Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Shedding Light Where There Will Be None

In a few hours I will head home, fry up some latkes and light hanukkah candles with my husband and friends. We'll fill the darkness of this almost shortest day of the year with light from two Hanukkiot. One, a wedding gift from the dear Ofran family, whose beautiful children I have the honor of taking care of from time to time, and the other a relic left behind by my beloved Grandpa Bill.

Outside the doorways of the bakeries of Tel Aviv, lines will start to form for a crazy variety of donuts filled with things like dulce de leche, pistachio cream, chocolate, and, of course, some good old jelly. But before that happens, I want to share a hanukkah letter from Rabbi Seth Farber who initiated and runs an incredible NGO called Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center.

When the Rabbinate of the State of Israel denied my Jewishness and wouldn't allow Eitan and I to marry in the State of Israel, Rabbi Farber listened to me hysterically crying on the telephone and comforted me. This was one and a half years before I actually met him when I traveled to Jerusalem to tell my story to his staff and offer my services to other Jews in my situation -- those who are denied their Judaism by some pretty unsavory characters that run the religious establishment of the state. He fights an insurmountable war against heavy, influential people whose vision of the State of Israel and the Jews of the world will never be one that I share.

Unfortunately the words of Rabbi Farber, that are posted below, depict a painfully accurate portrayal of discriminatory events that take place in Israel every day, and increasingly so. There is no doubt that this place is like none other in the world -- for better AND for worse -- but the rising powers that be are those that would silence the multiplicity of voices, lifestyles and walks of life that contribute so much to the State of Israel, and will render the state unsustainable.

To me, it's unclear what can be done in the immediate sense of time to work against this tide of Puritanism that is sweeping the country, but as a Jew, who sees an unquantifiable value in maintaining a Jewish State of Israel, this is not the kind of state I want to propagate and I have to do something, no matter how small.

So maybe it's a holiday wish, in the spirit of the miracles of Hanukkah, that the more of us that are aware of these trends will focus our efforts, thoughts and networks to support the voices in Israel who respect human rights, dignity, diversity, rule of law (one that progresses not regresses), the ever mythical yet always worth striving for -- democracy, and our own self-respect. If these words of warning resonate with you, please pass them on to friends and family, have discussions and see how you can be a part of a better Israel that will welcome all of us -- no matter how Jewish we are, or how Jewish we aren't.

Dear Friends, 

On Chanukah, we celebrate the victory of the few over the many and the forces of light over the forces of darkness. More importantly, we celebrate the victory of the tolerant over the intolerant, and the triumph of the voices of sanity over those less reasonable. In the last few days, we in Israel have experienced a number of setbacks that challenge our vision of a democratic and Jewish State. Reason seems to have been set aside and the voices of the few are being drowned out. Among the issues that have taken center stage has been the fate of several ITIM clients who are being denied citizenship here in Israel, despite having undergone Orthodox conversions with prominent rabbis in North America. The fact that the Ministry of Interior entered into an agreement with ITIM last May that explicitly stated that they would defer to the Jewish Agency, not the Chief Rabbinate, on these matters, seems not to matter to the "powers that be," who are denying basic democratic and Jewish rights to converts. Individuals such as "Sivan" or "Ruth", who were featured in front page articles in the New York Jewish Week and Haaretz, are paying the price of the rise of extremism in Israel. 

I am not just saddened for the individuals being disenfranchised this Chanukah. I am concerned for all of us who would like to believe that the State of Israel is a country for all Jews. I am worried about the increasing intolerance that is characterizing Israel. Over the last month, ITIM has been interviewed on Army radio about woman being denied the right to say kaddish, on Channel One news about woman being denied the right to sing, and in Yediot Achronot about separate busing and the public role of woman. What is going on today is a threat to democracy in Israel. I have not given up the battle. But now more than ever we need your support. Please click here to support our efforts. To read about the conversion story in the Jewish Week, please click here or to read about the conversion story in Haaretz, please click here. 

Happy Chanukah, 
Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber, Ph.D. 
Director, ITIM

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Women in Arab Society in Israel

One of the interesting parts of my job and the triumphs of being able to understand Hebrew is attending conferences such as the following:

Women in Arab Society in Israel
Initiating a Change or Going against the Grain?

To learn more about the conference and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung's work in Israel, visit:

Women in Arab Society in Israel

I've never done this before but since I wrote the summary and this particular topic is very important to me, I am posting the summary that will appear on the website in days to come.

