Today was interesting.
I started the day by going to the Jewish Museum of Ljubljana. A place well worth visiting.
The director of the museum was out, but a technician from the puppet theater next door (!!) showed me around. While I feel sad to see Jewish community spaces in disrepair, I’ve noticed a couple times in this part of the world that art spaces are sometimes next door. Or inside. And if I had to choose one kind of entity to inhabit our space, it is definitely this. Better than the Slovenian Jewish cemetery turned into a casino.
The man was very nice, let me walk around for a bit. There were some artifacts, which was cool. And also a short video outlining how the center uses culture- rather than religion- to bring together Slovenians and tourists to learn about tolerance. Using the Jewish experience as a way to build shared values and make life better. A message I thoroughly enjoyed. If you visit here, check out the tiny but heartfelt space. A reminder how a small group of people can use history for good. To keep a struggling Jewish community alive while contributing to the broader culture- a generous message this part of the world seriously needs.
After I finished, we stood outside for a few minutes. We just chatted- about everything. Ljubljana, his upcoming journey to New York (he’s very excited), his collaboration with Jewish institutions, and how he still lives at home at the age of 40 (!!), mostly for financial reasons. He was also really cute 🙂 To find a non-Jew so kind, friendly, and organically curious about my culture was sincerely refreshing. When he talked about Judaism, it was like he was talking about his favorite fruit or a fun trip last weekend. Not forced, not against, just kind of natural. It felt great.
Outside, I noticed a 20-something year old man with a very Jewish face. We come in all shapes and sizes, but this guy looks like he eats gefilte fish. Standing at his side is his female partner.
I chatted them up, turns out they were British. We talked about Jews and talked about what life was like for me in Tel Aviv. Turns out the female partner, Alice, was not Jewish but had spent 3 months volunteering with NGOs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It made me a bit nervous- some of these crusading goyim I’ve met in Israel are quite anti-Semitic, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was just a well-intentioned do-gooder. Plus sometimes I share their distaste for human rights abuses. Maybe we had political differences but I hoped that here in no-man’s land they wouldn’t matter so much and we could find common ground. I’ve heard dire warnings about the anti-Semitic European left, but people are diverse and I prefer to understand things from my own experience.
I won’t defend an “us vs. the world” Jewish isolationism- a paranoia that is playing out in the creeping fascism of the Israeli state towards its “internal enemies”. And I also won’t tolerate a bunch of privileged Europeans lecturing me about who I am and why my country is so terrible.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they did. The woman told me about the awful settlers, how I can agree or disagree with international law but there is no doubt it holds an “objective truth”. That she boycotts Israeli settlement products. And she’s so brave for “fighting” anti-Semitism in leftist circles- including friends of hers who refused an AirBnB guest because of his Jewish name. She did scold them. Good for her! While the far right in Israel may be so paranoid that they start to resemble their oppressors, they are on to something here. The far left in Europe, if it is anything like these two young people, is quite sick.
I asked them if they also boycott Chinese goods because of China’s occupation of Tibet. Over and over again they kept saying “it’s not the same”. While admitting some similarities, apparently the major difference is China is a big country and the “international community” has decided Palestinians deserve a state, while Tibetans do not. After I shot down their assertions that China wasn’t really so bad about colonizing Tibet (it is), they finally admitted “there should” be demonstrations for Tibetans. But they couldn’t answer why so few of their friends seem to care. Or why so few leftists take to the streets to protest the chemical weapons massacres in Syria, the oppression of Kurds, or the forced assimilation and dispossession of Berbers.
Any time I tried to encourage them to rethink their double standards, they kept saying I was “deflecting”, evading Israel’s responsibility for the occupation. No matter how many times I said I was against human rights abuses, that I was deeply concerned about expanding settlements, and that Palestinians lived under fear of Israeli violence and land appropriations, it didn’t matter. Even though I want equality and freedom for Palestinians, including from my own country’s military and government, it didn’t matter. I was either their brand of pro-Palestinian or, in not so many words, a fascist. When I prefer to think of myself as pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and above all, pro-human being.
