My Taglit-Birthright Israel experience: Jewishness + community = I heart Israel

| August 4, 2010
Tsfat, the centre of Jewish mysticism or Kaballah in Israel. Photo: Hannah Engel

In July, activist Rachel Marcuse spent 10 days in Israel as part of the Taglit-Birthright program -- a fully sponsored trip for young North American Jews to learn more about the country. She went to bear witness and ask questions about the Israeli state's treatment of Palestinians, and to learn about other complex issues in Israel today. After the program, she spent another 10 days elsewhere in Israel and the West Bank of Palestine talking to Israeli Jews, Arab Israelis, international activists, and Palestinians. This is the third of a seven-part series on what she found.

Day 5

We wake up at 6 a.m. and load the bus, still sleep-deprived, and head to the holy city of Tsfat, the ancient city of mystics and Kabbalah tucked away in the mountains almost due north of Tiberias, which sits on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. After visiting some very old synagogues and hearing stories about missiles destroying parts of the city in the Second Lebanese War, we have a precious two hours of free time and I walk around the town with my friend, Hannah. We wander back to Ronan, a Yemenite cook and mystic/bullshitter (depending on your perspective), who earlier wanted us all to yell "I love Israel!" at the top of our lungs. I passed on that, hoping that the white-robed Ronan wouldn't open his eyes and notice me. We enjoy his pizza-like creation, made with a tasty Yemenite yeast bread called lechuch, and look out at the street. The place does have some crazy energy to it. Or maybe it's just all the Hassidic kids running around.

Things really get interesting after lunch when the Israeli soldiers and students join us for our mifgash or "encounter." They will be with us for the next five days. After an awkward game of charades with "the Israelis," we go to see a glass-blowing demonstration. Our glass-blowing artist/host is an articulate, hip Princeton-educated American-Israeli Hasid who tells us her story of making aliyah. As Or, one of the Israeli students, later jokes to me: "It was like ‘look into the fire and let's be spiritual together.'" She is one of the many brilliant choices of presenters Taglit introduces us to -- smart people, easy to relate to -- and all coming across as incredibly reasonable.

We head to the "eco-greenhouse" at Kibbutz Ein Shemer for our workshop on "coexistence." This presentation is apparently why our Taglit experience will be different -- we will get an Arab perspective! It turns out that one of the people scheduled to speak with us, who is described by our tour guide as "critical and very interesting" and who lives on this side of the separation wall, is unable to make it. We are instead hosted in the very beautiful but very noisy greenhouse -- it's impossible to hear each other without microphones -- by a young Jewish program leader with curly hair and Birkenstocks who works in the greenhouse with Israeli Jewish and Arab youth from the area. She is joined by a 19-year-old Arab-Israeli woman who promotes a service program for Arab-Israelis (who, with the exception in some cases of Druze and Bedouins, aren't allowed to serve in the army).

So, as it turns out, we're going to get the pro-Israel perspective of a Jewish Israeli and the pro-Israel perspective of an Arab-Israeli, who -- while both seem to be lovely -- don't exactly represent the breadth of political opinion we had been promised in this "pluralistic" Birthright trip. Not that any of us are surprised.

The greenhouse program leader tells us in English that she is about to address the soldiers and then switches to Hebrew. I wait for her to finish and then ask the soldier sitting beside me what she said. Essentially, it turns out, she told the soldiers to behave -- that, as they represent the state, they should hold back on their views. I have a feeling that soldiers on previous Taglit trips may have heckled Arab presenters.

The young Israeli woman switches back to English to tell us about her experience with the separation wall, describing it as "ethically bad," but "practically good." This was an argument I heard frequently -- as the wall seems to many to have reduced the number of suicide bombings. From others, I heard how the wall divides villages, how it "provides a false sense of security," and fails to address the root issues.

Later, I learn that some 33,000 Palestinians with West Bank ID cards, residents of 36 communities, are located in a kind of limbo between the separation wall and the Green Line, the pre-1967 border, many of them cut off from the farms on which they depend.

The young Arab woman is passed the microphone and provides a description of three categories of Arabs in Israel:

1) Arab-Israelis who are pro-Israel. These individuals are the target population for her non-military service program to "give back" to Israel.

2) Arab-Israelis who are anti-Israel. She tell us that it is this category that is very vocal in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

3) Arab-Israelis who, she claims, don't care either way or who don't want to take a side. She suggests that this is in case there is a war so they aren't caught up in it.

