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.


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.


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.


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

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.

The House…

So I was recently briefly stumped by a friend, who told me a story about home improvements and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Her husband was away on a work trip, and she decided she was going to paint the outside of the house. It’s not a simple job to paint the outside of your house. You need to scrape off the original layer of paint, you need to fill in cracks and stuff, you need to gather all the right equipment, and most importantly for a woman in Israel – you have to convince the blokes at the hardware store to sell you what you need even though you’re a woman.

She worked like crazy. She probably looked fairly mad to onlookers. Middle aged woman up a ladder scraping and smoothing, painting and getting painted. But she did, as she told me, a “damned good job”.

Her husband came home, she took him outside, and he looked up at the whole painted house. He stood there in silence, nodding. Then he pointed up to the corner of the back of the house, where the wall meets the roof.

“You missed a bit,” he said.

As she later hastened to explain to me: He was right. She had missed a bit. But that didn’t help. It took weeks of groveling on his part for her to forgive him.

Where’s the analogy? Diaspora Jewry behaves this way towards Israel. Israel’s not perfect. Okay. We know that. But where does Diaspora Jewry get off, only concentrating on the bits we missed, and not offering some kind of praise for what we’ve achieved? Her husband’s thoughtless comment wasn’t untrue, but it was hugely damaging for their relationship.

Israel is an incredible achievement. It only takes a tiny act of imagination to picture the state of the world’s Jewry in the first half of the 20th Century, and then to wander around Israel with your mouth agape. I moan about the traffic, I hate the buses, and the trains are less and less reliable, but Jesus, who thought we Jews would ever be laying roads and running national public transportation systems? And so much more.

In short, my friend’s story of the house painting stuck with me for some time. It gave me a different paradigm to assess things. Me, who’d been so big on encouraging, nay liberating Jews around the world to critique Israel,  I fell silent a while.

I found a little “but” beginning to nudge its way into my mind.


To come back to the house analogy. What if the husband had noticed the unpainted corner and had said nothing? What if he’d just hugged her and praised her and talked her up to all his friends for weeks to come? And then, at some appropriate moment, he’d mentioned – nicely – that there was still a corner left to be done. And what if she’d responded quickly with, “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll get to it.”

What happens over 30 years later, and she didn’t get to it, and the corner is still lacking paint and sealing? The husband’s getting restless, the wife is just pissed off with him nagging, and in the meantime that corner is letting in water. When there’s a storm they have to lay out pans to catch the dripping inside the house. Experts are telling them that the damp is spreading and could endanger the entire outer wall. And her only response is that they don’t know what they’re talking about?

In 1967 the world’s Jewry did not respond to the victory of the 6 Day War as snooty nit-pickers. They celebrated along with everyone else. The critique was by no means immediate, nor was the praise grudging. But gradually the fly in the ointment, the population that came with the new territories, just got too difficult to ignore. As Levi Eshkol said at the time, “The wedding was a great success. We love the bride, we just don’t like the dowry…” In celebrating the reunification of the Jews with the bride of biblical lands, we just kept ignoring the dowry – the Palestinians.

Work in the realm of Israel engagement is sometimes like dropping your kids off at that couple’s house. The house is in a bad state, and the parents can’t stop bitching at each other…

Starting out – who am I?

I am one of those strange beings who is not afraid to identify himself as a Zionist while at the same time not afraid to acknowledge the potential problematics of the term. Like, I believe, many many other Jews in Israel and the world.

I believe in pushing for as much freedom as possible for as many people as possible, while maintaining both solidarity and tradition.

I like to think of myself as a knowledgable Jew: I can refer to Torah and Talmud easily and happily, I lead prayers at Yom Kippur, but at the same time I’m an incorrigible agnostic, don’t wear a kippa, and have never kept Shabbat in any orthodox fashion.

I made aliya from England. Been living here since early 1996. My Hebrew’s good – I can read fiction in Hebrew and I teach and perform in Hebrew. While I didn’t serve in the army (too old), I would have done. In short, I’m a British Israeli – not a Brit living in Israel. My wife is Israeli-born as are our kids.

I’m deeply unhappy with the direction that politics and media are moving these days – less because they’re moving to the right (I believe more strongly in democracy than in enforcing my leftwing views) but more because they’re moving away from anything resembling intelligent complex thought. These days it feels like intelligence and complexity are the most essential tools for dealing with what’s going on around us.

I think the left in Israel is as full of fascist wankers as the right in Israel. The only difference between them is that the right-wing fascist wankers are more comfortable with using power and violence. I also think that just because someone is a fascist, or a wanker, or a bully doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t have a good point.

As I once explained on a radio interview here, when they asked me what ‘side’ I was on: “I’m on the side of Manchester United. Only in football should we be proud of stubborn unquestioning bigoted loyalty. Everything else should be up for grabs.”