Terra Incognita: The boring Jewish state?

Why is there such a fear of taking Jews to see minorities of Israel? Why fear of them meeting Russians, Yemenites, Moroccans, Ethiopians?

By
August 17, 2011 00:00
4 minute read.
Sudanese migrants

Sudanese migrants 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘I’m Japanese, but every time I go back to the home country, it’s just boring, the whole story of the mythical samurai past. Finally I got an opportunity to visit Japan via a Japanese cultural association with the goal of studying and interacting with the ‘other.’ We met North Korean refugees seeking asylum, Chinese minorities, an American working in a corporate firm, a member of an indigenous minority from Okinawa and gay activists. Only through meeting all these people could I finally appreciate Japan. Japanese-Americans are tired of hearing just Japan’s Japanese history; to relate to their ancient land, they must learn about the ‘other.’”

Of course, these words were never spoken by a Japanese person. How many Japanese-Americans, if they care about Japan, can only relate to it if they relate to the Chinese minorities there? How many Indian-Americans can only relate to mother India by relating to the Parsi minority in Mumbai? How many Iranian-Americans find they can care about Iran only through learning about its Azeri and Baluchi communities? Yet some portion of the world’s Jewish community finds that the only thing interesting in Israel is stories of Beduin, Israeli-Arabs, African refugees and Palestinians.

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Israel is just downright boring, so long as it involves stories about the Jews.

Sarah Schonberg echoed these sentiments in an oped in The Forward: “American youth are indifferent to hearing just one story and being told to accept it without question.” She tells how she had little interest in Israel until she attended a Hebrew College trip aimed at introducing American Jews to the “other” there, namely Israeli Arabs. “To overlook a population of this size is akin to ignoring the entire black, Asian, Native-American and multi-racial populations in the US,” she wrote.

Her story is similar to many other stories of Jews who find Israel mundane, unless they can view the country through the prism of social justice and activism for minority rights.

Through generations of living as minorities in the Diaspora, Jews have been at the forefront of fighting for minority rights. It’s no surprise that it was a Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who came up with the concept of the “other.” So when Jews come to Israel, they immediately want to find the minorities, accustomed as they are to the concept that only minorities are interesting. Because Jews tend to view the concept of what constitutes a Jew through the prism with which they grew up, they also tend to homogenize the Jewish community in Israel. Thus, while Schonberg pays passing heed to the “cultural diversity that makes up the Jewish community in Israel,” she doesn’t mention any Jewish minorities.

The type of fact-finding trip that Hebrew College ran has become increasingly common. The New Israel Fund has been organizing them for a while, bringing Jews from the US to Israel to see the “other” on study tours. A standard trip consists of visits with Beduin, Israeli Arabs, African refugees, more Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Palestinians in Hebron, and maybe, if people are lucky, more Beduin and, as an aside, an Ethiopian Jew.

In transit, the tour leaders point out the “Jews”: hotels in Tel Aviv, wineries in Zichron Ya’acov, everything to present Jews as the wealthiest, “whitest” elite in the country, in contrast to the poverty-stricken, discriminated- against “black” minorities. This plays well to American Jewish sentiments. As veterans in the civil rights struggle, American Jews are used to the dichotomy of white and black, and as fighters for immigrant rights, they are used to the Manichean absolutes of the wealthy and the poor.

The types of trips now being sold, primarily to American Jews, seek to “connect” them with Israel the only way the trip leaders know how: through the “others” with whom Jews feel naturally comfortable.

Contrast this with the Zionistic tours that give Jews “one story.”

But why is there no happy medium? Why is there such a fear of taking Jews to see the Jewish minorities of Israel? Why is there a fear of letting them meet Russians, Yemenites, Moroccans, Ethiopians and haredim, to name a few? The fear on the part of the birthright trips, and those like them, is that Jews might be shocked to see poverty and not think the country a success. The fear on the part of those like the New Israel Fund or Hebrew College is that they might not be able to push their agenda of the “other.”

It isn’t all the fault of the educators; people like Schonberg travel all over the world, and find most countries fascinating without spending all their time among the “other.” In Iran they don’t look for Baluchis, in Japan they don’t look for Koreans, in South Africa they don’t need Afrikaners, in Egypt they don’t want to meet Nubians. They are fine with majority narratives for every country except Israel and America. The cultural milieu from which they come ascribes boring traits to Jews.

There is nothing wrong with introducing people to the “other” in Israel, but it is essential that they see all the others, not just a cookie-cutter image from the West into which Israel is forced to be subsumed so it can be understood.


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