2 August 2012
Seeing the Blind Spots
I woke up on July 19 in hot, muggy Tel Aviv and tuned in to CNN International. The news came in from Aurora, Colorado – another American mass shooting, this time in a movie theater.
The coverage quickly focused on the American obsession with guns. After a while, I had to turn it off. Thirteen years earlier, as the communications director for the Brady Campaign, I met parents who lost their children in the Columbine shooting. We spent months working to transmute that tragedy into sensible gun laws, but after much advocacy and lobbying, when it came time for the vote in Congress, we lost.
Later that day I saw first-hand another evolving tragedy in south Tel Aviv, at the African Refugee Development Center holed away in a corner of the central bus station. ARDC program manager Nic Schlagman took us on a neighborhood tour. We saw scores of refugees sleeping in the park, their belongings hoisted on a tree for safe-keeping. We heard about the recent attacks on refugees and their businesses and their fear for their safety.
It was good to learn about the ARDC shelter where African women, often traumatized on their way to Israel, now live with their children. It was good to see, another day, the clinic run by Physicians for Human Rights that brings medical care to the refugees. And it was good to learn that the refugees have organized themselves to help each other – the guy with a job brings hummus and pita to the park every night for his countrymen without income or food, and so on.
Flying home last week, I had time to think about the two cultures in which I work, the American and the Israeli. It seems that even the most vibrant, healthy cultures have blind spots. The American love affair with firearms, and with the violence we tolerate in the name of Second Amendment rights, is one such, but it must never prevent us from pushing for sensible gun laws that protect our own right to life and safety.
Israel, where gun violence is rare, has its own blind spots. The refugee situation is complex and not easily resolvable by policy solutions. But the language used by some Israeli leaders to describe these African refugees is often appalling. “Infiltrators.” “Criminals who rape and rob.” Even, in the words of one member of Knesset, a “cancer.”
Refugees visit the Medical clinic of Doctors for Hume rights in Tel Aviv Sunday.
And now Israel has embarked on a program of incarceration and deportation. The holding facility now under construction in the Negev will be the world’s largest prison for refugees. The process by which refugees request and are granted asylum is broken and only a few refugees are awarded that status every year.
Israel was founded as the Jewish homeland and the suffering of the Jewish people is in its collective DNA. It has never existed without existential threat. Perhaps that is why many Israelis shrug at two generations of occupation and the millions of people living under military rule without political rights, as indicated in public opinion polls. And perhaps the growing focus on Israel as a state that exists only for and about its Jewish citizens represents a cultural blind spot for many Israelis, causing them to fail to regard suffering when it is Palestinian or Eritrean or just not-Jewish, seeing it instead as something that is happening to the Other.
Mitt Romney made news the other day when he said that Israeli economic success was a function of culture. Maybe he’s right, although comparing it to Palestinian economic development under occupation was foolish. But other things get embedded in national culture as well, and the emergence of xenophobia and indifference to the situation of non-Jews in Israel and the occupied territories is a warning sign, a sign we must heed.
But we won’t lose hope. Because there are Israelis, and you support them, who see injustice and work to correct it. As today’s NIF News tells you, what began as a conversation at a nursing home between a stroke patient and a fifteen year-old volunteer named Oren Rimon about the need to treat refugees with dignity quickly turned into a 500-person march in Tel Aviv this Saturday.
Oren isn’t alone. There’s Nic Schlagman and hundreds of others like him, working every day with few resources, out of the limelight, doing what’s right. When Nic’s doing his job in that un-air-conditioned back office in the Tel Aviv bus station, when the doctors and nurses and volunteers at PHR’s clinic work across cultural lines to bring medical care to those most in need, I’m proud that it is NIF that stands with them.
You should be, too.