Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is Service Learning in Israel “Tikun Olam-Washing”?

Dr. Max Klau and Rabbi Sid Schwartz (a rabbi for whom I have enormous respect)  have written an article arguing that young progressive Jews that are alienated from Israel can become connected via service learning programs, like those run by an organization called Yahel.  These are programs that bring young people to Israel who do volunteer work with mizrahim, Ethiopians, Druze, etc.  According to the authors, the Yahel experience is

an experience that provides a realistic, complex and nuanced understanding of a country that is talked about largely in the abstract during polarized debates back on college campuses in the States. And along with that nuanced and complex understanding emerges a genuine sense of connection.

The authors follow the story of “Jennifer,” who was raised in a home that “equated Zionism with racism. Like many secular, progressive young  Americans, she spent her college years immersed in a campus culture that, at best, questioned the current policies of the state of Israel and, at worst, demonized the country as a pariah state.” But after working with Ethiopians in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon Le-Tziyyon, “Jennifer” feels much more connected to Israel

“Through her service, she is encountering issues of race, gender, economic justice, immigration, and  – of course – the conflict with Palestinians – as they are experienced every day in Ramat Eliyahu and beyond.”

Yes, she is – and that is the problem. Because in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon, she will never observe the daily lives of Palestinians under Israeli control. She will not encounter Palestinians, except in terms of the “conflict”. Jennifer will learn more about what it is to live under Occupation by attending campus meetings of Students for Justice in Palestine and J Street U in the United States,  than she will in an Israeli town that gave thirty per cent of its vote to the Likud, and almost as many votes to the racist Yahad party as to Meretz (3%). She will be closer to the West Bank experience in Ann Arbor than she will be in Rishon.

A look at Yahel’s website shows that none of the programs work with Palestinian Israelis, much less Palestinians under occupation.  This is social justice “within the family”.  It is not social justice for the most underprivileged group of Israeli citizens, Palestinian Israelis.

Of course, working with all underprivileged is important, and I am the first to applaud Yahel and other programs for doing that.  I am not for dissing social justice programs of any sort; just as justice should be blind, so too social justice.

But service learning programs in Israel will not further young progressive students’ understanding of the core human rights/social justice issue in Israel today – the treatment of the Palestinians under Occupation. To me, it’s like telling college students  during the civil rights era, “Don’t demonize the South; go and tutor its poor white children.”

Israel is constantly thinking of way to engage liberal Jews in order to divert their attention from the elephant in  the room.  Progressive Jews have an obligation to see what is being done in their name in Areas B and C.  If they can’t visit Gaza, they should learn about the lives of Gazans, who remain under Israel’s effective control. 

Service learning should not be “tikun olam washing” – a way of connecting with progressives while sweeping under the carpet the central problem facing Israel – and its supporters today.