Emotion and Inertia: On Learning, Self-Critiquing, and Complicity in Injustice

October 25, 2017

Ancient next to modern. High fashion stores a street away from extreme poverty. Skyscrapers and ancient minarets in the same vista. This dichotomy between new and old is not uncommon in Israel, and it tends to be something tourists and residents alike (myself currently falling somewhere in the middle) appreciate about the country. But this poetic juxtaposition can often mask a less romantic, more complex issue: gentrification.


We took a walking tour through Yafo (Jaffa), a port city which was created as the main entry to the Holy Land in Jerusalem before airports existed. The city was primarily Arab populated, and as the port grew, became a center of business and cultural exchange. After the War of Independence in 1948 (often called the Nakhba, or Tragedy by Arabs), the Arab population decreased from 80,000 to mere thousands. Now, Yafo is one of the few mixed cities where Jews and Arabs live in the same apartment complexes and neighborhoods rather than remaining separate within their own communities, but the demographic change over the decades is undeniable. Walking around, you see more mosques than in my neighborhood in Shapira, but you see kippot and tzitzit nonetheless.


This process took decades, and showed the effects of one group becoming politically and demographically dominant for a time and shifting the cultural landscape. But even within this large, politically visible shift, a quieter one takes place. Gentrification refers to “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents,”[1] and chances are you’ve seen this where you live without realizing it. In Tacoma, apartment prices in the North End increase as it became a trendier place to live, and families who have been living there since earlier generations had come to America continue to be displaced. In Ventura, we build new property developments that are unaffordable to many, and ignore the issue of homelessness in ours and neighboring counties. In Yafo, the city has become trendier, been renovated, and seen increases in apartment prices, driving out people who had been living there.


On the tour, we heard the history of an ancient road to Jerusalem…and marveled over high end shoe stores. We saw a bakery begun by a Bulgarian immigrant who knew no other way to make money than what became her famous phyllo dough…and talked about how Yafo was stylistically “authentic yet modern,” despite it being renovated specifically to meet modern middle class tastes. We learned about ancient mosques…and ended by passing through an extremely affluent appearing hotel or apartment complex.


At the end of our tour, our guide, Ruth, asked us for our thoughts and comments. We’d previously pushed back on comments she’d made about being Jewish in a mixed neighborhood (saying it felt odd to be in a place where not everyone observed Yom Kippur, and where people’s children behaved differently from hers), and she’d considered them during our walk. She said she knew she wasn’t as open as she should be, and was working to prevent those biases from passing on to her children, and while I would use different methods than those she chooses to widen her horizons, I understood her intention. I thought about the fear created on both sides of the Arab/Jewish conflict, and how each group is so intensely taught to fear and hate the other. I talked a lot with my friend Bianca, as we walked, and we reflected on work we’d done in our own lives to deconstruct biased perceptions we previously held, whether racist, homophobic, sexist, what have you. And I wondered how, in such an intense society as Israel, we could encourage and support each other not to simply acknowledge our fears (though that often is quite a feat), but also to deconstruct them and develop more nuanced understandings of what creates ingroups and outgroups in a society. It seemed to me an intensely individualistic process, which led me to wonder where the collective and individual responsibilities for injustices converge, and where they diverge.


Ruth confided in us that she had moved to Yafo at a time when many could not afford it, and described her personal reasons which are hers to explain, not mine. I thought of how each individual contributing to gentrification has their own reason and story, and how we can’t restrict movement…but also of how landlords and real estate agents restrict the movement of new immigrants to Israel by refusing to rent homes to immigrants, particularly those from the Sudan, Eritrea, or Ethiopia. The ability to move is not afforded to people of all races, income levels, and documentation status. I thought of how no individual Israeli or Arab can choose how their parents taught them about the “others,” but how when it happens so often, it has major societal influences. I thought of how, for me, fighting injustice has often had to happen first in my own mind, learning about the experiences of others and the role I play in systemic racism, classism, and heterosexism. I felt lost, wondering how on Earth we could combat these major societal inequities when we needed individuals to sign on, and create change on a larger scale. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t sometimes feel impossible, and I try to make a habit of not lying.


