Tag Archives: citizenship

Borders and Belonging

6 Mar

“We’re still in a situation where we’re not sure where our borders are and we’re not sure who our citizens are, more than 60 years later.”
–A director of the Galilee Foundation, speaking in the Jewish settlement of Shorashim

Deep in the loose hills of the Golan Heights, both Israeli and Lebanese citizens live in the village of Ghajar. But the mix is not the result of deliberate cultural diversification; rather, it is an unintended consequence of an international peace-keeping border between the two nations that happens to run smack down the middle of Ghajar’s homes. This means that some members of the town began their lives as Syrian citizens, fell under Israeli control after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, and then found themselves in Lebanon as part of a truce facilitated by the United Nations in 2006. Over the course of one lifetime, the identity of this village has already shifted three times under three drastically different regimes.


We saw Ghajar in the distance today (you can see its faint white houses in my photo above) as we looked across the valley into Lebanon and then again into the old border with Syria (see below) and the new, far-more-dramatic-in-its-altitude border with Syria since 1967 (also below – please ignore the Jess-sized figure blocking the important view.) And though the actual border shifting (or, in Ethan’s words, shapeshifting) of Israel through the years did not come as a surprise to me after my Middle Eastern studies courses, the extra oomph of seeing it so intimately did, because it instantly brought the political banter down to a personal level. These changing lines on a map, which in America we only really experience in the form of gerrymandering voting districts, mean so much more here: they can be the difference between being able to freely visit family members in a different country and never seeing them again, or between living in a democracy or a dictatorship. Three feet — or, more accurately, meters — in either direction drawn on an international map alters the course of many more lives than the average Model UN team (or, for that matter, the actual UN itself) can easily comprehend.



And yet changing physical borders are such a norm here that every map that we have been given of Israel contains colored lines and dotted lines and explanations with asterisks in the margins. The realities of this physical instability only really became clear when I saw for the first time how SMALL Israel is. It’s about the size of New Jersey, and if you discount the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank, it is only about ten miles across at its narrowest point – for the record, that’s less than half of the distance that I used to drive to get to middle school each day and tiny enough for us to see from one end of the country to the other on a clear day. I mean no offense to the Jersey Shore fans when I share this, but I found myself agreeing with the person on our bus who wondered aloud: “How can an entire culture exist in something the size of New Jersey?” Now try and imagine if New Jersey kept ceding and reclaiming some of its land to and from New York on a regular basis and you can start to understand how crazy the border situation here really is.

The cultural boundaries in Israel, however, are even more mind-achingly complex than the physical ones, at least in my view. We spent the afternoon after today’s hike meeting with Israeli-Arabs of around our own age in the Jewish village of Shorashim and learning, through their stories, of the divisions that exist within Israeli society itself. Israeli-Arabs are Arabs who remained within the new state of Israel after its war of independence in 1948 and who became full Israeli citizens at that point (in contrast with the people whom we now refer to as Palestinians, who had a claim to the land that became Israel but who either fled or were driven out before the end of that war.) They make up about twenty percent of the country’s total population. Israeli-Arabs have the right to vote, to participate in Israel’s government and supreme court, to receive government services, etc. Yet even with their citizenship, they continue to live mostly separated from Jewish Israelis and most of them decide not to serve in the Israeli armed forces (they, unlike the remainder of the country with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, are not required to enlist.) The majority of them attend different school systems and live in municipalities with smaller-than-average budgets. And some of them run into conflicts of allegiance almost daily. For example, for Arab-Israelis who are Muslim, it can be uncomfortable to salute a flag made up of Jewish symbols and to sing a national anthem proclaiming the glory of the Jewish people returning to Israel. It can also be difficult to avoid job discrimination (whether out and out discrimination by background or more obtuse discrimination by requiring certain levels of army achievement as part of professional qualifications), to achieve an equal education, and to be trusted as a day-to-day shopper in Jerusalem’s stores or a representative in the Knesset.

