Sabra supremacism

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post called “Jewish Supremacy“.  This post is an attempt to update, and expand upon the initial theory.

In the midst of a tumultuous and difficult immigration to Israel, I was trying to understand why things were the way they were here.  In Israel, as in every country, there is a hierarchy.  And, as articulated by the nature of the state itself, here the concept is that this is the land of the Jews.  Everyone else has some degree of rights (or in the case of African refugees, basically none at all), but ultimately this country was created for Jews.  It is no different than how France is for the French or Germany for the Germans- which is why third generation Moroccans in Marseilles are still considered “Moroccan”.  There are degrees of French-ness and if your ancestors are Moroccan, you can certainly become more French (to the extent you distance yourself from your exotic roots), but you can’t become fully French.  Because, although this will irritate the hell out of French republicans, French civic identity cannot and has not ever entirely replaced French ethnic identity.  Which is why the racist Front National continues to gain in popularity as the most manifest, but hardly the only, representation of this problem.

In the case of Israel, I got it wrong.  Not entirely wrong, but I misunderstood who is actually at the top here.  I hinted at it, but my understanding of the structure here needs a little updating.  I wrote:

“In Israel, who’s on top?  Jews.  And specifically, the more ‘Israeli’ or ‘sabra’ a Jew is, the more privilege she has.  European (but not too Jewish-looking), physically fit, masculine, a loyal soldier, blunt, and aggressive.  Imitating Arabs but never being one.  This doesn’t describe all Israelis, but it does describe many of their ideals.  The darker you are, the more Diasporic you are, the more pacifist or effeminate you are- the more push back you’ll get.

In short, the Israeli ideal is not just different from the Judaism I grew up with in America- it’s the opposite.  It despises my Judaism.  My compassion for the other.  My social justice.  My love for diversity and all cultures, religions, and language.  It despises my interest in Hasidim as much as it despises my empathy for Palestinian refugees.”

All of this is correct, but one part is off.  Jews are not on top here.  The sabra, or “native-born Israeli” is.  And in fact, in order for him or her to be so, it requires colonizing and indeed disfiguring Jews themselves.

In other words, the rest of the social hierarchy stands- but the word “Jew” here is problematic.

What few people understand about Zionism, and I’ve only been able to articulate recently, is that it is as much a colonialism of Judaism itself as it is of the various non-Jewish minorities in our midst.  Not just of Judaism, but of the Jewish human being.  While some refer to this phenomenon as the “negation of the Diaspora”, I think it should be more properly termed “negation of the Jewish self”, or simply negation of self.

Every country on the planet is a product of some form of colonialism.  By colonialism I mean the imposition of an elite which uses the pressure of the state to enact a certain conformity that allows it to rule.

Often this takes the shape of cultural hegemony- or homogenization.  In most countries, this is reflected in the imposition of an official language, even though the very concept of a language is relative and every country consists of multiple tongues or at a minimum, dialects.  In fact, in countries where people consider themselves as speaking the same language, a specific dialect is held up to be superior.  It is often the dialect of the capital, or power center, like Parisian French.  Or at times it is usually a composite dialect that nobody actually spoke as a native language, like Hochdeutsch, or as you know it, “German”.  American Broadcast English, which many Midwesterners mistakenly think is their own, is the same concept.  (A quick visit to your maaaam and dyeaaads in Chicoaaaago will disabuse you of this nonsense).  Standard Yiddish follows the same concept.  As developed by YIVO, is primarily based on the Lithuanian prestige dialect, but with features that nobody in Lithuania actually used, such as the “oy” in “broyt”, or bread.  Which a Litvak would’ve pronounced “breyt”.

Yiddish is an instructive example here.  What you might notice in the case of Parisian French, the composite “Hochdeutsch” German, or American Broadcast English, is the presence of the state.  None of these dialects would have been able to take root as admired speech without the intervention of the state.  If it weren’t for state control, students in Provence would still be learning in Provençal (as they had for centuries), Bavarian would the medium of education in southern Germany, and Americans wouldn’t giggle at Southern accents for sounding so different than the “educated” folks they hear on the news.

An American sits waiting for his brain surgeon to arrive and then hears him say: “well, we’re gonna get up in there and give it a lil twist and a bump and we’ll git r outta there, dontchu worry!”  And the patient, if he is anything like me or most Americans, would smile and nervously ask for a new doctor.  Prestige dialects have massive implications for social relations, and tend to privilege certain people over others.  Namely, those who master the dialects over those who for a variety of reasons, don’t.

Which brings us back to Yiddish.  In the case of France, Germany, and the U.S., the state had the power to impose its preferred dialect via the media, schooling, and the manifold ways in which it directs social interactions.  In the case of Bavarian, a dialect I admittedly know little about, there is an interesting tidbit in the Wikipedia article:

“In contrast to many other varieties of German, Bavarian differs sufficiently from Standard German to make it difficult for native speakers to adopt standard pronunciation. All educated Bavarians and Austrians, however, can read, write and understand Standard German, but may have very little opportunity to speak it, especially in rural areas. In those regions, Standard German is restricted to use as the language of writing and the media.”

This paragraph is followed by the following sentence:

“Bavaria and Austria officially use Standard German as the primary medium of education.”

In other words, the only reason Bavarians speak Standard German is because of schools and the media.  It was never a native language in Bavaria, a region that nobody today would doubt is thoroughly German.  So German it is the land of lederhosen and beer and frankly most things you’d associate with being German.  Yet the language spoken in official settings is not its own.  It’s questionable whether, until the advance of the German state, its dialect (or as some would define it, language) would have even been called German.  An interesting paradox that leads to more questions, especially as Bavaria is one of the most nationalistic regions of the country.  It’s a common theme- people forced to distance themselves from their own identities often become un-rooted and aggressive.  Which is why some of the angriest, most nativist Americans today are descendants of 19th century Irish immigrants who weren’t even considered white at the time.

