Israel On Its Own

by by by David Adler

illustration by by Robert Sandler

When Doron Shiffer-Sebba first walked the fifteen minutes from his house in West Jerusalem to the Old City in East Jerusalem, he was seventeen years old. He had lived on the West side his whole life, but here he was, making his first trip to the other side of town. “Walking into the Old City,” he said, “it felt like I was walking into a different country.”

Doron isn’t special in this regard. If anything, having grown up in a relatively progressive house—his father is a professor of criminology at Hebrew University; his mother is a director of an NGO—Doron would have been more inclined than his peers to explore the landscape if there had been avenues for him to do so. Yet he is quick to point out that this was not the case. “My knowledge of Jerusalem, the city I grew up in, is nonexistent,” he said. “I can get from my house to school, from my house to a friend’s house, but I can’t tell you how to get from point A to point B, which is very strange.” Doron has lived in many places—London, Beijing, New York—and had no trouble internalizing their geographies; Jerusalem is different.

“I remember the first thing I was really shocked about was that they used our currency,” he said of his arrival in the Old City.” He clarified immediately. “This comes out as a very racist sentence, because it makes it sound as if they are the ‘other,’ as if they were not Israeli citizens. But it goes to show how effective segregation is within Israel.” Growing up in a city where one third of the population is Muslim and another third Orthodox Jewish, Doron had come into almost no contact with these ethnic groups. He is one of the secular Jews who compose the final third who occupy a space both culturally and geographically separate from the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish—also known as Haredi—populations.

Considering the density of Jerusalem—over 16,000 people per square mile compared to Providence’s 6,000 or New York City’s 10,000—one might expect the sort of melting pot mentality of other metropolitan areas. But this is the paradox of the ancient city, bearing at once the history of thousands of years of violent religious contention and societal rifts so deeply embedded that they’ve generated complete segregation. Jerusalem’s religious tension pervades every facet of the social sphere—from the home to the streets and even into the schools. Israel’s education system consists of four separate tracks: state schools that offer a secular education for Jewish Israelis; state-religious schools that cater to the Haredi population with a heavy religious curriculum; Independent schools, also known as “Chinuch Atzmai,” that offer a completely separate Haredi education, focusing almost entirely on Talmud and Torah studies without regard for secular disciplines; and Arab schools, which are specifically designed to provide a curriculum of Arab history and culture to Arab Israelis. As of 2010, there were a total of only five schools in the entire state of Israel that had integrated Jews and Arabs, educating only 1,250 students out of a total student population of over a million. The classroom, in turn, has become a center of cultural conditioning in the practices of segregation. Arab Israelis learn in Arabic; Jews in Hebrew.

Earlier this year, in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem—home to a growing Haredi population—one ultra-Orthodox nursery school sought to erect a fence to physically divide the Haredi school ground from the adjacent secular kindergarten. “I don’t want my children to see immodest women,” one Haredi mother told the Guardian. Appealing to the Jerusalem City Authority, the Haredi nursery school won its fight: “with the aim of meeting the needs of all of the neighborhood’s pupils…the [municipality] decided to divide the existing building.” This move by the Jerusalem City Authority can be interpreted as one of diplomacy: ease the tension between ethnic groups and the community can function. But the net effect is merely an increase in the divide—cultural, economic, political, or in this case, physical—within Israeli society. As secular families took to the street to protest the decision, Israel faced a difficult reality: the “separate but equal” approach—beyond its moral implications—is simply unsustainable.

All of these issues of segregation are con tained within Israel’s borders. The question of Palestine—though subtly present in most of these Israeli conditions—remains an external factor: Israelis, Doron seems to say, are thinking about Israel.

“Growing up, Palestine was not the predominant dinner table conversation. It was actually disparities within Israeli societies, disparities for Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. There is a lot more tension about the problems of the Jewish democratic state than the Palestinian territories.”


On September 1, 400,000 Israelis marched in the streets. From Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the people of Israel gathered to send a message to their government. “The heart of this protest is the affront and outrage over the government’s indifference to the people’s suffering,” author Amos Oz told Ha’aretz. Since July, when protesters began propping up tents in the streets of Israel, the movement had been gaining strength, leading up to the demonstration, one of the biggest in Israel’s history.

“This is the first time that instead of fighting against the Arabs we are fighting for something—our life and that of our children,” activist Eldad Yaniv told the New York Times. These citizens are fighting the economic inequalities of the state of Israel, a condition that has many struggling to make rent. Prices of basic necessities like housing, gasoline, and food have been on the rise for years, and Israelis are finally beginning to speak out against the major domestic problems afflicting the state.

Since its birth in 1948, Israel has moved—alongside the United States—away from regulation and toward the free market. As a result, Israel’s capitalism has produced economic inequalities that mirror closely those of the US. Today, Israel’s economy is presided over by a consolidated aristocracy: only a few family dynasties—the Ofers, the Dankners, the Tshuvas, and the Fishmans among them—control close to 30 percent of Israel’s wealth. These tycoons are responsible for the ten biggest business groups in the country, and as such, wield massive political influence in a country whose economic woes are merely the tip of the iceberg. The protests of early September highlight the everyday consequences of a political orientation towards the rich—the one percent thriving at the cost of the ninety-nine.

