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Tuesday, July 26, 2011


In my last post, I wrote "Unlike the West Bank, east Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1967, but the people living there -- as a protective measure -- were not granted citizenship.  Instead, they are "permanent residents"."   An anonymous commenter noted I was mistaken, and I have since confirmed my mistake with political science professor Jonathan Rynhold of Bar Ilan University.  Apparently, the residents of east Jerusalem were offered citizenship after the annexation, but only 5% accepted it. 

I made my mistake through misreading a report by the ACRI -- mainly because I was reading too quickly, but also the report was written in a way that it could be misread.   Overall, this 20-page report by the ACRI tells of a sorry state in east Jerusalem.  I have no doubt that the suffering they describe is real, that Israeli policies contribute to that suffering, and that Israel should be working to alleviate it.  On the other hand, the implication throughout the report is that the suffering in east Jerusalem is primarily Israel's fault, and that implication is incorrect.  As I have said many times, this is a conflict with two sides to it.  Unfortunately, the temptation is strong to villainize one side and share only the perspective of the other.

Here is the relevant excerpt from the ACRI's report.  I have underlined the sentence that I misread (bolding is theirs).  In their defense, the current statement on the ACRI's website is much less misleading:
Following the Six Day War and the Israeli annexation, East Jerusalem residents were given the civil status of "permanent residents" of Israel. As such, the primary right they were granted was the right to live and work in Israel without the need for special permits. Permanent residents are also entitled to social rights according to the National Insurance Law, health insurance, and the right to vote in municipal (but not national) elections. Permanent residency status, unlike citizenship, is passed on to the children of residents only under certain conditions. A permanent resident who marries someone who is neither a permanent resident nor a citizen of Israel must apply for family unification on behalf of his or her spouse. In reality, Israel treats the residents of East Jerusalem as foreigners whose status can be revoked as a matter of course. These residents are forced to repeatedly prove their permanent residency status in the city to the Ministry of the Interior and the National Insurance Institute, which conduct investigations and inquiries designed to gather evidence for annulling this status. Residency status is at times revoked arbitrarily, with no opportunity for appeal, and with no notification to the resident, who learns of the action only when applying for services. Between 1967 and 2008 the Ministry of the Interior revoked the status of over 13,000 residents. Half of these revocations occurred between 2006 and 2008. The sharp rise in revocation of residency status was touted as an illustration of “improvement in work procedures and proper monitoring by the ministry”. In other words, according to the ministry, “improvement” does not mean enhancing the level of service provided for the welfare of the residents, but rather trapping in its net as many Palestinians as possible and condemning them to the State’s policy of revocation of residency.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ethnic Struggle

This is the fifth in a series of posts that build on each other. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall

"(M)an was created from the dust of a single spot.  Man is committed to one locus. . . (H)e is a rooted being, not cosmopolitan but provincial, a villager who belongs to the soil that fed him as a child and to the little world into which he was born. . . Yes, man may roam along the charted and uncharted lanes of the universe, he may reach for the skies.  Yet the traveler, the adventurer out to conquer infinity, will surely return home." (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Majesty and Humility.)

These words of Rav Soloveitchick pull at me as a description of loving parents might pull at an orphan, because I have no one locus I call home.  My grandmother was born in Warsaw, my mother in New York.  I am from Chicago, my children are Californians.  The Jewish nightmare of fleeing from country to country in search of safety has morphed into the American dream of "Go West young man" to Stanford, or east to the Ivies, or mid-west or north or south or wherever opportunity calls.  But still we are unrooted.  The street names in my California neighborhood are exotic to me, and though the landscape is spectacular I am a transplant in it.

לבי במזרח ואנכי בסוף מערב
איך אטעמה את אשר אכל ואיך יערב
My heart is in the east and I am at the end of the west.
How can I taste what I eat and how can it be sweet? (Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, 12th C., Spain)
Israel is aglow with ethnic fire.  The colors are brighter here, the tastes crisper, I feel more alive in Israel than in any other place I have lived.  This year, I have been walking the streets the prophets walked, living outside the walls through which Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai was smuggled in a coffin to plead for a remnant of Israel.  My backdrop has been the same hills and valleys that Maimonides saw in the final stage of his life.  If I should forget for a moment who I am, the street names remind me, the songs on the radio and in the mouths of my own kids, the language itself.

But there is a dark side to this beauty.  Because just as joy must be outlined by sorrow, so our ethnic identities are defined in part by who we are not -- Jew, not Arab.

