“Discrimination is built into Israel.” Zionism “has at its core the replacement of one people with another.”
These were two claims I heard at a law school panel discussion on “boycotting the Israeli occupation” which was coincidentally held on a Friday evening, when many Jews would be observing the Sabbath through prayer and a family-style meal. As the speakers attempted to ascertain the best practices for attacking and dismantling the State of Israel, I thought back to the four years I spent there before starting law school last fall.
The Israel I experienced differed starkly from the fascist dystopia of which the panelists spoke. That Israel, my Israel, hopes for peace with its neighbors and respects the rights of minority groups, sometimes to a greater extent than the U.S. does.
My military service as a dual citizen gives me great respect for Israel’s deep yearning to co-exist with its Arab neighbors. I served in the Coordinator for Government Activity in the Territories, the Ministry of Defense agency responsible for liaising with the Palestinian Authority, a quasi-sovereign and internationally recognized government entity through which the Palestinian people exercise a great deal of authority over their communities in the West Bank en route to full realization of their national hopes (for which even the conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced his support).
As part of my service, I visited hospitals in Jerusalem where Palestinian children, with Israeli military coordination, receive critical dialysis treatments several times a week (such treatment is unavailable in the West Bank). I saw a Jewish Israeli surgeon, an Apache pilot in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, treat Palestinian, Iraqi, and African children in an intensive care unit. At the crack of dawn I welcomed Palestinian workers to the Israeli community of Qedar outside Jerusalem, where they worked with their Israeli neighbors for much higher wages than they would earn in a Palestinian city.
The upshot here is that Israel doesn’t have to let thousands of Palestinians, many of whom still deny Israel’s basic right to exist, into its communities for medical care or work (as happens every day). But Israel does. These actions, along with Israel’s full, painful withdrawals from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, speak louder than words to Israel’s deep desire to get along with—not replace—its neighbors.
Living in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv exposed me to a cosmopolitan diversity that would give many world cities a run for their money. Both cities, one renowned for piety and the other for partying, host gay pride parades that run the gamut from uniformed (and sometimes armed) soldiers fresh from an on-base stint to gay and lesbian Arab-Israelis who enjoy a level of freedom unparalleled in the Middle East (homosexuality is a capital crime in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and several other Muslim countries). I saw same-sex couples walking the streets hand in hand, something I rarely see here in liberal Cambridge. Gay Israelis may sponsor their same-sex partners (including Palestinians) for immigration rights, something currently impossible in the U.S.
Arab-Israelis make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population and participate in Israeli democracy at all levels. Justice Salim Joubran, an Arab Christian, sits on the country’s Supreme Court, which has not shied away from confronting other branches of government to advance human rights. Arab men and women continue to vote in elections for and serve in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Out of respect for the complexity of Arab-Israeli identity, Arab citizens are exempt from the compulsory military service that has secured the accomplishments of Israeli democracy.
I know personally that Jews and Arabs in Israel, rather than locking themselves in a self-defeating downward spiral of discrimination and resentment, often come together under the aegis of scholarship. I studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with numerous Arab students who seemed quite content to learn with their Jewish compatriots at the highest-ranked Middle Eastern institution according to international rankings. After a year of study, I went to work for the non-profit Hand in Hand, which runs four bilingual, multicultural schools throughout Israel where Jewish and Arab youth study together in both Hebrew and Arabic (both of which are official languages). Where else in the Middle East would I have heard an Arab adolescent talking about attending his best-friend’s bar-mitzvah—and understanding the Hebrew far better than most American Jews?
As a young democracy that recently celebrated its 60th birthday, Israel is not perfect. Many agree that Israel should play a greater role in helping Palestinian national aspirations find their proper realization. But obfuscating basic truths about Israel’s diverse society and longstanding desire for peace is counterproductive and will only serve to inflame an already polarized discourse.
Lee M. Hiromoto, HLS ’13, served in the Israel Defense Forces from 2008-2010.