04/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dear Mom, I Can Criticize Israel and Still Be Jewish

I logged onto Facebook today and saw my mother's status: "This is serious and my son and I have differences of opinion: The New Israel Fund and The Next War" What a world we live in, right? We're all more connected to each other and our communities than ever before...who would have thought our moms and dads would be hanging on Facebook when we joined it half a decade ago?

So her new status came as no surprise to me. It was obviously in response to a few articles I've posted on our website, conversations we dug into while in Israel together last month, and more directly because of the video I posted a few weeks back (also embedded below) about the protests occurring in Israel. I respect my mother's opinions highly and have learned more about life and the love of life from her, and because of her, continue to grow more and more with each new day. This is my response:

Dear Mom,
I still love Jerusalem. I still have a strong connection to the land and feel even more connected to the people living within and around it's many internal borders. I still deeply respect and honor our deep heritage and history. And of course, I am still incredibly proud to answer, when questioned, "Yes. I'm Jewish!" However, I am not so proud of a country that calls itself a democracy when it truly does not believe in freedom of speech or equality. To peacefully protest is a right of any citizen and to organize in their community inherent...race, religion or ideology aside.

Of course I don't disagree with you on that fact that a country has the right to defend itself. But defending oneself does not mean exploiting others or ruling unruly. I back the people of Israel strongly and the issues that Corline Glick discusses are serious, though she distorts them too as is the tendency on all sides. Iran, Syria and the surrounding non-democratic Arab countries are a definite threat to Israel and it's people, their terrorism and violent resistant measures unacceptable, though this does not justify silencing it's own citizens and disallowing their freedom of speech. (to be continued...)

You know things are bad when fighting for human rights becomes taboo. While in Israel, I ran from the IDF at the wall in Ni'llin avoided the tear-gas treatment for joining the "flash mobs and riots", I spent many evenings with ex-IDF soldiers discussing their opinions on policy and experiences in service, and I visited with a number of organizations that Glick and Im Tirtzu mention. By no means would I consider my time there as being "anti-Israel" but instead pro-peace, pro-understanding and pro-justice. After spending only eight weeks in Israel, it appears that this taboo-nature is unfortunately more of a reality there than I would have every imagined. In fact, discussing issues or sharing ideas with the wrong crowd that aren't directly beneficial to general nationalism or to positive media stability can easily result in unwarranted scrutiny and much too often, legal trouble. In just the last two weeks as I trace the news of Israel (I'm currently in Bangkok, Thailand), I see that what was a street effort has now escalated to an international smear campaign against more than a dozen Human Rights organizations and activists involved, according to a very insightful article written by our new friend, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of Rabbis For Human Rights.

When crossing checkpoints, we were told by many to omit any discussion of our involvement in protests or any facts that might elude to our meetings with ngo's in the West Bank. Before any traveling, we've grown to understand that it's a must to offload our computers and cameras of any evidence of being journalist documenting the work of activists and movements we've come across (regardless of the story that we plan on telling - whether we agree with them or not - we'd be bothered either way). In fact, a friend of ours was on her way to work one of our last days in Israel, when she was picked out of a crowd on the street for questioning, and within moments found herself in an office being interrogated of her origin/ethnicity and why she was even in Israel to begin with... all "because she wasn't carrying her passport" (mind you, she was on her way to work only a few blocks from the apartment she'd been living in for almost six months). Volunteers and organizers we meet desperately told us to hold their interviews tight and unreleased until they renewed their visa or left the country, as any surfacing of their involvement in activism would lend them to hours of interrogation, prospective detainment and in many cases, deportation. Fighting for true peace and equality, or even questioning the government on the grounds of environmental discrimination or illegal occupation and settlement development is unacceptably "left" if not in line with the government's popular consensus. Though despite the governments views, the majority of those we've spoken with in Israel are actually free thinkers, freedom fighters and "leftists". But too bad they aren't really given the true freedom to speak up or even organize. If this doesn't change, Israeli's may soon be living under a law similar Egypt's unruly Assembly Law 10 or 1914, which I'll be blogging about soon.

Just a week before our first day in East Jerusalem, we had strolled the streets of Tel Aviv in peace for Israel's first ever human rights march. Full co-operation of the cops allowed us to easily interview and meet some of those giving their time for a cause (watch the video). We thought, "Wow, Israel is pretty progressive." Shir, an Israeli student and activist living in Jerusalem, told us that we should come for a pre-shabbat rally that was brewing near his home to see the real side of what was going on in Israel. He explained that a coalition of like-minds was building, demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah were growing, and in turn that the police were working to silence their political protest.

