Take away Congress' investigative powers

So some Trump enablers in the Senate are using their investigative powers to bully the author of the Trump-Russia dossier. Alarming, of course, but unsurprising: this crew (namely, Congressional Republicans) have been abusing their investigative powers for years, largely under the radar of the mainstream media. Off the top of my head, I can think of several conservative scandals du jour in which Congressional Republicans abused their investigative powers to target their political enemies for years: Benghazi, Planned Parenthood "baby parts", "IRS targeting", and several others come to mind.

This is obviously a very useful tactic politically. For one, you can use it to tie up your political enemies in subpoena responses and legal fees. Every hour and dollar Planned Parenthood spent responding to the "baby parts" committee was an hour/dollar spent not doing the things that Congressional Republicans don't like (namely, expanding access to abortion and trying to elect Democrats), and every hour and dollar that Lois Lerner spent responding to inquiries in the obviously fake IRS targeting scandal was an hour/dollar spent not doing a thing Congressional Republicans don't like (namely, collecting taxes and enforcing the tax laws).

Additionally, Congressional investigations carry with them a certain imprimatur of legitimacy, as the media and the general public largely haven't caught on to the fact that Congressional Republican investigations are fake. They presume that members of Congress act in good faith when they subject people and institutions to investigation, and respond to these investigations accordingly. It's therefore profoundly stigmatizing and delegitimizing when Congress investigates you. Even when nothing comes of these investigations (and nothing ever does, because they're fake), the targets are significantly harmed.

Finally, these fake investigations fuel the parallel conservative media world. Fox News, Breitbart, etc. can cover them endlessly. When they don't go anywhere (and they never do, because they're not real), conservative media can blame the Obama administration, the deep state, etc. for covering up Very Serious Wrongdoing. It's rocket fuel for the conservative media culture of grievance and conspiracy-mongering.

While the misuse of investigative powers to target political enemies is to a certain extent driven by the unique pathologies of the contemporary Republican Party, I think the misuse of investigative powers for political purposes is ultimately a structural problem. Investigative powers--subpoenas, the contempt power, etc--are both really politically useful and really intrusive. This combination means that the temptation to use them for nefarious political purposes, and by using them abuse the rights of citizens, will always be there. It's why, in other contexts, there are strong Constitutional and legal protections against their misuse for political purposes. For instance, the Constitution has a warrant requirement for investigatory searches and seizures, which separates investigative powers between politically accountable prosecutors and politically insulated judges. At the state level, there's significant (albeit imperfect) vertical and horizontal separation of powers between political actors (namely, the governor and the legislator) and actors with investigatory power (state attorneys general and district attorneys). All of this serves to limit potential abuse of investigatory power for political purposes. But few of these protections are present when it comes to Congressional investigations.

Ultimately, I think this problem is just an unavoidable result of giving investigatory powers to an entity that's inherently political, like a legislature. Fortunately, the solution is simple: the Congressional investigatory power is an extra-Constitutional inferred power (look at Article 1! There's nothing about investigations in there!). Courts have given it, and courts can take it away. The victims of abusive Congressional investigations should challenge subpoenas, etc. in court, and courts should skeptically review the bad-faith actions of Congressional investigators.

Yom HaShoah, Donald Trump, and Jewish particularism vs. Jewish universalism

This evening marks the beginning of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance day. It's one of the most grave and somber days of the Israeli Jewish year, up there with Yom HaZikaron (memorial day for Israeli soldiers) and Yom Kippur. Everything, even the most secular businesses that stay open through Shabbat, closes. I just got back from a sunset walk through the streets of Tel Aviv, and an eerie silence has fallen over the city. The day culminates tomorrow morning at 10 am, when the national air raid sirens sound to signal a moment of reflection and everyone, even drivers behind the wheel of a car, stop to commemorate the occasion.

It's especially interesting to think about Yom HaShoah this year because of something that happened 24 hours earlier: namely, the nomination of everyone's favorite orange ethno-nationalist, Donald Trump, as the Republican candidate for President of the United States (I had to write that out in full to remind myself that it actually happened). Now, it would obviously be hyperbolic to argue that Trump is Literally Hitler, although it's not an exaggeration to say some aspects of Trump's campaign, such as ethno-nationalist politics, a palingenetic national narrative (a word that's particularly amusing in the context of the Obama-era GOP!), demonization of minority groups, calls for mass deportation and internment, etc. evoke memories of not only Nazi politics, but a variety of regimes that have engaged in state-sponsored anti-Semitic persecution. What I instead want to do is note that Trump, with all of the very real parallels between his politics and the politics of some people who have been very bad for the Jews, evokes very different reactions in Israeli Jews and American Jews, and argue that this difference reflects a profoundly different understanding of the Holocaust and the lessons that Jews should take from the Holocaust.

My time in Israel has overlapped with the Trump phenomenon. For obvious reasons, Israelis are obsessed with US politics, and I've had plenty of occasions to discuss Trump with Israelis (almost every single time I've taken a taxi, the driver has heard my poor attempts at Hebrew, asked me in English if I'm American, and then proceeded to ask me about my thoughts on the election). Among non smolani (literally just "leftist", but with a somewhat pejorative connotation, something like "pinko" in English) Israelis, sentiment about Trump is pretty positive. They like what they perceive as his strength, they like that he wants to fight "the Arabs." They even admire his birtherism: Obama is reviled here, and birther sentiments are pretty common. Sometimes, if I'm feeling disputatious, I'll make an anti-Trump argument. I'll bring up the bigotry, the promises of deportations and detainment, the vow to aggressively use American military power abroad. And the response is always "he says he's pro-Israel and his daughter's married to a Jew. He'll be good to the Jews. Who cares about that other stuff?"

American Jews--certainly the vast majority anyway--would never argue this way. Look at the response to Trump's AIPAC speech, or the fact that the ADL has repeatedly criticized Trump's rhetoric, etc. American Jews hear Trump's rhetoric and recoil. This, I think, points to a sharp difference between the American Jewish community (maybe all diaspora communities?) and the Israeli Jewish community that I've noticed during my time here. American Jews tend to be universalistic, defenders of universal values and social justice for all people, while Israeli Jews tend to be particularistic supporters of things that'll benefit Jews, while remaining largely indifferent to the fate of other peoples.

I think that this difference stems largely from the response to the Holocaust (and note that this is not entirely my own thinking: I'm hugely influenced in my thinking here by Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism). The two centers of Jewish life in the wake of the Holocaust became the U.S. and Israel. Each provided a different model for living in the wake of the Holocaust. In America, Jews were a minority, with the knowledge that it would be hard to protect Jews qua Jews, so they advocated for policies, ideas, and values that protected minority groups collectively-a universalistic approach. Whereas in Israel, where Jews became a majority with control of territory, the need to protect other groups became irrelevant to ensure Jewish safety. So a particularistic set of values and norms developed. This is why you see such different responses to Trump. American Jews look at Trump, see the fact that he poses a very real threat to the safety of certain minority groups within the United States, and believe that the universalistic structures that protect Jewish safety in the United States are at risk. So they reject Trump. Israeli Jews have no such compunctions-they have their state, with their weapons, and as long as no one gets in the way of the IDF, screw the Latinos and the Muslims.

This divergence isn't just limited to Trump, of course. American Jews engaged in advocacy and public education around the genocide in Darfur. Israel locks Darfuri refugees in prison campsAmerican Jews fought apartheid. Israel supported apartheid South Africa with weapons sales. My point here is not to say that American Jews are great, and Israeli Jews are terrible people. In both instances, Israel's actions had a certain logic from a particularist perspective. According to this logic, making conditions intolerable for refugees ensures that more won't come, protecting the Jewish majority in Israel, which is essential to ensuring Jewish safety from a particularist perspective. Overseas trade in weapons, even with awful regimes, supports the Israeli military-industrial complex, which is necessary to protect Jewish safety. It's in my view a deeply immoral logic, but it is logical.

I think particularism fails not only from a moral perspective, but from a pragmatic one. It's cliche, but the Niemoller poem (first they came for the socialists, etc) is, I think, a good reflection of Jewish history when it comes to authoritarian regimes. Jews don't tend to do well in them, no matter how well they're positioned at the outset. Certainly there are many Trump supporters who are no fans of Jews (and this is, in fact, the argument I find usually convinces Trump-curious Israelis). Nevertheless, this particularism vs. universalism divide is a major one that separates Israeli Jewish politics from American Jewish politics, and it's one that's important to understand as the two groups continue to diverge.

The post I hoped I wouldn't have to write

To begin, an explanation of the title, since I suppose there could be many posts I hoped I wouldn't have to write: unfortunately, I've spent the past couple of days getting a full tour of the Israeli health care system. As you'd probably expect from this description, this post goes in some detail into some mildly unpleasant medical misfortunes, so if you're sensitive to such things, this may not be for you. On with the story.

First, the backstory. I woke up early in the morning of Sunday, April 10th with a slight twinge in my lower back. At first, I thought it was just a muscle strain from the lousy Ikea mattress in my subletted room, but when the pain began to intensify, I knew immediately that it was a kidney stone. I've had them before, so I'd brought strong painkillers with me to Israel in order to deal with the excruciating pain of an attack like the one I was beginning to experience. I quickly swallowed a couple of pills and collapsed back into bed to wait for them to take effect. After an hour or so of writhing in bed waiting for relief, I mercifully fell asleep.

I woke up a few hours later, around 11 am. The pain was gone, but I knew the respite wouldn't last for long. I knew I'd need to go to a medical facility of some sort in order to get checked out-treatment for kidney stones varies based on the size of the stone, plus I only had enough pain medicine for a limited period of time, so I'd need to get a new prescription.

In the US, I'd just go to an emergency room in this situation. In Israel, however, you're not permitted to simply show up at an emergency room unless it's a bona fide emergency. To use an emergency room, you have to go through one of two gatekeeping processes: either a paramedic has to bring you, or you have to call your insurance company and get an authorization to use the emergency room before going. Otherwise, you're on the hook for the bill, which is about as large as an emergency room bill in the United States. This seems like a good idea- it theoretically cuts down on ER wait times by reserving the ER for the most dire needs. In practice, as I discovered, it doesn't work so well. More on this later.

I fortunately felt well enough to not need the services of a paramedic, so calling the insurer it was. I called the hotline and spoke to a representative. When you call for an ER authorization, they don't have to give you one-if it's something minor like a cold, they can actually send a doctor employed by the insurance company to your home to evaluate you and write a prescription if necessary, or they can send you to a clinic run by the insurance company for further testing. A doctor actually works in the call center and makes these determinations on behalf of the representative, interestingly. Suspected kidney stone didn't require much analysis, though-just as it would be in the States, it was off to the emergency room. I was instructed to go to the emergency room at Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv's main hospital. A referral would be waiting at the reception desk. Time for my first experience with Israeli emergency care!

