Who Counts In Israel?

By Emily Sachs

Parshah B’midbar begins with an accounting/a census of military age Israelite men.

“So Moses and Aaron took those men, who were designated by name, and on the first day of the second month they convened the whole community, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses—the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head.” Numbers 1:17

As the mother of a twenty-year old, whom we named for Jonah, the reluctant but effective prophet to the people of Ninevah, I think a lot about who counts, who serves, and what courage, service and peace-making look like. There is an interesting divide in my family between the Americans and Israelis: all of the Israelis of course serve in the IDF while among us Americans, none has served in the US military since WWII. For the Israelis, IDF service is more omnipresent and nerve-wracking and the enemies are vocal and visible while for my American family these threats are less immediate and existential.

During a recent congregational trip to Israel, I was reminded of the perspective that military service provides, including what it means to face fear and enemies up close and what it takes to acknowledge hard truths and find ways to live together anyway.

We spent a lot of time on the trip meeting with people who are working on different aspects of shared society and trying to work through differences. We visited the Bialik Rogozin school in Tel Aviv where the children of Sudanese refugees spoke to us in perfect Hebrew. We visited Gevat Haviva where an international group of high schoolers studies together, including a young Palestinian who told us that his experience as an emigré to South Africa – where he was stereotyped and called “ISIS” by his classmates – made him realize that he shouldn’t paint all members of any group – including Jews – as evil and he should try to get to know them instead. He chose to come back to Israel to study and develop cross-cultural friendships at Gevat Haviva. We heard from their education director, Samer Atamneh, an Arab Israeli citizen, who described how he has asserted himself to make sure that he is treated and paid equivalently to his Jewish Israeli colleagues and how he brings this strength of character to his work engaging students in the schools in their region to build relationships over time. He and other Arab Israelis we met were very candid about both the challenges of being minority citizens of Israel and also about some of the benefits of living in a comparatively well-functioning place.

In response to some of our group’s questions about where all of this engagement leads, one speaker told the story that in the nineteen seventies he was told: “We will never make peace with the Egyptians, I have fought against them in the army and I know what they’re like.” It just seemed impossible. And then, of course – in a shock to Israelis and probably to Egyptians – Sadat came to Israel. My cousin Rachel told a similar version of this story, reminiscing about her skepticism that Sadat would really come and the widespread shock and exhilaration that an Arab leader would acknowledge Israel. These stories about Sadat’s visit were told in the context of talking about the impossibility of “resolving” the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. One speaker said something like: we know this is a hard problem and maybe we are only scratching away at it. But it also may be true that by working to create a shared society based on mutual respect we may help to create the environment in which another Sadat-like earthquake could happen. Maybe.

If Gevat Haviva represents the optimism of trying to build shared society, Hebron, which we visited on our last day, shows the opposite. In Hebron, fundamentalist settlers, with the complicity of the government, have purged the town center of Arabs and their shops and homes. Because we were guided by a former soldier who works for Breaking the Silence, the IDF prevented us from visiting a community center while busloads of orthodox students were allowed to walk by. Ironically this meant that the young soldiers got to join us while we sat on a curb in the hot sun, listening to Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist and advocate of non-violence, who described his work to end the settlers’ occupation. The soldiers also got to witness two aggressive settlers who stuck their cameras in our faces and responded to Amro by admitting to previous acts of vandalism and threatening to do them again. It was a surreal experience.

In Parshat B’midbar, only certain people are counted of course: men over age 20. But things have changed in Eretz Israel and last week in Hebron, our guide from Breaking the Silence was a young woman, who did count. She came from an orthodox religious background and the deep thinking that she did during and after her military service brought her to the conclusion that her moral voice had value and she should be heard.