Archive for the ‘Local interest’ Category

JCPA sticks its nose into harassment controversy

Sunday, October 16th, 2011
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

The Jewish Daily Forward reports that

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs [JCPA], American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues, will vote at its upcoming board meeting on a resolution that, in its current draft, cautions Jewish groups to guard against suppressing free speech and to invoke civil rights laws only after exhausting other measures.

“Lawsuits and threats of legal action should not be used to censor anti-Israel events, statements, and speakers in order to ‘protect’ Jewish students,” the draft resolution warns, “but rather for cases which evidence a systematic climate of fear and intimidation coupled with a failure of the university administration to respond with reasonable corrective measures.”

The draft’s nuanced construction reflects serious concern over the possibility that some Jewish groups and individuals may be inappropriately exploiting recent changes in the government’s interpretation of federal civil rights laws, according to communal officials involved in the issue. They cite in particular Title VI of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects individuals from discrimination based on race, color or national origin in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. [my emphasis]

I am wondering why we need this resolution. The proposition boldfaced above is self-evident. Of course it is critical to distinguish between protected speech and antisemitic harassment. In order to prevail in such a lawsuit, a complaint would have to meet the requirements of Title VI.

For example, a complaint filed by Prof. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin in 2009, now being investigated by US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights [OCR], claims that

Professors, academic departments and residential colleges at [The University of California, Santa Cruz] promote and encourage anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish views and behavior, much of which is based on either misleading information or outright falsehoods. In addition, rhetoric heard in UCSC classrooms and at numerous events sponsored and funded by academic and administrative units on campus goes beyond legitimate criticism of Israel.  The rhetoric – which demonizes Israel, compares contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, calls  for the dismantling of the Jewish State, and holds Israel to an impossible double standard – crosses the line into anti-Semitism according to the standards employed by our own government. …

The impact of the academic and university-sponsored Israel-bashing on students has been enormous.  There are students who have felt emotionally and intellectually harassed and intimidated, to the point that they are reluctant or afraid to express a view that is not anti-Israel.  …

Since at least 2001, faculty members and students have brought these and similar problems to the attention of numerous UCSC administrators and faculty.  To date, the administration and faculty have largely ignored the problems.  In some cases, administrators and faculty have publicly denied that there are problems and even repudiated those who have had the courage to raise them. [my emphasis]

The complaint documents in detail Rossman-Benjamin’s contention that 1) a pervasive atmosphere hostile to Jewish students exists, 2) it is harmful to the students, and 3) the university has not taken appropriate action. This is exactly what is required by Title VI as it is now interpreted.

According to the Forward article, the resolution was prompted by a dispute over whether Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint was legitimate (see AAUP letter here and Rossman-Benjamin’s response here). It’s clear that the arguments against it will focus on the issue of limitation of free speech vs. the ‘pervasive atmosphere,’ etc. that is created not only by the preponderance of anti-Israel speech, but the behavior of the speakers, faculty, other students and administration.

Note that accusations of ‘censorship’ and limitations on speech were also the arguments used by the Muslim students who were recently convicted of disrupting a speech by Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine. And in Oakland, California, protests against an exhibition, at a private museum, of drawings supposedly made by Gaza children depicting abuse by Israeli soldiers were attacked as ‘censorship’.

I can only understand the JCPA resolution as an attempt to sandbag Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint. I can imagine that if hearings are held, it will be used as evidence that “even the Jewish community” doesn’t support it.

If Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint is shot down, it will be a green light for continued harassment of Jewish students on all UC campuses. If JCPA approves this resolution at its board meeting on October 24, it will be handing ammunition to those who want to kill it.

Incidentally, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin will be speaking in Fresno on October 23.


What is the JCPA and who decided that it is “American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues?” (The following is adapted from my two previous posts on the subject in January and March of this year):

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA, not to be confused with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) calls itself “the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community.” It is affiliated with the JFNA, formerly the UJC and before that the UJA, the umbrella organization of the Jewish Federations in the US and Canada.

