The Israeli solution to COVID

The past few months have been a mess in many respects.  I don’t need to be another person to tell you about the massive amount of death, of political idiocy, and economic disaster.  You know it- you’re living it with me.

Coronavirus is tiring.  Not just the news (which I have limited myself to viewing one day a week).  It’s the seeing little children wearing masks.  It’s the hour I spend wiping down my groceries.  It’s the fear I feel when there’s a leak in my apartment.  Not from the leak itself, but from the fact that building maintenance will have to come and how will I keep my social distance.  Will they be wearing a mask?  Will I have to disinfect my (soaking wet) couch that they moved since they touched it?  Can I even disinfect a couch?

It’s the endless litany of questions you ask yourself every day to stay safe but still build a life worth living.  Balancing that need for safety with the desire to see friends, to go outside, to live in a lively way at a time when there is so much pain and fear.  When you find yourself avoiding people on the sidewalk as if they were the plague itself.  Because what if…

In a lot of ways, America has proven utterly inept at responding to this crisis.  Our fierce independence and distrust of authority, which helped us create this country, become liabilities when communal responsibility is required to survive.

This push and pull between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, libertarian and communal that can be a source of creative tension.  Or destruction.  It lends itself to an interesting question.  How honest are Americans as they have this debate and what does it have to do with COVID-19?

Having lived in Israel, one of the most common tropes I heard about Americans was that we were fake.  That when we asked “how are you?” we didn’t expect a real answer.  I often found myself pushing against this notion, because clearly Americans are a diverse lot, capable of being as fake or authentic as everyone else.

And yet as I watch people coping with the COVID-19 crisis here, I can’t help but think there’s a grain of truth to this Israeli stereotype.  Because the expected answer to “how are you?” in American culture is “I’m fine, thanks”.  Which is not an answer.  It’s a lie.  Especially at a time like this- nobody’s fine.  Some days might be good, some days might be shitty.  But none of them are just fine.  Well and swell.  It’s just not real.

My question is as we debate the political and social ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis here, could we learn something from Israeli directness?  Could we, instead of packaging our comments in “please” and “thank you” just drop the charade and let ourselves be angry, be sad, be surprisingly happy in the face of it all.  Whatever we’re actually feeling.  And share that with those who agree with us- and yes, with those who don’t.

It’s not because I live in a dream world where I think emotional honesty will all by itself heal the rift tearing our country apart, as Democrats and Republicans fall ever deeper into ideological pits harder and harder to climb out of.  Nor does it mean assigning the blame 50-50 to each side.  Hardly- I’m a Democrat and I think 95% of the irresponsible political behavior over the past few months has to be owned by Donald Trump and Republican governors disregarding public health experts by opening their states too soon.  I also believe all of us have ideological biases and gaps in our logic.

But see that’s the thing- I was honest.  I didn’t sugarcoat.  And it doesn’t make me any less willing to engage with (or want to persuade) someone who disagrees.  I didn’t take my ball and go home.  Because what I learned in Israel is you can be direct and respectful.  That being upfront about our personal emotions and opinions can do good not only for ourselves, but perhaps for society.  It’s not easy at first, but once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back.

Back to the “I’m fine, thanks!” era.  That era is over.  Thank God.  The new one is up to us to define.  May we do it wisely.

The man from Eilaboun

The past month has been stressful.  Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m not alone in coping with this stress.  The whole world is suffering.  Quarantines, layoffs, sickness, death- it’s nauseating and depressing.  I’ve given up on reading the news, except for my favorite site.  I mostly count on my mom to filter in the information I actually need to know to protect myself.  We’re living in, if not unprecedented, then supremely strange and difficult times.

So how do we respond to such confusion and chaos?  Pain and suffering?

The answer lies in some happier times I experienced.

One day I found myself on a bus from Tel Aviv headed northward.  I had long wanted to visit the Christian Arab town of Eilaboun.  It is absolutely stunning in beauty.

