Jerusalem Professor Shocked By Visit To Seattle Synagogue

Innocents Abroad

Professor Ira Sharkansky looked forward to celebrating his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah in Seattle while taking a break from the drama that is part of daily life in Israel; instead he found himself confronting a distorted funhouse mirror reflection of the place he calls home.

INNOCENTS IN SEATTLE : By Guest Columnist: Ira Sharkansky

In 1869 Mark Twain published his impressions of Jerusalem in The Innocents Abroad. Along with frequent assertions of respect for the city’s history and its meaning to him and many others, he described a general level of filth, disease and poverty that surpasses just about everything in the contemporary Third World.

MArkTWain“It seems to me that all the races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the fourteen thousand souls that dwell in Jerusalem. Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound. Lepers, cripples, the blind, and the idiotic, assail you on every hand, and they know but one word of but one language apparently—the eternal “bucksheesh.” . . . . Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here. . . Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village . . ”

I thought about Twain’s travelogue during a recent visit to that land where so many aspire to achieve residence.

It’s been almost 40 years since I began my Israeli career. I’ve gone back to various parts of the US frequently, and for several long stays, but as I get older I find myself more like Twain than a native. I still read and speak the language, but I don’t think American as much as I think Israeli.

If Twain was an innocent abroad in the 19th century, there are Americans today who claim an interest and love for Israel, and are no less innocent.

Impressions of my former homeland are not the poverty, disease and filth that Twain found in my current city, but are the cultural or intellectual differences between where I call home and where I called home.

If Twain was an innocent abroad in the 19th century, there are Americans today who claim an interest and love for Israel, and are no less innocent.

On a recent trip I met a seemingly educated American who confused Israel with Iraq, due perhaps with both being far away, troubled, and beginning with the same letter. This time a friendly man who engaged me in conversation admitted that he had trouble distinguishing Palestine from Pakistan.

Most of us are parochial. Americans are known for an extreme case, seemingly because their country is so big, relatively self-sufficient, and weak on foreign language as well as international travel.

Just before this trip I encountered an American physician who had come to Jerusalem as a volunteer to treat Palestinian children. We met and started talking at a point in French Hill overlooking the entrance to the Shaufat “refugee camp.” It hasn’t been a refugee camp for many years, but the name fits with the Palestinian narrative.

We heard the shots of police tear gas guns and the occasional boom of a stun grenade. There was no problem of our safety, insofar as we were a hundred meters or so from the action, and on a cliff at least 50 meters higher. The most serious weapons were those of the police, and they were firing in another direction.

The physician had no idea what he was seeing. He asked if it was a training exercise. I began a lecture about recent commotions and what could be described as the battle below us between Palestinians throwing stones in the manner of David with his sling shot and fire bombs, and the response of the police with weapons of crowd control and occasionally something more deadly. I began to describe the Border Police as a tough outfit with recruits from poor Jewish neighbors, as well as Druze and Bedouin. The doctor may have heard about Bedouin, but had never heard about the Druze.

The Druze may not be part of the American experience, but are important in Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Just a week ago, some 35 people were injured, some seriously, in a clash between Druze and Arabs (or “Palestinians”) in the Galilee, set off by one of the periodic insults among young people perceived as requiring a violent retort.

Shavuon

“The audience was divided into groups, asked to comment as to which of three items were more or less friendly to Israel.”

The principal stimulus of this article is a document distributed for the sake of discussion about Israel that was to occur in a Seattle Temple just after my grandson’s Bar Mitzvah.

I glanced at the document and left the room.

My jet lag may have had something to do with my lack of patience. The format also put me off. The audience was divided into groups, asked to comment as to which of three items were more or less friendly to Israel.

It reminded me of the coddled education received at Wesleyan, when tuition in the 1950s was the princely sum of about $600 per year. It is now somewhere near $45,000. From the college’s web site, I sense it continues to suffer from one of its prime defects.

I was not up to hearing talk about the blather I read. It may have been written by authors who loved an idealized image of Israel, but they did not especially like Israelis.

It may be great that classes are small and all are encouraged to talk. However, going on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I firmed up my preference for listening to teachers who knew something, instead of fellow students who knew how to express opinions, but didn’t add much to my education.

In my jet lagged state, I was not up to hearing talk about the blather I read. It may have been written by authors who loved an idealized image of Israel, but they did not especially like Israelis. If that was the case, it would be a mirror image of Israelis who value immigration (עליה) but cannot tolerate immigrants, or who idealize the US but have had bad experiences with Americans.

