What’s God got to do with it?

For those of you who don’t watch the news regularly, Israel has been super stressful.  Between Hamas’s rocket launches, the Syrian refugee crisis brewing on our border, the Syrian civil war which you can hear from Israel’s north, plus earthquakes and the usual backdrop of yelling and frenetic bargaining.  There’s cool stuff here and beautiful nature, but let’s not kid ourselves- between all these problems plus recent homophobic and racist legislation, living in Israel is “lo pashut”.  It ain’t simple.

So many times people come here to “solve the conflict”.  The first question to them should be “what conflict?”  As in which one.  Between secular and Orthodox Jews?  Between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim?  Between LGBTs and the conservative religious establishment?  Between Arabs and Jews in Israel?  Between Israelis and Palestinians?  Between Druze and Muslims and Christians and Jews?  The religious conflicts or the ethnic ones?  The wealthy and the poor?  These are not “stam”, as we say in Hebrew.  They are not just the conflicts of every country.  They are a blend unique to here.  Israel has the widest gap in wealth among developed countries with the exception of the United States.  And a much higher rate of political violence and terrorism than any Western nation.

When I arrived to Israel, I came as a deeply religious Reform Jew.  I would never have called myself deeply religious (although some friends having jokingly called me ReFrum, a pun on the Yiddish word for “pious”), but most of my friends would say I’m pretty Jewish.  I’ve lived and loved Judaism since I was a young kid and discovered its heritage and magic.  And through many tough times, I’ve used that magic to try to pull me through and give me hope.  And many times, it did give me hope and a sense of community when I lacked one at home.

Although it’s taken me experiencing Israel to understand the limitations, even the disadvantages of religion.  Judaism and all faiths.  For religion to me is not something inherently bad (or inherently good).  The way you interpret religious text says at least as much about you as it does about the text itself.  Someone can look at the Bible, Torah, or Quran and come to radically different conclusions, some much more humane than others.

It’s also true that not all conflicts are about religion.  The Soviet Union was an atheist government (Russians today are still disproportionately not religious compared to the rest of the world).  And it still managed to butcher millions of people.  Atheists can manage to be quite violent and extremist- even orthodox in their rejection of faith.  A kind of new religion to supplant their old one.

What I’ve noticed in Israel is that religion is quite often a force for evil.  Not because religion itself has to be evil (although by definition it leaves some people in and some out).  It’s because in practice, it often leads to conflict.  While sociological factors often underlie what appear to be purely religious strife, it would be naive to pretend religious dogma plays no role.

Look at the main faiths here- the monotheists- Judaism, Islam, and Christian.  Each one has elements of humaneness and kindness.  Tzedakah, Sadaqa, charity.  Compassion for the weak, the stranger.  Even at times calls for varying degrees of religious pluralism.  And a repeated emphasis on being morally upright and treating your neighbor with respect.

At the same time, we need to be intellectually honest and recognize each of these faiths’ proclivity for exclusivity and superiority.  In Christianity and Islam, this revolves around recognizing the holiness of the main prophet (Jesus or Muhammad) and pursuing the conversion of all nonbelievers.  Sometimes this was done by sword, other times by incentive, but the final goal, even among the most pacifistic believers, is for everyone to believe in your religion.

In Judaism, the superiority plays out differently.  We are God’s “chosen people”.  Israel, our promised land.  These are birth rights.  For being Jewish.  If you want to join us, you can, but it’s quite hard.  It has always been.  And is increasingly so in Israel where the rabbinate veers far to the right of the Jewish mainstream.

In other words, the superiority argument in Judaism is an exclusive one.  It’s not that we want everyone to be like us- we’re explicitly not an evangelical religion (which I like).  The flip side, however, is that we’re quite an exclusive club.  It’s hard to join and harder to be accepted.  And we have a sense, at least among the religiously inclined, that God chose us, our language, our beliefs above all other peoples.  If you think I’m making this up, simply look at the aleynu prayer or Friday night kiddush.

There are progressive religious Jews who have, to varying degrees, changed the liturgy and how it’s taught to be more inclusive.  That’s cool.  The same could be said with certain Christian sects and a small but emerging community of Muslims.

Overall the same problem continues though.  These progressive-minded communities are, without a doubt, small small minorities in the scheme of world religions.  The vast majority of the world’s religions and religious people are against gay marriage.  Even progressive traditions struggle to incorporate women equally in religious leadership.  While you could say that there are cultural factors at work (understood), it’s also true that on these and other issues, “nonbelievers” far outperform their religious peers.

In the United States, the only religious group that is more supportive of gay marriage than non-theists is Buddhists.  Jews, interestingly, are not far behind, perhaps owing to their decidedly progressive religious tendencies compared to their Israeli brethren, where only 40% of the public believes we should accept homosexuality at all.  It’s worth noting that a large portion of American Jews are not religiously Jewish as well.

When I think of specific examples here, I have too many to choose from.  The Muslims who looked at me in disbelief when I said I had read the Quran (and not converted to Islam).  The Muslims who told me Arabic was the first language and all languages come from it (an absurd claim to make to a polyglot- that’s sacrilegious).  The Muslims who laughed at the idea that Jews had ever lived here.  The Muslims whose Facebook profiles were adorned with Palestinian flags, the Al-Aqsa mosque, and Islamist iconography.  Not to mention the one guy who had written Arabic posts mocking Holocaust Remembrance Day- that was a difficult one for me to confront, but confront it I did.  This Jew speaks Arabic.

Before you indulge yourself in bashing Muslims, let me tell you about the Jews who said the Torah *justifies* expelling refugees, even Arabs.  The Christians who told me not to waste time dialoguing with Muslims because they could give me a more “realistic” picture of what’s going on here.  Or the Christians who said Muslims are animals who breed entire tribes of children to take over the land.  Or the Druze man who cut off all contact with me when I told him I was gay- he threatened that if I didn’t do so, he’d cause me “problems”.  Not sure what those would be, but considering I travel a lot in Druze country, I wasn’t ready to take the risk to my safety.

Are secular or atheist people just as capable of hatred?  Perhaps- depends on the individual, religious or not.  In fact, some atheists can be just as orthodox in their certainty and thinking as any religious extremist.  Herein lies the danger.

It’s just that most of the world’s extremism and orthodox thinking is concentrated in religion and perhaps hardcore nationalism.  Of which there is a potent mix here among so many elements of society in many different directions.  Solving Israeli and Jewish nationalism by way of Palestinian nationalism, for instance, will do nothing but create more conflict and bloodshed.  And I do believe that in the end, most people, religious or not, really do want a good life.  Even if some of their beliefs are getting in the way of that.  Humans are nothing if not complex.  But I do have hope.

The point is religiosity is in the eye of the beholder.  We could argue that the examples I gave of egregious hatred are based on a selective reading of religious texts.  True.  But so is reading texts only looking for acts of kindness.  Conquest is written into the Bible, Torah, and Quran.  It is not a new phenomenon, nor one that religious people need to invent today.  The Crusades, the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and parts of Europe, and Isreal’s expansion into the depths of the West Bank (in some respects, its founding)- these are all rooted in long religious traditions.  We can say distorted, complex, for sure.  But eminently present.

