Saturday, April 23, 2016

Social Change in Your Backyard

To say that my time on Yahel has developed my social conscience is a vast understatement. Due to my involvement with Yahel, I am not only more aware of the social problems that exist in my community, but also of those that I am exposed to on a daily basis but do not always recognize. In this sense, Yahel has taught me to not be afraid to look deeply into my surroundings and face the challenging issues that impact the people who live in my backyard, not just my community at large.

I was introduced to this concept through my recent visits to South Tel Aviv. This is an area I pass through many times because it is the location of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Though so many people use this venue as their gateway to enter of one Israel's most popular destinations, it is arguably one of the most feared areas in the country. Due to the large population of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan living there, South Tel Aviv has been associated by Israelis with the most horrible of conditions, some of which include poverty, homelessness, and crime. Even though I live in Lod, which is extremely stigmatized as one of Israel's most dangerous cities, many Israelis have just as negative reactions, if not more negative, when I say I need to travel through South Tel Aviv. I have heard, among other things, that I could be killed, assaulted, or robbed while walking through the streets adjacent to the Central Bus Station, and if possible I should make an effort to avoid the area. These comments have greatly influenced my perception of South Tel Aviv, and have made me extra cautious whenever I need to go there to take a bus or monit sherut.

While the stigmas associated with South Tel Aviv may be legitimate in some cases, I have learned if you look a little deeper it is possible that things are not as bad as they seem. Over the past couple of weeks, I have had many chances to be introduced to the South Tel Aviv asylum seeker community, and I have discovered that the inspirational stories of these inhabitants far outweigh the negative messages conveyed about them. The first opportunity came a couple of Sundays ago, when I attended one of the events included in a week-long initiative by a group called B'nai Darfur. This group, which was formed by Darfurian asylum seekers who traveled to seek refuge in Israel, arranged this week of programming with the purpose of educating the Israeli public about the atrocities occurring in Darfur. At the event I attended, I had the opportunity to hear these people's stories and actually talk to people living in displacement camps in Darfur through live Skype conversations. I was surprised and enlightened to receive such direct exposure to this significant conflict, and even more so to receive it in a place where I walk around and bypass so often.

This event was so helpful in allowing me to understand the nature of the conflict from the perspective of a Darfurian. Before then, I had generally been exposed to the Darfur genocide through mass media campaigns that seemed impersonal and gimmicky. I had never personally become active in the Save Darfur campaign because I had no personal connection to the conflict that motivated me to do so. After hearing these Darfurians and communicating with people who were going through the conflict as we spoke, I finally got the personal connection I was looking for. For once, I felt like I had a stake in the genocide, knowing people who had escaped its horrors and were tortured with them at the present moment. At this time, the conflict just felt real to me, and when something feels real it is hard to ignore or avoid. I knew then that I had a responsibility to take action.

This responsibility strengthened in my heart after a day trip the Yahel participants  took to South Tel Aviv two Thursdays ago. One of the most meaningful moments was when we met Mutasim Ali, the CEO of the African Refugee Development Center  (ARDC). The Lod group was able to learn about this inspiring man earlier at one of our weekly group check-ins, when we watched a TED Talk he presented. From both this speech and our in-person meeting, we learned much about Mutasim's long journey from the horrors of Darfur to his awaited asylum in Israel. After escaping the persistent attacks on his village by the janjaweed militia to live with his grandmother, thereby forever leaving his parents behind, Mutasim became committed to fulfilling his parents' sacrifice and discovering a better life for himself. He attended university and used his education and position in society to protest against the Sudanese government's actions in Darfur, which resulted in his arrest and torture by the Sudanese police. Following his release from prison, Mutasim realized that the best way to help his people and secure a prosperous future was to leave the country and go somewhere safe. He originally entered into Egypt, but soon left due to Egypt's diplomatic relations with Sudan. Ultimately, Mutasim decided his most viable option for asylum would be Israel, the only democratic state in the region that also had no diplomatic relationship with Sudan.

Soon after his arrival, Mutasim discovered that Israel would not be as welcoming as he had hoped. Instead of a friendly welcome, Mutasim, along with many other asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, were sent to the Holot Detention Center in the Negev. Stationed in the middle of a desert wilderness, Holot houses more than 3,300 asylum seekers, which is over its full capacity. It is considered an open facility, meaning prisoners can come and go whenever they please. However, they need to check in three times a day, and with Holot's isolated location, the asylum seekers cannot travel far distances without needing to return for their required check-ins. Though this "open" policy is seen as an improvement compared to Holot's previous more restrictive policies, Mutasim saw this measure as a trap to prohibit his mobility and prevent him from obtaining the rights he deserved as a refugee.

