TEL AVIV: For over 60 years Jewish immigrants — nicknamed Olim — have come to Israel from overseas to build a future for themselves and their families. Bringing over various skills from abroad, the new immigrants have often constituted a great asset to the state of Israel. Simultaneously, many immigrants — particularly those from the West, including the US — have been associated with the right-wing political spectrum in Israel. Actually, in looking for ways to coexist with both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians we could turn our gaze towards the newest arrivals to Israel in order to see what they can bring to the table.
But what does the word "coexistence" mean? Within Israel, it should mean equality between Jews and Arabs. Between Israelis and Palestinians, coexistence currently takes place in a framework that is fundamentally flawed. Namely, that the Israelis hold all the power, both political and military, over the Palestinians who have little say in the major decisions of their own lives. So the question here really is: what can Olim do to change the current dynamic between Jews and Arabs within Israel and in Israeli-Palestinian relations?
It stands to reason that those who were ideologically motivated to move to Israel are those most likely to involve themselves in the issues that affect the state. Such ideological willingness to serve the state often culminates in joining combat units in the Israeli army. In fact, the popularity of the latter can be seen in the success of the military program Mahal Nahal. This program was created during the War of Independence to fit Olim into fighting units in the fledgling IDF (Israel Defence Forces). The program still runs with many soldiers remaining in the country after their Mahal service. Yet the large number that leave Israel after their service may say a lot about how they felt about what they saw and did during their service.
Out of the gloom that has enveloped the mainstream Left in the wake of the collapse of the Oslo peace process we can already see the beginning of a new ideological movement coming from the grassroots and being led by new Olim to Israel. In the twentieth century much of the ideological Zionism imparted to young British or American Jews in schools and youth movements does not survive contact with Palestinians. Wearing an IDF uniform is increasingly coming to mean taking on the role of an occupier rather than defending the country and that is a fact that Olim are becoming less and less prepared to accept, despite stereotypes of Olim as supportive of the right-wing.
New movements are springing up that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. There is now the option for young Jews, including Olim, to go into the West Bank, not to visit a settlement but to visit Palestinians. During Friday night dinners, there are debates amongst Olim on whether the best way to serve Israel is in fact to demonstrate against the Israeli occupation of Palestinians rather than to do reserve duty in the territories. Many not only speak openly about the need to remove ourselves from the occupation but participate in political action to make it a reality, in organizations such as Encounter or during demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah and Bi’ilin.
Overseas, the almost overnight popularity of the pro-Israel, pro-peace J Street organization in the United States is evidence that there is discontent among a large number of American Jews with the status quo that exists in Israel. In Israel, new Olim have led the way in replicating the discussions held within J Street, trailblazing a debate in the new media-both within and outside Israel-and new ways of awareness raising that have often been utilized back in their countries of origin.
Western Olim to Israel bring with them an intuitive understanding of the behavior of their native countries, their policies in the region, political trends and outlook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is this understanding which needs to be harnessed by the State of Israel if it should ever wish to understand why the Goldstone report was a necessity for so many countries and why the Europeans insist on keeping Israel at arm’s length. The problem is that often the Olim are saying things that the State doesn’t wish to hear.
Those Olim who grew up in multicultural and multi-religious societies have come to Israel prepared to listen to the needs of other peoples, including the Arab minority. Their background has prepared them to be ready to use the democratic freedoms enshrined by law to point out the flaws in Israeli society. If the Olim continue to do so they cannot help but have a positive impact on the relationship between Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, within and outside Israel.
Marc Goldberg is a freelance writer and journalist living in Tel Aviv. He served with the elite IDF paratroopers at the height of the al-Aqsa intifada, and is currently working on a book about his military experiences. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).