In the end, religion can provide comfort, community, and hope.  It can, and does, mobilize some people for good.  Do I personally think it’s worth all the conflict it contributes to?  Maybe not.  What good is the continuation of Judaism if it becomes nothing more than a series of rituals devoid of ethical meaning?  What does Christianity mean when it is used to force gay youngsters into “conversion therapy”, and often suicide?  Why is Islam ultimately beneficial when it is used to massacre Yezidis, Christians, Jews, and others?  Even other Muslims who don’t agree with them?

It’s not because all religious people are like this.  Or that atheists are saints.  I’m not exactly sure where I fall myself.  I’d say that as I write this, perhaps I just don’t believe in God.  I believe in what uplifts the human spirit.  I believe in kindness.  And I don’t believe in divine retribution nor in the sacrosanct nature of a document so clearly written by humans thousands of years ago.  Which may contain some wisdom, but not exclusive authority nor the right to use it to butcher other human beings.

My overall point is that orthodox thinking, the idea that one set of value is always right- that is a problem.  Even if not all religious people end up overly protective of their sect’s interests (as opposed to those of humanity as a whole), the idea behind it is problematic.  When put into practice, religion more often than not divides people who could share other things in common.

Even though Judaism today in Israel is becoming more and more nationalistic and, with the state’s help, more uniform, it was not always this way.  What’s most perplexing about the degradation of religion in Israel is that Judaism was once the playground of questioners.  Of people who debated and divided and built energy off diversity.  So that whether you believed in the God of Abraham or not, the process itself was unique for its depth of heterodoxy.  And at times, its willingness to make room for dissent.  Moreso than any other religion of its time.

So one of the greatest casualties of religious conflict in Israel is not just the Filipino kids who will never get citizenship.  Nor the Sudanese refugees who will be deported.  Nor the Reform Jews who can’t pray together at the Western Wall.

It’s Judaism itself.  And perhaps, perhaps my belief in it.

The universe is full of possibility and I’m exploring.

It’s hard to be a Gay Jew

For those of you who haven’t been following the news lately, Israel has been a hot mess.  After I came back from vacation from Romania- a peaceful, mountain-filled vacation- I turned off the airplane mode on my phone.  And saw 200 Hamas rockets hit my friend’s Kibbutz near Gaza, that Netanyahu’s government had banned gay surrogacy, and that his friends in the Knesset passed a law downgrading Arabic and non-Jewish citizens.  Also, Israeli police arrested a liberal rabbi for performing a (non-legally-binding) wedding at 5am.  Befitting of some of our more theocratic neighbors- and perhaps more authentically Israeli than we’d care to admit.

In the course of just 48 hours, I felt like my entire identity was under attack.  As a Reform Jew, I can’t get married here with my rabbi.  As a gay person, I now have no affordable legal way to build a family.  And I can’t get legally married.  As an Arabic speaker and lover of Druze and Arab culture, I saw my identity and my friends under attack.  Somehow, the people doing the attacking- Netanyahu and his allies- somehow think they are the victim.  As if it’s 1939 and the entire world is out to get them.  While in the meantime, they are the ones sitting in positions of power, using that power to persecute innocent people.

The word for this phenomenon is “siege mentality”.  The idea, psychologically speaking, is that you feel the entire world is against you, so you act irrationally, refusing to see gray space, and delineate between “us” and “them”.  And boy you’d better hope you’re not a “them” because you become a living target.  For unbridled and illogical hatred.  We’re hardly the only society to experience this and it has a special intensity here.

That’s partially because siege mentality has deep roots.  Often in a combination of trauma (the Jewish people has had a lot of that), nationalistic feelings, and according to many studies, religiosity.  Not the kind of religiosity where you simply enjoy celebrating holidays and connecting with God.  But the kind of religiosity that bleeds exclusivism and at times paranoia.

As a PTSD survivor, I can relate.  On some level, siege mentality is about siege.  When you feel you’re under attack- as our people has been for centuries for no logical reason- you hunker down.  You put up walls to protect yourself.  Mentally mostly, since as a minority you often have no other recourse.  Though, as we see with time, some of these walls become quite visible and physically manifest.

What at one time was a useful skill to be able to protect ourselves has now become a liability.  Not because we have nothing to protect ourselves from- we traded 2,000 years of Christian persecution in Europe for some pretty rough neighbors.  Iran and Syria are hardly puppy dogs.  And you certainly can’t blame all their societies woes on us- though some people find creative anti-Semitic ways to do so.

What is harder to admit for those who engage in siege mentality paranoia is that sometimes they, we, you, me, people- do make mistakes.  That in fact, while the Palestinians have dangerous streaks of extremism, they are not the Nazis.  And not all of them want to kill us- even though some do.  That Arab citizens of Israel are by and large law-abiding citizens whose roots here often go back hundreds of years.  And that for every extremist among them, you can find dozens of productive, kind, responsible citizens.

Which leads me to today.  Today there was a Druze demonstration in Tel Aviv.  I went- anyone who has read my blog before knows I LOVE Druze 🙂 . The Druze are feeling increasingly angry with Prime Minister Netanyahu for relegating them (and other non-Jewish minorities) to a second class status.  Despite, in their case, having served in the military for 70 years- like any Jewish citizen.  Their loyalty to this country is not only being ignored by this government, it is being thrown in the trash.  A shame and a serious error.

The rally was invigorating.  Over 100,000 people crowded Rabin Square- for the first time I heard Arabic on the loudspeaker right in the center of Tel Aviv.  Since I spend a lot of time with Druze, I even bumped into two different Druze friends at the rally.  I stand with you my sisters and brothers- we will win.

Why has our Prime Minister, when facing *real* threats from Iran, Syria, and Hamas, decided to make the Druze our enemies?  Why has this government diminished and attacked Reform Judaism?  Why does this government deny basic human rights to the LGBTQ community and all non-Jewish minorities in this country?  Something, by the way, many Israelis like me are working to fix.  For ourselves and all who we love.

Because Prime Minister Netanyahu is living in a contorted fantasy.  More like a nightmare.  In which someone’s difference becomes a source of anxiety.  Rather than a challenge to overcome and learn from.  To build a better society.

Which leads me to the title of this blog.  I am a gay Jew.  Always have been.  Being one is not so easy- I’ve discussed it here many times before.  In the States, I often felt like the odd Jew out at LGBT events (not to mention that some are starting to ban Jewish pride flags).  And at many Jewish events, I was in the minority as a gay person.  Often while the singles meat market churned around me.  It was lonely at times.  And sometimes, worse.  I once had a guy dump me because I didn’t eat pork…I didn’t need to read between the lines because it wasn’t particularly subtle.

One of the challenges of being a gay Jew is that our identity pulls us in two very different directions.  Judaism, even in its liberal forms, is essentially about preservation.  It is conservative in the sense that it aims to keep our history and traditions alive.  And we know that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen on its own and we will disappear.  To become the next Akkadians or Shakers.

To be gay is not to invent an identity- we’ve been around forever, as ancient cave pictures show.  It is, however, in modern society, to be an innovative force.  Because our identity is crafted on top of the modern landscape and the people who most reliably support our freedom are the most innovative.  The progressives.  The people who are open to change- rather than focusing on conserving sometimes ineffective or outdated norms.

This is an internal conflict that’s hard to resolve.  Because the instinct to preserve and conserve can be quite repulsive to the progressive elements of society.  And our desire to feel accepted and change some aspects of our traditions to include us- that can deeply offend conservative sentiments.

