Israelis for Social Justice: Complex, Heterogeneous and Inspiring

Today’s participant blog post comes from Ben Geselowitz, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion for 9 months this year.

Daniel Boyarin, feminist Talmudist.
Daniel Boyarin, feminist Talmudist.

During our Yahel learning sessions, we are currently engaged in the “Israeli Society” unit. Thus far in this unit, we have learned about Jewish immigration to Israel,focusing on immigration from Arab and Muslim countries and on the Soviet Union.

Before the program, I was familiar with the myth that a liberal, peace-seeking secular Ashkenazi elite was foiled in the “peace process” by the Mizrahim, racists given to screaming “Death to Arabs” and by the religious, who settle the occupied territories, throw stones at Palestinians and support the right. While I was skeptical towards this narrative, I lacked the tools to deconstruct it. The Israeli society unit has given me these tools and has made me aware of the work against Arab-oppression and toward coexistence done by the marginal Jewish groups of Israeli society.

In Yahel learning, we watched Rachel Leah Jones’ documentary film Ashkenaz, which explores the construction of Ashkenazi identity in Israel. According to a promotional synopsis, the film asks the question “how did the “others” of Europe become the “Europe” of the others?” In one of the film’s interviews, filmmaker Eyal Sivan explores the construction of Ashkenazi identity during the Eichmann trial. Sivan argues that Gideon Hausner’s opening speech equates European jewry with jewry itself, depicting the discursive marginalization of other Jewish populations that was present from the states founding.

And then came the finale. The last words of this colossal speech. “Adolph Eichmann knew what he was about. Should he succeed in destroying this Jewry, he would destroy the whole of Jewry.” As far as Hausner is concerned, not only is European Jewry the heart of the nation, it is Jewry itself. There is no other Jewry.

Sivan also quotes German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the trial. Arendt’s description of the trial demonstrates how the construction of Ashkenazi Jewry as European– rational, Western, secular, unencumbered by corporality– was tied to otherizing, orientalizing portrayals of non-Western and religious jews.

My first impression: on the top the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the persecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country. In addition, and very visible in Jerusalem, the peies and caftan Jews, who make life impossible for all reasonable people here.

The discourses that characterize Arendt’s depiction of the trial continue to animate some portrayals of Israelis’ relations to the “peace process” today: the rational, reasonable Ashkenazim, foiled by emotional Mizrahi mobs and the “unreasonable” ultraorthodox.

The Mizrahi unit gave me the tools to understand the antipathy that many Mizrahi feel toward the left. In our films and readings and through personal testimonies delivered by our neighbors in Ramat Eliyahu, we learned that labor presided over 29 years of Israeli government which sprayed Mizrahim with DDT upon arrival, which dropped them in development towns in the middle of the night, telling them they were in Tel Aviv or Bat Yam, which kept them in those towns while granting transfers to Ashkenazi olim, which used the Mizrahim to Judaicize the periphery and as a buffer between the Arabs and the Ashkenazi. We read Ben Gurion describe the Mizrahi immigrants as “without a trace of Jewish or human education” and heard the condescension in Golda Meir’s voice as she described the Mizrahi Black Panthers as “not nice boys.”

Although learning of the reasons for the Mizrahim’s alienation from “the left” has been a source of great sadness, learning of the efforts that Israel’s marginal populations spearhead towards justice and coexistence, has provided me a tremendous source of hope and strong feelings of admiration. Despite attempts to de-Arabize them, many Mizrahim are reclaiming tremendous pride in their Arab heritage and using this pride as a basis for efforts towards justice and coexistence. In the Delet neighborhood of Be’erSheva, we learned that poor, marginalized Mizrahi residents continue traditions from their home countries in which they have roles in certain Islamic holidays. During a program free-weekend, I went on a Breaking the Silence tour led by a Mizrahi ex-soldier born in a settlement. We’ve read about the inspirational multicultural and social justice work of the Mizrahi Rainbow Democratic Coalition.

Likewise, I have learned a great deal about the inspiring work for justice and coexistence done by religious Jews in Israel. I’ve learned that Breaking the Silence was spearheaded by ultra-orthodox Jew Yehuda Shaul and I’ve read about ultra-orthodox IDF refusenik Uriel Ferara. In the movie Ashkenaz, I learned about Daniel Boyarin’s groundbreaking feminist reclamation of rabbinic Judaism as containing the seeds of a passive, nurturing, non-aggressive and non-violent Judaism that contrasts the machismo and physicality characteristic of the “new Jew” ideal.

Through Yahel learning, I have learned the breadth and depth Israeli’s social issues beyond Palestinian oppression. However, the sadness caused by this knowledge has been counterbalanced by the hope that comes from learning about the many Jewish Israelis who are working for just coexistence. (I already knew a great deal about Palestinians who do this work.) The efforts come from Jewish Israelis from all social groups and are inspired by identities, commitments and practices more far heterogenous than I had realized.

Learning about these groups’ work provides inspiration and guidance for social and political action in both Israel and the States, on issues both American and Israeli. I plan to return to America after the program, but I will carry with me the lessons taught to me by the heterogeneous, complex and messy groups of Israelis who work toward a just future.

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