One of the greatest things about living in the region of the world that you study is proximity to the inside. Notice I'm not saying I am actually inside. It would be impossible to really get into the variety of communities that live in Israel. There are too many identity issues, too much politics, insularity, protection, preservation and so forth. But once in awhile I am allowed to get a peek and an idea of how people set about changing their lives one person at a time, and one day at a time. And as a woman who derives immense pleasure out of learning, supporting and trying to find ways to bolster women in their quest to be equal citizens of this planet, it's my job to spread the word on conferences such as this one. I hope you'll follow the links and learn more about these amazing women in Arab society of Israel, and those who study it too. Talk about being the change you wish to see in the world...

"Women in Arab Society in Israel:
Initiating a Change of Going Against the Grain?"
The Konrad-Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, November 22, 2011, Tel Aviv University

Nearly a year after the start of the Arab uprisings that have swept the Middle East, it is impossible to ignore the seminal role that women in the region have played and are still playing in these unfolding events. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Bahrain and Libya, women have been active in political and civil society actions against regimes for which patience has run out. Significantly, throughout the Middle East and including the Arab community of Israel, it appears that women are in the midst of their very own silent revolution.

Providing an academic and substantive understanding of the current status of Arab women in Israel and the political, social, cultural and economic developments therein, on November 22, 2011, The Konrad-Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation held a conference at Tel Aviv University titled: "Women in Arab Society in Israel: Initiating a Change or Going Against the Grain?"

Women in Arab Society: A Comparative View:

Customarily, the Middle East and its various societies are labeled as conservative, traditional, patriarchal and tribal. In such communities the woman question is often controversial, sensitive and can lead to intra-communal conflict, said Former Knesset Member Nadia Hilou. But despite these longstanding challenges to the advancement of women, there is no question that Arab women in Israel are influencing and being influenced by Israeli, Arab and global society. As a result, the forces that are trying to hold women back are being challenged by an increasingly mobilized female population that has access to political recourse and is well on the way to fulfilling untapped potential. In fact, specifically in Israel, the Social Justice Movement that began during summer 2011 provided a perfect platform for all the women of Israel to show up and demand social justice that can only be truly realized by the guarantee of equal rights for both men and women. Furthermore, as Israel recently became a member-state of the OECD, women's claim to equality bears even more weight in political discourse when they demand that the state meet and maintain the terms of its international agreements.

In light of the Arab uprisings, more and more women in the Middle East are taking part in the politicization of their personal lives and negotiating the extent of their political involvement. The activism of civil society, as witnessed in Cairo's Tahrir Square, saw women of all walks of life, religious and secular, showing up and using the power of numbers to make change. Regardless of whether or not a more conservative Egypt is on the horizon, women in Egypt and throughout the region are using new media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to maintain their presence in the evolving political discourse, said Moshe Dayan Center Researcher Dr. Mira Tzoreff. This virtual world in which political activism is formulated and then materializes in the real world has thus far ensured that women voices are not silenced.

In addition to new media technology that breaks down barriers to communication, increasingly women of the Middle East are producing academic work using the women of their communities as the subjects of their research. The fact that women in the Palestinian-Arab community of Israel are examining the political, social, economic and cultural issues of their own societies increases the legitimacy of these studies, as well as raises awareness about ongoing efforts, for example to decrease violence against women and polygamy. Dr. Taghreed Yahia-Younis, Tel Aviv University, stated that trends in research discourse on Palestinian-Arab Women in Israel are especially indicative of this development. Palestinian-Arab women professionals and academics are formulating the questions that direct the discourse on women in this community and use a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates anthropology, epistemology and history in the production of this canon of works.

Arab Women in Israel as Agents of Social Change:

Women's activism in the Arab-Palestinian community of Israel is not only taking place at the theoretical/academic level, however. Since the 1980s, women-led organizations that advocate for the advancement of women have flourished throughout the country. There are two categories of these philanthropic, non-governmental organizations, said Dr. Mary Totry, University of Haifa. These groups are either feminist in their political philosophy and sprung up in the 1980s and 1990s, or they support the local population by providing services upon which the state fails to deliver. In both cases, influential Arab-Palestinian women in Israel organize at the local level with the goal of making state-wide change through policy reform. A look at two case studies of women in the Bedouin and Druze communities allows for concrete understanding of the increasing agency that Arab women exercise in Israel.

Ben Gurion University's Dr. Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder's extensive research on the Bedouin women of the Negev indicates that despite a 20-year period in which women had no access to formal education, since the 1980s women in these communities have become agents of change, taking personal and political matters into their own hands. Of course, there are differences in the activism of these women based on the extent of their religiosity or secularism. Moreover, in the Bedouin community the politics of tribalism pose another set of challenges to the Arab women of the Negev. Nevertheless, Bedouin women are using the resources at their disposal to create economic opportunities for themselves, and even creating a discourse on "Islamic Feminism" that seeks to fight patriarchy by engaging and re-interpreting Islamic texts that have been used to repress women.

