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 🙂

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 😉

Israeli lives matter

Today, I took the train south to Sderot.  Sderot is a city in southern Israel, spitting distance from Gaza.  As of November 2007, 6311 Palestinian rockets have fallen on the town.  At that time, 75% of children suffered from PTSD.  By the beginning of June, Palestinian terrorists had set 3,000 separate fires, destroying 2,500 acres of Israeli farmland and parks.  And there have been both rocket and fire kite attacks since.

I wanted to see things with my own eyes.  Knowing that there are still fires- and the risk that I could get caught in one- I went.  I went with the best knowledge available, consulting with locals.  Ultimately embracing what one person said when I asked if there were fires today: “you can’t know”.

Living in Tel Aviv, you don’t feel this at all.  The beach, the nightclubs, the hummus- the buzz.  You’d have no idea radical Islamic terrorists are trying to breach our border- and have launched rockets and flammables at us.  Tel Aviv feels utterly normal, like most of the country.

As I walked from the Sderot train station, nothing seemed strange.  The people seemed normal, there were trees and businesses.  Is it possible I went to the wrong city?  Maybe the fires were elsewhere?  A cabbie told me otherwise, but maybe he was wrong.

I walked closer to the border.  Sderot is .62 miles from Gaza.  A kibbutz next to it, Nir Am, is 800 meters from Hamas territory.  I physically stood one mile from Gaza today.

I asked around the kibbutz to find where the scorched land was.  Admittedly an odd question, but because Israelis are always willing to help, a man actually gave me a ride to the burnt fields.  Before picking up his daughter from school.

I asked him how it was living there and he said: “I don’t know the right word, it’s not that we’re used to it because you never really can be.  The fires happen.  We survive.”

He told me how he has to explain Palestinian terrorism to his 5 year old.  His two year old doesn’t yet have the words to understand it.

My heart broke.

I dare any of my “enlightened” left-wing friends in America who have more often than not heaped meaningless bile at my country.  I dare them to look that 5 year old in the face and call her an occupier.  That somehow she deserves to have her playground melted, her trees burnt, her childhood robbed.  While you sit pretty on Native American land you know literally nothing about.  But feel utterly entitled to.  While we are actually from here.

I bid the man goodbye and told him my heart is with him.  I could tell he was moved- not many Tel Avivis come visit this part of Israel.  Especially now- though they should.

I headed towards a high point.  He said I could see the burnt fields.  To me, the fields just looked kind of like the Great Plains in America, but with shorter grass.  I didn’t really understand what was so grave.  Until I noticed the color.  The ground was dark- a charcoal black.  And I looked on a map and realized- this wasn’t the Great Plains.  This used to be a forest.

An almost completely leveled forest.  But for a few trees bravely peeking out, embarrassed at their nakedness.  Surrounded by slivers of their former friends.  Burnt to a crisp.  Like an onion on a grill, but with all the water sucked out, and a dry carcass left to rot.

This scene was as far as the eye could see.  I was probably looking at Gaza without realizing it.

What was astonishing was how normal the rest of the kibbutz was.  If you didn’t really know what had happened, you’d think it looked quite pretty.  And it is.  And the people there, quite typical for an Israeli town.

Then you look at the ground.  You notice the dirt is light brown.  Except in certain large patches, where it is pitch black.  I leaned down and grabbed a handful.  There was nothing soil-like about it.  It was soot.  Ash.  The cremated remnants of a forest once planted there.  A place with picnics and fun.  Now destroyed in the name of greed, fanaticism, and violence.

What I also didn’t realize until writing this blog, is that Hamas actually buries tunnels under this kibbutz.  Probably under my feet.  To smuggle weapons and to kill Israelis like me.

Some people on the far-left like Jeremy Corbyn call Hamas his “friends”.  Others think it’s some sort of peaceful liberation movement- that calls to “liberate Palestine” (from me) are somehow equivalent to women’s liberation or gay liberation.  The delusional Chicago Dyke March, which last year kicked Jews out for waving a Star of David pride flag, this year waved dozens of Palestinian flags.  And said “all anti-racist work must inherently be anti-Zionist“, without recognizing the irony of becoming anti-Semites themselves.  And aligning themselves with a nationalistic movement that’s utterly homophobic.

