The director of an American Jewish youth organizations Israel summer tours called to finalize the schedule of educational programs our center will be providing for their groups this month. I noticed that the draft schedule omitted what has generally been a staple of the itinerary, an encounter with Israeli Arab teenagers from a nearby village. When I asked about this, the answer was: we feel that the time is not right to meet with Arabs; our purpose is to strengthen these kids Jewish identities and Zionist commitment, and an encounter with Arabs is too complicated and complicating at this time.
This is a comment that I have heard now and then over the years from Jewish educators, but I was particularly surprised at hearing it from this source.
And I thought: yes, youre right, encountering Arabs here is complicated for American Jews. The experience messes up their romantic notion of a Jewish State inhabited by Jews, able to assert their identity uninhibited by the presence of Others. It forces them to struggle with the ethical dilemmas that arise with the emergence from powerlessness that Zionism has made possible.
And I thought: yes, if we can avoid confronting such complicating dilemmas, then we can maintain the tradition of Israel as a Jewish theme park, where kids can rappel down Jewish cliffs, and qvell at seeing Jewish tanks, and exchange dirty jokes on a Jewish bus with Jewish kids while Jewish scenery rolls by. And they can learn, from their visits to war memorials, and Yad Vashem, and Acco prison, that the one thing that Zionism has not changed is that all the world wants the Jews dead.
And I thought: and if in fact there are deficiencies in Israeli democracy, if the Jewish state treats non-Jews - Arabs and foreign workers - in ways that are not humane or just, and we know this, but take care not to discuss it with adolescents whom we want to care about Israel and to see a connection between their Jewishness and their morality - what will happen when they discover the truth?
And I thought: so, if an Israel experience is an educational tool, just what is it we are trying to teach; tribalism, or tikkun olam? slogans, or depth? simplicity, or ambivalence?
And I thought: now, of all times, is when it is most important to teach the distinction between the Arabs of Israel and those of other states and entities in the region. Davka now, if we teach, by omission, that the Green Line doesnt exist, that all Arabs - including those who are citizens of Israel (one out of every five Israelis) - are the same, are terrorists or at least enemies; then it seems to me we place ourselves on a slippery slope that leads, ultimately, towards ethnic cleansing.
And I thought: the teens from Shaab, who have been practicing their English in order to meet with American Jewish kids, to share with them their own ambivalences and dilemmas as Israeli Palestinian Arabs, will be disappointed, and wont understand the logic of the decision. They have accepted the refusal of most groups to visit their village, and so they come to Shorashim to meet the Americans in a safe, Jewish environment. It will be hard to explain that some groups dont want to meet them at all, anywhere. Indeed, why discuss it with them at all?
I thought all these thoughts, but what was there to say?