Disclaimer: This opinion piece reflects the authentic views of the individual USYer who authored this blog post. The stance on issues brought up in this article is not necessarily representative of the views of USY as an organization.
50% of Israeli Jews are Sephardi or Mizrahi, which means that they descend from Spain or North Africa. This large percentage of Jews from the Arab world, in addition to the 20% Arab non-Jewish population makes it no surprise that Arab and Jewish culture in Israel is intertwined in a variety of ways. One classic example that comes to mind is Israeli cuisine. Israeli food is a conglomeration of borrowed flavors and spices from throughout the Middle East. For example, falafel, an Israeli staple actually originated in Lebanon. Shawarma is said to have come from Turkey. Tahina is from Persia and hummus is iconic all over the Middle East. In addition, popular Israeli singers such as Omer Adam, Eyal Golan, and Kobi Peretz infuse their Middle Eastern roots into their work. If you listen to popular Palestinian singers such as Mohammad Assaf for example, you will find similarities in the sound and overall vibe of the music.
Even though Jews and Arabs are ethnically two of the most similar groups, we have created one of the most contentious conflicts in the political scene today. When it comes to Israel’s treatment of our Arab cousins, there are definitely both positives and negatives to highlight. Arabs living in Israel have equal voting rights to Jews, hold seats and representation in the Knesset, and there are laws put in place to prevent job discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and religion. However, as in all diverse societies, racism is an issue in Israel as the Israeli Arab divide can cause hate, discrimination and violence from both sides. In Israel, Arabs do not have mandatory inscription to the IDF. While I believe that this makes sense as IDF service can become a conflict of interest for some Arabs, this also widens the gap between Arab-Israeli relationships, as Palestinian and Israeli young people do not share this formative experience together.
In the West Bank there are many problematic situations that are harmful to Palestinian communities. Occupied Area C , home to 180,000-300,000 Palestinians is controlled entirely by the Israeli government. Palestinians have no vote or say in the laws that they live by, as they are not official citizens of Israel. However, the issue becomes especially complicated because if these Palestinians were given full Israeli citizenship and a vote in elections, it would dismantle the Jewish majority in Israel. There are approximately 125 Israeli settlements located in Area C, which makes up 60% of the West Bank. The creation of these settlements has allowed for Israelis to reap the benefits of inexpensive real estate, while displacing Palestinian communities, forcing them to live in less than favorable conditions. In addition, the border wall separating the West Bank and Israel makes it difficult for many Palestinians to travel in and out of the West Bank, though many do so every day for a variety of reasons including work.
In the Gaza Strip, there is a population of approximately 1.8 million people. There are virtually no Israeli Jews living in Gaza due to the disengagement in 2005. Palestinians in Gaza suffer many human rights violations and difficult living conditions. The Israeli government does provide humanitarian aid to Gaza, but much of this is squandered and mismanaged by the ‘governing’ body Hamas. Unfortunately, Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization, uses funds to build underground tunnels into Israel and puts women and children on the front lines of the conflict. In recent years there has been unrest on the border between Gaza and Israel. As there are Israeli houses located close to the border, the IDF has to make difficult decisions on how to approach often violent resistance. While I don’t always agree with the way the IDF acts in these situations, I feel that it is necessary to point out that the media falsely portrays many of these uprisings as nonviolent and peaceful.
While many of these things can be extremely difficult to grapple with, the most important thing to understand is that this conflict is two-sided. Being able to come to terms with criticism of Israel was difficult for me. Scratching the surface of these complicated issues does not need to change the joy we feel at the Kotel or our smiles in Tel Aviv. I believe that a nuanced and critical perspective is essential to exhibiting empathy for all those affected by this conflict and starting important educational conversations with others.
Stephanie Kallish currently serves on the Israel Affairs International General Board, and as CHUSY Regional Israel Affairs Vice President. Stephanie is a senior and hails from the BEANS USY chapter of CHUSY.