Monthly Archives: January 2012

A tale of noise and humiliation

It’s strange how the most trivial thing brought me closest to violence.

I’m sitting on the train. The carriage is quiet. Four kids get on and sit across the aisle from me. They’re about 15 or 16. Well-equipped with their various mobile devices, they all loudly and boisterously turn to their respective video games. None of them have earphones. One guy in particular is playing his beeping video game with the volume on full.

After putting in my noise-cancelling earphones and unsuccessfully trying to ignore him, I give in. I ask him, fairly nicely, to turn down the volume.

At first he doesn’t respond. Then after I repeat my request he tells me to wait until he finishes the game. He is a little irritated that I distracted him.

Blood rising to my cheeks I ask him again, less nicely.

His giggling mates guffaw as the kid tells me that I ought to be more patient.

I want to kill him.

Even more frustrating is the ticket inspector who is sitting only a few seats away. He does nothing. In the end – oh the shame! – I respond in kind. I unplug my earphones from my computer and turn my own volume up. Only then does the inspector get up and tell us both to turn the volume down.

I breathe again.

A few days later, and  I’m in even more of a state. I’ve just read that the Railway Authority has refused a request for announcements to be made in Arabic as well as Hebrew. Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. It is spoken by a significant proportion of Israel’s citizens, and the train stops at several cities with a large Arab population – Lod, Ramle, Acco, Haifa.

But no announcements are made in Arabic. They are made in Hebrew and, quite often, in English.

Here’s the kicker. What is the reason Israel’s Rail Authority will not make announcements in Arabic?

Because it would make the announcements too long, and, wait for it – “it would make the train ride noisy.”

Noisy.

Were I only concerned with my decibellian comfort, I’d laugh bitter tears. But these days I’m reading a lot of Avishai Margalit. He is the wise man who suggested we let go of lofty aspirations to a Just Society, and aim for the more modest goal of creating a Decent Society. A decent society, according to Margalit’s famous encapsulation, is a society that refrains from humiliating its citizens.

This decision, this deliberate decision not to make announcements in Arabic is humiliating. It humiliates Arab citizens of Israel. It’s especially humiliating because it’s so trivial. It’s not about changing the words of Hatikvah, it’s not about the Nakba, and it’s certainly not about the Occupation. A compromise would have cost nothing. Instead, it’s another little humiliation for Arab Israelis.

What does one do with such feelings of humiliation?

I know that when that kid refused to mute his stupid game, my fury and fantasy of violence emerged from a feeling of helplessness and the inexplicable humiliation of having my humanity disrespected. I was humiliated. In particular by the way in which the ‘system’, ie the representative of Israel’s Rail Authority, was so loath to intervene.

It was almost as if he didn’t care about the noise.

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A song for our troubled times

“Point a finger at someone and you’re pointing three fingers at yourself.”

Yeah I know, it’s one of those annoying aphorisms that appear on Facebook with some cute photoshopped image. But as in many annoying Facebook aphorisms, it has something to it.

I’ve been thinking about this physiological morality tale over the past few weeks. Like an evil wind, uproar against one Israeli ‘tribe’ or another has been whipping from headline to headline, stirring up anger then moving on to the next issue, leaving pointing fingers in its wake.

I keep returning to the Prayer of the Secular. It’s a song by Kobi Oz that, to my mind, manages to point a finger at everyone, and yet finds a space for self-critique and harmony. (For a less polemic interpretation of the song, feel free to pop over here, where you’ll also find a full written translation and explanatory footnotes.)

The song begins with the prayer, but swiftly moves into a full-blooded yet empathetic critique of the secular life-style. We take pills if we feel bad, we blame our parents for all our faults, and our values are for sale in a mall. We take no cosmic responsibilities, and (my extension of course) we’re no great advocates for women’s rights ourselves…

Oz imagines himself standing praying his secular prayer in a Jewish minyan. Next to him is a sweaty, slavish, over-reproducing Haredi man. All the (well-sourced) stereotypes spill out in three lines of verse. Yet before we have time to take a breath, the National Religious get it in the neck. They are accused of being vainglorious, valuing land over people, stuck in the past and pulling all of us into war.

Then just as the progressive Jew begins to giggle, the song cuts Reform Jews to the quick, with a suggestion that their Judaism may not be an alteration but instead a totally different religion. My translation, “A reform Jew with a brand new cover or a different book”, is less inflammatory than the Hebrew (what can I do? Child of my time, I was thinking of that great line from ABC…). The Hebrew reworks a phrase asking if Reform Judaism is a make-over, or a different woman entirely?

In line with our current issues in Israel, Kobi’s minyan includes and excludes the women, “rustling and whispering” behind the mechitza, contributing the “sensuous sound, the feminine voice of the non-counted”

What this song succeeds in doing where most of us in Israel have failed, is in both sharing out the blame and praying for peace. The accusations in the song – against the secular, the haredi, the modern orthodox and reform – do not cancel each other out. The fact that one is fatally flawed does not mean that the other is not. They all stand, together, in the same minyan, praying for fertile rain.