Now, a bit of background. Due to a combination of bad luck (the aforementioned kidney stones, a go-kart accident on my 21st birthday of all days) and stupidity (drunkenly smashing a beer bottle and attempting to clean it up with my bare hands during my freshman year of college), I've sampled a fair number of emergency rooms in my young adult life. While some of my ER experiences have been OK, most have been horrifying. My worst ER experience was being mistaken for a heroin addict during a kidney stone attack and being threatened with arrest (Montgomery, Alabama of course), but waiting 8 hours to get three stitches in a finger (Providence, RI) and waiting 5 hours for pain medicine in the midst of a kidney stone attack because some idiot drunkenly decided to eat dry ice at a pre-Halloween party (also Montgomery) were up there. So I went into my Israeli ER experience with a bit of trepidation, but also with a bit of excitement. Maybe the Israeli system would be better than the American system, which is obviously well-known for its dysfunction, and I'd be in and out in a reasonable period of time. If that wasn't the case, then I'd get another ER war story! 

I was in a bit of a haze from the pain medicine, so I decided to take a cab from my apartment to Ichilov. 15 minutes later, around noon, I was standing at the entrance to the massive Ichilov complex. (Note: if you Google Ichilov Hospital, you probably won't find much. The official name is Sourasky Medical Center, but everyone seems to call it Ichilov. Sort of like the National Airport/Reagan Airport controversy in Washington). It was there I made a fateful decision, possibly influenced by pain pills. I assumed that, given the referral system, I'd be in and out quickly. I hadn't eaten anything before going to the hospital, because I was a bit nauseous from the pain pills, so I decided to hold off on eating until after my visit. This turned out to be a mistake. After wandering around for a few minutes, someone eventually pointed me in the right direction-underground! The Ichilov ER is apparently designed to serve as a bomb-proof field hospital in the event of another major Middle East war, so the entire facility is a maze of caverns located under the hospital proper.

The best way to convey my ER experience is probably a bulleted, hour-by-hour list of the unfortunate details.

  • 12 pm. Check in at the reception desk. They don't have the referral that was promised. They say they'll deal with it while I receive care, and they hand me my medical file and a receipt with a 3 digit number.
  • 12:05 pm. Enter the waiting area. The 3-digit number on my receipt is way bigger than the 3-digit number on the overhead displays, and there are a lot of people here. Shit.
  • 12:30 pm. My number is called! This wasn't so bad. The triage nurse speaks good English, and is very helpful. She tells me that all I'll need is a blood and urine test, and then they'll get me in a bed and seen by a doctor.
  • 12:35 pm. What do you mean there's only one nurse taking blood for the entire emergency room?
  • 1:30 pm. Finally, I get my blood drawn. Never been so happy to have someone stab me with a needle. She leaves the needle in my arm for use as an IV needle in the event I need an IV. Those Israelis, so resourceful!
  • 1:45 pm. Waiting for a bed. All the beds are full, and so's the seating area for those waiting for a bed. I get to stand in front of the nurses' station and watch them eat lunch. Just in time for my nausea to wear off and for me to get hungry.
  • 1:50. Finally in a bed!
  • 2 pm. The doctor shows up. He makes his presence known by opening the curtain surrounding my bed and promptly banging his head on the IV pole. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that he introduces himself as an intern.
  • 2:05 pm. He agrees it's probably a kidney stone, but he wants to order a CT scan, just for confirmation. But he needs to check with the attending first, because, in his words, the attending likes to yell at him for ordering the wrong tests! Off he goes, banging his head on the IV pole again.
  • 2:15 pm. The attending's in a good mood and agrees to order the CT. The intern tells me that it'll be a few minutes, but someone will bring you for your scan soon. He walks away, banging his head on the IV pole one last time as he departs.
  • 2:45 pm. No CT.
  • 3:15 pm. No CT.
  • 3:30 pm. A nurse comes to take me for CT! Only, it turns out this is a lie-he just needs my bed. There are still no seats in the waiting area, so deposits me in front of the nurses' station again. 
  • 3:45 pm. I haven't eaten anything all day and I'm starting to get a little lightheaded. I tell the nurses this. They tell me I can't eat because I may be having surgery. I tell them that I don't think that's the case, and ask them to check with the doctor. They tell me they can't. I ask them if they know my name and why I'm in the ER. They don't.
  • 3:50 pm. Escorted back to a bed to lie down.
  • 4:05 pm. Finally taken to CT! It's there that I realize the problem-there's only one of each type of radiology machine for the emergency room (so 1 x-ray, 1 CT, 1 ultrasound, etc). Maybe if I'd put more quarters in the little blue JNF boxes as a kid,  Ichilov would have been able to buy more radiology equipment.
  • 4:30 pm. Back in the ER. Only now there's someone in the bed I'd just left. I check with the nurse-my bed is now in the hallway. Now I wait for the results.
  • 5 pm-no results. My phone dies.
  • 6 pm-no results. The nurses are now pretending that they don't speak English so that they don't have to speak to me.
  • 7 pm-no results. I'm reading Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness on my Kindle. It's a classic of Israeli literature. Only it doesn't seem right for the moment-I don't want to read this profoundly affectionate autobiographical work that parallels the author's coming of age with the Israeli state's coming of age. I don't feel profoundly affectionate towards the Israeli state. 
  • 7:15 pm. Flip through my Kindle. I see that I have Max Blumenthal's Goliath (aka: "The 'I Hate Israel' Handbook") on there. Seems more compatible with my mood. I switch to that.
  • 8 pm. Tempted to just leave, but the IV needle is still in my arm. I go to the nurses' station and ask them to take it out. They can't do that. I ask them to let me eat. They can't do that. I ask them to ask the doctor if I can eat. They can't do that. I ask them to tell me my doctor's name. They can't do that. Decide that the only way to get results is to annoy the shit out of the nurses. Begin leaning on the desk at the nurses' station.
  • 8:15 pm. Results! Surprise of the century: I have a kidney stone. They're going to write a prescription for painkillers and send me home.
  • 8:30 pm. I have the prescription. It's for a painkiller I've never taken before. I ask them if they can give me the painkiller I've taken before with minimal side effects, and they can't do that. They send me to a nurse to get the IV needle taken out.
  • 8:35 pm. The nurse is flirting with her colleague. She interrupts her important flirting long enough to yank the needle out of my arm before handing me a gauze pad and walking away. I ask for a band-aid. She rolls her eyes.
  • 8:45 pm. I'm at the reception desk again. They present me with a bill for $5,000 US. But I thought the authorization was on its way! They go back and look for it-they forgot to put it in my file when it arrived shortly after I checked in at the ER. They present me with a bill for $0.
  • 8:50 pm. Eating a mediocre cheese sandwich at the cafe next door. It's the best thing I've ever tasted.
  • 9:15 pm. I'm back in my apartment. Check the painkiller they prescribed me at the hospital on WebMD. I can't take it because it causes a potentially fatal reaction when mixed with another medication I take. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

The next morning, I sought out and found a private hospital that works with American medical tourists and American health insurance. One encounter with the Israeli health system was enough for a lifetime.


So now that I'm done with my program, I'm spending the vast majority of my time studying Hebrew. It's pretty intense: class is 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, and I probably spend a similar amount of time doing homework and drilling at home.

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty silly thing to do. To understand why it may seem that way, just take a look at the demographics of my Hebrew class of about 10. About half are studying Hebrew because they made aliyah, i.e. immigrated to Israel, or are seriously considering it. I'm not moving here, or at least I'm not planning on it. If we end up with President Trump, all bets are off.

The other members of the class seem to be studying Hebrew for romantic reasons: i.e., they fell in love with an Israeli and now need to ingratiate themselves with said Israeli's judgmental Jewish mother and the rest of the family. When my mother was here last week, she aggressively questioned me if that was my reason for staying to study Hebrew: a secret girlfriend. Well, I swear that's not the case. My Hebrew study is motivated solely by personal interest.

Without one of those reasons, the study of Hebrew seems pretty pointless. You can certainly live here without Hebrew: this land has spent the past century in the sphere of influence of one English-speaking superpower or another (first Britain, and then the US), so English is ubiquitously spoken here. It's actually hard to learn Hebrew here because people switch into English by default if you give even the slightest indication that you're not a fluent/native Hebrew speaker, making it very difficult to practice outside of the classroom. Public accommodations, public services, etc. are easily accessed in English (more easily accessed in English than in Arabic, actually, even though Arabic is an official national language and the native language of a large indigenous minority. But that's another story). So yes. No girlfriend, I'm not moving here, and I don't need it to get by. So why am I doing this again, instead of, say, spending a few hours a day at an internship and the rest of my time on the Tel Aviv beaches?

The initial push, I think, was my guilt at being monolingual. I think of myself as being an intelligent and educated person (perhaps misguidedly), and I'm not sure if being monolingual is compatible with those traits. It certainly isn't outside of the United States, or even in the United States historically, where you couldn't call yourself educated if you couldn't speak French, Greek, and Latin. I also feel guilty as a monolingual traveler, going into other peoples' homelands and expecting that they speak my language. This still begs the question, though-why Hebrew? I can go to precisely one place to speak it. Why not, say, Spanish, or Chinese, or French? Other than default-this is my last chance to learn a language before law school and my real career, I'm spending this last chance period in Israel, therefore I should learn Hebrew. This doesn't seem like a good line of reasoning.

A funny thing happened when I started learning Hebrew during Achvat Amim, though. I discovered that I really liked it as a language. The first reason, obviously, is its directness. The stereotype of the direct, blunt, Israeli is notorious. I'm not sure if Israelis tend to be direct and blunt and modern Hebrew has come to reflect that, or if modern Hebrew is direct and blunt in a way that shapes the norms of communication for Israelis, even when they're communicating in other languages (i.e. the largely debunked Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), but there certainly seems to be overlap. I really like that. I'm not known as, say, the most diplomatic person in the world, and I like speaking and writing in a language that seems compatible with my personality. Perhaps this is a silly reason to want to learn a language, but so be it.

The second reason why I've come to like Hebrew is its structure. Hebrew is built on a system of roots consisting of 2-4 consonants. By adding vowels, prefixes, and suffixes, you can create a variety of nouns and verbs relating to the concept or idea defined by the root. Given this root system, Hebrew's a language that seems very amenable to subtext and allusion. Let me give you an example.

If you've participated in a debate about Israel/Palestine, you may have come across the word hasbara (הסברה). In the United States, it's usually used in a derogatory context to refer to what left-wingers see as right-wing pro-Israel propaganda. (http://www.standwithus.com/ has some good examples of hasbara if you're unfamiliar with the genre). But what does this actually mean? Well, the word hasbara is based on the root סבר, which is the root for words relating to the concept of "explaining". For instance, the infinitive verb "to explain" is lehasbir (להסביר). So hasbara, a noun, is something like an explanation. This makes sense-if an entity (whether a state, a company, a political candidate, etc) explains its behavior, critics will call it propaganda and its allies will accept it as that, an explanation. And, in fact, the word hasbara has a similar connotation in Hebrew as the English term "public relations"-the same idea as propaganda, but without the negative connotations.

So I'm basically committing a significant amount of time to the study of a language because I find its structure somewhat interesting and because I superficially think it's compatible with my personality. Perhaps this seems like a waste of time. I find it challenging and thrilling.


I promise I haven't forgotten about this blog. I've been very busy over the past few weeks. I finished my 5-month Achvat Amim program in Jerusalem with a fairly intensive multi-day seminar. After finishing Achvat Amim, I headed off to Europe for 10 days of travel and visits with friends. Upon returning to Israel, I moved to Tel Aviv, where I'll be starting an ulpan (intensive Hebrew language school) in a couple of days and continuing some of the volunteer work that I started during Achvat Amim.

