Surfers retreat to a sandy cove as the sun blurs into the horizon. I’m on vacation in an artsy city with beaches for miles and tattooed locals. Could be Austin-by-the-Sea. The are no historic gay neighborhoods here because the whole town is LGBTQ friendly. Solar-powered signs count the minutes until the next bus arrives. Giant public recycling bins collect water bottles. There’s widespread, bipartisan passion for farm-to-table cuisine. So why would Lana Del Rey and Lorde refuse to play here?
I’m in Tel Aviv in the Middle East’s only functional democracy. Even with the region’s low bar of dictatorships and violent theocracies, Tel Aviv is an extraordinarily liberal oasis in this nation founded by socialists and social democrats. As a Bernie Sanders progressive who’s counting on a Blue Wave this fall, I feel right at home here, and so should you. This country is a progressive exemplar worth singing about.
Later, while drinking a hoppy local ale, I wished more people would see this country for what it is, and less for how it appears to be. Like, for example, a rehashing of the American Civil Rights Movement, where Arabs are black and brown victims and multiethnic Israelis are … white Dixiecrat oppressors?
The truth isn’t so neat. Most Israelis are Middle Eastern and African; Americans would call them people of color. Palestinian nationalism is not the story of a minority once bound in slavery now advocating for equality. It’s a zero sum fight for sovereignty. Jews will not be granted citizenship in a future state of Palestine, even in biblical towns like Hebron or Jericho. Yet 20% of Israelis are Arabs and their citizenship is not up for debate. Making things more inverted, Israel has roughly 6 million Jews, most of whom fled here and are unwelcome in former homes in Baghdad, Cairo, Tunis and beyond. The surrounding Arab world has over 400 million souls. To this day, Israelis are barred from most Arab states. Who is the disenfranchised minority?
Current Palestinian politics bear no resemblance to a nonviolent integration movement. Hamas embraces a radical Islamism linked to Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. They are intolerant fundamentalists with social policies that make The Handmaid’s Tale look like a rom-com. And Hamas controls fully half of Palestine so when they say they’re resisting the occupation, they mean all of Israel. Their struggle ends with the annihilation of the Jews. Not exactly a civil rights dynamic.
Across the divide, the Palestinian Authority rejects peace when it isn’t stealing from its own people. It supports terror groups that compete with Hamas for brutality and it’s far from democratic—the last time there was an election was in 2005, when Facebook was limited to college students.
Israel is not blameless. It created the occupation in the first place, builds far flung settlements to frustrate future Palestinian sovereignty, deploys harsh security tactics and perpetuates internal racism against citizen Arabs.
It’s tempting to equate photos of racist police beating nonviolent black protesters with teenagers throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at well-armed Israelis, but Ramallah is no Selma. Goals and context matter. Confusing America’s brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy with Israeli security policy is about as as insightful as conflating Northern Irish politics with the Boston Celtics.
Beyond bus loads of super friendly Holy Land tourists, I wish more Americans would visit here for fun, but Israel suffers from polarized reviews in the TripAdvisor of our minds. The country is seen as either too dangerous or too controversial to risk discovering 15th-century Mamluk architecture, or the joys of a Yemenite breakfast with its slow-bake pastries and chili tapenades.
I find myself going back to what people here call “The Land” once or twice a year. I like playing my bit part in the epic saga of Jewish survival. When I think about my grandparents escaping conscription and murder in Odessa, I’m amazed by my luck: There’s a Jewish homeland, right now, in my lifetime. American Jews shouldn’t need an exit strategy, it should be paranoid to consider a retreat after all these years, but then came Charlottesville chants of “Jews will not replace us” and Holocaust deniers winning Republican primaries. If America falls further to the right, where do we go? France with its unrelenting anti-Semitism? The U.K. where the head of Labour supports Hamas? Canada is an option, until it isn’t. Rich fields of plenty suddenly seem arid compared to the land of milk and honey.
Beyond the literally biblical significance of a long-sought refuge, with citizens of every shade of human from every corner of the world, this country is a plucky example of democratic socialism. Yes, there’s now a right-wing administration that cozies up to an ultra-religious swing vote, but whichever party is in charge, universal health care, free tuition, muscular labor unions, public arts funding and a strong safety net are secure. Israel boasts medical, cultural, academic, and technical innovations of a far larger and less vilified country. These are the very achievements progressives like me strive for back home, vote after vote, rally after rally.