We woke up this morning and got on our bus to a kibbutz called Ramat Hashofet, where we had a lecture/discussion with an Israeli originally from Canada (This is where we’re staying tonight and tomorrow night). This was the first exposure we really had to any Israeli issues, delivered from a fairly left-wing point of view. We went through a brief history of the founding of Israel, especially the various waves of immigrations, or Aliyahs. One of the first groups to make Aliyah to Israel was the German Jews, who quickly established themselves as the “upper class, cultured” citizens, using Westernization as an identifier. All subsequent groups to come to Israel, whether or not they acted with Western manners, if they were racially different, were treated as lower class. Early on, this hit such an extreme level that many immigrant Jewish children (especially Arabs or Asians) were stripped of their identity–sent to schools where they were only to speak in Hebrew and forget their own traditions and cultures, despite the fact that they were also Jewish. This was similar in almost every way to the Americanization of Native American children by the missionaries in the early 1800’s.
One place we stopped today on our way back from lunch in Barta’a, which is an Arab town through which the Green Line passes, was a point from which you could see both the Mediterranean and the West Bank at the same time. From that perspective, it’s easy to see why Israel can feel a bit nervous, having such a narrow country and surrounded by hostile countries. There we saw a drawing of Handala (google it) scratched into stone.
The major political party with all the clout is called the Shas; these are the so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, who are sought out by other parties of the Parliament to form coalitions. For the most part, the Shas will back most law proposals set forth by the smaller party in these coalitions on the condition that there be special treatment of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in the state. The main example here is that their children do not have to serve in the army like everyone else if they are engaged in heavy religious studies. The Shas established power early on by going village by village and donating money to build schools and help communities. In return, they gained loyalty from the people and have maintained it ever since.
The problems within Israel are not well publicized. One of the biggest problems they face is not external, but internal; it is a question of identity. The problem here boils down to two main questions: Are Jews defined as a people or a religion? and Should Israel be run with a separation of church and state? Sam’s blog highlighted the question of people or religion and the 1/8th rule that if someone is 1/8 Jewish, then they can be a citizen of Israel, but this leads to the attraction of some people who are simply looking for a place to live; in fact, many completely secular people qualify under the 1/8th rule and celebrate Christmas! The early Zionist movement was even unclear about this question, and it is a major one if Israel is to move forward effectively. The fact that Israel faces such a question about its very identity reminds us how young of a country it is. I need to constantly remind myself of that; it’s a strange concept when considering also what huge impact its politics and actions have on the lives of so many people and other countries’ foreign policy. The next question arises from the first. As a country established as a Jewish State, it is understandable that they would have laws according to the Jewish faith, and have a political system appropriate to such circumstances. This is a country established for specific purposes, and if you don’t like it, you can leave. However, the Christians, Muslims and secular Jews can feel infringed upon by these laws. As a relatively minor example, many people who live here who would otherwise eat shellfish have never done so because those products are not Kosher and therefore are not imported or caught from the Mediterranean. This is home to many people, and the imposition of laws based on a faith other than their own is certainly oppression.
Now that I’ve had the opportunity to think about part of the Israeli side, I am starting to think a one state solution is best, because there are people here who are clearly not Zionists or even Jewish and this is their home also. This will take significant sacrifice from the Israeli politicians (consisting mostly of the conservative Shas), and is likely to never happen.
Very significant afterthought: Why does no one consider the “pure” Zionists who believe that there won’t be a true Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah? The bible speaks of Zion and the coming of the Messiah as two things that come hand-in-hand.
Also, in Jerusalem, I noticed that there was an abundance of street cats, so starting on our first full day, when we actually went out for the first time, I started a cat count. Yesterday was 27. Today was 12. The difference was city vs. countryside.