I know that I owe y'all some posts. In the next few days, I'll try to get up some more posts about the West Bank regarding my trips to Ramallah and the Jewish settlement in Hebron. I also have a few more about the Jerusalem bar scene and about street food in the works. If other things come up, I'll post about them first, but for now that's the plan. 

I'll leave you with this interesting demonstration (well, demonstrator) I saw at the entrance to the Shuk HaCarmel (Tel Aviv's central market) today. Warning: the image is a little gross.

Initially, I saw his sign with a baby picture and his clothing stained with fake blood and assumed pro-lifer, but that was just my finely tuned instinct for American political rhetoric at work. Yep, that's right, an anti-circumcision demonstrator, in Israel of all places. Putting aside the merits of the arguments for and against circumcision, this just seems like a particularly futile battle to fight here in Israel. This is a land wracked by many disputes stemming from a central ethno-religious conflict, but one of the few things that's not really in dispute is the propriety of circumcision. Perhaps pick another issue or another place?

A life lesson on my final teaching day?

Today was my last day at the Yad B'Yad bilingual school. It's been a somewhat frustrating experience. I had two classes: one class of English-fluent 8th graders, and one group of three 6th graders in need of remedial assistance with English. The 8th graders were a lot of fun. We read and discussed The Giver. These kids felt like peers, albeit younger peers, with a different set of experiences: I could communicate with them, and discuss ideas with them. I was sad to say goodbye to them.

The 6th graders were the opposite. I'm not the best at dealing with people who frustrate me, and these kids were certainly frustrating. The fact that they were typically hyper 6th grade boys, combined with the difficulty of communicating with them in their extremely limited English and my extremely limited Arabic/Hebrew, ensured that I dreaded my weekly hour and a half session with the 6th graders.

So today was my last session with them. Their behavior's been especially terrible for the past few weeks, and today, the kids refused to even open their books. As usual, one of the kids, Sham, was the ringleader. His English is the weakest of all, and he tends to respond to his frustration with English lessons by lashing out, which comes in the form of either running back to the classroom or hitting one of the other kids in the group. I'd never figured out how to calm him down, and when he gets riled up, the other kids tend to follow. When this happens, I usually try to push through, walking around the group to open the kids' books and reading the questions aloud to them so that they can't avoid the work. Today, though, I just couldn't muster the motivation.

My co-teacher and I decided we'd play a game with them instead. Hangman. It's the last day, and you always do something fun on the last day, right? Plus it's pedagogically valuable-they can work on their vocab! So Hangman is what we did. We explained the concept, and off we went. We did an example round, and then we passed it to the kids to be the game leaders. The first problem-instead of using the English words from the textbook, they used the names of soccer teams and players. Oops. 

So my co-teacher drew up a board. Four letters. They could do this. The kids quickly guessed "G-I-F," but struggled to come up with the last letter. I could see Sham was getting antsy, so I whispered "T" in his ear. "T!" he triumphantly shouted. Gift. He had won the game.

Sham was never better behaved than after his Hangman victory. Sure, he eventually started wrestling his classmate and ran back to class when I told him to stop, but we got a solid half hour of well-behaved engagement from him. 4 months of struggle-28 class sessions in total-and all I had to do to make him behave and take me seriously as a teacher, albeit briefly, was to make him feel like he was smart and successful by feeding him an answer and letting him win a stupid game. I was amazed it could be so easy.

I feel like there's a life lesson for me here.

West Bank road trip part 1: the Bil'in scene

The original impetus for a trip to the West Bank was to attend the regularly scheduled Friday demonstration in the town of Bil'in, which a friend of mine often attends. This demonstration, which has been occurring every Friday for over a decade, is of some renown (it was featured in the documentary Five Broken Cameras), and I wanted to check it out before my friend returns to America soon. 

A bit of background: Bil'in is a West Bank village near the West Bank's southwestern border with Israel. The settlement of Modiin Illit, a large Haredi Jewish settlement in the West Bank, is directly adjacent to Bil'in. In 2005, Israel began construction on the security/separation/apartheid barrier (choose the adjective compatible with your ideology) in the Bil'in/Modiin Illit area, and the government built the barrier significantly east of the eastern edge of Modiin Illit, effectively seizing 60% of Bil'in's agricultural land. Following the construction of the wall, several construction companies began illegally developing apartments on the newly seized land west of the new barrier, confirming the suspicions of many village residents that the construction of the barrier was a pretext for a land grab.

In 2007, following a legal challenge by residents of the village, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the barrier's route was based on an intent to seize land for the expansion of Modiin Illit and not on security concerns, and ordered that the barrier be moved west, allowing Bil'in residents to return to some of their land. However, the regional planning council for the West Bank retroactively legalized the illegal housing developments, and the developers were allowed to continue construction. Even though the High Court ruled in 2007, the barrier was not moved until 2011. Today, several large apartment complexes, which  were initially constructed illegally, remain in eastern Modiin Illit on land claimed by Bil'in residents (property and land use law in Israel and the Palestinian territories is incredibly complicated and contested and it's hard to find credible sources, which is why I'm not saying that the land is owned by Bil'in residents, because I'm not sure I can prove it; suffice it to say that the land has been used and claimed by Bil'in residents for decades, and the construction was deemed an illegal land grab by an authority no less than the Israel High Court of Justice).

So the protests. They began in 2005 after the initial construction of the barrier, and they've continued to occur every Friday at noon in the years since.  The protest is usually made up of Palestinians from the village, Palestinians from elsewhere in the West Bank, Israelis, and internationals (mostly Europeans, based on what I saw). They can get pretty creative: in the linked article, you'll see pictures of the protesters dressed up as the blue-skinned beings from the movie Avatar. It's apparently common for the protesters to wear costumes that reflect something going on in the news or in popular culture, although I didn't see this. The general pattern is something like this: people march from the village to the wall and begin to protest, the IDF shoots tear gas at the protesters, people leave. Sometimes there are arrests, sometimes other weapons are used by the IDF, but this is the general pattern. Over the years, there have been two deaths among the protesters, hundreds of injuries (most not serious), and hundreds of arrests. As you'd expect, the Palestinian protesters bear the brunt of the harsh treatment.

Whether one considers the protests non-violent depends significantly on your ideological priors, I think. Left-wing sources tend to describe them as non-violent, while right-wing sources tend to describe them as violent riots, and like most things here, the truth is somewhere in between. It's true that no weapons are used, but it's also true that during most of the protests, stones are thrown at the soldiers, and while most of the time the stone-throwing doesn't result in injuries, a soldier did once lose an eye as a result of a stone thrown in Bi'lin. Whether the stone-throwing is the act of a few disorganized village children or a more systemic enterprise, whether the stone-throwing precedes or follows the tear-gassing, and whether throwing a few stones at heavily armored soldiers qualifies as violence depends a lot on who you ask. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to go.

When people ask me why I came here, my usual answer is that I often feel conflict between what I'm told about this place in the Jewish community in which I grew up and what I'm told about this place the leftist communities in which I often find myself, and I need to figure out some perspective on this conflict based on first hand experience. This isn't just the bullshit answer that I give when I'm asked to give a brief introduction in a meeting-I fundamentally believe it, and I've tried to plan my time here in such a way that would give me that perspective. Going to Bil'in seemed like an important part of that, although a somewhat scary part.

So go I did. Bil'in isn't accessible by public transportation, at least not via public transportation that's navigable by people who don't speak Arabic, so the only option is a private car. Since I knew a few people who wanted to go, renting a car seemed like a reasonable option. On Friday morning, I picked up a small Kia hatchback at the somewhat ominously named Good Luck Cars in East Jerusalem, and we set off.

We headed north on the Menachem Begin freeway towards the checkpoint. The Green Line (the border between democratic Israel and the occupied West Bank) is actually crossed just after leaving central Jerusalem, but the early part of the route passes through dense Israeli settlement suburbs that are indistinguishable from Jerusalem proper. As we approached the de facto border at Qalandiya/Atarot, the density of settlements decreased, the Palestinian population density increased, and the landscape became increasingly carceral: concrete walls festooned with ribbons of barbed wire separate neighborhoods from each other. The actual act of crossing the checkpoint was fairly anti-climactic. We passed a few ominous signs, navigated a confusing series of roundabouts, passed an unoccupied guard booth, and we were in. However, it was obvious that people going the other direction didn't have the same luxury: the line to cross the other direction into Israel stretched for miles.

And like that, we were in a different country. Crossing at the Qalandiya checkpoint deposits a traveler into the southern suburbs of Ramallah, in the fully Palestinian-controlled Area A. Prior to this trip, I'd been to the West Bank several times, but always Area C, which is under full Israeli control. Area C feels like Israel, albeit with more of an overt military presence. I've never been to an Arab country, but Area A feels like what I'd imagine an Arab country would be like. Obviously, the Israeli occupation is an omnipresent part of life: for instance, one can't go far without seeing the wall or a checkpoint. There are other less obvious examples, too. For instance, the currency used in Area A is the Israeli shekel. That said, if you were magically transported from the United States to the southern edge of Ramallah where we arrived after crossing the Qalandiya checkpoint and asked to guess where you were standing, you'd have a hard time guessing a place under Israeli control (I know, I know, Area A has autonomy, but final authority ultimately rests in Israeli hands). There's no Hebrew anywhere, for instance (except on the money!) If you go into a shop, you won't see Israeli products. It's a strange blend of complete independence and complete interdependence. More on this later, when I talk about my trip to Ramallah.

We continued northwest through the chaos of Ramallah. Driving was a bit of an adventure; at one point, we accidentally went the wrong way down a one-way street, because there were no visible signs, and the maps available on Google don't always match the actual streets! However, we made it with no damage to people or property, and we were eventually out on the open roads of the rural West Bank. It's hard to tell, because the different zones of the West Bank aren't contiguous (see for yourself-you'll be able to understand my confusion) and crossing points aren't always marked, but I think we were in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas for most, if not all, of the trip. I didn't see an Israeli military presence anywhere, and the road signs didn't feature Hebrew. A phenomenon worthy of note if you're traveling in the West Bank-rural roads have lots of speed bumps which aren't clearly marked and are often oddly shaped, which makes for a bone-jarring ride. Infrastructure development doesn't seem to be a strength of either the PA or the Israeli administration, that's for sure.

Finally, we arrived in Bil'in. We made our way to the town center and parked. A large crowd had gathered in the town center for the day's demonstration. My visit apparently occurred on the 11th anniversary of the beginning of demonstrations in Bil'in, so the crowd was significantly larger than normal. There was a significant press presence, as well. We hung around and chatted with the activists (unfortunately, mostly the Israeli and foreign activists, due to language issues) while waiting for the conclusion of noon prayers at the nearby mosque.

Hanging around waiting for the demonstration to begin.

Hanging around waiting for the demonstration to begin.

A quick note about demographics. There were about 150 people there, probably 80% Palestinian and 20% Israeli and international. The Palestinian participants were mostly men, but ages ranged widely, from young teens to 60s. The Israeli and international contingents were very diverse. There was at least one rabbi present. Many of the participants seemed to have participated before: they were prepared with scarves, gas masks, and other items to protect against the tear gas. One elderly Israeli man wore swim goggles. There were also maybe 20-25 people affiliated with the media there (journalists, photographers, etc).