Confused yet? What’s important to know is that the Jewish Federations raise large sums of money. Some of it is spent for charitable purposes in local communities (despite what Helen Thomas thinks, there are poor Jews) and some of it goes to support the Jewish Agency in Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, which helps Jews in difficult situations around the world.

These agencies in part paid for the rescue of Jews in Europe after WWII, Jews from Arab countries, Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc.

Today I’m afraid that there is beginning to be a loss of focus: JFNA has some highly paid corporate officers, and the agencies that it supports are also less than efficient (the Jewish Agency is famous as a home for tired Israeli politicians).

What about the JCPA, which gets most of its funds from JFNA?

The CEO (since 2005) and President (since 2009) of JCPA is Rabbi Steve Gutow. A Reconstructionist Rabbi, Gutow is also “founding Executive Director” (although he does not hold the position now) of the National Jewish Democratic Council, whose mission is frankly partisan.

I’ve been a member of the board of our local Jewish Federation for some time, have served as its treasurer for the last four years, and I had heard very little about the JCPA until recently, when I received several press releases (for example, this one). I didn’t find them particularly helpful, and I asked myself who appointed JCPA to speak for the Jewish community — and why we were paying them to do so. Certainly my organization wasn’t consulted!

Here’s an example of why this may not be a good idea. JCPA has created an “Israel Action Network” intended to combat attacks on the legitimacy of the Jewish state, which has been allocated $6 million for three years from the Jewish Federations. Its director, Martin Raffel, has become embroiled in a controversy about which “Zionists of the Left” belong in the “big tent” and should be considered “allies.”

What about those ‘Zionists’ of the Left called J Street? Raffel wants to include them, because — while they do support boycotting some parts of Israel, they are opposed to boycotting all of it:

But what to think about Zionists on the political left who have demonstrated consistent concern for Israel’s security, support Israel’s inalienable right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, and consider Israel to be the eternal home of the Jewish people — but have decided to express their opposition to specific policies of the Israeli government by refraining from participating in events taking place in the West Bank or purchasing goods produced there? I vigorously would argue that such actions are counter-productive in advancing the cause of peace based on two states that they espouse, a goal that we share. But this is not sufficient cause to place them outside the tent.

Statement of Martin Raffel in JCPA press release

Of course I strongly disagree. An attack on Jewish presence beyond the Green Line is an attack on the legitimacy of Israel as expressed by the League of Nations Mandate. It is a rejection of UNSC resolution 242, which calls for “secure and recognized boundaries,” which are clearly not the 1949 armistice lines. It is an attempt to punish law-abiding Israeli citizens and to support the racist Arab position about who may live where. It is more than just counter-productive, it’s anti-Zionist.

Not only did Raffel accept J Street into his tent, he decided that a right-leaning Zionist group called “Z Street” belonged outside with the camels, probably because it is unabashedly opposed to withdrawing from the territories.

Here in the US we don’t have a Chief Rabbinate, and there are Jews of all political persuasions. It requires a certain amount of arrogance to call yourself “the representative voice of the organized Jewish community” or “American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues” as the Forward’s reporter was told.

Unfortunately, the outside world might believe that you really do speak for American Jews and act accordingly.

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Palestinian supporters push fraudulent children’s art exhibit

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
Drawing allegedly made by a Palestinian child in Gaza

Drawing allegedly made by a Palestinian child in Gaza

By Vic Rosenthal

The Oakland, California Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) has become a focus of controversy after the cancellation of a scheduled exhibition of art supposedly by ‘Palestinian children’ from Gaza, aged 9-11.

The pictures are emotionally powerful, showing the victimization of civilians, especially children, by demonic Israeli soldiers. They include scenes of horror, fear and death as well as Palestinian and Jewish political symbols. Note the Israeli flag on the soldier, as well as the Palestinian flag, the map showing Israel as ‘Palestine’ and what appears to be the Hizballah logo above it in the illustration above.