From Israel’s point of view, it is important to protect the rights of everyone in its democracy. Yet it needs to find a way to do so while still affirming its Jewish identity and catering its policies to prioritize Jewish success and growth, a goal that many politicians believe requires the maintenance of a Jewish majority within the entire state. Yet how can Israel laud its tolerant laws and approve extra support for Jewish settlement in the Galilee to equal out the growing number of Arab-Israeli living there, both at the same time? America has slowly repudiated the idea of “separate but equal”; can Israel find a way to do the same and still keep its legitimacy?

Before I end this post and its open-ended questions, I want to reiterate one more thing that was said today by our facilitator: “I am going to try to be objective, and fail.” I want to put out there in the open that I write these posts knowing that they are on sensitive topics and that I only know some of the facts. I write them knowing that my own opinions have been changing during each bus ride between destinations, and that there is often more power in what I don’t know yet than what I do. So excuse me for that, and please contribute your own knowledge and stories and opinions as they occur to you. Know that I am writing because I believe that something said and thought is better than nothing; that difficult and sometimes not politically-correct topics should not be abandoned merely for the discomfort that they can cause; and that I have a responsibility as a person who is getting a unique opportunity to see something “up close and personal” to, in turn, personalize that experience by offering up some of myself as I help to translate it for others.

Sweet dreams and open thoughts from a kibbutz in Galil,



On Citizens and Police

6 Oct

It feels like abuse to me.

It feels like abuse because watching the video and hearing an officer, post-tasing a student, yell “Who’s next?” causes the center of my stomach to clench in a tight and painful ball.

(Warning: college student language here)

It feels like abuse because I listened to the radio interview with two arrested students (both of whom I know), and they told me that not one of the arrested students had his (they were all male) rights read to him – in fact, in several cases, it sounded like the opposite.

It feels like abuse because – let’s be honest – I’m used to conceptualizing police as there to protect me, or, in the occasional moment, to protect me from hurting myself or from hurting others (isn’t that really what enforcing laws is supposed to accomplish?), and these images of SWAT teams and semi-automatic guns charging into a room full of dancing students challenge those conceptions.

And it feels like abuse because even if I trust that the Yale students involved will be okay – that the university will help them to hire lawyers and share the full story of what happened at Elevate – I know that if this happened to us, it is also, most likely, happening to others around the city and state. And they, unlike us, may not have the resources to pursue justice, whatever that justice might entail.

Okay. So. We’ve established that I’m uncomfortable with what happened this weekend between NHPD officers and Yale students. And if the dozens of comments on the YDN, New Haven Independent, and New Haven Register articles are any indication, I’m not alone.

But I’m also not done thinking this through. Yes, my initial reaction is straight-from-the-gut sadness at what I’ve heard. But I’m also in disagreement with many of the sentiments coming from members of the Yale community, things like: “This is why Yale should leave New Haven,” or “How stupid are they to come after underage drinking?” or “Yalies deserved what was coming to them — they all think that they’re better than the law,” or even the most typical teenage rebellion of all, “F&%* the police!”

Because let’s face it — the police did something wrong on Saturday night, even if there is more to the story (which is to say — even if we did things wrong as well). Maybe they went on a power trip, maybe they did indeed feel some class dynamics, or maybe they just felt threatened by a room full of people who were probably both scared and nervously laughing under their breath. But on other nights, members of that same police force – and so many other public servants around the country – are instead responsible for doing so much right. This story of police officers from the same New Haven Police force saving a man’s life is the reality far more often than the Storm Trooper parallels that are being drawn about Saturday night, and it is only by acknowledging the good intentions of the vast majority of officers that we can move forward from this.

But move forward to where? And how?

