Freedom Riders In Israel

Israel is innovating new products that will help the developing world and isolated areas gain access to fresh produce and water, sustainable energy, and inexpensive traditional housing.

Israel is innovating new ways to deny millions of people basic civil rights; subjecting them to regular violence and intimidation, undermining their ability to be economically self sufficient, and preventing them from building housing, schools, and other necessities.

Over Christmas break I spent two weeks in Israel with my wife and our kids, aged 13 and 9. It was my eighth visit and their first. We saw both of these Israels, up close and personal.

It is not shocking to learn that a country contains multitudes. The good and the bad often exist side by side, each an authentic representation of a nation’s values. It is true in the United States. It is true in France. It is true in Israel.

It is easy to visit Israel and overlook the occupation. We didn’t see it in Tel Aviv. In much of Jerusalem. At the Dead Sea. On Masada. In Eilat or the Negev. On hikes or at museums or in the seas or at a dig.

Yet the dark side is there. If you look for it you can see it. But you have to want to see it. And most Americans, and most Israeli Jews, would rather not.

A week ago, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported on two attacks. One you know about. A resident of East Jerusalem, a Palestinian, drove his truck into a group of soldiers standing on a promenade overlooking the Old City. Four soldiers were killed. But the other attack you might have missed. Three Israelis and two Italians were injured. Jewish settlers, apparently kids and teenagers, throwing stones and punches, attacked them. The five were returning to a Palestinian village after a day spent helping ensure its residents could plow their fields.

A week before they were attacked, my family met these volunteers and some of the Palestinian village residents they help protect. This protection can take different forms. Sometimes, like the other day, they accompany Palestinians to their fields. These fields used to be easy to reach, but the settlements (and the wall) have separated many villages from their fields. Planting or harvesting crops was once a straightforward task. Today settlers regularly harass them. Their crops damaged; trees chopped down. Donkeys used for farming are seized from the villagers, without cause.

Sometimes the volunteers accompany children to school. A short walk to school has become an hour-long trek, to avoid attacks by settlers. Sometimes the army protects the children. Sometimes they don’t. On a bad day, kids can’t go to school, or they get to school but are trapped there, unable to return home for hours.

The volunteers also help protect the villagers from unnecessary and unethical demolitions. In one village we saw the remains of a crude, traditional oven, built into the ground and used to make bread, destroyed by the army. It’s sin? Residents of the settlement built almost on top of the village didn’t like the smell. In many villages, there is no way to get permission to build structures of any kind. So homes, toilets, water cisterns, kitchens, all are illegal. They can be destroyed by Israel at any time. A well we saw in one village had been ruined, we were told, when Israeli soldiers dropped a car into it.

In the 1960s volunteers traveled to the South to combat segregation and support Black residents seeking to exercise their constitutional rights. Outraged white Southerners branded these volunteers, often white themselves, race traitors. “Ni**er lovers” was the preferred epithet.

These Italian and Israeli volunteers in the West Bank are the spiritual descendants of the Freedom Riders. And the settlers who curse them, punch them, spit on them are the spiritual descendants of the white bigots who greeted “Northern interlopers” with similar hostility.

American Jews are justifiably proud of those from our community who put their personal safety on the line to end Jim Crow in the South. Yet we ignore or condemn those from our community who put their personal safety on the line to end Jim Crow in the West Bank.

We claim to be independent minded, yet how many of us simply repeat the propaganda the Israeli government feeds us? We call a wall “a fence” to make it seem more benign. We claim Jerusalem must be undivided, but ignore the cynical expansion of Jerusalem’s borders to include areas that were never part of this holy city. We assert that “both sides are to blame” and throw up our hands, ignoring the fundamental, overwhelming asymmetry in power between Israel and Palestine.

We tell everyone we know about Israel’s tolerance, its innovations, its beauty. We tell no one about its theft, its incitement, its bigotry.

Perhaps we can begin by no longer lying to ourselves. Perhaps we can begin by seeing ourselves in those Israeli volunteers, and not just those Israeli soldiers.