The exhibit was cancelled after community residents protested that the images were not suitable for children — the museum’s intended audience — and that the one-sided, highly political content was inappropriate.

It is an example of two characteristics we find over and over in pro-Palestinian propaganda: reality inversion and a propensity for audacious lying.

Let’s take the second point first: the sponsoring organization, the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) claims that the pictures were drawn by children from 9 to 11 years of age. That’s nonsense. Look at the drawing above. Note how the viewer’s eye is drawn to the slightly off-center focal point, the child cowering in the corner, the suggestion of despair evoked by the black shading around him. Look at the effective representation of the soldier’s face with a few strokes. Look at the sureness of the lines, the bold strokes. Whoever drew this was either an adult artist or a remarkable prodigy, sophisticated both artistically and politically.

Here are two more examples:

Did a child draw this?

Did a child draw this?

Or this?

Or this?

I showed them to a professor of Art at a local university. Here is what she said about them:

The paintings (color drawings) are highly sophisticated especially in relationship to detail. Did you see the barbed wire? Also, there is a carefully drawn Star of David in each work. The authenticity of the painting is remarkable for a child’s hand. The drawing of the planes and helicopters, the man in the tower, the dynamic brushstrokes that are well conceived and controlled all seem to project a more mature approach to art. Could these “children” be in their late teens, college age, or young adults [MECA says they were 9 to 11 years old]? According to the the quote, “much of the artwork was produced by children.” I wonder how “much”? Also, it is possible that the “children” were directed by an adult who supervised and perhaps completed the initial drawing.

Like the ‘death’ of another Palestinian child, Mohammed Dura, this exhibition is an invention designed to demonize Israel.

I mentioned Palestinian reality inversion. This is the phenomenon of attributing to Israel the vicious tactics used by Arab terrorists themselves. One of these is the deliberate targeting of noncombatant children:

The Ma’alot massacre, in which 25 Israelis were killed including 22 children, the Bus of Blood (35 dead, 13 children), the attack on the nursery at Kibbutz Misgav Am (3 dead, 2 children), the Dolphinarium bombing (21 teens dead), the Sbarro Pizza bombing (15 dead, 5 children), the shooting at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva (8 dead, 7 teens), the vicious butchering of the Fogel family (5 dead, 3 children), the antitank rocket attack on a yellow school bus (1 child) — these are just a few of a long, long list.

The Palestinians know that nothing tugs at the heartstrings more than the suffering of children. So they make ours suffer and accuse us of doing it to them.

The sponsoring organization, MECA, takes a radical position on the Arab-Israeli conflict:

  • MECA founder and Executive Director Barbara Lubin wrote “I think that the Jewish State is racist to the core.”  Lubin refers to the 1948 “ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population” and wrote that “[t]he concept of ‘Jewish morality’ is truly dead. We can be fascists, terrorists, and Nazis just like everybody else.”
  • In an interview, MECA Director of Gaza Projects, Dr. Mona El-Farra, explained that MECA refused USAID funding because it came with the condition that they promise “not [to] give any help or any aid whatsoever for the families of the militiamen, or their relatives, or anyone related to ‘terrorist attacks’” because “we consider it resistance” (emphasis added). — NGO Monitor

MECA plans to find another location for the show, perhaps in the street outside the museum. They are pitching the museum’s decision to cancel the show as ‘censorship’. Of course, this is nonsense — there is no free speech issue here. The museum is not required to give a platform to anyone who desires one, and it has a right to reject the exhibit on the grounds that it is inappropriate for its audience, is overt political propaganda — or because it is simply a fraud.

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Jewish politics are local, too

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

I had intended to use this cartoon to illustrate an article about the Tel Aviv tent protest. But if all politics are local, that goes for Jewish politics too. What’s true for Moty and Udi’s generation is also true for American Jews. So I am going to write about local, and American, Jewish politics.

