So our brilliant program facilitators somehow scored us tickets to the Haaretz Israel Conference on Peace, which was held in Tel Aviv last Thursday. The conference was a full-day convergence of the important (Tony Blair, Reuven Rivlin, and Martin Indyk were probably the biggest names there from an American perspective) and the self-important (me) in the convention center of a swanky Tel Aviv hotel. Catered buffets were raided (to the point of nausea), NGO logo-festooned swag was acquired, panels and speeches were attended (also to the point of nausea), and thoughts were provoked. Here are some of them.

During the course of one of the countless and mind-numbing debates about political correctness and free speech on college campuses to occur in the past few years (I think I said this after the Ray Kelly incident at Brown, but who even knows at this point), I once made the argument that the heckling of speakers, far from being an anti-liberal impulse by the heckler, is itself an expression of free speech, and that the so-called heckler's veto should be considered an instance of two competing expressions of free speech coming into conflict rather than one party engaging in free speech while the other party tries to stifle it.

This event, and Israeli political culture more broadly, proves me correct. Heckling (or "impromptu debate" as it could euphemistically be called) seems to be pretty ubiquitous in political culture here. It happened throughout the day-primarily when hard-core right-wingers spoke, given the audience (Haaretz, the newspaper that sponsored the conference, is sort of the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times-the paper of the left-wing intelligentsia), but really throughout the day. No one walked off the stage, no one got arrested, no one wrote any obnoxious thinkpieces for the Israeli equivalent of the Atlantic. Speakers engaged, or they turned up the volume on the microphone and moved on. It's hard to say that Israel doesn't have a thriving culture of free speech (putting aside the territories for a moment, and even though it's threatened in some respects). So heckling, or aggressive protest more broadly, clearly isn't incompatible with free speech-it's just more speech. I've long said that people who act all concerned about free speech when some noxious right-winger gets booed off a stage have ulterior motives, and I think the Israeli example proves it. There's a lot wrong with this country, but at least it's free of stupid concern trolling about free speech, which is reason enough to move here at this point.

So, as the above discussion of the booing of right-wingers implies, some right-wing types spoke at the conference. A couple of Likud MKs spoke, and a representative of the settler movement participated in a panel.  This was the first time I'd ever seriously listened to a political speech by an Israeli right-wing politicians, as far as I know. Of course, I've gotten the right-wing line plenty of times from American sources, but I've never actually listened to the source before. I have to admit: I understand the appeal.

I understand the appeal not because their premises of the policy arguments were good (denying that the Palestinian people exist, etc) or because their logic was sound (the settler movement rep wanted to fully annex the territories and grant full equal rights to the Palestinians, but somehow expand the role of Judaism in Israeli law, presumably through magic), but because of the presentation. The right-wingers exuded confidence, presenting a very simple, dualistic vision of the world as good and evil without a hint of equivocation. By contrast, the center-left speakers for the most part explored the issues in all their complexity, but seemed by contrast weak, seemingly pathologically committed to equivocating whenever challenged on their progressive views.

This seems to be a core difference between liberals and conservatives. I'm a policy wonk with strongly held progressive values, but I can understand how someone without much information or who wasn't all that invested in the political process would find the right-wing narrative very compelling. It's really a challenge for the left, I think. Worldwide, even. Democrats face the same problem. In a political arena that seems ever more focused on superficial impressions, how do you overcome the structural advantage that conservatives have in that area?

The few Israeli leftists who didn't seem to fall into this trap were the Arab MKs-Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. Both offered a clear vision of a future society, a vision that subordinated the goal of national rights in the form of a two-state solution to the goal of securing civic and social equality for Arabs. Tibi had a great line when he criticized the liberal Zionist defense of the two-state solution as a means of avoiding the "demographic problem" of Arab population growth that would leave Jews in the minority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, saying something to the effect of "if the French ever based policy on the fear that the Jewish population would become a majority in France, we would rightly condemn it as racist." This is right, I think-it is fundamentally racist to talk about "demographic problems," we would condemn that reasoning in any other context, and there are good arguments for the two-state solution that don't require these arguments. Odeh was very impressive, offering a stirring defense of equal rights for Arabs and condemning the occupation as harmful to both Jews and Palestinians. How could you disagree with the idea of equal rights? I think this is a very productive rhetorical frame for Palestinians, one that could put the defenders of Israel on their heels in a new way. It'll be interesting to see how this unfolds in the coming years.

It's interesting what they left out, though. They didn't talk much about whether they preferred equal rights to come in the form of a two-state solution or a secular binational state. Their reasoning could seemingly lead you to either place, and I think, given the degree to which the settlements are entrenched in the West Bank, an individual rights-based Palestinian liberation movement (as opposed to a national rights-based Palestinian liberation movement) seems more likely to lead you to secular binationalism. I think that liberal Zionists are right when they express skepticism of secular binationalism. After 70 years in which both sides have instilled hatred of the other, it's impossible to imagine how it works. This is a challenge for liberal Zionists, I think-to offer a defense of the two-state solution that includes equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and which isn't rhetorically premised on the racist concept of the demographic problem, especially as a new generation of Palestinian leaders like Ayman Odeh begin to offer a different framing of the issues that more logically leads to binationalism. 

Otherwise, more of the usual. It still amazes me how Israelis are willing to talk very openly about the issues at stake here, while other Westerners aren't. Ari Shavit, the esteemed Haaretz columnist, interviewed Tony Blair during the conference, and he began the conference by asking Blair "if the occupation poses an existential threat to Israel." Blair dodged the question, and was seemingly unwilling to even accept the term "occupation." It made me quite sad, actually-American Jews know all about how hard-liners have basically taken over the discourse around Israel within both the American Jewish community and within American politics, but Blair's reluctance to talk about the issues directly seemed to imply that the same phenomenon's occurring overseas.

The one happy exception was Martin Indyk. I'd always assumed he was a centrist, maybe even center-right, but he got the mostly left-wing crowd fired up by talking about how Israel needs to recognize its status as a world power and needs to stop thinking of itself as the perpetual victim. He definitely doesn't want to enter Hillary's administration, I guess-could you imagine if AIPAC got a hold of that?

Some thoughts on the apartheid analogy and right-wing rhetoric

Before I came here, I wasn't a huge fan of the Israel apartheid analogy. I still think it's a flawed analogy, largely because of the fact that within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, the million-plus Palestinians have Israeli citizenship and de jure equal rights. That's not to say that the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel is perfect by any means, but it's not a situation where people lack access to core citizenship rights, such as the right to vote, solely because of their membership in a certain racial or ethnic group. Within the West Bank, Palestinians do live under a system of military law that denies them rights granted to Jewish residents, but I'm not sure it's appropriate to compare the situation there to apartheid, because these areas are at least nominally not a part of Israel. Again, that's not to say that the situation of those living under occupation is good, only that it's not directly comparable to the situation that existed in South Africa. The analogy's probably at its strongest in the context of East Jerusalem, where Palestinians lack citizenship rights even though the territory at issue has been permanently annexed to Israel, but East Jerusalem is a tiny part of the territory between the Jordan River and the Red Sea. Even there, the situation is a little different-Palestinians at least have the opportunity to apply for citizenship, although as far as I know it's under conditions that make it nearly impossible in reality. Of course, the overall situation has the potential to change for the worse in the form of permanent annexation in the territories without concomitant granting of rights to the Palestinians living there, which would spread the East Jerusalem situation to the land as a whole.

