Monthly Archives: December 2011

Chipping out the crevices

I got into a bit of an online argument the other week.

After the whole furore over the Ministry of Absorption’s commercials, I became upset with the way that some American friends felt it was okay to stereotype Israelis. They were having lots of fun laughing at how rude, gauche, arrogant, and loud-mouthed Israelis are. It bugged me.

I used the ‘r’ word. I said their jokes were racist. Oops.

I got told off. I was asked to explain myself, since “Israeli” is not a race.

I was also told I was being over-sensitive “because, frankly, your job is to defend Israel”. (It was the “frankly” that did my head in. He was being careful not to offend me. You know, like someone might say, “because, frankly, you smell like crap…”)

I stopped myself responding straight away, and sat back to think.

1. WHAT’S RACISM?

Maybe I shouldn’t have called their jokes “racist”. I should have been more specific. I should have mentioned that they were perpetrating generalized, exaggerated and offensive stereotypes of people based solely on where they were born. I don’t know, if that’s not racist behaviour, it’s certainly holding hands with it.

I remember once being on an anti-racist seminar while working in the social services in the UK. We were given a standard equation. Racism = Prejudice + Power. The equation made me extremely uncomfortable even then. How can you judge who has power? It would seem that all a racist needs is to prove that s/he is less powerful than the person they are abusing, and hey presto, they’re all cool. In particular aware of past Jewish experience in Germany (who would have defined Jews as powerless in the early 30s?) I felt the definition was insidious.

I think expressions of prejudice are bad news, whether or not you call them racist.

I’m not saying that there aren’t some rude and boorish Israelis around. Of course there are. But there are fewer than there were. Israeli society is capable of developing.

Just as in right-on Britain the only racism allowed (okay – nasty national stereotyping) was against Americans, so in the Jewish world the acceptable face of racism is to ridicule Israelis’ sense of dress and decorum.

It still bugs me.

2. WHAT IS IT THAT I DEFEND?

Bearing in mind that I don’t even defend Man United when they’re playing crap, I was struck by this comment. Is it my job to defend Israel? Not sure. I imagine there are people in my organization who would say so, though I don’t tend to listen to them. Anyway the point is that what I feel free to write on my facebook or my blog is different from what my job expects of me.

But Dan’s comment led me to ask myself – what is it that I defend? In what do I so fully believe that I will defend it no matter what?

It’s not Israel, and it’s certainly not my job…

It’s complexity.

I believe that the world is destroyed by absolutes. I believe that violence and oppression emerge from absolutes. I believe that it is a moral imperative for us to break down absolute understandings, assumptions, and faiths. Absolute faith leads to war.

The constant search for the undermining argument, the unexpected ‘other hand’, the deflating witticism – these are the tools of peace.

Theodore Zeldin taught me:

“The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl.”

I defend the need to constantly search out, and even chip out, crevices through which we can crawl.

That’s why the stereotyping jokes bug me. They smooth over crevices.

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Banishing the Darkness?

So D asked me to pop into the glass store at the bottom of Dir El Assad to order some glass.

“Don’t tell him I sent you,” she called after me, “Tell him it’s for Muli.”

Muli is the carpenter with whom D often combines forces. He is a man, and D, being my wife and mother of my children, is not. Rabakh, the guy at the glass place, doesn’t like D. It’s not that he doesn’t like her more than he doesn’t approve of her. We know this because he always charges her double. In this, as in many other areas, the traditional Arab meets the (over-)traditional Jew. There are many ways for Middle Eastern men to demote women, many of them far more subtle than barring them from singing or kicking them to the back of the bus.

There was Rabakh, sitting at the front of the store, supping coffee with a friend of his. Knowing what was coming, I checked my watch: It was okay, I had some leeway. Sure enough the invitation came to sit and drink coffee. They say that you need to offer things to Brits three times before they finally accept. Apparently we assume you’re only being polite and don’t really mean it. It’s a reflex it’s taken me 15-odd years in Israel to overcome. I smiled, said thank you, and sat down with the small china cup placed in my hand. Rabakh does good coffee.

His mate asked Rabakh something about me in Arabic, and made some joke on hearing the response. I showed an interest in understanding what he’d said, and he explained simply, “You live on Kibbutz Tuval, built on the land of Dir El Assad.”

I don’t know what I managed to do right, but from what might have seemed an unpromising opening, we ended up getting on really well. We talked together about various bits of land up the top of the hill that had been taken over by various Jewish officials or businessmen. Some had been met with (partially successful) resistance, some with resignation. It was an odd, delicate conversation, as the two of us smiled and laughed about an intolerably tolerable situation.

At one point I, the Jew, living on land that he, the Arab, disputes, asked him “So what do we do?”

He smiled sweetly, and gestured to the coffee, and to our conversation. That’s what we do, seemed to be his answer. We chill over a cup of coffee.

I have to admit to having been somewhat agnostic about the “co-existence” line of political action. The whole “hang out with an Arab” (most of the older folks I end up meeting here in the Galilee don’t call themselves Palestinian) approach to righting the status of non-Jews in Israel has always struck me as too kumbaya for my liking.

I’m always reminded of the parable credited to Rabbi Akiva about the musical recital that the nightingale is giving for all the animals of the forest. All the animals are rapt, except the worm, who remains under a rock, paying no attention to the beautiful singing. Why aren’t you listening to the music? Ask the shocked animals. The worm replies, Because I know that the moment that bird stops singing, she’s going to come and try to eat me.

