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."

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