During my time here, I'm not really sure that my position on the apartheid analogy has changed that much. I still think that the occupation is wrong, and that there are a lot of problems with discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and I feel that I have more evidence for these beliefs, but I still think that the apartheid analogy is inapt for the reasons I mentioned. So why am I writing this, then?

Today, I stumbled upon this 1989 op-ed about apartheid in South Africa, written by a white South African during the peak of international pressure on South Africa to end apartheid. I was stunned by the similarities between the rhetoric used in the op-ed and the rhetoric used by right-wing pro-Israel groups; I joked to a friend that you could replace the proper nouns and get an AIPAC brochure (seriously, look for yourself). The factually questionable claims, such as the idea that the land at issue was uninhabited before the arrival of the group in power; the attempts to change the subject to problems in other countries in the region; the argument that anyone who opposes the actions of the country at issue must be a misinformed, brainwashed, bleeding-heart liberal-it's all there.

Obviously, the fact that defenders of the status quo in Israel/Palestine use the same rhetoric as defenders of apartheid in South Africa does not logically imply that Israel is an apartheid state. That argument would be fallacious for a whole bunch of reasons, actually. Nevertheless, I certainly think that these clearly evident rhetorical similarities should be cause for some soul-searching among those on the Zionist right, both within Israel and abroad. The rhetoric is just too similar, and noxious.

It's also bad reasoning-instead of addressing the merits of the issues raised by opponents of the status quo, the tendency is to deflect through changing the subject to other countries or by questioning the motives of their opponents.  I think people can detect bad reasoning, even if they don't have the vocabulary to describe it is that, and react negatively. It's one of the reasons why there's so much hostility over the issue in the United States, I think. If anything it would be helpful for the Zionist right's cause to reject this kind of rhetoric, and instead make the case for their beliefs about Israeli policy in good faith. There are plenty of good arguments for a fairly hawkish position on Israel that don't require this type of dismissive reasoning that's so reminiscent of the reasoning used by the defenders of apartheid: to name a few, there's the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land, the UN mandate for a Jewish state on at least part of the land, and the need for security in the face of very real anti-Semitism (as opposed to anti-occupation or anti-Israeli policy sentiment, but that's another post) and religious extremism that threatens the people of Israel. To the extent that so-called right-wing defenders of Israel don't use these arguments, and instead reach for the bad arguments used by defenders of apartheid South Africa-well, I think it's fair to ask some serious questions about their motives and goals.

Rabin on my mind

Back to the grim political posting.

I've been on a bit of a Rabin assassination binge lately. In addition to attending the Tel Aviv rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of the assassination last weekend, I recently read Dan Ephron's excellent new book on the assassination, Killing a King. In no particular order, here are some thoughts on the assassination, the aftermath, and the recent commemorative events.

Obviously, the rally was mostly in Hebrew (except for a speech by Bill Clinton and a recorded video message from President Obama), and my Hebrew's still at the point where I only understand one out of every five to ten words, particularly when I'm listening to Hebrew spoken quickly over a public address system. I can say, though, that I heard the word "democratia" (democracy) far more often than I heard the word "shalom" (peace). This, and much of the other discourse around the anniversary, surprised me-as an American Jew, I'd always thought that the primary trauma of the Rabin assassination was that was intended to wreck the peace process, and that it did, in some respects, wreck the peace process. I would have assumed that speakers would have used the anniversary to reiterate Israel's commitment to peace, and wouldn't have felt it necessary to reiterate its commitment to democracy.

In talking to Israelis, reading Ephron's book, and reading news coverage around the anniversary, I realized that I was somewhat mistaken. For a lot of Israelis, it seems that the primary trauma of Rabin's assassination was that it undermined the ideal of a democratic Israel. Unlike some assassinations of political figures, which are the product of mental illness or esoteric, unachievable political goals, Rabin's assassination was, essentially, one political faction attempting to accomplish by force what it couldn't achieve at the ballot box. While Yigal Amir was at least nominally independent of mainstream right-wing movements, at least some relatively mainstream actors in Israeli society shared his views and his rhetorical justification of his actions, and they got what they wanted in the wake of Rabin's assassination via the election of Netanyahu and the collapse of the Oslo process.

This, at least to my mind and I think to many Israelis, makes the Rabin assassination much more of a threat to democracy than, say, the Kennedy assassination, which wasn't tied to any organized political platform in the same way (at least, of course, if you accept the Warren Commission). This also makes it much more of a national trauma-it's one thing to lose your leader to a deranged lunatic (which is traumatic in its own right), it's much worse to lose your leader to an organized movement, because the latter implies that there's a faction in society that's completely rejected the legitimacy of democracy. It also implies that there's more violence to come, because, well, if it works once, how can you stop people from taking the lesson that it'll work again? It's probably especially traumatic in the Israeli context, because Israelis are largely refugees from political violence of one form or another, and because it's hard to ignore the reality that Israel is surrounded by states where political violence is a frequent reality. With all that in mind, I suppose it's not that surprising that Israelis would use the 20th anniversary to reiterate their commitment to democracy, given the profound threat that the Rabin assassination posed to democracy and the profoundly traumatic implications of that fact for Israelis.

Some other thoughts: 

I was shocked to learn that no current Israeli elected officials  participated in the commemoration. Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, participated, but the role of president is a largely symbolic one, and the president is not directly elected. Netanyahu et al did not participate. For an American, this is hard to understand-the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination occurred during the Reagan administration, and I can't imagine that Reagan would have avoided public commemorations, even though Reagan and Kennedy had vastly different views on the future of the United States.

Netanyahu had a fairly substantial role in the anti-Rabin incitement leading up to the assassination. He famously spoke at a rally during which people waved pictures of Rabin in an SS uniform and burned pictures of Rabin. Concerned by the incitement, several conservative politicians left the rally, but Netanyahu stayed. Some people blamed Netanyahu for fanning the flames after the assassination. I wonder if Rabin's family asked him to stay away from the commemoration, given the perception that he had a role in the incitement, or if he chose to stay away on his own out of a sense of guilt. 

Bill Clinton gave a very interesting speech. It was interesting partially because he seemed on the verge of tears for the duration, and he described the day of Rabin's assassination as the worst day of his presidency. I had no idea he was so strongly affected by it. It was also interesting because of the content. You can read more about it at the Haaretz link above, but the framing of his speech was basically that Israelis have a choice: they can follow Rabin's path, the difficult path to peace, or they can follow the path of his killer and the forces supporting him.

