Lessons from a week in Israel – what activist movements get wrong about a diverse country

As an American, traveling in Israel, I was reminded of my own country’s national story of individuals fleeing from oppression in search of a better life.

During the week of April 8th through 15th, I was presented with a unique opportunity. As part of a group of volunteers for Taglit/Birthright Israel Onward – all of either Jewish heritage or Jewish religious identity – I was able to spend time supporting Israel’s agriculture and produce industry, gaining an inside window into the workings of a diverse society. That Israeli society is indeed immensely diverse was one of the largest takeaways from that particular journey – I had the opportunity, while traveling, to meet ethnic Arab Israelis as well as a variety of Jewish Israelis whose families had origins in countries as diverse as Hungary, India, Yemen, and Ukraine. I was not met by the sort of society that often gets castigated by Anti-Israel (and, let’s be frank, implicitly pro-Hamas) protest movements and media commentators as an “Apartheid State”, “ethno-state”, and so on. Was what I found a country with fountains and train stops that had signs indicating “Arabs Only”, ghettoized neighborhoods, or minorities being hauled off to camps? Absolutely not. What I found was a land welcoming to – and home to – individuals whose origins were from all over.

As an American, traveling in Israel, I was reminded of my own country’s national story of individuals fleeing from oppression in search of a better life. This includes not only – in relatively recent memory – refugees from conflict zones, or my own Jewish ancestors who found their way to the United States from ethnic cleansing in Germany. This also includes people whose ancestry goes back toward the founding of the country, if not before.

Likewise, in Israel, one of the embodiments of its own national story is the country’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, a Jewish man of Polish national origin who, inspired by the writings of Zionist thinkers such as Theodor Herzl, envisioned a country that would serve as a safe haven for the Jewish people. This country, in the dreadful aftermath of the Holocaust, became Israel. A country whose existence is hotly debated. When such debates occur, they often attempt to castigate Israel as a country with an ethno-religious caste system inflicted upon its people, with Israeli Jews portrayed as a dominant ethnic group oppressing Muslims under their thumb. With the establishment of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Arab countries – in particular those seeking an alliance with Israel – have had their work cut out for them in countering this myth. As a side note, this is not to imply that the current situation in Gaza is without a Humanitarian dimension that deserves criticism from the outside. However, such criticisms aimed at conditions within Israel are clearly those formulated by people who have never bothered to go there, or who have little to no meaningful connections to Israelis as a people.

Israelis, as a people, come from everywhere and represent numerous cultures and walks of life. Was this the so-called “Apartheid State” that I’ve heard members of local Anarchist, Socialist, and Leftist activist groups railing against in my city of residence? It certainly didn’t look that way, and I get my eyes checked at least once every year. Yet, upon my arrival home to the United States, mentions of my visit to Israel were met with shock, horror, and bewilderment by individuals outside of the local Jewish community. Epithets such as “Genocide Lover” were hurled at me by strangers online. There seemed to be a general sense of shock and anger that someone would have spent money to visit Israel and show their support through their actions. A lot of this bias, of course, comes from a place of erasure – that is to say, intentional erasure of Israel’s diversity, which does not fit the narrative of Israel as a cruel, long-standing ethno-nationalist regime counter to progressive values, and/or a geopolitical parasite leeching off of funding from the United States. Yet visiting Israel in this capacity as part of a volunteer group gave me a great deal of appreciation for Israel from my vantage point as an American.

As an American, I was also deeply reminded of two metaphors often applied to my own country’s mix of ethnicities, racial backgrounds and religions. One is a “melting pot”, implying the melting down of different cultural backgrounds into a singular American culture. Another, less common yet more accurate metaphor, is that of a “Salad Bowl” – a great diversity of languages, skin colors, ethnicities, and religious practices existing side by side. This was certainly the case on a visit to Jerusalem I had the chance to take with a group of other volunteers interested in attending a local Reform shul. Jerusalem, we all quietly observed, was very much representative of this “Salad Bowl” model of diversity. It is the home of the Western Wall (at which I had the opportunity to pray), the site of the last supper, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Members of three religious communities embrace the city of Jerusalem as the home of their sacred sites, and for this reason alone Israel is of necessity quite diverse and accommodating. This extends also to the street signs pointing the way to pedestrians and road travelers – they are inevitably trilingual, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, nearly if not always in that order.

A visit to Israel will leave one freshly horrified by calls by Anti-Israel, Pro-Hamas activists across the United States, Canada, and Britain to wipe out Israel “from the river to the sea” or bad-faith calls for “de-colonization” that are effectively calls for a pogrom or forced migration of Israel’s Jewish population (I kept sadly thinking, upon this realization that was the implication of this activist rhetoric – we’re Jewish, we’re used to it). That such activists hide behind the mask of Palestinian independence – cynically framed in terms of indigenous rights – makes the venom of their cause all the more insidious. A visit to Israel, particularly one that embraces a sense of connection to the land (Eretz Yisrael), will make one realize that such calls are, in fact, calls against the diversity and the hope represented by the state of Israel. And it is to be hoped that anyone else visiting Israel in the future will recognize it as just that – a beacon of hope for people from across the world.

Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur holds a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Florida State University, along with a Graduate Certificate in Intelligence Studies. He is an alumnus of internships with Horizon Intelligence and the U.S. Department of State's Virtual Student Foreign Service program. He is a regular contributor to short-term projects for Wikistrat and for United Nations Volunteers online assignments.