Every country, every society has its pluses and minuses. In Israel, the sweet tends to be sweeter than honey and the bitter nastier than rotten horseradish. I’ll probably write a blog after about “The Best of Israel”, but for today, here’s the worst.
Once I visited the Arab village of Tira. It’s a non-touristy place and it was interesting to walk around. I spoke to a woman about her family’s history over baklava. I met a young girl in a hijab who loved American movies and studying Hebrew. And then I headed up the hill to buy some Arabic music.
On my way to the store, a man asked me where I was from. I answered in Arabic that I was a Jew originally from the U.S. He immediately starts screaming, almost incomprehensibly, and starts rousing up the village. I run into a store and ask the man in Arabic: “huwwe khateer?” (is he dangerous?). And he said “ahh” – yes.
I ran into another store, the music store, and explained the situation. My heart was racing, this is the closest I had come to being attacked so far in Israel- for absolutely no reason. The guys in the store were great and one man, who was somehow a former basketball player who was friends with a Jewish lawyer in the States, offered to take me to the bus stop. A true mensch. This was an extremely scary moment and it could’ve been deadly.
Another time I was visiting a Druze village. I befriended some 20-something men who liked to take selfies with me. One asked to be my friend on Facebook. He had seen my various photos of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade (I could tell because they were on my “Facebook story”). I make no secret of being gay on Facebook. At some point I asked him on WhatsApp whether me being gay would be a barrier to doing volunteer work to help Druze. A reasonable question since it’s a conservative society, but one that has extensive relationships with Jews. His response: “no one will accept you.” When I switched from Arabic to Hebrew to make sure I was explaining myself well, he said: “speak Arabic.” I indicated I was sad about the situation. His final response: “do not contact me again or I will make problems for you.” An eerie threat considering I spend a lot of time in Druze villages. I said I’d block him on Facebook…and he thanked me. I’ll never hear from him again. Because I’m gay.
The Jews here are often no better. I was once walking in my neighborhood when some sort of conflict broke out between a faloudeh salesman and his friend (a sentence I definitely have only written here). Another man tried defending the salesman. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but at some point he just started saying: “what, am I a fag? Am I a fag? Are we fags?” I’m standing right next to him, hoping this will blow over. He keeps repeating himself over and over. Fag fag fag fag fag. I’m getting nervous- not that I think the guy will do anything to me, because he doesn’t notice I’m gay. But that’s the point, as long as I’m certain not to give off any vibe, I’m safe. I don’t even wear bright clothing in my conservative neighborhood anymore because people glare at me. Let’s just say I would’ve felt scared to death wearing a rainbow t-shirt at this point. Like my friend who got denied service at a Jerusalem restaurant for being gay. At some point he hugged his friend, promising to defend him from the other guy. And left.
I wish I could say this was the only homophobia I experienced- by the way, in Tel Aviv. But it’s not. I know a Reform Jew who once told me that the key was to “restrain my inclination”. Another Reform woman once told me: “it’s a shame you’re gay, here’s such a beautiful young woman.” I once had two Reform Jews- one a rabbinical student and one the spouse of a rabbi- tell me that my friend who got kicked out of the Jerusalem restaurant was being “disrespectful” for wearing a rainbow shirt. Not a far leap from “her skirt was too short”. There’s a lot, lot, lot of internalized sexual shame here. And a tendency, especially among Jews, to let their sympathies linger a bit too long with the abuser rather than the victim.
My neighborhood, for those who follow the blog, is filled with refugees from all over the world, especially Eritrea and Sudan. It’s a complex issue- a poor neighborhood purposefully flooded with refugees- and a lot of ensuing conflict. I’m personally an activist against the government’s plans to deport the refugees. While I can empathize in many directions here, I have seen some pretty unbridled racism that goes beyond trying to fix the situation.