This past week, I saw this play out.  Before going to Kabbalat Shabbat services, I saw a Facebook post in which a man described how a Jerusalem restaurant refused his friend service because he was gay.  Turns out, perhaps not by coincidence, that both Ben Rosen and his gay friend Sammy Kanter, are American rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College.  Fellow Reform Jews.  In Sammy’s case, a fellow gay Reform Jew.  In my experience, my movement, more than any other, strives to balance modernity and tradition and breeds some pretty amazingly self-confident queer people and allies.  We’re not perfect, but we’re the closest thing to a home that I have found as a gay Jew.  Who likes to conserve and innovate and feel welcome.

I contacted them immediately and have been helping them navigate the bizarre and chaotic world of Israeli politics, press, and advocacy.  They both- Ben as an ally an Sam as advocate- really impress me.  I sometimes miss the rambunctious and proud progressive Jewish queer identity that flourishes in America.  While here, I still encounter (even among some friends in my movement) a sense of deep unresolved sexual shame and conservatism.

I will continue helping them pursue justice.  Nobody deserves to be kicked out of a restaurant for who they are.  Anywhere.  In the meantime, please don’t frequent “Ben Yehuda 2” in Jerusalem.  They don’t deserve your business.

How does this tie together?  Sammy, if he were an oleh like me moving to this country, would probably live in Tel Aviv.  There aren’t a heck of a lot of Reform gay Jews in Jerusalem- for good reason.  It’s a deeply conservative city.

So why is he there?  He’s there, for a year, for the same reason I’m in Israel: we love our Judaism.  And for Jews, nowhere is more Jewish than Jerusalem- black hats or not.

So his desire to conserve his Judaism has landed him- and many gay Jews- in conflict with our queer identities.  Because where we wish to conserve and evolve, some people simply want a deep dive into a protective fortress.  An idea that Judaism never changes- even while their own practices demonstrate that it does.  And which has resulted in untold incitement against their queer brothers and sisters.  Including an article this week that called for us to be killed.

How do you bring folks out of that fortress or at least allow it a bit more room to breathe?  So that it can still be protective- and not necessarily the same as mine- and recognize that not everything they see as a threat is in fact dangerous.  That we have a powerful army and while some people wish us harm, not everyone does.  Least of all from within.

I don’t have a solution at hand.  Perhaps I can suggest to my friends on the far right (and occasionally those who live with this mentality on the far left) to find counterexamples.  Whenever I get nervous about a group of people, I try not to discount my fear, and I try to find some examples of people I feel safe with.  So when I just read an article about anti-Semitism in Romania, I recalled a woman there who asked me for klezmer groups because she likes Yiddish.  Doesn’t take away from the scary nature of persistent anti-Semitism.  And it does give me a nuanced perspective.  That makes me feel a little more relieved and better able to protect myself without isolating my mind from the world.

Whether it’s Sammy or the Druze or Arabs or anyone else- I’m not doing this for you.  Although of course I am- Sammy is a wonderful person who I’ve only talked to a few times, but already see his great courage and resilience.  And sense of humor.  And of course my experiences with Druze and other peoples inspire me to reach out and show some love.

But I’m not doing it for you.  And I’m not doing it for me.  Of course I am, because I’m a queer Reform Jewish Arabic speaker who values diversity.  So yeah, I am protecting myself and want a better life for me here where I feel safe and valued and equal.

But then who exactly am I doing this for?

Us.  Sammy, the Druze, me.  Us.  Because we share a bond, we share a love, we share identity, and together, we might not be able to defeat the siege mentality.  But we will certainly give it a shot.  Because sitting at home complaining, while justified and sometimes necessary, will not alone resolve this pain.

So grab my hand, and let’s give this a shot.  Because I don’t go down without a fight and a bit of hope that we won’t go down.

p.s.- the cover photo is of me with a Druze flag.  Which looks a lot like a pride flag.  So that’s awesome 🙂

The Aramaic-speaking gay Iraqi in Tel Aviv

Lately, living in Israel has kind of sucked.  My government has turned into some sort of slimy festering poop mobile, spurting out nothing but shit whenever it opens its mouth.  A law against gay surrogacy, a law against the Arabic language, a law against non-Jewish minorities, arresting a liberal rabbi for performing a marriage, the list is almost endless.  Also, there’s something about pollution in the Mediterranean which I haven’t had the time to read about.  Plus the normal pressures of life here- like Hamas rockets and Iran threatening to obliterate us.  Not to mention thousands of Syrian refugees crowding our border trying to escape their murderous government.  A government that makes ours look like sheep.

When things suck here (yes, they sometimes really do- and if you’re considering moving here, you should be ready for that), I try to think of what I like about this place.  Am I just insane or did I find something here that makes me stand in awe despite all the idiocy that surrounds me?

And a story came to mind.  A few months ago, I went clubbing.  I love to dance and need to more often, but I don’t go clubbing that much.  I’m 32, I don’t have a lot of friends who like to club, and it’s not like I feel up for it every weekend.  It’s energizing and it takes a lot of energy.

But one weekend I went.  In the club, I was very friendly.  It was a gay night and there were tons of cute guys!  I’ve been so busy doing everything here- learning about Israeli culture, making friends, exploring identity, finding housing, getting important healthcare, and sweating a lot- that I haven’t dedicated a lot of time to men.  Although I am single- so if you’re cute and smart and like an adventure, hit me up 😀

But this night I did go out.  And in the club there is this very cute guy.  Very typically Jewish looking- yes we come in all shapes and sizes, but I mean that kind of “I know you’re a Jew from a mile away” look.  Typically Semitic.

I go over to him and start dancing with him.  Turns out he’s from Germany.  Surprise number one.  Because I speak Yiddish, I could communicate with him.  I wondered if he was a German Jew.

But as I got to talking to him, the surprises kept coming.  He’s German, but actually Iraqi.  His family became refugees after the absurd American war in 2003.

What’s particularly strange is why he was in Tel Aviv.  At a gay club.

Iraq and Israel have no diplomatic relations, so I presume he entered on a German passport.

But why did he look so Semitic?  I mean Arabs are Semites, so I spoke to him in Arabic and he said he understood a little.  Huh.  So maybe because he was born in Germany?

No.  He was born in Iraq.  I asked what languages he spoke.  German, some English, and- prepare to be in awe- Aramaic.

Aramaic.  The language of the ancient Middle East, the Talmud, many Jewish prayers, Jesus Christ, yeah.  Aramaic.

I was so turned on.  Intellectually and yeah, the other kind too.

And guess what?

He’s gay!!!!

GAY!!!  An Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Christian German GAYYYYYYY.  The cute guy who looks like a Jew looks like a Jew because we’re from the same neck of the woods.  And boy would I like to be in HIS neck of the woods.

You might be thinking, well duh, he’s at a gay club.  But many straight people in Tel Aviv go to gay parties.  And all of his German friends with him were straight.  In fact he wasn’t even out to them, which is why I’ll use the Aramaic pseudonym Michel when talking about him.

It was simply some sort of Semitic gaydar that allowed me to connect with him.

He loves Tel Aviv and actually came back for Pride.  It’s probably the closest Michel can get to a queer Semitic vibe, as his homeland is plagued with homophobic violence.

For me, this story is nothing but romantic.  Ancient cultures, beautiful languages, the unexpected- combining in one thrilling moment in Tel Aviv.  You couldn’t have written a sexier story if you tried.  Israeli independent film doesn’t even have the imagination to concoct such a scenario.