At around 12:20, we set off. The crowd of 150+ followed a truck through the village and out to the agricultural land where the barrier is located, with families waving as we passed. The atmosphere was festive. As we walked, the demonstrators mingled and chatted with each other.

The crowd makes its way towards the wall

The crowd makes its way towards the wall

These Palestinian Boy Scouts marched with the group

These Palestinian Boy Scouts marched with the group

After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached a hilltop about 500 feet from the wall. A group of maybe 20-30 soldiers were awaiting the demonstrators. The news crews set up on the hilltop as some of the demonstrators (Palestinian, Israeli, and international) approached the wall. I hung back near the top of the hill, about 100 feet behind the demonstrators; I mostly wanted to observe, and I had no desire to do anything more dangerous than what I'd already done. Perhaps this was a silly thought to have, given that I'm an American Jew who was attending a Palestinian demonstration in the West Bank where the goal of the demonstrators was to provoke the IDF, but that was my logic.

The demonstrators approach the wall. Soldiers have set up near the wall, on the left. The illegally constructed apartment buildings in Modiin Illit are on the right.

The demonstrators approach the wall. Soldiers have set up near the wall, on the left. The illegally constructed apartment buildings in Modiin Illit are on the right.

When the demonstrators got to within about 30 feet of the soldiers, the soldiers released the first volley of tear gas. I didn't see any stone-throwing or any other precipitating act of violence that led to the tear gas, but as I said, I was a few hundred feet from the demonstrators. It's illegal to demonstrate in the West Bank, so under Israeli military law, the soldiers could use tear gas on the demonstrators simply for assembling.

The first gas grenades land near the demonstrators

The first gas grenades land near the demonstrators

I was a few hundred feet back, so I thought I'd be safe from the gas. Unfortunately, there was a decent breeze that day, and it blew almost perfectly west to east, from the wall to the hilltop. I didn't have the protective gear that some of the demonstrators and journalists had. I didn't even have a scarf. The only protective items I had were a couple of tissues and some packaged alcohol wipes that my friend had offered me; he told me that it's helpful to wipe your face with them, as the alcohol neutralizes the chemicals. 

The first sign of the gas was a slight burning odor: I'm not sure if it was gunpowder or similar, but it reminded me of the smell of the smoke that trailed from the model rockets I used to launch as a kid. Then my nose started to run, as if the air had suddenly filled with pollen. Then I felt an overwhelming burning in my eyes, and I turned and sprinted up the hill. I couldn't really see, but I could hear and feel that others were running next to me, and I tried to stay close to them. After about 30 seconds I crested the hill, and the pain eased a bit. I sat in a field and wiped my face with the alcohol swabs, and after about 5 minutes, I felt like I was returning to normal. Wow. That stuff was serious.

After about 10 minutes, I returned to the media area, hoping I'd be safe there. There was a faint presence of gas there, but it wasn't so bad compared to what I'd experienced. I tried to watch the proceedings, but it was difficult because of the clouds of gas. At one point, I saw an ambulance drive down the path towards the demonstrators and get hit with a gas canister, but that's about all I could see from my vantage point.

The view from the media area

The view from the media area

After about 10 minutes in the media area, I was again overwhelmed by the gas, and I again retreated to my safe spot in the field on the other side of the hill. When I returned, the demonstration seemed to be winding down. Only a few demonstrators remained near the wall. It seemed that most people had retreated to the village or to the area near the media crews. The TV news crews were set up and reporters were filming their segments. I saw a few Palestinian teenagers to the right of me, sitting in a field. Moments later, a couple of gas canisters landed in the field. The news crews quickly took down their cameras and ran. I did too, but not before I got a few solid breaths of gas. This was even more intense than the first time. My forehead felt like it was sunburned, and I was overwhelmed by nausea. Thankfully, I was able to make it up the hill to the safe area.

I waited for my group there, and they showed up a few minutes later. We made our way back through the village, stopping to buy some water in a village stop. As cars passed us, they cheered and waved to us, and we waved back. I'd survived an illegal West Bank demonstration and my first tear gassing! Now the only issue was making it back to Jerusalem. Thankfully, this was also drama-free. We got lost once in the West Bank and faced some mild questioning at the checkpoint, but we were back in Jerusalem within an hour, just as the final stores were closing up for Shabbat.

So what did I learn from this? On an intellectual level, not much. After 5 months here, I'm familiar with the dynamics of protest in the West Bank from lots of reading and conversations. However, it was entirely different to experience it on a visceral level. The chaos, the physically overpowering nature of tear gas, the camaraderie among the demonstrators (particularly the Israelis, who presumably face opprobrium in their society for participating)-it's hard to describe it without having experienced it. On one level, visiting Bil'in was a profoundly irrational decision, exposing myself to completely unnecessary risk for a cause that, in many respects isn't mine. Irrational as it may have been, however, I'm glad I did it.

West Bank road trip!

My blogging's been limited for a while, but I'll be returning soon with some posts on a very interesting topic-the two day road trip that I took with friends to, some, shall we say, off-the-beaten-path locations in the West Bank (Mom and dad, aren't you glad you found out about this after it ended?) Full posts to come, but for now, here are some preview images.

The Jerusalem bar scene (part 1)-Machne Yehuda

A while back, I promised a post on the Jerusalem bar scene. This has proven to be a hard post to write, because as those of you who know me know, I’m a pretty boring person, who needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into having any semblance of a social life. That hasn’t changed much here: my typical Thursday night here (the equivalent of Friday night in the States) involves falling asleep at 11 pm. So I’m perhaps not the most qualified person to write on this topic. That said, over my four and a half months here, I’ve had the chance to at least get a taste of what people do for fun here. Here are my impressions. This will ideally be the first in a series.

When I end up going out, I often end up at the bars in the Machne Yehuda market. This market, which has been the primary shopping area of Jewish Jerusalem for over a century, has gentrified in recent years, with upscale cheesemongers and artisan bread shops replacing some of the vegetable stalls and pita-slinging bakeries of yore. The gentrification has also brought dozens of bars into the market. At night, when the food stalls close, the bars open. Seating is limited within the bars, because they’re located in what used to be tiny food stalls, so patrons spill into seating areas in the walkways. As a result, the lines between the different bars sort of blur, and the vibe is that of one big party, as opposed to a series of separate bars located on a single street. This effect is especially pronounced when there’s live music at one of the bars, which there often is.

Another cool element of the Machne Yehuda area is that the metal gates used to cover the closed food stalls have become a canvas for street artists. Given the location, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the art tends to be a mixture of Jewish religious imagery and conventional graffiti tropes.


The problem with Machne Yehuda is that I’m not sure that anyone who actually lives in Jerusalem hangs out there. The clientele seems to be a mix of tourists, diaspora Jewish teenagers and twenty-somethings on various study programs (which, I suppose, is what I am), and what New Yorkers would call the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. Only, in Jerusalem, the bridge-and-tunnel crowd could be more accurately described as the checkpoint-and-bulletproof-bus crowd. Yeah, this is where the young people of the settlement blocs you hear about on the news come to get drunk and try to score (or at least I think that’s what they’re trying to do-I unfortunately know very little about religious Zionist sexual politics). This makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, the most notable of which is that once I have a few drinks in me, the crudeness and offensiveness of my jokes about the political situation (which already is pretty high when I’m sober) and the volume of my voice simultaneously reach new heights, and I sometimes fear that a pack of hot-blooded settler youth will overhear me use the phrase “ethnic cleansing of 1948” as a punchline and beat me to a pulp. Or maybe my friends will.

Up next: a hipster Klezmer bar! Only in the Jewish state.

The problem of ideologically heterodox settlers

Before this week, I had what I think is a pretty standard liberal Zionist perspective on West Bank settlements: that, essentially, they’re the root of all evil and the core obstacle to a just resolution to the conflict here. I had a preconception of what settlers were: Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox Jews, many not even native Israeli, who, out of a toxic blend of Jewish fundamentalism and modern white supremacism, have hijacked the Israeli state into pursuing the suicidal path of indefinitely maintaining an apartheid-like military occupation of the West Bank. The only question about how to deal with them, in my mind, was the very practical question of how they could be expelled back to pre-1967 Israel without causing a civil war. As you can probably tell from the way I phrased this paragraph, I’m not sure I feel this way anymore.

What was the change? Over the past week, I’ve met several settlers who could probably be called ideologically heterodox. While they’re Orthodox Jews who reside in the West Bank largely because they feel religiously obligated to do so, I think they’d probably consider themselves left-wing, and they speak in terms that make leftists feel comfortable. Some would probably even use a term that seems oxymoronic to say the least: “anti-occupation settler!” Most, to some degree, are either consciously or subconsciously disciples of a very interesting figure-Rabbi Menachem Froman.

 Rabbi Froman, who served as the rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa until his death a few years ago, came out of the institutions of the mainstream of the settlement movement and was certainly a subscriber to the core tenet of the settlement movement, which is that Jews have the right and obligation to live in the whole land of Israel promised to the Jews by God in the Torah. However, Rabbi Froman broke from the mainstream settlement movement on one key issue: while most of those who adhere to settlement ideology believe that Jews should both live in the whole land of Israel and control the whole land of Israel politically, Froman argued that only the first is required. Under his conception, Jews are required to live in the West Bank if they can, but that the particular legal regime under which they live in the West Bank is irrelevant: even living as a minority under a Palestinian state is OK (Froman liked to say that God would ultimately choose who would control the West Bank).

Based on this belief, Froman and his followers pursued relationships with Palestinians across the political spectrum. Froman even had what was by all accounts a positive relationship with leaders of Hamas, as they were able to bond over their shared religiosity and mistrust of secular national liberation movements. At one point, Froman used his Hamas connections to negotiate a cease-fire during one of the Gaza wars, but was unable to convince the Israeli government to accept the offer! So yes, a very interesting figure, and one who doesn’t fit into preconceived notions about settler ideology.

This blog post contains links to some great articles about Froman.

Many of these sorts of “left-wing settlers” are affiliated with an organization called Roots that brings settlers and West Bank Palestinians together to build community under the premise of mutual recognition of each other’s legitimate claims to the land. We met with the two of the three co-directors of the organization, a settler named Shaul Judelman and a Palestinian man named Ali Abu Awwad, who spent several years in prison for stone-throwing before turning to non-violence. They run weekly meetings between settlers and Palestinians to discuss issues in the area, summer programs, pre-army training for Israeli youth, and other compelling programs that attempt to change the dynamic between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank. I even spoke with settlers who reported attempting to intercede on behalf of Palestinians denied building permits in their villages by the Israeli military government. It’s an impressive initiative, and not one that I ever expected could exist in the West Bank.

This encounter was incredibly polarizing within our group. I heard the phrase “full of shit” thrown around a few times-that they’re insincere and that they’re just doing a little activist work to absolve themselves of feelings of guilt related to the occupation, or that they’re just whitewashing the occupation to leftists. And that’s a fair reaction; while they may profess to be advocates for freedom and justice for all people, the act of living in the West Bank as a settler raises some difficult questions whether their actions are compatible with those beliefs. These settlers, regardless of how left-wing or anti-occupation they may be, are still taking advantage of a legal regime in which they’re citizens of a democracy and the neighbors with whom they’re supposedly forming relationships live under a military dictatorship. Is it moral to put yourself in a position like this when there’s an alternative? I don’t know, but it’s a hard question that they should have to answer.

