Tag Archives: West Bank

Guiding and politics

12 Sep

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Education Minister Naftali Bennett            Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over Shabbat meals with other educators this weekend, discussion naturally focused on the new school year – and politics (it was Shabbat and we are in Israel, after all!). We discussed Herzl Schubert, a teacher, who was “caught” on camera at a recent Nabi Saleh protest against the encroachment of residents/settlers of Halamish on privately owned village lands, including the al-Qus spring. Yisrael Zinger, the mayor of Ramat Gan, where Schubert is employed, Deputy Mayor Aviyahu Ben Moshe, and many parents, called for his dismissal. The issue hit national headlines with Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich chiming in and supporting firing Schubert. Discussion also covered Avital Benshalom, the newly appointed principal of an Ashkelon school, who had to justify her 2002 signing of a petition supporting the right of soldiers to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank in order to keep her job, against the objection of parents and Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni.

Interestingly, one of the tour guides at the meal – an olah from the West Coast of the US – said that she wasn’t surprised at all, and that she herself has personally encountered such attacks in her own professional life as a result of her apparent “extreme leftist activism.” Perhaps her activism might be more rightly considered to be “slacktivism,” as my friend has been to maybe two handfuls of rallies and protests during her time in Israel – perhaps one or two a year on average. Taken aback, I asked what had happened to her. She said she was interrogated in a job interview about her political views, even when she continued to answer questions by explaining that she would teach about all political viewpoints and allow students/tourists to come to their own informed conclusions – whether they be right, center or left.

What is so strange is that my friend is on the public record – in writing and at public appearances – as stating that the aim of her Israel education is to help students/tourists develop independent, critical and analytical thinking skills which will allow them to reach their own educated viewpoints – whatever they might be.

I paused and then asked my friend whether she should have asked her potential employer the following question:

“I understand that you don’t want to employ a leftist as an educator because you view her as too political (even though it is clear that her politics do not enter her classroom; indeed her students/tourists move from their previously held views toward greater complexity and nuance, which often includes moving away from the left).

“Do you also have a problem in employing tour guides who say “I’m not a political person; I just want my students/tourists to love Israel, support the government and do Israel advocacy on campus” (perhaps the most politically loaded sentence one could imagine)?

“What about avowedly right-wing guides who explicitly aim to instill right-wing views in their students/tourists?”

No, I didn’t think so.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide and the Director of Teaching Israel.


A deeper and more tangible connection

8 Dec

by Elana Goldenkoff

Machane Yehudah

Machane Yehudah on Friday afternoon – Jerusalem preparing for Shabbat

I leaned against stone that had been hewn 2700 years ago. We had just exited Hezekiah’s Tunnel and I was awed at how in the eighth century BCE, with such limited technology, the ancient Judahites bore through more than 500 meters of solid rock to bring water into their city. In a room that some archaeologists believe to be the royal palace of the City of David, my classmates and I softly began singing “Hallelujah.” That moment, I knew I was home.

During my high school sophomore year I spent four months away from my family living and studying near the stone archways and packed marketplaces of Jerusalem. My friends and I bargained in Hebrew for exotic spices and fresh breads wrapped in day-old Arabic newspapers. We navigated the complex transit system to get back to campus before the city shut down for Shabbat. We even joined 10,000 other Jews walking to the Kotel before sunrise after having stayed up all night learning at Tikkun Leil Shavuot. I fell in love with the culture of this diverse city that has both a storied past and a hopeful future.

Israel had always been like that for me. Attending Jewish day school, Jewish camps, and a Conservative synagogue, I learned of Israel’s short but rich history, its agricultural, scientific and technological advances, and its progressive social policies. I learned that David and Goliath, the story of the weak underdog who courageously defeated a stronger oppressor, was symbolic of the nation of Israel itself.

But that day, near Hezekiah’s Tunnel in an ancient corner of Jerusalem, I heard another story: that of David and Bathsheva. David slept with a married woman, who fell pregnant. He then essentially murdered her husband by sending him to the frontline to be killed in a royal cover-up. Even though clever Halachic reasoning might explain away his crime, suddenly, my image of the man whose story had always seemed to embody the State of Israel itself was altered and I began to reexamine my idealistic perception of the country.