Today, Israel has over 43,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in its midst. Though there are no more asylum seekers who continue to arrive, due to Holot's reputation and other preventative measures such as a large fence on the Egyptian border, Israel still needs to deal with the large asylum seeker population under its jurisdiction, most of which it refuses to grant refugee status to (only four special cases have ever received refugee status). This is because the guiding ideology in Israel regarding refugees is to maintain a Jewish majority demographic, meaning reducing the number of non-Jews becoming legal citizens. Currently, the typical visa an African asylum seeker obtains in Israel is a 2(a)(5) visa. This visa does not allow the asylum seekers to own property or to receive workers' rights, though employers are able to hire them if they wish. It also needs to be renewed each year, meaning these asylum seekers are faced yearly with the arduous Israeli bureaucratic process and the threat of deportation.

Though still struggling to obtain equal rights and become integrated into Israeli society, many asylum seekers, Mutasim included, have been able to make their way out of Holot and begin new lives for themselves in South Tel Aviv. Of course, just because they are out of prison does not mean they live comfortably. After being sent to live in South Tel Aviv, as Israel does with many Holot prisoners post-release to place all of their problems in one location, the asylum seekers were exposed to a brand new environment and were not taught how to deal with it properly. Mutasim described to us how overwhelming it was just to step foot in the Central Bus Station; he had never seen escalators before, and it was almost impossible for him to find his way through this wide, spread out building. As more people starting arriving in this area, it became more and more driven with crime, poverty, and unemployment, and it began to show throughout the public spaces. A great example of such a space is Levinsky Park, a recreational area adjacent to the Central Bus Station which was the first stop on our day trip. Kayla, our tour guide, told us that just a couple of years ago, the entire park was filled with shelters of homeless asylum seekers. To this day, the park is used by asylum seekers as a place to sleep, sit, and even go to the bathroom. Levinsky Park is also a main center for the asylum seekers to find day-to-day work. As we were sitting in the park, we could see people lining up to get their jobs for that day. This clearly showed that even though these people escaped detention and persecution and are living in a big city, they are still living under horrible conditions.

Group photo with Mutasim Ali

Despite the adversity they experience, the African asylum seekers in Israel are resilient and continue to work toward providing better lives for themselves. One of the most inspiring examples I witnessed of this was that of Kuchinate – the African Refugees Women's Collective. Through this initiative, Eritrean and Sudanese women are able to meet and create baskets as a form of art therapy. These women sell their baskets for money, and also receive counseling to help them cope with their psychological issues deriving from the tragedies they escaped from. We were welcomed very warmly into this community with homemade popcorn and coffee (and according to Eritrean tradition, we needed to drink three cups!). We then met with a psychologist who works with the women, who was able to describe the initiative and her clients' backgrounds in English. After our group discussion, I walked over to an Eritrean woman making coffee and started a conversation with her in Hebrew (not every asylum seeker has a good knowledge of Hebrew, but these women are fortunate enough to be receiving Hebrew lessons within the community). From talking to this woman, I learned that her husband and daughters are still in Eritrea, and she had to take her journey to Israel alone in order to escape forced conscription into the Eritrean army. There were so many questions that I wanted to ask this inspiring woman, and all others who undertook this life-threatening voyage in order to seek a better life. The main message I received from our chat was that she misses her home greatly, but she knows that creating a successful living environment in Israel is the best thing for her at the moment. Hopefully, if she can continue to provide for herself, there is a chance she can see her husband and daughters again.

Eritrean and Sudanese women who work for Kuchinate
Some of the baskets made at Kuchinate

This interaction taught me how much the problems these people face impact us on a human level. This woman, along with the other asylum seekers, has needed to endure unbearable hardships, and now here they all are living right next to where I take my busses to and from Tel Aviv. I pass by these people all the time as they suffer before my eyes, and I believe I have the responsibility to do something about it. As one who has the power to create social change in Israeli society, I believe my role in this situation is to ensure that the State of Israel is providing these individuals with the rights and resources they are entitled to.

We just started the holiday of Pesach, during which we remember the Jews' miserable slavery in Egypt and celebrate the joy of our freedom. As part of our final group learning session before our Pesach break, Yahel's programming coordinator in Lod, Mike, had the Lod group look at different interpretations of a verse from the Torah that is commonly referenced during Pesach. The verse goes, "Be kind to the stranger in your midst, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt." As someone who has always brought this verse to mind while sitting at the Pesach seder table, I have often thought of what it means practically in my day-to-day life. After meeting Mutasim and hearing the stories of the asylum seekers living in my backyard, it became clear to me that implementing this moral lesson means reaching out to these strangers who are in dire need of assistance. As the world's only Jewish state, I believe Israel has the responsibility to act upon this Jewish value and provide kindness and mercy to the innocent people under its jurisdiction who have gone through immeasurable trauma. Just as the Jewish people were relieved of their suffering in Egypt, it is just and right for the same to occur to the Eritrean and Sudanese peoples. We, as a global collective, have known too much suffering, and now is the time to help end any suffering when we have the opportunity. And now, Israel has its opportunity.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Israel - A Land of Connections and Divisions

We have all heard the saying, "you can't fully understand a person until you've walked a mile in their shoes." What we have not all heard, however, is the serious validity of this statement. What I have learned during my time on Yahel is not only do other peoples' shoes feel vastly different, but it can be profoundly meaningful to walk that extra mile. If we can walk in someone else's shoes even for a moment or a day, we can find and appreciate an entirely new perspective on life.

