Monday, July 18, 2011

Israel...Moving Away from Democracy

As someone who grew up proud of the ideals that a modern, democratic Israel stood for__an ingathering of nations__it is a sad to read how far it's moved from its foundation of democracy, plurality and freedom of speech. With the recent passing of the anti-boycott law by the Knesset, Israel has moved away from reconciliation and a two-state solution with the Palestinian people toward a de facto annexation of Judaea and Samaria but without equality for all. The law basically forbids distinguishing doing business within Israel proper and doing business with those profiting from within the Occupied Territories taken in 1967. Regardless of how people feel about the status of Jerusalem, there is a distinction to be made between the lands partitioned in 1948 and the lands occupied since the Six Day War. As Bradley Burston recently wrote in "A Special Place in Hell," Israel is moving away from democratic ideals. But why should it matter to Americans?

As a student on a one year program to Israel in 1984, I remember the topic coming up: should the United States give military aid to Israel? "Of course; Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; it's an ally." What if Israel stopped being a democracy? "No way," I said. Preserving democracy, human rights, equality and justice were paramount in my opinion. Just the discussion of hypothetically cutting off aid to Israel caused a classmate to say, "Israel could go it alone if it had to. In fact that might be a good thing."

At the time the first Lebanon-Israeli war was coming to a close; the Labor party diplomat Shimon Peres was prime minister. No one seriously considered Israel turning toward monarchy or a dictatorship. That was absurd. At the time those living in settlements in the "Occupied Territories" were primarily transplanted, newly-religious Americans or devout followers of an extreme rabbi who shot at stone-throwers.

Those of us studying at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus were technically within the "West Bank" since it lay in Eastern Jerusalem. However, the Hadassah hospital and the university had withstood the blockade those many years to remain an island of sorts...one that continued to breach the divide. Palestinian or Arab-Israeli doctors worked side-by-side with Jewish Israelis. Students of all faiths attended the university. The mayor at the time, Teddy Kollek, was a pragmatic idealist who brought people together. That's not to say all was perfect. But the potential for connecting to something wonderful was almost palpable. Clouds seemed a little closer to the earth in this landscape. The sun's rays cast an aura over hillsides where stone facades glistened in late afternoon. And then a sonic boom from an invisible jet brought one back to reality.

Wanting to visit the historical burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, my roommate and I chose to ride the Arab bus to Hebron one Saturday morning. Wending its way south through the hills, the bus traversed Bethlehem and skirted a large refugee camp on our way to the tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. As American students we had no problems on the way there. Arriving at the city center, we walked the streets toward the Cave of the Machpelah; an Israeli soldier protecting a tiny Jewish barb-wired enclave chided us for our seeming recklessness. We made sure to speak to him in English, in this largely Arabic-speaking town, and walked on toward the historic site.

Hebron held its history close. Holy to three paternal monotheistic religions slaughters have occurred as recently as the 1994 attack on worshippers by a deranged Jewish gunman, but at this time the most memorable "recent" event was the 1929 massacre of 67 of Jewish residents by Arab attackers. What sometimes gets overlooked is the fact that 19 Arab families hid 435 Jews in their homes and saved them at great risk to themselves. Doing good in the midst of evil deserves remembrance.

My friend and I toured the tombs, had lunch at an outdoor cafe and visited a tourist shop where one could buy painted ceramic drums with sheepskin heads and other various trinkets. After purchasing a souvenir I explored another room where a tall, blonde tourist was speaking with the proprietor who was declaiming about "the Jews." The European nodded and the men paid no mind to this American eavesdropping on their conversation. The shop owner complaining about the occupation but didn't say "the Israelis." His gripe was with Jews in general.  There was no pretense in working out a peaceable solution. This man was looking for allies, and I noted with irony the German-accented tourist commiserating with him.

I didn't confront the men; my friend and I left to return to the bus station. I contemplated the drum I now carried and how it would always remind me of this moment and a few minutes later.

As my roommate and I boarded the bus back to Jerusalem, a young man took notice of us and started heckling my friend. He sat across from us and asked if she was a Jew. Because she looked "Jewish" to this Palestinian and I apparently didn't, she was verbally berated on the twenty minute ride from Hebron to the Dehaishe refugee camp outside of Bethlehem. My friend__who had chosen to learn Arabic, to meet Palestinians as equals and wished to make a peaceful life in the land where her mother was born__stoically withstood the contempt after our attempts at talking with him failed. Thankfully, other riders did not join in; he vented and left the bus as it stopped at the Deheishe camp. The refugee camp was created after the Israeli War of Independence after the Jordanians conquerors of the West Bank didn't accept the Palestinians onto their lands and so made them stay in the slum. Generations later they remained trapped in an open-air tenement of despair, eloquently described in David Grossman's, The Yellow Wind.

We were grateful to be rid of the bully, and I felt for my friend. She had borne the brunt of the abuse with strength and courage. Later, she would verbally defend me from xenophobic bigots as I dared to walk through their neighborhood. But that's another story.

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