Which brings us back to Yiddish.  Unlike standard French, German, and English, Yiddish never had a state apparatus.  So while the standard dialect is used for instruction in a variety of Yiddish programs (including the one I did), it never took hold like the other languages.  It influenced Yiddish literature, but it never became a received pronunciation.  Which is why Yiddish, somewhat akin to Arabic (which has no standard spoken dialect), has managed to retain impressive phonological linguistic diversity.  Arabic has a standard literary form based on the Quran that every educated Arab has knowledge of, but because Arab political entities never constituted a single state in modern times, it has never caught on as a spoken language.  There was no power strong enough in the Arab world to wield this prestige form as a uniform dialect.  Which is why it is relegated to newspapers, formal speeches, and Al Jazeera.  Nobody actually speaks it.

Even in states where there is official linguistic pluralism, such as the quadrilingual Swiss, still exert linguistic boundaries.  Which is why Romansch, a native tongue, is an official language with 40,299 speakers, but Serbian with 161,882, is not.

Standardization in the case of minority tongues such as Yiddish and Catalan serves a slightly different function without a State to back it.  In this case, it can help preserve the existence of the language itself under the onslaught of the various assimilating forces.  Yet I have no doubt that if you were to put a YIVO Yiddishist or a Catalan linguistic planner in office in a theoretical Yiddishland or Catalan State, they would enthusiastically suppress alternate dialects.

Most national languages take the name of the state they inhabit.  French in France, German in Germany, Italian in Italy, etc.  The colonialist impulse is internal- to exterminate Provençal, Bavarian, and Venetian in the name of the new power.  The homogenization is of cultures lying without the boundaries of the new polity.  Such as Italy, a country only 150 years old, composed of regions so diverse that they literally used to war with each other.   The notion of an Italian language would probably seem laughable to a 19th century Venetian.  A language only about as old as the Italian state itself.

Yet in the case of nations established through external colonialism, such as the United States, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela, or Israel, the prestige language almost always takes a different name.  Which is why English (or English and French) is the official language of the U.S. and Canada.  Spanish, that of Argentina and Venezuela.  And in Israel’s case, Hebrew.  Although there are some heterodox scholars who have chosen to call it “Israeli”.  This is because the new state’s elite arrived from elsewhere.  After having tamed diversity in their backyard, the English set their sights on the “New World”.  And the new elite there, who initially were considered part of England itself, consequently called their language English.  Which leads to the daft situation in which American nativists shout at newly arrived refugees: “you’re in America, speak English!”  An irony unfortunately not lost on far too many Americans.

The case of Israel is similar, but in a sense unique.  Because Jews did not have a state of our own for 2,000 years, when coming to a new land, what would the new elite speak?  If they brought their languages from the Diaspora, not only would you have a mishmash of tongues, you’d also be speaking languages “distorted” by the very Diaspora oppressors Zionists were escaping.  In other words, for Zionists reaching for a new reality, to speak Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) would be to speak languages infiltrated by the vocabulary of non-Jewish oppressors.  The languages, as I see it, are unique testaments to the ability of Jews to fuse (and re-fuse) the influence of other cultures while creating something uniquely ours.  But to the Zionists seeking to create a Jewish state, they reeked of the influence of the oppressor.  A very real oppression, as the history of anti-Semitism shows.  Which is why, ultimately, their political plans have succeeded in part.  Without the persistent past (and sadly, present) existence of anti-Semitism, a Jewish state would have been unlikely to succeed.  Its political program is dependent on the need of Jews to escape, a need which anti-Semites have continued to provide in excess.

The problem is that in establishing a claim to the ancient Land of Israel, Zionists would have a tougher image to uphold if they continued speaking the natural languages of Jews in the Diaspora.  Because to speak Yiddish is to acknowledge coming from somewhere else.  That even if our ancestors indeed roamed this land ages ago, Yiddish itself is part and parcel of our life outside this land.  It is hard to stake a claim to a place while speaking the language you’ve spoken in the intervening two millennia- outside of it.

Some early Zionists proposed Yiddish as the language of the infant national project.  Indeed, you can find archival documents throughout Israel, though rarely on display, of early settlers writing in Yiddish through the 1920s.  Like I found in Zichron Yaakov, one of the first modern Zionist cities.  It’s the natural, native, and heritage language of Ashkenazi Jewry, so why wouldn’t you speak it?  Yet the internal paradox was too strong.  And perhaps the prospect of future migrations from non-Ashkenazi communities would make Yiddish more of a liability and cultural lightning rod than an asset to building a coherent state.  If everyone had to give up their Jewish cultures, then perhaps it’d be easier to build a new national identity.

Hebrew, a language nobody had spoken for well over a thousand years, became the new national language of Israel.  Its Semitic vocabulary a kind of verbal testament to its residents’ connection to the land.  Yet its underlying Yiddish foundations, including entire phrases translated from Yiddish, show the underlying tension in Zionism.  And of the early Zionists themselves- even of Israelis today.

Because Israeliness, like all national identities, is built on a series of illogical contradictions.  What is different, though, is that Zionists colonized their own people as much as they colonized the existing non-Jewish residents of this land.  “Their own people” at least as much as how it is portrayed today.  In other words, most Israelis identify as Jewish.  The target for their settlement enterprise was other Jews.  So in the case of America, descendants of English settlers ridiculed the Irish as non-white foreigners.  No American nativist of the 1800s saw the Irish as one of their own.

Eventually, however, as the Irish assimilated economically and adopted American English, they were granted access to whiteness.  American integration has always been about sacrificing your existing culture in order to become closer to the mainstream prestige identity.  As in every country.  So the Irish had to give up their language or if they spoke English, their brogue.  And gradually become part of the dominant white majority.  At the expense of their distinctness.

In Israel, the only difference is that Israelis have always viewed “Diaspora” Jews as their own.  Just lesser than them.  In other words, the concept of Israel is built upon “aliyah”.  The word is translated as “Jewish immigration”, but it literally means “rising up”.  Because the concept is that Jews outside of Israel are inferior, and “below” those who live here.  Especially the mythical sabra, who was born here.  The word for Jews emigrating from here (which has always existed, even before the State), is “yerida”, or “going down”.  Because to relegate yourself to a “Diasporic” existence is to live beneath the dignity and strength of the Sabra.  Of the Jews who made this country their home.