This notion especially applies to life in Israel. I never thought living in the Jewish state would change my notion of what is considered reality. However, there are times when Israel's unique society provides surprising situations that completely deviate from the what is expected. I have personally found myself in many circumstances under which I would find myself talking to someone from a group I tend to not have any contact with. This to me is one of the most special aspects of living in Israel – things are constantly changing, and there is always an opportunity to engage with someone intriguing.

A primary example of this occurred to me during the holiday of Purim. Purim is a holiday filled with joy and pride of being Jewish, and that to me has always been able to bring people together. I remember celebrating Purim at my synagogue in Stamford, and from a young age being able to engage with people I did not generally talk to and share the fun atmosphere of the holiday at our annual Purim Carnival. It did not matter whether we particularly liked each other; it was Purim, so it was time to dress in costume, leave your worries behind, and embrace your fellow Jews in celebration.

This community engagement has always been one of my favorite aspects of Purim, and I greatly appreciated the ability to experience this on a much bigger level while in Israel. Just like at my synagogue, Purim in Israel is able to bring together Jews from across cultural backgrounds and levels of observance. I found this especially meaningful in regard to ultra-religious Jews, such as members of Chabad. Both here in Israel and in the US, I do not generally make an effort to attend a Chabad event or go to places where I need to interact with people associated with Chabad. I have nothing against them, but I personally do not identify with their mission and customs and would rather be around people who are closer to the level I am at religiously. However, on Purim I made an exception. When I saw Chabadniks dancing and giving out mishloach manot (Purim food baskets) in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square, I felt it was time for me to loosen up, get in the spirit of the holiday, and join my fellow Jews in celebration.

Purim festivities in Dizengoff Square

Similarly, when I was walking around Lod in costume throughout the holiday, I was able to wish many Jews passing me by a chag sameach (happy holiday), including many religious Jews. An especially surprising moment for me was when a religious man drove past me and wished me a happy holiday, and instead of feeling awkward, I excitedly greeted him in return. Normally I would ignore someone like that because of our strong cultural differences, but on Purim I felt not just willing, but encouraged to embrace my fellow Jew, no matter how different we are from one another. This instance showed a special quality to this day in particular; how the norms of societal interactions are turned completely upside down and I can look at any person with comfort as a fellow Jew. Situations like this make me fully understand the benefit of having Israel as a Jewish state. There is literally no other place where I walk down the street and greet a random person in confidence that they are probably celebrating the same Jewish holiday. This makes me feel truly a part of a community and very much at home, which is one of the most special and rewarding feelings. It is why my connection to Israel has been so strong and persistent.

Celebrating Purim in Tel Aviv with some of my roommates

Purim festivities in Jerusalem

Party at the shuk!

 On the other hand, connections formed with certain groups can often lead to divisions with others. Especially in Israel's complex society, interests and values that you share with a certain segment of the population can inherently contradict and isolate from other groups' narratives. I also discovered an example of this on Purim through an interaction with an Israeli Arab.  While celebrating a Jewish holiday in the Jewish state, it feels natural to want to share the celebration with others around you. This was how I felt as I was on a monit sherut (shared taxi) to Tel Aviv on the evening of Purim. There were many others in the sherut dressed in costume, and I thought it was appropriate to discuss the holiday and greet everyone on the sherut with holiday cheer, including the driver. I had a feeling the driver was Arab, because the taxi drivers usually are, but I still felt the need to wish him a chag sameach. After exiting the sherut, I asked one of my roommates if she thought it was ok to give an Arab a Jewish holiday greeting. I am fine with being wished a Merry Christmas while in the US, so I thought why shouldn't an Israeli Arab appreciate the surrounding culture and be fine with receiving a Purim greeting? My roommate, however, thought this was an awkward and inappropriate thing to say to an Arab, and after thinking about it further I agreed with her.

I understood why what I did seemed socially awkward, but I could not understand the reasoning behind this. Why is there such a clear division in regard to this issue? If Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew and are incorporated into many aspects of Israeli society, as I have seen they are, why is it not a comfortable setting to wish them a Happy Purim? I comprehend that this is a very complex question and I may not get the answer I seek, at least not in the near future. I also understand that there could be political undertones involved, such as racist elements that can be inferred from the Purim story and political narratives involving not providing legitimacy to the Jewish holidays while Palestinians are being oppressed. However, what I observed most transparently from this context was that there was a clear division between the Jews, who celebrate Purim, and the Arabs, who want nothing to do with it. And it made me the benefits that come from having a Jewish state inherently complicate relations between Jews and Arabs?