The town is surrounded by orchards and olive trees.  The scenery didn’t disappoint.  But just as importantly, neither did the people.  When I knocked on someone’s door to see if I could visit the church, the elderly gentleman was quick to not only open the building, but also to be my tour guide.  The tiny building was beautifully decorated. And I got to go on the roof and see where the old man had, as a child, been the one responsible for ringing the church bells.  He regaled me with stories of his naughty childhood antics- he was such a sweet man.

After having visited the church, I decided to roam the fields a bit- I like doing that kind of thing.  Just communing with nature and being in touch with my surroundings in a way that was hard to do in Tel Aviv except when I’d go to the shore.

Suddenly, as has happened to me a few times on my travels, I found myself a bit too long in the bright Middle Eastern sun and my water was running dangerously low.  With no store in sight, I wasn’t sure what to do.  It’s not exactly like there’s a cab waiting alongside an olive grove that you can hail.

Starting to get a bit worried, I came upon another elderly man.  This man was working by his shed in the fields.  He must’ve been at least 75.  I greeted him in Arabic and told him I was trying to find water.  I noticed he had a large two-liter bottle next to him.  He reached for it.  I figured he’s pour me a cup – he had some.  And that, to quote the spirit of our recent Passover holiday, would have been enough.

Instead, he handed me the whole bottle.  Without hesitation, without asking where I was from, who I was, what I was doing wandering an olive grove.  No questions.  Just handed me the bottle.

I was shocked.  I had seen tremendous generosity in Israel but this was a new record.  I asked him if he was absolutely sure he could part with the water.  And he insisted I take it.

In the Middle East, water isn’t a fun thing to sprinkle on your plants or to fill a bathtub with or to fill pools with in every neighborhood.  It is a precious commodity.  It is quite simply life.

So as we’re faced with our own societal drought- a drought of reason, a drought of compassion, a drought of knowledge to combat a disease we know precious little about.  Focus on what we do know.  And what we can do.  And what we can do is share our bottles.  Since we can’t hand someone a drink, find another way to contribute.  Call a friend.  Teach someone a new skill.  Help your neighbor navigate the unemployment system.  And even as we all ask for help ourselves – and rightly so – be sure to find your water bottle and give it away.  Like the man in Eilaboun did for me.

Because that’s the reason I’m sitting here typing this blog.

From a former die-hard Bernie supporter

As I’m sure all of you know by now, if nothing else because of the surge of ads, the Democratic primary is underway.

Among the slew of Democrats who have competed (and the not-so-small number still competing), each candidate has his or her strengths and flaws.  Personally, I’ll be happy to have anyone new in the White House who is a functioning adult and doesn’t make foreign policy via Twitter.

That being said, not all of the candidates are equal in my mind.

But first, a bit of context.  In 2008, I worked on the Obama Campaign and was a pledged delegate for him at the Democratic National Convention.  In 2016, I not only voted for Bernie Sanders, I held a house party for the campaign.  I became so upset with the party’s treatment of him that I (albeit in the very safe blue state of Maryland) voted for the Green Party in the general election.

This time around, I feel different.

It’s not because Bernie doesn’t have some good policies.  His approach to higher education and healthcare is correct and would put us in the same category as Israel or most Western European countries.  It’s a crying shame that there are un- and under-insured people in this country.  And if countries with fractions of our GDP can do it, so can we.  It’s time to stop pretending we’re so different from the rest of the world that it just “couldn’t be done” here.  It can- and should.

That being said, especially after having spent time in Israel, there is something grating about the way Bernie talks about the world.  It’s so utterly black-and-white in its approach, when the world is shaded in so many hues of gray.

It’s the half-Norwegian half-Persian Jew who celebrates Passover with smoked fish and steaming kabobs.  It’s the Bedouin man who married a Jewish woman who converted to Islam but are raising their kids Jewish- with Arabic spoken at home, and Hebrew at school.  It’s the far right-wing man I saw on TV saying he’d vote for Lucy Aharish, an Arab TV celebrity, for Prime Minister.  It’s the Hasidic Jew I met who fixed my cell phone!  And will almost certainly go to the voting booth to vote for the most homophobic party in the Knesset.  Meanwhile, I bought him dinner.

