inside and outside of the apartheid wall separating israel and palestine

Inside and outside views of the wall separating Israel from Palestine. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

At the end October, I flew into Ben Gurion airport in order to attend the 2012 Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI) Symposium. PPI is an American Jewish organization that is loosely connected with the Israeli center-Leftist political party Meretz.

The week-long trip was both alarming and inspirational. We met with countless Israeli and Palestinian politicians, activists, journalists, and leaders to hear their thoughts on the upcoming Israeli elections, the Palestinian UN bid for statehood, and other pressing issues. And being associated with a fringe group like Meretz allowed me to see just how fractured and marginalized the Left has become in Israel.

Throughout the trip, I noticed that every speaker and participant, regardless of his or her political viewpoints, was exhausted and filled with hopelessness. At times, I myself was tempted to throw my hands up in despair. No matter how important Israel’s future is to me, the hope of its becoming a progressive, tolerant, and open society is getting slimmer by the second. After all, as most folks continually point out to me, what good can American Jew do from the US?

As I returned to the chaos of elections in my own home country, I allowed the despair I felt during the symposium to sit in the back of my mind for a few days. After the elections, I took a moment to reflect on this despair. I take these considerations very seriously. I don’t want to waste my time and energy working towards a cause that has already been lost.

Before the trip, I blogged about my reasons for being a Zionist, and the consequences for being one. I talked about “post-Zionism,” and how I believe that the struggle for a democratic Jewish state has not yet been achieved, and therefore it is important to continue the struggle.

Calling myself a Zionist does not mean that I support the occupation, the illegal settlements, or the racist and oppressive direction the modern state of Israel has taken. Nor does it mean that I, in any way, want to justify the expulsion of 80% of Palestinians from their homes, or to deny their right of return. I am fully conscious of Zionism’s problematic legacy, but I am also aware of its untold stories.

In my last year of as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I wrote a senior thesis on the alternative roots of early Zionism for a class called Jewish Socialism in Eastern Europe. I discussed the fracturing of the early Zionist Left, dissolving into bitter arguments between groups headed by the likes of Ahad Ha’am, AD Gordon, Nachman Syrkin, Ber Borochov, and other progressive Jews.

I do not believe that American Jews have to accept the direction that Zionism has taken, just as I don’t believe that we have to accept the idea that Jewish history is only interesting in terms of its marginalization, oppression, and trauma. But I also do not believe that we should simply throw up our hands and allow Israel’s turn toward the Right define what a Jewish democratic state looks like.

So despite the despair, I choose to throw myself heart-first into reclaiming Zionism in the hopes of transforming Israel into a tolerant, progressive society.

The following thoughts are adapted excerpts from my daily blog posts, which can be read in their original form here. The excerpts represent the main points in the conference that helped me come to my goal of reclaiming Zionism, however bleak it may seem.

Participants heatedly discuss

Participants discussed heated issues in our limited time between speakers. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

On the first evening of our trip, we met Dr. Yossi Beilin, former Meretz chairman who helped to initiate the 1992 Oslo peace process. Now he’s the president of a global consulting firm. He told us that a limited, yet functioning Palestinian economy cooperates with Israel, such that the current situation could continue indefinitely unless the Palestinians make a drastic move, such as a third intifada. He used September 13th, 2013 (twenty years since the signing of the Oslo accords) as a potential day to make that drastic move.

It struck me as rather odd for Beilin, an Israeli, to ask the Palestinians to make the first move toward statehood. I resisted the temptation to ask what role Israel would play in this move. Is it the responsibility of the victims to lift themselves out of oppression? Isn’t it the responsibility of the people in charge to end oppression? Beilin himself said, “We’re in charge.”

Already after the first evening, I began to understand the reasons for my fixation on a two-state solution. I understand the merit in working toward one nation with equal rights for everyone. According to some of the other participants, more and more Palestinians themselves are actually relinquishing the idea of having their own state in favor of a peaceful living arrangement. However, from an American Jewish perspective, a one-state solution sounds a lot, to me, like the post-racism ideas in the US.

The idea is simple: Because the United States has a black president, has gone through the civil rights movement, has laws against racial discrimination, etc. everyone should be treated exactly the same.

Post-racism is not only untrue, but it is indicative of ignorant white privilege. If you asked them, I don’t think any people of color would agree that we are living in a post-racist society. Racism happens every day, even in sarcasm. But this idea continues because white people have the privilege of being able to ignore racism.

The same goes for a one-state solution argument from an American Jewish perspective. It’s hard for me to see the value in arguing against Palestinian statehood from a non-Palestinian perspective period, but specifically from the American Jewish front. I’m willing to hear Israelis out when they call for one democratic state with equal citizenship rights for everyone, including Palestinians, especially if they argue against Jewish government (even though I respectfully disagree with them).

