Chaya Houpt

Loving my country means holding it accountable

My government must be held accountable for the export of weapons to a murderous regime
Rohingya scuffle to get clothes from local volunteers Kutupalong, Bangladesh, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Rohingya scuffle to get clothes from local volunteers Kutupalong, Bangladesh, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

I was horrified when I heard that the government of Burma was targeting and attacking the Rohingya minority within its borders. When I saw evidence that Israel was continuing to export weapons to Burma amidst an ethnic cleansing campaign, I had to take action.

I soon found that there were activists already passionately engaged in this cause, and that it was easy for me to get involved right away. I couldn’t understand, though, why my fellow American olim remained largely uninterested. Reaching out on social media, I struggled to draw attention to the crisis in Burma. These posts generated a handful of likes, mostly from friends in America.

I wondered why such a shocking situation was less interesting to my friends than the things I usually share. Stories about my kids or photographs of life in Jerusalem generate enthusiastic engagement and forge a sense of community and interconnectedness. Where was that community in the face of something so horrible and urgent? Was this topic simply too depressing to attract attention?

On reflection, I realized that we are all subject to empathy fatigue and overwhelm. After all, olim are busy people. We’re building our lives in a new land, far from family support and a familiar culture. We live with the complexities of coexistence with our neighbors, with an often-challenged longing for peace, with the lurking stresses of war and terror.

Meanwhile, our newsfeeds bring us a stream of unrelenting human misery from outside our borders. Hurricanes and regional conflicts, political corruption and systemic brutality all compete for our outrage. We grow numb without realizing it. We despair of making a difference in the world. We invest our energies where we believe they will do some good: in our families, our communities, our daily lives.

Against this backdrop, it’s understandable that ethnic cleansing in Burma doesn’t make an impact on our communal conscience. Even in the face of news accounts of children murdered in front of their parents, of sexual assault carried out by military forces, even with shocking footage of Rohingya refugees pouring into Bangladesh, it is easy to stay silent. Harrowing stories from survivors elicit horror and despair, and then we sigh and we keep scrolling.

Now we must stop and recognize that the crisis in Burma is not just another grim event in a parade of universal suffering. Ethnic cleansing is being perpetrated right now, and Israel refuses to halt the sale of weapons. This cannot go on.

We must demand that all aid to Burma cease until the situation resolves. We must call upon our legislators to make it illegal to arm governments that carry out atrocities. These are concrete actions that we can take, if we are willing to fight our own apathy and speak up.

For olim, it is uniquely painful to confront our government’s complicity in atrocities. Having chosen to live in Israel, we may hold powerful, inspiring beliefs about the exceptionalism of our homeland. We are invested in supporting and defending this beacon of freedom and morality.

Paying attention to the export of weapons to a murderous regime threatens to taint our pride with cynicism. To gaze without restraint at Israel’s imperfections presents an existential challenge. Can we risk disillusionment when we have sacrificed so much to live here?

As an American by birth and an Israeli by choice, I want to suggest that protest and critique are not in conflict with patriotism. Our love for this country compels us to insist Israel live up to its own ideals of justice and humanitarianism. We moved here to fulfill our own destinies, but also to shape the destiny of the nation itself. This means having the courage and faith to recognize Israel’s shortcomings, and to work for its betterment.

This is especially true for me as a parent. I’ve had the privilege of involving my young children in taking action on the Burma crisis. As my kids accompany me to demonstrations and planning meetings, they are learning about democracy and social action. We ride together on the bus and talk about what it means to have political freedoms, and why this cause demands that we exercise them.

When I speak with my children, these little first-generation Israelis, I see that they view the world with enviable simplicity and moral clarity. I strive to set an example they will want to emulate and expand upon. This is the only country they have ever known. I want to show them that loving our homeland means working to improve it. I want them to know that we are here in this world not only to keep ourselves safe and secure, but to care deeply about humanity and to put that care into action. I want them to believe that our love for justice and peace can extend to all our actions as a society; that our interactions with other nations can and must reflect our deepest values.

When I show up with my children at the Knesset on Monday, I will be there to demonstrate how I love this country. I have benefited from the double birthright of being raised in a free nation, and of making this free nation my permanent home. That is how I know that we must not tolerate our country aiding genocide. We must not give into cynicism and despair. We must insist that Israel uphold moral and humanitarian standards in all its dealings. I will be there because I believe change is possible and necessary. I hope you will, too.

There will be a demonstration in support of ceasing arms sales to Burma on Monday, October 30 at 5 PM in front of the Knesset. Click here for event details.

About the Author
Chaya Houpt is a writer and sex educator. Born and raised in Arizona, she made aliyah in 2010 and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children.
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