So we joined the march of drums and made our way from the center of Jerusalem into the bordering neighborhood (on the edge of the predominantly Arab East and Jewish Western Jerusalem) that has been a home for more than 28 Palestinian families for the past 60 years. Unfortunately, based on a dispute of whether the land was actually first owned by Jews or Arabs before the 1948 war and in the late 19th century, the Israeli government recently decided it is in fact Jewish land, and has started evicting these families in order to give their homes "back" to Jewish settlers (based on some extremist zionist ideology). And though the land was legally granted to these Arab families by the UN in 1948, in turn giving up their "refugee status," these families are now being evicted so that settlers can regain possession of property to ensure a Jewish East Jerusalem. Again these families are left to live out on the street in tents and with almost no rights. Regardless of who owns the land, when the Jewish (settlers) were evicted from their homes in Gaza and other areas of Israel, they were given hotels to stay in and were taken care of until they found homes. This, to begin with, is just blatant discrimination.

It just doesn't really make much sense, no matter how you look at it. (But enough politics, I am not a historian nor can I even attempt to be an expert on the topic... learn more and explore the issue for yourself. The deep and incredibly complex conflict of Sheikh Jarrah can act as window into the larger conflict at hand.)

As we walked into the neighborhood, Sahar Vardi, a local activist and member of the shministim told us to keep the cameras running and that police were gearing up to crush their efforts. The protest grew to about 150-200 people who had come out to show their solidarity for the families facing eviction and those unfortunate 50+ that had already been forced out to live in tents down the street. Sitting arm in arm on the pavement, human rights signs raised high, a melting pot of activists filled the street. Shir was right. This movement was gaining momentum and the tactics were completely peaceful... though this time only on the side of those demonstrating.

Amongst a crowd of what we found to be educated Jerusalem teens and students, Hebrew University professors, and tourists/journalists/photographers, it appeared that those shouting slogans of equality and peace through megaphones were far from what they had been labeled by the calls of the police and conservatives around. Far from people I think anyone reading this would consider "anarchists", "extreme-leftists", or "outlaws." As we moved with the group, Brooke and I immediately felt intimidated and "in-the-wrong" for participating. As the police officers huddled before us, we knew they were plotting something.

An hour passed, and as the video shows, things went from peaceful to down right ugly and inconsiderate quick. Almost thirty individuals had been detained and thrown into a van heading to the local jail by the time the 4:10pm Shabbos bells could be heard ringing from the old city. Ironic timing. Protesters, nonprofit organizers, photographers and journalists were dragged through the streets alike by the officers, with almost no regard from the police for who was directly involved or just a bystander watching or covering the happening. Everyone was wrong in their book leaving the masses enthralled with fear that anyone, at anytime, could be grabbed and taken to court under illegal precedent.

It's now two months later and the protest has continued to grow despite Israeli police brutality and illegal arrests. Youtube videos are popping up and it's obvious that although the mainstream media isn't covering this injustice, (besides The Washington Post - read that article!) that "the revolution will be social-mediazed".

Its a mess. The local police have tried to crush the protests in Sheikh Jarrah by detaining
Hagai El-Ad, the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel at one of the latest demonstrations. And while the American Civil Liberties Union has made it clear that they do not take position on domestic issues within Israel, ALCU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero has condemned the arrest explaining that, "Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democratic society, and the ACLU stands in solidarity with groups around the world who work to protect this most important of rights." He continued stating his "deep concern that one of Israel's top human rights leaders has been detained for peaceably expressing his views."

It doesn't stop there; targeting grassroots organizers and international activists is becoming standard practice. On the same day we shot the video above, Ryan Oleander, an American volunteer working for the International Solidarity Movement (an organization some call anti-Semitic and rightfully so, an organization I don't actually support or really see eye to eye with) was pulled out of a tent while having tea with the Palestinian Al-Kurd family that had recently been evicted. Dragged into a caravan en route to the nearby detention center he was thrown into jail without even being involved in that specific protest. 29 days later and a $2,700 bail payment, Oleander was released from the Givon immigration center in Ramle, Israel, still facing possible deportation today. And according to the ISM, dozens of grassroots activists, including Eva Nováková (the ISM's new media coordinator), have been arrested in night raids and sent to administrative detention and/or often are unreasonably deported without trial or representation. That doesn't sound like much of a democracy. Whether or not a government or people agree with an organization's ideals or motives, anti-Semitic or not, their rights must be respected otherwise your doing more harm to yourself than they ever could. It's important to be consistent with policy and tactics, so they both have more credibility when put into action. It's scary, like a middle east version of the too familiar and unpopular Patriot Act that good old George W. Bush put into play in 2001.

