Ugly Americans

The Discomfort Zone

This past winter break, I went back to Israel. As I have lived there intermittently over the past few years, the trip served as a way to reconnect with family, friends and a place that has held many meaningful experiences for me. The trip was composed of a few families from my New Jersey synagogue, most of them with family members who had never been to Israel before or who had last visited decades earlier.

This time, however, was different. Last summer, I was an intern in the Tel Aviv-based international office of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a position that enabled me to take a hard look at some unpleasant truths about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Returning to Israel in a considerably more “depoliticized” context, even if only for 11 days, was a thought-provoking experience.

I am reminded of the cliche of “the ugly American” — the garrulous, arrogant and wealthy (usually white) American tourist who travels to exotic locales and fails to seriously engage with the reality of his surroundings. Let me be plain: This cliche does not represent my group’s outlook or political orientation, but it does reflect the content of our trip. Traveling around Israel, meeting with Israeli military leaders and hearing Jerusalem Post correspondent Gil Hoffman heap praise on right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu were all a part of my winter break. Connecting with Palestinian community leaders, traveling more deeply into the West Bank and meeting anti-occupation activists from the West Bank and Israel, on the contrary, were not.

My trip was not at all unusual. It was the trip most Americans, particularly American Jews, take to Israel. The governor of my home state, the Republican YouTube phenomenon and estimable egomaniac Chris Christie, took a trip to Israel last April. At the time, he was being considered for the Republican ticket as Mitt Romney’s running mate, and a trip to Israel was a convenient way to bolster his foreign policy credentials. He met with no Palestinians and did not even visit the territories, aside from a helicopter tour of Jerusalem neighborhoods.

During this trip, we visited the Palestinian city Barta’a, which straddles the border of Israel proper and the West Bank, but did not meet with members of the community. And while I am proud that I was part of a group of American Jews who actually entered a Palestinian city, the standard to which American Jews hold themselves on this issue is pathetic. For all the effort the American Jewish community puts into longing for Israel to be at peace with its neighbors, it has done a poor job of actually engaging with those neighbors or even encouraging Israel to do so. And if the terrible job we are doing is establishing a precedent for our politicians as well, perhaps it is time for the Jewish community to reconsider just what example we are setting with trips to Israel that marginalize Palestinian voices and amplify our own.

As time ticks away on the possibility for a negotiated peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, American Jews’ job should not be to double down on what are the egoistic and incorrect claims of “Palestinians do not want peace.” We should encourage American Jews who go on Birthright to meet Palestinians, as should members of synagogues in Boca Raton or Houston. And beyond demanding that we meet Palestinians, we should be vociferous in our advocacy for the end of the occupation. Accepting that we co-exist is not enough; it is our obligation to fight for the right to security and dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians whose lives are disrupted by occupation.

Anything short of that would be making very real the stereotype of “the ugly American,” a label that us American Jews are well on our way to earning. We are talkative about anything but human rights abuses committed by Israeli military forces. We are wealthy and use our success as the basis for our smug condescension toward the comparative lack of economic development in the Palestinian territories. And if nothing changes, I am sure that we will ultimately become our own largest stumbling block in the struggle for Middle East peace and justice. And that is an ugly fact to consider.

Image source: acroll via Creative Commons

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected] or on Twitter: @noahkulwin.