Therefore, rather than an Irish immigrant being berated by an American of English descent, here you have sabras denigrating olim like me.  The same concept, but the difference being that by necessity (since only Jews can freely immigrate here and build the nation), Jews are both object of hatred and desire.  What do I mean by that?  Because Israel needs Jewish immigrants to grow, it emphasizes its Jewishness and its leadership in the Jewish world.  That it is the most Jewish place for a Jew to live.  Come join us, brethren.

But the contradiction, the underlying paradox of Zionism, is that nation building here requires hating Jews too.  Because if Hebrew-speaking, falafel-eating sabras aren’t *better* than their Diaspora counterparts, why should Jews move here?  If we’re not better, why should we stay rather than enjoying an almost universally more comfortable life in America?

In other words, Israel has to love and hate other Jews to exist.  If it only hates them, nobody will move here and the national project will collapse.  If it only loves them, their own new identity is thrown into question (why fix something that isn’t broken?) and it raises the question of why to live here at all.  There are Jewish communities elsewhere- as thousands of Israelis discover each year when they move abroad.  Nobody would claim living here is easy.

Therefore, when a new oleh (“one who rises up”) moves here, like me, they have to be both welcomed and shunned.  Welcomed as a new participant in the national project, but shunned and pressured into becoming like the sabra ideal.  Aggressive, masculine, Hebrew-speaking, confident, proudly symbolically Jewish.  Wearing a Jewish star and serving in the IDF, muscular.  But not too bookish, not too interested in Yiddish or gefilte fish or the very Jewish identity they held dear outside this country.

Of course, it should be said that not all sabras vigorously hold to this ideal.  There are sabras who question the national narrative, including the wonderful Yael Dekel who makes Yiddish YouTube videos and songs.  Interestingly, where the Yiddish persona she has constructed is overtly religious to a fault- even though most 20th century Yiddishists were not religious at all.  In other words, the persona itself is a representation of Israeli understandings of Diaspora Jews as pious, even though that doesn’t match up with reality.  The early sabra was secular, rejecting this vision of Judaism.  Which explains some of the intense conflict because the secular elite here and the rising religious minority that threatens its standing.  Using the same nationalist language (to an extreme) that the early sabra used to establish himself here.  Now having established himself, wishing its spawn would refocus on the national project’s stability.  Rather than protruding into the West Bank, where 3.5 million Palestinians threaten Israel’s Jewish majority.  But to what degree can you really fault a religious settler in a West Bank outpost for simply expounding upon the founding principles of the country?  Isn’t hityashvut, or settlement, the very process that brought this state into being?  Indeed, every state that today lines the map of the Americas?

So the point is not that all sabras hate Jews outside of Israel.  Indeed, I hope that if more sabras follow Yael’s model and try to connect to their Jewish roots from outside this land, they might soften a bit and gain some authentic confidence.  Something I noticed when I taught Yiddish in Tel Aviv.  What I want to highlight is that the concept of push and pull (love and hatred of the “foreign” Jew) is the extant organizing concept for the society.  You can choose to adhere to it or reject it to varying degrees, as Yael bravely does to an extent when she sings in the “Diasporic” Yiddish language.  But it is the principle by which one measures your degree of Israeli-ness, and the ease with which you’ll integrate into society.  And enjoy the benefits of having power within it.

One of the points that western leftists often miss in this debacle is that Arabs, even having been colonized by Zionists, are just as capable of colonialism.  Indeed, the very concept of “the Arab world” is colonialist in its most simple sense.  Throwing aside minorities such as Copts, Assyrians, Kurds, Berbers, and indeed Jews, Arab nationalism has shown itself to just as (sometimes more) violent than Zionist nationalism.  Just the other day, at a baklava stand in Yaffo, I met a Palestinian from Ramallah working there.  Who told me the “Jewish and Christian masons” of America were going to take over the U.S. in 2022.  In Jerusalem, the WiFi password for a Palestinian cafe is “JerusalemIsOurs”.  In a city that has been multicultural since time immemorial, with a Jewish, Armenian, Muslim, and Christian quarter.  So what exactly makes this ancient city Arab or Palestinian or, for that matter, exclusively Jewish?  Arabs are not infants nor are they demons.  They are people capable of action like anyone else.  And extremist claims to territory as the exclusive possession of one group is no less colonialist than the settlers planting Israeli flags on their village lands.  We can debate the chicken and the egg until our faces turn blue, but Arab nationalism is not unique to Palestinians, nor is it entirely caused by Israeli actions.  As Arab colonialism in other countries demonstrates.  In the end, Palestinian national identity is just as fraught as any other.  And individual Palestinians choose to what degree to accept or question it, just as Israelis do with their own.  The western left makes a big mistake when it uncritically waves Palestinian flags, without realizing the irony in supporting one nationalism to supplant another.  Has that ever worked in bringing true justice and peace to workers, to the masses?

If you study the history of colonialism as it relates to the Jewish world, there are two primary forces.  One is the colonialism which targets Jews as settlers.  Often conflated with Israel, but having taken other forms in other countries.  Baron de Hirsch set up Jewish settlements in Canada and Argentina, the latter of which I’ve visited.  There’s even a cute town in Entre Ríos named Moisesville whose streets are arranged in the pattern of a Jewish star.  Built on the very real need of Jews to escape persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe, these agricultural communities were supposed to offer them a solution.  In some sense, just like Israel, they did.  Their descendants are alive, while their European cousins were not so lucky.

In another sense, though, these settlements were failures.  The Baron, often held up as an example of Jewish philanthropy, set up banks to give these Jews loans to work the land.  Yet oftentimes, the land wasn’t fertile and the banks came calling.  At times, the Baron’s institutions demanded repayment of these loans from desperately poor Jews.  There are even instances in which poor Jewish settlers in Argentina and elsewhere resented and resisted the Baron’s demands.  To what extent his intentions were noble or purely economic, I don’t know.  But there is something fishy beneath the surface when nearly every agricultural colony you establish fails.  Just like most kibbutzim.  And you receive payment from the desperate Jewish settlers, who eventually found actually profitable work in the cities.  Who actually gained here?  Clearly the Jews on some level, for having escaped persecution.  But did the Baron, and his counterparts in the land of Israel, also benefit?  It wouldn’t be the first instance of the wealthy preying on their own community- as Bernie Madoff showed.  The extensive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes overshadows the ways in which wealthy Israelis and Palestinians prey on their own people.  The “two sides” are perhaps a bit different than what we’re taught to see.