But throughout the entirety of the trip, I did not hear a single compelling argument for a one-state solution from an American Jew. To me, this argument sounds new-agey and idealistic. “We can get everyone to get along,” ignores the aggressive racism on the part of Israelis. If we’re going to argue for a one-state solution, then we need to start focusing a lot more on changing Israeli Jewish cultural attitudes toward Palestinians, and Arabs more general.

Participants meet with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi

Dr. Ashrawi helping us American Jews let go of our need to get Palestinians to accept the Zionist narrative. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

When we traveled into Ramallah, we met with Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. She helped me rethink the anxiety most Zionist Jews (including those on the Left) feel in regards to Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish nature of Israel.

Why should we demand that the Palestinians suddenly become Zionists? Never mind the fact that the current state is doing absolutely everything in its power to delegitimize its own cause. To this question, Dr. Ashrawi had a very simple answer. “Israel must be the most insecure nation if they need our approval.”

Essentially, asking Palestinians to accept the Jewishness of Israel is putting the burden of freedom on the victim. As Dr. Ashrawi wrote in an article published in Ha’aretz shortly before our meeting, “The idea that we are supposed to get permission from our oppressor to obtain our freedom is simply absurd.”

On another note, when it comes down to it, saying that Israel needs to be a Jewish state is kind-of an immigration policy, and asking another nation to accept its immigration policies is preposterous.

Dr. Ashrawi also reaffirmed an idea I’d already been coming to on my own. The only way to achieve a one-state solution is first to play as equal partners, as two states. In order to negotiate, Israel needs to “get the boot off of Palestinians’ neck.” Palestinians will not be able to negotiate on equal terms with Israelis without statehood of their own.

More importantly, the one-state solution is sexist because it turns the bodies of all women into wombs, in the demographics race. And in fact, there is already one state: an apartheid state that is pushing the Palestinians out of their homeland.

Back in Tel Aviv, we met with Dani Dayan, Chairman of the Yesha Council (umbrella organization of illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian land). Although I could barely take a word he said seriously, he did say something very important that I want to dissect more closely later (although I don’t think that he’d agree with my reasoning for his statement’s importance). He said, “Zionism is my religion.” In an extremely essentialist world, I believe that nationalism has become the new religion. And if we were living in such a world, then there would be no way that I’d call myself a Zionist.

My question of the whole conference, and maybe even my life’s work, is the following: Is it more useful to reclaim Zionism as a means of achieving a Palestinian state, or to reject it? My project, thus far, has been to reclaim it, because nobody in the American Jewish community will listen to a word you have to say about Israel unless you pledge allegiance to the Israeli flag.

Maybe that’s something that should be renegotiated, especially since I’m not sure that I believe in the goodness of flags and nation-states altogether. It would not be honest to claim that I’m a Zionist merely as a tool to change consciousness, and not because I actually support the cause. Or perhaps, according to Jewish tradition, it’s a contradiction to embrace.

Israeli military checkpoint

This military outpost represents one of the only interactions many Palestinians will have with Israelis. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

In Hebron, I was saddened to see the lack of change since the last time I had visited the city. Some people told me that something like five or six years ago, there was some really nasty graffiti covering the Arab stores. Things like, “Arabs to Auschwitz.” Now, authorities have painted over the graffiti and made the place at least look somewhat presentable, because they know that they cannot prevent people from going inside.

Later on in the day, we took a tour of the settlement construction and Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem. We started out in Har Homa, which is now home to thousands Jewish Israelis. Largely, these settlers are not motivated by nationalist or religious fervor (yet they do tend to adopt such fervor after moving in). For the most part, they move to Har Homa in search of affordable housing, since the neighborhood is cheap compared to the rest of Jerusalem, and the Israeli government provides many incentives for doing so.

Many settlers in general receive stipends from the Israeli government for moving into the settlements, however our tour guide said that is not the case in Har Homa. Although there are many added benefits to living in Har Homa, such as a luxurious public transportation system. In one year from today, the settlement will have tripled in size since last year. And while it is technically legal for a Palestinian with residency status in East Jerusalem to move into the neighborhood, it is quite impossible from almost any angle to do so.

When we met Shachar Ilan from Hiddush, a publication dedicated to promoting religious pluralism, we understood the reality of the Haredi population:

  • The Haredim make up about 9-10% of the Israeli Jewish population.
  • 60% of Haredi men are studying instead of working.
  • 60% of Haredi women work (mostly part-time).
  • 10-12 billion shekels (3-4 billion dollars) are given to the Haredi.