In the last 15 years, the research of Dr. Naomi Weiner-Levy shows that young Druze women in Northern Israel are slowly revolutionizing their communities by pursuing higher education. Notably, the Druze clergy has not stymied this development, but rather adapted to this growing trend. Perhaps the most fascinating observation about the women of the Druze community is the keen awareness young women who leave in pursuit of higher education have of their responsibility to future female generations. Generally speaking, similar to the Bedouin community, the Druze community represents a collective society and mindset. This means that while young women may leave home to gain an education and, hypothetically, advance their own economic or professional status, they see themselves as role models that will influence whether or not the community will continue to make space for an increasing public role for Druze women.

Whether or not the Arab "Spring" revolutions will devolve into a metaphorical winter, the experience that women throughout the Middle East have and are gaining from these events is something that no one can take away. In Israel among the communities of Arab women, we are witnessing a process that is in movement and there is no question that the political is personal and the personal is also political, stated Nabila Espanioly, director of the Al-Tufula Center in Nazareth. Although Arab women of Israel continue to struggle against patriarchy, tribalism, discrimination and violence, they are active members of society who are contributing and directing the discourse about them and formulating the methods by which to promote their advancement.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Remember It Happened to Us

For me the strangest season of the State of Israel is the one that begins with Yom HaZikaron LaShoah ve LaGivurah -- Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day. In a week's time, the state-steered, country-wide sentiment will continue its somber tone when, once again, the shops will close early and the hustle and bustle of the country will diminish into a hushed whisper as families and friends remember their fallen and beloved soldiers. After 24 hours of national mourning, the Jewish majority of the country will quickly turn its mood around in unabashed celebration of the 63rd anniversary of Israel's existence and independence. The streets will be full of sprayed silly string, the bands will be playing, and the bbqs will be grilling.

But tonight, the season has only begun and with it some new thoughts and insights.

Walking to synagogue for a screening of a documentary film called "Hugo 2," made by Israeli filmmaker Yair Lev, I noticed that the tea shop on the corner of Dizengoff and Gordon Streets was closed for business. My first thought was, "finally, the tea shop that opened in the hottest days of Summer 2010 is scaling back its hours and closing earlier than the sign on the door claims. Just as I suspected, it's doomed to fail."

So deep in conversation with Eitan, only a few stores later I suddenly realized that everything was closed. Restaurants usually overflowing with diners all nights of the week were cleaned up, chairs stacked and tables pushed together to make room for the person who recently mopped up the dirty floors.

Then I realized, I was walking to synagogue to see a Holocaust movie and the reason for its showing was Holocaust Remembrance Day. And then I remembered that in Israel, even if the Holocaust and the memory thereof weren't such integral parts of identity and my growing up, the state would remind me to remember anyhow.

I think it's the first year that I didn't feel the cynicism creeping up and over my brain -- the feeling of being forcibly controlled by state memorializing of Jewish national tragedy. It struck me for the first time in my living here that, since my Grandpa Bill passed away, I really hadn't visited the dark and depressing places that stories of the Holocaust lead me into.

Then I started thinking how little every day life in Israel has to do with that memorializing. The country, healthily I believe, is quite wrapped up in its current dilemmas of the pending unilateral declaration of the Palestinian state, scheduled for September 2011. It is quite engulfed in the low grade religio-ideological war transpiring between secular and religious Jews. It is preoccupied with the challenges that tens of thousands of African refugees pose to the state, its infrastructure, and its non-existent, non-Jewish refugee policy.

Very little of any of this has to do with the Holocaust.

Certainly, the Holocaust factored into the creation of the State of Israel, of its declaration of independence by David Ben-Gurion in May 1948, and the international sentiment that gave it sanction to exist during the previous fall in November 1947.

But today, as Holocaust survivors become fewer and fewer and the state becomes stronger and stronger, I understand that the Holocaust will become less manipulable for emphasizing the importance of fighting for the state of the Jews, and more about the ongoing process for the descendants of survivors to tend to unhealed wounds.

In fact, on this very night I found myself asking the following questions: Why is it important to remember the Holocaust? Why is it important to watch documentaries and be reduced to a puddle of tears and streaming snot? Especially if I am as familiar with these stories as I am with the face that I see each day in the mirror, for example.

These questions became even more poignant, when, after watching a 70 minute documentary in which the filmmaker recorded a series of conversations and interactions with his father (who survived Buchenwald), while I was trying to keep my sobs silent, others were mumbling about how they weren't impressed by the work projected on the east-facing wall of the sanctuary.