And there we were.  One gay Aramean Christian, one gay American-Israeli Jew.  But at a certain point, the labels didn’t matter.  He was cute and we liked to dance.

So that night in Tel Aviv reminds me of the unexpected surprises and glorious nuggets of hope that lie in this land.  A land tortured by fanatical power-hungry idiots who unfortunately run it.  And the psychotic neighboring powers who torture us and their own peoples.

For one moment that night, all of that didn’t matter.  Because I was dancing at a gay club in Aramaic.  And the 21 year old Matt who downloaded his first Iraqi Aramaic song a decade ago was smiling ear to ear.

Sometimes I yearn for a calmer life- in America, abroad, traveling, or even elsewhere in Israel.  Who knows where I will roam.  What I know is this kind of night- that’s what makes this place special.

p.s.- the cover photo is a Syriac church in Jerusalem.  If you can’t read it, it’s because it’s in Aramaic 🙂

Tribes gone wild

This blog might sound a bit strange after I just wrote one celebrating my first year in Israel.  The reality of being in Israel, though, is that I find my emotions yo-yo on a daily, often hourly basis.  Things go from very bad to very good to bad again- sometimes minute to minute.  The shifts in mood are palpable- and far more frequent than I experience in any other country I’ve visited.

In the past week, Israel has experienced multiple earthquakes, hundreds of Hamas rocket attacks, Syrian refugees crowding the northern border desperately trying to escape their own government, settlers attacking Israeli soldiers, Haredim attacking young women for being “immodest”, the increasingly psychotic government refusing to give gay men the right to surrogacy.  And trying to pass a law that would allow communities to bar members of the basis of religion, race, sexuality, or any of a number of identities.  It was subsequently watered down, but still pretty bigoted, and now is successfully winding its way through the Knesset.

Through all of this, I’ve tried to speak out, mostly in Hebrew.  One, because that’s what most people speak here- people who follow these events and can influence them.  Also, because there’s a problem.  The far-left in America and Europe has made it nearly impossible for left-wing and centrist Israelis to successfully rally support for their causes or criticism.

Why?  Because there are people who are committed to our destruction.  Who are unceasingly and at times irrationally critical of Israel.  In a way they aren’t of other countries- or sometimes even their own.  One can even view the recent shenanigans of IfNotNow in this light.  A far-left American Jewish group who, in the face of serious global challenges like the Syrian Civil War or Hamas rocket attacks, has instead decided to disrupt Birthright trips for not being left-wing enough.  Ruining the Israel experiences of other young people because the trips aren’t tailored exactly to their tastes like the SweetGreen salads they custom order at lunch for $15.  Excuse my cynicism- I just don’t think that just because someone has come to political conclusions about the situation here (which is their right), that means they get to force an entire organization to adopt their stance.  No one is forcing them to take a free trip to Israel.  If you want to see Palestinian and Arab perspectives, all you have to do is extend your ticket and hop on a bus to Bethlehem.  It’s not complicated and it’s way less confrontational than aggravating a bunch of young people on a trip with an explicit purpose that they simply don’t like.  Stop acting like entitled children.  If you’re really serious about your beliefs, you can buy your own plane tickets.

When people like IfNotNow or groups even more extremist dedicated to destroying Israel harm us, it makes it much harder for those of us on the inside to enact beneficial change.  Because when we speak out about discrimination against gays, Arabs, foreign workers, or refugees- some of these extremists use it as an opportunity to say everyone here is rotten.  Which then gives ammunition to the far right here to silence us- we must be traitors, just like those troublemakers abroad.  It’s not true- but it has resonance in a country under attack with little taste for nuance.

So I’m going to try to offer some criticism of Israel- but understand it’s with the purpose of actually making change.  To help steer this community in a stronger direction.  Not simply to make noise and masturbate my ideology.  I can’t control if you’ll take my words and use them to hurt me.  Just know that I will use every bit of my being to stomp you out and protect us- with the same level of passion that I use to fix what’s wrong here.

So what is wrong here?  A lot.  The earthquakes I can’t do much about- God, stop punishing us, we’ve had enough.  The Hamas rockets- I’m exhausted with our patience.  The world sits silently, mostly unaware as the media ignores our fate.  If Western Liberals showed one tenth of the passion for our lives as they do for immigrant children (which is justified), then the rocket fire would be condemned from wall to wall.  And maybe even pressure Hamas to stop.  Now would be the time to speak up.  For moral reasons.  For Israeli lives.  Frankly, also for Palestinian lives- they’re going to suffer increasing pain as they pay the price for Hamas’s games.  And if you want to get practical, 300,000 American citizens live in Israel.  And we vote.  So if you want our support, show that you give a shit.

Now on to our idiotic government.  I’m not a reactionary far-left voter.  At times in the past, I frequented this space.  I still find some of the ideas important.  And I’d say, while I don’t fit into a box, I’m somewhere left-of-center or centrist in Israeli politics.  And I appreciate some ideas that come from the right- I’m not orthodox in my politics.  Nor in my synagogue, though I have davvened in Bnei Brak.

But this government is leading Israel off a cliff.  The latest Nationality Law seeks to enshrine discrimination in Israel’s Basic Laws- laws that are not exactly a constitution, but are incredibly hard to repeal.  While the law did innocuous things like recognize national holidays, the controversial aspects surrounded a downgrading of the status of Arabic, restrictions on where people can live, and antagonistic attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Jews abroad and at home.  With strong implications for Arabs, LGBTs, and other minority communities.  Until the text was altered, I had to live with the idea that I could be denied residence in a community for being Reform or gay- an almost unthinkable legal reality.  If sadly, the unspoken truth in many places in the world, even democracies.  Enshrining it in law certainly would have given malignant social practice a dangerous boost.

The saddest thing about this law is not the text itself.  Nor is it the future it could portend.  It is that it describes an existing reality.  I’ve traveled extensively in Israel- over 100 different communities in one year.  From every single possible linguistic, ethnic, and religious background.  Places few Israelis visit- Israelis who’ve lived here all their lives in insidious narcissistic bubbles.  Bubbles sometimes created by fear- sometimes even understandable because of that fear.  Bubbles nonetheless.

This is the greatest problem with the law- it makes explicit existing social practice.  Israel is a tribalistic nightmare.  It is filled with rich ancient cultures.  Cultures preserved through insistence on maintaining community and tradition.  In ways unseen in the West, where cultures meld into creative fusions and, if we’re honest, mostly oblivion.  I’ve met rather few Irish-Americans who speak Irish, and not a small number of 3rd generation Latinos who can’t speak Spanish.  The gift of America is its vibrant churn.  Its curse is the evaporation of cultural heritage.

In Israel, that heritage is preserved.  To shocking degrees.  There are Christians in the north who pray in Aramaic- some actually speak it.  Just like the Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem.  And every day Hasidic Jews study 2,000 year old texts in the very same language.  That Jesus spoke.

The problem is that this preservation, this conservation comes at a price: social understanding.  Israel is divided into tribes: secular, traditional, Orthodox, Haredi, Druze, Christian Arab, Muslim Arab.  Left-wing, right-wing, center.  With lines that occasionally are breached, for example by my friends who grew up Orthodox and are now Reform.  But this is by far the exception.  When people plant themselves here, they leave themselves little room to wiggle.  And often little curiosity to explore other pastures.

This is the greatest problem with Israel.  One I recognized half a year ago.  And I have even more evidence for now.  This isn’t a society.  It is a collection of societies.  That mostly don’t talk to each other and are largely content to avoid each other.  From every possible direction, lest someone pretend their tribe doesn’t follow this pattern.  I’ve met Druze who say they keep their Muslim minorities “under control”.  I’ve met Christians who say they keep their Muslim neighbors “in line”- and if there are problems, they’ll “take care of them”.  Muslims have used religion as a wedge against Christians in Nazareth, of all places.  It’s safe to say almost no Muslim villages here would be thrilled to see Jews moving in.  With the exception of welcoming Abu Ghosh, where a woman wanted to know why I didn’t want an apartment there.  Unfortunately, a woman from there was beaten by Jewish girls in Jerusalem for being Arab this week.  When it rains, it pours.   You can extrapolate the same patterns of voluntary segregation among all types of Jews- among themselves and towards Arabs.  Lest you think it’s only right-wing Jews who feel this way, I’ve never ever met an Arab who was allowed to live on a Kibbutz.  And they largely understand they won’t be allowed on a moshav, or village.  I’ve yet to see my wealthy friends in North Tel Aviv show interest in setting up an African refugee community in their neighborhood.

People here are generous- about giving directions, about hosting strangers, about feeding you, about giving advice.  And they are utterly selfish when it comes to defending the interests of their community above the dignity of the individual or, for that matter, the well-being of the nation.

If America is far too individualistic, Israel is far too communal.  With pluses and minuses in both directions.  I’ve noticed that not all societies are so extreme- my travels in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have revealed places somewhere in the middle.

Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel is what allows it to be a Jewish state.  The reckless, gung-ho attitude of its early pioneers, the native-born Sabras, is what allowed the state to get on its feet.

But those very pioneers contained a fatal contradiction.  Their disregard for rules, their utter contempt for the Diaspora and all things foreign- it has become limiting.  Because if you look at who can best contribute to the cultural dialogue here that could strengthen bonds and ease tensions- it’s people like me and thousands of olim who’ve chosen to make Israel our home.  People who, at our best, have the sensitivity of having been a minority, as well as the pride of choosing to make this our home.  People who know how to navigate various cultures and come with less preconceptions about different communities.  More often than not, understanding the value of pluralism, or at least the power of listening.  Something sabras struggle to do as they lecture us about how we’re wrong and they know better.  As the country they built rages with fire- fire from the outside, and fire kindled from within.

It’s high time the sabra realized he’s not the only fruit in the field.

p.s.- the cover photo is from a Druze village.  It says: “it’s my fault that I love my sect”.  A kind of Middle Eastern “sorry not sorry”.

I might vote Republican

Now that I’ve got your attention, listen closely.  I’ve spent many years working in Democratic and progressive politics.  As a gay rights activist, an immigrant rights advocate, on the Obama campaign and in his Administration.  As an individual, an organizer, and as a professional.  As you can read about here.

One year ago, I fulfilled my dream and made aliyah- moving to Israel and becoming a citizen in my homeland.  Here I’ve been active in helping refugees, rallying for LGBT adoption rights, dialoguing with Arabs and Palestinians, and more.  It’s a stressful place sometimes with rockets and fires and Iran and Hamas and earthquakes and pushy people on buses- but it’s my home and I love it.  It has a warmth and depth of experience I never felt in America.

Over the past year, I’ve watched from afar the horror film that has become American politics.  Left and right have become so incredibly polarized- I’ve seen relationships come apart and I myself have de-friended people due to hardcore anti-Israel hatred they shared.  While showing no empathy for us as Israelis.

While I can understand the inclination of my friends on the Left to double down on their ideology in the face of a loony and sometimes cruel president, they have alienated me.  I used to count myself among socialists, anarchists, progressives- you name it.  And some of their ideas are still relevant to me.  I value gay rights, women’s empowerment, diversity, and much more.  Areas where conservatives are struggling to understand- or in some cases, openly attacking.

And yet, liberal empathy seems to stop at what they agree with.  Ideological diversity is the one kind of diversity not celebrated, as campus speakers are shouted down and chased away.  “Shutting down” has become the norm.  A deep anger has overwhelmed the rational or moderating forces and has actually served to reinforce Donald Trump’s more problematic rhetoric.

For example, immigrants rights.  Recently, the Trump Administration separated immigrant children from their parents.  As I see it, an unnecessary act of showmanship that did nothing to really solve the complex problems of immigration.  And the only concrete result we can point to today is traumatized children.  And I will add a dimension of complexity to liberals’ understanding- I do think the parents bear some responsibility.  I can imagine you must feel desperate to escape your country if you’re willing to cross a desert with a smuggler.  Clearly the governments in these countries are failing their citizens if they feel so desperate.  I also think that as a parent, you bear responsibility for taking care of your children.  Not an easy question, but I don’t place 100% of the responsibility here on Donald Trump, even as I disagree with his approach.

This kind of balanced rhetoric is increasingly rare on social media and progressive media outlets.  The latest chant is “Abolish ICE”, the immigration enforcement agency.  I worked with ICE- not within the agency, but as a liaison when I served President Obama at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  Coming with a strong background in immigrant rights advocacy, I found many of the ICE staffers cold and heartless.  Maybe it was just my impression, but there was a toughness to them, whereas I was clearly coming from a place of wanting to help immigrants.

As I learned more about what they did, I realized there was more to the picture.  Yes, ICE is a problematic agency that sometimes harms immigrants.  Also, their policies are determined from above, not within- so the political leadership (both Democrats and Republicans) bear responsibility for their approach.

While ICE is of course responsible for deporting unauthorized immigrants, they also combat human trafficking.  They’ve saved countless immigrant lives by extricating them from forced sex work and abusive smugglers.  We can debate the contours of the immigration system (there are no easy answers- the country quotas are arcanely distributed, the effect on American economics is mixed, and it’s hard to predict what international events might drive migration).  But what’s clear to me is that human trafficking is bad and I’m glad ICE is combating it.  Also, some people commit heinous crimes who aren’t in America legally.  To the people advocating the abolition- rather than reform- of ICE- what’s your solution?  Rather than shooting from the hip (not to mention giving Republicans ample ammunition that you’re in fact for totally open borders), how about some constructive suggestions?  Abolish, demolish, destroy- but what do you stand for?

A similar tone has been taken with regards to Jews and Israel.  Progressive celebrities from Linda Sarsour to Tamika Mallory have reamed us.  The former has said “nothing is creepier than Zionism” (even as 350,000 people have been murdered in the Syrian Civil War) and that Israel supporters can’t be feminists.  She supports boycotting my country- but incidentally doesn’t boycott any of the dictatorships that plague the Middle East.  Ms. Mallory, friends with the famed anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, has a bizarre obsession with Israel, calling us an “apartheid state”.  She claims to be uniquely focused on our problems because we get aid from the U.S.- but so does authoritarian Egypt next door.  And I doubt she even knows where that is.

When it comes down to it, for not a small number of progressives, intersectionality belongs to everyone but the Jews.  Recently I faced immense pushback from some of them for suggesting that the Holocaust is not an appropriate metaphor for Trump’s treatment of immigrant children.  I made it clear I agreed that the policy was fraught and I was concerned for the children.  BUT, that the Holocaust is not the same thing.  They are both bad and quite different, even if they share several similarities.  My family was butchered by Nazis- Donald Trump, for all his zaniness and yes, many misguided policies (though not all)- has never butchered anyone.  The idea that America is headed for a Holocaust is detached from reality.  Particularly when my neighbors in Syria are literally experiencing mass murder and chemical attacks.  While American progressives say nary a word.  Or if they do, it’s “Hands off Syria”- something few Syrian citizens would appreciate.  They could use all our hands on deck- and perhaps even our military might to create no-fly zones.  It’s not an easy question, but I have noticed that Democrats in particular have shown great interest in helping Syrian refugees but little interest in helping them stay at home.

