After Birthright: Dangerous conversations and the stifling of dissent

Israel/Palestine
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Last month, activist Rachel Marcuse spent 10 days in Israel as part of the Taglit-Birthright program — a fully sponsored trip for young North American Jews to learn more about the country. She went to bear witness and ask questions about the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians, and to learn about other complex issues in Israel today. After the program, she spent another 10 days elsewhere in Israel and the West Bank of Palestine talking to Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel, international activists, and Palestinians in the occupied territories. This is the fifth of a seven-part series on what she found. You can read the entire series here. This series first appeared in rabble.ca and this story can be found here.

After a couple of relaxing days on the beach in Tel Aviv, I’ve come out of the "Birthright haze" sufficiently to try to begin to engage with the "pluralism" that exists in Israel and Palestine. In this post-Birthright portion of my trip, I’ve decided to travel to Haifa, which I am told is the most integrated Arab-Jewish city in the country. I’m looking forward to talking with Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Centre, The Advocacy Centre for Arab Citizens in Israel.

According to the report "The Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel: Status, Opportunities and Challenges for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace" written by Mossawa staff and released in June, 2006:

"The Palestinian-Arab community, about 20 per cent of the Israeli population and 10 per cent of the Palestinian people, is a potentially formidable force for coexistence between Palestinians and Israeli Jews….

"Despite a growing trend of racism and systemic and institutional discrimination against the community, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs in Israel wish to remain citizens of Israel, and believe in future friendly relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. As the community forms part of the Palestinian nation, it is often seen as part of the "problem," but not as an integral part of the solution….

"Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel struggle on all fronts to be treated as equal citizens and a distinct minority group of the state. Israel defines itself as both Jewish and democratic…. However, the term ‘democratic’ in the Israeli reality translates into rule by the majority, often at the expense of the needs and rights of the minority — primarily the Palestinian Arab community."

As we sit in his office, Farah elaborates on the issue of Israel’s drive to be recognized as the Jewish state: "This is a problem for all secular people," he says. "For example, a non-practicing Jew wanting to have something other than an Orthodox Jewish wedding must leave the country to do so. It’s like telling you, as a Canadian Jew, that you can only marry another Canadian Jew."

He estimates that about 30 per cent of the population of Israel has very practical problems with the country’s increasing religiosity as they’re not "sufficiently Jewish." Many immigrants face this problem, especially newcomers from the former Soviet Union, as do the Ethiopian Jews who, the Chief Rabbinate has ruled, have to be converted formally, and then, of course, there is the 20 per cent of the population who are Arab….

Mossawa’s advocacy work and research highlights a long list of inequities: land grabs and population displacement (its website cites a study by New York University showing that Arabs who remained in Israel after 1948 lost between 40 and 60 per cent of their land); military rule (based on the belief that Arabs constitute "security risks" with "suspect" loyalty to the state); incomplete civil rights legislation (which allows for abridgement of the rights of the Basic Law on Dignity to fit the "values of the State of Israel"); restricted political representation (the definition of political parties which support "terrorism" is sufficiently vague to allow for exclusion along ideological lines); education (underfunding and curricula which privilege Jewish culture over the Arab community); in religion (including access to religious sites); in socio-economic status (in 2003, poverty among Palestinian Arab families was 3.2 times that of Jewish families); and more.

What strikes me in particular, though, is the stifling of dissent faced by both the Arab and Jewish populations within Israel. According to Farah, there’s little space to express your views — sometimes, you can’t even say "Nakba" (the Arabic word for "catastrophe," referring to the massive displacement of Palestinians in 1948), lest it "interfere with [collective Jewish] memories." While almost half of the Haifa civilians killed by missiles during the 2006 Second Lebanon War were Arab, Farah summed up the prevailing attitude: if you opposed the Israeli military action, you deserved to be killed… or you were a "traitor." When Farah, the head of a long-established NGO, visited activists from the Turkish flotilla this June, he was arrested and held for seven hours. A conversation can be dangerous.

The issue of dissent comes up frequently in conversation with both Jews and Arabs. After my meeting with Farah, Dani Grimblat, a Jewish activist, takes me on a walk in his Haifa neighbourhood, Hadar (which interestingly translates to "glamour"), known by many as a progressive enclave. At a local café, I sit down with two of his friends, both Christian Arabs, who have been playing chess. We talk about why Haifa is better integrated than other places in Israel (it seems it’s connected to a history of labour organizations working together and some progressive municipal politicians), but our conversation quickly turns to the issue of dissent. A couple of months ago, I’m told, a street concert was taking place. From the stage, one of the musicians made some political comments in an act of Palestinian solidarity: not exactly a call to arms, I understand, but something considered provocative and problematic by one of the men I’m chatting with ("I like provocation!" says the other one). Long story short, the sound was cut on his microphone.

A young bar owner at a "non-partisan" place down the street — most of the bars in this neighbourhood seem to have political affiliations — tells me that "tension breeds dialogue." This might be the case in Haifa where there is a relaxed level of tolerance for political difference, but it doesn’t feel that way in other places I visit; typically, I feel, space for tolerance is privileged for Jews over Arabs. Jews are allowed the luxury of dialogue, while Arabs are thought of as "terrorists" and too-often all but excluded from discussions around a peace process.

There is also an interesting distinction between discussion that occurs within Israel and discussion originating from outside the country, whether within the Jewish Diaspora or the international community as a whole. Progressive North American Jews are becoming accustomed to being labeled "self-hating" and are subject to a special level of venom when criticizing Israel or asking provocative questions about the conflict. I have received some lovely "hate tweets" since writing this series along these lines. The hostility I’ve faced has largely come from other North Americans — Israelis seemed to appreciate that I was genuinely listening and able to shift my opinions — but there is nonetheless an underlying sense that criticism should stay within Israel.

Near the end of my trip, I’m back in Tel Aviv, staying with one of the soldiers from the Taglit group. He and some friends are watching the World Cup, while I — not a soccer fan — chat with some friends on Facebook and respond to an e-mail from a person from Breaking the Silence with whom I’ve been corresponding.

Breaking the Silence is made up of soldiers who have been stationed in Hebron. These soldiers now give tours of the city, illustrating the horrific treatment of the resident Palestinians by the small group of fundamentalist Jews who have "settled" in the town. (I will write more about this group in the final piece in this series.)

During a lull in the soccer game, I ask one of my friend’s comrades what people think of the Breaking the Silence soldiers. "It’s good, what they’re doing," he says, and adds that most Israelis think the situation in Hebron is really bad and should be fixed. "But," he says, Israelis also think, "don’t ever do these tours in English!" So, just as with a family reluctant "to wash its dirty linen in public," it seems that dialogue can be good, and useful, but it also needs to stay "in the tent," — and a Jewish-Israeli tent, at that.

Rachel Marcuse is a Vancouver-based activist, facilitator and apparatchick. The executive director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), a municipal political party, she also freelances, focussing on facilitation skills, youth-engagement and strategic planning. Her views do not necessarily represent the positions of any organization whatsoever.

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