80% of the “Full Israeli Experience”

Friedman

For this past Sunday’s New York Times, Tom Friedman wrote an article entitled “The Full Israeli Experience”. Treating Friedman as an whipping boy has become popular in some circles in recent years, but for the Times to run such an opinion – in the widely read Sunday edition especially – its editors are lending credence to his close-minded and restricted view of the world.  In doing so they promote misunderstanding and provide a buttress of support for national policies that are not in the American people’s interest.

Even without the obvious critique that the “full Israeli experience” cannot be accurately applied to the country’s mainstream national politics when only 80% of its population is represented, this article was hugely disappointing.

Why?

Tom Friedman argues that to be taken seriously in Israeli politics (and by virtue of the special relationship, American politics), you must understand the severity of Israel’s security situation.  He argues that the “bastards for peace” approach of Ehud Barak is superior because it purports a re-trenchment in the ’67 borders and a serious effort to advance the peace process. This is a harmful simplification of the conflict.

The problem is that the conflict does not end with the ’67 borders. This is not a binary conflict in which agreed upon borders will make history go away. The two states are inextricably linked.  This goes beyond the right of Palestinian refugees to return and potential conflicts over religious site.  This is about the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens in Israel living as second-class citizens.  A re-trenchment would mean that Israel would love the pressure from the international community to make serious change in its politics and become the true bastion of democracy it has always claimed to be.

The flaw in Friedman’s argument is best displayed with an example.  Let’s use Egypt.  In Egypt, Mohammad Morsi recently tried to acquire extra-presidential powers so he could advance the Muslim Brotherhood’s goal of codifying Shari’a law.  This is something the United States, and many international freethinking progressive people oppose.  Why do we oppose it though?  Is it because Morsi would have become a dictator like Mubarak? Yes, partially.  Is it because Shari’a law is what many Americans are actually afraid of and that there are deep seeded prejudices in the Western world against Islam? Probably.  But, the real reason why Americans should have opposed Morsi claiming those extra powers is that at the heart of the American system of government and the root of liberalism is the belief that for all people to be free and equal, there can be no inherent link between a particular religion and the state.  Unchecked state power in the hands of an Islamic party would generate institutional discrimination against any religious minorites.

This brings us back to Israel.  What Morsi was trying to do, the battle he is waging with the Egyptian courts right now is the same one that was fought over the future of Israel in its nascence.  Eventually David Ben Gurion won out and propagated his vision of the Jewish State.  For 64 years, the “Jewish and Democratic” state has thrived in perpetual hypocrisy.  First, the Palestinian minority lived under military rule with a separate legal system, now it is perceived by many as a “nest of terror…that should be exiled” as Nazerat Illit mayor Shimon Gafso recently stated.

This is an oppressed minority that lives with no real hope for change.  Friedman, in his effort to create some weird fear-inducing paranoia on behalf of the Israeli people, has supported a strategy that would ensure the continued discrimination against 20% of Israel citizens.

Yes, there are militant extremists who openly advocate for Israel’s destruction.  They are a small, but vocal minority.  Failing to address these major issues of self-determination and democratic values would only validate their claims and swell their ranks.  There is no righteousness in holding a supposed moral high ground when the human rights of millions are being attacked.

The path ahead may seem treacherous, but there is no better occasion to strive for harmony and justice than in the face of difficult times.

She is not a soldier

Ten days ago Amane Tatour turned eighteen, but today she is not a soldier. She chose to exercise her exemption from the Civil Service, which means that she will not be joining the Israeli army any time soon.  Amane is a Palestinian Arab living in Israel. That is one of the few groups that are afforded exemptions from the mandatory universal conscription into the Israeli military or the National Service.

By avoiding service she volunteered to pay the Israeli government an additional 12006 NIS in taxes over the course of her lifetime. No one wants higher taxes, but it beats the alternative: implicitly approving the Israeli policy of linking human rights to civic duties.  Unlike religious students, newly married or pregnant women, Palestinian Arabs living in Israel pay an additional 1% tax should they take the exemption option.  The tax is incurred every year the subject is of an eligible to serve.  That makes 23 years of paying for the privilege of not serving.  The revenue gained from the 1% tax goes towards the funding of benefits programs for veterans of military service.  Veterans receive one free year of tuition at designated universities and other similar rewards.