A number of revelations/thoughts arose from this experience as part of the audience, as well as an observer of the audience, of this particular documentary. A documentary that did not appeal to the horror, generally, universally elicited from seeing images of emaciated bodies and mass graves, men and women shot in cold blood and children being carted off to their untimely deaths.

The focus of Hugo 2, rather, was the scarring experience of being part of the Second Generation and understanding the responsibility of bringing forth the Third Generation, and trying not to pass on a quality of estrangement. And the meaning of the Holocaust as a family legacy, not a people's legacy. A heritage that affects the way a Second Generation member's mother or father related to him or her, which wouldn't particularly attract praise in circles of early childhood development experts or psychoanalysts that seek to study and inform how to foster emotionally healthier children, i.e. societies.

For the first time it struck me that the Holocaust is not a collective Jewish experience. It is the experience of those Jewish people and their descendants who were victims of the Shoah. And while the State of Israel has nurtured a national pause for respect of that evil time in history, remembering becomes important to a particular demographic of the society. And, for me, as a part of the Third Generation, it is necessary to take a moment and understand why it is important for me to remember, and to reexamine the role it plays in two aspects of my identity -- the human one and the Jewish one, and then my relationship to the country in which I live.

I was ten years old the first time I heard my Grandpa Bill talk to my sixth grade class about his stories of the Holocaust. I remember feeling pride, I remember feeling shock, I remember not understanding everything that I heard. But I do remember the last anecdote he told about God speaking to a little girl and a little boy and asking them to take care of one another. That, in fact, "you arrrre yourrr braather's keeperrr," he said in his Transylvanian accent.

I don't think Grandpa Bill believed in a specifically Jewish god, per se. But I do believe he was humble before some great unknown. I do know that he was terribly haunted by the ghosts of his family, the pain and illness of his long-deceased wife, and the terrible burden of guilt for having survived. I also know that he did not turn into a hateful man and he ultimately believed in humankind, while fully knowing the consequences of the seemingly unstoppable monster composed of the human capacity for hatred, unchecked. I sometimes believe that I acquired my obstinate optimism that people's better side is bound to prevail from being his granddaughter. For that ability to cling to hope, I remember him and the Shoah as a human being striving to make the world a better place, as simplistic and exhausted from overuse as that phrase may be.

As far as my Jewish identity goes, remembering the Holocaust engraves the burden and blessing of being a minority in a very diverse and conflicted world. Knowing that difference, perceived as a threat, reduces human beings to irrational, violent behavior, instills in me the responsibility to continue to question my prejudice and to defy the bias I see around me. In more tangible terms, as a Jewish-American and Israeli (by choice) woman living in Israel, it means I hope for peace and that I refuse to dehumanize the "enemy" whether it is a Palestinian, a religious Jew trying to tell me who and how I can marry, or any other "opponent" that appears on my path.

Perhaps, for the past few years it has been difficult for me to accept a state-sponsored time to remember and to reflect on the Holocaust, not because it is so "1984" (although I can make some good arguments that it is). Instead, it may be that in order to become resigned to going through the motions and ceremonies for remembering the Holocaust, and to understand how time and again the tears become unstoppable, the Holocaust needed to have ended. And for so many, generation after generation, it never has.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reflecting on Now

It appears that the cycle of violence is on the ascent. Most members of a family murdered in their sleep in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, rockets launched from Gaza (supplied by Iran and reaching further into Israel), I.D.F. retaliation damaging civilians and militants alike, pipe bombs and bus stop bombs exploding in Jerusalem.

On Facebook there is a group calling for the Third Intifada on May 15, 2011. It expresses the right of the Palestinian people to rise up against continued injustice and has thus far exceeded its goal of collecting 100,000 participants (at least on Facebook) and, at this very moment, boasts 291,189 supporters.

The response of the Israeli government is to expand the settlements. The response of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is to condemn the violence and the settlements. The media broadcasts images of people in Gaza passing out sweets and rejoicing in every Israeli casualty their forces succeed in causing. There are no peace talks. I am not sure anymore that peace even represents the most expedient solution to the conflict at this point.

Yuli Edelstein, Israeli Minister of Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, wrote Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to remove the Third Intifada Facebook Cause, stating there is a difference between freedom of speech and the freedom to incite.

The University of Johannesburg, has officially cut ties with Ben Gurion University in the Negev, as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign against Israel.

PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad reaffirmed his intent to establish a Palestinian state in a Huffington Post interview, published on March 23, 2011.

Living in Tel Aviv, it is very simple to know how neighbors and friends are feeling about everything. A little bit of fear, a little bit of worry, faith in the system, and, most disappointingly, an attitude of, "what else is new?"