The reality is Hamas is anything but progressive.  In Gaza, it bans women from smoking, Palestinian hip-hop concerts, dog walking (yes), and women’s TV channels.  It’s a professional murder machine.  Its goal is to massacre me.  That’s not a metaphor- it’s its practice.  It spends millions of dollars burrowing under the earth to harm me instead of feeding its own people.  Who lack sufficient electricity, food, and job opportunities.  I hardly believe it’s solely one party’s fault- the Egyptians, the Israeli government, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority are twisted in a confusing knot.  Not easy to get out of.  But let’s stop pretending the Hamas government is an innocent teen playing with matches.  It’s manipulating its people and putting countless lives in danger.

Recently, I was in Rome.  I visited the Jewish ghetto- the second ghetto established in Europe.  For the purpose of corralling my people.  Every entrance was marked by churches on either side.  Where popes made Jews listen to sermons upon entering and leaving the ghetto.  To try to convert us to his devil worship.  And by devil worship, I don’t mean Catholicism- though the religion has more than a bit of reckoning left to do with its anti-Semitic past.  And still-locked Holocaust archives.  By devil worship I mean torturing religious text in order to demean a near-powerless minority.  Who thrive or die at your whim.

Rome is the oldest Jewish community of Europe.  And Judaism the oldest religion of Italy.  Having survived the Roman Empire who destroyed Jerusalem, countless anti-Semitic popes, Italian fascism, and Nazism- they’re still around.  And have amazing food, history, synagogues, and culture.  A testament to the resilience of my people.  They have a keen sense of who they are- and a pride in being Italian, Jewish, and quite Zionist.  They don’t live with the American Jewish sense of privilege and stability.  They are, numbering just a few thousand and only decades separated from actual fascism, quite aware of the importance of a Jewish homeland.  They don’t take it for granted.  As the golden bricks on the street, indicating Holocaust victims everywhere, make quite clear.  Never again isn’t a cute phrase to say once a year- it’s the Roman Jewish community’s personal story.

As I write this blog, I’m getting tired.  I’ve had a meaningful and exhausting day.  I slept very little last night, and I’m up late writing this blog because I think it’s important.  And it offers me some solace, even as my electricity just went out for some reason.  Meaning no air conditioning on a hot Middle Eastern night.

Life in Israel is unpredictable in some ways.  Although you can always count on warmth and deep kindness, much more frequently than I’ve experienced in American culture.  Quite similar to Italy, Cyprus, Spain, France, Romania, and Hungary where I’ve visited this year.  Begging the question are we the weirdos or are Americans far too individualistic for their own good?  Even today, as I grabbed sushi after my adventure, I met a young man who lived in Sderot.  Who, when I asked him how he felt about the recent situation, said: “I grew up near Hebron, with attacks my whole childhood, the situation here has been good the past few years.  It’s gorgeous here, come back and visit.”  We chatted, smiled, cracked some jokes.  And I ate delicious sushi- some of the best in Israel.  It’s by the train- go visit.

In short, yes my air conditioning just went out.  I could be like the French Jewish tourists who visited my tiny synagogue for Pride and complain about the water temperature at dinner.  Or I could be a human being and say: “mah laasot?  Nistader.”  What can you do?  We’ll roll with it.

Despite the incessant provocations of left-wing “do gooders” boycotting us and ridiculing our country, we’re actually really good at something they lack.  While large swaths of the American Left I once called home repeat over and over again the word “resistance”, I think they need another R word: “resilience”.

From afar I see every tweet and every sad news story turn into a 4 day mourning period (or battle), I see Israelis all the time just living.  Fully.  The guy at the sushi place who, rather than dwelling on rockets and fires, tells me about the gorgeous sites in his town.  The dad who tells his 5 year old about terrorism with a hug.  And the 5 year old who goes to school, maybe scared and also singing.  And the American oleh who visits Sderot by himself and makes a truly meaningful experience out of it.  Joking with the bus driver all the way home.  While fields nearby are burning.

Israelis know how to squeeze every last drop out of life.  Like our delicious juices, we come out sweet despite it all.  A sweetness few places can compare with, especially places that just haven’t suffered so much.  That have it a bit easier than they really understand.  So they don’t put their own issues into perspective.  And live in a constant state of chaos- some of which is perpetuated by their own lack of self-awareness.  Or of the problems facing others.  Like the 50,000 Syrian refugees crowding the Israeli border in fear or the brave Iranians protesting their dictatorship today.  My neighbors.