Of course, just because there is separation on this issue does not mean that Jews and Arabs cannot come together on other issues. In fact, one of the greatest things I have learned from my time on Yahel is that it is very easy to find topics that can connect you to others, even when those others are perceivably very different from you. Perhaps the most effective platform I have learned this from has been Juzur, an organization that provides support for young Arabs in the Lod area in search of opportunities for empowerment and future success. Every week, my group of Yahel volunteers has been meeting with a group of Arab university students to establish connections and learn about each other's cultures. These creative, funny, and sweet individuals are by far my favorite people I have met during my time in Israel. I never thought I would be able to have ongoing positive relationships with Israeli Arabs my age, and yet here we are every week discussing topics such as food, movies, hobbies, and even aspects of Israel that link us together.

These weekly meetings quickly became a community filled with trust, compassion, and sincere interest for each other's stories. I discovered this fully last week when for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to talk about my experience growing up as a Conservative Jew to an audience of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. During our year together, each Yahel and Juzur participant has needed to choose a week to give a presentation about an aspect of his or her culture. It was clear to me that I wanted to present about my Conservative Jewish background, because that has been a significant influence in my life, but I had a hard time choosing what exactly to discuss. Coming from a background in which most of my exposure to Palestinians has been through a political lens that has portrayed them of being distrustful and even hateful toward Israel and Jews in general, through mediums such as the BDS movement and Students for Justice in Palestine, I have gained the sense that any positive thing I say about Israel to an audience of  Palestinians will be met with harsh protest and inflammatory rhetoric. I expected the result would be vastly different when talking to this group of open-minded individuals, but the thought still stuck in my head that my life experiences could potentially have negative connotations for this community.

Ultimately, I chose to present about the Conservative Jewish experiences that have defined my life the most, which I consider as Camp Ramah, USY, and being the son of a Conservative rabbi. I did explain the importance of Israel in my Conservative upbringing and I got no negative reactions at all, which was a relief. As I expected, I had no reason to worry about receiving backlash from such an open and understanding group. On the contrary, I was greeted with insightful questions from these individuals who were genuinely interested in learning about my Jewish identity. The question that intrigued me the most was when one of the girls, Do'aa, asked me if my being a rabbi's son means that I have been on the course to becoming a rabbi from a young age. I love getting this question because it is a great opportunity to explain how just because you grow up as the child of a rabbi, it does not mean you want to become one in the future. I also usually describe the freedom my dad has given me to make my own choices about how to keep Judaism, and how he always encouraged me to pursue my interests and follow my own path. I think Do'aa and the other Arabs present were very impressed by this and other special aspects of my Conservative Jewish identity.

I feel so lucky to have been able to share my life story so openly and to get to know these admirable individuals who will forever serve as examples for me. Last night, we had our final meeting with Juzur, and I was invited to deliver a speech about the impact the program has had on myself and my entire group. I am very happy I got this opportunity because it helped me truly put into words what this program has meant to me. One point I emphasized in my speech, on behalf of my fellow Yahel volunteers, was that we all came to Lod seeking to meet people that came from vastly different backgrounds from our own and learn about Israeli society from their perspectives, and Juzur went above and beyond in helping us reach this goal. Not only did we get to meet engaging people and hear their stories, but we also formed personal connections and made friends that will last us for the remainder of Yahel and even after its completion.

Our fearless leader Meital :)

Group shot at the last meeting

Me giving my speech :)

The experience I have had with Juzur bring many ideas to mind regarding the question of connections and divisions in Israel. Most importantly, I have learned from this experience that the connections that bind us together are much stronger than the things that divide us. These Arabs have had very different lived experiences from us, and their opinions on certain issues can differ as a result from that. But when it comes down to working together to accomplish a task, we have been one cohesive team and there has been nothing to stop us from reaching our goals. In addition, just because there are clear divisions and distinctions among the group (the Purim situation, for example) does not mean there is no potential for us to talk and enjoy each other's company.

With this in mind, if a group of American Jews can sit with a group of Arabs once a week to bond with one another and work together to fix the problems in their community...why can't Israeli Jews do the same? I think this example of narrowing divisions between two perceivably different groups provides high potential for groups with similar dynamics to attempt this exercise, which could in turn strengthen coexistence efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. If more Jews and Arabs could have the experience I had and begin to see the 'other' as someone no different from himself or herself, it could spark so much opportunity for connections across cultures and strong friendships that could last a lifetime.