I have almost no way of knowing how Palestinian counterparts are feeling. The media tells me they are ready for battle. And as people are killed on both sides, I can be assured that sympathy, empathy, compassion -- on both sides -- if a shred existed before, will be even sparser now.

It is all a great shame.

I feel frustrated that the world will sit and judge both sides without acknowledging the complexity of what needs to be known. I feel saddened that a university in South Africa has severed its relationship with the one university in Israel that actually boasts a large percentage of Arabs on its faculty, a university that deeply studies the plight of Bedouins in Israel and commits its resources to research that unveils the injustices and challenges these people endure due to discriminatory state policy. Ben Gurion University will continue to produce the research and its academics will continue to be progressive and faithful to the pursuit of truth, but I cannot imagine how damaging the symbol of a South African university being the first to disassociate itself from an Israeli institution of higher education will be.

And I just cannot help but be disillusioned by those in the world who are so convinced of their piety and opinion that they are unable to see the contribution they are making to the disunity of the worlds' peoples, rather than bringing them together.

I learn from living here that it is truly difficult to step and then walk around in someone else's shoes. It makes us vulnerable, it makes us question our own perceptions of the world, a potential and total destabilizer. And I am not convinced that doing so doesn't ultimately and actually pose a threat to our own well being. How can we really trust the other side(s)?

I often think of Israelis and what would happen if they stood in line at the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank. If they had to suffer the humiliation of being herded through cold metal turnstiles and be barked at by teenager-soldiers, who determine whether or not a person will go to work, or to the hospital to give birth, or to a family gathering, on any given day. And I am pretty certain, that if they too had to be subjected to such treatment, they would call for an end to it, even today.

But I am also sure that if the visualization of being the other, then turns to the realities of suicide bombings and the uncertainty of the future, and knowing that while they're may be a million peace loving Palestinians, it only takes one martyr to ruin the lives of hundreds, maybe even thousands -- I can feel my own heart close up in a matter of seconds.

I often think of Palestinians and of their shame and disappointment. Their disadvantage and the limitations and fractiousness of their greater society. And I can only imagine how despicable it must feel to see how things never get better. To have a legacy of defeat and betrayal, misunderstanding and obstacles to being full human beings with dignity intact. And I can understand wanting to blame someone for what they are guilty of -- as well as what they are not guilty of.

But mostly I think of how much both sides have to lose if the situation becomes combustible once again. And I say shame on the leaders, the individuals, who would allow such a thing to happen.

I don't understand why the Israeli response to violence is to build more settlements.

I don't understand why Islamic Jihad in Gaza thinks they will gain something by shooting rockets into Israel.

I don't understand how so many people can be so careless with so many other peoples' lives.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation occupying my mind, however, is that -- while I am the first to judge, criticize and be reviled by Israeli society in a wide array of scenarios and events, I am quite certain that in the events transpiring in recent days, another truth is being revealed -- and that is how precarious and fragile the country, at times, really is. I see how mistakes are and will be made. And just like everybody else, I will simply hope for better times and soon.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Cancer of Ignorance

Yesterday morning I awoke in a fit of rage. It took about an hour and a half and a strong cup of coffee for the cause to reach the surface but finally it did and the tears of frustration started rolling down my cheeks. A conversation about an upcoming field trip to the Arab-Israeli city of Umm al-Fahem with a religious couple that I know was received with the, perhaps, expected response of -- aren't you afraid? shouldn't you have security? shouldn't you .....?

And in my defensive knee-jerk reaction, I retorted, "'They are people too." Arabs, that is.

Toward the end of the visit, the religious couple mentioned that of course Arabs are people too but "we" Jews/Israelis don't kill people like they do. They, we, do, don't, us, them, versus, bad, better, good.

In the moment, I never know why these comments bother me. I need time to process what doesn't sit well with me. But then it comes.

Today, the State of Israel has a Jewish majority with a valid sense of historic and current victimhood, and a belief that survival by all means necessary is justified. Please make no mistake. Today, there is plenty of anti-Semitism. There is a constant call for the destruction of the State of Israel in Iran, in Yemen, in Indonesia, in Gaza, in so many places. These threats are not to be undermined and they are not to be overlooked or ignored. Rockets continue to fall on Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sderot. Same story, different year.

Living in Israel, I understand the need for a security apparatus on steroids. Really, I do. I understand the history and the mistrust and the effects on the baggage that a history of persecution has on a society, pretending to be normal, with their Juicy Couture, Uggs, BMWs and reality t.v. shows, a shameful import from the United States.

However, what alarms me, and will continue to alarm me is the ignorance that the majority of the Jewish-Israeli population has toward its collective ability to support and promote and engage in structural violence, cruelty, torture, killings, murders, etc....all those things that "we" don't do.