I was once leading a demonstration down Rothschild Blvd, the main drag in wealthy Tel Aviv. A young, secular-looking woman comes up to us and says she was sexually assaulted (maybe by a refugee- not clear). We said that was terrible. I even told her I was a sexual assault survivor. Before we could get a word in, she noticed my friend’s American accent. She said: “unlike you, my mommy and daddy didn’t buy me an apartment. I hope the refugees rape you. I hope they rape you.”
I have been to many demonstrations in many places and never before had someone told me they wished someone raped me. Sick.
There’s certainly a lot of low-key racism as well. Whenever I tell a Jewish friend I’m going to a Druze or Arab village, the usual response (80% of the time) is “but what is there to see?” Like it’s a trash pit. I’ve had secular Jews tell me: “Druze are chameleons. They are liars and untrustworthy.” One ultra-Orthodox man told me: “the best goy is worse than the worst Jew.” If that’s not straight out of a neo-Nazi playbook, I don’t know what is. And this was after I gave him money to buy food for Shabbat. After I told him I had refugee friends.
Lest you think this is limited to the political right, I was once at the house of an activist in Women Wage Peace, a non-profit activist group. We were talking about the expulsions- sometimes forced- of Arabs from their villages in 1948. A complex issue (indeed, some villagers were shooting at Jews), but for me, certainly once that aroused sadness. Losing home is a hard thing and it’s hard for me to believe that everyone who left was a threat and that nobody should be let back. The woman, who was a self-aggrandizing super-leftist said: “yeah, but it was necessary.” Acknowledging that yes, forced expulsions had happened, but they were necessary. My jaw dropped. There’s something about Israeli bluntness that’s disarming, sometimes charming, but in this case, just left me stupefied.
The tribalism here is unhinged. While it gives the nation some of its unique flavor and cultural traditions, it carries the price of sometimes intense bigotry. I once met a secular guy reading a Japanese comic in a bookstore. I told him I wanted Yiddish books- he points to the two in the store and says: “why do you want them?” I explained I speak the language. He says: “it’s dead, who would you speak to?” I said I often go to Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, along with secular Yiddish institutions. He says: “Bnei Brak? Why would you want to speak with them?” He goes on to tell me how terrible Haredim are and I said: “how many do you know?” None. But he tells me a whole bunch of things he read in the news. News stories about people who live 20 minutes away. Who he knows less about than Japan.
I’ve met Christians who won’t marry Christians from the neighboring village- because there was once a feud. And Christians who told me they keep their minority Muslim neighbors “in line”, or they’d show them who’s boss. I’ve heard the same thing from Druze about their Muslim minorities. And then, this was surprising to me, there have been blood feuds between Christians and Druze. Two relatively well-integrated minorities, but because of a bunch of religious symbolism and tribal honor, somehow got involved in a decade long killing spree.
Many times when visiting mosques, Muslims have tried to convert me- as if I didn’t know what that process was. It was opaque and manipulative. Not every time, but many times. When people ask if I’ve read the Quran and I say yes, they are shocked that I haven’t converted. They repeat the question. This is a problem with Islam itself- the idea is the Quran is so perfect that anyone who reads it would obviously convert. I once, oddly enough given their pro-Israel leanings, had an Ahmadi Muslim tell me the government was abusing the Torah to “let in a bunch of Russian atheists”. He suggested this was similar to when extremist Muslims like Hamas misinterpreted the Quran.
I was once in Bnei Brak taking a Yiddish lesson. I was paying an ultra-Orthodox man to learn. He knew I wasn’t Orthodox- and I told him that from the beginning. On his “non-Kosher” phone- he also has a Kosher one with censorship. I was learning a lot and at some point the question of my Jewish background came up. I said I was a Reform Jew. This really set him off- he told me all the reasons I was wrong, that I was destroying Judaism, that it wasn’t really Judaism, and that in their eyes, I was more dangerous than a secular Jew. Because I was laying claim to being religious which, in his eyes, I was not.
