Maytal Kowalski

Patriotism is More Than Fireworks

Joining the protests in Haifa.

It was a cold early evening in Jerusalem, and I was uncharacteristically early for a meeting with a friend. We were meeting by the Damascus Gate, and it was too cold to sit outside. I realized I could get on the bus that was pulling up adjacent to where I was standing and it would simply circle around the old city, killing time, keeping me warm, and getting me right back to my starting point in what Google Maps said would be 30 minutes.

I got on the bus. It didn’t move. I initially thought it was due to traffic, a common phenomenon in Israel and nowhere more than the old city of Jerusalem, but quickly realized that the cars in front of us were still moving — it was only the bus that was standing still. I turned off the music in my earpods to assess what was happening.

As a dual Israeli-Canadian citizen, I speak both English and Hebrew fluently, and having grown up going back and forth between the two countries, I feel equally at home in both. I turned to look behind me and saw what was causing the delay. Three fare inspectors had gotten on the bus before me and were hassling a family of German tourists, accusing them of not paying their fare. They had an all-day “Rav Kav” card, the transit pass that allows you to access all public transit with a quick scan of the card. They had bought it earlier in the day to cover all their transit travel that day, they stated to the inspectors, and hurriedly pulled out their receipts as proof. “Why would we evade fare?” they asked. “You can see we’ve already pre-purchased all our rides for today, there would be no reason to game the system.”

Had this exchange happened in Canada, the rest of the riders on the bus would’ve turned up the music or podcast in their headphones, buried their heads deeper into their newspaper or book, maybe exchanged glances with fellow riders. But this is Israel, so the very opposite was true. The whole bus got involved. The tourists didn’t speak Hebrew and the driver didn’t speak English. The gaggle of Haredi brothers and sisters at the front of the bus, likely olim or the children of olim due to their perfect, unaccented English, translated between the tourists and the driver with the speed and veracity of a UN interpreter. Everyone was on the side of the tourists and everyone was mad that the fare inspectors were holding us up. The driver called his supervisor and in his own heavily Arabic-accented Hebrew, insisted he saw the tourists pay, insisted the supervisor ask the fare inspectors to step down, and not issue a ticket. “He’s fighting for you!” One of the Haredi brothers excitedly translated for the tourists in English. “I saw them tap their cards with my own eyes, my own eyes!” the driver emphasized over the phone to his supervisor.

I imagined relaying this story to my mom when I got back to the hotel. We’d say “only in Israel”, the line most tourists and visitors, enamoured and mystified by this place that is at once so familiar and so foreign to us, chuckle to themselves.

“Only in Israel” has allowed diaspora Jews and Hasbara enthusiasts to elevate this place to mythical status. Indeed, in some ways it is. Israel revived an ancient language. A country of refugees, an ingathering of exiles, many of whom had never lived in a democracy, built one. Israel integrated within it diverse populations, and made hard-won peace with many of its neighbours. Israel is “start-up nation” due to a relentless pursuit of innovation, making it a prosperous and economically strong country. But after 75 years, this land is also a country like any other country. As David Ben-Gurion said when he was the country’s first prime minister “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.”

At 75 years, Israel is the greatest achievement of the Jewish people in the modern era. At 75 years, a country built by stateless refugees, escaping pogroms, Nazis, the Farhoud, and more has created not only Jewish citizens but a Jewish state itself. There is no doubt we have a lot to be proud of this Yom Ha’atzma’ut.

Being a dual citizen also means I have often looked at both my homelands critically, and used frameworks and comparisons to analyze their current states. In May of 2022, in my current home province of British Columbia, an Indigenous community found evidence of 215 unmarked graves at the site of a now-defunct residential school. Month after month, there were more discoveries of mass burials and unmarked graves throughout sites of old residential schools. By the end of June, with news of more findings in Saskatchewan and BC, it felt like there wasn’t much to celebrate about this country as we approached July 1 – Canada Day.

In Victoria, BC, city councillors voted to cancel Canada Day and instead opt for “thoughtful reflections” about what it means to be Canadian in light of these discoveries. And I did just that. I opted to listen to voices of Indigenous communities, and attempt to understand just what had led us here. A common theme was the system. Systemic oppression, systemic inequity, systemic racism. The difference between an individual with racist beliefs and a system that bakes racism into its laws — the former is harmful, the latter is societally destructive.

I didn’t make it too far on the bus before it was finally time to meet my friend, a Palestinian-Christian from Ramallah. We had been introduced through a mutual friend, and were meeting up with the explicit purpose of hearing from “the other.” I looked like any other Western tourist, my backpack and water bottle clear giveaways. It would be unclear to anyone I encountered in the Muslim and Christian quarters that we explored that I was Israeli or even Jewish.