Additionally, by participating in the settlement project, they’re putting themselves in a very difficult position politically. Do they align themselves with the political parties that do, in fact, want more freedom and justice for the people between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, even though it means they may lose their homes? Or do they align themselves politically with the political parties that support their interests as settlers, even though the racism and Jewish supremacy of those parties is incompatible with their stated beliefs? I don’t know-maybe I should have asked. A similar, but not identical issue, is that simply by virtue of living in the West Bank, they’re taking advantage of how the settlement project distorts Israeli policy. Settlers receive something like 10 times more money from the government in the form of various subsidies than people living in pre-1967 Israel. Is it ethical to take this money, when God knows there are so many people living in poverty within pre-1967 Israel who could use it? Again, I don’t know, but this is a hard question they should have to answer.

So these are the arguments that left-wing settlers are just bullshitting everyone. What about the arguments in favor? Well, to respond to the threshold issue: I don’t think they’re full of shit, or just whitewashing the settlement movement to leftists. They seemed to be sincerely trying to balance their religious commitment to living in the whole land of Israel with their ethical (religious?) commitment to promoting justice for all people. I’m sure that if you’re a settler, it’s not easy to explain to your neighbors why you’re reaching out to Palestinians in the context of the violence against settlers that occurs in the West Bank. For instance, the three Israeli boys that were kidnapped and murdered in summer 2014 attended school on the settlement where one of the people we met lives. I’m sure that this man had to make some very real sacrifices in his interpersonal relationships to do this work. That, I think, is worthy of respect.

But what about the other issues? How can you ethically put yourself in the position of the superior within an (let’s just say it bluntly, the way a critic of these people would) apartheid-like system? The response was interesting. The people (both settlers and their Palestinian colleagues) we met argued that the distinction drawn by liberal Zionists (in both Israel and the diaspora) between the legitimacy of living in pre-1967 Israel and the illegitimacy of living in the territories is a false dichotomy. “You can live in Tel Aviv and criticize the immorality of occupation and dispossession in the territories,” they argued (I’m paraphrasing), “but the only difference between what happened in the territories in 1967 and what happened in Tel Aviv in 1948 is 19 years.” It’s not like the creation of the state of Israel didn’t involve the expulsion of a lot of people from their land, land theft, the creation of perpetual refugees, a regime of first-class citizenship for Jews and second-class citizenship for Palestinians: it just did so 19 years earlier. A two-state solution as espoused by liberal Zionists would improve the situation of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, but it would do little or nothing for the millions of Palestinians living stateless in Lebanon and Syria, the Palestinian citizens of Israel living with institutionalized discrimination within pre-1967 Israel, or the people who lost their land and property in 1948 and have a right to compensation for that loss. It’s certainly possible to object to components of this argument, but I found it compelling.

So what do they propose as a solution? Well, relationship building, for sure; as they saw it, both communities tend to deny the other’s right to exist as a people on the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and they see communication as a way to address this fundamental conflict. From a political perspective, some spoke favorably about the Two States, One Homeland initiative (no English website, but you can read a BBC article about it here). Under this initiative, two democratic states would be formed on the pre-1967 borders. The states would then form a confederation, with some shared institutions and open borders. Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel would be allowed to live and vote within pre-1967 Israel and live, but not vote, within the area currently defined as the territories (they could presumably vote as absentees for the government of pre-1967 Israel). Palestinian residents of the territories would be allowed to live and vote in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and live, but not vote, within pre-1967 Israel. Israel would continue to offer the right of return to Jews, and the new Palestinian state would offer the right of return to overseas Palestinians. Jerusalem would be shared. I found this initiative compelling, as it circumvents two of the most difficult “final status” issues: settlements and the right of Palestinian return to pre-1967 Israel. You could probably point out a million obstacles, but there are a million obstacles to any peace proposal, including the traditional two-state solution.

So what’s my conclusion on this? None, really. I’m stating the obvious, but you can spend a lifetime thinking about this problem, even if your understanding of it hasn’t been complicated by people like left-wing settlers. I do, however, have significantly more ambiguous feelings about settlers and the settlement movement than I did prior to this encounter. Perhaps that’s good, or perhaps that’s bad. Perhaps I’m fooling myself and settlements are still the root of the problem. Nevertheless, these people are real, they seem to be acting in good faith, they have some thoughtful ideas, and they should be taken seriously.



Sting videos and what responses to them say about democracy

The dominant political news story of the past few weeks in Israel is one that's unfortunately familiar to observers of the past few years in American politics: a shadowy, previously unknown right-wing organization sent hidden camera-equipped moles into left-wing organizations and came out with highly edited but seemingly damning clips of left-wingers confessing to horrible crimes. As an aficionado of the right-wing sting video who's suffered through significant portions of the oeuvres of American cinematic geniuses such as James O'Keefe and David Daleiden, I'm fascinated by this development, and what it says about the differences between the political cultures of the US and Israel.

First, some background. About two weeks ago, a sting video was aired by the Israeli TV show Uvda (lit: "Fact", it's an investigative journalism show somewhat similar to 60 Minutes or Nightline). The video was produced by Ad Kan ("No More"), a previously unknown right-wing group with ties to the West Bank settlement movement. The target of the first video was a group called Taayush, a loosely organized left-wing group that primarily organizes and conducts demonstrations and civil disobedience in the South Hebron Hills area in the southern West Bank. You can read some background on the situation in the South Hebron Hills area here.

As an informal group, Taayush doesn't have a leader, per se, but the group is strongly associated with a Jewish activist named Ezra Nawi. Nawi has been an interesting and controversial figure for many years. In many ways, he's the antithesis of the stereotypical highly educated, Ashkenazi, Tel Aviv-residing Israeli leftist: Nawi is a Mizrahi Jew who speaks fluent Arabic who was born in Jerusalem and was trained as a plumber. Openly gay since the 1970s, he became involved in activism with Palestinians after being convicted of allowing his partner, a Palestinian man, to live illegally with him in Israel. He has a bit of a troubled past (which, perhaps, is an understatement); in the 1990s, he spent some time in an Israeli prison for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy. Because of these issues, some on the left have described him as "an easy target". Despite these issues, Nawi and his fellow activists have become widely respected in the South Hebron Hills. Nawi and his fellow activists have helped to serve the material needs of the Palestinian communities in the region, which are some of the poorest in the West Bank, and, most controversially, guard the Palestinian communities against settler attacks and act as "human shields" to protect communities against attempted demolitions by the IDF. Nawi's Wikipedia page is pretty comprehensive, and I've linked to it above.

So what did the video show? You can watch it yourself, or, at least, the key 30 seconds that produced all of the drama, with English translations courtesy of the right-wing group StandWithUs:

This video is clearly highly edited in the vein of an O'Keefe or Daleiden masterpiece, that's fairly obvious. However, Ezra Nawi does seem to be saying some bad stuff! Let's put aside the creepy music and stock photos and figure out what's going on here, with the help of this Haaretz report.

The footage of Nawi was captured by a right-wing activist who reportedly became his close acquaintance. In the footage, Nawi, who is unaware of being recorded, is heard telling of four Palestinian landowners who contacted him, thinking he was also involved in the land trade.

”I give their photos and their phone numbers immediately to the [Palestinian] Preventive Security Force,” Nawi says in the recording. “The Authority catches them and kills them. But before they kill them they beat them up.”

In another recording, Nawi is heard talking about a Palestinian who “made deals with the settlers.” The Palestinian, Nawi says, let the settlers till his uncles’ lands in return for farming other lands. Nawi goes on to say that he handed the Palestinian’s name over to the Palestinian security services, and that the Palestinian later “suffered a stroke.”

The investigative report also shows Nawi and a Palestinian member of B’Tselem plotting to meet a Palestinian land broker with the alleged intent of turning him in to the Palestinian security services. In footage documenting the meeting with the land owner, Nawi says he is interested in buying lands near the settlements. Nawi collects documents from the land broker and tries to schedule another meeting, allegedly with the intent of notifying Palestinian agents and setting up an ambush.

In the recorded conversation, the Palestinian land broker warns Nawi that any work on the lands can only start three years after the deal is made, to conceal the transaction from the Palestinian Authority. Nawi is later heard saying that he “feels like crap” about the alleged deception, but continues to act against the broker.  

There are two issues here: the supposedly gleeful comment about turning Palestinian land brokers over to be tortured and executed, and the alleged entrapment of the Palestinian land broker, in partnership with the B'Tselem staffer, a Palestinian man named Nasser Nawajah who  lives in the village of Susiya (I visited this village and met Nawajah a few months ago). The comment about turning over Palestinian land brokers attracted lots of interest in the media, which is interesting, because I think it's the less troubling of the two. It is true that the laws of the Palestinian Authority provide for the death penalty for people who sell land to Israelis. However, there is absolutely no evidence that anyone has been executed or tortured by the PA for selling land to an Israeli, as a result of Nawi's actions or otherwise. (However, some alleged land brokers have been murdered under mysterious circumstances in the past years, in what could probably be fairly called lynchings. There is no evidence to suggest that Nawi was involved in any of these incidents.) Given this reality, I'm inclined to believe that Nawi's comment was an off-color joke taken as evidence of nefarious acts or intent, which is common in the right-wing sting video genre.

Let me be clear: I don't want anyone to be tortured, executed, or lynched, and I condemn the PA if it has any role in these acts. I'm also uncomfortable with the Palestinian prohibition on land sales to Israelis, although, given the current context in which land sold to Israelis is used to build Israeli-only settlements, I'm more inclined to accept it than I would be inclined to accept a similar law in other contexts. Housing discrimination is awful, but discrimination to prevent other discrimination somehow seems...less awful? That being said, the portrayal of the land dealer that was allegedly being entrapped isn't exactly as it's been characterized by some right-wing pro-Israel organizations who have described it as a violation of Palestinian "freedom to make decisions about their own property." It's common for Palestinian land dealers to use forged documents to, literally, sell peoples' land out from under them. This would of course be a crime in any jurisdiction in the world.  

This is what Nawajah and Nawi claim they believed was occurring when Nawi was approached by the right-winger disguised as a land dealer, and given the history of Palestinian land dealers doing exactly this, it was a reasonable assumption, I think. I'm not sure what Nawajah and Nawi could have done, other than gather evidence of the supposed fraud to report it to the PA. Report it to the Israeli administration in the West Bank? The Israelis have been trying to evict Nawajah from his land for years. That leaves reporting to the PA as the only viable option for Nawajah to avert being robbed of his property through fraud. Is it ethical to report someone whom you credibly believe is committing a serious crime against you, even if you know that the person may be tortured, executed, or lynched as a result of reporting the crime? This is a difficult ethical question, I think. That being said, it's in no way comparable to "conspiracy to commit murder," which is what it's been called by Israeli politicians and by Israeli media.

So what happened as a result of all this? Several days after the video was released, Nawi was arrested at Ben Gurion airport while attempting to board a flight to Europe. The government claimed he was fleeing, even though he had not been charged with a crime or barred from leaving the country by a court. He was held without charges for several days before being charged with "being in contact with a foreign agent"; that is, the Palestinian Authority. He was also barred from contacting his lawyer.  Today, he was released to house arrest after over a week of detention. There's no indication that there is any evidence against him other than the sting videos.