But there is good that is coming through the cracks of the Jerusalem stone. According to the Jerusalem Post, Hadash party chairman and Arab Israeli MK, Mohammed Barakeh, attended a recent protest and passionately explained that Sheikh Jarrah "is not about a house or family, it's about the peace process." In addition, YNetNews states that former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg and Meretz Chairman Chaim Oron have called on the Israeli government and police force to give the demonstrators the "right to express their protest."

As someone who has visited Israel with summer camp trips, studied at an intense Yeshiva in Jerusalem, visited all the typical spots of Masada and the Dead Sea, and a life-long supporter of Hadassah (via my amazing mother), I thought Israel was a free state, a democracy, and a place where people stand up for the rights of those that are wronged or less fortunate. I thought it was full of pride and hope for a better world, therefore acting on such values. Though, I now admit, I was only seeing half the glass.

Israel is built on the backbone of those persecuted, and should, more than any other nation, have more understanding and empathy for those living with less than equal rights. And as a young society, recognize it's faults and try to be better now than later, working towards real peace and cooperation. I'm not talking normalization, but a real recognition of self identity and growth, and what peace could actually look like. But politics are politics and that's not my argument here nor my place.

Human rights are human rights, and that can't be denied. Whether or not the government agrees with the views of it's inhabitants, it owes it to it's citizens the ability to protest against itself, organize in any non-violent capacity, and be given the opportunity to stand in solidarity against the wrong doings around them. That's the only way a true democracy can function. As Lincoln said, "of the people, by the people, for the people."

So what gives me hope that the land I've grown to love over the last 25 years of my life can be the place I've always dreamed it to be? That it's government and it's people could be as rich as the soil it's built on?

It is Rabbis like Arik W. Ascherman, organizations like Rabbis For Human Rights and The Association For Civil Rights in Israel, and activists like Shir, Sahar, Ryan and Hagai that give me hope for the future. And it's mothers like my own who give me hope, as they are beginning to use social media to share their ideas, learn from others and connect in new ways regardless of their sons' opinion.

(continued from above) Dear Mom,

You've taught me well; how to think critically and stand up for my beliefs, even if it is different than of those around me. It is my duty as a Jewish American to not blindly support the Israeli government, but think of how it can be better and fight for the development of a place we both love. If anyone is to be skeptical and to challenge it's system, it is me.

If Israel respected refugee laws, ended random acts of administrative detention, provided equal rights and resources to all it's inhabitants, ended settlements and stopped supporting their illegal developments, and allowed people to speak their mind, organize peacefully and develop as free people - than I would probably dig deeper and find more to work on. So this is what i am fighting for, a place to actually call home, for myself and all those wishing to live there in peace. It's hard, but I am a bigger critic of all things i love.

Regardless, the fear that exists on all sides is incredible and modern Zionism has taken on a new level of nationalism and action that I don't agree with. In the end, Israel is a land of all people and we can't forget that not too long ago we were exiled by the holy man himself. Now having a state and a home, regardless of politics or beliefs, we should treat the stranger in our land with more respect then we do of other Jews; it's actually a commandment.

Thank you for bringing the family to Israel this winter break. It's shattered my reality to now make it stronger. I have had tea with families I would never have met before, I've gained perspectives of those most people will never even allow themselves to meet, and I've created special bonds with a few individuals that will last forever. When things change (as they always do) and true peace nears...I will have unbreakable friendships that provide deep understanding, so together we can work to create a better tomorrow.

I'm excited to grow and learn with you on this mental and spiritual journey. I love you mom. Let's continue to challenge each other and increase our understanding of the world we live in.

Peace and love,

Click here to see more photos and videos from Sheikh Jarrah and the middle east.
Levi has recently taken on the role of CAO - Chief Activism Officer - at exploring international activism and social change. In an effort to uncover humanity's most pressing dilemmas, Brooke Dean and Levi Felix are traveling the world to meet those individuals and organizations who are addressing these problems and documenting how their activism is making a difference. Their objective of This Is The World We Live In is to seek global activists and connect them with individuals who want to help, in turn creating an online community to share ideas, discuss solutions and unite people who have the common goal of transforming our world. Spanning topics from freedom of speech to border control; environmentalism to education, Brooke and Levi will be covering a variety of local, regional and world issues. This blog is that of their adventure and of those who they meet along their way.

Follow their journey at as they travel the world and uncover stories of hope for positive change.