Forget Birthright: you don’t need to actually send young Jews to Israel. Just have them sit on a plane – it doesn’t necessarily need to go anywhere – and tell them it’s destined for Ben Gurion Airport. Make them sit in a cabin for several hours surrounded by other Jews. You’d think that’d be enough to turn even the most adamant Zionist into a raging anti-Semite. But the opposite is true.
Flights to Israel are famous for stirring up knee-jerk Zionism amongst young Jews. Listening to stories, watching muscular ex-military guys sit next to cute girls going back to seminary – Jews can seem pretty awesome. Within moments of being on the plane, particularist pride swells. People help each other fit bags in overhead compartments they way they would never do on a plane ride to Paris. When people sitting next to you ask about your life, it almost seems that they genuinely want to hear the answer. And all the while the added security measures make you feel that, finally, Jews are in control.
But feelings of ethnic pride quickly descend into racism and prejudice. For Jews, there is a danger of making the same mistake as did countless other groups after finding themselves, for the first time, in total control over their political destinies. I desperately want to believe it is possible to balance the universal and the particular – that ethnic solidarity with my own group and universalist solidarity with all who are oppressed are not mutually exclusive, but more and more it doesn’t seem to be possible. The wonder of finally being surrounded by people who are like you (at least ethnically) fades with the recognition of the discrimination required to sustain an ethnically homogenous society. In Israel, the knee-jerk particularist pride of being in a Jewish state is challenged by the glaringly oppressive relationship between the Jewish majority and everyone else. Israel privileges Jews over non-Jews. And in recent years, this has taken on a distinct racial dynamic with the influx of refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia. African immigrants now do the menial labor and difficult service jobs once reserved for Palestinians who, since the building of the security wall, have for the most part been unable to find employment outside of occupied territory.
The young Israelis I lived with during my first three days in the country (prior to the start of the semester) seemed to have recognized the particularist/universalist conflict and given up. “Zionism is dead,” one of them declared on walk through Dizengoff Center. For young people concerned with inequality and exploitation, Judaism is less of a framework for a particularist community than it is a theological handbook for universal liberation. The ethno-centric obsessions of Diaspora Jews are at odds with the Judaism of these young Israelis, most of whom believe that everyone living in Israel should have the same rights, regardless of religion, race, or creed. Most American Jews support liberal ideals in U.S. politics. But when it comes to Israel, they seem to drop any shred of liberal egalitarian thought and embrace stubborn particularism.
The heat here in South Tel Aviv is brutal. I haven’t stopped sweating since my plane landed. But the heat doesn’t seem to bother the rest of the people in the neighborhood. The guys sleeping on the grassy medians in the middle of Har Tzion street are there because they have nowhere else to go, not because it’s hot. And the crowds of children chirping in a mix of Hebrew, English, and Amharic don’t seem bothered by the heat either. This is what the Zionist dream looks like today: African children speaking Hebrew, more Israeli and Jewish than their Diaspora counterparts will ever be. It’s a wonderful affirmation of universalism. But at the same time, the poverty and racism that surrounds the neighborhood means there is a lot to fight for.