Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Harsh and Humbling Reality

Rachel Kiner, originally from Scottsdale, Arizona is one of Tikkun Olam's current coexistence track participants. During her time on the program Rachel is teaching English at Ironi-Zion, an Arab high school, as well as volunteering at Windows: Channels for Communication  and YALA Young Leaders, a Facebook-based movement creating and enacting a new regional vision of freedom, equality, prosperity and peace. 

When I decided to come on Tikkun Olam I had two intentions. First, to understand the complexities within Israeli society to the best of my ability so that I could commit myself to making the world a better place through conflict resolution. On the other hand, I wanted to see if this was a society I could make my own. I thought to myself, what better way to acclimate myself to Tel Aviv as a potential home than by trying to understand even its darkest sides and then shine light in any way that I could in order to make it a better, more socially just and conscious society? I didn’t know if it was possible, but I wanted to try.

Without having any expectations of the outcomes, these were the hopeful thoughts that I entered my experience with. What ended up surprising me was the harsh reality I was met with, and the journey it has been coming to terms with them over the last 3 months. At first, I was proud to say what I am doing here when an Israeli asked. I often answered with a big smile, “I’m doing a social justice internship program and working with coexistence organizations.” If they asked further, I would often explain that I teach English at an all-Arab high school and volunteer for nonprofits trying to create windows for communication between Arab and Jewish youth.

It did not take long for me to realize that my pride was rarely met with appreciation or even understanding for the need of this kind of work. Most often the response is one of shock, sometimes followed by interest, humor or even anger. Some people laugh, assuring me that I must be silly to think that anything can be done to help the situation here. Others have seemed almost offended, implying that I must be a traitor to be a Jew wanting to help integrate the “other” into society. Encountering these various and unexpected reactions from Israelis has forced me to adjust my attitude. It is unfortunate that I no longer share what I am doing here with the same sense of pride as I did at first, but I believe this is part of the learning process, and I must understand these perspectives because they are the reality for Israelis who grew up in this charged atmosphere. Trying to empathize with their narratives has forced me to adjust my attitude about what I can do to help as an outsider. Now I meet their questions with a sense of apprehension instead of feel-good energy. The other day when someone asked that I must know peace is not possible, I found myself agreeing with him rather than scolding him for his attitude! It seems that the majority of people living here are adamant that nothing will change, and choose to live comfortably inside the bubble that is Tel Aviv rather than feel burdened by the balagan* that surrounds them. Here denial is a survival mechanism, and political apathy is a sad result of so many years of violence, fear-based media and loss of hope in the peace process.

Although at times confronting this reality has made me doubt if Tel Aviv is actually a place that I can become a part of, my feeling of being at home in Tel Aviv has been even stronger. It is the place where I feel the most in touch with myself and free to express that individuality. I see my own individuality reflected back at me by others rather than feeling a pressure to fit in. Feeling like I belong here and wanting to stay in this community (at least for the time being) has been a struggle to reconcile with my feeling of responsibility to improve it.

As Tel Aviv has been growing on me, at times I have caught myself gradually adopting the bubble mentality. This is not a conscious decision, but rather a natural response to daily life. Tel Aviv really feels like a bubble. It is a secular, liberal oasis apart from a right-leaning religious majority elsewhere in the country. Reflecting on my transformation of attitude since being here, I guess feeling like there’s nothing I can really do to help the discrimination, racism or integration of the other into Israeli society has caught me feeling apathetic, adjusting in the way that seems natural for Tel Avivians. But I feel guilty about this and recently have found myself asking if it is okay to know about all of the complexities here and ignore them? Is it okay for me to take advantage of the Jewish state’s inclusive immigration policies and build a happy life here for myself knowing full well all of the people who questionably have even more right to live here than me, but instead suffer because of the reverse coin of the very same immigration policies? These are questions that I am still dealing with today.

The fact that much of this society does not want my help which I at one point was so proud to give has been challenging to come to terms with, but it has also been humbling. There is wisdom in understanding and respecting others’ realities, even if it does not resonate with my own values. But the real challenge has been adjusting my own approach to meet their reality, rather than allowing myself to become disappointed and apathetic. I am allowing myself to feel grateful for and humbled by this shift in perception, because there is wisdom in being empathetic towards multiple perspectives and also coming to terms with the limits of your own abilities. I may not be able to change the world as I once dreamed I could, but I am learning what I can do to help change the world. And everything that I am capable of doing starts with my own mentality. If I can remain hopeful about a better future, even if that is generations down the road, then hopefully I can inspire others to feel that way too.

*balagan = “mess” in Hebrew

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