I recently asked Dr. Avivah Zornberg why our tradition associates each of the patriarchs with the trait that seems most lacking in him:  Abraham, who mounted his son on an altar, is classically associated with kindness, Isaac with strength, Jacob with truth.  Avivah explained that these are not the traits the patriarchs lacked, they are the traits they engaged with most intensely.  In fact, she has seen over and over that a person's most intense trait will reveal itself in complex ways, now as a burning presence and then as a striking absent, now as a great strength and then as a great failing.

If what Avivah said is true for individuals, I believe it is true for nations as well.  The Jewish passion that makes Israel so beautiful is also her greatest moral challenge.  An example is the advertising campaign I criticized in a previous post: "A Palestinian state is a disaster for the Jews".  I've seen bumper stickers and graffiti with much more explicit statements of Jewish elitism, and chance comments from individuals that reveal a deep hatred of Arabs.  (For example, about shopping in Arab-owned stores: "I don't want to give them any money if I don't have to.")  But the most blatant mainstream example came home with my son from school.

The standard third grade literature curriculum in Israeli public schools is based on a book called פתחו את השער (Translation: Open the Gate.)  It includes some beautiful pieces, but most are banal stereotypes of immigrant groups in Israel.  The elderly American couple invites the neighborhood children in for ice-cream.  The Russian girl bursts into tears at her friend's Seder, as she recalls loved ones back in Russia who are still refuseniks.  The book also includes a traditional Yemenite story, about a Jewish jeweler whose Arab neighbor entrusts him with a ring to repair.  The Arab then sneaks into the Jew's house at night and steals his own ring, spitefully hoping to frame the Jew.  The Arab tosses the ring in the ocean, and a fish swallows it.  A few days later the fish is caught by a fisherman, and the jeweler happens to buy the fish for his Shabbat dinner.  He discovers the ring inside the body of the fish, and is able to repair it and return it on time to the Arab villain.  When my son's class read this story, the teacher provided homework that included a chart in which the children were to compare the characteristics of the Jew and the Arab.

Let's be clear. Jews are not the only Middle Easterners grappling with the power, beauty and danger of ethnic pride.  Such feelings are the emotional bread and butter of the region.  In June our family vacationed in Petra, Jordan, where the locals readily identify one another as coming from Syrian, Bedouin, or (in some parts of the country) Palestinian or Groznian extraction.  They were equally quick to identify us as Jews, despite our attempts to hide our kippot under sun hats. "We are two brothers of the same father," one vendor told my husband; and more than one local told us they hate Palestinians, mistakenly assuming we would share their hatred.

Back on the other side of the Jordan, Palestinian textbooks have been notoriously severe in their anti-Jewish rhetoric, mixing religious and violent language into accounts of modern history. The Palestinian Authority issued new textbooks in 2006 that are apparently improved over the older books, which had originated in Egypt and Jordan.  But the Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) writes even of the newer textbooks: "PMW has found that the new 12th grade Palestinian schoolbooks make no attempt to educate for peace and coexistence with Israel. Indeed, the opposite is true: The teachings repeatedly reject Israel's right to exist, present the conflict as a religious battle for Islam, teach Israel’s founding as imperialism, and actively portray a picture of the Middle East, both verbally and visually, in which Israel does not exist at all."  Other groups have pointed out that Israeli textbooks mirror the Palestinian ones, making no references to Palestinians or their history in this land, and using religious language to claim an inalienable Jewish right to the land.  When you are taught from birth that God promised this land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it becomes very hard to see it as belonging to any people but yours. Clearly this is an ethnic struggle with two sides to it.

הלואי, if only it were a struggle that began and ended with textbooks.  I don't believe there's a Jew born in Israel who has not had a personal friend or acquaintance killed by an Arab.  Nor is there a Palestinian who has not had friends killed by Jews.  Such experiences imprint on the soul, and are even harder to undo than the rhetoric of childhood.

It did not have to be this way.  The Torah includes powerful messages about co-existence and peace and the essential value of every human being as created in the image of God.  These messages could have formed the foundational ethic guiding Israeli's interactions with the Arabs that share their land.  But let's not forget, the day after Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state, five Arab powers  swarmed across the border in an attempt to drive the Jews into the ocean.  They tried again in 1967, and again in 1973.  Since 1973 Israel's larger neighbors have withdrawn from direct conflict, but still rockets and ammunition are pouring in through Egypt to Gaza with "Jew" as their final delivery address.  Once caught in this ongoing, violent conflict, too many Israelis find themselves emphasizing a different ethic, for the Torah contains plenty of fuel for Jewish elitism as well.