Last night, Nawajah was arrested at his home in Susiya. It's unclear what the charges against him entail. At a preliminary hearing today, a judge ordered him released to house arrest, but the police refused to release him. He'll be held for another day at least. Again, there is no indication that there is any evidence against him other than the sting videos. (Another Jewish Taayush activist was also arrested and charged with "being in contact with a foreign agent," as well).

It's impossible to not compare the response to these sting videos to the response to the Planned Parenthood videos. I certainly wouldn't call the Planned Parenthood videos, and the response to them, the finest hour in American political history. I don't need to remind you of the unfortunate details: the grandstanding in Congress and every Republican state legislature, Carly Fiorina's lies on the debate stage, and, most unfortunate of all, the shooting rampage at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic that killed 3 people. These sorts of right-wing sting videos are harmful, deceptive, and destructive, regardless of whether they occur in the US or in Israel. 

Nevertheless, there seemed to be an understanding of what the Planned Parenthood videos were and what they represented; an essentially political project aimed at a political goal (the defunding of Planned Parenthood), not a serious investigation . Congress grandstanded and continues to grandstand about the videos, but no one sent the FBI to arrest Cecile Richards, and no one seriously expected that the FBI was going to arrest Cecile Richards (or, that Texas or some other red state would send the state police to arrest local Planned Parenthood officials). Here, all bets are off. These sting videos have already been used to crack down on the left using the full power of the state, without even a modicum of the due process protections expected in a democracy, and I fully expect the fallout to continue.

The differing responses to sting videos say a lot about the differences between American democracy and Israeli democracy, I think. It actually makes me feel more confident in American democracy. Despite an organized campaign of deceptive incitement against a left-wing group that connected right-wing activists and right-wing politicians, the institutions of democracy and civil society-the checks and balances of the different levels of government, the courts, the media, the long-established norms that prevent even sympathetic actors from conflating political pursuits with criminal justice, for the most part-prevented the kinds of prosecutions we're seeing in Israel now. The converse, of course, is that this case is a sign of the relative weakness of Israel's democracy and civil society institutions. That's not all that surprising, I suppose-Israel is a young country with a strong paranoid, "us or them" mentality that's been brought on by decades of conflict. Nevertheless, it's troubling.


I've been feeling pretty safe for a while now. The highly tense environment of my first weeks here, with its constant stream of Palestinian stabbing attacks and eliminationist-rhetoric packed demonstrations by far-right Israeli activists, has settled into a routine of only mild tension, with only occasional flareups of violence. Perhaps more importantly, I've become more comfortable with the unique risks of living here. I think it's a natural human impulse to become inured to things that once scared you, and that's certainly happened to me. I no longer keep my back against walls when I'm standing in the street to ward off stabbers, I'm totally fine riding city buses even when they're packed, etc. I don't even think about the safety implications of various aspects of my life here anymore. Until last night.

Last night, there was a fire at a Jerusalem office building that houses the offices of B'Tselem, a prominent anti-occupation human rights NGO, and the Yad B'Yad bilingual school network where I teach on Tuesdays. Current reports are that the fire was accidental, but initial reports indicated that it was arson. Left-wing groups have been under siege in Israel for a while now, with a proposed law requiring representatives of left-wing NGOs that receive foreign funding to wear special badges when lobbying in the Knesset attracting a great deal of support. Additionally, Im Tirtzu, a right-wing youth group with ties to the governing coalition and to Christian Right groups in the United States, released a video depicting leaders of several NGOs as Palestinian terrorists.

B'Tselem, perhaps the most prominent anti-occupation NGO in Israel, has been recently subjected to a demonization campaign that, for my American readers, can probably be best compared to the campaign against Planned Parenthood that's occurred over the past 6 months: a previously unknown right-wing group released a hidden-camera video purportedly showing an employee of B'Tselem attempting to set up the arrest of a Palestinian who sold West Bank land to settlers by the Palestinian Authority and laughing about the possibility that the land dealer could be tortured or killed by the PA. The statements of the B'Tselem staffer appear to have been taken out of context or manipulated, but many right-wing politicians have called for investigation and/or prosecution of B'Tselem and its staff. So a tense environment, and then the fire in a building housing left-wing organizations.

I work for a labor rights organization in Tel Aviv that, while officially non-partisan, is considered to be on the left and has been featured on a right-wing website that purportedly "monitors" left-wing groups. My office in Tel Aviv is on the 4th floor of a building that houses a couple of other left-wing organizations-one organization that works on civil liberties issues in Israel and the territories, and an organization that works on behalf of asylum seekers in Israel. Today, for the first time, I looked for the location of the fire exits when I entered the office. When I entered the chaotic conference room that serves as my office, I looked out the window to see if there's some sort of fire escape, or in a worst-case scenario, something that could break my fall if I had to jump. Rationally, I don't think I'll ever need it. Last night's fire wasn't even an arson! But whether it's standing with your back to walls or thinking about whether you could jump from your office window, fear makes you a little irrational. Maybe even a little crazy.

The pointless cruelty of Holot

I'm back! Unfortunately, the new year won't begin with uplifting content-quite the contrary, actually.

This post will primarily focus on issues related to asylum seekers in Israel. If you haven't already read my prior post on this topic, you should check it out: I assume some degree of familiarity with the issues.

Yesterday, I traveled with a group of activists and asylum seekers to the Holot detention center. An ad hoc group goes for a few hours once a month, usually on Saturdays, to visit the thousands of asylum seekers housed there in the hopes of keeping their spirits up. This is critically important, perhaps even literally life-saving, because of the unique purpose of the facility.

To understand why Holot exists, and why visitors and contact with the outside world is so important, a quick refresher on the demographic and legal situation of the asylum seekers. There are about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel, almost entirely seeking refuge from the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea or the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Under international law, it's illegal to deport someone to their country of citizenship if they have a valid fear of persecution, which is certainly the case for people fleeing Eritrea or Sudan. Host countries have to provide temporary protected status as long as the threat remains in place. However, it's not illegal for countries to facilitate the "voluntary return" of an asylum seeker who wishes to return to their country of citizenship despite the risks. For a variety of reasons, most of which seem pretty damn racist to an outside observer, Israel refuses to process their refugee applications, but also wants them gone. But it's also very expensive to process and deny refugee claims, which would legally permit deportation. This is where Holot comes in.

The goal of Holot is one that sounds pretty familiar to an observer of the nastier side of American immigration politics: "self-deportation." The theory is simple: change the set of incentives by making life in Israel miserable, and people will sign papers authorizing their removal, regardless of the risks. In order to accomplish this, the government began summoning adult male asylum seekers to Holot, beginning with those who had been in Israel the longest. Effectively, they disrupted the lives of those who had been in Israel the longest and theoretically had the most stability and the most to lose-jobs, families, etc. Initially, the plan was to require three year stays, but after some litigation, the government's only allowed to keep people in for a year before it must release them. The goal, however, is that most will leave Israel before the year is up.

Where exactly do they end up? The government built a large facility, capable of housing over 3,000 people, in a prison compound in the middle of the Negev Desert near the Egyptian border. Because you can't be sent to prison in Israel without being convicted of a crime, the facility is technically not a prison: it's an "open detention center." In some respects, it's not a prison. You can bring some of your possessions (including, perhaps most importantly, cell phones and non-uniform clothing), there's Internet access, and most importantly, you can enter and leave at will during daylight hours. However, in many respects, it's very prison-like. For one, it's run by the Israel Prison Service. Certainly, it resembles a prison in appearance: long rows of generic pre-fab buildings, surrounded by ribbons of razor wire and guard towers.

The guard house at the Holot entrance, at dusk

The guard house at the Holot entrance, at dusk

The internal environment is also fairly prison-like, according to those I talked to: lots of barbed wire, barred windows, and remotely operated doors that lock down at night. Living conditions are pretty dire. The food is inedible, there's no on-site doctor and very limited access to medical care, and until recently, there was no heat or air-conditioning in the housing units, which are absolute essentials in a desert environment. Detainees are permitted to have reading materials in any language but Hebrew; the government doesn't want them learning Hebrew, because it could conceivably bolster their connection to Israel. While detainees are allowed to leave to do what they wish during the daytime and receive a small stipend of 16 shekels, or about 4 dollars (not 1 dollar-my apologies for the typo), per day to cover personal care items and transportation, this is something of a false promise: the nearest town of any size, Beer Sheva, is about an hour away by bus, and the round-trip bus fare is 40 shekels.

Nothing around for miles

Nothing around for miles


A few of the detainees own cars (remember, they're starting with the most well-established asylum seekers), which they're allowed to park on a vacant lot outside of the facility, but they can't go far; if they're late, they can get placed in solitary confinement. The rest of the detainees are stuck. There's nothing around but empty desert for miles, except, apparently, a cow or chicken farm, judging by the smell that overwhelmed us whenever the wind blew in the right direction. A few of the detainees run small food and drink stands in the parking lot in partnership with non-incarcerated asylum seekers, but the Prison Service shuts them down periodically.

The parking lot, with a few of the food stands.

The parking lot, with a few of the food stands.

So the alternative to Holot is voluntary departure. What that means is that detainees at Holot are periodically presented with paperwork allowing for voluntary departure to their home country or to an unnamed third country (usually either Rwanda or Uganda) that has agreed to take them temporarily. Those who agree to voluntary departure are taken to the airport and put on a plane, only receiving their passport, ticket, and a voluntary departure stipend upon boarding. Returning to the home country is borderline suicidal, but some do it anyway, presumably out of despair. There have been many reports of executions of asylum seekers who return to Sudan or Eritrea. Voluntary departure to a third country is at least somewhat safer, at least temporarily. However, the situation of asylum seekers who depart to a third country is still precarious: the departure agreement doesn't include any permanent status in the third country, and asylum seekers are sometimes deported from the third country back to their home countries. It's also not unheard of for asylum seekers to accept voluntary departure to a third country, only to instead receive a ticket back to their home countries instead. So third-country departure isn't safe either. The key, then, is to help asylum seekers by making their time at Holot tolerable so that they don't accept the self-deportation proposal.

So this is where the activist group that I joined comes in. As I said, they go once a month, usually on Saturdays, and spend about 3 hours in the small market bordering the facility. They're here to talk, to provide moral support, to remind these men that there are people on the outside who care about them and want them to resist the pressure they're under and stay in Israel. I joined them this week.

I felt a bit apprehensive arriving at the facility. I'm not necessarily the most outgoing person in the world, as those who know me can attest, and it's especially difficult to be outgoing when you don't share a set of common experiences with the people to whom you're expected to be outgoing. When I used to visit incarcerated people in Alabama and Texas (which feels like a lifetime ago), I had the same problem. What do I say? "Oh, sucks you're in here?"  

As it turned out, this wasn't a problem. The thing about talking to people who have go unheard is that they mostly just want to be heard. I may not be the best at conversing with strangers, but I can sure sit and listen, and listen is mostly what I did. The stories were about as harrowing as you'd expect: I met several survivors of the Darfur genocide who had lost their families in militia attacks, a Jehovah's Witness from Eritrea who faced torture for practicing his religion, and one man who showed me his scars from where had been shot by Egyptian soldiers while trying to cross the border into Israel.

