As the old saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.” The University of California at Davis is no exception.
At the small, pleasant Reform Congregation Beit Haverim in Davis, there are two Israel-oriented groups. One is the more traditional Israel Matters Committee. And then there is there is the Israel Peace Alternatives group which, as its name implies, takes upon itself the weighty responsibility of searching for alternatives to the traditional ways American Jews view and support Israel.
An old friend of mine, and IDF veteran, will be speaking to the Israel Peace Alternatives, and I felt compelled to write a letter to the group prior to the event.
Dear Members of Israel Peace Alternatives and Guests:
I noted that my old friend Hillel Damron will be speaking to you on November 29th about the “survival of democracy” inIsrael, the “fading dream” of the two-state solution, and the “Jewish Holy War”involving “Price Tags.”
I have known Hillel for many years and have great respect for him and his service toIsrael. My daughter and his son were good friends when they were growing up inSacramento.
Like Americans who love and are concerned about theU.S., Hillel can be quite critical ofIsrael. As he has said to me, it has been quite a long time since he lived in Israel and, to his regret, he does not get to go back home often.
I am a more recent citizen of Israel and I live here about seven months a year. I am at my apartment inJerusalemnow, just as Jerusalemites are opening their homes so that the million-plus Israeli civilians who are the target of rockets fromGazacan come and hopefully get a peaceful night’s rest.
Like Hillel, I am sometimes critical ofIsrael. As in every country, there is plenty of room for improvement. However, as someone who lives inIsraela good part of the year now but who is not a native Israeli, I think I can provide a little different perspective than Hillel.
My main concern is that Hillel, as a native Israeli, may, just like Americans who argue about theU.S., not give the context and perspective that should accompany his criticisms. I would like to provide some of that.
The “survival of democracy” inIsraelimplies that there is a question about whether Israel’s democracy will survive.
Israelis in the midst of an election campaign. Parties from the far left, including Communist and Arab-based parties, to the far right, including parties whose positions make my hair stand up, are running vigorous campaigns.
As in the U.S., the campaigns are vibrant, and are bare knuckles. Ridiculous charges are flying, hyperbole is the standard of the day, promises are being made, and shady practices are going on. No matter who you are for, you think the press is biased for the other side. Sound familiar?
Wednesday night my wife and I were in Tel Aviv for a reception in honor of a friend who is retiring as theIsraelrepresentative of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. The entertainment was provided by a group of elementary school students from theBialik-RogozinSchool, a south Tel Aviv school dedicated to educating and nurturing the children of foreign workers and refugees.
We were treated to wonderful singing by a rainbow of beautiful children, all singing in Hebrew. These were students whose parents came here with nothing, many escaping oppression and quite possibly death. They were happy and confident, and it was inspiring and heartwarming to see them living freely inIsrael. It made me proud to be an Israeli citizen.
After our Ulpan (Hebrew class) today, I walked over toBen Yehuda Streetto run some errands with my wife. While she was inside some stores, I sat outside watching the scene. The scene included Israeli Arabs, on a day when rockets from Gaza were killing and injuring people about an hour away, going about their business, shopping, and eating. I saw Israeli Arab teenage boys and girls doing what teenagers do: laugh, tease each other, make a scene, act a little crazy, and act like they didn’t have a care in the world.
This is not to say that Israeli Arabs do not sometimes face discrimination, or that some Israeli Jews are not bigots. Israel, just like theU.S.and other countries, has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to treatment of its minority populations. But, as in other societies, there are plenty of good people here working to improve the status of Israel’s minority populations.
Life is not perfect here. There is a nationalistic streak amongst some Israelis, much of it stemming from the Aliyah of a million Russian Jews, many of them with a nationalistic bent and without a deep understanding of democracy and tolerance. Additionally, some Jews from Arab countries are embittered by their years living in Arab nations and are also not steeped in democratic traditions.
And then there are a fringe group of nationalistic“settlers” who act out in reprehensible ways against Palestinians and, often, Israeli soldiers. They are a tiny minority of those living across the green line, and an even tinier percentage of the population.
They are condemned by the vast majority of Israelis, including many “settlers,” and the government has taken action to try to prevent and punish their behavior. That does not make their conduct any less wrong. But it does put it in context.
Does any of this mean that Israeli democracy is in jeopardy? Absolutely not.
Asking that question is as ludicrous as asking if French democracy will survive because the right wing party of Le Pen has gotten some support recently.
When the racist Alabama Governor George Wallace got as much as 40% of the vote in Democratic (yes, Democratic) primaries in 1968, did it mean that our democracy was about to be eliminated? When Arizona and other states propose or pass discriminatory, hate-motivated anti-immigration legislation, does it mean that American democracy is near the end?
Of course not. It means that there are misguided, nationalistic, often racist people in the society. They need to be countered by good people who stand up and speak out. That is what happens in theU.S., and it is what happens inIsraelall the time.
About a year ago, the international media, many in the American Jewish community, and my friend Hillel focused on some nefarious legislation on immigration and freedoms that was introduced in the Knesset. What they may have failed to report on is that every piece of that legislation either died or was amended so as to delete the offensive provisions. Good people in and outside of government here in Israel stood up and opposed the legislation.
More recently much was made of a few publicity-seeking politicians who made despicable comments about illegal immigrants. They have proposed deporting helpless people who have few options and nowhere to go. Good people have spoken up and opposed those proposals. Well, the same thing has happened in Israel recently.
The point is that, while there are problems in Israel and there are some people doing things and proposing things and saying things that you, Hillel, and I do not like, it needs to be kept in context. Israeli democracy is alive and well.
I would simply add that Israeli democracy could use people like you. I saw the impact on Israeli society from a million Russians coming. The Russians brought symphony, science, culture, crime, and pork. Virtually every problem of concern to Hillel, to me, and to you would be greatly improved if a million American Jews who care like you do came here, spoke up, and voted.
Israel could use the progressive, democratic, inclusive, freedom-loving characteristics that you and other American Jews have in such abundance. Come, and bring Hillel with you! At the very least, come for a visit, and another, and another.
As I write this, reports continue to come in of the hundreds of rockets that have been fired at Israeli civilian centers in the last 48 hours. They have reached the Tel Aviv area. For the first time since the first Gulf War, sirens are sounding in Tel Aviv. We have called friends of our daughter’s to see if they want to come and stay with us.
Given the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, we are concerned about its support for Hamas, the growing radical presence in Sinai, and the long border there. The Syrian slaughter goes on (ignored by much of the world), and Syrian mortars and bullets have been shot into Israel. Syrian tanks came across the border. At any time Iran could unleash Hezbollah and its 60,000 missiles and rockets on the Lebanese border in order to divert attention from its support of Assad or its nuclear development.
And, of course, there is the growing threat that Iran, whose leaders proclaim their hope to destroy six million plus Jews on a weekly basis, will soon complete development of its nuclear weapon.
Israelhas many problems, both domestically and in its security situation.
American Jews have every right to express their concern and their ideas regarding the Jewish state’s domestic affairs and how it might improve. I hope that when Hillel and you discuss these issues, you will keep in mind the context and the perspective I have suggested.
When you are done discussing the domestic situation, I hope you will then turn your attention to how you might support Israel at a time when its people are suffering under a barrage of terrifying rockets and when it is facing an existential threat from an almost nuclear Iran.
With very best wishes from Jerusalem,