On Thursday, Israel suffered a painful shock when terrorists murdered 8 Israelis, including a pair of kindergarten teachers on vacation with their husbands and Pascal Avrahami, a 49-year old father of three sons who was a member of the police counterterrorism unit (yamam) that was primarily responsible for stopping the attack, keeping a small disaster from becoming a large catastrophe. My own son, who served with him, went to Avrahami’s funeral on Friday.

Since then, over a hundred rockets have fallen in Israel, killing one or two (reports are unclear) and injuring dozens, including small children (see The Muqata for a minute by minute account of events). There is a possibility of serious escalation.

So — to get local — I was upset, although not surprised, when I went to a Friday night service at our Reform temple and these events were not mentioned. The service was, as always, very upbeat and musical. Prayers were said for local people that were ill, and yahrzeits and recent deaths were commemorated, again as always. But not a word about what was happening in the Jewish state.

Let me say as strongly as possible that I am not criticizing the rabbi of the congregation. I’m convinced that he is personally pro-Israel. He is brand new in Fresno and is just getting to know the members and their politics. He has heard that they are quite contentious — probably he has heard somewhat exaggerated stories about their differences — and he has said that his job is to bring people together, not to push them apart.

Discussion of Israel has become taboo in many Jewish circles, like politics and religion at the boarding house dinner table. Danny Gordis recently wrote that at one rabbinical seminary,  a “campus dean actually instructed students to cease all e-mail discussion of Israel, while every other political topic remained fair game.” A rabbinical seminary!

So one can’t blame the rabbi for not wanting to touch an issue that might fracture his congregation.

And yet, this is a Jewish congregation and Israel is the state of the Jewish People.  Yes, some members have relatives in Israel that they are worried about, but this is emphatically not about that. It is about whether there is a special connection between our Jewish congregation and the Jewish state. Dozens of innocent people were also killed this week by terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, Nigeria and Algeria, but isn’t Israel special to us? Or is it ‘just another country‘?

The Torah is central to all forms of Judaism. It’s a lot of things — a moral and legal code, a history book, a theological tract — but more than anything else, it’s a book about a relationship. And this relationship has three poles: God, the Jewish People, and the Land of Israel. What about the last two?

Danny Gordis argues that liberal Judaism has lost its way, rejecting “the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people—our own people.” This, combined with some pernicious post-modernist reasoning, has brought us to the absurd situation in which the leaders of the anti-Zionist movement in the West are mostly Jews!

And it has brought the Reform movement in the US (URJ) to the point that it would choose J Street and New Israel Fund activist Rabbi Richard Jacobs as its president. Most tellingly, URJ leaders were shocked at the controversy their decision gave rise to. A rabbi close to the process told me that they were blindsided by the political criticism. In effect, they said “we need this guy’s organizational skills and he’s not that far out politically — what’s their problem?”

Jewish groups in the US are often distinguished by the degree to which they follow the commandments:  how they observe Shabbat, kashrut, how they dress, etc. But in my opinion these differences are unimportant compared to the wide gulf that separates those congregations that identify primarily as part of the Jewish people from those that see themselves as human beings who are secondarily of the Jewish persuasion.

I don’t think, incidentally, that all Reform congregations must fall on the universalist side of that divide, despite the URJ’s  Rabbi Jacobs. But I do think that every congregation, including the one I belong to, needs to ask itself how important the Jewish People and the Land of Israel are to them.

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Israel and the LGBT community

Monday, August 8th, 2011
Pro-Palestinian contingent marches in Tel Aviv's Gay Pride parade

Pro-Palestinian contingent marches in Tel Aviv's Gay Pride parade

A man who was thought to be the last surviving person sent to a Nazi concentration camp for being gay has died at 98. Hitler’s oppression of homosexuals is well known, but it’s interesting to note that the totalitarian Left has also been less than gay-friendly:

During the time of the Soviet Union there were two decisive repressive measures of the State against homosexuals: the notorious article 121.1 which punished myzhelozhestvo (a man lying with another man) with up to five years of imprisonment, and psychiatry which made it possible to forcibly confine lesbian women in a psychiatric clinic. When a lesbian love relationship was reported to the authorities by the parents or another legal guardian, the former could see to it that a psychiatric problem was diagnosed, usually a disorder of personality. The young women (most of them 15 to 19 years old) were then held in a psychiatric clinic for three months. In the following they would then receive a mind-bending drug treatment before being forced to register with a local psychiatrist as mentally ill. Once they were registered, any chance of a professional career or even of getting a driver’s license was denied to them.