In general, the word that comes to mind when describing these men (and I think it usually does when working with asylum seekers, I think) is resilience. Some of these men were clearly responding to the traumatic experiences they'd had in unhealthy ways; the sale of alcohol is permitted (or at least tolerated) in the market, and some of the men seemed to be drinking the day away. Nevertheless, the vast majority seemed to be amazingly optimistic and productive. I met artists, photographers, and musicians. One man begged me to help him enroll in a master's degree program in economics or political science, as he'd had to leave his studies behind when he fled Sudan. 

What struck me most about the whole situation is the pointless cruelty of it all. Sure, there are detention centers for asylum seekers everywhere in the world, but according to the people with whom I traveled, Holot is unique; no other country incarcerates asylum seekers with pending claims simply to force them to leave, as opposed to incarcerating new arrivals who haven't been vetted or incarcerating individuals who are facing deportation after the denial of their claims. What's the point? Why do this?

Why resist their attempts to claim refugee status, even? There aren't even that many of them, maybe 50,000 arrivals over a period of 8 years or so. Relative to the population of Israel, or the migrant crisis that Europe's facing, it's a drop in the bucket. Israel could take in these men without breaking a sweat. It's a wealthy country, and perhaps more importantly, there's a massive infrastructure for absorbing Jewish migrants that's been largely idle since the mass migrations from the Arab world, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. Israel's taken in hordes of poor people from the developing world. It can do it again. Contrary to the hyperbolic claims of some on the right, Israeli society can survive it. As for the other objection commonly raised-that these asylum seekers aren't Jewish, and they would pose a threat to the Jewish character of the state-I'll respond with something that one of the Israeli activists told me (and put aside the question of whether maintaining some sort of "Jewish character" is worth the suffering that pursuing that goal would cost). "What's more Jewish," he said, "than making an arduous land journey through the Sinai to Israel in search of a refuge from persecution?" 

The world we live in

Two Tuesdays, two sessions teaching English at the Yad B'Yad school, two troubling moments reflective of the tumultuous time in which we live:

Last Tuesday, I took a Palestinian 6th grader out of class for private remedial tutoring, as I do most weeks. The lesson was a struggle; my student was very behind, and he got increasingly frustrated as we pushed through the material. Suddenly, he took a key out of his bag. The key was a plastic Nakba key, a common symbol in the Palestinian liberation movement that represents the front door keys to the homes that many Palestinians left/fled/were expelled from (choose the verb that aligns with your ideology) and, by extension, the Palestinian longing for return. He turned the key over and pointed to a Palestinian flag stamped on one side of the key. "You see this? This good," he said while pointing to the flag engraved on the key. "You see that?" he said while pointing to an Israeli flag outside of the classroom. "This bad. You agree?" And I wasn't sure what to say.

How do I explain "this flag is a symbol of national liberation for my long-suffering people, and that'll never go away for me, but I'm horrified by the fact that the liberation of my people came at the expense of the occupation of another, and by the troubling blend of religion and nationalism that's being used as the justification for another people, just as similar sorts of blends have been used to justify the oppression of my own people in the past?" How do I explain that to a frustrated 6th grader who understands 10 words of English using my 10 words of Arabic? How do I explain that to people in my own community, who'd likely cite what the kid said to me as an example of how Palestinian children are taught to hate from childhood, making it impossible for Israel to do anything other than live by the sword forever?

Another incident. Yesterday, I taught my group of English-speaking 8th graders. We're reading The Giver. It feels like a middle school English class in the United States. Only in this class, a Muslim student began the discussion by asking me about a completely unrelated topic. He asked me about Donald Trump's electoral prospects, because he'd been to the United States before and he'd like to go back to go to Disney World and the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios. Another thing that (hopefully) wouldn't happen: a Jewish student wouldn't yell "1948!" at him. What am I supposed to say here? "Yes, I'm worried about Trump too, but his proposal to ban Muslims would probably be unconstitutional and it would never get through Congress,oh, and Oren*, please don't make racist comments about your classmate." Easy for me to say-I get to go home in 3 months, to the comforts of my life as a privileged, white, American, Jew. I don't have to live my life as a Palestinian Muslim in today's world, with everything that entails, or as an Israeli teenager, with the pressures of thinking about daily terror attacks from childhood and with the existential threat of the Holocaust still present in the national consciousness.

This is my last post of 2015. I'm off to Spain for a week for a little vacation. I'll be coming back to Israel on New Year's Day, hopefully rejuvenated to think and write about these issues some more. I'm not really a praying sort, but as a year ends and a new one begins, I hope that 2016 will be a year of more peace and more justice, for all of the people of the world.

*Not his real name

Pulled into Nazareth...

So, as I alluded to the other day, I took a day trip to Nazareth on Wednesday for some meetings. Nazareth's an interesting place; it's a fairly big town by Israeli standards, with a population of something like 70,000, and (according to Wikipedia) it's the "capital of Arab Israel" with a population that's around 99% Arab. Oh, and some controversial Jewish preacher supposedly lived there 2,000 years ago. 

Surprisingly, given Nazareth's size and religious importance, there are only a couple of inconveniently timed direct buses from Jerusalem to Nazareth. I'm not sure why this is-in looking at the bus schedule, it seems that most of the buses from Nazareth go to other Arab towns, but Jerusalem has a large Arab population. It would also be a fairly convenient waypoint for buses between Jerusalem and Jewish towns in the area. Who knows.

Regardless of the reason for the limited connections, the result was my day started with a 6 am alarm and the usual light rail ride to the central bus station. There, I boarded a northbound bus. I'd be exiting the bus at an intermediate point to catch the connection to Nazareth, so I set an alarm for a few minutes prior to the ETA, put on headphones, and passed out for two hours. After a great nap, a brief layover at a roadside bus shelter in the Galilee on a beautiful winter morning, and a harrowing ride on the winding roads out of the valley and onto the hilltop that's home to Nazareth, I was there.

Arriving in Nazareth was a shock to the system. I was aware that Nazareth is a majority-Arab city, but I wasn't quite aware of the extent to which it felt like part of a completely different country; Arabic-only signs, a complete lack of the religious/nationalistic symbols found everywhere else in Israel, etc. None of this was a surprise, per se; intellectually, I was expecting it. For a variety of reasons, which of course vary based on who you ask, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are not integrated into Israeli society in many ways, and I certainly knew that. Nevertheless, it was still surprising and thrilling to take a 2 hour bus ride, not cross any international borders, and nonetheless end up in a place that felt so foreign.

I had a few minutes to explore before my meeting. The Basilica of the Annunciation is located in the center of town. It's built on the site where, in Catholic doctrine, the angel Gabriel told Mary that she'd be giving birth to Jesus. In Greek Orthodox doctrine, the Annunciation occurred elsewhere, and they have their own church on the site. I have no idea where other Christian traditions claim that the Annunciation occurred. I didn't know this at the time, but this church is only about 50 years old. Over the years, there have been several churches on the site. In 1954, a church dating back to the 1700s was torn down, and a newer, larger one was built on the site, with completion occurring in 1969. For a country where every ancient building and holy site is preserved and contested, this surprised me.

A bad picture of the Basilica, looming over a town square in Nazareth

A bad picture of the Basilica, looming over a town square in Nazareth

We made our way from the Basilica to the office, passing Mary's Well en route. This is near where the Greek Orthodox tradition claims the Annunciation occurred. It's also a surprisingly new structure, dating only to the 1960s.

Mary's Well, with some local schoolchildren gathering nearby.

Mary's Well, with some local schoolchildren gathering nearby.

After this, we headed into a shopping area, up some stairs, and into the Nazareth office of my employer. The primary purpose of the visit was to receive a briefing on the activities of the Nazareth office; as I said in an earlier post, I'm writing grant applications and English-language materials for the organization, and I needed information on the office's programs for a report. Given the demographics of the area, this office primarily (though not exclusively) serves Palestinian citizens of Israel (this could be a post in its own right, but I learned during the visit that the terms "Palestinian citizen of Israel" or "Palestinian-Israeli" are vastly preferred to the terms I typically hear in the U.S., such as "Arab-Israeli" or "Israeli Arab", to the extent that the latter are seen as something of a slur. I think that the use of the word "Arab" rather than "Palestinian" contributes to the strong sense in the Palestinian community that Israel has attempted to erase the distinct Palestinian national identity as part of erasing the claims to the land. As I said-complicated, and probably best left for another post). The office has an Arabic/Hebrew bilingual staff, and they serve individual clients experiencing violations of labor law as well as engaging in educational and advocacy efforts surrounding worker's rights issues in the Palestinian-Israeli community.

One of the office's current programs involves the issue of construction workplace safety in Israel, an issue that disproportionately impacts the Palestinian-Israeli community, because Palestinian men (both Israeli citizens and residents of the territories) are disproportionately employed in this sector. Over the past 5 years, 184 construction workers have been killed in workplace accidents in Israel. More people have died on Israeli construction sites than have been killed in wars and terrorist attacks in Israel during the same period. The rate of workplace deaths for construction workers is 7 times higher in Israel than it is in other wealthy nations, like the UK. The office is working on an advocacy campaign to increase workplace safety standards and accountability for contractors who operate unsafe construction sites. It's a fascinating and deeply troubling issue that I knew nothing about before visiting. You can read more here: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.692054

After the meeting, I had a few more minutes to wander around before heading to catch the bus back to Jerusalem. Given the season, it wasn't surprising to wander into a large Christmas market. I explored for a bit and bought a delicious crepe stuffed with labneh (similar to Greek yogurt), tomatoes, and zaatar. Interestingly enough, the tourist presence seemed limited, given the number of Christian tourists who visit Israel and Nazareth's importance in Christianity. I wonder if the Arab dominance of the city scares off many of the kinds of people who'd go on a Christian tour of the Holy Land, i.e. American evangelicals (which would be ironic, since many of the residents of Nazareth are Christian). Perhaps I'm selling these people short-it's still a bit early for Christmas break season, I guess. Then again, Donald Trump is over 40% in the Republican primary polls...

Come, evangelicals! No War on Christmas here!

Come, evangelicals! No War on Christmas here!

As I started on my way to the bus, I wandered into a store to pick up essential bus trip provisions, namely bottled water and Mekupelet bars. I also couldn't resist buying a small bottle of arak from the Ramallah Distilling company. It happened to be stocked on a shelf with Donald Trump-branded flavored vodka, which amused me to no end.

A shocking find in a 99% Palestinian/Arab city. Although I saw crosses around the necks of most of the store staff, so they'd be allowed in to the U.S. anyway if this guy becomes president...

A shocking find in a 99% Palestinian/Arab city. Although I saw crosses around the necks of most of the store staff, so they'd be allowed in to the U.S. anyway if this guy becomes president...