The chutzpah of the conversation would not have been surprising (though it’s worth mentioning I have had more positive interactions in Bnei Brak, even once when I’m saying I was Reform). But for the fact that I was paying this man! And he was otherwise unemployed- but enjoying the state benefits I pay to him and to his yeshivas. I tried to reason with him to no avail. He then tried to extort me by asking for more money for the initial lesson- because (due to this debate) we went over time. Without him having specified a time limit beforehand. It was simply a flat fee for a trial lesson.
I went to an ATM to get money and came back. Deflated, angry. I told him here’s your money. He asked, in my view completely delusional, when I’d be coming back! I said: “I’m not sure I will, I’ll think about it.” Surprisingly, I got him to apologize to me over text (from his non-Kosher phone). I accepted his apology and told him I wasn’t comfortable coming back.
Israelis have a propensity for always wanting to be right. I was once at a board games night- the other players knew I was American. Seeing a card marked “peaches”, a player said this meant “boobs” in English. I said no. He argued with me and when I reminded him that I was American, he said he had visited the White House and was “verrrry fameeeeliar with zee American culture”. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that he was dead serious. I’ve had Israelis try to tell me how much college costs in America (without having studied there). One woman tried to tell me I didn’t come to Israel for upright Zionist reasons because I also wanted good healthcare.
Speaking of healthcare, I was at my doctor’s office the other day. I’m waiting patiently in line when a man comes in, complaining of some sort of ache. The woman behind the desk tells him to lower his voice. The man keeps yelling and tries to get in front of me in line. To make things easier, I tried to schedule an appointment for the next day with the receptionist, which would make my life and the man’s life easier and resolve the issue. But unfortunately there were no good times and I was about to be let in to see the doctor. So I decided to keep waiting.
At this point, the man starts screaming to get in front of me. This is the Israeli way for many people- yell until you get what you want. It has actually happened to me at another doctor’s office too. I told the man my appointment would be quick but I had been waiting patiently and wanted to go in. A pretty reasonable approach.
Instead, the man raises his fist, threatening to hit me. He calls me an animal. I’m used to Israeli aggression, but there was something disconcerting about his tone and his physical posture. I called the police. What was most alarming is that the people around me, rather than scolding the man for threatening me (when I had done nothing wrong)- they rushed over to make sure he was OK. While they glared at me. This is a fundamental Israeli problem- focus your attention on soothing the aggressor rather than enforcing rules to protect everyone.
Eventually, I canceled my complaint to the police, because I realized they wouldn’t do anything anyways. And sure enough, the doctor let the man in to see him. While I walked home.
Simple trips to the grocery store or pharmacy can be a struggle here. Lines are not a thing. People are jockeying and pushing and fighting to get there first- desperate not to be a “fraier” or “sucker”. I once saw a fist fight nearly break out at the post office just over who would be seen first. Consideration is not an Israeli value. My neighbors behind me run some sort of a kids program and at 9am on the weekend, they blasted techno music with subwoofers while I was trying to sleep. My downstairs neighbor shouts to Beyonce at 2am on Wednesdays- until I went downstairs and explained that some of us have to work. He was perplexed and annoyed that I would even care. I’m pretty sure he’s the neighbor whose pet seems to leave little brown gifts in the hallway, though I haven’t figured out that smelly mystery yet.
Personal lack of consideration often bleeds into the political. I once met an Arab actor at a bilingual theater guild whose Facebook profile mocked Holocaust Remembrance Day. He was outraged that I had looked at his page- when he had added me. He started talking about the Nakba and how we have to respect both- which is clearly not what he wrote. As I see it, sadness is sadness and there’s no justification for mocking anyone’s tragedy. And he should probably find a job where he’s not working with the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
A strange thing about Israel is that while the State (and most of Jewish society) wants olim, or new immigrants, like me, there is a lot of prejudice against us. I was once held up by security guards at the Central Bus Station who just wanted to mock American accents in Hebrew. I really wanted to get my bus, so I played along at first, but after a few minutes of denigrating my countrymen, I really wanted to go. And they just kept laughing. Until I did a pretty spot-on Israeli accent in English. Then they weren’t laughing- thin skinned much?
