Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : January 27, 2014
This past weekend I visited the West Bank (or if you prefer, Judea and Samaria) through my participation in the Israel Government Fellows program run by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. For two days the Israel Government Fellows enjoyed informative meetings with Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers. We visited Hebron, Efrat, Shilo, and Eli. To add some perspective, few believe that Efrat wouldn’t be annexed to Israel in a two-state solution. Eli, in contrast, is a very controversial settlement. While I learned much, this sojourn reminded me how easy it can be to make assumptions when looking at the Arab-Israeli conflict as an outsider.
One Palestinian we met in the West Bank works as a Field Agent for B'tselem - the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. He was born in a refugee camp and has spent time in Israeli prison. Nevertheless, he confided in us that he was terrified of what form a Palestinian State in the West Bank might take. He implored us to look around at the rest of the Arab World. 
In terms of government, how would sovereignty impact the West Bank’s current reasonably transparent democratic elections? Is it so hard to believe that a truly autonomous government in the West Bank won’t quickly turn autocratic? Few in Gaza can safely and publicly decry Hamas and even under occupation, one could plausibly argue that West Bank Palestinians currently enjoy greater access to protest than say, Arabs living in the newly formed regimes of Egypt or Tunisia
Compared to their counterparts in the rest of the Arab World, Palestinian women are among the best educated. Though women may not be able to drive in Saudi Arabia, Palestinian women are making a splash in headlines as the first Arab women in the World to race on the international motorsport circuit. While Palestinian women are leagues ahead of their counterparts from other Arab countries in terms of gender equality, it’s anybody’s guess what turn this trend would take in a future Palestinian State. 
Economically, the picture is also uncertain. Consider that in recent years, despite the intense monitoring by the NGO’s and governments which pump foreign aid into the West Bank, most Palestinians are very pessimistic about the corruption and nepotism which permeates the PLO and it’s management of the economy. Interestingly, according to a 2011 World Bank report, Palestinians actually perceive greater levels of corruption than actually exist. The question is once a truly independent state emerges in the West Bank, will this acute perception of corruption become more or less justified? 
I am certainly not arguing that Israel does a better job governing Palestinians than the Palestinians could do themselves. All peoples have a right to self-determination. I only wish to share my realization that not all Palestinians would be equally thrilled if Israel withdrew from the West Bank tomorrow, or even in the conclusion of a successful peace agreement.  I don’t doubt that Palestinians find Israel’s presence in the West Bank brutal or repressive, but they also have no illusions about the shortcomings of their own leadership.
I am not writing this to push a political agenda. In fact, I believe a two-state solution is in Israel’s best interest. My point is that before my foray into the West Bank, I had been under the assumption that all Palestinians were ubiquitously hoping to have a state of their own as soon as possible. Most Western news outlets certainly make it seem that way. 
When Jewish settlers in the West Bank told me that Palestinians don’t really want their own state, I balked. Who wouldn’t?  But hearing the same story from a Palestinian claiming to speak for many of his Arab peers who (for the time being) are content with the status quo was powerful stuff. I am still unsure of what to make of the whole experience but I am reminded that when it comes to the Middle East, assumptions, particularly from Westerners, have no constructive role in conflict resolution. 
If a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis are more or less content with things as they are now, finding a solution to this conflict seems an unlikely prospect as ever. To make real progress, the world will need some of its most brilliant minds put to the task and I encourage anybody reading this to ask the difficult questions and get involved.  However, I would advise you to leave your assumptions at the door and be prepared to have your point of view shaped not by mainstream media, but the people who live and breathe the conflict daily. Don’t hear. Listen. You, like me, might just be surprised by what you learn.  
Seth Clare, of Los Angeles, CA, is currently interning at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs through Masa Israel's Israel Government Fellows program.
Published : January 16, 2014
While living in Israel, Masa participants engage in all facets of Israeli society. Some volunteers and interns choose to work with the asylum seeker population of Israel. This is one participant's take on the recent asylum seeker protests in Jerusalem.
By Leah Rosenberg, Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv - Jaffa Social Action Track
On December 15th over 150 African refugees from Sudan and Eritrea marched from a detention facility in Israel’s Negev to the Knesset in Jerusalem to fight for their lives. More than 50,000 Africans have come to Israel in the past decade, fleeing civil war, oppressive regimes, and ethnic cleansing. Many were smuggled to the Israeli border by Bedouin kidnappers who subjected them to physical and psychological torture. Upon arriving in Israel, over four hundred such asylum seekers have been imprisoned for their “illegal infiltration” into the state. 
Asylum Seeker protest in Israel
I’ve heard stories like this before. We read articles about the plight of refugees and immigrants fleeing from unimaginable horrors; we hear the excuses and political rhetoric that emerge in host states; we know about the complex legal battles these individuals face, the criminalization of immigration, and the extreme racism and xenophobia that greets them when they finally arrive in new supposedly free lands. In certain ways I thought I had become numb to such stories. It seemed distant, far removed from my own life and experience. It was horrible, no doubt, but not something tangible or personal in any way. But last month, my perspective changed.
