I was riding bus 172 down Ha’aliyah Street the other day, hanging on as the driver sped along his route. Somewhere behind the bus police sirens crept up on us. The bus pulled over and the police car came into view as it stopped in front of our much larger vehicle.
As they strode toward the back of the bus they passed me, looking right past me in order to stare down the Ethiopian man standing next to me. As it turned out, they just wanted to search the Palestinian teenager with the laptop case sitting at the very back. Oh yeah, racism.
Fascism may be on the rise around here, and despite the fact that it is catching up quickly it still plays second fiddle to the overt racism that is the everyday reality.
The Reality and Need
As the West falls deeper into a security culture at the expense of democratic freedoms, it is worth remembering that Israel has always put security first to some degree. The declaration of independence details the democratic equitable society that the founders sought, but it quickly became clear that that document would not act as a constitution. Racial profiling and inequality in practice (as opposed to on paper) are realities here.
As long as there is no constitution in Israel, we shouldn’t wonder how the government gets away with passing laws that silence dissent, put asylum seekers in jail, and grant different services to different communities. It is no wonder that extremist-orthodox Jews think it is okay to commit violence against women and keep them from appearing in public or that Palestinian farmers have to make due with less water. It is no wonder that the Palestinian citizens of Israel were kept under martial law in the early years of the state. There has never been a guarantee of freedom in this country; just intentions.
In most cases societies pass progressive laws before many people in a society are ready for it. With racism still rampant across the United States, the Civil Rights act was signed. The white minority in South Africa didn’t suddenly decide to change their minds about apartheid, but a new constitution came into effect. Homophobia is still a deeply rooted problem in Canadian communities, but marriage equality is a reality there.
These are all cases where bold steps were taken to ensure equity in law, before the education had been done so that everyone could agree that equity was a good thing.
As it happens, education alone can’t change the world. I am someone who has always seen education as the central means for making true and lasting change. There is no substitute for the ideas and values that develop through dialogue and learning, but education is not always the primary means for making change.
As I look at my partners in educational movements for social and economic justice, and as I look at the society that slips deeper into racism and fascism, it is becoming clear that we need to take direct action here.
The Time and Place
Education creates long term waves. Education shapes cultures and languages. Education opens minds and destroys hate. Education is vital to gathering people together to push society forward toward more just ways of interacting. I am an educator. Right now though, we need to organize non-violent resistance to struggle for laws that ensure freedom, justice, and equity.
How can we, in Israel, educate ourselves about the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement if it is illegal to honestly discuss boycotting here? How can we be satisfied with anti-racist education in a country where racial profiling of Arabs is normal, accepted and internalized by literally everybody? How can we teach that Israel is, in fact, a thriving democracy when it has no constitution and no solid borders (i.e. the occupation)? How can we educate toward socialist or even just fairer economics if privatization makes leaps and bounds by the month?
How can we depend on the next generation to make the kind of change that we are so desperate for right now? They won’t have a chance if we don’t make it better right now. I am not suggesting that education needs to stop or that it is somehow not important right now. I am saying that right now, with rights, freedoms and economies crumbling around us, we need to act to change the laws that govern us. We shouldn’t ever stop our pursuit of learning and the process of bettering ourselves and the world, which is intertwined with education, but we need to focus on direct action. Teaching Israelis about the horrifying and terrible reality of the occupation that our society has allowed to go on for four decades is an enormous job, but it is not enough. It will not end unless those of us who count ourselves as activists struggle to change the laws that make it possible, stop the flow of money to the settlements, and vote against politicians who don’t commit to either agreeing on some kind of two-state deal or granting citizenship to those living within Israel’s de facto borders.
Imagine if the volunteers who were registering Black voters in the US South had decided that that process should wait in order to allow for education about equality and democracy. They still wouldn’t be voting. It’s not that it would have taken longer. It just never would have happened. Sometimes an issue has to be forced, so that the long process toward understanding begins on proper footing. No matter how many people we engage with on an educational level, there will always be those who prefer an old way, an unjust way, a profitable way for them.
Education, as important as it is, needs to take a back seat to direct action right now. Israelis and Palestinians need to protect Palestinian homes with our bodies. We need to demand that a constitution be written now, and if the Knesset doesn’t listen, we need to vote them out and ourselves in. Israelis need to refuse to serve in the occupied territories. It is the bravest thing a solider can do here considering the possible reaction from family and friends. We need to build entire movements of lawyers who work pro bono to fight for free speech and expression. Privatized industries need to be occupied and turned into cooperatives… I could go on.
If we are satisfied with education alone right now, we are, in reality, saying that we are satisfied with clear and present oppression. That’s not good enough. Education is the spark that lights the fire of direct action, and educators are the keepers of that fire in most cases. Education must continue to fuel the growth of just ideas and ways of life, and it must spark direct action now.
These are days that demand of us to stand up in direct and immediate ways to fight oppression. Once the rules of our society ensure equity, justice, peace, and self-determination we can put all of our focus on education to better that society. If there is no critical mass of good as a basis for our society (justice), then education for good is in vain. First we need to build a legal basis for justice, and then we can cultivate that justice.