It is very dangerous when a people becomes convinced that it has no dark side.

Unlike the Arabs, in Jewish Israel we have secret service agencies, police, army, navy, and so on and so forth. They do the dirty work for us. We don't have to randomly kill out of frustration, we have a system that takes care of the "enemy" for us. We don't need bulldozers gone awry in the streets of Jerusalem, we have government funded ones that tear down homes in neighborhoods where Jews decide they are the ones who should inhabit the streets of East Jerusalem instead of the Arab families living there. We don't put bombs on children passing through checkpoints because we have teenagers who shoot suspicious people from rooftops, snipers unseen.

I hear the voices of protest. The voices of you don't know what "they" are like. You don't know, you aren't from here, you don't....

But I can see, feel, read and hear. And I can see how the collective society of Jewish-Israel takes no responsibility and makes no connection between action and reaction. I read how an influx of African refugees, Filipino caregivers, Thai construction workers are accused of threatening the character of the State. How Ethiopian Jewish children are bullied out of public schools by parents who don't want that color going to school with their kids.

No country is perfect, but no country in the world is so self-convinced that it is something that it so isn't, at the popular level. Just because you look it doesn't mean you are "it".

But we have a free press....

So we have a free press, and the journalists are screaming through their printed words that this place is insane, that we are bigots, racists, that Zionism is dead, that we forgot where we came from, that the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Courts and the system are being violated time and again. And nearly no one responds. So what good is a free press if people aren't inspired to action by it? So it's a confessional? A dumping ground for those "leftists"? Lovely. Again, if it looks like a democracy on paper, it must be so. Apparently the memo that democracy doesn't exist anywhere and is always in process did not arrive on the desk of any decisionmaker ever to roam the halls of the Israeli Knesset.

In my humble opinion, it has become too easy in Israel to write off the other as just that. Broad generalizations, stereotyping, racial profiling....

My grandfather (may his memory be for a blessing) survived the Nazi death camps of Buchenwald and Dachau. In the last twenty years of his life, he sacrificed his own mental health to speak to youth about the horrors and the lessons of the Holocaust. The man wasn't perfect and he had his issues. Who doesn't? But from him more than anyone else, I learned that underneath the skin we all have the same red blood. We all behave badly. But we also have the strength to question those feelings, to put them in perspective, to understand how threat and scarcity can make us like animals. We have a choice in how we behave and sometimes, authority does NOT know best, and we have to question it and ourselves at all times. We are all capable of committing genocide, of shutting the other out when we perceive that the other threatens who we are and the system which we accept by habit, or by force, or by igorance. We are so weak in the face of hatred. It is unsettling.

You'd think after 2,000 years of exile and centuries of persecution, the Jewish people would get it, that they aren't going to fall into the dust, forgotten by history. No, the Jewish people persist and thrive against all odds. But today, I feel that in the context of the State of Israel, the means employed to survive do not justify the end. This society is sick, it is permeated with a cancer characterized by ignorance. It needs medicine, attention, and an honest look in the mirror. Because all I see are worms, decay, filth, and debris, beneath a thin veneer of Tommy Hilfiger and H&M. And I don't think it's sustainable. In fact, I hope it's not. No, I'm not calling for an end to the state. I'm just begging for a serious and meaningful overhaul from the inside, before someone on the outside forces it upon us.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Leave to Love It

It may very well be impossible to acclimate to the humid summers of Tel Aviv. Each year, around spring, which in Israel lasts approximately three to three and a half weeks, I try to imagine what it feels like at 2am on any night in August on Ben Yehuda Street only two blocks east of the Mediterranean Sea. The sensation of swimming through the air, sweating from the backs of my knees, the creases of my elbows, the temples, the upper lip, even from the sweat glands I didn't know about, located on my wrists. In those cool mornings of March, where the breeze is heavenly and the sun still delicate, the amnesia is the strongest and I think to myself, "this year I'll handle it better, this year the heat probably won't get to me."

Well, this year I reached a new low. After a summer of kicking taxis insensitive to pedestrians (mostly after very centering yoga lessons), throwing popcorn at a woman who physically assaulted me at the movie theater, and yelling at library security guards and bathroom maintenance women at Tel Aviv University for getting up in my business, I was itching to board that plane on August 15th, regardless of the nearly 8,000 miles that would separate me and my new husband for nearly three weeks. I had reached the point where hearing the Hebrew language itself made my heart beat faster, my already tense jaw clench tighter, and my blood boil a little hotter. I needed a break -- from the buses, from the news, from the religious, from the ways in which Israel is foreign to me -- an American by birth, an Israeli by choice, an alien by happenstance.