Within American political discourse about Israel, Clinton's speech can be considered a profoundly radical message, since the tendency of American political discourse is to absolve Israel of any moral responsibility for its actions whatsoever. Even President Obama, the Kenyan socialist Muslim Marxist anti-Semite, gave a fairly anodyne speech. I wonder to what extent this kind of conversation occurs behind closed doors in the American foreign policy establishment. It certainly seems to be more realistic, and more in line with the discussion about Israel within Israel (one of the speakers, Rabin's grandson, said that Israel must immediately recognize a Palestinian state, or it would lose the ability to call itself a democracy. Can you imagine what would happen if an American politician said that?!?) than what goes on in America. I hope that some right-wing drone doesn't turn Bill's speech into an anti-Hillary attack ad.


The King's Speech

So, as promised, here's my post on the Masa Israel event, including Netanyahu's speech. Summary: Imagine 4,500 twenty-something Jews from around the world packed into a little slice of America, attending an event designed to convey a fairly hard-core right-wing political message in the most inoffensive and fun manner possible. 

A quick note-Masa is a program, funded in part by the state of Israel and in part by philanthropists, that sanctions programs for Jews in their teens and twenties who want to spend an extended period of time in Israel. If you're a Jew and you do a Masa program, you get a grant of several thousands of dollars automatically, courtesy of the Israeli taxpayer and, probably, Sheldon Adelson et al.

We were instructed to arrive at Jerusalem's Pais Arena 3 hours in advance of the scheduled 7:30 start time for security reasons. Despite having to come from several locations around the city, our ragtag group of leftists amazingly managed to arrive on time. The first thing I noticed upon our arrival was that most other groups seemed to be outfitted with matching group t-shirts. Some even seemed to have other items of swag, like hats and such. Yeah, our little commune in Jerusalem was out of place.

After a typically Israeli security check (I could write a full post about this alone. They prioritize questioning and profiling over high-tech gadgets like the TSA's full body scanners-our group leader was asked to individually confirm that each of us were, in fact, members of the group before we were allowed to proceed to the metal detector), we were inside. I was reminded instantly why I swore off organized Jewish social events in my teens. Holy crap. I'm not sure on exact numbers, but I think that Masa's programs are under 50% American. Lots of people from Russia and the former Soviet Union seem to do these programs (and I can't blame them with the way things are going there). It certainly felt very American, though. Like every Jewish youth group event I suffered through. Bad pop music on the speakers, teenage girls squealing "oh my god, I remember you from camp" at every turn, etc, etc. It felt like a USY or NFTY convention uprooted from a hotel convention center, loaded into an El Al 747, and transported 5000 miles to a basketball arena in Jerusalem. Which, in some sense, it was, I suppose.

We had an hour to wander before we were allowed to proceed to our seats. I walked around, hoping that someone from my youth wouldn't see me there, which would have assuredly provoked a horrific interaction in which I tried and failed to remember the name of the person enthusiastically greeting me. Fortunately, I made it unscathed. I checked out the overpriced food options, which further affirmed the all-American vibe: reheated Pizza Hut (useless) and freakishly large hot dogs (useless, for everything but crude jokes, which I of course made). There was a swag booth, but I was too late for a t-shirt, not that I'd wear one anyway. There was also a photo booth, where one could take a picture in front of a Masa-logoed backdrop while holding a large cardboard Israeli flag. I considered pulling up an image of a Palestinian flag on my phone and holding it in one hand while holding the Israeli flag cutout in the other, but I decided that this not-particularly-interesting troublemaking wouldn't be worth the effort. More to come on that later.

After an hour of time-killing (which was actually productive-we were able to have a nice group meeting in a relatively quiet corner), we were invited to proceed to our seats for the program. This actually began with an hour of sitting in the arena while a DJ played crappy American pop and the event organizers invited us to send them selfies to post on a massive display screen. Amusingly enough, someone used this as an opportunity to propose to his girlfriend. As a devoted reader of the New York Times wedding section, I judged them hard. At one point, members of my group began sending in selfies with subversive captions, such as "end the occupation." I may or may not have appeared in one, in which I made a particularly horrifying face, even given my history of making horrible faces for pictures. They even displayed one (not mine), albeit briefly before realizing that they had erred in promoting an unapproved message and taking it down. We cheered, pleased that our minor act of subversion had succeeded.

After an hour of firing up the crowd (unfortunately interrupted by a brief act of selfie-based treason against the Jewish state), the event organizers officially began the program. At first, it was reminiscent of a cut-rate Olympics opening ceremony, interpretive dance routines with flaming torches and drums and highly stylized depictions of national landmarks on large video screens included. We were then introduced to our MCs for the evening-a twenty-something woman from the UK and Max, an outstanding example of the American Jewish bro. I resented him immediately, still bitter about the fact that those of his kind got to sneak off to kiss girls on the final nights of my middle school teen tours while I sat and sulked in the corner. Fortunately, Max had the impossible task of reading from a horrendously grating script that was seemingly written by a 50-something Jewish community professional charged with writing something that the kids could relate to. Scratch that-a 50-something Jewish community professional who had spent the past decade in cryogenic storage, Han Solo in Return of the Jedi-style. Really, it was that bad. If I remember correctly, there was an Eminem parody at one point. That's all you need to know

After more dance performances, more Max, and some video presentations, Natan Sharansky came on. Natan Sharansky is a pretty interesting person, actually-he was a genuine hero in his early life, who challenged the Soviet Union's treatment of Jews and other minority and dissident groups and spent a few years in a gulag for the privilege. In the late 80s or early 90s, he was finally permitted to move to Israel, where he entered politics. Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. He became a hard-line neocon, and his writings became the intellectual basis for W's foreign policy. He's now heading the Jewish Agency. I feel terrible criticizing him-he probably suffered in a way that I can't even imagine while in the Soviet Union. However, there's no other way to say it: his speech was completely fucking batshit. He described our role in apocalyptic terms, describing Israel and Jews as surrounded by enemies in the West and enlisting us as the foot soldiers on behalf of the Jewish people and Israel. At one point, he told an assuredly apocryphal story about a Harvard Business School student who couldn't get a job after his MBA program because he refused to sign a pro-BDS petition.  With that little piece of Fox News bait out there, I decided that my time would be better used by goofing off with my friends than listening to the rest of the speech. For the record-a Google search (and, like, common sense) reveals no evidence that Harvard Business School is blacklisting people who don't support the boycott of Israel.

After all of this, Bibi was anti-climactic. He seemed a little subdued, perhaps shaken by the response to his Holocaust revisionism a few weeks prior to this event. He gave the usual speech-described Israel as the land of the Jewish people, reiterated that Israel invented the flash drive and the cherry tomato (if you do Birthright, you'll hear that little factoid reiterated about 2178128712937 times), and told us all to move to Israel. He got a 5+ minute standing ovation, but I was a little underwhelmed. Where was the fire? The passion? The embarrassing sound bite that i could be the first to share with the world, launching my career as a political commentator? Frustrated, I headed for the exit.