After this, it was time to make my way to the bus. Remember how I said that I had my layover on the outbound trip at a roadside bus shelter in the middle of nowhere? This wasn't an experience I wanted to repeat, so for the return, I chose a connection at the central bus station in the nearby city of Afula. However, this meant that I'd have to go to Nazareth Illit, the nearby Jewish town, to catch the first bus of my trip. Google Maps told me only two kilometers, so I confidently set off. However, Google Maps forgot to tell me that the two kilometers involved going up and down several massive hills in an off-the-beaten-path residential neighborhood. The journey to the bus station was arduous, serving as a reminder that I've been eating way too much falafel and way too many Mekupelet bars over the past few months. Eventually, however, I made it to the bus station, albeit completely out of breath and drenched in sweat (which probably endeared me to my seatmate).

The trip back was uneventful, after I recovered from my workout. I read a little, napped a lot, and arrived safely back in Jerusalem at dusk. Another interesting day trip complete. I'd actually really like to go back to Nazareth and spend some more time there. It's a naturally beautiful place, nestled in the mountains (or, as I learned on my walk, draped over mountains). It also feels like an outpost of some completely different cultures within Israel. I enjoy places like that, cities or towns that are cultural outposts; it's why I drove 9 hours to Montreal in the dead of winter with my good high school buddy Carl after my first semester of college. Or maybe that was the excuse, when in fact we were just looking for a place where the drinking age is 18 without getting on a plane.


I'm sorry about the lack of recent posts. I've had a busy few weeks-I spent a weekend at a kibbutz in the Arava desert, in the south of Israel, and then my parents spent a bit over a week visiting me. I'm not likely to have time to blog in the near future, either. Tomorrow, I'm traveling to interview some people for my internship placement, and then I'm co-running an educational program on the Israeli economy on Thursday. More to come this weekend, I hope.

The daily grind

So as you've probably noticed, I've been posting significantly less frequently than I was when I started. This is mostly because I'm busy. The core of my program is an internship placement, which we do on Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays.  It took a while for me to find an internship placement, but now that I'm in one, I don't have those days to write. On Tuesdays, we're at the Yad B'Yad integrated school, which I've discussed already, and we have various educational programs on Thursdays. In the evenings, we have language classes, chores, cultural events, house meetings, etc. On Fridays and Saturdays, we're nominally free, but it seems like I'm always traveling or attending events. I also have to leave time for independent language study, laundry, errands, and such. So not as much time to write as I used to have.

The other reason why I'm writing less frequently is that, after a few weeks of excitement at the new experience of living in Israel, I've settled into a routine. When you've settled into a routine, I think the natural tendency is to project your feelings of comfort and lack of novelty with it onto others and assume they won't be interested. I think I subconsciously assume that since I'm just going about my boring old day-to-day life, you're not going to want to read about it. So that's another reason why I've had a hard time writing lately.

With that said, I'm going to try to overcome this assumption and write a little bit about what I do at my internship placement. I mentioned earlier that I had a hard time finding one. This is because I had somewhat unrealistic expectations, I think-I came in hoping to do some legal work, but I didn't think about the fact that I would be almost useless to a legal NGO, since 1. I'm not a lawyer and 2. I don't speak Hebrew, Arabic, or any other language that people speak natively here. After some heroic efforts by my program facilitators, they eventually found me an internship placement at Kav LaOved, a large worker's rights NGO. I'm working in the development department, so I'm writing grant applications instead of heroically defending the rights of migrant workers before the Israeli Supreme Court, but I get a lot of exposure to the legal work by observing it and writing about it. I don't feel deprived at all.

There is one issue though: I live in Jerusalem, and the offices of Kav LaOved are in Tel Aviv. I was permitted to work from home one day each week, but that means I have to commute from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on Mondays and Wednesdays. The trip's about an hour and a half each way, but that's also fine. In some ways, it's great, since I get plenty of exposure to daily life in Israel, beyond the somewhat touristy center of Jerusalem where I live.

The commute starts with a quick walk to the Jerusalem Light Rail. It's politically controversial, like everything in this city, but it's very convenient.

Boarding the train

Boarding the train

It's only a few stops to the central bus station where I catch the bus to Tel Aviv. I always seem to end up riding at the front of the train. There's a glass wall at the front that allows passengers to watch the driver at work, which I enjoy because I'm just an overgrown version of the child who made his mom take him to the Amtrak station to watch the trains.

Not pictured: my childlike glee

Not pictured: my childlike glee

After arriving at the central bus station, it's a quick trip through a security checkpoint and up the stairs to the boarding area for the direct bus to Tel Aviv. The bus runs every 15 minutes, so I rarely have to wait. The bus seats make Megabus look comfortable, and there's no bathroom or wi-fi, but I'm usually asleep within 30 seconds of departure so it doesn't really matter.

On the bus.

On the bus.

I wake up 40 minutes later as the bus exits the highway and pulls into the Tel Aviv central bus station. The Tel Aviv central bus station is a remarkable place: it's atrociously decrepit and remarkably unsuitable for its primary purpose, which is serving as a hub for buses, but it's become a hub of the refugee and migrant worker community in Tel Aviv. In addition to the expected coffee and falafel shops, you can walk by Filipino grocery stores and Eritrean barber shops as you make your way to the exit, and as you walk through on any given morning, it's likely that you'll hear Tigrinya, Tagalog, Thai, and Russian in addition to the expected Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

Inside the maze-like Central Bus Station

Inside the maze-like Central Bus Station

After navigating the Central Bus Station, only a 20 minute walk through South Tel Aviv separates me from Kav LaOved. South Tel Aviv is historically and currently one of the poorest parts of Israel. In the past, it's been home to waves of Jewish immigrants from the Arab world and the former Soviet Union. Currently, it's populated by migrant workers, primarily from South and Southeast Asia, and African asylum seekers. As is usual around the world, poor neighborhoods mean stigmatized businesses. Like this shop selling bootleg porn videos, amusingly under a Na Nach banner, a symbol of Jewish piety:

Of course, in a country dominated by Jews and Muslims, pork-selling butchers qualify as stigmatized businesses:

The Kingdom of Pork

The Kingdom of Pork

After the walk, it's a quick elevator ride into the offices of Kav LaOved. The offices are universally packed-thousands of people come every year, primarily to seek assistance in negotiating with their employers over violations of Israeli law related to wages and benefits. I find a corner in the conference room, take out my laptop, and work on grant proposals for a few hours before repeating the whole process in reverse.

See, I told you it's not that interesting.

A timely experience

So today was my first day working with the African refugee community in Israel. This is something I've been wanting to do since I arrived, and I'm glad it's finally happening. 

The issue of African refugees in Israel is a very interesting one, and it's one that gets remarkably little attention abroad given how important and present it is within Israel. Basically, in the mid-2000s, people from Eritrea and Sudan began traveling over land from their home countries into Israel. Members of both groups largely came seeking refuge from horrific persecution. Eritrea has been described as the "North Korea of Africa"; it's a closed society where most adults are forced into "national service" in the form of years-long periods of forced labor on behalf of the regime under penalty of incarceration or execution. The situation in Sudan is more well-known in America-many sources have described the treatment of black Sudanese by the Arab-controlled government as a genocide.

The land journey is arduous. The first step is paying a smuggler the equivalent of thousands of US dollars, an absolute fortune for residents of two of the poorest countries on Earth, to leave Eritrea or Sudan over land. If you're caught leaving Eritrea, you can be executed. Migrants who are able to leave are led through Egypt into the Sinai. Once in the Sinai, migrants run the risk of being kidnapped and held for ransom by members of local tribes. In order to coerce the ransom out of the family members and friends of migrants, the kidnappers often torture the migrants and send recordings to their families. (This American Life did an episode on this issue a few years ago.) Those who successfully navigate the Sinai have to cross the highly militarized Egypt-Israel border, where border guards are known to shoot at migrants. Despite these risks, nearly 60,000 migrants arrived in Israel between the mid-2000s and 2013, when Israel completed an expanded border wall.

The flow of migrants from Eritrea and Sudan hasn't stopped; instead, these people are now traveling overland to Libya and attempting to cross to Europe by boat. These are the African migrants that you hear about when their boat sinks in the Mediterranean.

Once in Israel, the situation of the migrants is not good. The Israeli government has responded to the migrants by construing them as illegal immigrants in search of work, rather than as refugees fleeing persecution. Under international law, the migrants can't be deported because they have a well-founded fear of persecution, so the government has given migrants temporary protected status. However, the migrants' visas do not allow them to work, attend school, or access the national health system. The prohibition on work is not being enforced for the time being, but this prohibition puts migrants in a very precarious position, because the requirement can be enforced again at any time. The prohibition also forces migrants into the informal labor sector, where abuse is rampant. Until 2013, migrants were not allowed to apply for refugee status in Israel. Since 2013, Israel has accepted claims for refugee status, but it has only granted 3 applications, out of 44,000 applications.

In an attempt to make the migrants leave, Israel has also opened an "open detention camp" called Holot. Under current law, migrants who entered before 2011 can be detained at any time and sent to the prison-like facility. They can be detained there for up to a year. Migrants may leave during the day, but they must return at night. Since the facility is in the middle of the desert, this opportunity is meaningless. The only alternative to Holot is the "voluntary departure" system. Under this program, migrants are paid $3,500 to return to their home countries or to other African countries, usually Rwanda or Uganda. Since this is allegedly voluntary, it complies with international law. Israel does nothing other than purchase a plane ticket and give money to these migrants; they don't get legal status in Rwanda or Uganda, so they once again risk deportation.

Right-wing politicians have demonized the migrants.  They've been described as a demographic threat to Israel's Jewish character, and been accused of spreading crime and disease. Migrants have been subjected to hate crimes: there have been instances in which migrants have been beaten by mobs, and the homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship that serve the migrant community have been firebombed. Recently, a migrant seen in proximity to a stabbing attack in Beer Sheva was shot and beaten to death by a mob, even though he was completely innocent.

So how do I fit into this? Yesterday, I went to a training on how to help migrants apply for refugee status in Canada. The application process can basically be thought of as the college or grad school application from hell (You can read the forms yourself; I assume that the US's forms are similar). If you're reading this, you've probably had the experience of completing one of those. You probably remember the experience of filling in all of the little boxes and triple-checking them, out of fear that an error would prevent you from achieving your goal. You probably remember attempting to distill the narrative of your life into a few short essays, agonizing over every word. You probably remember the process of acquiring and distributing transcripts, standardized test reports, and recommendation letters, spending hours dealing with various bureaucrats while trying to ensure that these documents get to where they need to be. Now imagine doing all of this, but more; more little boxes with demographic information, more essays, more supporting documentation. Of course, you're doing all this after surviving some horrific persecution and dealing with the unaddressed physical and psychological trauma that it produced. You're doing it while living under unpleasant circumstances in a refugee camp or without legal status in a third country. You're doing it in a language that's not your own. Pretty unpleasant-seeming, right? And, of course, the kicker: the goal of the application process isn't to end up at a college in your preferred city (or with your preferred level of prestige). You're literally applying for your life.

It's interesting that my inaugural first-hand experience with the refugee process came in a news cycle where the refugee process is the dominant political issue in the United States. Lots of people have written good things about how the rhetoric around Syrian refugees from the right is horrendous, and I don't need to rehash them here. I'd just like to ask those who demonize refugees and spread false information about the refugee process to think for a minute. Do a little research, maybe try to compare the refugee process to experiences you've had in your own life, as I've tried to do with the college application process here. That'll make things better for everyone involved.

For more on the situation of refugees in Israel, check out these links: