Out Loud

  • Don’t Let Israel Fail You

    29 November 2011

    AaronSimply put, there are only two distinct reactions to when a community disappointments you: do something about it or do nothing about it. Engage or disengage. Act or give up. Fight or flight.

    I understand the lure of the non-action. I know too well of its seductive power. It is easy to give up and pretend that others might do the fighting for you. From there, it is only a small leap to allow oneself to slip into apathy and not give a damn.

    I’m talking about Israel here. Specifically, I’m talking about how many American Jews of my generation have struggled with their relationship to the Jewish State.

    I remember growing up in a Jewish community. I remember being a synagogue brat being raised by an observant set of parents. I also remember the Jewish day schools and the “Hebrew High” night school that I attended when I switched over to the public school system. I remember not being able to watch Saturday morning cartoons and having to settle for catching the reruns during the weekdays.

    I remember Israel. I remember hearing about how it was the best and brightest place on earth. It was where our ancestors lived thousands of years ago, where her citizens talk in the same language that we prayed, where Jews actually could tan without turning red and maybe even compete athletically. We were told of her scientific achievements, her robust economy, her warmer climate and lower drinking age.

    This place sounded awesome.

    We visited the place when I was in third grade. I remember the wailing wall, the archaeological digs, the pizza and the beach. Then I saw a Jewish soldier carrying an M-16 in the Jewish Quarter on the Holy Sabbath. I asked my father for an explanation. He told me that there exists a whole bunch of people that want to destroy Israel and that we need to keep our guard up, even on Saturdays.

    I was flabbergasted; why would anyone want to do such a thing? The answers then came from classmates, teachers, community leaders, family and my own assumptions: anti-Semitism. The world wants us dead, simple as that.

    So I lived in a bubble of sorts; assuming that anyone who had anything bad at all to say about my ancestors’ homeland were either anti-Semitic, crazy or both. Media outlets and Jewish organizations were quick to agree with my conclusion. These people who protest the Jewish State want us dead. They are the enemy.

    For the most part, I was reasonably happy in my bubble. Israel was the land of the Jews, and I was going to defend her no matter what. Even if the detractors sounded reasonable, I just assumed that they could not possibly understand what it meant to be a Jew in this hostile world.

    Then came college, which happened around the same time as the 9/11 terror attacks. Although I was shell-shocked and filled with grief and anger, there was a part of me that felt vindicated; this is what we Jews have to deal with every day. It seemed like I was poised to push deeper into my bubble.

    But then something odd happened. I remember talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a fellow classmate. I don’t remember her name, but I remember feeling like we believed in a lot of the same things. Her politics and mine weren’t identical per say, just strikingly similar. In this conversation, she mentioned something she did not like about Israel. For the life of me, I can not remember exactly what, but I do remember the uncomfortable feeling in my gut. I also remember not arguing back about it, and feeling puzzled as to why a fair-minded person like her would say such a thing about my country. I resented her and never talked to her again.

    I did not realize it then, but this was a life-changing moment. I began to read up a bit on the conflict, not from pro-Zionist sources that I was accustomed to, but from news outlets that didn’t have a stake in the conflict one way or the other. My gut churned and churned as I read about some of the nasty, disgusting things that took place in the name of preserving Judaism.

    I then read history books, some of which were written by Israelis who love their country. These books did not paint the rosy picture that I grew up with. I learned of Deir Yassin, Revisionist Zionism, the Nakba and the Occupation.

    And the picture didn’t get any better after that either. While the main focus of my attention went towards Israeli and Palestinian issues, I learned of the massive problems within Israel as well. The number of reports of discrimination were too high to count; towards Arab Israelis, feminists, gay-rights activists, Bedouin, Russian immigrants, Ethiopian families and migrant workers. I learned of how the ultra right-wing branch of the Hasidic sect’s clout over public affairs have made a mockery of civic life. I learned how we, survivors of the Holocaust, denied entry to those seeking asylum from the genocide taking place in Darfur. Then came the proposed Rotem Bill, which personally insulted me by suggesting that I may not even be Jewish to begin with.

    All done in the name of preserving Judaism.

    So I picked flight. I checked out. I wanted nothing to do with this state. Nothing.

    One day, I found myself reading the New York Times online. You know, back when it was free. While reading the article, I somehow was drawn to a banner ad. (Whoever clicks those, right?) It was an advertisement for the NIForum, a symposium on social justice issues in Israel by the New Israel Fund. I don’t remember why I was drawn to it, but I decided to give these guys a shot and attended the forum.

    At the forum, I discovered a whole society of Jews who, like me, knew as much as I did about Israel. I began to talk with them and found that they also found a way to face these painful truths, while still holding a special place for Israel in their hearts. I learned of the amazing work NIF does by funding a whole assemblage of non-profit groups that strive to make Israel a better place. I learned of ACRI, who’s work as Israel’s premier civil rights group astounds me to this day. I learned of Shatil, which trains various grassroots-based organizations to effectively engage in civic society. I learned of NIF’s unshakable commitment to an Israel that espouses social and economic justice, religious pluralism and respect towards human rights.

    More importantly, I found friends. I found a community. I found a home. I stopped flight and chose fight. I am now a regular attendee of NIF events and currently serve as a member of the New Generations Steering Committee. This summer, I marched in the Celebrate Israel Parade with fellow NIF members, along with some our friends from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Americans for Peace Now and Meretz USA. We walked under the banners of freedom, democracy, justice and peace.

    As a result of all this activity, I have found that living in the solution makes for a better outlook on life. I also have found a new way to articulate my relationship to Israel. I am no longer angry to the point of ambivalence. I now feel empowered to do something about it.

    And that, dear reader, is where you come in. I know you might feel that the Jewish organizations of old have failed you in trying to spare you of Israel’s gritty characteristics and thus feel a reluctance to become engaged with anything that has to do with that small country over yonder. I know you might feel slighted, possibly even betrayed. I know I did.

    But I guarantee you this: if you join us and fight the good fight, you will feel so much better about your relationship to Israel, and the Jewish community at large. You’ll begin to imagine a day where peace and justice will flow through the Holy Land like a mighty stream. You’ll be able to idealize Israel again, though not through the twisted gaze of denial, but by the limitless potential you’ll witness though the work done for a brighter tomorrow.

    That is your challenge. Don’t let Israel fail you. Join us.

    Aaron Werschulz is a member of the New Generations Steering Committee in New York.

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  • From the Mailbag -- "Keep Talking!"

    15 November 2011

    With permission from Mary, we're posting below a note we received in response to Daniel's email update regarding the anti-democratic legislation currently under debate in Israel.


    Dear Daniel:
    I wish every Israeli and every American would read your stirring remarks. I am always moved. When visitors pick up some books from my coffee table, they are often puzzled by my having books on Israel and its people. I am delighted by such queries. it gives me the opportunity to talk about the struggle of Progressives and the difficulties they face daily. Because of your articulate, persuasive arguments, many find the courage to continue to speak out, and work for the solid democratic aims that will gain the freedoms that will benefit all Israelis. Further, their struggles will bring about greater awareness in the U.S. of the importance of a secure, strong Israel.
    I wish that I could donate more; I ache to jump in and say, "How can I help?" It is seldom that I wish I were young, instead of 82 and ailing, but while I'm here, I will always tell people that freedom in the U.S. and other democratic countries is dependent, in part, upon the success of the Israeli Progressive movement. Certainly, the future of the Middle Eastern countries--perhaps all of Asia, may hinge on the valiant, determined people inside and outside Israel, Jewish or not. I am Christian, and to be Christian means, to me, an appreciation of the Hebrew tradition, spiritual, historical, and political.
    Daniel, KEEP TALKING!!
    Mary Etta Kiefer

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  • No religion does not mean no nationality

    07 October 2011

    A single, equal nationality for all citizens, whatever their religion or lack thereof, as required by the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the state.

    The Jewish year 5772 began with grand tidings: The Tel Aviv District Court recognized author Yoram Kaniuk's right to be registered in the state population rolls as "without religion" rather than "Jewish." In his appeal petition, Kaniuk explained that he would prefer to have his nationality status registered as "Israeli," but that this is not yet possible since he cannot produce a certificate of conversion to another religion.

    Is something wrong with this picture? This confounds the most basic logic: If someone declares himself as being without religion, how can he be asked to prove his conversion to a different religion? Kaniuk, author of "1948," concluded that this important ruling means that he has no religion but is Jewish by nationality.

    Is this indeed the case? How and where is there a Jewish nation that is separate and distinguished from the Jewish religion? Israeli law defines a person as "Jewish" who has a Jewish mother and has no other religion. The condition - being born to a Jewish mother - is a condition set by Jewish law. In other words, the condition is religious in nature. The conclusion that the separation of religion and state has been achieved because an Israeli citizen whose mother was Jewish has been allowed to be classified as having no religion remains a fervent wish only.

    The enormous significance of Judge Gideon Ginat's decision, however, lies not in what it does not say, but rather in what it does say, and in its implications. Kaniuk declared that the court "granted legitimacy" to every person to live in accordance with their conscience. To be more precise, this right - not legitimacy - is the right of every person in Israel, by the force of the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, as the court made abundantly clear.

    That same Basic Law, however, has been brutally and consistently violated by the state since its establishment; all efforts to require the judicial system to enforce their compliance on state institutions (as in the issue of recognition of the Jewish nationality ) have failed, and they are passed from one court to another: from the Supreme Court to the District Court, from the District Court to the Supreme Court and back again.

    The Jerusalem District Court has ruled that the issue of recognizing "Israeli" as a nationality was nonjusticiable; the appeal of this ruling is still pending in the Supreme Court.

    Consequently, Ginat's ruling does not establish the existence of a Jewish nationality as distinct from the Jewish religion. Neither the law, nor simple logic, admits to any such separate existence. The implication of the recent ruling in Kaniuk's case is that any Israeli born to a Jewish mother who declares themselves to be religion-less is also classified as nationality-less.

    Is this outcome intolerable? Absolutely, unless and until the court orders the state's executive branch to recognize the existence of an Israeli nationality: a single, equal nationality for all citizens, whatever their religion or lack thereof, as required by the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the state.

    It should be noted that the state itself recognizes the Israeli nationality in a single document only: The Israeli passport. As the saying goes, be a man outside and a Jew at home. The enlightened view of Judaism does not distinguish between being a Jewish person and being a person.

    This article was first published in Ha'aretz. The writer, Yoella Har-Shefi, is an attorney and mediator.

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  • Proud of NIF’s Record

    27 October 2011

    27 October 2011, 3:20 pm

    Ben Murane, NIF’s Director of New Generations, offered the following comment in response to this blog post by Richard Silverstein yesterday afternoon. Ben’s response – apparently held for moderation – has not yet been published more than 24 hours later. His efforts to contact Richard got no response. We’re posting Ben’s comment here to ensure that the record is clear:

    No international organization has done more over Israel’s history to achieve equality for Arab Israelis than the New Israel Fund. Richard Silverstein should know that. He has chronicled the excellent work of many of our grantees who seek to address the needs of Arabs in Israel, our law fellows (many of whom have been Israeli Palestinians), and our victories protecting the rights of this vulnerable population.

    Just two weeks ago, we issued a statement signed by more than 1,000 rabbis against the shameful mosque burning in Israel. And contrary to Silverstein’s claims about our guidelines, the vast defunding of grantees he prophesied never materialized. We continue to operate on the democratic ethos that there is room for many opinions within the NIF tent; only organizations that actively work against our principles are excluded from funding.

    NIF’s resources are limited. We make investments where we think we can have the greatest impact. That means that every year we must make difficult decisions about not continuing grants to some groups. Nevertheless our investment in bringing equality to all Israelis – including those of Palestinian heritage – has not waned.

    If you share our vision of equality for all citizens of Israel, then you should attend the New Generations Benefit in New York. The year 2011 was historic for Israel and for the New Israel Fund. 500,000 Israelis stood up for social justice, expressing the values that NIF has embodied in our work for over 30 years. On Nov 2nd, 300+ young professionals in New York will celebrate that same spirit. Five young Israelis – including several who have devoted their activism to Jewish-Arab equality – will be profiled throughout the night.

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  • "Special Security Areas" and Severed Grape Vines: An American Jew's view from the ground of Area C, the West Bank

    07 October 2011

    MorielRothmanI've heard the stories a thousand times. Palestinian families cut off from their land, "hilltop youth" descending from their settlements to frighten and hurt Palestinian farmers, the Israeli military standing idly by: reminders that in these parts, "justice" is just for Jews.

    In college in the States, I studied Middle Eastern politics. I’ve read dozens of books on the history of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. I read the news regularly. I have spoken to many Israeli and Palestinian peace activists about their experiences. I've heard the stories a thousand times- but until last week, I had never set foot inside the West Bank.

    Last Sunday, I began my first week of work at an Israeli human rights organization. On my way in, I ran into Quamar, the Palestinian director of the organization's legal division, and Amiel a man with a dignified mustache and a bright smile who I recognized from a demonstration in East Jerusalem the week before.

    After greeting one another, Quamar told me they were headed to the area around the settlement of Karmei Tzur, in Area C, to look into cases of Palestinian farmers being denied access to their land.

    Following the 1994 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C. Area C, approximately 60% of the territory, is home to both the majority of non-urban Palestinians and all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to Btselem in 2010, settlers control 42.8% of the land in the West Bank, or approximately 71% of Area C. The rest of Area C is under complete Israeli civil and military control. This arrangement was slated to change as the peace process progressed. The lack of progress in the peace process meant stagnation in the facts-on-the-ground as well. To this day, Area C remains under complete Israeli rule.

    "Can I come?" I asked.

    Quamar and Amiel looked at each other and shrugged, "Why not?"

    I hopped in the car, and before I could say "Palestinian Declaration of Independence at the United Nations," we were in the West Bank.

    "Wait, that's it?" I asked, "No checkpoint-ing, no border-crossing, no nothing?"

    Rationally, I knew that riding in a car with yellow plates and light-skinned occupants was synonymous to a free pass, but it still felt strange. If I had looked down for a second as we sped through what looked a lot like a toll-booth in the States (if toll-booths were manned by heavily armed guards), I would not have known that we had entered the West Bank at all. Israeli flags and soldiers were everywhere, along with shopping malls and Levi Jeans Trucks and Egged Buses: in other words, the West Bank looked just like any suburb of Jerusalem.

    We arrived in the village of Beit Umar, right below the settlement of Karmei Tzur (Karmei Tzur, like most settlements, is on a hilltop, and was built in the middle of Palestinian farmland). We were greeted by a number of Palestinian farmers, who began in quick, rural-accented Arabic to explain their situation.

    "This fence you see? This is a Shab"am," we were told by Issa, the unofficial spokesman for the six or so farmers, "Shetah Bithoni Miuhad (A Special Security Area)." This Shab"am, designated by a fence which partially barbed-wire, partially electronic, was created along with a number of other Shab”amim throughout Area C during the early parts of the Second Intifada. It extends much farther than the actual borders of Karmei Tzur. As a result, sections of many Palestinian fields are now located behind the fence. In 2006 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Palestinian farmers must be allowed access to their land within the Shab"am. However, despite the court's ruling, villagers are still routinely prevented from accessing their land during the necessary times for proper agricultural practice, and are instead granted access, as Quamar put it, "according to the mood of the army."

    "This, where we are standing," Quamar explained to me, "is what we call 'De Facto Shab"am.'" In other words, in the area outside of the Shab"am itself, the army and settlers often behave as if it too were part of the Shab"am, although it is not "legally" declared a Special Security Area.

    In the middle of the conversation about the Shab"am, another farmer, Ahmad, began to speak:

    "Here, in 2002, one of the settlers beat me, as I was working in my field. And the soldiers? The soldiers they sat and laughed…"

    He started to cry.

    Surprised at our conversation's spike in emotion, I swallowed and looked down at my feet. I felt acutely aware that I, in all likelihood, looked quite similar to the person who beat Ahmad: blue eyes, light skin, dark hair, bearded. A knit yarmulke.

    Everyone stood silently for a moment, and then we followed Ahmad down to his field. There I realized that Ahmad had told us of the event in 2002 as context, as a backdrop for his latest round of suffering.

    "They cut all of them," he told us, between sobs, and gestured to his grape vines, which clung to their metal cages, brown and withered. The bottoms of all of Ahmad's vines had been cut by a settler one week ago.

    "The army stopped him, the settler, and found grapes in his car. They know who it was, but they won't do anything…"

    As if on cue, we saw two Israeli soldiers striding down the hill towards us. One was Russian, and the other Ethiopian. Both Russians and Ethiopians have struggled to assimilate in Israel. Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data, but it did strike me as interesting that two representatives from the most marginalized groups in Israeli society (besides Arabs) were those who had been tasked with guarding this settlement.

    The soldiers were just kids. I looked at their guns, guns which had once inspired a feeling of awe and admiration in a younger me, and I was afraid for a moment. The fear was jarring, but it passed quickly. I knew that arrests were unlikely and violence was nearly impossible: not just because we weren't doing anything wrong, but mostly because some of us were Israeli citizens.

    Indeed, the soldiers didn't say anything at first. They simply stood and listened to our conversation. But after a few minutes, the Russian-Israeli soldier told us we had to leave a certain area of the field.

    "Do you have a written injunction saying that?" Amiel asked.

    "No, but…" the soldier began to reply.

    "OK, so if you don't have an injunction, then it is not forbidden," Amiel said, and motioned to the rest of us to follow him. We climbed over a stone terrace, and walked into the "forbidden" field. The soldiers said nothing.

    We were shown another field of grapes. In this one, the settlers had come, two days after slitting Ahmad's vines, to tear down all of the grapes from this second field. Then they stomped on them. The field was littered with squished purple grape skins- the vines were bare.

    "What happens… now?" I asked, knowing the answer I would get, but hoping, nonetheless, that this case would be different, that a team of lawyers and activists could somehow bend the rules of occupation.

    "We can try to help," Quamar said quietly, "but the deck is stacked against us." According to the Israeli legal organization, Yesh Din, between the years of 2005 and 2010, over 90% of cases filed by Palestinians against Israeli settlers were thrown out because of "an unknown perpetrator" or "lack of evidence."

    The settlers of Karmei Tzur have no motivation to reprimand one of their own-- let alone fine or punish him. And the army? "They sat and laughed." Or perhaps, they felt the same mixture of anger and sadness that I felt. But regardless of how individual soldiers felt about the attack on Ahmad’s field felt, it is the upper echelons of the army and government, and not individual soldiers, who make policy. Thus the result will be the same as usual: the army will not help Ahmad or the other farmers receive compensation.

    I stood there, in the middle of a field of flattened grape-skins, looking back at the two soldiers, still watching us. Ahmad stood alone by his withered grape vines, rubbing calloused fingers over the corners of his eyes. With his eyes closed, he resembled my grandfather. And the following thought crept into my head: I am witnessing a slow motion nightmare.

    The injustices (destroying grape vines and other crops, verbal intimidation, limited access to land, occasional physical abuse) are benign compared to other international cases of human rights violations, and even compared to the levels of violence in other parts of the West Bank. But these injustices are combined with constant fear and humiliation, and colored by a pervading sense of helplessness. Thus calling it a sort of nightmare doesn't seem exaggerated: it feels like the kind of dream where your world crumbles in slow motion, and you stand frozen, unable to move, or act, or even call out.

    What I witnessed was not an exception, it was part of the Israeli rule: in Area C, Palestinian farmers are regularly intimidated and bureaucratized off their own land. The lives of Palestinian farmers in Area C are heavy with fear, and contain little hope for justice: in what reads like a cruel joke, the only courts or civil authorities that Palestinians in Area C can turn to are those of the occupying Israeli military.

    Before leaving, we asked “I,” one of the farmers, what he thought would happen following the Palestinian Declaration of Independence at the U.N. He responded:

    "Nothing will change for us."

    I am, like most people, unclear about what the practical implications of the Palestinian Authority’s U.N. bid will be for people like Issa and Ahmad who live in Area C. On Saturday, Al-Quds reported that Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas intimated in a meeting with Tony Blair that if Palestinian efforts at the U.N. fail, the Palestinian Authority may cease to exist. Abbas was quoted in Al-Quds saying that the PA will have to “make a decision about whether the time has come for Israel to fulfill its responsibilities as an occupying power."

    In other words, Areas A and B of the West Bank, currently governed by the PA (A) or under “joint” Israeli-Palestinian security control (B), may, in terms of their status, become like Area C is now. It is hard to imagine a peaceful scenario in which Israel is obliged to assume Area C-esque civil and security control over all of the major Palestinian cities.

    Whatever happens with the United Nations bid, I can only affirm what I see as the essence of Issa's statement: top-down politics have slim chance of succeeding in ending the occupation on their own. And ending the occupation should be an urgent priority not only for those appalled at its injustice, but also for anyone who cares about Israel’s security and continued democratic existence.

    A massive paradigm shift is desperately needed from many angles. One of those angles is American Jewry.

    So to my fellow American Jews, many of whom feel, like I do, a deep and powerful connection to the people and the land of Israel, I ask the following: whether you are Left or Right, young or old, religiously observant or secular, next time you are in Israel, take a morning and go to Area C for yourselves. Go to Halhul and Beit Umar, or to other parts of the West Bank. Go with a group, or on a program, or send me an email, and I'll go with you. And if you are unable or unwilling to go yourself, I ask that you read essays like this one, or others detailing the realities of occupation, with an open mind and a vulnerable heart.


    Moriel Rothman was born in Jerusalem and raised in Ohio. He recently graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, and is now back in Jerusalem as a New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellow.

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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014