On our end, we need to recognize that the police have every right to enforce laws in our city, whether they be laws about overcrowding, underage drinking (even if they only found one person this time around, let’s not roll our eyes and pretend it’s not a legitimate target for their authority), or, at the extreme, murdering another person. We need to recognize that when they come dressed for combat, often that is because these cops actually deal with combat — and that the violence outside of city nightclubs won’t go down without their help and without them being willing to put their lives on the line to make our streets safer. We need to recognize that they are patrolling an urban area with enormous disparities in age, wealth, background, and criminal records. And we need to recognize that before we criticize their jobs, we ought to consider whether we would be willing to give them a try instead, even just for a night or two. In my case, the answer, though it makes me a bit embarrassed to admit it, is no. I, at least without an enormous amount of training and selflessness, could not do what they do. All it takes are a few reads of the Indy’s “Cop of the Week” profiles for me to know that.

And before you jump on me for leaving your – our – side of this out, let me take a seat on the other side of the debate table for a moment.

From the perspective of a student and a citizen, even as we recognize your job as policemen and women and commend you for it, we ask that you respect us in return. Even as you wear gear that prepares you for the worst possible scenario, is there a moment in which you could allow us to act our best? We, in almost all instances, want to help you. We value you, we want to cooperate, and – yes – we are terrified of your guns. So help us! Instead of blazing through the doors of a club of students with your guns waving and not explaining the reasons for your presence, take a moment, assess the lack of resistance, and talk to us. Tell us why you are there. Tell us what you expect from us and what we can expect from you in return. Treat the situation like we both belong to the same community (because – and I feel so so strongly about this – we do) and have some goals in common – goals like everyone in the club abiding by the law and leaving safely, goals like citizens doing their job by informing police about potential trouble and acting as stand-in vigilantes as necessary, goals like the city in return valuing the police force enough to agree to a raise in union wages. Perhaps these questions sound, to you, naive. But I ask you to take a moment to remember that, when we first grow up in our communities, we are all naive about what it means to interact with an officer. It does not come naturally. We see and hear conflicting messages from the media, from American history, from our friend’s dad who works in the station. We don’t know what to expect when we really, truly are asked to confront you for the first time. And for many of those Yale students, the raid at Elevate was their first time in direct contact with you. That’s a precious moment, and we can either leave it the way that we did on Saturday, disillusioned, hurt, angry, confused…or we can leave it understanding your job and why you asked us to act certain ways in your presence in order to make doing that job easier.

Hand-in-hand with our naivete and thus nervousness comes this desire to document your actions. A beautiful thing about this country is the way that it allows its citizens freedom of speech and of the press – a freedom that makes the old adage about the pen being mightier than the sword actually have a chance at verity. Yes, you have the right to carry your guns – we know that. It makes us both grateful and terrified, depending on which way they are pointing. But in return for us respecting your right to control the boundaries of our interactions through your weapons, you need to understand that our powers of observation are our own way of ensuring our safety and comfort during our meetings together. Both tools are dangerous — a trigger finger on a gun or on a camera has the power to change someone’s life within seconds. Your bullets are more immediately lethal, but a well-crafted article (or, I should say, a few seconds of video like those shown above) can have consequences with an even farther reach – one that moves beyond just the people present in that moment and into a national or global public sphere. So if you agree to be trained to use your weapon, let us, in turn, have a moment for self-defense. If we are not impeding you during your investigations or arrests and are merely observing, let us reinforce our eyes with gadgets. If you are doing your job, let the record show it. If we aren’t doing ours, let the record show that, too.

These are difficult issues and dialogues that all too often happen in terms of individual cases. In those scenarios, someone will always be seen as the “victor” (Yale students if they are acquitted, New Haven police if they can indeed prove that they were provoked). So before any of this happens again, let’s do more than hold press conferences trading anecdotes across newsprint and Twitter feeds. Let’s do our best to get some real conversation going, through our public remarks, yes, but also by encouraging our campus leaders to enroll in city-sponsored initiatives like the New Haven Police Citizens Academy. A course designed to increase communication, understanding, collaboration, and respect between New Haven citizens (and again, yes, this INCLUDES Yalies) and New Haven police officers sounds like the perfect place to start.