sharon's legacy as a military leader, and emphasized how this is meant to inspire the State of Israel and the world during its current fight against radical Islamic terrorism. On the other hand, Herzog focused on Sharon's legacy as a diplomat and a man willing to make tough decisions in order to move toward peace. He specifically referenced the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and said that Sharon realized that the only way forward was to make a "new reality," and that is something that must continue to be done in the present day. These speeches show that even when discussing the same subject, there can be completely different narratives that deliver competing messages.

The outside of the Knesset building
A parliament session before the memorial ceremony
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu speaking

A  beautiful menorah with depictions of different events from Jewish history 
Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog speaking
Some famous members of the Knesset, including (l-to-r) Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni, and Staf Shafir. Also Ayelet Shaked, the Justice Minister, is on the far right.
Something I love about Israel's government and Israel in general. Judaism is very in your face wherever you go!

The notion of competing narratives got explored even further during a day trip the Yahel group took to Jerusalem later that week. During this trip, we got to explore many of the city's important sights and witness the different narratives connected to those places. True, I had done this before multiple times during past trips to Jerusalem, especially when I spent a semester at Hebrew University. But this time, I was observing these places with a greater understanding of community and appreciation of the different pieces that determine whether a community functions well. Take Mount Zion, for instance. There is one building on Mount Zion that is considered a holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims and has been under constant battle between the faith groups concerning its operation. For Jews, this is considered the site of King David's Tomb, and is embellished with a statue of the famous monarch and many quotes from his most well-known creation, the Book of Psalms. For Christians, the floor above King David's Tomb is believed to contain the Room of the Last Supper, where Jesus held his final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion during one of the most pivotal events in the formation of Christianity. For Muslims, King David and Jesus are both considered prophets, and so the site is regarded as a meaningful site for prayer and reflection. This site is so special for Muslims that a plaque was placed in the Room of the Last Supper designating that the first qibla (direction of prayer) for Muslims was Jerusalem, and later on it got changed to Mecca.

From a first glance on a normal day, it does not seem that there are any conflicts occurring at this site. When I was there that day, I saw Jews praying at King David's Tomb, which is divided equally among genders and is used solely for Jewish prayer on both sides. Regarding the Room of the Last Supper however, though there was much Christian and Muslim scenery, I saw mostly tourists taking in the site rather than Christians and Muslims at prayer. This surprised me greatly for such an important religious site, but as our tour guide Yishai explained, this lack of prayer services is done very purposefully. Because the Last Supper room is shared between Christians and Muslims according to a status quo agreement established under Ottoman rule, Christians and Muslims can only hold services there on a limited number of days during the year. At the same time, the Christians also seek access to King David's Tomb, which is under Israeli jurisdiction and is only officially open to Christians on two days a year. These divisions over the same site, which all the groups want to use, has caused much tension which has eventually led to violence. While religious Jews have protested the appearance of Christian and Muslim rituals in their holy place, the Vatican has retaliated by demanding more access and control over this vital location in Christianity. In essence, the status quo agreement was supposed to enact an organizational plan of when each faith would use this location. This plan intended to create fair guidelines that would allow each faith group to use the space without stepping on the toes of another. However, what we have learned from the situation on Mount Zion is that contesting religious narratives are so powerful that even separation of space and time cannot be enough to satisfy one's needs. The loss of just a bit of access to something your narrative deems fundamental can lead to relentless fighting to correct the perceived injustice, even if it means taking away from others' privileges.

The Room of the Last Supper
The sign in Arabic designates the qibla (direction of prayer) for Muslims
King David's Tomb

We saw this same idea in action later in the day when we learned about contrasting narratives of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Toward the end of our trip, we were able to drive by a large portion of the security barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank and a checkpoint leading to the road that goes to Rachel's Tomb and Bethlehem. After this, we went to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo and were able to look into parts of the West Bank under both Israeli and Palestinian control. At this viewpoint, it was very interesting to see the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian areas of the West Bank. For Israeli land, there were clear population centers as distinguished by rows of houses and seemingly well set up towns. For the Palestinian areas, other than the city of Bethlehem we could see in the distance, much of the land I saw was either completely empty or used for farming. The security fence was also a major distinguishing factor between the Israeli and Palestinian areas. In regard to Israeli land, the fence seemed to be neatly placed between the Israeli towns and neighboring Palestinian villages. Regarding Palestinian areas, however, the barrier seemed to be placed specifically on Palestinian farmland, creating divisions for Palestinians between their homes and the land they work on. In one spot, I could clearly see how there was a fence and a road purposely constructed to divide two sections of land covered in green trees and abundant dirt.