Person after person told me I was wrong.  That the Holocaust was a warning- that we all had to learn from it.  That it was appropriate to use it for political ends.  I suppose when they decided it was appropriate.  Rather than hearing from me, as a Jew, how I felt about them using my family’s tragedy.  There are Jews who lost family in the Holocaust who will disagree with me.  And I know they’re coming from a place of knowledge.  The Holocaust is relevant for everyone and there are lessons to learn.  But it does not belong to everyone.  For progressives so bent on avoiding “cultural appropriation”, apparently that concept doesn’t extend to Jews and our cultural memory.  I also am still waiting to see progressives invoking the Holocaust to help protect my country as Iran threatens to obliterate us.  But I’m not holding my breath.

In the end, many progressives like to invoke the Holocaust when it’s convenient.  Just like the far right uses it with abortion.  In the end, I feel my Jewish voice is silenced, disrespected, shown no consideration or even attacked.

While they debate what lessons to take from the Holocaust, I’ll tell you one that Israelis took away from our tragedy.  That we can count on no one but ourselves to protect us.  As Europe becomes increasingly engulfed in violent anti-Semitism from left and right, I look in fear as I see America heading the same way.  I wonder how long it will take before it gets that bad.  Of course I hope it won’t.  And every day I can hold my head up high in Israel is a gift worth protecting.

So why might I split my ticket this November?  Because no party in America represents me right now.  I love universal healthcare, I support diversity, I am queer, there are many reasons to love Democrats.  I also am a proud Israeli and am keenly aware that Republicans, both voters and representatives, support us much, much more.  This is my home.  I’m concerned about the vitriolic tone on both sides, and would welcome moderate and thoughtfully conservative Republicans to join the debate.  A debate which has increasingly retreated to self-affirming circles of woe.  Rather than a national conversation.

I’ve never voted Republican.  And this November, because of my eye-opening and textured experiences in Israel and the nasty tone of far too many Democrats- I just might.

As we say in Israel- we’ll be in touch.  I don’t know what I’m doing tonight, let alone in November.  Many things can happen, but there’s only one thing you can count on: I’ll be getting my ballot.  So if you want my vote and the vote of people like me, you’ll start opening your ears, not just your mouths.

p.s.- the picture is graffiti from Sderot, a city whose name you should learn.  They’ve been under Hamas rocket and fire attacks for years, even now.  I define who I am.

One year as an Israeli

Today, July 4th, marks my aliyahversary- one year since I hopped on a plane from New York to Tel Aviv and became an Israeli citizen.

It’s a day that will always be filled with great importance for me.  Making aliyah was not an experience- it was a life choice.  To tie my future to the future of the Jewish people in our homeland.  Fraught and fun, stressful and meaningful- that’s what it means.  It’s not to immigrate- I returned to my ancestors’ home.  To live amongst my people.  As the norm, as the majority, in the only place like it on the planet.  Not as a tolerated (or persecuted) minority- but as the people steering the ship.  With all the empowerment and responsibility that entails.  There’s really no other process like it in the world.

There are many ways I could have lived this year in Israel.  I looked into getting a full-time job here, I looked into grad school and rabbinical school, I looked into living on a kibbutz, I looked into living up North, I even considered doing some shepherding (I think I’m still gonna make that happen 😉 ).  Ultimately, I decided to continue doing my digital public relations freelancing.  Which gave me the opportunity to work from home (and the challenge of building a social network without in-country colleagues).

One of the best aspects of this was that I could travel.  One of the reasons I made aliyah was to see the world, and my homeland.  And boy did I.  I saw over 100 different Israeli cities, towns, and national parks.  All via public transit or hitchhiking.  While people abroad only see my country in terms of conflict, they are sorely missing out.  It’s by far the most gorgeous place on the planet.  Prettier than some Israelis even recognize.  Naturally beautiful, accessible by public transit, filled with ancient cultures and history, and one more very important thing: deep generosity.

Traveling in Israel, the way I travel, can be challenging.  I love it.  You have to navigate all sorts of cultures and politics- not to mention fluid schedules (this ain’t Switzerland) and new terrain.  I’ve gotten growled at by wild boars in the Galilee at midnight, I was chased around the Arab village of Tira by a crazy man only to get a ride to the bus stop from a basketball player who’s friends with a Jewish lawyer in Baltimore, I got evangelized in Spanish by a Mexican missionary who said I was going to hell for being Jewish, I tripped and fell in a forest and with a broken sandal and my knee bleeding hobbled on one shoe to a bus.  Only to have an awesome bus driver and 20 year old Arab law student chatter with me in Arabic as we drove through the mountains.

For every challenge here, there are been countless blessings.  When I was in the Druze village of Sajur, I visited an ancient rabbi’s tomb.  There were dozens of Hasidim praying.  The rabbi, a Vizhnitz Hasid, chatted with me.  Then gave me two beautiful books- one siddur and one book of songs for Shabbat.  The other day I was in the Christian village of Eilaboun.  And on two separate occasions, when I asked for water, old men in their 70s simply handed me gigantic bottles of their own.  In Tarshiha, an Arab village in the North, I stared at a house’s beautiful door.  The Bedouin woman comes out, gestures to me to come in, and plies me with coffee and sweets while she folds her laundry.  Her preferring to speak in Hebrew, me in Arabic.

I have been hosted- for free- countless times in Israel.  Sometimes by people I had never met.  Both overnight and for numerous Shabbat meals.  I was once on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and a young woman wondered aloud what she’d do if she missed the train to Haifa.  And the woman next to her said: “you’ll stay with me”.  They had never met.  I was heading to Haifa once for a trip and I had met a rabbi up there.  Literally for 20 minutes at a Shabbat in Tel Aviv.  I asked if I could crash with her- because that’s normal here- and she said: “I’m sorry I can’t host you because we made plans, would it be ok for you to stay with my parents?”  Would it be ok…yes. 🙂  And I did, and got fed incredible Iraqi food and awesome stories by her mom.

This blog would be endless if I recounted every act of incredible generosity in my country.  Druze who helped me hitchhike to a Christian village.  Where then I knocked on someone’s door to get into a church.  But the key was nowhere to be found.  So they invited me in to watch Christian prayers from Lebanon on TV and eat eat eat.  Or the Jewish man I met in a parking lot in Beit Jann, asked him where Rameh was, and simply told me to get in the car.  And took me.  I can’t even count how many times Christian Arabs have opened their village churches just for me.  Or how many mosques have let me film their prayers- from Abu Ghosh to Kfar Qasem to Kababir in Haifa.  And how many dozens of others I’ve visited in Tel Aviv, Yaffo, Akko, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Jisr Al-Zarqa, and more.  I know now proper etiquette in a mosque- from visiting them 🙂  I enjoy the call to prayer while I eat Georgian food in Yaffo.  It’s part of my life.