A view of the Old City reveals the close proximity of several nearby illegal settlements. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

The Haredi do not serve in the IDF, have incredibly large families, and receive subsidies from the government for being religious. Shachar believes that the main problem in Israel, which leads to all the other problems (including the occupation), is that secular Israelis have failed in redefining secular Jewish Zionism. The Haredi like to call themselves a minority, but politically, they hold an inordinate amount of power. Netanyahu could leave them out of his coalition, and he knows he could because he cut the child allowance (which basically translates into the government subsidizing large families) when he was finance minister. However, this cutting of the child allowance actually only affected the Arab population, rather than the Haredi.

Even if he wanted to, it is difficult for a Haredi man to find a job because Israel is financing an education system without a core curriculum. No other Western state finances non-core curriculum schools. But the girls are learning secular subjects since they are expected to support their families.

Shachar’s solutions were the following:

  • Israel needs to decide that it will only finance a core curriculum education system.
  • There must be a duty to serve law. Not necessarily in the IDF, and the IDF will decide whether or not they need the Haredi on an individual basis. If not, he/she will serve in social welfare programs.
  • Cut the budget of the Yeshivot.
  • Most of the finances for housing is designed for the Haredim. Big families are subsidized. So Israel should only support the people who are actually trying to work. (This one sounds a lot like the Republican argument against social welfare programs, but trust me, it’s different in this case).

The biggest fear of the Israeli, Shachar says, is to be a frayer, which doesn’t have an exact translation in English, but for lack of better word, it translates to a sucker. Israelis need to learn how to be vulnerable. Essentially, Israelis are narcissists.

In Be’er Seva, a city near the border of Gaza that has been hard-hit by missiles over the last few years, we visited a bilingual school called Hagar. There, they have an equal number of Arab and Jewish students. Each class has two teachers, one Jewish teacher who only speaks in Hebrew and one Arab teacher who only speaks in Arabic. All the signs are written both in Arabic and Hebrew. Downstairs, they turned the bomb shelter into a pirate ship library. Totally mitigates the fear of being showered by missiles.

View of Gaza

The view of Gaza, however serene, should not be mistaken for anything aside from what it is: the largest open-air prison of today. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

We also visited the border of the Gaza Strip. It was the first time I’d ever seen it, and the idea of the biggest open-air prison really hit home. There are 1.7 million Palestinians living in 365 square feet of land. Their economy is based entirely on foreign aid, since they have no raw materials and no resources are allowed to go out, only in. A gentle breeze played with knee-high grasses as we gazed at the area, just two days after over 60 missiles had been launched into the towns nearby, and during the Eid al-Adha holiday. The serenity was surreal.

Finally, Stav Shaffir, one of the main organizers of the social protests of last summer, hammered home what was possibly the most important message of the symposium. Just a week before we met with her, she had officially announced that she would be leaving her post as activist in favor of imbuing the Israeli youth’s trust in their political system by joining the Labor party. When I asked her why would do such a thing, when the Labor party has moved so far to the Right, and when she would be joining forces with the likes of Benny Begin, she had an extremely well-prepared answer.

For many years, those of us on the Zionist Left have focused our entire effort on ending the occupation. In doing so, we turned a blind eye to the social inequalities within Israel itself. Systemic racism toward African refugees, the Bedouin communities, and Arabs feeds into the sustained occupation. Basically, if you are a Zionist, then you cannot fight for ending the occupation without also fighting for social equality within Israel.

At the PPI symposium, I joined a battle. They turned me into a soldier, and now I will fight. Every day I was reminded of how much despair everyone feels and how privileged I am as an American Jew. Israel is both disintegrating in scary ways and flourishing in exciting ones. Making aliyah is an idea that has somehow managed to lodge itself into my heart and mind. But it will be a conscious decision, taking in both the beauty and the blood. I will not stop until the occupation is over. I will not stop.

Here are the main messages from my trip:

  1. Do not dictate to the Palestinians how to resist the occupation.
  2. Until Palestine is a state, peace negotiations cannot happen.
  3. Jews must let go of the anxiety over getting Palestinians to accept the Zionist narrative.
  4. In order to become a Jewish democratic state, secular Israeli Jews need to reclaim Zionism and Jewishness.
  5. The Haredi population can no longer be subsidized for living their lifestyle.
  6. A nation cannot engage in external politics without simultaneously engage in internal politics.
  7. I am not doing Israeli politics. I am doing American politics regarding Israel. Until I make aliyah, I am an outsider giving useful, but naive recommendations.
partners for progressive israel 2012 delegation

Partners for Progressive Israel 2012 delegation. Credit: Shani Chabansky.

Shani Chabansky is an editorial intern at Tikkun and former editor of Leviathan Jewish Journal. She recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in both Anthropology and the first inaugural class of Jewish Studies.

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