This conflict of perspectives reminds me of explaining to people in America how I feel about Israel. I reject the increase of settlements and think they shouldn’t have been built in the first place. I try to understand the history and impact of an occupation, and I also recognize that now, we cannot treat each Israeli as a perpetrator to be forced out of a country, just as I would not hold Palestinians accountable for the actions of a few Palestinians (though many shortsightedly do see it that way). I do feel that Israelis have undeniable power and privilege not granted to Palestinians, and that racism takes hold here too in how Arabs and Jews view each other. But when I think of how to solve it, I realize an answer which involves change within each individual would be slow, difficult work; but changing the sentiments of large groups as a whole is impossible without individual work.


As I let these thoughts settle in my mind, talked with friends, and spent time exploring Yafo on my own, I don’t have any true conclusions. I have more questions than answers, but also feel more than ever that justice starts within each individual. We are all at different places, but we never finish learning and growing. We are striving for a bar we will never truly reach. So is it just a cycle of guilt and sympathetic exhaustion to work towards social justice? I, and the Torah, argue no.


In a Torah class we had just before the tour, we learned the difference between a wise king and a learned king. We discussed King Solomon, who is revered as a wise king, but who directly disobeyed Moses’ dying declarations of how a king should properly behave: Solomon had over a thousand wives, some of whom influenced him to worship idols and other gods, he accumulated great wealth, and turned back to commerce with Egypt. The text explains that he read Moses’ words which said, “the king shall not have many wives, lest he be distracted by lust; he shall not accumulate great wealth, lest he turn to commerce with Egypt where we were slaves.” Solomon, being a truly intelligent ruler, felt he could accumulate women and wealth without falling prey to the consequences of which Moses warned him. He assumed his intelligence would carry him and maintain his sense of ethics – he was wrong. This Torah portion teaches that a learned king would not fall prey to this same fallacy, but would engage in an ongoing process of self-criticism and education, and therefore become a more steadfast ruler as time went on, rather than an impudent one who eventually fell.


 In social justice circles (and outside them), it can feel embarrassing, tense, and awkward to admit we are wrong or that we may play a role in the injustices in the world. But, if we want to truly fight these injustices, we cannot simply be a wise king. We must be learned kings, unafraid to turn to books with uncomfortable information with which we must wrestle, to people with experiences that directly implicate us in their suffering, to look within us and engage with our shortcomings not with judgement and anger, but with the desire to truly address the way we hurt others, intentionally or not, and the intention to work and truly change the way we operate. It’s a slow process; learning will always be more painstaking and painful than following intuition, but societal inequity operates through inertia. To change the status quo, we have to find it in ourselves, and begin reversing it where we stand. It would be easier if the crowd turned and came with us, but the chances of that are low. Start at home. Start where you’re sitting. Easier said than done, but the struggle is part of being for others more than just for yourself.


I continue to struggle. I continue to wonder if it’s okay, if it’s effective, to hold individuals responsible for the misdeeds of the collective. It’s often impossible to hold a collective accountable, but it can seem unfair to hold individuals responsible for the many. I also struggle wondering if it’s acceptable for me to critique others for their role in injustice when I still need to challenge my own role in injustice. Do I have to be perfect to challenge or encourage others to work on themselves? None of us will ever be perfect, so it remains an unattainable standard to hold, but there needs to be a balance between educating and encouraging others and humility. It’s a balance I can describe in theory, but not necessarily define in practice. This struggle is frustrating, but I recognize it is a crucial part of the process; if I want to be learned, I can’t just follow intuition. I have to question my perceptions, my intentions, and redefine them where necessary. I have to continue learning from and with others, and recognize that I am truthfully lucky to be in a place in my life where I can think outside myself and my survival. If I want the world to fight its own inertia, I have to fight my own inertia, be uncomfortable, and struggle on.


[1] “gentrification.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 25 September 2017.

Alissa Charvonia s a participant on our Tikkun Olam (Post College) program in south Tel Aviv. Alissa writes a regular blog, this is one of her first posts since joining the program. 

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