There are people here who look after me.  My Hasidic friend Yisrael in Bnei Brak who asked for my phone number to see how I’m doing.  Who always gives me a huge hug when I come to see him.  My Reform rabbis- all of them women- who nudge me, love me, and gently guilt me like good surrogate Jewish mothers.  And whose services (and mine- because here I lead them) fill me with song and love.  My Orthodox gay friend and his secular partner whose house I invite myself to for Shabbat.  Just like I do to my Iraqi neighbors.  Because not only is that acceptable here- it’s the norm.  Love is the norm.  Personal space and boundaries- that’s not how we do things here.  And you find, after some acclimating, that it’s better.  It fills you with warmth.  That sacrificing a little autonomy gets you a whole lot of community.

There are incredibly difficult moments in Israel.  Whoever wants to be Israeli- to choose to become Israeli- should think hard before doing so.  This year, I heard an air raid siren on my first day in my new apartment.  I stood in the stairwell and googled: “what to do in an air raid?”  On two separate occasions I had to deal with suspicious objects.  In one case, I was locked inside the library while it was diffused.  In another, the street was closed off.  And in both cases, the police, God bless them, were extraordinarily calm and professional.  Thank you for your service.

I’ve been racially profiled as Arab (which was awful- and I also understand why it’s not such a simple question).  I once took the bus to Jerusalem, heard about a terrorist attack along the way, and looked out the window to the see the name of the town it had just happened in.  I’ve witnessed the burnt fields of Sderot- crisped to blackness by Hamas terrorist fires.  And then got sushi with a friend who lives even closer to Gaza.  On Kibbutz Nahal Oz which has seen dozens of Hamas attacks recently.  And where she’s studying for final exams that will determine her professional future.

If you add to this the personal, bureaucratic, and cultural transition of building a life in a new country as a new citizen- boy it can be hard.  Especially arriving alone with no family.  If you’ve made aliyah and never cried, I don’t think you really did it.

But what you need to understand is that there’s a reason I live here.  And that, for the wild prejudice (in all directions), the terrorism, the predatory real estate market, the ideologies which sometimes spin out of control, and the very real tensions in my own neighborhood between refugees and veteran residents- the fact is Israel is where I feel at home.  People here exhibit an incredible generosity I have never seen anywhere else.  A sense of caring, responsibility, and even cohesion.  Much greater than you might expect from reading CNN.  People here- we- have a certain toughness to be able to get through the challenges of living in the most difficult neighborhood in the world.

And we also have an incredible ability to take those hardships and turn them into sweet sweet baklava.  This country is a country of survivors- of the Holocaust, of Arab expulsions of Jews, of the Soviet Union.  Arabs and Jews who’ve lived through many wars, cultural and familial separations, terror, and economic recessions.

What you find- and what I identify with as an abuse survivor healing from PTSD- is that people here know better than anywhere else how to move forward.  How to not only survive, but to take that pain endured and manage to build something.  To become sweet in spite of it all.  So that unlike in America where every tweet becomes a news story for a week, in Israel, we just don’t have the time or care.  We’re too busy living our lives and being in the moment to stew in it.

And living in such a generous and warm culture has fostered my own compassion.  So that when I see a woman eating grapes off the ground, I give her thirty shekels and tell her to get a real meal.  When I see a 15 year old Filipina girl working day and night, I tell her I’m going to take her on an excursion to relax.  And she lights up with excitement.  When I meet a lone soldier on a bus who was celebrating his birthday alone, I take him out to baklava and invite him to spend the night.  When I meet an American Christian in Jerusalem who’s coming to visit Tel Aviv, I invited him to do likewise.  The same day.  And last night, when I saw a homeless man in my neighborhood sleeping on a bench, I bought him rugelach and sat it next to him.

Because living in Israel is not always sweet- but you can choose to be.  And I find most Israelis do.  Once you peel back the tough exterior- the gentleness, kindness, and warmth beneath far exceeds anything I had ever experienced before.  Becoming Israeli has given me a place to be more generous, has taught me to appreciate people from all walks of life and ways of thinking, and has helped me grow into a stronger and balanced person.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me make this transition and grow.  My friends I made on the plane while making aliyah- who I’m still friends with.  My Reform community.  My neighbors.  My friends at my local Kosher sushi restaurant, who have become like family.  The people of every background who have supported me, fed me, and encouraged me.  Who’ve given me countless opportunities to speak the beautiful languages of this land.  My American friends who from many times zones away made an effort to keep in touch and showed they cared.  Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates American aliyah, for making the process as smooth as possible.  For answering dozens of questions.  For being there both before and after my landing.  For helping me feel like I had a place to call on when I needed help.  Like when my AirBnB fell through, I got food poisoning, and you showed up on my doorstep with food 🙂 .  Ein aleychem- you rock.  Misrad Haklitah and the Israelis whose tax dollars funded my transition- thank you.  I’m absorbed- by your kindness and by our country.  Especially my fabulous aliyah counselor Lauren who talks with me about everything from bureaucracy to cute guys- and always puts a smile on my face.

Aliyah, for those who don’t know, is the Hebrew word that describes when a Jew like me returns to Israel and becomes a citizen.  It literally means “rising up”.  The idea being that moving back to Israel elevates your spirit and is a process by which you grow.

Nothing could be more true.  While I feel I’m quite thoroughly absorbed into Israeli society, I will always keep rising.  There are new places to go, people to meet, experiences to have.  You can never finish exploring this country- or loving it.

What I can say is I arrived as an oleh, and now I’m Israeli.  Because today when I met a young American and helped him find the right bus, he said: “you have really good English”.

I made it.

The main difference between Israel and America

No it’s not the fried chicken (everywhere in America, ehhh in Israel).  Nor the hummus (America’s is a joke).  Nor the Middle East conflict (yeah, America doesn’t have one of those, at least not at home).  Nor our dancing skills (sorry Israel, Americans are pretty good).

It’s one word: generosity.

Before I dig in, of course Americans can be generous.  Many are.  Americans have high levels of volunteerism and some have done truly heroic acts of altruism.

But there is a difference.  America is a society founded on individualism.  Individual aspirations trump almost all other considerations.  The realization of your dreams- your career, your family, your you- that takes first priority.  In America, people ask kids: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  Not “how do you want to be?”

While some groups have found safe haven in America- Catholics in colonial Maryland, Jews fleeing pogroms, Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war- the overarching theme of migration is the American Dream.  And the American Dream is $$$.  It is to strike gold, to build a career, to win the lottery, to work hard, to buy a house with a nice lawn.  Even to send money back to the motherland.  Whatever the shape it takes, money- even when understandable- plays a huge role in the American psyche.  As the largest and most powerful country in the world, with the most capital, how could it not.

It’s worth reminding Americans that this is not how most of the world thinks.  While I hardly begrudge someone their success- and I admire the dynamism of American entrepreneurs- I’ve learned in Israel that this is hardly the most important thing in life.

In Israel, you can flip almost every American social norm on its head.  Here, you can go into any restaurant and charge your phone and get free water- the latter, by law.  And without buying a thing.  In a desert country with water shortages.  In fact, the offer to pay for it would be seen as strange, unnecessary, maybe even insulting.  Why would you give me 5 shekels to charge your phone?  Do you think I’m stingy?  Israelis love to help and the idea that help should come at a financial cost, as a transaction, is disturbing to us.  It’s not that we never charge for things- we have a dynamic if not as wealthy economy.  It’s just that this business-like approach to life starts and stops at the office.  One of the reasons we don’t say “please” and “thank you thank you thank you” all the time is because it’s not necessary.  Help is not given because it deserves beatification.  It’s given because that’s how we live.