And that was that. I could spend more time writing about the political implications of the event, of Masa, of the narrative presented at the event, but I think that the description speaks for itself. I do wonder how I'd feel, as an Israeli taxpayer, that so much money is being spent on Masa. Like most countries, there's a lot here that needs fixing, even if you look beyond the conflict-education, health care, social welfare programs, etc. I'm not sure I'd be happy that millions of dollars are being spent to give diaspora Jews a glorified summer camp experience.

A few days ago, I met with Hillel Cohen, a professor of history at Hebrew University, and he said something pretty similar. He's troubled by the fact that Israel seems to invest so much money and resources on giving non-Israelis a role in this place, in a way that's pretty unique among the nations. It is quite strange, when you think about it. Lots of nations are the national homeland of certain ethnic groups, but, say, Ireland doesn't spend millions of dollars to fly members of the Irish diaspora back to Ireland for multi-month stays in an effort to make them move there. That's even putting aside the fact that diaspora Jews, who have little or no connection to Israel, get access to this special program while the overseas diaspora of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs does not, even if they have close family ties to this land. That's another story. Still, though, I'm glad Masa exists, albeit on a superficial level. I'm happy I got their money, and how else would I have gotten the opportunity to laugh at Max?

Jerusalem food blogging (part 1)-falafel and shawarma

This post is also dedicated to ALG, a good friend who didn't like the wording of the dedication I included in my last post.

So as promised, I'm going to try to produce some less grim content for this blog, and there's no better place to start then with food. 

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that falafel's a very popular food in Israel. While it, like everything else in this country, comes with political controversy, it's ubiquitous and delicious, and it's become a troublingly large part of my diet. Most falafel places also serve shawarma, which is basically what Americans call "gyros" or what Europeans would call "doner" or "kebab"; a large tube of mystery meat (usually poultry of some sort, sometimes lamb is offered for an extra fee) cooked on a vertical rotating spit and shaved off into individual portions. It's a little terrifying from a food safety perspective, but it's sometimes nice for a change of pace.

While falafel/kebab places are pretty common in the United States, there are some minor differences between the way these foods are served in the United States and the way they're served in Israel.

In Israel, the first choice you have to make is regarding your bread. Most places offer pita (like pita in the US-a doughy pocket about 6 inches in diameter) and lafa (sort of like a cross between pita and a tortilla-it's larger than pita, a bit thinner and chewier, and the ingredients are wrapped instead of stuffed into a pocket). Because a lafa is larger, you get a larger portion of falafel/shawarma and toppings, so it's more expensive. Some places will offer a "hetzi lafa" (half lafa) for the price of a pita-I order this if offered, because I prefer the chewy, thin lafa to the heavy pita. Some fancier places will serve your falafel or shawarma on a salad or in a baguette. Whole wheat is rare, although some places, particularly in areas that attract American tourists, will serve it. 

After you decide on your bread, you're offered toppings. There's a pretty standard array of toppings that are available, and the cook will usually offer them to you one by one. The standard toppings are hummus, Israeli salad (just diced tomatoes and cucumbers), pickles, tehina (creamy, nutty sesame sauce), some sort of hot pepper paste (this assuredly has a Hebrew name, but I haven't been able to learn it because I'm always identified as an English speaker and the cook will just ask me if I want "spicy"), and, uniquely to Israel, French fries. You won't get tzatziki or feta here, even though they're common in American falafel places-since most falafel places serve shawarma, they can't serve dairy products.

(An aside-french fries are called "cheeps" in Hebrew, which is interestingly spelled ציפס .ציפס would normally be pronounced something like "tseeps" so I haven't been able to figure out why this spelling is used. Language study remains hard.)

After you're done with the standard toppings, you can ask for additional toppings. These consist of various fresh and pickled vegetables. You'll usually find a couple of types of pickled cabbage, spiced onions, fried eggplant, shaved carrot, and a few others. I think the salads may vary seasonally, but I'm not sure yet because I haven't been here long enough. There are also additional sauces, including a particularly tasty hot sauce called amba, which is made from pickled mango and curry. These are arranged on the salad bar in front of you. They don't cost extra, but they aren't offered, so you have to ask. This is always hard for me, because they look delicious, but I don't know the names of most vegetables in Hebrew so I don't know how to ask. Sometimes, if the restaurant isn't too busy and the cook doesn't look too frustrated, I'll try to get by through pointing, but I once ended up with a fairly horrifying beet salad by doing this, so there's an associated risk. An incentive to work on my language study, I guess.

I'll close this place out by reviewing some of the falafel/shawarma places that I frequent. I'll list the advantages, disadvantages, and a very important third factor. When eating spicy, greasy street food, gastrointestinal distress is a very real risk. So that my readers can be informed consumers of falafel and shawarma in the Ben Yehuda Street area of Jerusalem, I'll talk a bit about the gastrointestinal distress factor (GDF) for each restaurant. Happy eating!

This restaurant, Melech HaFalafel V'Shawarma (King of Falafel and Shawarma) is just down the street from me on King George Street.

  • Advantages: Cheap! Only 10 shekels (like $2.50) for a falafel in pita. They have separate lines for falafel and shawarma, which is a brilliant innovation that I haven't seen in other places. Since shawarma has to be shaved off the spit, shawarma orders slow down the line, which is frustrating when you just want falafel. Good fried eggplant. There's also a self-serve sauce bar where you can top up any dry spots in your sandwich.
  • Disadvantages: the shawarma's pretty greasy. Not all of the salads are great.
  • GDF: moderate. I once had an unpleasant evening after eating their shawarma, but I also spent that afternoon near the Old City during the peak of the stabbing wave a few weeks ago, so the confluence of anxiety and shawarma may have been the culprit rather than the shawarma alone. I've had their falafel a few times with no issue.

This place, Maoz, is across the street from me on King George. I'm not sure if it's related in any way to the Maoz in the United States, which is a fairly well-regarded falafel chain in New York.

  • Advantages-they put tehina on a few times during the preparation process. Most places only put it on once, either at the beginning or the end, which guarantees that the tehina will collect in one part of the sandwich, leaving part dry and part soggy. Maoz also has a self-service salad bar, where you can add some salads yourself if you don't ask for them during the preparation process. This is very helpful for English speakers like me.
  • Disadvantages-dry falafel balls. No fried eggplant, which is my favorite topping.
  • GDF-High. I'll leave it at that.

Moshiko is on Ben Yehuda Street.

  • Advantages-everything is really good! The falafel balls have the perfect texture and flavor, the shawarma isn't too greasy or fatty, and the salads are very fresh. Portions are huge, especially the lafa. More extensive salad selection than most places. They apparently have some sort of certification for good labor practices, so they pay a living wage and such.
  • Disadvantages-it's expensive. Everything is 10-15 shekels more than at the other places I listed. They won't put fries in your sandwich, and you have to order them separately on the side, further increasing the effective price differential between Moshiko and other falafel places. No self-serve salad or sauce bar. Very touristy-Birthright and other tour groups are usually advised to go here, so you'll hear a lot of English.
  • GDF-low, so far. I just had a shawarma from there, so this assessment may change soon. Wish me luck!