During my semester in Israel, I discussed the Middle East conflict with dozens of people from various backgrounds. I met Israeli soldiers who recounted their firsthand experience fighting militants and religious Jews who fervently believe in a Biblical connection to the land and want a unified Israel regardless of the cost. I listened to Israeli-Palestinian teenagers who feel like second-class citizens whenever they leave their predominantly Muslim towns, a man whose home was destroyed from bombings during the Second Lebanon War and peace activists who advocate for a two-state solution and their vision of true democracy.

That spring, I had become fully immersed in the totality of Israel and learned to grasp the pulse and the power, as well as the pain, of the country.  As I became aware of the fractures and faults within the nation I had been taught to love, I began to reshape and develop my own understanding of Israel. I no longer saw Israel through rose-colored glasses and I struggled to comprehend Israel’s reality of imperfection.  However, for me, this reexamination created a deeper and more tangible connection, one that permits me to challenge existing beliefs and, at the same time, to continue to love Israel. In a larger sense, this personal process of self-examination and opening myself up to exploring new ideas is what I value most about my experience in Israel. The imprint of this experience will have a lasting impact on my life.

Elana Goldenkoff participated in a high-school semester abroad program in Israel in 2012.

It is not a question of Zionism

25 Aug

by Ilan Bloch


Martin Buber. Image courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Several years ago I was facilitating a seminar on Zionist thought and theory, which included a presentation of “Humanistic Zionism,” represented by personalities such as Martin Buber and Judah Leon Magnes. These thinkers called for a bi-national state, in which Jews would enjoy not only constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, but also rights as a collective. I shared with the class my thoughts that many Israel educators would refrain from presenting these views as part of their teaching about Zionism and that, in fact, some might even condemn me for presenting what they might consider to be anti-Zionist ideas. When I asked my students what they thought about the matter some argued that such viewpoints were anti-Zionist because Zionism means a Jewish state, some said that such ideas were not anti-Zionist before the establishment of the State of Israel but that their application today should be considered anti-Zionist, and others recognized these beliefs as Zionist in every way.

One student, however, responded by remarking that the question was a silly, or at least irrelevant, one, and that it had no business being asked in an academic setting. When I asked her what she meant, she responded by arguing that the relevant issues at hand when discussing a political idea about the future of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) are whether it can be applied in a way which strengthens democracy, human rights, the security of the residents of the Land and the development of Jewish culture in the Land. Whether this policy or another can be defined as Zionist, post-Zionist or even anti-Zionist is simply irrelevant. “Zionism” meant a lot of different things to different people before the State was established – there were thinkers who called for a Jewish state, those who thought such a state was unnecessary, those who thought the status of Jews was the key problem to be resolved and those who thought it was the status of Judaism itself. Only after the establishment of the State did “Zionism” become a tool which could be used to invalidate opposing political views. Today, instead of actually critically analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of this policy or another, one can simply dismiss it as “anti-Zionist.” People attempt to disenfranchise their political opponents through branding them anti-Zionists, instead of actually engaging with their challenging ideas. Such as an act is a demagogic one, similar to dismissing an opponent’s argument by responding that “it’s against the will of God.”

I thought of this discussion when considering the statements of many left-wing politicians, thinkers and public activists who call the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank (and previously in the Gaza Strip) “anti-Zionist.” Such name-calling is irrelevant. Criticism of the settlement movement – just like criticism of far-left wing ideas, or any other ideas about the future of Israel for that matter – needs to be based on the same four criteria my student enumerated during the seminar about Zionism. This is not to argue that Zionism is irrelevant per se, but rather that using it as the measure of whether a particular political idea is cogent or not is not a useful exercise when discussing politics in the twenty-first century.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

For the glory of… the States of Israel לתפארת… מדינות ישראל

4 Mar

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

I do not believe in the State of Israel. It is not that I am an extremist liberal, or a fundamentalist Haredi Jew; but rather that I simply cannot identify a state, the residents of which hold shared fundamental ideals and values, or who adhere to a fixed set of norms and mores. It is easy to talk about “Israeli values” but, more often than not, such values belong to only one sector in Israeli society. I prefer to talk about several silos in Israeli society, or even different states of Israel, which are equally valid, authentically Israeli, and each of which contribute to the rich tapestry of this country.