Life, my friends, is not simple.  And while sometimes there are clear victims and perpetrators, oftentimes, especially when talking about masses of people, it’s not so simple.  The Palestinian kid in the refugee camp is not the Hamas leader launching rockets, nor is the Israeli settler attacking Palestinian farmers the same as the settler who engages in peaceful dialogue with his or her neighbors.  Because yes, settler-Palestinian dialogue is a thing.

But much as Bernie boils down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days to a matter of a lofty giant trouncing a powerless foe, he does so with pretty much every issue he can talk about.  I’m not a particular fan of the way wealth is distributed in our society, but I also would like to lose the “millionaires and billionaires” line he constantly repeats.  It’s old and it’s not going to move us forward.

And what it also won’t do is attract a single centrist Democrat or Republican vote when ultimately a (theoretical) President Sanders has to actually pass legislation, rather than just give a rowdy stump speech.

Again, I’ll be happy if anyone can begin to bring order after what has been perhaps the most chaotic and unruly presidency we’ve seen in my lifetime.  If the person to bring that order is President Sanders, then the people will have spoken.

But my hunch is that if he’s the nominee, the people will look at Trump and Sanders and millions will vote with their feet and stay home.  That’s not my plan- I’ll vote for Bernie if that’s what’s on the menu.  But don’t get me wrong- I think it’s a mistake to nominate him and I think that he jeopardizes the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House.  And we’d do well to nominate someone a bit more nuanced and a little less angry.

Just some thoughts from a former “Bernie or bust” kind of guy 🙂

A Jew and a Syrian refugee in Cyprus

Today, the White House released its long-awaited “peace plan”.  It’s also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  And on top of that, impeachment proceedings continue to plod along in the Senate.  It would be what you’d call a heavy news day, at least if you’re following my particular Facebook feed.

The barrage of information, even sometimes important and valuable information, can leave me feeling hopeless.  Hopeless because sometimes it’s just too much to hold in one person’s body and not feel out of control.  Like the world is spinning, I’m meant to be “aware” of everything, and as one individual, I get little say.

So here’s a short story about how we can all make a little difference without being glued to the news- or social media.

I found myself about three years ago in need of a vacation.  Having not long ago moved to Israel, I was exhausted.  The process of getting adjusted to Israeli culture, bureaucracy, housing, and bureaucracy (yes, that deserves two mentions) left me feeling exhausted.  I needed a break.  A moment to celebrate my accomplishments in moving halfway around the world.  And also a chance to breathe in another culture that I had long been interested in.

I hopped on a $24 flight (yes, that’s not missing a zero, I paid as much for dinner the other night) and went to Cyprus!  The Greek part.  Because Cyprus, like Israel, has a Green Line and its own conflict with a Turkish-occupied region in the north.

Cyprus is a beautiful island.  In December, around Christmastime when I was there, the island was almost empty of tourists.  Which is odd because it’s reasonably warm and its crystalline waters even attract Russian bathers used to the frigid north.

The country is filled with ancient history alongside modern street art.  Paphos, where I stayed, reminds me a lot of Israel, or at least some hybrid of Tel Aviv’s hipster Florentine neighborhood mixed with the Roman ruins of Caesarea.

I stayed in a tiny hostel in the center of Paphos, the ancient capital of the island.  One day, I found myself hiking up a street on the outskirts of town.  A woman in a hijab approached me.  Speaking broken Greek (about my level!), she kept asking about a grocery store.  I tried my Arabic, and turns out she was Syrian.

When I spoke Arabic, her eyes lit up.  Not only because we could now communicate, but because we spoke the same Arabic- Syrian.  Turns out she was asking directions to a grocery store and I had no idea where it was.  I found a local clerk who spoke English and translated between them to get directions to the Halal store.

The woman was elated.  She, along with her three children, were alone in Cyprus.  Her husband had been killed by the Assad regime in Syria, in what is truly a sort of modern-day Holocaust since today is about remembering.

She asked if I could come to the store with her.  I asked if she was worried she’d get lost, but I could tell by the way she hesitated that what she needed was money.  She had no job and they were barely subsisting on this new island away from their home.  Trying to build a new one.

I didn’t have much.  Once I took out my bus fare, I had 20 Euros left, so I handed them to her.  She asked me where I was from and I said “I’m Jewish, I live in Tel Aviv- I’m from Israel”.  She was surprised but not an iota less grateful.

As I walked along the road, I bid them goodbye.  They kept waving, shouting ma3 assalameh, shoukran- goodbye, thank you.  Over and over before I headed my way and they headed theirs.

It breaks my heart.  I wish I could’ve given them so many things- residency, a job, their dead family members back, enough money to build a life.  A clock that could wind back time and bring them back to the home they once knew.

But I couldn’t do that- none of it.  So rather than drowning myself in sorrow or a constant news feed of the world’s troubles, I just took 10 minutes and tried to be human.  To show a bit of compassion to make someone else’s day better.  What countless people do for me.

To those friends I know- and those I don’t- that have helped me make my sojourn better: thank you.

And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the days ups and downs and the latest news cycle, don’t give up.  Gently pull yourself away and remember this story.  Because I have a feeling, or maybe just a hope, that that woman’s family is giving someone else directions now.

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A gay Reform ally for Haredim

To say my identity puts me on the other end of the Jewish spectrum from ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) communities is an understatement.  Reform Jews are seen by many in the Haredi world at best as misguided and at worst, ideological enemies.  And gay people, well, are seen as much worse.  Not every Haredi person is a homophobe.  I’ve met some, including through my blog, who see themselves as allies or in the case of one secret Facebook group I’m in, as gay themselves.  And yet a tremendous number of Haredi Jews condemn homosexuality in the most severe terms, making it nearly impossible for someone in their community to come out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, let alone come out of the closet as queer.  Something which is slowly but hopefully changing for the better.

I share these observations not just from my intuition or news articles, but from lived experience.  Among all my progressive Jewish friends, I have by far spent the most time in Haredi communities.  To the extent where I have two “go-to” restaurants in Bnei Brak, including one where I get the greatest hugs.  I have explored the largest Haredi city in the world many times, and even found things to like.  I even met Hasidim who watch Game of Thrones and boxing on YouTube.  And more perplexingly, actually met Bedouin and chatted in Arabic on the streets of the world’s largest shtetl.

My adventures have taken me outside Bnei Brak as well, including to a cave of Lithuanian misnagdim in Tsfat, a conversation about marijuana and gay identity in Modi’in Illit,  I’ve visited Haredi communities in Boro Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Antwerp, Me’ah Shearim, and more.

The adventures sometimes go well and sometimes don’t.  I once told a Breslover Hasid I was Reform and it didn’t register even the slightest expression of disapproval.  I once told a Yiddish teacher I was Reform and he berated me- during the lesson I was paying for.  I rarely have felt at ease as a gay person and often felt the need to be closeted when entering this community, which made me deeply uncomfortable.  And one Chabad rabbi’s wife I know identifies as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of this is to say that when we see attacks against our Haredi sisters and brothers on TV these days (of which there have been a lot), I understand why this is complicated.  Far too rarely do these communities stand in solidarity for my well being and human rights.  And yet- some do.  And furthermore, the philosophical question arises of whether we should only stand with those who stand with us.  Or whether we have an obligation regardless.  And perhaps, through some positive interactions, can even bring people together in new ways.

As a gay Reform Jew, I feel my tradition obligates me to stand with Haredi communities battling seemingly endless anti-Semitism.  Not just because it affects me as a fellow Jew (we should be realistic- hatred never stops at one community’s door), but because our tradition asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  To be brave.  To lock hands with someone different from you, and hopefully open all hearts involved in the process.

It is ideologically easy for liberal American Jews to stand with refugees, with immigrants, with the queer community, against climate change, and a whole series of other issues that fit neatly into our ideological profile.  Into my ideological profile as well.

It is much more challenging, and equally important, to push ourselves to extend our solidarity to our brethren whose politics, dress, and approach to faith differ from our own.

So in the end, that is my hope.  That liberal American Jews such as me can find it in our hearts to extend a hand to our Haredi brothers and sisters.  And that they will grasp it.  We both have much to gain from such a partnership.  And much to lose- for the people who hate us will hardly care how we pray or what we wear.  They care that we are different.  We are Jews.