I'll leave you with some shawarma porn:



6 days!

This post is dedicated to ALG, one of my loyal readers who definitely didn't ask me to mention her in a blog post.

I realized today that it's been 6 days since my last post. A quick glance at my post history indicates that 6 days is the longest gap between posts since I started blogging (astute readers will notice that the URL for this blog post indicates that it was initially titled "5 Days," as I started writing it yesterday and fell asleep before finishing). Sorry about that-I've been busy! In the past week, I:

  • Went to Tel Aviv for a weekend. Despite the fact that this is my third trip to Israel, this weekend was actually the first time I'd spent a sustained period of time in Tel Aviv (I'm not counting the jet lag-addled night and morning I spent in Tel Aviv on the way from Washington to Jerusalem last month). I really like Tel Aviv. It's secular, progressive, worldly, and modern-all adjectives I wouldn't associate with Jerusalem. If I were to make aliyah (and I'm not planning on it), I'd probably live there. I had a great time reading and hanging out on the beach, eating some delicious meals, and participating in a hipster Kabbalat Shabbat service on the beach. I did not have a great time staying in a decrepit hostel that seemed to be populated by middle-aged Russian tourists, but grim budget travel is all part of the fun of being young, right? 
  • Attended a speech by PM Netanyahu! I bet you weren't expecting to read that in this blog, right? Since I took a stipend from Masa Israel Journey, a quasi-governmental agency that provides funding for young diaspora Jews to spend time in Israel, I was somewhat obligated to attend the "opening ceremonies" for Masa's fall programs, which featured Bibi as the keynote speaker. It was really something special, and a full post will be coming soon. 
  • Took another trip into the West Bank, to a place called Tent of Nations. Tent of Nations is a farm about 15 minutes from Jerusalem that's been operated by the same Palestinian family for nearly 100 years. In recent years, they've also started running community programs like adult education classes for local women and camps for children, and these programs have attracted many volunteers from overseas. The farm's also been under an Israeli demolition order since 1991-it's on a hilltop in the middle of the massive Gush Etzion settlement bloc, and the settlers in the area are interested in expanding to this hilltop, as well. They've been fighting it in court for almost 25 years now, for almost my whole life. I'll be doing some research and writing for them, working on a history of the farm and its legal case for foreign visitors. More to come on this in the coming weeks.
  • Was (mildly) victimized by a crime.  My program facilitator drove me to Tent of Nations in her car, along with another volunteer. Visitors to Tent of Nations have to park some distance away, as the IDF tore up the most direct route to Tent of Nations from Jerusalem during the Second Intifada and they haven't repaired it. While we were at Tent of Nations, someone popped the car's door locks and stole the car's radio and my program facilitator's cell phone. Since we were some distance away, we don't know when or how it happened. I did learn a little bit about what you do when your car is burglarized in the West Bank-first, you check under the car and under the hood for car bombs, because, well, West Bank, and you never know. Then, you try to figure out if settlers did it (presumably for political reasons) or if Palestinians did it (presumably for economic reasons). The people I was with concluded that it was probably Palestinians-if settlers had attacked the car for political reasons, they probably would have done more damage, apparently. Everything is a learning experience here.
  • Started putting more effort into my language study. I'm supplementing my Hebrew classes with Rosetta Stone, since I get it free from the Brown alumni association. I don't know if I'm learning anything, but it's sort of fun and game-like and it's a better use of time than reading thinkpieces about Donald Trump and Ben Carson while I'm 5000 miles away.

So I've been busy, but I've also been busy in the past, and it's never prevented me from posting before. The other reason why I've been remiss is that I'm not sure where I want to take this blog. I've been doing a lot of writing about the situation here, mostly as an outlet for my fear and anger about it, but I'm not sure if that's what people want to read. I can do more travelogue-type stuff too, but I'm not sure if anyone's interested in that, either. Would it be appropriate to mix grim political and social commentary with lighthearted writing on the Jerusalem bar and falafel scenes? Both are absolutely part of life here, but I'm not sure if it's appropriate or desired. I'll try it for a bit and see how it goes-let me know your thoughts!

Some things they don't tell you about the West Bank

Here are some things they don't tell you about the West Bank.

The West Bank is beautiful. For some reason, it's hard to imagine a place of great conflict and human tragedy as being a place of great natural beauty, but that's the case in the West Bank. In the central West Bank, near Jerusalem, the landscape is hilly and lush, with groves and orchards on every mountainside. As you continue south, past Hebron, the terrain becomes increasingly mountainous and barren as you approach the Negev Desert, its stark beauty reminiscent of parts of the American West. At one point, I flippantly commented to a friend that the natural beauty alone is enough to make you understand why people fight over this place. 

A West Bank hillside orchard

A West Bank hillside orchard


The term "settlement" is really a misnomer. "Settlement" implies impermanence and transience, as if they can be folded up and moved when the political situation changes. The Jewish Israeli communities in the West Bank are anything but impermanent and transient. No matter where you go in the West Bank, you can't escape the sights of the settlements: dozens of identical, suburban-style houses; large, imposing concrete synagogues, schools, and community centers; modern factories and farms; the fences, walls, and guard towers required to protect the inhabitants of these communities from the people that were displaced in the process of creating them. And they're everywhere, seemingly on every hilltop. The infrastructure alone makes the occupation seem more permanent than I could have ever imagined before seeing it. Which brings me to the next thing they don't tell you about the West Bank...

A hilltop settlement. Sorry for the blur-I took this picture from a moving car.

A hilltop settlement. Sorry for the blur-I took this picture from a moving car.


Israel is in the West Bank to stay. In the 50 years since the 1967 war, Israel has become entrenched. There's an Israeli village on every hilltop, the road signs and billboards are in Hebrew, and Egged commuter buses take commuters into Jerusalem as if they're going from Fairfax to Washington. For Israelis and overseas Jews, the process of entering and leaving the West Bank is totally transparent; you drive down a wide, smooth highway,  stop at a toll booth, a bored soldier looks into your car, and you're waved through. The process of driving from New Jersey to New York is more arduous. When driving through the West Bank, you can even see Orthodox Jews in kippot and tzitzit attempting to hitchhike by the side of the road, seemingly without concern for the fact that they're in what most outsiders would perceive as a war zone. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews live some semblance of a normal life there. It's hard to distinguish life here from life in Israel, and it's imagine a world in which this can all be uprooted. 

