Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Seeking A More Perfect Jewish Union and Striving For Empathy

This week as part of our mifgash with Israelis from Hebrew U, we visited the Yitzhak Rabin Youth Hostel.  I knew this was going to be an emotional evening:  I was in Hebrew school when I learned that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a religious Jew, and that event has loomed as a shadow over my relationship with Israel. This is very different from my father's generation, for whom Israel represented a safe haven in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the miracle of the Six Day War.

The "broken amphitheater" 
For the our program, we were taken into a room that we were told was designed to represent a "broken amphitheater," representing the deep divisions that Rabin's government and murder revealed in Israeli society.  We were then told we were going to see a video presentation from a projector, but no one pulled down a screen.  Instead, images and scenes from 100 years of Zionist and Israeli history surrounded us in 360 degrees.

Whether it was Israeli troops storming Jaffa Gate during the Six-Day war or impassioned rallies and peace demonstrations in the lead-up to the Oslo Accords, the curators of this presentation put the viewer directly in the middle of the turmoil.  While I had been aware of many of these events on an an intellectual l level, I had never seen footage of many of them and so they weren't really alive for me.
Because the First Intifada had happened when I was a toddler and the Second Intifada occurred when I was starting to move away from the Jewish world (for a variety of reasons), those events never were a big part of my Jewish consciousness.  Seeing footage of the First Intifada really made a huge impact on me in that moment.  Being being placed in the middle of that violence went a long way toward helping me empathize with those Israelis who feel from experience that any compromises on security, even in the name of peace, are too dangerous of a risk.

This immersive approach seems to be a particular feature of Israeli museums--the week before we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, which took a similarly visceral approach in depicting the life of another former Prime Minister.  This is particularly interesting for me as a theatre person who has observed the rise of immersive experiences in my artistic community, from Sleep No More  to Here Lies Love.  For many is Begin controversial figure in Israeli history due to his involvement with the violent acts of Irgun, his support for settlements, and the fallout from the First Lebanon War.  On the other hand, one of the factors that enabled his rise to power was his ability to appeal to racial minorities in Israel who had felt marginalized by the country's elite.  At one point the museum leads you into a room where you view video footage of Begin's acceptance speech surrounded by supporters who represented a new diverse Israeli society that included not just Jews from Europe, but also North African countries who were thrilled to have someone in their government acknowledge them.

Do any of these experiences change my politics?  Not really.  I am still an American for Peace Now who believes that pushing Israel to maintain its democratic character is crucial for its long-term survival.  What these experiences at both of these museums did, however, was remind me that any conversation on Israel's security (especially with people who have lived through it) needs to be approached with the utmost sense of humility.

Often when I am feeling overwhelmed by cultural divisions, whether in Israel or in the US, I sometimes turn to President Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech from when he was a candidate during the 2008 election.  The Republican media had seized on some particularly inflammatory remarks made by Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.  In his speech, the future president maps out the deep societal divisions in American society that lead to violent and hateful discourse in both the black and white communities in America.  And while that rhetoric is not always "productive," Obama urges the people of his nation to acknowledge that "the anger is real; it is powerful."  He cautions that "to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races." 

I believe empathy is crucial for us as Americans when we approach the topic of Israel.  Even our words are critical and we may have serious concerns about Israel's actions in the occupied territories (as I very much do).  For everyone involved in the conflict, both Israelis and Palestinians as well as their kindred watching throughout the world, the physical and existential stakes are incredibly high.  Failure to acknowledge those stakes not only undermines our intelligence, but threatens the security of us all.

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