On many levels, some real and some perceived, Israel is still at war, and government policies reflect those feelings.  I already described the sorry situation at the security checkpoints.  The situation in east Jerusalem is even more striking.  Unlike the West Bank, east Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1967, but the people living there -- as a protective measure -- were not granted citizenship.  (Note: this statement is misleading, please see my correction.) Instead, they are "permanent residents"; they have the right to vote in municipal elections but not national ones, and their status can be revoked at any time, seemingly arbitrarily, leaving them suddenly homeless and unable to earn a living.  Nonetheless, the population in east Jerusalem has grown by an astounding 450% since 1967.  This sharp population rise feels very threatening to many Israelis.  According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Jerusalem municipality has responded with unreasonable zoning laws, home demolitions, and refusal to issue new building permits.  As a result, east Jerusalem is overcrowded, with a population density nearly twice that of west Jerusalem.  65% of east Jerusalem residents live in poverty.  Approximately 160,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have no suitable and legal connection to the water network, and 50 kilometers of sewage lines are lacking.  East Jerusalem is short approximately 1,000 classrooms in their schools, contributing to a school drop-out rate of 50%.  The ACRI sees the residents of east Jerusalem as the victims of a systematic policy of discrimination, intended to limit the Arab presence in Jerusalem and secure a Jewish majority.

Yet layered in with all this fear and hatred are the Jewish prayers of hope that sustained us -- as a distinct ethnic group -- through centuries of oppression.  For a millennium and a half at least, devout Jews have been reciting the same formula three time a day.  "Blessed are You Ado-nai, redeemer of Israel . . .Blast on a great shofar, and set up a sign to gather in our exiles . . . Restore our leadership . . Destroy all wickedness . . . Place trust in the righteous . . . Return Your presence to Jerusalem, You who will build Jerusalem . . . Plant the roots of David's kingdom. . . May our eyes see Your return to Zion. . .Blessed are You, who blesses His people Israel with peace."  בשוב ה' את שיבת ציון היינו כחולמים  -- It seems a dream, that these words are coming true even as we continue to recite them.

Israel is a country built by refugees: from the Holocaust in Europe, from generations of humiliation as dhimmi in Arabia, and from complete vulnerability when even the dhimma relationship collapsed under the Ottomans;  from famine and intolerance in Ethiopia; from communism and deadly anti-semitism in Russia; and from every corner of the world where Jews resided.  The founding dream of Israel is that all Jews should finally have a secure place to call home.  I believe we deserve that.

As America was founded on the myth that "all men are created equal", so Israel was founded on the Law of Return -- a profoundly beautiful, idealistic law, that discriminates based on ethnicity.    But is that not so often the case, of people and of countries?  The fires that burn hottest and ugliest inside of us are the same fires that make us most beautiful.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Security Wall

This is the third in a series of posts about politics in Israel. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid

It seems to me Sayid has another option: he could apply for a work permit.  The upfront costs of a work permit would be insurmountable for Sayid himself --  the equivalent of two months labor on a six month work permit.  But employers are willing to pay the costs, and then withhold part of the paycheck until they are paid off.  The take-home pay is very, very low, but at least it is reliable.  

One day, I was walking past a construction site when Sayid called my cell phone asking if I had work for him.  I had nothing to offer, but the construction site gave me an idea.  I screwed up my courage, approached one of the workers, and asked if they needed another set of hands. I was quickly introduced to the foreman, a Christian Arab named Rasmi.  Rasmi told me to send Sayid to him, he'd be happy to put him to work. 

Since then, Rasmi and I have been friendly, greeting each other every morning as I walk past his construction site.  Once one of his workers offered me a cookie from the breakfast they were sharing.

But Sayid could not work anything out with Rasmi.  I am certainly many factors contributed, and I only know a few them.  I will tell you about one of the complications, which has to do with the Security Wall, also known as the Separation Barrier between the Palestinian territories and Israel proper.

To avoid the heat of the day, construction work starts at 7AM.  In order to get across the security border to arrive at work on time, Sayid would need to leave his house at 4AM, to join the crowds of Palestinian workers lining up to get across.  As people pass through one at a time, they are inspected and subjected to verbal humiliation.  And no surprise.  Most of the checkpoints are manned by 20 year old kids wearing guns.