Before my American friends get defensive, let me give some concrete examples.  My friend Yarden worked at American Jewish summer camps.  She noticed that when a kid opened a bag of chips, the chips were for him.  If someone else wanted one, they had to ask- it was understood that he bought the chips, he received them, they were his.  In Israel, I worked at a summer camp years ago.  I remember being astonished that a group of 10 kids would share one water bottle.  Eww!  This is unsanitary.  Sure enough, the kids did get sick.  But guess what?  They also learned to share.  In Israel, when a kid opens a bag of chips, the chips are everyone’s.  And they dig in.

On the bus, people have asked me for my candy- and I’ve given it without second thought.  And on the train last week, a guy was trying to give his girlfriend candy, which she refused.  So I turned to him and said: “if she won’t have it, I will”.  And he happily gave me it.

My friend Dalia is a Reform rabbi in Haifa.  I met her at a Shabbat service in Tel Aviv, we talked for about 20 minutes.  A good chat 🙂  Days later, I was headed to Haifa and asked if I could stay with her.  Because that’s how things work here.  She apologized: “I wish I could host you, but my husband and I have plans.  Would it be okay if you stayed with my parents?”  Would it be okay?  Yes.  It was quite fine- her mom force-fed me homemade Iraqi kubbeh, talked with me about her Arabic class, and shared with me all her thoughts on Israeli politics.  I then went to my private air conditioned room.  I had never met her before and I felt totally at home.

I could tell you story after story- but I have thousands of them.  These are not unique stories- not to me, and not to other Israelis.  Generosity and a sense of community are paramount here- no one would even think to question them.  The idea that your self takes precedence over the well-being of your family- your nation- is a strange one here.  In America, there’s a sense that by realizing your aspirations, you are strengthening everyone.  Here, there’s a sense that your aspiration is never above the well-being of your neighbor.  Jew and Arab- this is the norm.  I’ve traveled to one hundred cities and towns here in a year- of every religion and culture- I would know.

While America was founded on rugged individualism (which has its advantages when it comes to individual rights), Israel was founded on community first.  The kibbutz, the original style of Israeli settlement, was a commune.  And to this day, even on the ones that have left the socialist model for a hybrid privatized one, the sense of communal identity is strong.  People in Israel of all backgrounds are very proud of their communities.  Many think the idea of moving an hour away is ridiculous.  They’d be too far from their friends and family.  The idea of moving from New York to California is an absurd one for most Israelis.  You’re going to see your family twice a year?  Here, that’s not a relationship.  I once met a Bedouin woman who lived 20 minutes from her brother in another village, and she hated visiting there, because it was far and not as nice.  20 minutes.  Pride of place.

Here the sense of community attracts people from all over the world.  It’s worth noting most Jews end up here as refugees.  Quite a different dream than a picket fence and a thick wallet.  As they say, if you want to make a small fortune in Israel, arrive with a large one.  Until the past two decades, the Israeli economy was a lot more third world than first.  And even now, salaries are much lower than America despite being quite an expensive place to live.  In short, nobody comes to Israel to get rich.

And the ethos reflects this.  The dream, at least as far as Jews go, is to live in a state where we control our destiny.  Our self-realization comes about by way of communal self-realization.  And whatever we do- whether it’s high tech or working with kids- we are taught that giving back is not really giving back.  It’s giving to ourselves, to each other, to us.  It’s a mitzvah.

I remember a friend in middle school saying there was no such thing as altruism because people still did it for some sort of personal satisfaction or gain.  Even if it was praise from someone.  While we can debate the merits of this (I just met with Sderot firefighters fighting Hamas blazes- I can’t imagine their salaries compensate for the fact they might lose their lives any day), I’d argue even if she’s right, she’s wrong.  Because in Israel, by making self-realization and communal realization synonymous, everything we do here benefits us both as individuals and as a society.  And it blurs the lines between those distinctions.  I once had a lawyer, a friend of my rabbi, who I had never met and still never have, review 3-4 long leases for me for free.  And other than a thank you, expected nothing.  It could have cost hundreds of dollars.  But what to most Americans would seem like an extreme act of generosity worthy of praise and praise (and reminders of how much it cost), to an Israeli seems so normal that such over-the-top exclamations seem excessive, even fake.  As I had to explain to a German guy who came to Israel to apologize to his forlorn lover- and wanted to give him money as an apology.  Not going to work here…

In other words, when an Israeli is generous, it doesn’t have to be self-less because it is helping our entire people.  In fact, by definition it is self-full- but not self-ish.  By pursuing our dreams, by sharing with one another, by loving each other- we are lifting all of us up including ourselves, for we are part of a collective.  Which succeeds when all its members, like a kibbutz, contribute in a sense of communal caring.

The other day I met the most fantastic Americans.  My friend Harry is a lone soldier from New Jersey.  He’s an an American Jew- now Israeli- who volunteered for the Israeli military with no family here and under no obligation to do so.  I met him on a bus a few months ago while he was trying to pick up a girl in his American-accented Hebrew.  Turns out it was his birthday, so I took him out to baklava and let him stay with me- that night.  And whenever the hell he wants.

He then invited me to stay in his room at a kibbutz up north, where he and other lone soldiers from the States stay when they’re off duty.  Which I did this past week.  Harry was not there, but his friends were.  Young, 20-something American Jews who made aliyah like me.  And volunteered to serve in our defense forces.  To work crazy hours, to sleep on beds without linens, to charge up hills, to barely sleep, to get yelled at in Hebrew- and to put their lives on the line for my ability, for our ability, to live safely as Israelis.  Surrounded as we are by Islamic terrorists of all sorts of stripes.

Maybe there’s no such thing as pure altruism, as my friend suggested.  My soldier friends get a sense of purpose, a great work out, life skills, and more from their experience.  And they also get from me a room in Tel Aviv and a fun night of food touring whenever the hell they want.  Because they are my brothers and sisters.  Like all Israelis.  Especially them.  Because the point is the benefit they’re getting from this experience benefits all of us- and shows courage, kindness, and a willingness to sacrifice.  Things you can’t quantify, but you can feel as my heart pulsates at the joy of seeing them laugh.  Even as I know they may go to war all too soon, just to keep our dream alive.

In Israel, we don’t really debate the nature of altruism nor of self-realization.  We don’t really have time.  We’ve got bigger things to care about.  We simply try to do what’s right.  Whether it’s to our individual advantage or not.  Towards a Jew or not, towards an Israeli or not.  It’s how we live.

When I made aliyah, I left America behind.  Especially living in Washington, D.C., perhaps the least altruistic place in America, I felt angry and ready to leave.  Unsure if I’d even come back and visit.

What I didn’t expect was to find my favorite Americans here.  Young people, like me or like the lone soldiers, who ventured out and tried something new.  Something not for your resume or your mortgage application.  Not for you- but for us.  For good.  To serve in the military, to build a new life, to explore.  As I’ve done with my blog which now helps thousands of people, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia to experience and understand Israel.  And I love writing and exploring- I feel satisfied and I help my community.  We grow and appreciate the hope that surrounds us.

Maybe the reason Americans live in angst about their futures is because they’re asking themselves the wrong question.

It’s not “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  It’s “Amir- share your potato chips”.

p.s.- the cover photo is from a store I found in Italy that sold American junk food.  I bought special Skittles we don’t have in Israel 😉