Of course, there are options inherent in the service; not every eighteen-year-old will be trained to shoot a machine gun.  The National Service is another choice.  This alternate program offers various nation building and public works-type jobs to the pacifist segment of Israel’s youth.  The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren recently published an article exploring the National Service option specifically in the Galilee area of Israel.  So why isn’t Amane in uniform right now?

On her Myspace page she identifies her hometown as “Nazareth, Palestine NOT IL”.  In principle, Amane and her peers refuse to serve in the same branch of government, the Defense Ministry, that operates the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.  The decision not to serve is also an expression of outrage over the relationship the Israeli government has assigned to “rights” and “duties”. Regardless of the ostensibly conciliatory National Service option, the concept of rewarding the performance of a civic duty with internationally acknowledged inherent human rights is unsanctionable.

Amane performing at Cinematech. She shows the audience that she “is not a soldier”

The immanent success in Amane’s future is apparent to everyone she meets.  This is a young woman with creative prowess and a lust for life.  In her summer away from school she is writing and directing a film with help from one local NGO and focusing more on her burgeoning rap career.  For the last four years she has been a youth facilitator and a leader in the Arab Association for Human Rights’ Haq youth group.  As one half of rap duo “Dmar” (Arabic for destruction), she has the stage presence of a seasoned professional performer and the charisma of a star in the making.  Amane and her partner, Mai Zarqawi, formed the band in 2005 when they were both under the age of 15. This video of a performance Dmar gave in June 2009 currently has 5,693 hits.  That means that roughly one in ten people in Nazareth have seen it. Committing to Civil Service would rob her of some very formative years, and it should not be required of her in exchange for basic human rights.

Being from a small village north of Nazareth, the Arab capital of Israel, Amane has grown up around people who have reason to harbor ill will towards the Israeli government.  The issue of national loyalty is tricky in Nazareth.  Her struggle is indicative of the difficulty many of her peers are having with this decision.  Choose the attractive benefits package and a brief service or a tax penalty and freedom? On one hand, doing the National Service can be a good way to help out the community. One such program is the Nazareth Summer Camp. It is staffed by servicemen and women, and services the kids of Nazareth. On the other hand, committing to National Service could be seen as a betrayal of national identity. These people are indigenous to the land.  This is Palestinian Arab minority of Israel; it is absurd to ask them to serve in the same army that oppresses their uncles, aunts, sisters, and brothers in the West Bank and Gaza. So, in a town like Nazareth where politics and history is everything, Amane’s choice was easy.  There was no conceivable way she could commit to serve.

Last week the Arab Association for Human Rights co-sponsored an evening of music, poetry, and dance to bring awareness to the effects of the Isreali conscription laws. The other sponsors were Baladna, the Initiative for Arab Youth Action, and Women Against Violence.  “I am not a soldier” the theme for the evening permeated every performance.  Though the content was generally political, the tone was light.  One firebrand speaker called for an end of Israeli oppression; he was followed by a guitar player eager to crack jokes between songs. The show climaxed with a moving performance of the Palestinian national anthem by the Haq Orchestra for Art; a group the HRA-sponsors. The audience showed up to have a nice night out and to display solidarity. They got to do both.  This was a public outcry for the end of such a repugnant policy and quite the occasion for Nazarene socialites.  250-odd people were in attendance for the event. As the crowd shuffled out of Cinematech near Mary’s Well in ancient Nazareth, there were many glowing smiles displaying the strong sense of community which really was the star of the show.

Two Nazarene youth prepare for their performance

A community united against this oppressive policy last night, but their message was overshadowed by national political news.  It was announced last week that Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party would be leaving the ruling coalition after only 70 days.  The division was apparently caused by intractable differences on the issue of universal conscription.  Mofaz’s secular Kadima wants to end the exemption for ultra-orthodox religious students. Benjamin Netanyahu, PM and head of Likud, decided instead to honor his commitment to the orthodox, religious parties in his coalition, who support the exemption for religious students. There was no mainstream political party advocating an end to the 1% tax penalty for Palestinian Arabs living in Israel who seek exemption. There were, however, many conservative politicians calling for an end to the Arab exemption option in the first place.  Mainstream Israeli politics are one standard deviation away from the Arab public’s desires on the spectrum of opinions on this issue.  In Nazareth, life goes on. The rewards for serving look more and more attractive to eighteen-year old Palestinian Arabs. But, understanding that in order to receive them they must tangentially approve an unlawful and immoral policy happens to be a powerful motivator as well.

For these reasons the Arab Association for Human Rights seeks your support. Help us reach out to young people like Amane. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, read our new Intern Blog to keep track of future events like this one!