An accounting of the soul of Israel

A reflection on the complexities of Israel and the danger they pose to the status of Israel as a democracy. Taken by me on 4/16/21
A reflection on the complexities of Israel and the danger they pose to the status of Israel as a democracy. Taken by me on 4/16/21

With my year in Israel soon coming to a close, I am applying the Jewish concept of Cheshbon Nefesh, roughly translating to “an accounting of the soul,” to reflect on my expectations of Israel as a Jewish homeland and the complexities that this definition presents to non Jews in the region. Trips to the West Bank and Arab cities have allowed me to learn what it means to be a member of the religious majority, while observing the difficulties that Muslims and Christians face. Alongside my Jewish identity, my whiteness in Israel guarantees safety; it provides a set of privileges in this land and informs my view of the disparities across ethnic and socio-economic lines, ones that appear in both America and Israel, and unfortunately seem to relentlessly determine one’s place in society. 

A few weeks ago, as part of a trip through Extend, a group committed to connecting “emerging leaders to human rights, civil society, and political leaders in Israel and Palestine,” I had the honor to speak with a member of a Jewish West Bank settlement and a Palestinian Bedouin village. Not only did this trip conflict with my prior ideas of who a “settler” could be, it highlighted the consequences of Israel maintaining control over parts of the West Bank. Dr. Dan Turner, a physician in a village called Kfar Adumim, explained that his allegiance to Israel is complicated. He fought in the Israeli Defense Forces and continues to support the defense of the Jewish state, but not at the consequence of ‘opposing’ groups, like Bedouins, within Israeli territory. He advocates for equal treatment for Palestinian Bedouins living in  Khan al-Ahmar, which is extremely underdeveloped and at the constant risk of being destroyed by demolition. The residents of this village are not given the same rights as Turner and the other citizens of the nearby contested Jewish village because of their Palestinian identity. Eid Abu Hamis, the head of the tribe called Jahalin living in Khan al-Ahmar, explained his unrelenting stress — at any moment the government can legally seize the land, leaving Eid, and the two hundred residents and their hundreds of cattle homeless. 

Dr. Turner created a community called “Friends of Jahalin ” to support his Bedouin neighbors and promote the improvement of relations among the conflicting factions in the West Bank. Turner applies for demonstration permits and stands with the Bedouins as they protest against the lack of respect from the government. Their one request of safe and fertile ground for their cattle was rejected (there is a sewer plant less than a half-mile from their village, making the land hazardous for the cattle to graze on). I was shocked by their impoverished living conditions and how easily my peers and I returned to our comfortable dorm in Tel Aviv. It is difficult for me to express how unsettling the poor living conditions of those residing in Israeli territory are when comparing the privileged lifestyle of foreign Jewish students and new olim. When visiting the village, I recalled how easily I was able to obtain a visa and travel to Israel as a Jew; now that I’m here, government officials and law enforcement view me as precious cargo.  This privileged treatment couldn’t be farther from the reality of Palestinians living in the West Bank whose lives are degraded by law enforcement’s brutality and right wing Israeli citizens’ prejudices. 

A separate trip with my gap year program to the West Bank further allowed me to grapple with the complexity of the occupation. Our tour guide, Alfred, grew up in Nazareth and now lives in Area A of the West Bank in the village of Beit Dahlia. As a Christian Arab, he is both ethnically and religiously a minority, and consequently experiences constant racism and difficulty. For instance, he explained that if he was caught by the police eating on his street during Ramadan, he would be brought to jail by the police for the remainder of the holiday and forced to fast. He is not Muslim, and feels discriminated against at the hand of Muslim Palestinians, who regard him as an outsider. By his assessment, the rampant human rights abuses in the Middle East are normalized by the institutionalized — and widely accepted — inequality between Israel’s various ethnic and religious groups. 

 I’ve grown up in a seemingly diverse and welcoming community, and I feel comfortable publicly displaying and speaking about my Judaism. However, the prevalence of white supremacy and Anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe reminds me of the need for a safe haven for Jews. Many of the American participants on my gap year program come from hometowns where they did not feel safe fully expressing their Judaism; it is deeply meaningful for them to be members of the majority here in Israel. I kept this in mind when I traveled to Hebron knowing it would be all too easy to neglect my religious identity in assessing the political realities of the region. 

I watched a Palestinian man trying to sell bracelets be forcibly removed by soldier outside of the Cave of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs on a ‘sterile’ road (our tour guide named Benzi Sanders, hired through Breaking the Silence, a group of former combat soldiers, used ‘sterile’ to describe areas in which only Jews can travel). A policeman gave our tour guide his number in case of any settlers’ transgressions, a common occurrence for those who tour Hebron with anti-occupation activists. We learned about settler violence against Palestinians, which is an increasing occurrence. (There were 248 incidents recorded in 2020, according to B’tselem, a human rights non-profit.) Soldiers occupying the region have no authority to do anything but call the police when they see these attacks. Settler violence is creating schisms between two types of Jewish settlers: those living in the West Bank for economic reasons, who do not harbor resentment towards Palestinians, like Turner, and those who choose to live in what they call ‘Judea and Samaria’ in order to voice their opinions of keeping the territory under Jewish control.