If there’s something I could wish for America, it’s that you had a few more problems.  Real problems.  Not problems you’re fighting about on behalf of other people, but problems you have to face.  I know- that sounds a bit harsh.  Perhaps it’s my Israeli bluntness.  But having some real toughness in your life can give you the chance to overcome it, to master, to learn to roll with the punches.  So that next time something bad happens, you’re not spending hours on Facebook.  You’re acknowledging it, moving on, and living.  Like my friend who lives in Nahal Oz, walking distance from Gaza, fields burning, studying for her exams and planning a pub night for friends.  It’s harder than seeing a racist tweet and she also turns out happier.  I think it’s no accident that Israelis turn up as some of the happiest people in the world on survey after survey.  Because if you can manage to find joy while your town is on fire, you can pretty much handle everything.

As I left Nir Am, I looked at a desolate field.  Burnt, brown, empty.  And I noticed one little green plant.  Just making its way above the decay.  Blossoming.  A source of new hope.

This plant is like Israel, like the Jewish people.  Every time someone comes to destroy us, a little remnant stubbornly survives, keeps our people going.  Even when those around us decry our “tribalism”, its our very sense of identity that keeps us alive.  Which is why there’s a Jewish state but no Akkadian one.  We live our heritage.

As someone who is a PTSD survivor, like a lot of Sderot and a lot of Israel- I feel at home here.  We are people who know how to survive- and actually turn it into an advantage because we can thrive anywhere we’re planted.

I’m proud of the Israeli Defense Forces for keeping us safe.  And we’re not about to give up our arms to satisfy a bunch of wealthy self-indulgent critics sipping fair-trade coffee in Seattle.  Living in the labyrinth of confusion about why anyone could possibly disagree with the Editorial Board of the New York Times or the latest NPR story.  A fragile and self-reinforcing bubble much in need of a gentle pop.  For the sake of America itself.

If you want to know why I visited Nir Am and Sderot today, it’s because I love my fellow man.  I love my people.  I care about others- I love my friends.  The Jewish people is a story of resilience.  Our anthem is hope.  Join us, help us sing it, so that one day, instead of fiery balloons, maybe our neighbors will play with the normal kind.  At a bilingual fair.  A future of dreams and love.

In the meantime, we’re standing guard.  We won’t be sent to the fire again.

 

My last day as a Liberal

For those of you who haven’t been reading American news (which would be most of the world- America is 4.3% of the world’s population), it has been a politically charged week.  Immigrant families detained at the border have been separated- children from their parents.  This is incredibly sad– the journey to America was probably scary enough for these kids, and now they’re without their parents.  Even in jail.

What’s also sad is how the American Left, which I once called home, has been reacting to this news.  In opposing the President’s policy, I’ve seen friends on Facebook suggest moving to Canada (and that Canada should build a wall to keep Americans out) and that Trump is “pure evil destroying civilization itself”.  I’ve seen people pouring out rage, scolding others for being silent- saying silence is assent.  I’ve seen many- too many- Holocaust references.  One person wrote “it starts with 2,000 and ends with 6 million”.  Another person called the detention centers “concentration camps”.  I wrote to her that I also opposed the policy and wanted her to consider rephrasing because my family was murdered in concentration camps.  She wrote back “I’m sorry your family suffered that but…” and then quoted me a dictionary definition of concentration camps.

The American Left is sick.  Not sick like disgusting- sick like ill.  Perhaps partially in the face of an equally bombastic President unwilling to consider other points of view, they’ve become a mirror image of his rhetoric.  “Facts have a liberal bias”, “which side are you on?”, “silence is complicity”, “no tolerance for intolerance”.  Trigger-happy accusations of racism and any -ism which actually obscure when those isms are a true danger.  People are afraid- this is a confusing time for America.  Unfortunately, some people in the ideology I once called home are using it as an opportunity to engage in a witch hunt against anyone who disagrees with them.  Which only prolongs the conflict plaguing that land.

I grew up being taught liberal politics- at home and at school and at synagogue.  There are still values I identify with- diversity, gender and sexual empowerment, fairness, and others.  And there are some really problematic ones I’ve come to discover as I’ve embarked on my own journey of visiting communities I knew little about.  And in discovering the multifaceted texture of living in Israel, my home.

Some of the problems are that liberalism, progressivism, left-wing activism- when practiced in an orthodox fashion- promotes diversity, but not diversity of thought.  People who stray from the “path” are labeled as prejudiced and ignorant, in need of education.  Rather than understood as full human beings capable of disagreeing for reasons both based in fact and not.  I know what I’m talking about because I used to think this way.  Like the people in the Democratic party who rail against any elected official who strays from their views.  They are called “DINOs”- Democrats in Name Only.  While I think some politicians modify their views for insincere reasons, I don’t think we should call out every elected official (or private individual) who happens to have a different point of view.  Like a pro-life Democrat, or a pro-gay rights Republican.  Or an independent, like me at the moment, who doesn’t really care for party labels and rooting on Election Day like it’s a national sport.  Although it is kind of fun to watch the votes come in 😉

When I worked in progressive politics (for Obama twice, for several immigrant rights groups, on many Democratic campaigns), I noticed something problematic from the start.  Democrats and Republicans function as teams.  When one of yours is in power, the vast majority of voters and elected officials on your team don’t openly criticize him or her.  Obama, for instance, deported more immigrants than George W. Bush, one the reasons I left his Administration.  There are complicated reasons for this- I disagreed with the policy and I also think (in retrospect) that governments have an obligation to secure borders and provide safety to those who reside within them.

At the time, even the Latino advocacy group I worked at mostly stayed silent.  While there weren’t the heart-wrenching pictures you’re seeing today on social media, Obama’s policy separated hundreds of thousands of families.  And I didn’t see any superstorm of rage on my social media or accusations of treason.  There are many reasons for this- for advocacy groups, they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them (both elected officials and liberal foundations).  They want access, and the Administration told them (I recall specific conversations with other non-profit colleagues) that if they openly criticized the President, they’d be invited to fewer White House meetings.  The dynamics and economics of politics and non-profit organizations is a difficult one- people have reasons for acting the way they do.  And I feel it’s deeply hypocritical to only call out behavior you disagree with when the person in power is from the “other team”- in this case, Donald Trump.

The other day I was lucky to be on vacation in Italy.  I was on a train winding through the South when I happened to sit next to an American.  She was an Italian language professor in the States in Italy for a conference- paid for by her university.  Not bad.  We had some friendly chit chat- I often am nervous talking to Americans these days since so many on the progressive end of the spectrum hate Israel.  Often obscured by politeness  but never far beneath the surface.  Who love the beaches of Tel Aviv and then go build their “Israeli apartheid walls” on campus.

The professor’s face looked grave.  “It’s hard to teach in the humanities these days.  We should enjoy it while it lasts.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to come to the conference next year.”  She paused, an empty silence, waiting for my response.  And I let the silence stand.

Here’s some cold dark truth for you: you’re lucky to have a job where someone pays you to go to Italy.  Yes, funding for the humanities I’m sure is down and job opportunities are decreasing- I considered a PhD in Linguistics and the odds aren’t great.  And I live in a country where 50 rockets fell on my friend’s kibbutz while I was on vacation.  Where Iran fired missiles at our northern border a few weeks ago.  Where I live alongside Darfur genocide survivors and Jews expelled from Iraq and Syria.  I have a friend who’s a Burmese refugee who hasn’t been home in 20 years because of his country’s ruthless dictatorship.  I’ve personally lived through air raid sirens, being racially profiled at a checkpoint (which was awful and I think also protects people overall), rocket alerts on my phone, suspicious packages being disarmed in front of me, and I’ve actually watched bombs go off in the Syrian Civil War.  Meters away from where I stood.  A war which, by the way, the American Left practically ignores.  I can’t remember a single picture of my friends rallying for Syrian lives.  Because that doesn’t fit into a simple picture, a black-and-white world vision.  And because, let’s be honest, it’s not in America.  America’s problems come first for America, no matter how small they truly are in comparison with the rest of the world.  Just ask the 350,000 Syrians who can’t read this right now.

Despite the terror that Israelis, that Syrians, that Kurds, that so many people face- on a level Americans can’t even imagine- I don’t see any progressives rallying for us.  When hundreds of rockets fall on my country, I don’t see Facebook light up with support.  In fact, I don’t see anything at all.  The only time it does light up is with sympathy for Palestinians.  Which I think is totally fine- if you also sympathize with us.  With all human beings.  The problem is that’s not what’s happening.  Israeli lives don’t matter to large swaths of the American Left.  That’s how I feel as an Israeli who once called that community home.  Who voted and volunteered for Bernie Sanders, who was a pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention that nominated Barack Obama.  Perhaps I partially left you, Left, but I think you know you also left me.  If my vote is up for grabs, you’ve got issues.

