Israel feels like a country and a conflict that I should have a connection to, but which hasn’t yet formed. I keep going back to Steve McDonald’s presentation where I said “I’m Ashkenazi, but I’m not Jewish.” He shared with me that if I said that in Israel I’d get some odd looks, and if I said it at the border, I might expect a long wait. My comment and his response keep coming back to me, even though it was only about 10 seconds out of a two hour presentation.
In preparing for the trip one thing that comes up repeatedly in readings and lecture is the concept of identity. That Israel is the product and continually discovered and rediscovered national, religious, ethnic and political identities, which come into repeated conflict. I saw this in reading about Theodor Herzl, and the question of European Jewish identity in the context of nationalism in the 19th century. Were Jews in Germany Jewish-Germans or German Jews? It seems like something small, but the distinction is huge on where it places the premium on identity. Even identifying with their birth nation was never fully accepted by their compatriots. Just because many Jews in Herzl’s day identified themselves by their nationalities, served in their country’s armies, academic institutions, and dressed according to popular norms, doesn’t mean they were accepted by the non-Jewish citizenry or government.
The results of this search for identity and rejection thereof by non-Jewish neighbours can be seen in Zionism, the Holocaust, the multiple Israeli-Arab Wars, and the ongoing conflict. It underpins so much that it’s easy to understand Israel as being a place where nothing about its politics, economics, government apparatus or other policies make sense, but it all works. As a Canadian used to peace, security, and lack of identity crisis, it’s easier for myself and fellow Canadians to think in long-term policies exemplified by our motto of Peace, Order and Good Government. I can’t fully comprehend being part of a people, country and economy where War, Disorder and Dysfunctional Government are the norm.
Day 1: the Plane Ride and Landing, written on a bus to Tel Aviv
I hate flying. It’s not a fear thing, I just don’t particularly enjoy the experience of being packed like sardines and force-fed bugspray-flavoured airline lasagna.
Upon arrival we got through customs rather quickly. They didn’t ask me any questions beyond the reason why I was travelling in Israel. The exceptions were Harrison, who lost his luggage, and Akash, who was temporarily set aside for additional questions.
That’s another oddity here. Akash is one of the most chill, funny and liberal people I know, his life is affected by issues of recognition between Israel and his birth country, Pakistan. It’s interesting that being from a country of origin which doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence isn’t sufficient to prevent entry, when the vice versa is probably true for any Israeli wanting to enter those countries. I’m beginning to understand the Israeli sense of vulnerability when it comes to security, even though I wish it didn’t have to come via Akash being questioned.
Day 2: Arrival in Tel Aviv, written from the Cinema
Walking around Tel Aviv-Jaffa I get the sense from our guide, Michael Bauer, that words like identity, co-existence, and integration mean totally different things in the Israeli context. I’m starting to understand why my statement “I’m Ashkenazi, but I’m not Jewish” to Steve McDonald was so odd. Being Jewish for many in Tel Aviv has little do with religiosity. It’s the Sabbath here, and we saw plenty of Israelis working, walking around, and eating at non-kosher restaurants, including Michael. In Michael’s words, you can be a secular, agnostic Jew, and still identify strongly with being Jewish. Yet, it’s also unique in being an ethnicity you can enter into via the doorway of religion.
It was difficult to stay fully awake, but hearing from Dr. Eran Lerman was a treat. I had entered Israel thinking the primary driver of conflict in the Levant was Wahhabi-based terrorism, with groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) being the primary disruptors of peace. I slowly heard a more realistic narrative by Dr. Lermam: that the primary disruption stems from geopolitical rivalry between predominantly Sunni Arab States, Turkey, and the Russian-Iran bloc, with Israel caught in the midst. There are no friends for Israel here, just common interests like shared animosity towards the Islamic State in Sinai, and a land corridor for Iran to the Mediterranean. Al Qaeda and IS are not players, just chess pieces in a political game between regional and global powers. Israel’s ad hoc realpolitik in military and intelligence sharing with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan contrasts strongly with my very Canadian perception of official and long-term allies.