Waiting in line to go through customs at LAX, I experienced another episode of the experimentation with base behavior that I am currently trying out. A young woman standing behind me, holding her purse with an extended arm so that the leather mass kept banging against my ankles, brought out the inner monster in me. In a quick movement, I kicked up my heel, forcibly removing the purse from my range, just as the customs officer motioned for me to approach his podium. I didn't look back, I didn't care if I had scared the woman or received a look colored with disbelief or with disgust. Nothing could shame me out of the rage I'd been feeling in the six weeks of an increasingly scorching Tel Aviv summer, and the unshakable sense of entitlement to lash out against anyone who dared to get in my way.

From the safety and serenity of my parents' home, I have had the opportunity to explore this rage, this anger, this coming to the end of my rope, and what I have discovered is something much deeper than: it's just the heat that gets to me.

I think it became clear the morning that the story of the Israeli soldier posing demurely and provocatively with blindfolded Palestinian prisoners broke. As I read with horror the details of the photographs' content and the crass response of the young woman to whom they belonged, I felt the gravity and the despair that becoming a part of Israeli society has imparted upon me. And then, strangely, a moment of clarity and hope inflated my spirits the next moment after.

Israel is a place of myth and fantasy juxtaposed next to a despicable and inhumane reality. It is a place of innocence and the darkest forms of premeditated injustice, it is a place of survival, it is a place of human beings thrashing about trying to exist in a very ugly world, that is often indescribably beautiful as well.

It is challenging to explain what I mean.

It is disorientating to live in Israel. To do so one is constantly asked to live in a state of somewhere in between the past and the present. History is constantly being rewritten and reexamined, as though doing so will bring about greater understanding and an end to dispute. But as so many histories, so many truths are propagated, debated and published, it is difficult to keep track of what was, what is and what was wished would have been, that simply never was and probably never can or will be.

For many Jews who move to Israel, young and old alike, pioneers or those reuniting with family, the act of making aliyah is something of a rebirth and a chance to give purpose to one's life simply by paying the rent and taxes. To take one's place in a historical moment in which the Jews reclaimed a land that was promised and lost, regained and squandered, confiscated, and finally reconquered.

I believe that the realization of that dream seemed so surreal, so unbelievable and larger than anyone's imagination that, in coming to fruition, an assumption, perhaps fashioned out of gratitude and awe, was made or taught, that the inheritors of this part of Earth would be special, would be different, would know right from wrong, and when faced with moral dilemma, would always side with truth and justice. But it turns out they were and are just humans, capable of feeling hatred, bigotry, prejudice, xenophobia and every other blemish of the human psyche, particularly when every direction in which they turned and still revolve, they were and are met by the demons of human demise.

To the outsider thinking she wants in, what could be more devastating than waking up to the fact that the dream was only ever just that?

Bizarrely, that is where the hope sneaks in --- through the acknowledgment of rock bottom and the Knowing (and perhaps foolish, stubborn believing) that it could be better. That an army unit stationed at a check point in the West Bank has implemented a protocol involving morning greetings in Arabic language and direct eye contact with passersby, diminishing the incidence of hostile confrontations and smoother passage from morning until night at that particular checkpoint. That racism against Ethiopian citizens and African refugees finds itself as the headlines of the country's newspapers, becoming a national issue overnight. Isn't the first step to fixing a problem admitting that there is a problem needing to be dealt with in the first place? And while the time it takes to see change happen seems interminable, what else do we have in such abundance, but time itself?

Civil rights, gay rights, women's rights, welfare rights -- the movements for these rights didn't succeed in the matter of days or weeks, but rather after decades of violence, passive resistance -- decades of injustice, decades of hypocrisy that contributed to the articulation of the desire of the visionaries and the leaders for something different, something better, something that would honor human dignity.

I hate Israel. I love Israel. It's miserable. It's wonderful. It's a cesspool. It's a paradise. It is this and it is that and everything in between. It is the beginning and it is the end of understanding the glorious and the infamous human condition. And if only I knew the humidity would disappear by September 3rd, I'd be itching to get back.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Freedom Flotilla Turns Deadly

Helicopters and airplanes in unusual numbers and loudness flew over the nearby coast this morning as I sat translating an Arabic article about the anticipation of war in the Middle East this summer. Always a pleasure to see how the media enjoys heating things up when negotiations and processes are at a standstill. As though an absence of activity could only signify the calm before the storm.

Amidst the roaring choppers and plane engines in the nearby distance I received a phone call from a friend and she wondered if I had heard what happened.

No, now what?

Ten killed by Israeli Defense Forces in the Freedom Flotilla that has been heading toward Gaza with seven boatloads of humanitarian aide and nearly 700 international passengers. Ok.