In the 20s, the Soviet psychology specially developed a typological theory for recognizing “active lesbians”. According to this theory, they could be recognized by their personal initiative and their success in male professions, by their smoking, drinking alcohol and use of dirty language, their manly appearance, their liking horseback riding [!] and their careers in the Red Army. Although since 1988 forcible psychiatric confinement has been outlawed, in the province they are still quite possible, since even contemporary sexual pathologists and psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as an illness. — Anne Buetikofer, “Homosexuality in the Soviet Union and in today’s Russia

Although Stalinist laws restricting abortion, marriage and divorce were liberalized shortly after his death, section 121.1 remained in effect in Russia until 1993!

I think I can say unequivocally that the degree of tolerance for gays and lesbians in a society is directly proportional to the degree to which it is a free society. Israel is an (unfortunately rare) example of how it is possible for a religious tradition which opposes homosexuality to coexist with a temporal authority that does not interfere with the private lives of its citizens. In fact, you could call Israel the San Francisco of the Middle East, or — pardon the expression — the ‘Mecca’ for gay people of any ethnicity in the region.

You would think, then, that the gay community in the US and even Israel would recognize this. Some of its members do, but by in large it has bought the Palestinian myth of victimization and oppression lock, stock and barrel.

One reason is that seeing themselves as an oppressed minority, they tend to identify with another such group. In addition, as a marginalized group, they see, hear and read a great deal of ‘alternative’ — that is, leftist — media that is suffused with lies about Israel. For example, in the US there is probably more specifically ‘LGBT’ programming on the Pacifica network (KPFA, Berkeley CA, etc.) than anywhere else. But that network is also home to sustained, vicious daily attacks on Israel. The same is true of print and Internet media, like the Daily Kos or Huffington Post.

As a result, it’s common to see angry denunciations of any attempt to present the Israeli case as ‘pinkwashing’ — the process of covering up ‘crimes’ against Palestinian Arabs by changing the subject to gay rights. So we get oxymoronic organizations like “Queers for Palestine”. These groups may even admit that Israel respects gay rights and that Arab and Muslim nations in the Mideast are institutionally homophobic, but still consider it their duty to passionately support the ‘Palestinian cause’.

A local writer, Lillian Faderman, has just published an op-ed in the largest national LGBT publication, The Advocate, in which she takes the gay community to task for its pervasive anti-Israel bias. Faderman writes,

Americans have every reason to envy Israel’s enlightened policies toward its LGBT citizens. So it puzzles me deeply when I hear of LGBT groups lending their sympathy to opponents of Israel.

The rights we have been fighting for and still have not fully achieved in the United States, LGBT Israelis already enjoy. I came out in the middle of the last century and witnessed firsthand the persecution and oppression of LGBT people. It was because of those early experiences that I devoted the last 40 years of my life to writing books and articles about our community’s history and progress…

My partner and I have been together for 40 years. Like 18,000 other same-sex couples in California, we got married in 2008. Though all 36,000 of us are still married as far as the state of California is concerned, Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriage for all others. Because federal laws don’t recognize our marriage, our legal bond doesn’t do us much good anyway. If we should decide to move next door to Arizona or Las Vegas or Oregon — or almost anywhere else in America — we wouldn’t be considered legally married. We both pay federal income tax, of course, but under the law we get none of the federal benefits that opposite-sex couples receive. In fact, the only result of our marriage with regard to taxes is that we have to pay our accountant triple: once for doing our state income tax as a married couple, a second and third time for doing our federal income tax as two single payers. And if one of us should die, that’s the end of her Social Security benefits for which she’d paid in for more than half a century; the surviving spouse gets absolutely nothing of those benefits.