Of the topics proffered for discussion at the Seattle congregation, the item that reminded me of the Mark Twain book about innocents abroad came from two Seattle activists in the New Israel Fund. That’s a left of center organization with a limited audience among Israeli Jews. The article they distributed to the group read in part…

“The New Israel Fund (NIF) helps Israel live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants. Our aim is to advance liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to fight inequality, injustice, and extremism that diminish Israel.

From Israel’s first rape crisis centers, to the passage of the law banning torture in civilian interrogations, NIF- funded organizations have driven positive social change and furthered justice and equality. Widely credited with building Israeli progressive civil society, we have provided over $250 million to more than 850 organizations since our inception in 1979.”

If the Fund’s activities are widely credited with bringing progress, I suspect that the credit comes mostly from its activists. Its support in Israel might be measured by the 18 percent of Knesset Members affiliated with Labor and Meretz,  or only a few of them.

Fighting extremism and Intolerance in Israel and Seattle focuses on the recent military operation in Gaza, claims a sharp increase in social division and incivility, including gender segregation in some shelters, the barring of Arabs from shelters, and a lack of shelters provided for Bedouin.“This summer was hard for any supporter of Israel. As members of New Israel Fund’s local leadership, we shared in the turmoil of Israel under fire and its terribly destructive response. . . .

During the war, already gaping societal divides in Israel were widened. When it was learned that some bomb shelters were being gender-segregated by religious extremists and that others barred Arab citizens at the door, New Israel Fund’s civil society grantees mobilized. Some Bedouin citizens who serve proudly in the Israeli Defense Forces but live in unrecognized villages lacked shelters entirely. NGOs representing the best of Israeli society quickly sought legal action to remedy this, cleaned away racist graffiti, and strove with municipal leaders to protect all lives under fire. . . .

Though Iron Dome can intercept rockets fired at civilians, no machine can protect Israeli democracy. The forces of equality and tolerance in Israel are human: Israelis with liberal values. They face an uphill battle, but one that is not hopeless if we come to their aid.”

Surveys more reliable than the impressions of Seattle activists with the New Israel Fund have shown that Israelis were more united about the Gaza operation than about any military action since 1967. Thousands of rockets aimed at civilians served to limit anything that could be termed “anti-war,” even among Meretz or Labor voters and MKs.

"Israelis were more united about the Gaza operation than about any military action since 1967.".

“Israelis were more united about the Gaza operation than about any military action since 1967.”

In all the news I read and heard, I missed any reports of gender separation or Arabs being barred from shelters. I Googled after reading the claims disseminated from the Seattle synagogue and uncovered an issue of gender separation in Ashdod. It troubled the Rabbinate as much as it troubled the New Israel Fund. The Rabbinical Courts Administration ordered an end to any such practice.

The authors appear woefully ignorant of the problems encountered in serving Bedouin populations, not only in Israel, but elsewhere in the Middle East. A quick glance at Egypt‘s current civil war focused in the Sinai could be lesson number one.

Tolerance reaches its limit in the presence of ignorance.

Fighting extremism and Intolerance in Israel and Seattle is a close cousin to the la la view of the world that led George W. Bush to destroy Saddam Hussein, his government and military in the hope of bringing democracy to Iraq, Barack Obama’s Cairo speech calling for equality and democracy that helped along the Arab Spring, which has morphed into the barbarism of ISIS, and the Obama-Kery-Indyk obsession to do with Israel and Palestine what had proved impossible time and again since 1937.

As a Jew and an Israeli, I not only tolerate dispute. I admire it as the essence of our culture. But tolerance reaches its limit in the presence of ignorance.

To describe Israel as divided about the Gaza operation is false, as shown by one survey after another. To worry primarily about shelters for the Bedouin is to overlook efforts–and frustration–to integrate the various tribes into locations that respect for the landscape and environment.

Blather is part of the Jewish condition. While enjoying our culture, and Israel’s democratic tolerance for dispute, we must pay the price of what seems to be some combination of intense ideology and ignorance of Middle Eastern realities. It is the work of innocents who look abroad, do not live abroad, and may not travel as widely as Mark Twain.

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University and is the author of several books on the Middle East including “Governing Israel: Chosen People, Promised Land, & Prophetic Tradition” and “Coping with Terror: An Israeli perspective”. Professor Sharkansky resides in Jerusalem, Israel

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