The first of these is Medinas Yisroel – the State of Haredim. In this state, Halacha (Jewish law) is obligatory and reigns supreme. This state values Torah learning, avodah (Divine worship) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), fears contact with modernity (and with the other states), and has, at best, an ambiguous relationship to modern political Zionism. Medinas Yisroel imposes severe gender segregation between its residents and fears spiritual poverty more than economic poverty. It is disturbed by the secular nature of the state and by its very existence which it sees as going against Rabbinic Law (cf. BT Ketubot 110b/111a). The key for residents of this state is Torat Yisrael; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef even suggested that residents of this state should leave the actual State of Israel if they were to be drafted into the IDF.

This is not to say that all Haredim “live” in Medinas Yisroel, but this certainly represents a major trend in Haredi society. There are Haredim who find their homes in one of the other states of Israel.

Secondly, we have Medinat Watani – the State of My Homeland (in Arabic). The almost twenty percent non-Jewish minority of the actual State of Israel are generally part of the Palestinian nation and, at the same time, Israeli citizens. In a sense, residents of this state have given up on being caught between a rock and a hard place. They have rejected the enormous difficulty of their people and their country being at war (or pursuing peace!) and embraced Palestinian nationalism and their own Palestinian ethnic identity, albeit one which has, through circumstance, undergone a process of “Israelization” over the last 65 years. Some have even embraced Islamism (not to be confused with Islamic terrorism). The key to residents of this state is their Palestinian identity (albeit one which has, through circumstance, undergone a process of “Israelization”) – lived on what they consider to be their ancestral homeland.

This is not to say that all Israeli-Palestinians “live” in Medinat Watani, but this certainly represents a major trend in Israeli-Palestinian society. There are Israeli-Palestinians who find their homes in one of the other states of Israel.

The third is Medinat Yehuda – the State of Judah (part of the West Bank). About half a million Israeli Jews live in territory conquered by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. Many view their lives as being devoted to modern-day chalutziyut (pioneering), just like the founders of Israel, and consider themselves willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the actual State of Israel and its people, for example, by committing to extended IDF service. Others moved for quality of life reasons, and some of their staunchest supporters actually live in “Israel proper.” HaBayit HaYehudi party head Naftali Bennett, who is a resident of Ra’anana and wants to annex Area C (about 60%) of the West Bank, is a prime example of the latter. The residents of this state believe that Israeli retention of these disputed, God-given territories in which the majority of the stories of the Tanach took place is a must, if not for reasons of religious faith, then because of security and water considerations. The key to residents of this state is Eretz Yisrael; some of its more fundamentalist members might even prefer to live in Judea under Palestinian rule than live inside the actual State of Israel.

This is not to say that all West Bank settlers (or their supporters) “live” in Medinat Yehuda, but this certainly represents a major trend in the society of the ideological right. There are Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria who find their homes in one of the other states of Israel.

Next is Gosudarstvo Izrail the [Russian] State of  Israel. About one million Russian-speaking immigrants made their home in Israel after the fall of the Iron Curtain, bringing with them a rich level of cultural creativity and appreciation, and love of intellectual pursuit. Many, but certainly not all, support libertarianism and conservative politics, are anti-socialist, view the mainstream media in a highly critical light and, with most being relative newcomers, bring a fresh perspective to discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The key to residents of this state is Medinat Yisrael – and a strong and stable one at that, which demonstrates strength and power to those across its borders, while not interfering unnecessarily in the economic and religious lives of its citizens.

This is not to say that all Russian-speaking immigrants “live” in Gosudarstvo Izrail, but this certainly represents a major trend in Russian-speaking society. There are Russian-speaking immigrants who find their homes in one of the other states of Israel.