If we’d lived in Israel, we’d be much better off. In 1994 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of granting spousal benefits to same-sex couples. In 2004 the court ruled that LGBT couples could qualify for common-law marriage status. In 2005 legislation was passed in Israel recognizing all same-sex marriages that are performed abroad.

So there can be no explanation for LGBT groups participating in wrong-headed actions such as the BDS movement that seeks boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Outside of Israel, everywhere in the Middle East, LGBT people are utterly despised under the law. Indeed, official treatment of LGBT people in other Middle East countries makes the bar raids and job losses and police entrapments that we experienced in the 1950s and ’60s seem like coddling. If a family wishes to rid itself of the embarrassment of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender member by “honor killing” there would be no legal consequences in the area governed by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, or in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Syria.

Needless to say, and as even the Amnesty International LGBT website shows, there’s no Middle Eastern country other than Israel in which lesbian or gay couples can receive spousal benefits, none other than Israel in which lesbians and gays can serve openly in the military, none other than Israel that protects lesbians and gays from discrimination or hate crimes. In Iran and Saudi Arabia we’re put to death. In Syria we’re thrown in prison for three years. In Egypt we’re prosecuted under lewd conduct laws, and we’re illegal in Lebanon and Libya too.

All of this is true, but I’m afraid that for the anti-Zionists in the gay community, it’s beside the point. For example, here’s a random comment posted in response to Faderman’s article:

Granted Israel treats its Jewish LGBT citizens (though not Arab: Christian or Muslim or Atheist), better than other countries in the Middle East. But so what? That should be of absolutely zero moral value when judging its policies of occupation and aggression against the native Palestinians.

It doesn’t hurt to explain, as Faderman does so well, just how great the contrast is between Israel and the various monarchies, hereditary or military dictatorships and Islamic ‘republics’ that make up the Middle East, or even the contrast between Israel and the US. But until we can also explain that ‘Palestinians’ are no more ‘native’ to the region than Jews, that the land is not ‘occupied’ and that the aggressors in the conflict are not the Israelis — until it’s possible to break the stranglehold that the anti-Zionists have managed to place on ‘progressive’ thinking and media — our explanations will fall on deaf ears.

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A local girl in the IDF

Monday, July 18th, 2011
Darrow Pierce (left) with Bedouins

Darrow Pierce (left) with Bedouins on her first trip to Israel

I can’t overemphasize how honored I feel to have received permission to publish the following letter. It is from a young woman from Fresno, Darrow Pierce, who recently moved to Israel and began her army service.

So what’s so special about this? Darrow is. She’s very, very smart, but there are lots of smart people. What distinguishes Darrow is the degree to which she is able to perceive the world clearly, think for herself and act on her beliefs.

I’ve known Darrow and her parents for some years — her parents are well-educated professionals who would describe their politics as ‘progressive’. Darrow even participated in an interfaith summer program led by a Palestinian, one who is anything but a friend of Israel.

It would be an understatement to say that her parents were not enthusiastic when Darrow informed them of her plans. But you don’t raise someone like Darrow by accident, and they understood that an adult gets to make her own decisions — and also that the Israeli-Arab conflict is more complicated than it may have seemed before.

I have reproduced Darrow’s letter exactly as received, including some things that sound like she was thinking in Hebrew.

By Darrow Pierce

In December of 2009, despite great opposition from family and friends, I moved to Israel, gained citizenship and started learning Hebrew in a kibbutz in northern Israel. In 2010, I joined Garin Tzabar (a program that helps new Israelis acclimate and prepare for their army service). My “garin” (meaning “seed” in Hebrew) has people from 10 different countries and lives on Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. After living, learning, drafting, complaining, fighting, bonding, crying and laughing with each other, we’ve become a wonderfully eclectic sort of family. We live two kilometers from Gaza and a five-minute drive (as I accidentally discovered one day) from Egypt.

