Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Negev

Thursday morning, we woke up early to drive to our first stop, Beer Sheva. We toured the Kalisher Absorption Center and the adjacent neighborhood garden run by Earth's Promise. The director of the absorption center explained the process of absorption for the current wave of Ethiopian Jews to us, and I was conflicted by her account. The most recent wave of Ethiopian Jews are Falash Mura, the term given to Jews whose families had converted to Christianity and are now returning to Judaism. This group falls under the law of return only if they agree to a process of conversion to Orthodox Judaism. They do this by living in the absorption center for 2 years, learning Hebrew and Judaism (and also how to live in a modernized society). At the end of the two years, they are given a test to determine if they are following kashrut, family purity laws, and Shabbat. Most of the immigrants are happy to do all of this, knowing that at the end, they have the privilege of living in Israel and raising their children here. At the same time, one might ask why they are given only one option of Judaism when if 50% of Israelis were given a similar test, they would not pass. Also, we wondered about Ethiopian and Ethiopian Jewish culture being preserved. How much of the process is to promote Judaism for a population not familiar with it versus understanding the diversity of Judaism among Israelis? I wondered about a disconnect between the absorption process and the post-absorption time, when people will live in Israeli society. There is still an assumption that everyone will "become Israeli" and that there is something specific that determines Israeli-ness. I think this is an idea that permeated throughout the entire seminar and that I often think about when we discuss Israeli society.
After the tour of the absorption center and the community garden, we ate lunch at a restaurant owned by a garin in Beer Sheva to provide job opportunities for young adults in the neighborhood. We heard a bit from a woman who started the garin and saw their community garden, second hand shop, and outdoor movie theater. Then we drove to meet a guy who works at NISPED, the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development. Our discussion about the Bedouin community in Israel began here. We hadn't discussed the Bedouins in depth yet, but we did watch two films prior to our seminar that talked about the Negev from different viewpoints. The first was about the Zionist settling of the Negev (a fabulous short from the 1950s) and the second dealt with the marginalization and destruction of the Bedouin community and towns. There are quite a few Bedouin villages in the Negev, of which only 7 are recognized (for more info, check out the Wikipedia page on the Negev Bedouins. The unrecognized Bedouin villages are subject to house demolitions, no running water, no sewage, no medical services, and no power. The few recognized villages still have many problems, and we were fortunate to stay at one on our final night. I will explain more about this at the end. After this, we went to Midreshet Ben-Gurion, where we spent the next few nights. We had a great checkin, where we each spoke about one thing we have been working on personally. I spoke about my relationship to Judaism which has grown stronger during the last few years. It is challenging and rewarding, and though I have an idea of how I want to express my relationship to Judaism, it is much easier said than done.

On Friday, we woke up to hike Nahal Havarim and Ein Ovdat. Here are a few pictures from that gorgeous hike!

Shabbat started and we had a great meditation session with David and Benson leading. That night, we stargazed. The desert is so beautiful and even more so on Shabbat when it is so quiet and calm. In the morning, a few of us woke up to watch the sunrise and see ibex roaming. The sunrise was just so amazing. I really have no words to explain it. Since it was Shabbat, I did not take any pictures. Instead, I just experienced the it. Later that day, we went for a short walk in the neighboring nature reserve. I kept thinking I was seeing a UFO, but we determined (later on the seminar) that I was actually seeing a blimp related to a nuclear research center in Dimona. What a way to remind us about reality in Israel. I forgot to mention that there was a siren test while we were in Beer Sheva. Every time I hear the siren, I get a little nervous, even though I know it was just a test. Before dinner that night, we had a lively discussion based upon Ishmael, a book that deals with "takers" and "leavers," the juxtaposition of modern capitalist society and indigenous cultures. It was a pretty difficult discussion, and I struggled through it. I felt that maybe I need to read the book to really grasp the concepts, but I also felt that the argument was highly simplified, which made it hard for me to understand completely. After dinner, we had a great time playing a game to get to know each other more. It is similar to the "Things" Game, where everyone writes something on a piece of paper in certain categories and others guess who wrote what, except that all the questions were personal - about our greatest fear or favorite ice cream flavor or movie quotes. We also made a typical Israeli dessert, Chocolate Truffles. We had a great time!