One can see traces of this conflict in the clashes between the Israeli government and American Jewry over the kotel, or Western Wall.  American Jews, who are overwhelmingly Reform, Conservative, and Secular, were promised a mixed-gender prayer space at the holiest site in Judaism.  Which has been turned into a synagogue, where men and women have to pray separately according to Orthodox tradition.  Before it was called a synagogue, men and women can be seen in photos praying their side-by-side in the 1930s.

American Jewish advocacy has been centered on three things since the advent of the state of Israel.  Combating anti-Semitism, Holocaust education, and Israel.  Jewish education has also increasingly followed these norms.  Including the education which I received.  We learned a mainstream Israeli narrative of history, about persecution in the Holocaust, and the need to strengthen our identity to combat anti-Semitism and persist as a community today.

It’s not that all of this is bad, it’s just that it’s incomplete (and some of it is dangerously so, as in the case of under-learning the difficult experiences faced by Arabs during the creation of Israel).  Jewish culture is of course partially about resisting anti-Semitism and bravely continuing our traditions in the face of adversity.  But it is also about our culture itself.  Yiddish, Ladino, Jewish art, Jewish music, our culinary innovations- these are all part of our heritage.  Yet they barely appear on the agenda of mainstream Jewish communal organizations.  Perhaps not coincidentally, they are also deeply ignored or outright opposed by much of the Israeli state apparatus.  Despite them being integral parts of Jewish experience and, as I see it, pride.

There once was a time in which American Jews loved Yiddish.  Yiddish schools dotted the land.  Our press was mostly in Yiddish (and for Sephardic Jews, Judeo-Spanish remained prominent).  I even once found a trilingual English-Yiddish-Ladino dictionary in New York.  We kept our traditions as natural outgrowths of our civilizations.

But with the establishment of the State of Israel, often with American Jewish funds and support, something changed.  Israeli teachers, sometimes shlichim or “emissaries”, were sent from the nascent state.  To teach us, ironically, how to be Jewish.  When their own state was sending policemen to break up Holocaust survivors gathering to watch Yiddish theater in Tel Aviv.

The historic accents that colored the Holy Tongue were expunged from our identity by these missionaries, and their followers.  Whereas we once said “gut shabbos”, it became fashionable to say “shabbat shalom”, a completely invented phrase.  Whereas we once talked about mitzvahs, today it’s “mitzvot”.  And our communal identity, rooted in the natural evolution of Jewish experience, became submerged by an Israeliness determined to shape us.  To shape us into potential “them”.  Falafel is in, and kugel is out.

Jewish Federations and communal organizations tried to rally American support for the nascent Israeli state, and its culture.  Not always out of malice- I think there’s reason for an American Jew to be proud of Israel in spite of all the balagan and cultural contortions here.  It’s a state that for all its complicated feelings towards Judaism itself, has managed to save countless Jewish lives when other countries neglected or outright persecuted us.  We are no less entitled to our pride than anyone else.

The problem is that because Israeli nationalism, or Zionism, is predicated on both love and hatred of Jews elsewhere, it ends in a lot of pain too.  So American Jews, who waited patiently for years to simply have a place to pray at our holy site, ended up with a slap in the face when Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled the deal.  And all the careful attempts of Jewish organizations to educate American youth to love Israel seemed fruitless.  How are we supposed to love a government that so demeans us?  That so publicly humiliates us and our identity?  Obviously many sabras feel likewise- not everyone adheres to the government line.  But in the end, the organizing principle is evident, and a lot of people support it.

The organizing principle is American Jews are great for financial support for Israel.  They are great for lobbying the American government to support Israel.  They are great for coming and settling Israel (so long as they eventually give up speaking English in their irritating Jerusalem enclaves).  They are great for paying for Israeli emissaries to come educate their Jewish youth to love Israel and to be like Israelis.

But they are not great for being American Jews.  Because to be an American Jew is to be a challenge to the notion of Zionism itself.  It is to be a paradox.  Because a good Jew is supposed to move here, to shed his layers of toxic Diasporic self, and become like us.  Which is why some Israelis would question whether you can even be a Zionist and not live here.  Which is why the sabras I met on the beach 13 years ago in Ashkelon asked me over and over again when I was making aliyah.  Something deeply confusing, if slightly flattering, at the time.  And now makes a lot of sense.  Israelis are educated about the Bible, the Holocaust, and the past 70 years of Israeli history and taught that their country is the most Jewish, best place in the world for a Jew to live.  So why wouldn’t someone move here?  Or if they do move here, maybe we should laugh at them for being suckers, for being naive Diaspora Jews *stupid* enough to buy into the Zionist narrative.  Either way, we’re lesser, whether we end up as passionate Zionists or not.

The problem is sabras aren’t educated about Jewish life outside of this country.  Not Jewish life today, nor Jewish life for the past 2,000 years.  Leaving a gaping gape in their knowledge.  About American Jews and frankly, about themselves.  That leads to a frightened nationalism that does nothing but contribute to further conflict here.  And ends up alienating the millions of American Jews who’ve been rooting for them all these years.  Striving to find the good in their society, and to support it.  Sometimes overzealously and sometimes with our own dose of American missionary attitudes, but earnestly.

So the next time a well-meaning Jewish Federation professional asks an American Jew for a donation to Israel, for a state which doesn’t permit them to worship freely at their own holy site, what is she supposed to say?  It leads to angst for both the Federation and for the Jew.  Because we feel that Israel should be a unifying, a motivating factor.  But it has now become an anchor.  And the very Federations which worked so hard to reshape American Jewish identity in the form of the sabra are now coming to realize that perhaps its a more fraught venture than they expected.  Because if American Jews want to love Israel, we don’t hate ourselves enough to support a government that denies who we are.  While sabras are taught to negate the Diaspora (and that all Jews must want the same), most American Jews are not about to give up our identity for the sake of pleasing the pushke holders in Jerusalem.