The cover photo is one I took while visiting and learning at the Breslover Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.

 

A queer Jewish-Arab encounter in Budapest

If you’ve been following the news, there’s been at least as much darkness this Chanukah as there has been light.  In recent weeks there has been a slew of anti-Semitic attacks, including the destruction of a Torah scroll in a Persian synagogue in Los Angeles, anti-Semitic graffiti on the 6th and I historic synagogue in Washington, D.C., the murder of three people at a Kosher grocery store in Jersey City, and just today, the stabbing of five people at a rabbi’s house in Monsey, New York.

It’s enough to make anyone’s Chanukah flame flicker.  May the memories of the deceased be for a blessing, and may the Creator send healing to the wounded- and serve justice to those who did us harm.  May we find ourselves safer, with non-Jewish allies standing at our side like we so desperately need them.

On days like this, I often find myself in need of a bit of hope.  Which brings me to an old story from one of my adventures.

I found myself alone in Budapest.  I was backpacking through Europe and had spent the first part of my trip in Romania.  It’s not the most gay-friendly country in the world, especially not some of the rural areas I visited, although they were very interesting.

In need of some company, I opened up the CouchSurfing App.  It’s an app better known for finding a place to crash for free, but I was just using it to meet some new friends.

I found one woman, let’s call her Ayesha since she’s not out of the closet and the internet makes our world smaller by the day.  She had written “Looking for someone to go to a gay bar with”.  I immediately wrote her.

Now keep in mind my profile said I was from Israel.  Ayesha’s said she was from Amman, Jordan.  Two countries technically at peace, but whose populaces have almost no interaction.  A huge percentage of Jordanians are actually Palestinians, so the potential for a hostile interaction was not hard to imagine.

But Ayesha wasn’t like that.  She was excited to have someone to join her at the club, and I was just as enthused.

I walked in, we hit it off, and ordered some pizza together.

We got to talking and it turns out Ayesha was bi and this was her first time in a gay bar- ever.  Also, she was not out to her family.  Also, apparently I was about to participate in her first gay DATE!  Yes, you read that right.  Ayesha didn’t just invite me to the bar.  She also invited a Macedonian rugby player with whom she hoped to rumble in the pitch (I have no idea if that’s a rugby metaphor, but you get the point).

Turns out, it was one of the best nights ever.  The Macedonian rugby player brought her teammate and the four of us had a blast.  We talked about our different countries, the good, bad, and ugly (Macedonia is not a gay paradise either- but apparently has a growing scene!).  We talked about being queer, about music, about our shitty pizza and Hungarian customs.

And after the two Macedonian women had to leave, Ayesha and I just danced.  Danced and danced and danced.  None of the stress of the Middle East or its various conflicts mattered.  We laughed, we sang, we lip synced, we lived.

It was one of the best nights of my life.

Not because of the night club (it was ok), or the pizza (can I say again how shitty it was?), or the cute boys (c’mon Budapest, I thought you could do better!).

It was because for one night life stood still.  All the world’s conflicts and shouting and arguing didn’t matter.  Because one Jewish gay guy and one bi Jordanian woman had a great night together.  Despite it all.

I hope this holiday season, whatever your religion or traditions, you find your Ayesha.  Someone who is essentially curious about the world more than seeking conflict.  Someone fun who brings out the best in you.  And that you find your inner strength to take a bit of a risk.  To reach out to someone you don’t know.  And to send a tiny bit of warmth their way to light the path to a better reality.

Chag sameach, happy Chanukah, and shanah tovah- to a happy New Year!

Cover photo is of a mural in Haifa near the railroad that once connected Amman, Jordan to Haifa, Israel.  What was once may yet be once more.

Com Perpinyà justifica l’independència de Catalunya

El segon cop que vaig anar a Catalunya, fa més o menys dos anys, vaig decidir explorar França també.  Parlo francés i sempre m’agrada practicar les meves llengües i descobrir noves cultures.