I understand the appeal of easy answers.  When I was struggling to find my steadiness, ideology helped me feel a sense of sturdiness.  I read with great passion anarchist, socialist, communist- any -ist- readings.  Some of the ideas I think are stimulating and I try to find something to learn from in every community or background.

And there is a dangerous, if comforting, continuity to these ideas.  If we just did A, B, & C, everything would be ok.  If we pulled out of trade deals, if we had open borders, if we passed Obamacare, if we removed all our military bases, if we (as people have suggested in rally signs this week) dismantled our border control.  If we, if we, if we.  Then everything would be great.

This is a lie.  It is a lie to make people feel stronger and I think it ends up inflaming conflict rather than softening people’s hearts and creating shared hope.  I used to feel quite confident in my prescriptions.  And now, I’ve learned to live in the space where I’m not sure there are solutions.  Or the solutions that exist require great empathy for all parties involved because they’re complex and people have reasons for their feelings.

The thing I most see as contributing to a healthy world is understanding.  Including of those who disagree with you.  So that even when you argue, like my Israeli atheist friend who studies with a Hasidic rabbi, you can pat each other on the back and say “see you next week”.  That’s not a fantasy- that’s everyday life for many, many Israelis.  Who sit on top of a gift that America would be wise to learn from.  Israelis, Jewish or Arab, secular or Orthodox, are not shy about their views.  We’re much blunter than Americans- we’re famous for it.  And I’ve noticed that Israelis, on a day-to-day basis, manage to interact with people of very different backgrounds with a lot less conflict than Americans.  And a lot less passive aggressive withdrawal.

Yes, that might sound shocking given what people see on CNN, but Israelis actually mostly get along.  Perhaps because we live with conflict, we know how to manage it better.  And live our lives in deeply fulfilling ways.  Appreciating each breath as a gift.  Without obsessing over every racist tweet or faux pas for days on end.  We might feel sad (or cheer) and move on.  If we took extended mourning periods for every loss or problem, we wouldn’t move.  So instead, we live our lives.  In a way that Americans could really learn from.  From us- we have something that can help you.  It’s not America’s job to wander the world lecturing other countries.  God’s voice is sprinkled all over this planet.

Barack Obama, whose first campaign I worked on, had a positive contribution to the national dialogue: hope.  Whether or not you agree with him (I’ve felt both ways at different times), he brought a certain optimism to the conversation.  He used to say “there’s nothing wrong in America that can’t be fixed with what’s right in America”.  A kind of brightness lacking in the activism I see in today’s progressive thought.

When I look at America from afar, in my homeland of Israel, I feel deep sadness and anger.  A distance.  Sadness because I see society falling apart.  People unable to get along with each other.  A poisoned conversation among people who barely seem to recognize the humanity of someone who thinks differently.  I know there are Americans who feel like I do, it’s just hard to find them when living in the Mediterranean now that I’ve come to this understanding.  I wish you luck in healing that place- you have a friend in me.

I feel anger when I see American leftists bashing my country, comparing every Donald Trump action to the Holocaust, pulling their hair out without even acknowledging drastic problems affecting the rest of the world.  Yes, problems worse than a racist Roseanne Barr tweet.

America- I don’t miss you.  Although your Thai noodles are superior to Israel’s.  This is my home.  And I do want you to find serenity.  A way forward that acknowledges the best in progressive and conservative thought.  Because both (and many other types of thinking) have value and deserve an honest debate.  Rather than, on both extremes, a hate fest worthy of the 1860s.  When Americans killed each other at the other end of a barrel.  Instead of at a polling booth.

The last thing your country- or the world- needs is another group of people peeling apart at the seams.  I don’t have the solution, just try to see each other as humans.  Each interaction throughout your day can bring a bit more hope to the world.  Love, even when it’s hard.

I’m rooting for you America, even if my heart is deep in the East.

p.s.- the cover photo is from a coexistence mural in the Israeli Bedouin village of Jisr Al-Zarqa.  Maybe it’s time to get painting on the other side of the ocean as well 😉