After living in Israel for four months I have become part of a complex, frustrating, and deeply troubling situation unfolding in South Tel Aviv. Through my participation in a social action program called Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa I have worked with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that serve African asylum seekers, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea. I work in their neighborhood, babysit their kids at a daycare center, accompany new mothers and their children to doctors’ appointments, and teach them English. Through these volunteer placements, organized by the Tikkun Olam program, I have seen a population that works hard in the face of complete uncertainty, a people that supports each other, creating networks and organizations to meet the needs of the community. But I have also seen the racism they face, the obstacles to freedom and economic security, and their struggle towards an uncertain future. The articles published about their plight are no longer just words on a page or troubling accounts of something far away. It is the story of people I have met, the parents of children I babysit, the peaceniks and advocates I have the pleasure of meeting and working with every day. 
On December 15th I marched with them. When I arrived at the Knesset I anticipated something far different than what greeted me on that snowy day in Jerusalem. I knew that 48 hours earlier over 150 asylum seekers left the detention center they were being held at in the desert, walked six hours to the closest city, and proceeded north towards Jerusalem, helped along the way by human rights activists and a hospitable kibbutz. When I heard their story I presumed the marchers would be angry, possibly hostile. I know I would have been given their situation. After all, the one democracy in the region, the one place within “walking distance” that was supposedly a friendly host for those fleeing persecution, was keeping them locked up. But that was not what I saw on that afternoon. Huddled together, probably in part for warmth, these 150 detained refugees, alongside their friends living in Israel and the advocates working alongside them, quietly chanted: “We are refugees. We are not criminals.” Chanting this phrase over and over, in both English and Hebrew, they remained calm and collected. I was in awe of their patience and their determination. After fleeing the detention center they could have run for their lives and attempted to find work illegally in Israel or hide out in a friend’s home somewhere in Tel Aviv. But they didn’t. They chose to protest publicly and raise their voices in pursuit of justice. They held signs citing the Torah, reminding Jews to “welcome the stranger.” They quoted activists like Nelson Mandela, and proclaimed that they too, were entitled to basic human rights. With resolution and a spirit, a ruach, unlike anything I have ever seen, they demanded freedom.
What unfolded after was nothing short of a tragedy. Immigration police officers, armed and ready, stormed into the protest and began to break up what was possibly one of the tamest political protests in Israel’s history. I was standing right there as these officers pursued what I can only describe as a racist strategy. If you were black, they grabbed you by the collar or the shoulders and dragged you from the march onto a bus just a few meters away. If you were white you were asked to step aside. Most protestors simply sat down on the wet pavement and waited. The officers would gang up, often three or more to a single person and violently remove them from the scene; they put these young men and women in headlocks, pushed and prodded them, until, after 20 or so minutes, the black faces that had comprised the majority of the march were gone and all that remained were articles of clothing, wet, torn and abandoned signs asking for freedom, and fifteen white Israeli activists screaming “we are refugees.” I stood helpless on the side of the street, in total and complete shock. Where was the law in this? How can such actions be considered moral or humane? What happened to the Jewish values that supposedly drive and define this state? It was the Africans, the Christians, and Muslims in the crowd that reminded us of what it means to be Jewish. 
Just two hours later, I had the opportunity to meet with Ruth Calderon, a member of the Yesh Atid party and a strong voice for civil rights in Israel. I visited the Knesset that afternoon with 200 young Jews from around the world as part of the Masa Leadership Summit. When I asked her about the anti-infiltration law that allowed for the detention of the men and women I had just marched with, she told our group that as difficult as the situation is, she supports the detention policy. She explained that Israel cannot be held responsible for all those in Africa who are subjected to economic or political distress; Israel does not have the capacity to house all the world’s suffering. She said that if we let these thousand refugees stay freely in Israel, then another thousand and another thousand will come. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response was to announce that the refugees had two options: stay in detention or return to the lands that had persecuted them. In other words, stay jailed or risk death. Political responses to this situation have continued to shock me. They harken back 65 years to the Jewish pleas heard from Eastern Europe. As Jewish refugees fled for their lives, desperately seeking refuge, most western nations offered similar arguments: we can’t house them, it’s not our responsibility, we sympathize but who are we to get involved?
Leah asking Ruth Calderon about asylum seekers' rights
Israel has to be better than this. We know. We were there. Israel is a state built by refugees, a homeland whose vision is grounded in social justice and freedom. It is time to do more. It is time to stop accepting detention as the best solution. It is time to speak up for the 55,000 refugees currently residing in the State of Israel. It is time to stop making excuses. Israel does not have to take responsibility for all those who suffer, but we must care for those who are already here. Because as those 15 Israelis proclaimed after all the African marchers were detained, WE are refugees. We know the struggle they are facing. And we have to act. Now. 

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