This stark contrast between the two types of areas made me wonder why the Israeli and Palestinian lands look so different. In my mind, the fence did not need to separate Palestinians from the land they cultivate, and it could have been placed in a more convenient spot just as it is for the Israelis. Just as when I went to the Bedouin villages in the Negev, I came into this experience knowing about how Israel has been criticized for policies like this, and I could not help but look for a rationale that explained Israel's actions without framing it as an unjust entity. When I asked my tour guide Yishai why Israel decided to place the fence on a troublesome location for Palestinian farmers, he responded by saying that with the creation of the security barrier tough decisions needed to be made, and Israel decided to make the outcomes in its favor. Yishai showed us a map of the course of the security barrier, and it is truly a crazy path that has many twists and turns. With this in mind, the construction of such a disorganized project was bound to have negative effects for some people, and Israel made an effort to limit the negative effects on Jewish settlements by placing more negative consequences on the Palestinian land. Yishai also added that a big aspect of Israel's narrative and rationale in the construction of this barrier was that Israel took over this land during the 1967 six-day war, and therefore they considered all of it theirs to build on however they pleased. Additionally, Yishai noted that according to Israeli statistics, the barrier has drastically reduced the number of terrorists coming to Israel from the West Bank. This has made Israel feel the barrier is essential for its safety.

The lookout point into the West Bank from the Gilo neighborhood
A town in Area C, the Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank
A part of the security barrier I drove past
At this lookout, you can see both Israeli and Palestinian areas of the West Bank. The security barrier is by the dirt road to the left. 

A checkpoint on the border of Israel proper and the West Bank

At multiple points, looking at these different narratives in play right in front of me definitely hit me hard. In my mind, there is absolutely no rationale for separating people from their land, limiting one's access to their holy sites, etc. However, I have learned in general that no matter how much I disagree with people, the most productive and satisfying way to live is to accept that they will have their opinions and work on coming to a compromise that suits us all. This message has come across not just in Jerusalem, but in multiple spots throughout this divided country. Simply in the city I'm living in, I can find the whole spectrum of opinions from extreme left to extreme right, and there are many people's views I consider to be unfair and dangerous to the liberties of other groups. I know my family and friends in the US can identify with this now during the presidential race, as there have been many personal attacks dealing with competing narratives, some of which are unbelievably extreme. It can be challenging to accept this as a part of life, especially when constant arguments can make interactions with these people to be quite unpleasant at times. However, I have been trying to cope with this situation by thinking of what I learned from stories and Disney movies. The main lesson I have taken is that each story has more than one side, and each person tells a side that is unique and deserving of consideration. As long as all sides come into a conversation with intentions of being respectful and considering where everyone is coming from, everyone should be aware that the respect and values that bring us together are greater than the narratives that divide us.

It's hard to say how exactly the issue of competing narratives will work out in Jerusalem. We recently saw a similar situation to Mount Zion at the Kotel (Western Wall), where an egalitarian prayer space was recently established. This space is meant to allow Reform and Conservative Jews to pray the ways they are comfortable with without worrying about angering the Orthodox authorities at the main site. Needless to say, even though the people with different views are convened in totally different areas, the Orthodox are still mad this this type of behavior is being allowed at what is considered Judaism's holiest site. This mindset provides a pessimistic outlook on the solution of creating separate spaces for competing narratives, saying certain groups will never be satisfied with the presence of others. In order to find a solution that works for everyone, I believe there will need to be more compromise and consideration toward everyone's narrative, even if that means that hard decisions will be made for the greater good.

The main part of the Western Wall, which is under Orthodox authority

The newly recognized egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall

A poster put up by the Ultra Orthodox about the "shame" of the new egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. The top line says, "The remains of our holy sanctuary are not for sale."