5 days into Ramadan, I met up with my friend and we entered the Muslim quarter just as Iftar began. Everywhere we turned were smiling men with big plates of baklava, handing it out for free in celebration. We stopped at the stalls and bought traditional Iftar treats, deep-fried dough stuffed with sweet cheese, spices, and honey. As we moved through the throngs of revelers, my friend pointed up to the entrance we’d just walked through. “Look up there” he said, pointing to the four Israeli flags that hung above us. “They do that on purpose. To antagonize us.” I looked up at these symbols of nationalism that to me had always been a source of pride. But they sneered down on us now. “We’re the system” they seemed to convey. We got deeper into the market stalls. The corridors narrowed, constrained by surveillance areas the IDF had set up within them. A self-made cage of metal barricades, behind them 10-15 combat soldiers, guns slung over their uniforms, watched us all with suspicion. Amidst the music, the laughter, the treats, the heavy and sweet smell of hookah smoke, a system controlled us.

As a young teenaged girl growing up in Israel, IDF soldiers were objects of affection. They boarded buses and trains, guns slung over their backs, muscles rippling, sweat glistening in the hot Israeli summers. They were mythical, they were attractive, and most of all, they were protecting me. There was nothing more honourable, nothing more moral, than being in the IDF. They were defending the land of my ancestors and defending my right to a Jewish homeland.

Standing in the Muslim Quarter, to the extent that I could shed my identity, I was seeing this system completely differently. The smallest provocation or misunderstanding could be the only spark this powder keg would need to blow up. And it wasn’t all that clear to me that I’d be safe. To anyone around me, I was just a Western tourist with an Arab friend, being shown the sights and sounds of the old city. Would I be protected or caught in the crossfire of these soldiers who’d I’d long been told were my defense should things go sideways?

The military system, a system of fighting, and pain, and death — a zero-sum system where one must lose so that the other can win — is romanticized to us all in the diaspora. You can buy IDF t-shirts and hats and hoodies in any tourist shop and in the airport. You can proudly show your support of the system while ignoring the stories of pain, death, and trauma of the people who serve the system.

The Israel we’ve been taught to love and embrace and defend is the one from the bus. It’s the one where Arabs and Haredi kids laugh and joke together. Where strangers on a bus defend tourists who maybe didn’t scan their transit card properly. It’s not that this place doesn’t exist, it does and it’s wonderful, but these stories of coexistence and cooperation exist only on an individual level. We are ultimately still living within a system and it is a system that has become more extreme, more ideological, more right-wing, and less democratic as time has marched on.

The system built a wall that physically separated us from our Palestinian neighbours. The system taught us that the Palestinians all want us dead. The system coordinated land theft through racist laws to allow for the destruction of Palestinian homes and eviction of Palestinian residents. The system can’t seem to get your passport renewed in less than six months but can certainly find the time to search your bag for bread crumbs as you enter a hospital during Passover.

I’ve got good news for you this Yom Ha’atzma’ut. We’ve achieved Ben-Gurion’s dream of being a “normal country.” And just like this other normal country that I am so proud to call home – Canada – it has a system of power and governance that is fundamentally unfair to so many. Just as I reflected on systemic inequity and systemic racism this past Canada Day, I will do the same thing this Yom Ha’atzma’ut. There should be no pride in upholding a system, not when that system hurts the people who live under it. There should be no honour in upholding a system, not when that system seeks to destroy half the people under its military control.

We can love a country, we can love the people of a country, and seek to change the system.

For the past 16 weeks, Israelis have taken to the streets to fight the system. There are different blocs in the protests, each representing a different fight. The Religious Zionists show up to fight for democracy with religion. The feminist movement shows up to fight for equal rights for women under this mostly-male, mostly-misogynist government. The anti-occupation bloc shows up to fight against the military occupation of millions of Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank. They are all fighting against an element of a system that within in exists inequity, and bigotry, and oppression.

When you look at the protestors in awe, when you celebrate Israelis in the street as a sign of a vibrant democracy, understand that at the core of these protests is resistance against an unjust system. This Yom Ha’atzma’ut, whether you find yourself in Israel or the diaspora, join these protestors. Fight the system.

About the Author
Maytal Kowalski is a dual Israeli-Canadian citizen, having made Aliyah with her family at the age of 10 in 1994. Growing up on a Kibbutz, Moshav, and mixed city, and attending school within the Kibbutz school system during the days of the Oslo Accords, the hope and desire for peace and equality in Israel have been engrained in her from a young age. Maytal currently serves on the executive board of both the New Israel Fund of Canada and JSpaceCanada. She is a 2021 Israel Policy Forum Bronfman Convener, and attended the Shalom Hartman Canadian Community Leadership program in 2023. As a marketer and fundraiser working exclusively within the charitable sector for the entirety of her career, Maytal is fiercely passionate about social justice, systemic change, equity, and civil rights.
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