Inside the Israeli Conundrum: Insights from Mati Milstein – Part 1
Connection Point Director Yasmina Mrabet interviewed writer and photojournalist Mati Milstein about his recent book, My New Middle East: Inside the Israeli Conundrum. His responses are below. This is the first part of a two-part interview. Read part two here.
What was the inspiration and intent behind your recently published book My New Middle East: Inside the Israeli Conundrum? Why was it important for you to share this part of your life?
The chapters that make up My New Middle East were written as newspaper columns over the course of ten years. The intention of the column was to provide readers with a personal perspective on a national and regional situation. I toyed for a number of years with the idea of turning the columns into one cohesive work but it didn’t feel right. It was only in 2012 that I realized I had a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end and that the time had actually come to put together a book.
My newspaper columns – which were initially intended simply to document for American and European audiences the experiences of a new immigrant living in Israel – gradually, grew increasingly critical of Israeli society and state as the depth of my knowledge and understanding of the society and the conflict with the Palestinians increased. Not infrequently, I and my writing were attacked by readers for being anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic. I began to understand that many living outside of Israel and Palestine hold fast to preconceived perceptions of place and conflict that have little if anything to do with the realities on the ground. Some of my readers actually refused to believe what I presented to them from my firsthand experiences. They refused to listen and refused to see what was disagreeable to them and what did not align with their preconceptions. I was accused in letters to the editor of lying and fabricating stories. On a number of occasions, the newspaper’s publisher – due to its own extremely conservative political perspective and also to a fear of reader and advertiser backlash – refused to print my columns.
To me, these preconceptions seemed dangerously uninformed and misinformed. They are held by people who claim to desire peace and care about the future of this land, but they have zero potential to influence positive change.
I also felt that another problem was, simply, ignorance – a basic lack of awareness of and exposure to the conflict. With my writing, I wanted to undermine both this ignorance and also what I saw as a ridiculously simplified, black and white understanding of an extremely complex situation. I wanted to give my readers the opportunity to open their minds and try to understand a bit more about this place – before making judgments.
I wanted to remove my readers from their comfort zone. I wanted to force them to see new realities. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to actually shake them and say: “Look! Look at this! How can you not see this?”
You said you were writing from the perspective of a new immigrant – do you feel Israel is a country that’s open to immigrants, and would you say your experience is the typical immigrant experience?
Leaving aside for a moment the indigenous Christian, Muslim and Jewish Palestinian population that predates Zionist settlement movements and the state’s establishment,Israelis a country that was built on immigration. The majority of the country’s Jews indeed moved here from other lands. As such, it is a country that is open to immigrants.
But I would qualify that and say that it is a country that is open to Jewish immigrants. Non-Jewish immigrants are not welcome (and, in the current domestic Israeli political climate, we see this sentiment becoming more and more pronounced). I would further qualify that and say Israel is a country that receives its Jewish immigrants with a discriminatory range of acceptance proportional to the immigrant’s country of origin and ethnic background. North American and European Jews hold a certain level of privilege and status within Israeli society and are well received. Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union hold a lower position on the social ladder. Arab Jews and other non-white Jewish immigrants from across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia are even lower down. Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are, for the moment, at the bottom of Israel’s social class system.
So, while I might say that aspects of my personal experience may have been fairly typical of that of a North American immigrant, it was not necessarily typical of Jewish immigrants from other parts of the world.
Where does your identity as an American fall into your life experience?
I was lucky that I didn’t grow up in Israel. The education I received in the U.S. and Canada provided me with a perspective much more accepting of others than that received by most Israeli Jews. As such, I often find myself on the fringes of many of the internal clashes in Israeli society, observing them as if from the outside. This is helpful to me both as a journalist and as, simply, a citizen of this country. The fact that I was drafted into the army at the age of 25, rather than the age of 18 as are most Israelis was also to my benefit. Already post university education, with professional and life experience, I was much less vulnerable to military socialization and its associated mob mentality than were many of my younger comrades.
How did your service in the Israeli military impact your concept of your identity, especially in the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I grew up in a society that viewed the land of Israel as its own, that saw the state as a miracle that bloomed in a hostile desert, and that held up its soldiers as superheroes. When I moved to Israel, my motivations were professional (I had a job at a news photo agency in Tel Aviv) rather than ideological, but the ideology of my youth nevertheless remained present and informed my decisions to a certain extent; at the time I felt a great sense of pride serving as a combat soldier in the “Jewish army.”
Oddly enough, however, my own perception and understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began to evolve and deepen as a direct result of my draft to the army. And my personal identity was simply confused by my military experiences. While in the army, I did begin to understand that there was a problem here, but I still didn’t have enough insight or experience to understand exactly what the problem was or to determine where I stood in relation to it.
I remained for quite awhile in what can most accurately be described as a state of utter confusion. I used journalism to justify this situation, wandering the land, taking pictures and collecting stories. I only began to emerge from this confusion towards the end of the 10-year period covered by the book.
Look out for part 2 of our interview with Mati Milstein next week!
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.