Before I saw the musical "Wicked," I thought of Elphaba as the infamous Wicked Witch of the West with no positive connotation to her name. After this story got turned upside down and another narrative was introduced, audiences started to discover a message they never thought was possible. Now, the Wicked Witch is not only an evil monster, but also a brave and thoughtful individual who cares about others and is not afraid to stand up for what is right. This example shows that if we could try to look at people and situations from different angles, especially in Israel, who knows the positive and rewarding messages we can discover.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Contemporary Struggle With Zionism

One of the best aspects of my Yahel experience has been my exposure to a completely different side of Israel. Before coming on Yahel, I was only exposed to Israel's major population centers and tourist traps. In contrast, living and working in Lod for the past five months and learning about Israel's minority populations has provided me with a much deeper understanding of Israeli society. While I have been inspired and enlightened by all I have learned, it has also presented many major challenges.

Learning about the issues concerning minorities in Israel has forced me to ask many tough questions that have challenged my identity as a Zionist. To me, Zionism has always been about creating a safe haven for Jews around the world and inspiring a strong connection to the Jews' historic homeland. From studying the ideas of early Zionist thinkers like Herzl, Ahad Ha'am, and Rav Kook, I have thought of Zionism as a philosophy of redemption for Jews who after centuries of persecution were in need of a land to call their own and a return to their ancient homeland. But, I have recently witnessed instances in Israeli society where this philosophy has been implemented unjustly, to the point where a Jewish presence in certain areas has caused destructive outcomes for different populations living there. This was particularly concerning for me to witness, many troubling thoughts started appearing in my head....Does the existence of a state with a Jewish majority inherently mean discrimination and injustice for minority populations? And more importantly, by supporting Israel's existence as a Jewish state and asserting myself as a proud Zionist, am I personally contributing to a cause that is directly involved in taking away the basic rights of numerous innocent communities?

This in-depth analysis of my personal definition of Zionism has dominated my mind ever since returning from a life-changing seminar in the Negev, Israel's widespread southern desert region. Our first stop was to Sde Boker, a kibbutz that made famous when David Ben Gurion chose to reside there after his retirement. Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister and founding father of Israel, embodied Zionism by actually declaring the State of Israel into existence and inspiring the initiative to settle Jewish immigrants in the Negev. While walking around this desert community and Ben Gurion's former home, I learned more about why Ben Gurion was so adamant about "making the desert bloom." As a Socialist Zionist, Ben Gurion was greatly concerned with ideas of labor and considered the Jewish return to the Land of Israel as an opportunity to work the land and utilize its resources in forming the new country. Even though the desert seems like a difficult spot for land cultivation, Ben Gurion saw this as a puzzle to be solved and refused to stop thinking until he discovered how to make the Negev prosper. Ben Gurion's perseverence has successfully led to many Jews seeing viable lifestyle opportunities in the Negev, living in places like farming communities and development towns.

Ben Gurion's house in Sde Boker 

Ben Gurion's grave

One place inspired by Ben Gurion's ideology was the development town of Yeruham, which I was able to visit. In fact, as I observed very clearly, Yeruham is one of the most prominent examples of the realization of Ben Gurion's vision for the Negev. Starting with mass Jewish immigration from Europe in the early '50s, Yeruham has become a major absorption center for Jews looking to find new homes in Israel. Due to its position on a major road going toward Eilat and its unique land for farming and agriculture, Yeruham got substantial money and resources pooled into it as it developed into a large Jewish settlement. Nowadays, even with a strong desire for many Israelis to leave the Negev in search for a more comfortable lifestyle, Yeruham maintains a large, diverse, and active Jewish population. While touring the town, my group met with the president of Atid Bamidbar, an organization that works to build bridges between Yeruham's secular, religious, and Mizrachi communities. We also visited MindCet, a Yeruham-based start up company that seeks to develop technological advancements for education. From these sigificant encounters in this moderately-sized desert town, it became clear that Ben Gurion's vision of making the Negev a center of industrial development capable of sustaining a sizable Jewish population has come to fruition.