Another thing they don't tell you: the degree of inequality between the settlements and the Palestinian villages is really staggering. I spent time in Susiya and Umm al-Khair, which currently exist as tent cities established by Palestinians whose villages of the same name were demolished for settlement construction. The residents of the villages were given an impossible choice: move away immediately, giving up one's ancestral land with minimal or no compensation, or stay, temporarily, in a tent city lacking access to public services while challenging the eviction process in court. The contrast between the Palestinian villages and the neighboring settlements was unbelievable; the settlements, as I said, looked like American-style suburbs, while the Palestinian villages are like something out of the developing world, even lacking plumbing, running water, and access to the electrical grid. The contrast was especially stark in Umm al-Khair, where the fence literally ran through the village's fields, and the homes of settlers in the Israeli town of Carmel were maybe 100 yards away. I think the pictures speak from themselves, so I'll stop trying to describe it.

In this post, I mostly wanted to give my initial impressions on the West Bank while avoiding politics. I'll say this, though-I wonder about the psychological implications of growing up in a place of such visually obvious political and economic inequality. How does a child in Umm al-Khair, growing up in such material deprivation in proximity to great wealth, become willing to accept any sort of coexistence with the people on the other side of the fence who are, in a meaningful sense, responsible for the material deprivation? How does a child in Carmel, who grows up living in a fortified compound being taught that the people on the other side of the fence have to suffer for your safety, become willing to accept any sort of coexistence with the people on the other side of the fence? The Hand in Hand school, which I've discussed a bit on this blog, is an incredibly inspiring vision for the future of this land, but there are 10 settlement children for every Jewish child at the Hand in Hand school, and there are 10 tent city or refugee camp children for every Palestinian child at the Hand in Hand school. The Hand in Hand kids, who have grown up in a relatively healthy environment of coexistence, will be outnumbered by a generation of kids who have had the opposite experience. Which group will get to set policy on both sides-the small group that grew up in an environment of coexistence, or the large group that grew up in an environment of fear, deprivation, and anger?

Perhaps the most upsetting moment of the day, in a day filled with upsetting moments, came over dinner in Susiya, after we spent a day helping the residents of the village in their fields. By way of background for this story, I went to Susiya that day with a group of about 25 diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews. Over dinner, a small child from Susiya asked his father where we were from. The father explained that we were Jews from around the world who are concerned about the situation in the West Bank, and the kid just could not understand. For him, "Jew" meant the IDF or settlers, and for his entire life, his relationship with Jews had been characterized by violence and fear. He couldn't conceive of the idea that there are Jews in the world who don't think he's a lesser being and who want him to have the same opportunities that they want for their own children. How many kids are like him, on both sides? How many other Palestinian kids can only think of Jews as settlers or occupying soldiers? How many Jewish kids can only think of Palestinians as terrorists? It's a horrifying reality, and I'm not sure how you change it.



Bibi's Holocaust comments

So someone asked me to write about Netanyahu's comments at the World Zionist Congress about the Palestinian role in the Holocaust.  I don't really have much to say on the subject; it's a self-evidently absurd claim, and lots of people have already written smart things on the subject. I find it a little ironic that Netanyahu, who's spent the past few weeks blaming the rise in violence on "incitement" from Palestinian leaders in the form of dubious assertions about the Israeli plans for the Temple Mount, would say something that so misleadingly ties the contemporary political situation to the Jewish community's greatest collective trauma, but I'm not really in the mood to write more. I think the best response to an absurd reality is humor, so I'll close out this brief post with some great memes that circulated on social media in Israel today.

What I talk about when I talk about Jewish extremism (part 1)

So I've made quite a few references to Jewish right-wing extremism on this blog. I'm not sure that most Americans are quite familiar with what Jewish right-wing extremism is: many American Jews are familiar with the fact that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish right-wing extremist named Yigal Amir, and some might remember the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron by a Jewish right-wing extremist named Baruch Goldstein, but I don't think there's much discussion of the continuing presence of Jewish right-wing extremism in Israeli life in the American Jewish community. It's definitely an important phenomenon in Israeli society, so I'm going to use some space on this blog to discuss Jewish extremism over the coming months.

Before I begin this series, a quick note-I'm obviously not trying to imply that all Israeli Jews are supporters of these groups (to the contrary, most oppose them, often vehemently) or that Israel is somehow a fatally flawed entity that shouldn't exist because of the presence of these groups, any more than I'd suggest that all Americans are supporters of the KKK, or that the United States shouldn't exist because of the KKK.

Nevertheless, I think it's important to discuss extremist groups for a few reasons. The first, obviously, is that even if extremist groups are small or largely abhorred, they're not small or irrelevant to those who are victimized by their actions. The second is that in any society, extremist groups are often "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of really significant social problems; for instance, most Southerners were not members of the KKK, but the KKK represented sentiments that were really common in Southern society, even if most Southerners did not violently act on those sentiments. With those principles in mind, let's begin this series with a discussion of Lehava.

I think it's best to explain Lehava by sharing one of their flyers, which I picked up at one of their weekly rallies. About 200 of their members rally weekly in Jerusalem's Zion Square, a few blocks from my apartment, and I've had the pleasure (?) of observing a few of their rallies at this point.

Lehava flyer, picked up at a rally in Zion Square, Jerusalem on October 15, 2015. The white box in the upper right corner is a hypothetical invitation to a wedding of "Mohammed" (a common Muslim male name, obviously) and "Mihal" (a common Jewish Israeli female name). This is a possibility that Lehava abhors.

Lehava flyer, picked up at a rally in Zion Square, Jerusalem on October 15, 2015. The white box in the upper right corner is a hypothetical invitation to a wedding of "Mohammed" (a common Muslim male name, obviously) and "Mihal" (a common Jewish Israeli female name). This is a possibility that Lehava abhors.

Translation follows:

Association for Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land
If you do not want to see this as your daughter’s wedding invitation, then…
Do not let them work with Arabs
Do not perform national service (serve in the IDF) with minorities
Do not buy in stores that employ enemies (Arabs)
Do not allow Arab workers in your home
Join Lehava in the war against assimilation!

Lehava is a far-right Jewish supremacist group. Its leadership consists mainly of middle-aged veterans of the Kahanist movement (wikipedia link for now, my own blog post on Kahanism will come later), but its rank and file is mainly drawn from teenage boys, primarily from low-income families. They've targeted Christians and LGBT people, but their primary activities involve harassment and violence against Arab citizens of Israel and Jews who interact with them. They've protested the weddings of Jewish/Arab couples, threaten and attack random Arabs on the streets of Israeli cities (see also), and operated a hotline where people can report intermarriages, particularly marriages between Jewish women and non-Jewish men (which are presumed to be coercive or abusive), so that the women can be "saved" by Lehava. In December 2014, members of Lehava set fire to the Hand in Hand integrated school in Jerusalem (where I work). So basically, a pretty nasty group of people.