And so began the search on the internet. Haaretz, New York Times and the BBC. The reaction and the thoughts followed.

Both a feature and a flaw, I aspire to view events and the stories of the people involved from as many angles as possible. Having lived in Israel for a little more than three years now, it is always true that the real understanding of a situation can be found in the grey area. However, regardless of whether the grey area illuminates motives and rationale that assist in comprehending the way things go down, the end result usually is that Israel finds itself in an unconscionable mess.

So I'll just start listing my problems and questions as they come to mind.

First, the blockade on Gaza. An act of collective punishment? Yes. Recently I read a list of permitted and forbidden items that can or cannot traverse the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, which was published by an Israeli NGO by the name of Gisha. Rice and beans and lentils, for example, are all permissible for entry into the Gaza Strip. However, cinammon and coriander seeds are not. Certain learning materials are able to be collected, others are not. My conclusion from reading the list is that the blockade seeks to severely lower the quality of life of the Citizens of Gaza. To make their life so bland and boring and difficult that they will collectively do something against their leaders. The blockade is not in place to merely monitor and prevent the smuggling of weapons that could be used against the State of Israel. The seige on Gaza serves to frustrate, intimidate and to control the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It has little to no affect on the strength of its leaders in Hamas.

On the issue of humanitarian aide sailing in from distant ports of Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and so on. These missions do not help the people of Gaza. They are publicity stunts to provoke a response from Israel that will only serve to harm Israel's already sullied reputation as well as to illustrate to the Israeli people how ill-equipped its military forces and its leaders are in making decisions in a perceived crisis. Moreover, when I read dispatches through listservs of the people aboard these ships, I get the sense that they are living in a fantasy world in which they star as Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, or any other savior-hero type that is swooping in to save the day, in their very own choose-your-own-adventure novel. They have no idea what they are getting into when they board those ships and from what happened this morning, it is clear that their approach to humanitarian aide and how they represent themselves to the international audience is rather muddled.

What do I mean?

An informed person would know that when the Israeli Defense Forces makes a statement that your flotilla should not approach the coastal waters of its territory (occupied or otherwise), they are not joking. Moreover, if you are aboard a ship of humanitarian aide and you claim to be doing so for the sake of nonviolence and/or the rescue of the Palestinian people, you do not attack soldiers with knives and sticks or try to steal their guns (as mentioned in the BBC). Also, if you are an informed person, you would know that not too many months ago, the Israeli Navy intercepted a ship on its way to Gaza from Cyprus whose cargo, unbeknownst to its crew, consisted entirely of weapons from Iran, destined for Gaza. If your charge, as is that of the Israeli Defense Forces, is to protect your citizens, knowing that ships heading for Gaza are not necessarily just carrying humanitarian aide, why on earth would you allow your unit to permit the passage of these ships without, at least, a thorough search of content? What, Israel is supposed to take these people at their word? That would be the day...

From my point of view, in reality, it's all about the stardom and the glory. If it weren't, another outcome to this incident would have been possible. Israel offered to the Freedom Flotilla safe harbor in Ashdod. All the materials of the ships would have been inspected and granted passage to the Palestinians in accordance with the lists of permissible items. The participants would be processed and sent back to their respective countries. In this scenario, Israel would still be the asshole, the Gazans would get at least some of the aide, and the participants could return home, proud of their resistance and defiance of the seige against Gaza and tell all their friends and family how they stood up to the Israeli war machine.

But no, it didn't work out like that. In the end what has happened? No one has won.

14 people are dead. Tens of others are hurt. Soldiers and commanders are wounded. Everyone is being treated at the Tel Shomer hospital just outside of Tel Aviv. The Gazans do not receive the aid. Israel has yet another already lost public relations battle to fight. And Netanyahu meets with Obama tomorrow, supposedly. Wonder how that will go?

And meanwhile, the warmongers of the media are probably salivating over the rise in the mercury of socio-political tensions.

Me? No false pretentions here folks. I'll be praying that, at least, for the next 16 to 17 days, people will hold it together so that I can get married, as planned.

** As of June 2, 2010, I understand that nine deaths resulted in the aboard ship battle between activists on the Mavi Marmarra and the Israeli Navy. Not 10 and not 14. As of yet the identities of these deceased individuals have not been released. I do not know if they were bystanders or were in fact those who participated in attacking the Israeli soldiers that descended upon the ship. As per the information now available, as well as the feedback from certain individuals, I am deleting the value of "innocent" that I originally placed next to the number of deadly casualties in this event. As deeming them innocent is as premature a judgment as calling them guilty. Gil, I stand corrected. Thank you for your feedback and criticism. It made me do some critical thinking, which is always necessary in times like these.