Va ser molt interessant.  Ja sabia que Perpinyà forma part del Països Catalans.  Més precisament, que Perpinyà forma part de Catalunya Nord, una regió que va esdevenir territori francés en 1659.

La gent era molt amable, hi havia un castell bonic que es deia Palau dels Reis de Mallorca, i vaig gaudir del menjar prou ric.

La cosa curiosa és que el català gairabé no es sent.  Fora de dues dones que vaig conèixer al poblet de Toluges que parlaven la llengua, no vaig sentir el català mai.  Encara que va ser molt interessant parlar amb les dones (el seu dialecte era prou diferent que el català al sud de les muntanyes), era gairabé com visitar un museu.  Un museu on es podia explorar la cultura catalana com a un artefacte i molt menys com a una cosa viva.

Lo mateix puc dir sobre la meva experiència a Alacant, una ciutat que vullia explorar precisament per la seva cultura valenciana i catalanoparlant.  Segons els mapes que jo havia vist, era territori principalment castellanoparlant.  Però encara sabent això, va ser dur visitar.  Com Perpinyà, hi havia carrers amb noms en català, hi havia llocs històrics, però molt poca gent que parlava la llengua.  Tot arreu estaven parlant el castellà i fins que vaig conèixer un estudiant universitari català, no vaig sentir la llengua mai.

Segur que hi ha catalanoparlants a Perpinyà i a Alacant, encara si són pocs.  I menys que hi havia fa temps.

Si analitzem les millors recuperacions culturals, gairabé totes han tingut èxit gràcies a un estat.  Moltes llengües amb pocs parlants com l’hebreu, el txec, i el lituà (entre altres), han sobreviscut perquè tenen un estat independent.

Si Catalunya aconsegueix la seva independència, això protegerà la llengua catalana per generacions.  Per a que no es converteixi la cultura catalana en un bon tema per un museu, sinó una llengua encara viva i evolucionant.

És per això que sóc independentista.  Perque els museus són per a objectes, no cultures enteres.

 

Per què sóc jueu i independentista

Per als llectors que no em coneixen, sóc un jueu americà i israelià.  Vaig aprendre el català fa uns anys a Georgetown University a Washington, D.C.  Vaig prendre un curs d’un semestre, subvencionat per la Fundació Ramon Llull.  Encara que ja estava interessat en Catalunya abans, aquell aprenentatge em va canviar la vida.

Molts cops, la gent pensa que només les llengües amb més parlants importen.  Com si la quantitat de boques parlant representés la saviesa o l’intel·ligència.  Però no és veritat.  Podem pensar, per exemple, al cas del grecoparlants, que són només 13.4 millons, però que sense dubte han contribuït fenomenalment a la civilització occidental.

El cas dels catalans no és diferent.  Amb més de 10 millions de parlants, el català forma part d’una civilització de fa més de mil anys.  Una civilització amb literatura, música, dansa, arquitectura, poesia, i més.  I cada aspecte amb el seu caràcter únic i local.

Mil cops, quan vaig dir que parlava català, la resposta ha segut “per qué?  Cada català parla castellà, és una llengua petita, i no et serveix més el xinés o alguna llengua ‘important’?”  I la meva resposta és: “una llengua és un dialecte amb un exèrcit i una marina.”  O sigui, que a qualsevol lloc al món, podem trobar saviesa i riquesa cultural.  No importa el tamany de la llengua- encara si no té poder polític, val la pena aprendre.  De fet a vegades les llengües sense tant poder polític ofereixen una perspectiva nova i especial.

No és gaire curiós que aquesta expressió coneguda entre lingüistes i activistes és, de fet, una contribució de la meva civilització, la jueva.  El lingüista Max Weinrich, un acadèmic que s’especialitzava en la llengua ídix, la llengua dels meus avis.  I recenment, una llengua que vaig aprendre jo per a conectar-me amb els meus arrels culturals.  És una llengua minòritaria que, igual que el català, ha segut menyspreada pel seu tamany i “falta d’importància”.  Molts cops, racistes es refereixen al idioma com un “dialecte” de l’alemany, igual que el prejudici que diu que el català és només un dialecte del castellà.