Another settler living in Kfar Adumim named Drorit Tal discussed her views on the obstacles Bedouins face and the impact it makes on Jewish citizens in the area. She has lived in Kfar Adumim for the past 30 years, long enough to conclude that the Bedouin community is neglecting to help themselves. She also believes that their way of life make the nearby residents of Kfar Adumim, who live quietly and respectfully, look bad in the eyes of the media. She explained the common Bedouin practice of men marrying multiple women and treating them as slaves, unable to make their own living or separate from their husbands if necessary. I believe that Israel’s attention must be on prioritizing basic health care for them and teaching women ways to be financially and socially independent, especially if they choose to demolish the community and remove the Bedouins from the West Bank. The United Nations-funded school in the village needs to ensure that children, especially girls, are attending classes, so the next generation of Jahalin is able to contribute to Israeli society. Tal feels conflicted with helping Turner in his efforts because of the male Bedouins’ unwillingness to change their attitude towards women. These intricacies are vital to learn, no matter how difficult they are to process, because they allow me to better understand Israeli perspectives. Tal says she is one of the many settlers who live in the West Bank and do not interact with Palestinians, nor regard the land as a contested subject. For her, it is the place where she grew up and raised her children, and she neglects to believe that Jews could ever be fully removed from it. However, she also does not feel resentment towards the Bedouins and believes they can continue to live a mile away with an end to their sexism.

Challenging excursions to the West Bank do not make me rethink taking a gap year in this nation with a Jewish Zionist movement. Rather, they serve as a constant reminder of the ever-changing geopolitical climate here, and the potential that being a young country allows for change and improvement. Like many other countries, not all citizens feel they are being fully represented by their government officials and it is up to individuals to take leadership over small issues that can make a large impact on those affected. Turner’s determination to help the Bedouin community inspires me, and I hope others, to reject the status quo and create local coexistence. Alfred uses his platform as a tour guide and educator to teach young students about Muslim-Christian relations, a topic not frequently spoken about on Jewish programs. I feel extremely grateful to have learned from Israeli Jews, Muslims and Christians this year, and am hoping to join a program with American Jews, Muslims, and Christians regarding coexistence in the near future.

The history of the religious sites in Hebron helps me understand why many are adamant about keeping the city for Jews, yet I do not believe that the amount of soldiers stationed there — at every corner, near every store and school, making both parents and children uneasy — is the path forward. It’s hard to imagine seeing soldiers constantly in your hometown when there is no war; children growing up around offending military presence will most likely grow up with negative views of them, further causing tensions between Palestinians and Jewish Israels, all of whom will all serve in the IDF.

My pacifist views have developed not from any wars in my lifetime, but instead, a philosophy of understanding that it is up to people living in the complicated territory, not government officials, diplomats or soldiers, to resolve these dividing problems. The Israeli Palestinian conflict and greater Israeli Arab conflict is one of many worldwide problems demonstrating a de facto class system in the 21st century based on race and ethnicity, and I have hope that we can change the course of history for the better to create a narrative of unity, and not another story of oppression and victimization.

While we cannot go back in time, from now on we should vow to both treat the land of Israel and all people living on it with respect and dignity. We should also summon the lessons of our own history; Jews know what it feels like to be an oppressed minority and we should not burden other people on the grounds of religious or ethnic difference. I understand that historical clashes since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and ongoing wars and terrorist attacks reinforce some extremists Israelis’ national security concerns, and make it easy to turn a blind eye to the maltreatment of Palestinians. Jews, having the most political power in Israel, must acknowledge the work we have to do to achieve a more fair and just society. Further, as an American, I want to bring back these experiences to my hometown, synagogue and college campus. Voting in American elections, having productive debates with my Jewish and non-Jewish peers and proactively thinking about my next trip to Israel will ensure I do not push to the back of my mind the issues of this nation. Jewish American youth are too often indoctrinated in Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools with a one-sided explanation of the land, and as a progressive Zionist, I can spark conversation regarding the ability to shift this conversation.

Having currently spent the past 24 hours in fear of missiles, terrorism and clashes, I am wary of an immediate end to tensions. My previous trips to Israel did not include tours in the West Bank or detailed conversations of the history of Arabs and Palestinians. But learning about our neighbors, like Turner did, is the first step in creating some type of future that does not include daily violence and conflict. Young Judaea Year Course has provided me with countless opportunities to learn and grow, and it satisfies me knowing that a Jewish program has curriculum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an open platform to speak about the issues confronting those just a few miles away from where we lived in Jerusalem for the first semester.

Cheshbon Nefesh is not easy, and it disappoints me to see Israel’s problems because of my love for Judaism and my appreciation of the existence of a Jewish state. Yet, I will not neglect what I see and I will work to further understand the intricacies of this nation to be able to proudly call myself a Zionist; a believer in the establishment of a moral Jewish state and an activist who fights for the wellbeing of all people, Jewish and not.

About the Author
Originally, from northern New Jersey, Sari is majoring in Women, Sexuality and Gender studies and minoring in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. She is passionate about the reform Jewish community and you can find her reading, playing with her dog, Biscuit, and doing yoga when she is not writing.
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