Day 3: Rothschild Boulevard, written from the Cinema
Business and economics are not my area of strength. My education and work experience up till now has been mostly qualitative, so I started the day unsure of how I’d enjoy it. Turns out there is plenty for a qualitative researcher to study in the Israeli startup and natural gas sectors. Numbers aside, what I gathered form listening to Elan Zivotofsky and Dr. Gal Luft was that the Israeli economy is inseparable from regional instability, existential threats from neighbours, and military responses to both. Israeli startups spring from social networks formed via mandatory service in the military. Service is a rite of passage, and the informal command structure and focus on short-term situational adaptability lend themselves strongly to a startup industry. The fact that Israel has few natural resources, save for a natural gas industry in its infancy, encourages a finance and tech-based industry rather than a manufacturing one.
The implications aren’t good for the wider populace, as neither of those sectors are huge employers like industrial manufacturing or resource extraction, but the fact that an economy is shaped around the buddies you make in the army, or being able to “Red Green” a solution to a problem is fascinating. It clashes with my experience with Alberta’s resource driven sector, but drives home the fact that production and markets are wholly determined by their comparative advantages and disadvantages. In this case, that advantage is a tight network of highly adaptive individuals resulting from the disadvantage of being surrounded by threats.
Day 3: Up to Golan, written from a Kibbutiznik Cabin
The themes of today were identity and national ethos (the “raison d’état” as Dr. Lerman would say). These themes were not pre-planned, but the natural result of conversations and interactions resulting from today’s activities.
I forgot to mention our meeting with Col. (ret.) Miri Eisin last night. It fit well with our meeting with Deborah Lyons today. Both were regarding the conflict, one from the standpoint of a stakeholder, the other an interested party. From Western media I assumed that the largest obstacles to peace between Israel and Palestine were issues like settlements. While complex, these are the simplest issues to solve according to Eisin. More complex is ownership of Jerusalem for Israel, and the Right of Return for Palestinians to their pre-1948 homes.
We picked up our Israeli students, Noa, Eden, Gal and Itamar. Right from the get go the saying “2 Israelis, 3 opinions” became evident. “1 State,” “2 State,” “religious Jew” and “secular Jew,” there is no monolithic Israeli identity or opinion. What was interesting was seeing this play out in the Israeli Arab village of Salem. A few of the villagers were willing to sit and talk with us, and very quickly it became an intense (but polite) back and forth between them and the Israeli students. The part that struck me was when Itamar asked them why they don’t identify as Israelis. The answer was “you mean serve in the military?” The other students believed that he didn’t understand the question. I think the more likely answer is that the man understood the question through an Israeli Arab lens. It’s been clear that professional and cultural integration is tied with military service, and being excluded or exempt from that entails standing somewhat apart from the majority of Israeli society. Trying to broker anything in this context means involving multiple parties, players, cultures and peoples whose interests and experiences rarely intersect.
Day 4: War and Ambivalence, written on a bus through the West Bank
Hearing gunshots and seeing jets fly over Quneitra in Syria from the Israel side was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I’m not quite sure how to describe the feelings I had, especially considering my previous work in refugee resettlement at CCIS. The Syrian Civil War went from being a concept to a concrete reality. The desire of some Israelis to provide aid, such as Dr. Nir Boms, is darkened by there being no possible winner (out of the 20+ factions) who will be friendly to Israel. Israel’s only choice seems to be the status quo: maintain its borders, intervene when some actor violates its borders, but otherwise do little to help or resolve the conflict.
I also began to also understand Israeli ambivalence towards the United Nations. Growing up in Canada I held the U.N. flag and their peacekeepers in great esteem. Meeting two peacekeepers on top Mt. Bental monitoring a peace between Israel and an absent Syrian government increased my own ambivalence on their mandate. It helped me understand Israeli inclination to unilateral action. With ineffectual examples like this interwoven in an area of conflict, it’s not difficulty to understand the belief expressed by some of the Israeli students that no peace will come from an outside broker, but only the stakeholders themselves.