My thinking goes, why would an Arab wish to hang out with me, to enjoy my company or my culture, when he fears that any second one of my mates is going to appropriate his back-garden? Surely it’s best to fight to right the substantial and substantive wrongs?

But my quiet friend over coffee reminded me yet again that life here is more complicated than that, and I need to learn more modesty. After all, what did I intend to do about my house or my kibbutz’ dairy sitting on Dir El Assad’s land? I have no plans to move out. Nor did my friend really expect me to do so. What was required in this situation was for me to hear his gently stated grievance, and do him the honour of supping a coffee with him. It didn’t solve anything in the physical world, but maybe did some good in the realm of the spirit.

A similar thing is going on throughout Chanukah this year. All over the place people are gathering to light a chanukiah by the mosques that Jewish scum have vandalized or burned in the last year. “Tag Mechir” is the term these people use, putting a “price tag” on the cost of the government acting against settlements in the West Bank. “Tag Meir” is its opposite. “Meir” means “illuminating”. We’ll be going to light a chanuka candle at each place that has been defiled by these race vandals, in a prayer for peace. As the traditional Chanukah song has it, we’ll be working to drive out the darkness with light.

Kumbaya? Totally. But sometimes you just have to fight darkness with light.

Merry Holidays and Chag Sameach.

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Coming Home

First appeared in www.makomisrael.org

Look, let’s be straight. I think that living in Israel is a good thing. I also, continuing to taste its fruits to this day, think that making aliya is a good thing.

I think that the Absorption Ministry is completely within its rights to try to encourage people to come to live in Israel – particularly those people who were born in Israel – and if Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that’s being mean to American Jews, then so be it.

You can’t get all uppity about Israelis saying that it’s good for Israelis to live in Israel, even if that implies they should leave America. It’s not “archaic” to suggest that aliya is good for the future of the Jewish people: It’s what we call debatable. That’s not the same thing, and it borders on cowardice to suggest it is.

Having said that… the two commercials that have many of my friends in America fulminating and my friends in Israel cringing are indeed problematic even for a Zionist such as myself.

I’m going to do what I’m not convinced the ad-firm really deserves. I’m going to try to analyze these commercials seriously.

The Grandparents video has a lit chanukiah in the background of the Israeli elderly skypers, and when they ask their Hebrew-speaking grand-daughter what festival it is, she cries Christmas! The concerned-yet-sympathetic voice-over points out: “They will always remain Israeli. Their children will not…”

Of course there are a few category confusions here. The kid has a good strong Israeli accent: her Hebrew is fine. What would seem to be in question is her connection to Jewish religion and culture, which is not necessarily exactly the same thing as her Israeliness. She will, after all, despite her identification with the goyim, still be expected to serve in Israel’s army when she reaches the right age, and will be allowed to enter Israel only on her Israeli passport.

Were we into philosophizing a little, we might ask if this girl with her perfect Hebrew, familiarity with all the Israeli music her parents play in the house, and call-up card to the IDF, is not Israeli? I’m not for a minute suggesting that an Israeli culture lacking a basic awareness of Chanukah is a rich or healthy culture for Israel, but it certainly exists.

But much of the critique I’ve so far seen of the advert goes further. The advert is somehow seen as proof that “it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America”. So of course anecdotally the commercial is thoroughly unfair, but statistically it is spot on. Of all Jews in America, Israeli ex-pats have the greatest trouble identifying with their local Jewish communities. Several Federations are making huge efforts to reach out to Israelis in their midst precisely because they have recognized there is a problem. In particular secular Israelis find it very hard to parlay their secular Israeli identity into the strictly Protestant-Jewish-religious terms of the American community (see the debate explored by James Hyman and Yonatan Ariel).

And now for the second video. A young Israeli is going through Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) on her own. Her partner doesn’t understand what she’s going through. She is alone in her grief and far away from home. Jeffrey Goldberg is convinced her boyfriend is Jewish because he speaks through his nose and has a goatey beard. (Less said about what lies behind that set of assumptions the better…) The friendly pitying voice-over: “They will always remain Israeli. Their partners won’t always understand what that means.”

So let’s parse this one, too. First off, the scene lasts all of 20 seconds. It may well be (if their relationship is worth anything) that the next few hours in Dafna’s apartment is spent with Dafna talking to her partner about what Yom HaZikaron is and what it means to her. It may well be that by the end of the conversation he will understand far more what it means to be Israeli. (And if he doesn’t he’s welcome to check out our online activity on the subject called The Price…)

If he listens carefully, and if Dafna is able to express herself well enough, he will understand that of all the days in the calendar that fill Dafna with ambivalence about Israel, it is Yom HaZikaron. It is a day full of pain, loss, and unspoken anger – especially for many of those people who have chosen to leave Israel. While it is the day most likely to lead Dafna to miss the company of other Israelis, it is very unlikely that this is what she most misses about Israel.

She misses the friends, she misses the energy, she misses the openness, she misses what her American friends mistake for rudeness but she experiences as honoring honesty. She misses the tiyulim, the views, the weather, the dynamism and the fear and excitement that literally anything may happen at any time. Without necessarily admitting it, she also misses feeling connected to something important, even crucial. She misses the thickness of existence in Israel, where everything is symbolic of something else, where the new is old and the old is new, where her in-born connection to the Jewish People can be expressed far beyond the synagogue. She misses the language, the music, the culture. She misses home.

It’s not wrong to try to encourage these people to come back to Israel, nor is it wrong to suggest their lives might be richer were they to do so. What is sad is that we’re so rarely allowed to discuss this latter assertion in any intelligent way, and these two commercials certainly don’t make it any easier.