The Jewish guy was even worse than his partner. He claimed that Muslim anti-Semitism was understandable because when they saw their Palestinian counterparts from the Islamic Nation (the Ummah) being oppressed, they got angry. That their suffering meant more to them because they were fellow Muslims. An argument practically carbon copied from the Islamic Brotherhood- and frankly, a nationalistic and deeply illiberal one. Why should someone in Morocco be justified in hating Jews because of the Israeli state’s policies towards Palestinians?
I told them this: “the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians does contribute to their hatred of us. And it makes many of them angry- often justifiably so. And it fuels sadness, extremism, and desperation in their society. And some of their hatred predates Israel or is unrelated to our existence. There were Moroccan Muslims killing Jews in 1033. Long before the State of Israel existed- hardly because of it. Sharing a religious text with someone is never a justifiable reason to hate someone else.”
But they didn’t buy it. In their view, Muslim attacks on British soil were “different” than Hamas. Israelis deserve it and they don’t. That suicide bombings were somehow similar to American slave revolts. The Muslim world was “complex”- its growing fanaticism “not clear” and ultimately caused entirely in reaction to colonialism and the Cold War. Certainly Western intervention is a factor in the development of extremist Islam, but fanaticism is hardly a new concept. The circumstances around us influence our choices and all people and peoples have the agency to choose our behavior. While in the Jewish guy’s view, Palestinians were “justified” in being anti-Semitic, I think that infantilizes them. I know Palestinians who’ve worked very hard to overcome anti-Semitic stereotypes to become peace activists. Just as Jews have overcome racism they were taught about Arabs. And to suggest hatred as an acceptable default is to simply elevate the most extreme voices in society. And to not expect anything better from people. To devalue our ability to make choices and to disempower people striving for something better.
In the Jewish guy’s view (his name was Adam), Israel’s “existence” was the cause for Arab hatred of Jews. When I asked him whether he believed all of Israel was occupied Palestine, he giggled and said he “wouldn’t dive into that debate now”. I suppose it would ruin his two week vacation to Slovenia- a privilege few Israelis and Palestinians enjoy.
When I talked about Jews expelled from Arab countries, their passions barely lifted. “That was bad too.” But they returned immediately to their talking points. Without a even sigh of sympathy for my friend’s Syrian Jewish family whose old house has been turned into a nightclub. Who lost their possessions and their citizenship in the name of a rabid Arab nationalism now tearing that country to shreds.
In Alice’s view, the difference between Israel and China is that Israel claims to be a European-style democracy. She expects more from us. When I told her that not a small number of (in my view, mistaken) Israelis would prefer a Jewish state over democracy, she said “that’s the point”. Not realizing I had undermined her entire argument. Very few Israelis consider their country European- some sort of Middle Eastern Sweden. For us, Israel is a safe haven, a place where yes, civil liberties and peace are quite fragile and often under attack. A place where we don’t have the luxury of sitting on a quiet Oxford lawn sipping tea while we discuss the state of the world. ISIS is on our border, not just the news cast. This doesn’t excuse extremism in my country, but it’s also not a reason for ignorant Europeans to come parading telling us how bad we are at being like them. As if that’s all we truly wanted to be. What I don’t want to be is a British law student whose tuition is subsidized by the War in Iraq and 400 years of colonialism lecturing the world about human rights. Next time you’re in Israel, visit Atlit, the prison camp your country dumped Holocaust survivors in while you colonized our homeland. To the detriment of both Arabs and Jews. The effects still felt today. Look in the mirror first.
The mirror is not a place she wanted to look. At a time when 40% of British Jews are so scared of left-wing anti-Semitism in their country they’re considering leaving, she had not a word to say about the topic. Only that British Jews were hypocrites for feeling so emotionally attached to Israel, for being irrational, for not allowing what she would consider adequate debate of the issue. The sad thing is I wish we did have more open debate about Israel in Jewish communities and there are people stifling it. It’s because of people like Alice that those people have the upper hand and fear dominates our discussion. It’s because of her that their fear is partially based on reality, even if it ends up hurting Jews as we’re forced to whisper our views for fear of outsiders using our words against us. To attack us. As Jews. As Israelis. She refuses to see that she is an outsider or that she has any privilege as a non-Jew. Being a human rights lawyer apparently gives her free reign to evangelize like her colonial forefathers, to decide the acceptable limits of debate in a community not her own. Persecuted by her own to this day.
