The Jewish population I encountered during my recent month-long tour of Israel was markedly different from anything I had expected. If there are Israeli counterparts to Abe Foxman and Midge Decter, I didn’t meet them. The vast majority of Jews I did meet were Moroccan and Levantine, while most of the security police in the entrances to shopping malls and on the road between East Jerusalem and the Dead Sea are dark-skinned Ethiopian Jews. These Falashim (their disparaging Ethiopian name) are usually polite to a fault but known to be tough on suspected terrorists. They are now moving into a vocational/ethnic niche that resembles that of the Irish police in America.
Most of the Israeli Jewish population seem oblivious to Christian antisemitism and come from societies that did not suffer in the holocaust. They do not echo the fear found in ADL publications, nor do they celebrate or lament Jewish marginality in the manner of the New York literati. But they are inordinately fond of the American Religious Right, whose silliness they ignore because Robertson and Falwell are working night and day on behalf of Israel. They are also importing from Poland and the Philippines a predominantly Catholic workforce to take the place of the West Bank Palestinians, who now reside behind a long, impenetrable wall (hachomah), which the Israeli government put up about ten miles east of the Mediterranean. Inhabitants of the town of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, where my brother and I stayed, expressed relief that the wall had gone up. Only last year, suicide bombers had hiked from the West Bank to an Israeli shopping mall —a distance of nine miles. The Israelis I spoke with emphasized the obvious: It seems wise to keep those who threaten you at a safe distance; high walls make for peaceful neighbors.
My niece, who was spending the year in Israel at a horse-breeding farm near Tel Aviv, was struck by the international workforce at her communal settlement. Although originally a quasi-Marxist enterprise, this Moshav now includes seasonal European workers who look after the Arabian steeds and tend the citrus groves. One of my niece’s friends, a Polish guest worker, said he was intent on staying. But later, my niece informed us that Israeli security forces had sent him home because “his papers were not in order.” When my brother asked if anyone had objected, my niece explained that her bosses accepted this “as part of life.” After all, “security means that you can’t have people stay if their visa has expired.”
Two aspects of Israeli life struck me with particular force. One is the narrowness of the country’s width, which, in its populous central region, extends about ten miles, between the Mediterranean and the wall; the second is the approximately one million Israeli Palestinians who co- exist with Jews, Filipinos, and European guest workers. Traveling north from Tel Aviv toward Galilee, we drove from one Arab Muslim village to the next; none of the towns, with the possible exception of Nazareth, is known for religious or ethnic diversity. For the non-Muslim population, this concentration poses a security problem, since Arab Muslims in Jerusalem support Hamas overwhelmingly. Although little love exists between the Jews and Israeli Palestinians—or so my interlocutors kept reminding me in Hebrew, French, and English—the two sides have established a modus vivendi. You can see them eating, albeit at separate tables, in the same kosher McDonald’s. Extended Arab families frequent Moroccan Jewish eateries, where the food and language are essentially Arab. In Jerusalem, despite the generally tense relations between Orthodox Jews (many imported from the United States) and East Jerusalem Arabs, the same kind of commercial coexistence prevails. The hotels, which cater heavily to Jewish tourists from the United States and the former British Empire, reveal Palestinian, Filipino, and Jewish employees working side by side.
Military security in Israel, necessitated by West Bank Palestinians and concern about their Israeli cousins, drives other arrangements. It accounts for the omnipresent checkpoints and the helicopters flying overhead at the beach in Tel Aviv and at the excavation sites at Caesarea and Capernaum. The same pressure explains the apparently relaxed manner in which Israelis stretch their institutions, particularly the military, to include those unlike themselves. While they do not draft Palestinians, their army does include Bedouins, Maronite Christians, and the Druze, who are deviationist Shiites. Non-Orthodox Israelis will contrast the swarthy “patriotic” Yemenites and Ethiopians who serve in border units to the Orthodox Jews, who have lots of children and often live on welfare but are exempt from military duty.
Since the Orthodox, often resettled from Western countries, are usually the most outspoken annexationists, the complaint is that they exacerbate strife without bearing responsibility. This does not apply to the “modern Orthodox,” however, who wear head coverings (kipoth) but serve disproportionately in difficult military operations. I never learned whether the duty to serve in the military, which applies to young women and young men equally, affects the “modern Orthodox” as well.
Living in a siege situation explains other things about Israel. Unlike FOX News and CNN, the average Israeli did not agonize over Ariel Sharon’s failing health. Although admired for his military prowess and coalition building, Sharon is not thought to be indispensable to the peace process. If the Palestinians will recognize us and cease their violence, goes the refrain, whoever will then be around will sign the peace. Another consequence of being surrounded by enemies is a problematic ap- proach to immigration. In Netanya, “Russian Jews” have arrived in droves claiming the Jewish “law of return.” Most of these immigrants look like ethnic Russians, who might have discovered a Jewish grand- mother—just as Americans, in quest of casino money, discover Pequot relatives. Unlike the Orthodox rabbinate, most Israelis, who need more settlers bearing arms for them, do not pay much attention to genealogies.
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