És precisament per aquest menyspreu i imperialisme cultural que com a jueu, m’identifico amb el moviment per l’independència de Catalunya.  Perque jo sé bé que les forces majoritàries del món- no podem comptar amb elles per a protegir les nostres cultures.  Som pobles que hem patit la discriminació i la persecució- i del mateix estat espanyol.

Llavors comparteixo la meva solidaritat amb el poble català durant aquest moment difícil.  No sé qual sera el resultat, però vull que sapigueu que teniu el meu suport.  I seguiré parlant en català, en castellà, en anglés, en hebreu, en qualsevol llengua possible, per a que el món s’enteri de la justicia de la vostra causa.

Perque els pobles petits importem.

Una abraçada,

Matt Adler

Washington, D.C.

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Why I’m not afraid of the word Palestine

Last night, I found myself on an unexpected adventure.  While I sometimes miss the density and intensity of my adventures in Israel, after the past few days of rocket attacks, I’m feeling pretty grateful to be in Washington, D.C. and not in Ashdod.

I found myself in an Uber with a female driver wearing a hijab.  We got to talking, initially about mundane topics like podcasts and language learning.  Eventually, I asked what languages she spoke and she said “just Arabic”.  My eyes lit up.  I started speaking to her in Arabic and she was thrilled.

For the next twenty minutes, we talked about everything.  She loved my Syrian dialect, calling it rai’3ah, or “fantastic”.  She then asked the question all Arabic speakers ask me.  “Where in the Arab world have you been?”  This is a loaded question, although not intended to be.

The reason why is that Israel, in all honesty, is a part of the Arab world, or at the very least experiences a Venn Diagram overlap with it when considering the 20% of its citizens who speak Arabic as a mother tongue.  Not to mention the half of Jews there who come from Arab countries.  Furthermore, I had been to Palestinian cities and towns, which clearly qualified.

So I answered the question like this:

“Ana kinit be’Isra’il wa’Falastin.”  I was in Israel and Palestine.

Two countries whose borders are increasingly vague and whose cultures overlap and interact to such an extent that I find it sensible to sometimes mention them in the same breath.

Fatima’s ears perked up.  She was curious.  While she only called the countries I visited Palestine (which is not how I view things), she wanted to know where I had lived, what I had seen, and more.  She was respectful.  I told her I had lived in Tel Aviv and mentioned some of the Arabic-speaking areas I had visited in Israel and (the areas east of the Green Line I call) Palestine.

I even told her a funny story about language practice I experienced in Tel Aviv, to share some of the life she probably rarely hears about.  I was sitting in a restaurant and asked “efshar et ha’sal?”  I meant to ask for the salt, but by using the Spanish word “sal” for salt, I ended up asking for a basket!  The waiter asked why I needed a basket, and I said “for my chicken!”  It cracked him up at the time, and Fatima was no different.  It’s all a lesson that making mistakes while learning languages can be a blessing if you learn to laugh.  I’ve never forgotten the word for basket.

At times during my life in Israel, I struggled with the concept of Palestine.  What are its borders?  Does it threaten Israel’s existence?  Is there a way to make peace between these two countries and societies?

Now, I feel more at ease.  Even with someone like Fatima who may not even recognize Israel.  And yet finds herself open to hearing about it, even as she can’t speak its name.  Much like I used to struggle with the word Palestine.

Fatima knew I was Jewish.  That I am an Israeli citizen.  And yet something in our conversation, despite the different views we held, kept us talking.  Even had us laughing and complementing each other.

It’s the kind of magic Benjamin Netanyahu lacks on even his best day.  It’s called compassion.  It’s called dialogue.  It’s called respect and a desire to use words rather than bombs to make a point.

After Bibi’s most recent show of force, which killed about two dozen Palestinians and resulted in yet more warfare launched by the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, the only thing we saw grow was fear.  The only result we saw was damaged houses, crying children, and trauma.  After a decade as Prime Minister, the Gaza Strip is beset by increasingly dire poverty and terrorist organizations and the Israeli communities that surround it have more PTSD, more death, and more desperation.