Perhaps it’s time for a new approach from Jewish communal organizations.  Many of whose professionals are simply Jews passionate about their Judaism and looking for ways to strengthen our community.  I see a new approach potentially taking shape as they become more assertive about their interests.  I long for the day when they fund more Jewish cultural initiatives, maybe it’s coming soon.  The whole enterprise is evolving now, as masks are slowly removed and reality takes a different form than many of us expected.

To go back to an earlier point, there are two forces of colonialism acting on the Jewish people.  One is from those seeking to turn us into settlers- be it Zionism or the likes of Baron de Hirsch in Argentina and elsewhere.  The other force is gentile anti-Semitism and forced assimilation.

In every country, including in the U.S., there is a strong push for Jews to abandon who they are for the sake of fitting in.  Even in America, the friendliest country to Jews perhaps in the history of our people, we have always been outsiders.  Which is why until a few decades ago, universities had Jewish quotas, fraternities didn’t let us in, and country clubs posted signs that said “no Jews, no blacks, no dogs”.

As American Jews, through sheer persistence, managed to grab hold of a bit of whiteness and become socially acceptable.  We now find ourselves represented in every facet of society, from Congress to the media to Hollywood to higher education to Silicon Valley.  We are one of the most successful Jewish communities in the history of the world.

And yet, our whiteness is contingent and incomplete.  As the terror attack on the Jewish community of Pittsburgh shows.  Not only that though.  It is that our very acceptance in society, in whiteness itself, is contingent on maintaining a certain distance from our Jewishness.  Which is why Clarkstown Councilman Peter Bradley referred to progressive Jews as “normal Jews” in contrast with the (presumably) backwards, “old world” Orthodox Jews he’s supposed to represent.  Our integration into American society is contingent on not being “too Jewish”.  Whether that’s visibly, in the case of peyos and yarmulkes, verbally in the case of our mocked “New York” accents, or politically in the case of our support for Israel itself.  America First is not just a motto for the far right- it’s one that the American left is just as capable of demanding from Jews whose loyalty it questions through faux nuance.  As Linda Sarsour recently commented that anti-Semitism is not “systemic”.  A virulent bigotry whose false sense of “nuance” is probably lost on the millions of dead Jews whose bodies line the European continent.  Sarsour claims “there are more important forms of prejudice and hate to combat” than anti-Semitism.  A claim so bigoted that if you replaced “anti-Semitism” with the word “racism”, she would been banned from every progressive circle under the sun.  It’s a claim so ironic and duplicitous that only an anti-Semite herself could say such a statement.  But I have no doubt millions of progressives, even self-hating Jews, will march with her regardless of her hatred.

Therefore, you find some Jews who abandon their Judaism in search of acceptance from the gentile society that surrounds them.  Not because acceptance is bad or that all non-Jews are bigots, but because systemically (are you listening Linda?) it is incentivized for them to do so.  The organizing principle of Christian and Islamic societies, even if not everyone chooses to fully embrace it, is that everyone should ultimately adopt their faith.  And so Jews, no matter how cultured or assimilated we become, always have to calculate just how far we need to distance ourselves from our selves to become accepted.  It leads to contorted dialogue about Judaism and Israel, especially from Jews.  Some of whom find themselves leveling criticism at Israel not for the sake of building a better future for Jews and Arabs (which is what I aspire to do), but rather to receive acceptance of anti-Semitic peers.  It is a fine narrow to thread, as of course there are legitimate criticisms of Israel (most of this blog is that, I hope).  But when it is done out of a desire to appease anti-Jewish sentiments, it becomes anti-Jewish in and of itself.

In other words, anti-Semitism seeks to colonize Jewish bodies.  By forcing us to adopt their culture and norms, or suffer the consequences.  In America, it’s usually some degree of social stigma.  In many other countries, it has taken the form of violence and persecutions.  Let’s hope American non-Jews will work hard enough to avoid that fate.

In the end, being a Jew is hard.  We’re not the only ones who have it hard.  When I find myself with a bit more time and a laptop whose battery isn’t slowly winding down, I’d like to address how these phenomena manifest themselves in the lives of Arab Israelis and Palestinians.  Not to mention cultures all of the world that are neither Arab nor Jewish.  It’s not as if we’re the only oppressed, nor the only oppressors.

I’ve written about some of these themes before, if you peruse my previous blog entries.

I’m also a person, at the end of the day, not just a blogger or a social commentator.  I write and explore to try to understand myself and the world around me.  Why I am where I am, and what might be next.  I can look around me and ponder and raise questions.  And I also have to make practical decisions.  About work, about home, about friends, about life itself.  I can observe and I also live within what I’m observing.  Which is part of what makes it interesting- there’s a reason I write a lot about Judaism because it has personal relevance for my life.  And yet it contains so many nuggets of truth that can be applied to a variety of other circumstances, from the polarization of American politics to linguistic minorities in Nepal.

I think that the countervailing forces of colonialism which the average Jew faces puts us in a tough position.  We have to calculate, if we’re wise, which prejudice to face head on and with how much effort.  Is gentile anti-Semitism or Zionist conformism a greater threat to our identity, to our sense of self, at any given moment?  And which are we better prepared to resist in order to hopefully live a fulfilling life?

Hard questions.  I suppose that in the end it’s best to embrace our Jewishness for ourselves first.  And if that’s speaking Yiddish or praying with men and women together, that’s cool.  If it’s wearing a black hat and peyos, it’s not my thing, but I like that you’re doing you. Because in the end, being true to yourself is the most human, and most Jewish thing in the world.  At least the kind of world I’m striving to create.

As for me, I suppose I hedge my bets.  As a dual American and Israeli citizen, I have the privilege and challenge of being able to live in either society.  Or, to the great frustration of some who would make me “choose”, in both.

Because in neither do I have the full freedom to be me.  But in both I find subcultures and countervailing ways in which I can express myself.  In ways the other culture might not find acceptable.

So if you see me in Tel Aviv praying on a Friday night saying “gut shabbos” or in New York questioning a white hipster waving a Palestinian flag, you’ll know that I’m living out my truth.  Wherever I find myself, doing my best to be who I am.  And wading towards who I want to be.