 However, along with the benefits that supposedly come from the development of this desert, there are many negative consequences that have manifested. After Yeruham, my group spent a Shabbat in Mitzpe Ramon, a small town that overlooks the beautiful Machtesh Ramon (like a crater but more unique to this area). We learned that like Yeruham, Mitzpe Ramon does hold some diversity in its Jewish population including religious Jews and what our tour guide Nir classified as "neo-Bohemians," or secular and liberal social activists. However, unlike what we saw in Yeruham, we realized that Mitzpe Ramon's much smaller area and population reflect the complications and reservations that come with living in the desert. In Mitzpe Ramon, we did not see any tech companies or farming communities. Instead, we saw what one typically expects of a desert settlement, a simple town looking into a vast wildnerness. According to Nir, this distinction follows a very important ideology that he and many of his fellow neo-Bohemians share. Nir disclosed with me that he opposes further Jewish settlement in the Negev because he feels it is a waste to spend resources on new towns and neighborhoods when there are needy populations in other parts of the country that could be using those resources. It made me think how different this country could be if instead of supporting Jews who desire to live in the desert, the government could be assisting minority populations like the Arabs and Ethiopians I work with in Lod, giving them money for basic needs such as education, housing, and water. I saw this dilemma as a direct impact of Ben Gurion's goal of expansion to the Negev, and for the first time I felt guilty for considering that the Zionist movement I support could have such dire consequences.

Mitzpe Ramon
The beautiful makhtesh
Just chillin' at the edge of the makhtesh

 This was just the beginning of the conflicting thoughts that crossed my mind during this trip. Later on, my group spent a day learning about and visiting the different towns and villages belonging to the different Bedouin tribes in the Negev. Our day of touring and exploring this unique population was led by the Negev Coexistence Forum, an organization made up of Jews and Arabs that is dedicated to eliminating civil inequality within the Negev, especially regarding discrimination toward Bedouins. With this in mind, I knew going into this part of the trip that I was getting exposed to a very biased agenda and only one side to very complex issues. At the same time, from going to these places and witnessing the injustices that were being described, it was hard to deny that people are being denied rights that other Israelis have, and this unequal and unjust distribution is a big problem.

One of the most memorable sights for me was the unrecognized village of Umm al Hiran. In the Negev, Bedouin land is typically classified as three types of areas: government-recognized towns, government-recognized villages, and unrecognized villages. A village, usually with a population of a couple of extended families, is only recognized if the residents go through a lengthy bureaucratic process and are able to get government permits to build homes on the land. This, unfortunately, is much more difficult to accomplish for Israeli Arabs, especially for Negev Bedouins who lack much education and advocacy. Because Umm al Hiran is unrecognized, the residents do not have living permits and are technically all living there illegally. This makes the Israeli government feel entitled to not provide money and resources for the residents. This was apparent as soon as I was riding into the village, when I felt the bumpiest, most unpaved road I believe I have ever been on while entering a residential area. Because of the improper conditions of this road, the residents are unable to leave the village in dangerous weather conditions, making them trapped in the village and unable to get food or go to school.

The most shocking part, however, was that because of the "illegal" nature of the villages, the government deems it acceptable to demolish the villages and forcibly move all their residents, even on very short notice. We heard from Salim, one of the residents of the village, and he expressed his frustration and confusion over this government policy. Salim expressed his intention to live together with Jews on this land, even if it means sharing the village, as long as he and his neighbors can stay in their homes and not need to leave behind the lifestyles they have become accustomed to. Unlike what many people believe, Bedouins are not nomadic in the true sense of the word. True, many are involved with farming and agriculture, and many of them live in tents. However, many of them also live in houses and most are very well-established in their communities. In fact, Salim told us that the biggest reason why many Bedouins in unrecognized villages live in tents is because they are aware of imminent home demolition and they know it is less expensive and more convenient to wreck a tent rather than a house.

What frustrated me even more was that these villages are being demolished to build Jewish settlements and forests in those exact same areas. As we walked around Umm al Hiran, Salim pointed to a spot where construction of a Jewish settlement had already begun in his village, even before village was demolished. This is a huge insult to the innocent people living there, and it is an unjust reminder of how they are powerless in doing something as simple as maintaining property to live on. There is a ton of land on the hills surrounding the village that are suitable for agriculture, yet the government chooses to settle new communities in the sites of these villages. I understand that there is a political element to this, with right-wing interest groups like Regavim having very big sway in wanting to make the Negev have a bigger and stronger Jewish population. However, the human element to this is too hard to ignore, and it is unfathomable to me that innocent people can have their homes taken away so easily and for no good reason rather than blatant discrimination. It also bothers me greatly that this is done in the name of Zionism, and to think that my support of the State of Israel and Ben Gurion's ideology of making the desert bloom has in part influenced the displacement of all these innocent people.

The unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al Hiran

To say this experience has changed the way I view Israel is a vast understatement. Instead, I feel being exposed to this injustice has turned the thoughts of Israel I grew up with upside down. I have indeed grown up learning that not everything Israel does is right, and there are times when it should criticized. However, I always felt that everything Israel did had a legitimate purpose to it, and so I was willing to justify actions like what is happening to the Bedouin communities in the Negev. Especially when studying Israeli history in university, I knew that in Israel most items throughout history have been viewed through a security lens, and that Israel tends to take controversial actions toward Arabs in order to eliminate plausible security threats. However, the problem with this thinking in this case is that the Bedouins in unrecognized villages pose no security threats to Israel. It seems instead that the main rationale Israel has for taking these actions against Bedouins is to further the Jewish cause by alienating and delegitimizing those who are not Jewish. This is contrary to the Israel I have cherished for my whole life, which is an Israel that comforts the oppressed and protects the freedoms of all just as it protects mine. At this time, while I still view Israel as a safe haven and historic homeland for me as a Jew, I cannot help but think that the same system that as given me so many benefits has caused so much distress and destruction in the lives of others.

While the new relationship to Israel I gained from this trip was largely negative, as I pondered more about my experience I began to contemplate a more hopeful message. It is true that like most other countries, Israel is far from perfect and has many major problems to solve. However, it was these problems in Israeli society that brought me here, which I think says something significant about the potential Israel has for large-scale social change. Yes, Bedouins undergo much suffering due to the State of Israel's policies. However, because I and many others are here to learn about their issues and help them cope and find solutions, they know that they are not alone and there are people in their society and around the world who have their interests at heart. It is even more apparent in Lod where, though many people I work with feel the government doesn't fully provide for them, simply having my presence in their lives makes my kids and coworkers hopeful for the future of the Jewish state. Israel is a nation of problems, but with integral connection to Jews and others from around the world, it can also be a nation of solutions.

I witnessed this profoundly optimistic message during my stay at the recognized Bedouin village of Segev Shalom. There, I was able to meet many community members who instead of living in despair, were living with humongous spirit and pride in their culture and Israeli identity. One of the primary examples was Amal, our main coordinator for the day who runs an all-female Bedouin nonprofit called Bedouin Women For Themselves. Through her work, Amal aims to defy cultural norms and provide more opportunities for women in a society where women's roles are constantly restricted. Amal described to us that in her tribe, the women were traditionally only seen ayt home, to the point where girls walking to school can be seen as an invitation for immoral men to rape and kidnap them. By creating a space for women, especially the grandmothers of the tribe, to share their stories and express themselves creatively through art projects, Amal is taking a brave step in ensuring progress and prosperity for her people despite the challenges that are presented to them.

Though in a very different context, I saw similar progress in the host family I spent the night with. After learning that the Bedouins are among the lowest ranked demographics in Israel regarding education, it did not surprise me that the vast majority of Segev Shalom residents did not know English. However, this was not the case for my two host brothers, Ayman and Mamon. As soon as I met them, I was drastically surprised by how they could speak near perfect English due to an anime-related app that connects them to English speakers from around the world who are also passionate about animated media. I found it so symbolic that here, in for lack of a better phrase the education"slum" of Israel, these two boys are rising above and learning more than any of their peers can possibly achieve. This was especially admirable when looking at their less-than-comfortable living situation. Their house is only one small story long, and while the two boys can share a moderately-sized room (which also needed to include the three Yahel boys when we came), the three little kids in the family don't even have a bedroom to call their own and need to sleep in the play area.  Though this looked dreadful to me at first, I know that these already accomplished boys will find a way to improve their lives, and when they do hopefully their fellow villagers can follow suit.

The communal tent in the Segev Shalom village

The Yahel Social Change Program has opened my eyes to what Israeli society truly is. This has not always been pleasing, and it has at many times made me question an identity I thought I knew. But at the same time, this newly developed understanding I now have about the country I am so dedicated to will only serve to help me as I continue to try to help it grow and prosper. Also, much as what I have learned throughout my life is true, and it is important to remember that Israel does have many positive aspects. And in the cases where there is already beauty, that beauty has so much potential to develop. As the Emperor says in Mulan (yes, there needed to be a Disney reference), "The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all."