What was particularly baffling is that Alice is herself a product of colonialism. Though perhaps this explains her chaos. She is an Anglophone living in Wales, a territory violently subjugated and conquered by the British. The majority of Wales now speaks English- both because of British colonists like Alice’s family and because of the state’s suppression of the language. When I suggested she was being a bit of a hypocrite for the disproportionate attention she places on Israel rather than tending to her own backyard, she grew incredulous.
“You don’t know anything about my family! My mom wasn’t even born in Wales, she was born in Kenya.”
My jaw dropped so hard it almost broke through the table. “Your mom was born in Kenya? When it was a British colony?”
“Yes, but it’s not my fault.”
I suppose it’s not. Just like it’s not the fault of millions of Jews who’ve made their way to Israel to escape oppression. When no other country would have us. Even from countries like Slovenia where to this day, Jews are struggling for government support in reclaiming our Holocaust and Communist-era property. In a continent that just weeks ago saw a massive neo-Nazi march in Germany, is it too much to ask for a little empathy?
As if these two hooligans couldn’t get any dumber, part of the reason they came here was to learn about the “glories” of Slovenian socialism. A country so utterly decimated by this hapless system that to this day, you can quickly recognize which cities the communists ruined. By their ugly architecture, environmental degradation, and plaques commemorating thousands of political prisoners. I suppose Slovenian socialism would make for a fun dinner table conversation at a British potluck, but Slovenians are too busy healing from this nightmare to attend. Perhaps their friends in other poor Eastern European EU countries are cleaning up after your party. After all, wealthy Brits do like this part of the world for cheap labor. Quite a number of Romanians I’ve met used to work in London- and many made a point to say they had never made a British friend. One man actually told me he made more Pakistani and Arab friends than native-born Brits.
After reaching a crescendo where I started to notice our volume was disturbing the other patrons, I felt bad for the people sitting near us and brought things to an end. Despite Alice’s repeated begging for me to just see how I was wrong, how my feelings weren’t justified. How Israeli expansionism was somehow different and worse than the British in Wales or the Chinese in Tibet. That we were just so terrible- and that I was ridiculous for feeling she had something “against me”.
By this point, any benefit I got from the conversation had evaporated. I dug deep and skillfully managed to wrap up the conversation politely by wishing them safe travels. We parted ways.
The main benefit- and it was quite insightful- was that I got was to understand the mentality of left-wing authoritarians. Well-educated, polite anti-Semites. People happily defending the Islamic ummah, justifying anti-Semitism, celebrating the 1950s, and using nationalism as the primary basis for people’s rights. People oddly reminiscent of the far-right they hate. The main difference being who they hate, not that they hate.
I left fuming. Fuming because I had just been berated by lousy anti-Semites dressed in chique clothing and shrouded in law degrees and fancy language. But no different in mentality than any other anti-Semite. Their weapon may be their pocketbook and their Amnesty International meetings. Rather than the crowbar of a neo-Nazi. But their effect is the same- to degrade the Jewish people and hold us to an unfair, unequal, and unjustifiable standard applied to no other nation. That’s why every other nation’s problems are “different”, but ours are worthy of boycotts. Adam even suggested that Israel should be an “or lagoyyim”, a light unto the nations. Something I told him is actually a racist concept and holds us to an unreasonable standard. As if him mouthing two Jewish words made him less of a bigot towards his own people.
I also felt quite proud afterwards. In the face of senseless hatred, rather than getting sucked into the vortex of black-and-white abusive thinking they wanted me to step into, I had managed to show empathy and nuance. In one conversation, I managed to defend the humanity of Palestinians, settlers, Jews, linguistic minorities, Muslims, and Israelis. And to challenge the myths behind many cookie cutter narratives about each of these groups. I’ve only shared a piece of the conversation, but I noticed that I held my middle ground and showed understanding for myself, my people, and all the groups mentioned. Groups that are known for tearing each other to pieces.
I walked around until I found a cell phone store. A young man was behind the counter and we started talking. He was Slovenian but with quite a beautiful British accent. Marko’s father was British- apparently other Slovenian kids made fun of him for it. Why? I’m not quite sure. I suppose simply because he was different, a minority, a Brit where the British weren’t King.