Ken yehi ratzoin.  May it be so.

 

Are Israelis Jewish?

Before we delve into one of the least discussed aspects of life here, I’d like to clarify a few things lest you misunderstand my intent.  Or go wandering off into anti-Israel or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, pretending identity issues don’t complicate every culture.

I am not questioning whether there is a genetic connection between Jewish people.  Various studies have shown extensive shared DNA among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other Jewish populations.  Obviously conversions, conquest, and migrations have diversified our phenotype, but by and large, Jews today share a great deal of genetic heritage.  Anecdotally, I have moments here where I think I see a Jewish friend from home, until I come closer and hear them speaking Hebrew.  While Jews come in all shapes and sizes (and of course, this observation doesn’t extend to Jews by choice), there are clearly ancestral connections between us.  My ancestors migrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, but people in Cyprus speak to me in Greek.  My own genealogical research has shown my DNA most similar to Sicilians, Palestinians, Syrians, Greeks, and Lebanese.  No ethnic Pole would mistake me for one of them.

In addition, I am not suggesting there aren’t cultural links between Israelis and Jews around the world.  Shared holidays, cuisine, religious texts, history, and family ties bind us.  Nor am I raising this critique to carry the banner of Palestinian nationalism (or any nationalism).  Sometimes accepted truths need to be questioned.  Every people’s narrative, including theirs, is worthy of critique and reevaluation to help understand our modern world better.  I’m just better positioned to talk about my own.

There is nothing significantly more natural about one country’s existence versus another.  Whether it’s the French nation, the Moroccan nation, or the American nation- borders are fairly arbitrary and cultural boundaries are far more porous than you might expect.  Until World War II, most French citizens didn’t even speak French as their first language.  Until 1549, present-day Morocco was actually ruled by Berbers, not Arabs.  For the past 2800 years, the country has been ruled by Arabs for only about 350 years, half of which was under strong European influence.  Yet today, almost everyone would think of Morocco as an Arab country, despite its significant 30% Berber minority that has not yet assimilated into Arab culture.  When Ellen DeGeneres was born in 1958, Hawaii wasn’t even a state.  The American flag had 48 stars.  And over 1/3 of Louisiana spoke French, not English, as a native language.

So now, back to Israel.

Israel is defined as a Jewish state.  Its various symbols, including the Star of David, the menorahs you see dotting every street corner this winter, the Hebrew signage, are all readily recognizable to any Jew around the world.

Yet there exists a bit of an internal paradox.  You see Israel was founded to be unlike the Jews of the Diaspora.  The express purpose of Israel is to “ingather” the “exiles”- to bring Jews to the Land of Israel.  Ideologically, presented as the only true, authentic home of the Jewish people.

This nation-building project is largely a product of both frustration with 2,000 years of Christian and Muslim persecution and the nationalism that swept the 19th century world.  It doesn’t take a great deal of creativity to see deep desires in Jewish texts and prayers to return to Zion.  It’s not as if the effort came out of nowhere.  But it was a minority movement until the 20th century and there needed to be a narrative to build the nation.

Every nation has founding myths, often rooted in a bit of truth and a lot of imagination.  America is the land of promise and opportunity, a country of hard-working immigrants that gives refuge to those seeking persecution.  An imperfect, but consistently improving place, bringing the promise of ever-greater democracy.  Of upward mobility to those willing to put their heads down and work.  A lousy narrative that the past two years has shown to be fallible, at best.  Which is why so many American progressives are baffled by the Trump phenomenon.  Because having been taught that the arc of history bends towards justice, they now see that it’s more like a chaotic pendulum that swings from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Voting Rights Act to the Muslim travel ban.  That while gay marriage is now legal, real wages haven’t changed in 40 years, income inequality has consistently increased since 1980.  Including under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Anti-gay and anti-Semitic hate crimes are increasing at an alarming rate.  But in good news, the number of bilingual immersion schools has increased fourfold in a decade.  Reminiscent of the plethora of German-language schools that dotted America until World War I paranoia led to their persecution and eventual demise.

In short, the American mythos, like all national mythos, is based on a little bit of fact and a lot of ideology.  And the more unquestioningly you buy into it, the more you’ll be disappointed when you realize that rather than America constantly progressing towards a better future, it’s complicated.  And that it’s OK- it might actually help us find better solutions to our problems if we accept the non-linear and unpredictable nature of history.

So what’s Israel’s founding mythos?  The Jewish people are from here.  OK, that much I agree with.  We have had a continuous presence here since biblical times.  Again, true- as a visit to Peki’in showed me.  After 2,000 years in which most Jews suffered in “exile” (a charged word, but let’s say “outside of Israel”), we returned, struggled, made the desert bloom, revived the Hebrew language, and re-established the Jewish state.  Bidding adieu to the insufferable and contorted Jewish cultures of the Diaspora and starting a strong, independent Israeli future.

This part presents a conundrum.  First off, while Jewish tradition does speak extensively of exile and the Land of Israel, most Jews didn’t see living here as a practical step.  While rabbis over the centuries have been buried here, and there has always been a Jewish community here, the vast majority of Jews have lived elsewhere for two millennia.  While small populations of Jews moved here over the centuries, 99% of world Jewry did not.  Even during intense persecutions.  And not simply because they couldn’t make it here.  Sephardic Jews in the 1500s made their way to Tsfat– it was possible.  But most Jews fled Inquisition Spain to Turkey, Greece, the Netherlands, and other far-flung destinations.

Jews have indeed experienced intense, mindbogglingly irrational persecution for centuries.  At the mercy of the latest ruler’s whims, our mixed languages are testament to how many times we’ve been ruthlessly expelled.  Which is why Yiddish contains ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, medieval French, medieval German, Polish, Russian- and today new English and Modern Hebrew loanwords.  And why Judeo-Spanish (popularly known as “Ladino”) contains medieval Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese influence supplemented by Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages.  Our linguistic heritage, one of our greatest accomplishments, shows both our resilience and our willingness to incorporate the best of surrounding cultures while building our own.  It is an archaeology of our past.