Lehava is not popular. Their rallies only attract a few hundred people, at most (anti-Lehava rallies tend to be more popular), and members of Lehava's leadership have been arrested several times for various crimes. There has been quite a bit of discussion of banning the group in recent months, although no action has been taken at this point. Nevertheless, some of the sentiments that they espouse are sadly more mainstream than you'd think. The Knesset has held hearings on the alleged phenomenon of abusive or coercive marriages between non-Jewish men and Jewish women, a favorite topic of Lehava, and Lehava-affiliated groups have received government funding. In 2010, a group of the wives of 30 prominent rabbis wrote an open letter urging Jewish women to avoid romantic relationships with Arabs (which, according to the letter, required Jewish women to avoid working in businesses that also employed Arabs), shortly after 50 prominent rabbis wrote an open letter urging Jewish landlords to avoid renting to Arabs. According to a Hebrew University poll, 44% of Jewish Israelis supported the letters, while 48% opposed them.

For more on Lehava, check out these articles in Haaretz and 972 Magazine.

A nostalgia trip?

So the kibbutz weekend was lovely. We drove up on Friday morning, had a delicious lunch of salads, spreads, and chips at an unassuming roadside restaurant, and arrived at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in the early afternoon.

A quick aside about Mishmar HaEmek-it's 93 years old, has about 1,000 residents, and is apparently one of the few kibbutzim that's been able to retain a secular, socialist way of life (I mean this-they refused to take our money in exchange for beers on Friday night, and they reportedly open their dining hall on Yom Kippur and serve pork). They're able to maintain the traditional socialist kibbutz model because they apparently own one of the world's largest manufacturers of plastic sheets used by farmers for bundling hay and such. If you go to their website, you can find adoring testimonials about their products from farmers in, like, Nebraska. I wonder if they know that their beloved products are manufactured by a secular, socialist commune. Anyway, I digress.

After dropping off our bags and taking a few moments to learn about the history of the kibbutz, we headed off to a nearby event hosted by an organization called Givat Haviva, a co-existence group founded in 1949 by several of the kibbutzim in the area. When tensions between Jews and Arabs escalate, Givat Haviva sets up a "peace tent" in a large open field and hosts various events, such as dialogue sessions and rallies, in an effort to reduce tensions in the area. 

On the day we were there, they held a large roadside demonstration, where about 200 Jews and Arabs from the area held hands and waved signs at the passing cars. After about an hour of this, the group split into a few dialogue circles, and everyone discussed their thoughts on the recent escalation in the area. Following the dialogue sessions, people provided coffee and cake, and there were a few musical performances. It was all wonderful. Really, it was the first time I'd felt optimistic about this place's future since getting here.


After the wonderful Givat Haviva event, we headed back to the kibbutz, had dinner in the massive collective dining hall (like your college cafeteria, but with a better salad bar and with wine), drank beers in the socialist pub that doesn't take money, slept well without street noise/jackhammering from construction sites/terrifying news alerts, lazed in bed until we missed breakfast, ate lunch, read, played soccer, etc. It couldn't have been a better weekend. So why, then, did I feel an undercurrent of despair?

The Israel that I saw this weekend-a pastoral scene, with secular, progressive types working the land, building communities, and hoping for peace-is the Israel that existed at one point, I think. It's certainly the Israel that I'd always envisioned. However, it does not seem to be the Israel that exists today: the Israel that I see in the news and on the street every day in Jerusalem is an increasingly fundamentalist, economically stratified, paranoid, authoritarian one (on both sides). I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the people that I encountered at both the kibbutz and at the dialogue session were older, from middle-aged to elderly. Both socialist kibbutzim and grassroots dialogue sessions feel a bit anachronistic in today's Israel, so it makes sense that the people participating in those institutions would be older people with memories of a different era.

The title of this post-"A nostalgia trip?"- can refer both to the physical trip we took this weekend, and the emotional journey that I took in conjunction with the physical trip. For all the reasons I just described, a trip to spend a weekend on a kibbutz and to participate in a pro-peace demonstration reflects some degree of nostalgia for a different era, I think. But this weekend, I also went on an emotional nostalgia trip, to a time when I thought that socialist kibbutzim and local, grassroots peace demonstrations were what Israel is. It was an innocent, comforting conception (and, lest I seem too pessimistic, I'll reiterate that these things still exist, albeit to a lesser degree than I think they once did), but living here has made me realize that it's so much more complicated than that.

A memory I didn't know I had, and the bravery of teachers

Today was Jerusalem's most violent day of my time here.  The bus that was attacked, the route 78 bus, passes by my stop, and the attack occurred shortly after I boarded a bus operating on a different line. I'll never know for sure, but I believe that the particular bus that was attacked took on passengers at my stop while I was there. This post isn't going to (directly) be about that, though.

Today was also my first day as an English teaching assistant at the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, a network of integrated Jewish-Arab, secular-Orthodox schools in Israel that's been targeted for violence by Jewish extremists because of its integrated nature. I'll be working there every Tuesday for the remainder of my time here. I'm not great with kids and my past teaching experiences haven't been wonderful, but I'm pretty excited about it after today. This post isn't going to (directly) be about that either, though.

Unlike many millennials, I don't think 9/11 had much of a long-term emotional effect on me, even though I grew up in DC and was exposed to the traumas of the day more than many. I find that whenever I meet and start hanging out with new group of people, we share our 9/11 stories within a few meetings, and mine is always underwhelming. I was in 5th grade, and I remember going to P.E. class, being herded into the gym, and being told that something bad happened before being walked back to my classroom. I was a nascent news junkie at that point, and I wanted to go to the computer lab to find more information online, but they wouldn't let me go. When we got back to the classroom, our teacher read us a poem, and Michael Avedon made a stupid joke about death when it was over. Someone spread a rumor that the top 20 stories of the World Trade Center were knocked off, but that the rest of the building was fine. Then, my parents came and picked me up, and I learned the details of what happened. We went home, and I spent the rest of the day hiding in a corner of my room and reading baseball books. My brothers and I had a few days off, which we spent going on nature walks and such, and then we went back to school. Fortunately (and somewhat miraculously, given that I grew up in DC and have lots of family in New York), no one close to me was harmed, so it all felt kind of distant. My elementary school was under the approach path to National Airport, so I was kind of skittish for a few months every time I saw a plane fly over at a low altitude, but that was about it. It was all very memorable, but I certainly wouldn't call it a particularly emotional or traumatic memory, or what psychologists call a "flashbulb memory". Until today, that is.

I was in the school when the news of today's bus attack came out. I was in an orientation meeting in the teachers' lounge with my cohort members and one of the teachers, who was facilitating the meeting, when my phone buzzed with a news update. I read the news update under the table but I didn't say anything. Shortly after I read the article, another teacher came in, tapped the facilitating teacher on the shoulder, and briefly took her out of the room. As she came back in, I saw the look on her face, a sort of suppressed expression of fear, and it all came back to me. I remembered being in Kate Wassilew's 5th grade classroom at 9 am on September 11th, 2001 and watching the same process occur. I remembered her repeatedly leaving the room and coming back in with that same expression, that combination of terror and resolve to protect her students from experiencing the same terror she was feeling (I later learned that her husband was on a plane that morning, making her obligation especially difficult). It was a memory I didn't know I had, but it came back vividly today in that teacher's lounge. Shortly after this experience in the teacher's lounge, we headed off to a 4th grade classroom, where I watched as a teacher came in and explained to the public transit-riding students why they'd be escorted home by school staff that day, displaying the same sort of suppressed fear combined with outwardly expressed calm I'd seen earlier. The class seemed to take it in stride, for the most part. It was probably attributable to the unfortunate frequency of terrorism here and the skill of the teachers in suppressing their own emotions in order to serve the best interests of their students. 