Israel should do better than this.  In addition to training checkpoint guards to identify terrorists, they should also be training them to show respect to the people legitimately passing through.  They should increase the number of people manning the checkpoints, to be able to process workers faster.  And they should lower the cost of work permits, so that people who are already living on the edge are not deprived of a third of their pay check.  A little respect for the dignity of Palestinian people would go a long way towards promoting peace.

On the other side -- and yes, there is always another side in this conflict -- I am grateful for the security wall.

My husband and I lived in Israel for a year in 1995-96, when Yitshak Rabin was assassinated.  That year, approximately 40 people were killed in terror attacks, mostly by suicide bombers.  These attacks were among the most evil expressions of the human soul, to  strap explosives onto the body of a 20 year old child and send him into a crowd.

Though the numbers of people killed in such attacks were small compared to the numbers killed in car accidents, the attacks were very successful in their aim of creating terror.  With constant news stories about bus bombings, I avoided riding buses the entire year, sticking to taxis instead.

Once Israel built the security wall, terror attacks dropped to ten percent of what they had been.  This year, only three people died in Israel proper as a result of the conflict with Palestinians: Daniel Viflic, who I mentioned earlier, Mary Jean Gardener, a British citizen who was killed by a bomb planted at the central bus station of Jerusalem, and Kristene Luken, an American stabbed to death in the woods by thugs from Hamas.  My fear of buses and public spaces has faded into memory.

The next post in this series is called Ethnic Struggle.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


This is the third in a series of posts about politics in Israel. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth
This year I befriended a Palestinian man named Sayid who, in the words of our landlady, "comes begging for work every now and then."  We had been told by our landlady that we could trust him, though it took us a while to understand what it means for an upper-middle class Jew to trust a working class Palestinian.  He won't hurt you, he won't steal anything from you; but don't let him in the house unless absolutely necessary, and don't trust the details of things he says. 

In the beginning he seemed to lie to us, or at least he stretched the truth in irritating ways.  Certainly he viewed us as money machines, and his job was to extract as much from us as possible. But over time, as he saw that I respect him as a human being and that I want to help him but that I do not have the financial resources to solve his problems, he and I developed a deeper level of mutual trust.

Sayid is the father of five children.  The oldest is a teenager with severe developmental problems, who lives in an Arab boarding school for the disabled.  His second child's growth seems delayed, and she is being treated at Hadassah hospital (Israel's premiere hospital, named for the Jewish women's organization that funds it.) His youngest child is still a toddler.

In talking to Sayid, it seems everything he does is for the sake of his five children.  They live hand to mouth; many days Sayid himself eats nothing.  His capacity for physical hardship astounds me.  He can work in the hot sun for hours on end, with nothing in his belly but a cup of coffee and nicotine from his cigarette.  More than once he has told me his electricity was disconnected, or he has no water this month and has to borrow from neighbors.  Not long ago at a particularly desperate time he was talking about selling his refrigerator; I don't know if he went through with it. 

Sayid hates coming to Jerusalem.  He walks the streets searching for work, in constant fear of the police, as he has no work permit and could be jailed.  On more than one occasion he has been hauled into the police station at a time when he was not engaged in work, he was kept standing on his feet for several hours and then set free.   To anyone involved with working class Hispanic communities in America, this should all sound familiar.  But Sayid keeps coming back, because on the days he finds work here he can expect to earn at least 40 NIS an hour -- that's about $11.  A full day of hard labor in the Palestinian territories, working from 8AM to 5PM with no lunch break, earns him just 70 NIS in total.  (I confirmed these numbers with other sources.)

A few months back, Sayid's wife left him.  She told him, "This is no way to live," and she took the baby and ran to her father's house.  Eventually she returned to her husband, but in the immediate aftermath of her departure Sayid came to me, desperate for work.  He talked to me for almost an hour, telling me of the humiliations he suffers on a daily basis.  He kept repeating two phrases, אני בן אדם, "I am a human being", I want to be treated as a human being,  and אין לי, "I do not have" -- I do not have land to build a store, I do not have an education to get a salaried job, my wife has never worked for money and I don't have anyone who can share my financial burden.  "All my children's needs, they all fall on my shoulders," he told me.  As he spoke, his voice grew more and more desperate.  And though I was sitting alone with him in my living room, and I trust him that he would never hurt me, still it was not hard to imagine that desperation turning to violence -- if the atmosphere were ripe, and if someone lit a spark.

This is the third in a series of comments about the political situation in Israel.  To read the next comment in the series, click here.