Also, let us consider Medinat Tel Aviv – the State of Tel Aviv (one might say of the Jerusalem suburb of Rehavia as well.) The residents of this state support, to one extent or another, western democratic norms, such as the supremacy of the rule of law, freedom from of and from religion, individual rights and equality before the law. This state, with its Israeli middle class, is shrinking. This state represents the so-called “Israeli consensus,” that is, the center and left of center and right of center of the Israeli political map. The key to residents of this state is various combinations of Torat, Eretz and Medinat Yisrael – combined with an emphasis on the individual who lives in Israel.

This is not to say that all Tel Aviv (or Rehavia) residents “live” in Medinat Tel Aviv, but this certainly represents a major trend in Tel Aviv (or Rehavia) society. (In fact, a good twenty percent of Tel Aviv voters in the recent election for parties to the right of Likud. *) There are some who find their homes in one of the other states of Israel.

Finally, we have Medinat Sefarad – the State of Mizrahi Jews. This state embraces pride in the rich ethnic, religious and cultural history of Jews originating in North Africa and the Middle East (and to a much lesser extent, those who have their roots in Spain, Portugal and Navarre). The key to residents of this state is preserving and embracing the rich and wonderful heritage of Sefardi Judaism, often with a strong emphasis on Jewish tradition and heritage, but not necessarily strict Halachic (Jewish legal) observance. For some, but very much less so than in the past, intertwined with their ethnic identity will be feelings of persecution and the ongoing implications of the historic injustice committed against them by Ashkenazim. Most will be more conservative in their views on the Arab-Israeli conflict and socio-economic issues, although some – like members of the Mizrahi Rainbow Democratic Coalition – will promote more liberal views.

This is not to say that all mizrahim “live” in Medinat Sefarad, but this certainly represents a major trend in mizrahi society. There are mizrahim who find their homes in one of the other states of Israel.

It should be stressed that this blog post utilizes generalizations which, by definition, are never be fully correct. It should be clear that some Israelis live in overlapping silos or, in a sense, hold dual, or even multiple, citizenship in different states of Israel.  And, of course, some other Israeli population groups, such as Ethiopians, and foreign workers and asylum-seekers, cannot be easily categorized into any of the states of Israel which I have delineated; there are, for sure, more than six states of Israel.

Israel is a construct – a relatively modern phenomenon, not necessarily linked to previous conceptions of what it meant to be Jewish. Perhaps here lies the major split in Israeli society. Were Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel meant to normalize the Jewish condition, and make the Jewish people a nation like every other, thereby representing a break with the Jewish past? Or, were they meant to allow the Jewish people to fulfill an almost mystical potential and become an ohr lagoyim (light unto the nations), thereby representing a continuation of the Jewish past, in the form of a state. Perhaps the other major split in Israeli society is the question of to what extent universalistic values should be embraced and incorporated into the public sphere, and into Israeli values, culture and society, together with particularistic values. There are no clear answers to these questions.

But it is not only Israel which is a construct; the “Israeliness” that Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid loved to talk about during his time as a journalist is also a construct. It is too easy for the hegemons of Israeli society to argue that their state of Israel is the actual State of Israel, and that the ideals and values of their state of Israel are the ideals and values of the actual State of Israel, thereby disenfranchising members of the other states of Israel. It is too easy to dismiss the “other,” whether she be Haredi, Arab, Russian, settler or from Tel Aviv as “un-Israeli” – whatever that means. Each of these different silos in Israeli society is certainly authentically Israeli. Each of these different states of Israel is legitimate, and their rights, ways of life and place in the actual State of Israel should be protected. There is no need for a melting pot. This does not mean autonomy for each of these groups – there should certainly be one law for all. But, such laws must be developed through a partnership between all sectors of Israeli society, which must all be acknowledged and respected as stake-holders, and be truly representative of them all.

With which state/s of Israel do you affiliate? Why?

*This is after dividing the Likud-Beiteinu vote in the city according to the division of Knesset seats between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel. http://www.teachingisrael.com http://www.facebook.com/teachingisrael

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