A blind spot of Diaspora Jews on Israel

The well-meaning voices who fight against Israeli actions in the West Bank tend to embrace discriminatory structures and elites within the Green Line that perpetuate racism.

A man in Jerusalem searching through the garbage (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A man in Jerusalem searching through the garbage
A while ago I pitched an op-ed to an American Jewish publication. The Friends of the IDF had recently raised $31 million in California. I wanted to write that it would be worthwhile for contributors to give the same amount of money to support educational initiatives for IDF soldiers after the army. Israel has a conscript army and while it may be important that average Israelis serve, it is more important that they can get into college afterwards and have a financially successful future for their families.
The newspaper said it wasn’t interested.
Why wasn’t it an interesting topic? Because it didn’t fit the narrative that focuses primarily on Israel as either a place of conflict or a place to negotiate Diaspora Jewish identities. Many Israelis live in poverty, but while poverty may be a Jewish concern abroad, wrapped up in such concepts as “tikkun olam,” it isn’t a “sexy” issue. African refugees in Israel are interesting, Jews from Africa are less interesting.
That is the blind spot of well-meaning, left-leaning Jewish Americans who are critical of Israel’s policies. A recent visit by Jewish activists to Hebron underpinned this. They focused on social justice for Palestinians and token “civil rights” protests. One activist wrote of the “beautiful act of partnership, we, Jews and Palestinians, came together through trust and understanding and made huge strides in creating the first cinema that will stand in Hebron since the 1930s.” Aiding Palestinians to build a cinema is a worthy goal, but there is a disconnect here. Social justice and the fight against racism should not end at the Green Line, but for many left-leaning activists they do.
The well-meaning voices who fight against Israeli actions in the West Bank tend to embrace discriminatory structures and elites within the Green Line that perpetuate racism. Ask yourself why it is that no one in Israel or in the Diaspora speaks out against the use of blackface by Israeli comedy shows such as Eretz Nehederet? When Haaretz published an op-ed claiming a security guard had a “black color [that] looked very shabby, tattered and stained with evil,” there wasn’t one letter to the editor objecting to this racist phrasing. The same voices that condemn Donald Trump as a racist won’t condemn these kinds of racism in Israel.
To apply the same social justice and equal rights concepts that are applied to supporting the Palestinians to supporting Israelis in their struggle for equality in Israel would mean calling into question many sacred cows in Israel that the Diaspora have become beholden to. For instance some voices want to support Beduin land rights in the Negev. To do so would mean challenging the land regime under which large swaths of the Negev were set aside for small Jewish-only kibbutzim, while Beduin were systematically denied rights to land. The very same kibbutzim that host liberal-Jewish tours of Israel are the ones that maintain segregated schools and segregated, gated communities. These same gated communities have discriminated against Jews of color in Israel for almost 70 years, making it virtually impossible for Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries to live in rural communities or be “members” through the complex and discriminatory acceptance committees they have to screen members.
Poverty is an issue that is a constant blind spot in Israel. During the recent “Freedom Summer” tour of the West Bank by Jewish activists, Peter Beinart wrote, “The activists I met weren’t speaking, and singing, about Judaism because they thought it was savvy public relations. They were doing so because Judaism is the language of their lives.” He writes poetically about a “Palestinian boy,” who, “smiling broadly, nonetheless ran over to us with cups of water.”
These activists find beauty and exoticism in the poverty of Palestinians. They find human warmth and compassion and they want to highlight their individual lives. What’s missing from this is any attempt to try to shed a human light on individuals living lives of poverty and neglect in Israel. Jewish tours of Israel and the West Bank tend to be bifurcated between presenting Israel as a wealthy high-tech country with villas and swimming pools, and the crushing hardships Palestinians face.
This narrative feeds an ignorant unwillingness to see Jewish people in Israel as facing similar hurdles and struggles as Palestinians. To humanize them, in fact.
A visit to Israel by a group from the Diaspora should not be complete without going to what Israelis call the “periphery”: the development towns that were used to house poorer immigrants to Israel. It shouldn’t be complete without seeing how average Israelis live, how half of them earn less than NIS 6,500 ($1,600) a month, how they pay NIS 1,500 of that for daycare and the rest for rent, meaning they have negative balances in their bank accounts and cannot afford even a simple vacation once a year.
It’s easier to wear blinders about Israel and believe that the abuses seen in Hebron happen in a vacuum.
It’s more difficult to ask questions about the national draft and why most Israeli soldiers are paid between NIS 810 and NIS 1,100 NIS ($286). Would most Diaspora Jews want to spend three years of their lives instead of college earning $280 a month? So why not invest in putting those soldiers into college after? Why not invest in providing excellent math and science and opportunities for the poorest Israelis, Jews and Arabs? You can’t have a “start up” nation when schools that have the best math are not inclusive and when units in the army that lead to those careers are not diverse. A broad educational framework produces a nation of high-tech success, a narrow one produces a narrow, insular bubble.
One outcome of focusing on fostering equality inside the Green Line, erasing barriers such as acceptance committees that perpetuate ethnic and class differences, might be a reduction in racism, a reduction in “othering” of minorities, and have the long-term effect of ending the abuses people care about in the West Bank. There is much evidence that the values a society inculcates at home and in school represent the values that society projects abroad. Rather than partnering with the elites in Israel while partnering with poor Palestinians, it would be better to embrace poverty on both sides, and challenge the structures that lead to such poverty. Every major initiative that Diaspora communities are funding in Israel should go hand in hand with the questions: Am I funding all Israelis? Am I helping the poor as well?
Follow the author @Sfrantzman