We could keep trying the same techniques and feel pervertedly comforted by receiving the same horrifying results.  Or we could try what I did.  Talking.  Creative problem solving.  Dialogue.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy nor do I know exactly how to do this on a political level- I’m not a politician.  What I can say is if it reduces the chance of more misery, it’s worth a shot.

As Fatima dropped me off, she said to me a phrase that will stick with me the rest of my life. “Fi amal,” she said.  “There is hope.”

What do you know about refugees in Israel?

Sunday November 10th and Monday November 11th, I had the privilege to attend the American University Center for Israel Studies’s first ever Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel Conference.  For my long-time readers, you know this is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I’ve marched and organized and written about this topic over and over again.  You can read about some of my adventures with Burmese, Darfuris, Eritreans, Tibetans, West Africanspro-refugee activism, racism, more racism, politics, and the Palestinian refugee tie-in.  I was one of the lead organizers of Olim and Internationals for Refugees, including organizing a march we did through the streets of Tel Aviv and our participation in broader rallies.

All of which is to say I was thrilled to find out that the message activists had been fighting for in Israel had reached America.  This conference was academic in nature but including the voices of passionate activists such as Mutasim Ali, Dawit Demoz, and Julie Fisher.  Furthermore, this was the first conference of its kind.  While the issue is hotly debated in Israel, it is barely on the radar screen of American Jewry.  But that is changing, as this conference attests.  In addition, I recently attended the J Street conference which held a session on refugees in Israel as well.  I am happy to see American Jews standing up and taking notice as the Netanyahu government excludes, criminalizes, and represses African refugees who are seeking safety and freedom from persecution.

Here are a few basic takeaways from the conference and about the refugees and asylum seekers:

  1. There were over 60,000 refugees in Israel at their peak.  Today, the number is about half, at approximately 32,000.  This is due to the government pushing people to take the risky journey to repatriate to third party countries such as Rwanda and Uganda as well as building a border fence between Israel and Egypt.  There are no new arrivals due to this fence.
  2. Almost all refugees were forced into detention facilities upon their arrival to Israel.
  3. Israeli society was ambivalent or non-hostile towards refugees initially, but as the government ramped up incitement and refugees were put in already impoverished areas of South Tel Aviv, the conflict between existing residents and the new arrivals reached new heights.  Today, incitement is so grave that an African refugee childcare center had its playground defaced with feces and dead rodents and the Minister of Culture referred to Africans as a “cancer”.
  4. While perhaps a minority, thousands of Israelis are standing up for refugees and engaging in meaningful activism alongside them.  Numerous NGO’s have sprouted up over the past few decades and rallies in the tens of thousands have been held, including a massive one I attended in 2018 as the government tried to deport Sudanese and Eritreans.
  5. Israel’s draconian immigration and refugee policies are not unique.  Australia has offshore detention facilities.  The U.S. is separating children from their families.  Hungary built a fence around its border to stop Syrians from entering.  Even Denmark was mentioned as a country now taking a hardline.  The world as a whole is seeing an increase in nationalism and exclusionary policies towards refugees and Israel is one among many countries experiencing this trend.
  6. What is unique is that Israel brands itself as a country to which refugees (who are Jewish) can escape.  Like the U.S., when ruled by gentler politicians.  Yet despite the horrific history which plagued the families of Israeli Jews for centuries, many Israelis oppose non-Jewish refugees’ presence in their country.  Due to the fear of the “other” (both Arab and, in this case, largely African) and the “demographic threat”, many Israelis are reluctant to give non-Jewish refugees a home.  This was to many panelists a disappointment, as many of the original writers of U.N. refugee laws were Jews and Holocaust survivors.

There were many other topics discussed at the conference, including a fascinating art exhibit which you can still visit at the Katzen Center.  These items above are just a few I’m taking away with me.

Another thing I’m taking away with me is our capacity to make a difference.  In a world increasingly charred by cruelty and shaped by leaders who lack basic empathy, we can do something to counter this trend.  Write, read, listen, march, or attend a conference like this one.  Because if you don’t educate yourself, no one will do it for you.