This is, as Doron calls it, the “regular life problem”—paying the rent, putting food on the table, filling up the gas tank to get to work in the morning. Layered on top of Israel’s deeply divided ethnic landscape is a deeply divided socioeconomic one, creating a checkerboard of divisions that make the Israeli situation incredibly difficult to address. One might think that the economic despair of the Israeli people would lead to some unification, some solidarity on behalf of all religious affiliations. But even as a housing crisis looms, there is little unity among Israelis who remain attached to the existing social divisions.

It was an uplifting scene in early September—as the New York Times described it, the protests were “carnival-like and nonviolent,” with not a single display window broken. But the protesters were all Jewish Israelis; had the group been less homogenous, the glow of the protest might have been dimmed by internal dispute, or disrupted by an Israeli military that is careful to monitor public Arab gatherings.

However, since early September, the cries for reform of many Israeli citizens have been drowned out by recent events at the United Nations, which have thrust the Palestinian conflict back to the foreground of Israeli life. The “regular life problem,” it seems, will have to wait.


On September 16, Palestinian President Abbas announced that Palestine would take unilateral action to pursue statehood at the U.N. “We need to have full membership at the U.N.,” Abbas said in his live television broadcast. “We have one goal: To be. And we will be.” His speech caused a firestorm of controversy and media coverage, with political leaders speaking out from across the globe to express advocacy, hesitation, or outright disagreement with Abbas’s proposal. But contrary to what the coverage suggests, Doron’s life as an Israeli has not been dictated by questions of Palestinian statehood.

Doron explains, “I think for most childhoods in Israel that aren’t in Settlements [self-contained Jewish communities in Palestinian territory] kids have no clue what the Palestinian authority is. I never thought about it as a kid.” Even after the Second Intifada, or formal uprising of the Palestinian people, broke out while he was in junior high, he remained largely unaware. “I was very sheltered because it was dangerous in Jerusalem especially.” He knew not to board the bus; he was taught to be aware of public spaces—one café he used to frequent was bombed—but events such as these did not translate into overwhelming fear. “That’s how it works: parents want to give their kids the most normal childhood they possibly can until they know they have to go into the army.”

In fact, without the influence of the army, Doron isn’t sure these issues would ever become part of the popular consciousness. Growing up, most of his friends were not politically aware, and, Doron says, he was the most “left-leaning” among them. But “the military is a very dominant, compelling reason” for turning minds toward the Palestinian question. “Even friends who shared similar political opinions before the army, after three years, went really right-wing.” Doron speaks as someone who escaped this sort of ideological training: he was stationed in Tel Aviv to work in education. Yet for the many soldiers working on the ground, “they are trained to look at people as the enemy, and they have experiences that are very scary, to make sure nothing bad happens with the ‘Arabs’—that’s how they’re labeled.”

Most Israeli soldiers don’t work in the infantry, let alone see real combat. Most people in the army are like Doron—they take IT jobs or work in ammunition. Many others, however, who work at checkpoints or borders, are influenced by the people they confront—mostly Arab Israelis and Palestinians crossing borders—and receive the impression that they can’t police themselves. “Of course that’s how Israelis are going to see them because it is hostile. Many Arabs think, ‘oh, these are foreigners who have come to police us.’ Many Arab women come and yell at the army in Arabic, and Arabic for the soldiers is like a red light bulb—they see the women as animals or something.” Doron catches his breath. “It creates a dynamic that the soldiers see the people as being unable to rule themselves.”

When their military service is through, however, these Israelis reenter general society only to rediscover the “regular life problem.” True, these military years prepare an Israeli citizen to always think of himself as a soldier of the state—a fact that carries with it a whole host of complex issues—but the reality is that in spite of this ideological education the question of Palestine seems to recede into the background of everyday life. Of course, the bombings are still front cover stories, but Doron emphasizes that “most people will just flip through the first pages of the paper: ‘oh, bombing here, bombing there, now where is the rest of the stuff?’”

The destruction that both Palestinians and Israelis witness from month to month is astonishing, but perhaps this is the key to understanding the state of mind of many Israelis, desensitized to the Palestinian cause. The last glimpse of hope was Camp David—peace talks between Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000. “After that, many Israelis kind of shut off.”

Despite the overwhelming tension between Israel and the Palestinian territories, there are today fewer youth political movements in Israel than in Europe. “I would call that resignation.”

The conflict in the occupied territories of Palestine adds yet a third set of divisions to the checkerboard of societal discord. If considered in concert, these three layers can make Israeli life seem like paralysis: deeply divided along class, ethnic, and geographical lines, there is simply too much to digest. But Israelis, just like any people, must concern themselves with daily living, with family, and with jobs. As a result, whether or not Israelis intend it, the issue of Palestine gets shoved to the background, and any real consideration is substituted for blind opposition. “Whenever an election is about the conflict,” Doron asserts, “the right-wing wins.” By voting conservatively, Israelis feel they have done their duty with respect to protecting the nation and so they can resume their everyday life.

“Just in terms of the way things are going now, with all that’s happening under the surface, the demographic changes that are happening, the polarization of Israeli society,” he says with a sigh. “If things stay the way they are now”— if all of these problems continue to fester, if Israel does not actively address its internal discord, if Israel does not patch a bleeding system of education— “there won’t be an Israeli state in 30 years.”

DAVID ADLER B ’14 has walked the fifteen minutes to West Providence.