The question is whether the past 2,000 years have been nothing but suffering.  And the answer, as even a cursory trip to Europe or the Middle East would show, is no.  Grand synagogues, survivors of genocide and annihilation, dot the European and Middle Eastern landscape.  For centuries, Jews have served as royal advisors, as traders, as doctors, as Prime Minsters, as Senators, as Congresspeople, as Supreme Court Justices.  While most Israelis know Poland only from their high school trip to learn about the truly horrific experiences of the Holocaust, they probably don’t know that for about 500 years, Poland was known as “paradisus iudaeorum“.  The Paradise of the Jews thanks to the welcoming and tolerant Polish leaders who invited them to their kingdom.  Which until the Holocaust was the single largest Jewish community on earth.  Home to beautiful hand-crafted wooden synagogues, economically vibrant shtetls, and a multicultural society.  With religious freedom far more advanced than many Western European countries.

None of this whitewashes anti-Semitism.  Both Christian (and to a slightly lesser but still potent degree) Muslim leaders found ample opportunities to scapegoat Jews.  While Jews often enjoyed prosperity during times of hope and progress, when things went awry, they were (and are) often first in line to receive the unwarranted blame.  Besides discrimination in occupations, inferior legal status, and frequent violence, Jews have been routinely kicked out of their homes for eons.  Take a look at this map (sourced from here):

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And this map *only* covers 500 years of Jewish history.  It doesn’t include the Babylonian Exile, the Roman Exile, and certainly not the modern expulsions of Jews from Arab states.  Here’s a more extensive list for when you need a depressing read.

So it’s not surprising that Jews would at some point want the safety and stability of a homeland.  The problem is that when you base the premise of that claim on the idea that everyone hates us and the only thing we experienced for two millennia was persecution, you miss out on a huge part of the story.  It’s a lie.  It erases amazing Jewish resilience and creativity, our sometimes productive relations with our non-Jewish neighbors, and it distorts the way modern Israelis see themselves and the rest of the world.

Recently, I watched a couple of Corey Gil-Shuster’s YouTube videos.  Corey had the creative idea of letting Israelis and Palestinians speak for themselves, so he solicits questions from his fans and interviews people on the street.  The ones I saw this week were about Israelis of Polish and Romanian descent.  By and large, the respondents emphasized they have no connection to these countries or cultures.  While a few displayed some curiosity about visiting, most detested the cuisine, the languages, and the heritage.  It’s sad- while our history in these countries is certainly bittersweet, you can’t really understand yourself without knowing your history.  It’s worth showing empathy for Israelis struggling with this conundrum- the vast majority of Ashkenazim here are descendants of Holocaust survivors whose families were obliterated.

One respondent caught my eye in particular.  He had no interest in Eastern Europe because “all of our history is here”.  In Israel.

This is an extraordinary and deeply ignorant thing to say, with huge political ramifications.  Jews have lived outside Israel longer than we have lived inside.  His own family didn’t return here until two generations ago.  Every aspect of modern Israeli culture is fused from another source.  From our shnitzel to our jachnoon, from the Yiddish word “balagan” to the Arabic “yalla”.

To the Hebrew language itself.  While Israel’s founding myth suggests the ancient Hebrew language was “revived”, many scholars see this phenomenon in a different light.  In the late 1800s, Zionists began writing newspapers and books in Hebrew throughout Europe.  Occasionally salons took shape where people tried to converse in the language, a language they had often learned in yeshiva and which had, at various times, served as a kind of basic trading tongue between Jewish communities.  In other words, spoken Hebrew had ceased to be the mother tongue of Jews since ancient times.  It did, however, continue as a written religious language, a source of vocabulary for Jewish languages, and a kind of very basic spoken language when Jews met from different cultures.

Therefore, when Zionists proposed a Jewish national project, they turned to Hebrew as a unifying language that had continued in one form or another to be present in communities around the world.  The problem was nobody spoke it as a mother tongue.  So when sitting in salons (or eventually classrooms in what is today Israel), Jews had to formulate this ancient tongue in terms of the ones they already spoke.  For the vast majority of early Zionists, this foundational native tongue was Yiddish.  The beautiful, underappreciated, nuanced language of Ashkenazi Jewry for over 1000 years.

In fact, with the exception of some Yemenites, almost all early Zionist pioneers were native Yiddish speakers.  I recently visited Zichron Yaakov again.  This beautiful city was one of the first Jewish town re-established in the ancient land of Israel in the late 1800s.  And as makes logical sense, much of its early documentation was written in the language of its residents- Yiddish.  Here’s a 1902 city archives document…in the mamaloshn.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Zionist icon, raised his son as the first monolingual native Modern Hebrew speaker.  But he, like the many teachers spreading the language, had to rely on his native language both consciously and subconsciously to build a vocabulary.  To build sentences.  There’s not nearly enough content in the bible and medieval rabbinic writings to cover modern topics like electricity, trains, and even gossip at the market.  You don’t hear Moses asking God “hey, how’s it going?” in the Bible.  Which is why the modern Hebrew phrase “ma nishma?” is actually a direct translation of the Yiddish “vos hert zakh?”  What is heard…or, as we might say more colloquially, “how are you?”

The influence of Yiddish (and to a smaller degree Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, Palestinian Arabic, Russian, and other languages) on Hebrew is substantial.  Far beyond what the average Israeli knows.  Mah pitom, mah atah omer, tachles, kitzer, nu- these words and so many others are either direct loanwords from Yiddish or translations of Yiddish phrases not found in old Hebrew texts.  While it’s far beyond my expertise, the influence extends to rather fundamental things like syntax as well.

In other words, Modern Hebrew is a kind of fusion language.  Some claim Hebrew revivalists murdered Yiddish, simply relexifying the language with Semitic words.  Even as its speakers were in fact persecuted by fanatics like the Battalion for the Defense of the Language.  On the other hand, the average Israeli accepts the national mythos that he or she speaks the revived Semitic language of their ancestors.