We talked about my travels and my roots. He told me about non-Slovenian Slavic immigrants discriminated against in Slovenia. People, in his view, now increasingly woven into the fabric of his country. Which he liked. He listened attentively and kindly as I shared my family’s experience with anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.
He was so empathic. I suggested he visit the Jewish Museum and he enthusiastically looked it up in front of me and said he’d visit. He was really impressed that I was visiting local sites, not just popping by to see the big castle and move on to Vienna. It’s worth noting here that the British folk, when I suggested they visit the Jewish museum, gave a polite nod and seemed rather disinterested. Would that they had just one ounce of compassion for the Jews of the country they’re visiting that they have for Palestinians.
Marko taught me about a lot Slovenia. Its history, its problematic expulsions of minorities including ethnic Germans, and his feeling that things are getting better. He even showed me crazy long spreadsheets he has to deal with at work. And we laughed at the passive-aggressive notes his colleagues leave in the Google Docs.
As I left, Marko said something that really struck me.
“Grab your heritage and explore! Go for it!”
Then it really hit me. What Marko and I shared in common was not a religion, not a nationality, not much in terms of the typical labels we hear each day. On Tinder, in our passport, when people introduce themselves.
What we shared in common is that we’re members of a tribe I’ll call the “empaths”. People who care about other people. And not just those who fit their worldview. The people who, instead of spewing hatred at a cafe or boxing people in, encourage others. Growing, changing, and living mostly in those colorful shades between black and white.
While national and cultural labels matter- and to some degree protect and connect us- I’ve discovered that the degree of a person’s empathy is the biggest predictor of whether I will like her. That your warmth and kindness is at least as important to me as how you vote for or to whom (or if) you pray.
At a time when societies are increasingly polarized and people search for the comfort of orthodoxy- be it the Bible or international human rights law- I’d rather wander with Marko and the technician from the puppet theater.
It’s hard to live without a concrete set of rules. To sometimes use “maybe”. To realize things aren’t as simple as “if Israel immediately exits the West Bank there will be peace”. Even as you agree with the thrust of the argument. Even as you have to protect yourself from people who mouth similar words to you but in order to destroy you rather than lift humanity up. That the reasons you think the way you do are just as important as what you actually think. I choose to struggle in the space where I have to create meaning and relationships for myself rather than having it dished to me by circumstance or creed.
I think religious dogma is still a problem and I’m coming to realize dogma itself is perhaps the greater problem. Someone’s “religion” could just as well be UN resolutions instead of the Quran.
Shared ideology or imagined national identity can provide a sense of community, something hard for people living in the rich textured space of the “in between”. At a time of increasing displacement, migration, and alienation from our surroundings. Where Facebook likes take precedence over human sight.
After the absurd hatred of these British anti-Semites, I’m not suddenly about to vote for Bibi and move to a settlement deep in the West Bank. Nor do I think all British people are anti-Semites. Or even all leftists, though this definitely makes me rather cautious about engaging with them.
What it does clarify for me is that my new tribe is hard to find because we’re the most loosely organized. For by our nature we are not group-thinkers. We are coherent, diverse individuals trying to live with kindness and conscience, just doing our thing. We don’t have a flag. We just grab our heritage, our art, or our heart and live. And let live.
We may never make the news because bombings bring ratings. As do wild accusations and extremist thought. Moreso than a half-Slovenian half-British guy becoming friends with a wandering Jew at a cell phone store. In need of warmth after being battered by people who, on paper, are more like him.
This story is a whole lot richer than Donald Trump’s latest tweet and some European extremists shouting about Israel as if we’re the only problem in the world. As if our very existence is the issue, rather than thousands of years of conflict and a complicated situation. Nuance isn’t in their vocabulary, which is how they make the front page. Or in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, into Parliament.
My story matters. And next time I meet a smug, privileged European who wants to lecture me about how strong and powerful and irrational Israel is, how Palestinians aren’t anti-Semitic, that we deserve to be killed. Instead of sitting with them until I can pay the bill, I’ll walk inside, settle, and leave. I have nothing to say to people like this anymore.
I’ll be talking with actual Muslim friends instead of waxing sentimental about the Ummah. I’ll be socializing with real Slovenians or Romanians instead of reminiscing about the socialism that harmed their families. And I’ll be standing up for the Jewish people and all people wherever you come to harm them. No human being deserves hatred and violence.
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