During the question and answer session, I take the microphone and suggest that there might be a fourth group: Arab-Israelis who might not consider themselves pro-Israel, given their lived reality as second-class citizens, but who recognize the reality of the State and are interested in a constructive peace process. When I ask her about this speculation and wonder if she has any thoughts on a peace process, I don't get much uptake on either question. (Later, I realize - of course! - that such a category exists; and I'm to learn much more about these complexities after the Taglit tour ends, when I interview the director of an Arab-Israeli advocacy organization.)

Again, in this session there is no real dialogue and after the all-too-short Q and A, we are toured through the greenhouse. As one of my progressive friends later remarks sarcastically, "What makes more sense than to open up such a heated issue and then have us go to look at plants?!" Another participant is less than enthralled by the impressive greenhouse, inappropriately incorporated into our agenda, and engages with one of our new soldier friends about the recent events surrounding the international aid flotilla to Gaza.

The flotilla, it turns out, is difficult to talk about with Israelis -- especially with Israeli soldiers. While, in general, I was surprised at how progressive many of the soldiers' positions were with regard to a peace process (they talked easily 1967 borders, land transfers, Jerusalem as an international city and so on), when the flotilla was discussed, it seemed to elicit automatic defensive reactions from otherwise thoughtful people.

But perhaps none of this should have been a surprise to me. Earlier this year, in an article in the Palestine Chronicle called Indoctrinating Israeli Youths to Be Warriors, Stephen Lendman wrote:

Today, militarism is a ‘cardinal aspect of Israeli society,' its quintessential element under the 1986 National Defence Service Law, requiring all Jewish-Israeli citizens and permanent residents to serve -- men and women, with exemptions only for Orthodox Jews, educational inadequacy, health, family considerations, married or pregnant women or those with children, criminals, and other considerations at the Defense Ministry's discretion. In addition, most Israeli leaders are former high-ranking IDF officers, politics and the military being inextricably connected.

As often happens, when you spend time with other human beings and really hear their stories, your perspective can become much more nuanced; assumptions can dissolve. Don't get me wrong -- I met refuseniks and others who escaped military service by faking medical situations or what-have-you, but it took this trip for me to realize how much skipping military service would impact one's life in terms of both career (as many employers just wouldn't hire you) and community.

These soldiers -- kids, really, significantly younger than me -- are under immense pressure since childhood to participate in a conflict that many of them found, at the least, problematic and sometimes despicable, like the soldiers formerly stationed in Hebron who now run the "Breaking the Silence" tour. (I'll write more about them in the post-Birthright section of this series.) But, for most, the army creates an enveloping sense of obligation, of social cohesion, and of solidarity, which can make critical expression very difficult.

This reluctance to criticize was especially evident in discussion around the Gaza flotilla -- the soldiers who were on those ships and helicopters are the friends (literally or figuratively) of the soldiers who accompanied us on our trip. They were commanded by the State to be there in international waters; there was no question in the minds of the soldiers with whom I spoke that their comrades were "defending themselves" against pipes and in fear of a lynching. I pointed out the disproportionate force used -- pipes vs. guns -- but my arguments were useless in the face of this seemingly unshakable social cohesion. Every Israeli-Jew I talked with about the flotilla became immediately defensive. This reaction led me to realize how self-conscious Israelis are -- many deeply care about what the international community thinks about them... and their country. Many even agreed that Israel policy had the (unintended?) consequence of increasing anti-semitism around the world, but there was still an overwhelming sense of social cohesion and national unity clearly tied to military service.

I realized, too, that something similar was happening with us on Taglit -- there was an attempt to create a similar sense of community and social cohesion in our group. We were sleep deprived, culture shocked and vulnerable. Taglit, it seemed, wasn't really about convincing us about the politics, but about creating a sense of community that we would associate with Jewishness and then Israel. The sense of community was real, but the assumptions that followed weren't necessarily so.

Thinking about these things, I came up with what I call the Birthright equation: Jewishness + Community = I Heart Israel. Social cohesion was clearly manifest in our newly built community. Many on the trip, I speculated, would equate the genuine warmth and respect in the group with Jewishness -- as opposed, let's say, to humaneness. And these positive feelings would all connect back to Israel. My equation would become a little longer over the coming days as I heard the same chorus from Israeli after Israeli starting with: "It's complicated...."

Rachel Marcuse is a Vancouver-based activist, facilitator and apparatchick. The executive director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), a municipal political party, she also freelances, focussing on facilitation skills, youth-engagement and strategic planning. Her views do not necessarily represent the positions of any organization whatsoever. She can be found on Twitter @rachelmarcuse.

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