Day 5: Dysfunctional Zionism, written from the Harmony Hotel patio
Three years ago my biggest political issue was proportional representation (seems odd now). Reading about Germany on the plane, and experiencing it firsthand at the Knesset, has soured me on the issue. Meeting with Michal Biran of Labor, and Michael Oren from Kulanu in the midst of a political crisis over charges of corruption against Bibi Netanyahu was one of my favourite parts of the trip. It also outlined the difficulty of finding international allies when all the moving parts of the Knesset are in regular flux, and working with unhelpful allies abroad. Ms. Biran is defined by the Labor Movement, but by her own experience at the NDP convention in Canada, finds little support as a Left-Wing Zionist beyond Israel’s borders now. Mr. Oren remains convinced of a 2 State Solution, but sees President Trump’s move of the embassy as an odd way of showing Palestine the United States is serious about brokering a peace. I’m unconvinced of the latter, but what was clear is that international relations remain politicized, with the Left-Wing unable to find a reliable ally abroad that shares their sentiments, and the Right-Wing reliant on other Right-Wing governments who may lack the necessary sympathy for Palestinians necessary to broker a peace.
Yad Vashem, the group discussion after, and sitting on the patio with Aamir were probably one of the most significant experiences for me thus far. I felt a mix of anger and connection to the events while walking through, having lost family in the Holocaust, as well as having a dear family friend who survived it. It was an anger at Nazis, but also an anger that at the context and powerlessness Jews in Europe faced at the time. I realized through the experience that the sentiment underpinning “Never Again” was a warning and promise which underlies modern Zionism, the Israeli psyche, and resultant policy choices. It’s a sentiment I began to feel there.
That anger was tempered with a heartfelt conversation with Aamir, who approached me after. He was deeply disturbed by the experience, as he had never been taught it before, and he simply couldn’t comprehend the carnage or motivations behind it. He expressed a sudden leap in understanding of Zionism, especially the desire to defend the right to exist and live authentically as a Jew. He also shared his concerns regarding his newfound perspectives, as he knew they would not be shared by many of his friends from his own background. At the very least, this common understanding can be a foundation for peace. Perhaps that’s why Holocaust education is absent in areas with political actors who are uninterested in peace.
Day 6: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem; written on a roof in the Old City
Okay, so I was wrong about being soured on proportional representation. I’m still soured on it for Canada, but meeting with Professor Allen Zysblat has reminded me that as in everything, context matters. Without a constitution and any formal checks-and-balances, the need to negotiate coalitions is perhaps one factor that helps Israel maintain its democracy. It also seems more adaptive to short-term situations Israel faces, though makes long-term issues like housing difficult to tackle.
At the beginning of the trip I defined myself as Askhenazi without identifying as Jewish. Yad Vashem and the Western Wall have changed things for me. I felt a profound connection to both my heritage and those who shared it while leaning against it. This deepened when Craig, also of Jewish ancestry, told me that while at the Wall he felt sudden commonality with me and those who surrounded us. Moshe Dayan valued the site not as a religious one, but as a historical and cultural unifier, and I felt while standing there I could say the same. It started when Michael asked if I was Jewish in Tel Aviv, began to solidify at Yad Vashem, and by the time I reached the Wall I couldn’t help but identify as both a Jew and a Zionist. This exercise in self-reflection has resulted with a clearer picture of the policy problems, but a muddier path forward. I believe in peace, but as I’ve come to understand the players, people, issues and history, I’ve also experienced a correlated decrease in any idea of how to solve it.
When I shared my frustration with Steve and Michael, they smiled, looked at each other. Michael then said with a grin, “welcome to the Middle East.” That sentence encapsulates everything I learned from this trip about policymaking: context is everything, compromise is necessary (but also impossible at times), and irrational long-term goals can be undermined by absolutely vital short-term policy choices.
Epilogue: Food poisoning, written in the Negev
I never thought I’d experience vomiting by a gas station in the Negev surrounded by Israeli Arabs with camels, while Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” was playing in the background.