Sunday morning, we started our day early with a tour of Ben Gurion's home in Sde Boker. We learned a bit about his ideology of settling the Negev. We also had the chance to discuss certain issues - living in an area under constant threat of rockets, the relationship of Jews living in the Diaspora and Israelis, and some of Ben Gurion's decisions in terms of immigration and setting up a Jewish state. After lunch, we visited a lone farm, one in which a family is given a certain number of acres in the desert to settle on. The one we visited was adjacent to a family of Bedouins who were living there without a permit. Those that live on lone farms usually have a strong belief in settling the Negev, and we discussed briefly how politicized it is. We then drove to Dimona, where the nuclear research center is, and walked by a neighborhood where the Black Hebrews live. This is a group of African-Americans who believe they are descendants of lost Jewish tribes and have become Jewish. This group differs from Ethiopian Jews since they are from the US and have converted in a sense to Judaism. It took a long time for them to be recognized as Jews (and to have Israeli citizenship), since they tend to follow different laws and customs compared to other Jews. The group has received a bit of publicity lately because of the Israeli The Voice, where one of the contestants is a member of the Black Hebrews. I was really interested in the group. Many of the younger population have started to serve in the army, and they speak Hebrew rather than an English dialect.
Next, we visited Ayalim, a group of students who create an intentional community on the periphery, either in the north or in the Negev. While they have a certain number of hours they must volunteer in the community in which they are living, the focus is not on social justice but rather bringing together people who will settle in the periphery. It was a very Zionist idea.
At the end of the day, we settled into the recognized Bedouin village Qasr a-Sir and met with Raed, who works with Bustan, an amazing organization that supports Bedouin communities in the Negev. It was interesting to hear his story, especially when his family transitioned to living in a house as compared to his youth in a tent. He took some time to describe his experience in Alaska in the fall, working with an indigenous group on sexual assault issues, and how he came to work with his organization.

On Monday, we toured an unrecognized Bedouin village and spoke to a man who told his story about living in the village, especially concerning demolitions and the Israeli government's stance toward the Bedouins. The conversation, and actually much of the discussion around the Bedouin community, has been very difficult for me. How can a state so cognizant of social justice issues completely ignore and in fact find ways to marginalize the Bedouin community? While Bedouins have citizenship and pay taxes, their land is not recognized by the state. I understand the conundrum, though. If the Bedouins are deemed an indigenous group, then there would be real implications in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. At the same time, when the state is forcibly destroying homes to promote Jewish settlement in the Negev, I have hard time comprehending their actions. When we left the unrecognized village, we briefly visited a Bedouin women's weaving cooperative. It was a small cooperative that allowed women to work in their homes and receive some income. I supported them by buying a scarf, and then we headed back to Gedera.

Overall, it was an amazing seminar. I didn't know how amazing the desert could be, yet I struggled with the situation in which the Bedouins live. This year has been great in illustrating the complexity of Israeli society, and I anticipate hearing much, much more about all the different issues facing Israeli society today (like for example, did you know that Israel doesn't have a Constitution though their declaration of independence says there should be one?).

I have been thinking about my time left in Israel - that I am more than half-way through here, and how much I will miss and what I'm looking forward to in going back to the US. More to come on that! Have a good week everyone!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Privilege and Oppression

This morning, our learning session discussed privilege and oppression. We began by reading Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." I read this article first in college in my Women's Studies classes. The premise of the article is that just as we talk about the oppressed as lacking access to resources that allow you to pursue certain goals, we must acknowledge our own privilege, which is having access to those same resources. When I first read it in college, I was blown away. Back then, I was learning about my identity and understanding the ways in which I had or didn't have agency in society. Today, understanding the premise of privilege and having acknowledged my own privilege in the US, I saw privilege somewhat differently here in Israel.
We created the Circle of Oppression, which looks similar to the picture below.

We drew one first for North America and then one for Israel. The normative individual in the US is a white, Protestant, upper-middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual man (we didn't include Language or Appearance in our circle). The normative individual in Israel by comparison is an Ashkenazi/white, Jewish, middle/upper-middle class, able-bodied, 100% heterosexual, alpha male. We each have our own identities that give us advantages and disadvantages. Let's take Mitt Romney for example. Even though he has many of those characteristics, because he is Mormon, he lacks as much agency as someone else. At the same time, Anderson Cooper also has many of those characteristics, but because of his sexuality, he also lacks some agency. People may say, well we have a black President, so your description is wrong, or that we have more women in the world than men, so that is where the power lies. Despite those facts, the idea of the normative individual is stronger. There may be more women in the world, but power is not based upon the majority. It is based upon who can wield the power. How many women are in leadership positions in the US compared to men? How many African-Americans are in Congress compared to whites?
We looked at how the US differed from Israel, and there differences were mainly in religion and race/ethnicity. We debated about whether it is skin color or ethnicity/point of origin that really determines privilege. For example, though Russians are considered Ashkenazim, they are considered in a different position perhaps because of when they arrived in Israel. Ethiopians for sure are far from the normative individual (there are differences within groups, as well, between men and women for example who are Ethiopian), they are in a better position than Arab Israelis/Israeli Arabs.
We concluded that while we can talk all we want about our own privilege or oppression, it is even more important to recognize what we can do about our privilege or oppression. White guilt isn't useful, if we feel that. Instead, we must acknowledge our privileges and also learn how to use that knowledge for social change.