Israelis, sabras in particular, love to put down olim. I’ve heard lots of complaints about how much French is heard in Tel Aviv. How Americans “stick to themselves in a bubble” (usually couched in a compliment about my Hebrew for not being “like theirs”). How Russians aren’t really Jewish. Even as they escaped the Soviet Union for being perceived as such.
The organizing principle of Jewish society is that the Sabra, the native-born Israeli, is superior. And olim have to be “taught” and put in our place.
I speak fluent Arabic- much, much better than most Israeli Jews who have lived here their whole lives. With 1.8 million Arabs. I was once in Ein Hod, an artists colony founded on top of an emptied Palestinian village. I was speaking to some Arab men in Arabic. A Jewish woman interjects and starts telling me “about Arabs”- in the third person. In front of actual Arabs. Then, a Jewish man comes over, again not party to the conversation, and says to the Arabs: “his accent isn’t native, is it?” Pointing to me. I asked the man if he even spoke Arabic. “Oh a few words from my Iraqi parents.” But he just had to show he was better than me- even though he literally had no idea what we were talking about. I’d be more offended if it weren’t for the fact that the most frequent question I get from Arabs is whether I’m Syrian or Lebanese.
The lack of rules and respect here, while occasionally offering opportunity for creativity, is usually a burden. Rental protections are meager, at best. Everything is a negotiation- an exhausting and unnecessary process. My first landlord in Israel once stole a thousand shekels from me and said she’d “give it back later”. When I asked for the money, she doubled down and it took five days of arguing and talking to my lawyer to get the money back. Which was never hers. In her words: “you can have it back. I’m done with this.” Was it ever her choice to make?
There’s a lot of distrust here. Both landlords and tenants don’t really have strong enforceable rules to protect both parties. A metaphor for a lot of problems here. General distrust has made it hard for me to travel. Sadly, it often has historical roots. In Druze and Arab villages, people tell me a lot of the time they worry I’m an undercover cop. I’ve gotten mean, sometimes scared stares from Jews when speaking Arabic on my phone in Tel Aviv- so I don’t do so anymore. It’s not comfortable. Oddly enough, perhaps given the xenophobia and anti-olim prejudice, I’ve even gotten yelled at for speaking English on the phone on the bus. While someone shouts into their cellphone in Hebrew next to me.
All of this doesn’t even touch the issue of terrorism and war. Trust me, that adds to the tension here too. So does the threat to deport my refugee neighbors. When I eat at their restaurants, I sometimes don’t know if it’ll be the last time I see them. Homophobic and racist legislation became an afterthought when writing this post because there were so many other things to share. Believe me, that’s rough too.
The invasion of personal space (this is not an Israeli concept), the fat shaming, the sexual harassment, the racial profiling (I was once profiled as an Arab), the heavy-handed judgments and overflowing advice peering at you from every corner. It’s rough. Some of these things happen everywhere- and I feel they happen more here than I’m used to seeing. And I speak 9 languages.
Are there good things about Israel? This is a silly question. Of course. There is warmth, there is cultural preservation, there are languages, there is beautiful nature, there are kind people, there are people willing to host you and go out of their way for you. Even never having met you.
Everyone have unique experiences. Yours may be different- these are some of mine.
In Israel, be aware that you may have similar ones. This is not a miniature America nor is it Italy. This is a rough and tumble Middle Eastern country with an active conflict and a ton of social tension. Some really important values and others that make me cringe or cry.
I’m proud and strong to have overcome these and many, many other obstacles. I now find traveling in other countries much easier and have become keenly aware of how to build trust with people- and who to avoid.
Wherever your journeys take you, may they bring you joy, hope, wisdom, and health.
p.s.- my cover photo is of graffiti saying “Kahane was right”. Meir Kahane was a rabbi who proposed expelling Arabs and Palestinians. Such graffiti can be found in my neighborhood, sometimes with graffiti opposing it.