Today I am troubled – but not for the reasons I am about to describe.
Three days ago I took a tour of the West Bank near the Jerusalem area, looking at the Jewish settlements that are basically suburbs of the city. Much of what I saw was quite unpleasant – Palestinian towns completely encircled by the 25 foot high concrete Separation Wall with only one or two roads for exits (which can be closed at will by Israel, imprisoning the towns), large swaths of village land being taken over for future settlement construction, etc. I also made a second visit to the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem to take another look at how the government is collaborating with far-right ideologically driven NGOs to remove the Palestinians who live there.
But that is not why I am writing this post nor why I am troubled today. The tour I went on was with a private company that runs trips to the West Bank. Their purpose is to provide an alternative to the regular tours most visitors take that highlight the accomplishments of Israel – much of that well deserved – or to explore Jewish or Christian history and texts (religious Christians are the majority of tourists visiting Israel nowadays.). But since those traditional tours almost always lack balance, especially given what is happening politically in Israel, I thought this tour company could have an interesting perspective.
What I encountered instead was a disturbing selective use of facts, an undercurrent to delegitimize Israel, and an assertion that it is impossible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic (the complexity of this duality is widely discussed in Israel). Israel was always cast in the worst possible light with little nuance or consideration for other perspectives.
I responded instinctively and strongly. I rose to the defense of Israel when speaking to our guide who struck me as negative in the extreme. Later that night I wrote an indignant column to post on this blog and was about to click “publish” but I hesitated. Something held me back.
The next day I began thinking how the guide had discussed the demolition of Palestinian homes and businesses by the Israeli authorities. As background, the vast majority of these demolitions occur for administrative reasons, i.e., structures built without building permits. It is extremely difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank or East Jerusalem to obtain building permits to repair or expand their homes and businesses, or to build new structures. On average, only 5% of applications are approved. This means that, due to normal population growth, there is a shortage of housing that can be alleviated only through emigration or illegal construction. Existing businesses cannot legally expand or even renovate their existing property. Even Palestinian farmers need authorization to improve their farms or repair the damage done by erosion to the terraces upon which they grow their crops. One farmer had his terraces bulldozed when he did so without the elusive permit (see http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/amira-hass-palestinian-farmers-are-being-treated-like-criminals-1.261871). When the Israeli authorities demolish structures, it is a total financial loss plus the victims are often charged a fine to cover the cost of the demolition.
In the first 10 months of this year, 486 structures were demolished in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 171 houses that displaced almost 900 people. Since 1967, over 24,000 structures have been demolished. The demolition trends are increasing with more structures bulldozed this year than in recent years.
To get a feel for what home demolitions are like, you can quickly view the short videos in this link but most importantly read the text to get a fuller picture: http://rhr.org.il/eng/index.php/2011/12/watch-bulldozers-demolish-palestinian/#.TuXdSxLEZs8.twitter. As this link describes, one particularly harsh aspect is that adequate notice is seldom given. How does one clear out an entire home of one’s belongings when you don’t know when it will be destroyed? What if you are not home when the bulldozer and police show up at the door?
So now I put myself in the shoes of my tour guide who knew of these demolitions and their aftereffects (homelessness, bankruptcy, the emotional effects on one’s children, etc.), keeping in mind these demolitions occurred and still occur within a context of a range of other abuses, humiliations and physical violence that are endemic to the occupation on the West Bank – and unrelated to preventing terrorism. What would my perspective be if I had witnessed all this for the past decade? Would I still have faith in the Israeli system of government, especially because these policies occurred under all governments, no matter which party was in power?
I share my tour guide’s anguish but, after much consideration, I think he has reached the wrong conclusions. He presented Israel in a light I thought was incorrect – a wholesale condemnation – without any room to take into account the many positive and progressive sides of the country.
Israel is a strong democracy with a plethora of political parties and NGOs of every stripe including an active network of organizations staffed by dedicated Israelis who are fighting to oppose the occupation, support democratic ideals and guarantee civil rights for all segments of society. It is precisely because of the robustness of this democracy that so much information is available about the complex and troubling aspects of the political situation here and that there is so much participation by citizens in the process.
For example, last summer there were massive demonstrations by mainstream Israelis protesting economic policies that mirrored the Occupy Wall Street protests in the USA but were significantly larger even though Israel’s population is 2% that of the U.S. Just this week, 10,000 people rallied on short notice in the town of Beit Shemesh to support women’s rights being restricted by the ultra-Orthodox. Democracies with this type of citizen involvement and such strong civil institutions tend to have the ability to correct imbalances over time, especially as people become more aware.
This is one reason I’m writing this blog. I hope to be able to provide a balanced view – but the press of news developments and the current government’s actions inevitably will lead to more space being devoted to the less positive. My goal is to enable us to better understand what has been happening here for decades, unbeknownst to most of us in its full detail, because Americans, and the American Jewish community in particular, can influence Israeli policy.
I am gratified that this past week so many people have chosen to sign up to receive notices of new blog posts via email or Twitter. I appreciate that and trust you will understand if what I write about seems at times too skewed in one direction.
Best wishes for a peaceful and good new year.