Life on a kibbutz is normally a quiet one, but that’s not the case where I live — Hamas regularly fires Qassam rockets, ‘patzmarim,’ (rockets too small to trigger alarms) and the occasional phosphor bomb into my neighborhood. On weekends home from the army (I’m on base from Sunday to Thursday, and my weekends are free off base), I often find myself running for my life to nearby bomb shelters or cooped up in them for hours on end. It was a hard thing to get used to after growing up in the Tower District [Fresno’s ‘bohemian’ neighborhood]. I can’t begin to describe the immobilizing hopelessness you feel waiting for bombs to fall. Sometimes, you don’t have time to be scared. You suddenly hear explosions and your doors and windows unexpectedly shake. It’s not like this in the whole country; living so close to Gaza has some disadvantages.

I drafted in January to be a physical trainer/sports instructor in the army. In basic training, we learned to shoot an M16. My officers repeatedly emphasized the responsibility of having a gun, the importance of using it only when absolutely necessary, respect, self-discipline, humility, and many other values good soldiers display. After finishing my course, in which I learned (in my new language) about physiology, nutrition, sports injuries and anatomy, I was placed on a base eight hours away from my kibbutz. The base focuses on education. New immigrants whose Hebrew levels aren’t high enough go to study Hebrew and start basic training there.

Because I have no family in Israel, I’m classified as a ‘lonely soldier.’ While other soldiers go back to a clean home and cry on mom’s shoulder, complain to dad about how incompetent their officer is, and eat home-made food, lone soldiers must go home, do their own laundry, shop for and cook their own food, clean their own houses, and maybe skype their family if the time difference allows. The toll it takes on one is heavy and unexpected. I haven’t seen my parents for eleven months, and by the time I go back to California, I won’t have been home for a year and a half.

Overall, I’d say my experience in the Israeli army has been a positive one. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because I spoke no Hebrew before moving to Israel, I often found myself in trouble but unable to understand why. But the army has taught me many things besides a second language. I’m exposed to many different cultures and people — immigrants from all over the world, kibbutzniks, Druze, Israeli Arabs, people from villages, cities, religious, secular, etc. I’ve matured immensely and learned how to deal with stress better.

I’m comfortable living alone. I’m financially independent. I can figure out how to get anywhere on a bus. Being forced to draft after high school creates a more mature younger generation. Instead of thinking about classes or work or what to do because they dropped out, Israeli high school graduates are focused on getting into the best army units possible. Because I drafted instead of going to college, I will bring a seriousness and focus to my formal education that I didn’t possess before.

Both being in the army and living in a war zone have also changed much of my political view on Israel. Before I moved here, I thought that it was easy for people to get along, and that everyone should simply do so. I once thought it unproductive to build walls and enforce blockades. But after seeing violence, deep-rooted, blind hatred and stubborn ignorance from both sides, and how every single person in Israel and Palestine is affected by war, I understand that it’s not so simple. I’ve met many families that have had to bury children or parents or loved ones. Fear and pain are constant presences at every age. And when your own life is threatened time and time again, your opinions change.

It’s eternally frustrating to see how international media muddy things by irresponsibly regurgitating inaccuracies about what happens here without checking facts. The result is one-sided stories that distort Israel’s actions. I’m not saying that Israel can do no wrong, but there are two sides to every coin, and there are no innocent parties here. So much falls through the cracks. For example, the world claims that Israeli aircraft indiscriminately bomb Gaza, but fails to mention Israel’s extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties, and that Israel launches airstrikes only in retaliation against Hamas’ own strikes against the Israeli civilian population.

There have been many times when I’ve wished to go home with all of my aching body and mind. But when I really think about it, I’d never trade this experience for anything. It was especially during those hard times that I grew as a person and as a citizen of this world. I once heard that moving to Israel is like a marriage — you give, take, fight, love, disagree, compromise, and work on your relationship with the country and the people. For some it doesn’t work out, and others are happy for the rest of their lives. I don’t know what’ll happen after I discharge from the army, but for now, my marriage is going great.

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