I'd never really thought about it before today, but teachers have to be really brave in a way that's not often discussed. The particular sort of violence experienced in Israel is pretty unique to this context, but teachers everywhere have to deal with the problem of protecting their students from the emotional toll of violence in the community. In Israel, it's terrorism, but in the territories it's IDF raids and the like, and in America, it's probably mass shootings or something. In any context, the reaction is the same; one has to take in incredibly frightening and upsetting news, suppress the emotional reaction, and come up with a way to maintain composure while conveying this upsetting news to a group of children in a manner that makes sense for them. It's not part of the job description and it's an incredibly unnatural skill, and I was so impressed to see it in action as an adult. 14 years ago, my 5th grade teacher Kate Wassilew exhibited it perfectly, which probably kept 9/11 from becoming a lifelong trauma for me. I think that the teachers at Hand in Hand did the same for their students today. As I begin to work in a school during a violent and stressful time here, I hope I'm able to do the same for my students.

An example of childhood regression, obliviousness-to-danger edition

So as I said in yesterday's post about living overseas and the feeling of childhood regression, I miss a lot of social and political context clues that would be obvious in similar contexts in the United States. Here's a very recent example.

Last night, I went to a couple of pro-peace rallies in Jerusalem. One was sponsored by Meretz (the left-wing mostly Jewish party) and took place in front of the prime minister's house, and the other was sponsored by some coalition of left-wing groups and took place in a public square. In both instances, the areas surrounding the rallies were blocked off with security fences, and there was an intense police presence. I thought nothing of it; there's lots of security at every event and public place here. You have to go into a metal detector to enter most malls, even. Despite the security, however, the long-term expats that I met at the rally seemed unsettled. I chalked it up to the tense situation here and ignored it.

This morning, I learned the reason for both the security at the rally and the unsettled feelings among attendees. Apparently, these types of pro-peace, leftist rallies have rarely, if ever, had security in the past. The impetus for security at these rallies was apparently the fear of violent attacks by Jewish right-wing extremists. It's unclear whether there was a specific threat against the rallies or if there was just general concern given the growth in the prevalence of extreme right-wing sentiment here and a recent history of attacks on left-wing events, but regardless, the fear led to both increased security and an unsettled mood among attendees. It turned out to be at least somewhat warranted; I left the rally before it ended, but I heard that a bunch of right-wingers aggressively confronted the attendees as they left. Fortunately, I don't think the confrontation turned violent.

I wandered into a somewhat dangerous situation with very little idea of the potential risks. Like I said: I'm basically a child here.

Childhood regression

I've said this before, but living overseas in a country where you don't speak the language or understand the cultural norms has an uncanny way of making one feel like a child. I mean this in a couple of senses.

In one sense it's because childhood is, in many ways, a state of complete dependence on others for the basic essentials of life. Here, I feel like I'm in the same position. In any given day, accomplishing the basic tasks of adulthood--purchasing food for myself, figuring out how to get from point A to point B, resolving issues with my cell phone plan, etc--requires the assistance of someone else who can facilitate translation. Sure, many people here speak some English and I can muddle along in a few words of Hebrew, but anything more complicated than doing a basic falafel order (it's unfortunately impossible to get my preferred level of spice)  or buying a loaf of bread requires intervention from others, seemingly.

When language isn't the barrier, cultural norms seem to be. For instance, people don't wait in line in the same way here. I waited in line at a fruit stand yesterday for about 10 minutes, bunch of bananas in hand, before a kindly English speaker took pity on me and showed me that I needed to thrust the bananas in the shopkeeper's face (that's what she said!) to get service.  Even in those interactions that are successful, I feel like I'm the 8-year-old sent to the store with a $10 from his parents. I perceive the same condescending smiles that I remember from my first childhood attempts to interact with the world.

The other way in which language and cultural barriers make me feel like a child: I can't perceive many social and political cues from the world around me. I can't understand what people are saying/shouting on the street, etc. Given that this is a time of tension and lots of people are, in fact, shouting in the street, this is a problem (perhaps even a safety issue). I'm constantly tapping one of my Hebrew-speaking roommates, asking them to explain things. I have a vivid childhood memory of asking my mom to explain the Bosnia conflict after reading about it on the front page of a newspaper on display in a vending machine. I feel that I'm in the same situation every day here. I'm an information sponge, so this is perhaps even more disconcerting than the inability to communicate.

We're one week into Hebrew and Arabic education. Hebrew doesn't feel so daunting-25 years of inconsistent Hebrew exposure seems to be helping somewhat. Arabic feels impossible. Arabic script, in which letters are joined and are written differently based on their positioning within a word due to the requirements of letter joining, is terrifying. Both Hebrew and Arabic contain sounds that are really difficult for a native English speaker to make, but Arabic seems to contain many more of them.

At one point, after my teacher demonstrated the throaty, guttural sound of a certain letter, I quipped to my seatmate that the letter sounded like the breathing of a lung cancer sufferer. I spoke a little too loudly, and the whole room heard, including my teacher. My fellow students laughed, but my teacher, a chain-smoker, did not.


I'm scared

I'm scared here.

I'm scared of the stabbings, obviously. When I'm walking on the street, my head is a flurry of activity, constantly glancing side to side to look for assailants. When I'm standing in a public place, I try to keep my back against a wall, so that someone can't come up behind me and stab me. I'm scared that someone will notice me doing this.

I'm scared of the packs of right-wing Jewish nationalists marching and chanting "the West Bank is ours" and "Death to Arabs" in the streets. I'm scared of the images of the Interahamwe that flash through my mind. I'm scared that what they're doing is done in my name. I'm scared that I'm a bad Jew for comparing my own people to the Interahamwe.

I'm scared every time my phone buzzes, out of fear that it'll be a Haaretz alert of another shooting, another rock-throwing, another stabbing. I'm scared that it'll be a text from my group facilitator asking us all to check in, because another incident occurred near where we live, work, and study. I'm scared every time I hear a siren, even though I know that it's just because an old person fainted on the street, or because Bibi needs to go somewhere.

I'm scared that I can't be a real שמאלני if I'm scared all the time here, because being scared leads only to Likud at best and Kach or Lehava at worst. I'm scared that the amazing people around me will find out I'm scared.

I'm scared that if someone came up to me and offered me a ticket on a flight to London or New York departing in 4 hours, I would take it. I'm scared that I wouldn't.