But the truth perhaps lies somewhere in-between.  Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann claims that Modern Hebrew is not Hebrew at all.  Nor is it Yiddish.  It’s actually “Israeli”.  That’s right, just like the French speak French, he claims Israelis speak Israeli.  And that rather than being simply Yiddish overlaid with Semitic vocabulary or a “miraculously” revived dead language, it is quite simply another language.  With elements of both our Semitic and Diaspora past- Hebrew and Yiddish.  A very Jewish approach to building a language- it’s how all of our tongues have been formed.  One built on another.

It’s a fascinating thesis and I encourage you to visit his website to get a better understanding of his perspective.

To me, it makes a lot of sense.  When I hear Israelis speaking Hebrew, I hear the intonations of Yiddish and the Yiddish-infused English I grew up with.  But the words are largely Semitic, indicative of a major linguistic and cultural shift.

So why does all of this matter?

Because if Israelis in fact speak Israeli, and not a revived exotic language nor simply a dialect of Yiddish, then that has big implications.  It means that the despised Diaspora Jew lives in every sentence we speak here, unwittingly.  It means that Jewish history took a rather drastic turn here- that indeed our Semitic vocabulary has overwhelmed all our other languages.  So that even if much of the language is influenced by Yiddish, the words themselves are largely constructed from the Bible, from medieval rabbis, from new innovations using ancient texts.

The implications are enormous.

Visiting the Zichron Yaakov “First Aliyah Musem”, I learned about the discourse surrounding the first wave of pioneers to resettle the Land of Israel in the 1880s.  More than anything else, it was an interesting opportunity to see the Israeli mythos at work- and to understand its fault lines.

Here are some pictures from a video telling the tale of a prototypical family as they’re leaving Eastern Europe.  Read the captions:

The accompanying audio basically said: oy, the persecution!  We’re leaving to escape it because the Diaspora is miserable, but our real reason for leaving is our desire to build a homeland.  Beware- the angry natives.  Don’t worry, we’ll befriend them.  We’ll be manly, not like those effeminate Diaspora Jews.  We’ll work the empty land and make the empty desert bloom.  But don’t push the mother too much- she’s bearing a future Israeli baby in her tummy.  We’re fiercely independent but still rely on donations from Jews abroad to survive.  We could go join the Jews living comfortably in America, but instead we bravely suffer for the good of the nation here.

The over-the-top rhetoric is not much different than the romanticized stories I learned in grade school about American pioneers.

And its just as problematic if it’s not analyzed.  It contains numerous contradictions.  If the main reason for olim arriving was to build a homeland, why didn’t they come earlier?  If the main reason was to escape persecution, why wouldn’t they go somewhere more economically promising?  Early Zionists here struggled.  Which is why of the 2.5 million Jews who escaped 1880s pogroms, only 35,000 came here.  Of whom indeed 40-90% did leave.  If the land was empty and in need of restoration, how was it that there were Arabs here?  How were they making a living?  And in fact, how were they making a living if the conditions were so rough that most Jews left?  Why were the Arabs to be both feared and befriended- without even having met them?  How was mother going to give birth to an Israeli when the State of Israel didn’t exist yet?  How are the pioneers so independent and strong if their livelihood is dependent on donations from Jews abroad?  Why did they think life was so easy for Jews in America, where most toiled in sweatshops?  And why did some choose to stay in the Holy Land despite the hardships?

You’ll probably have to re-read that paragraph a few times, it’s enough to make your head spin.

These are difficult questions.  The kind of questions few Israelis think to ask.  The kind of questions most people fail to raise about their own national identities which are just as fraught.

As I see it, there’s some truth to all of these questions.  Clearly, some pioneers were so ideologically motivated that even disease and poverty didn’t stop them from staying.  It’s also clear that some people came primarily to escape pogroms, and then hopped on the next boat to more prosperous countries.  That they weren’t really as motivated by Zionism.  That while it took guts and courage to come here, you’re not really strong and self-sufficient if your enterprise is being funded by charitable donations from Jews abroad.  That those Jews abroad are maybe not all suffering as much as you suggest if some have money to give you.  The land was clearly underdeveloped and impoverished, explaining why so many Jews left.  But it was also not simply empty and in need of Jews to make it “bloom”.  As evidenced by the newcomers’ concurrent fear of and desire to befriend the local Arabs, of whose presence they were aware.

Or so suggests the video.  It’s just a video, but one whose contradictions haunt this land to this day.  It explains why Israeli governments both rely on and dismiss Diaspora Jews.  We deserve their charity but really they should be living here like us.  We ran away from their identity, but we want their money.  The Bank of Diaspora.  But boy, things must be terrible for them.  And somehow, worse for us, but our country is better.  A series of spiraling thoughts that manifests itself in today’s Diaspora-Israel relations crisis.

It explains the common Israeli stereotype of Arabs as backwards, but also as worthy of admiration.  A source of fear, but also a source of slang, of Israeli cuisine, and in earlier times, even a new style of clothing.  The land was empty, fallow, deserted, in need of our industrious might to improve it.  But the people here, in the supposedly empty land, will both not like us and become our friends.  Representing both an intense realism and a far-fetched optimism, perhaps delusion.  An acknowledgement that even the most justified or necessary national project will entail changes or displacement that the existing population may not like.  But that we will find a way to live with them as brothers.  A hope not yet realized.  And a complicated, contradictory view of history not yet reckoned with.  A pain largely unacknowledged and festering.  As conflict and misunderstanding here mars the future of both peoples.

And lastly, the identity question.  One that holds particular resonance for me.  The ideology suggests that Diaspora Jews are weak and suffering.  But the very Jews who came here, to become Israeli, were from there.  The video itself portrays the pioneers speaking Modern Hebrew, a language that was not spoken in Poland.  The mother is meant to give birth to an Israeli child, who she conceived in Europe.  In Israel, a state that in 1880, did not yet exist.  So how is this baby Israeli?  And why are these people speaking what is the 1880s was a non-existent language where they lived?  As children in this museum look on trying to learn about their history?

It’s the central identity question for Zionism and for Jews like me who come to live here.  We are seen as a source of weakness, but of potential hope.  Rather than acknowledging that early Jewish communities here spoke Yiddish, that they came from a real place that had culture.  That it contained suffering but also life.  This video, much like the Zionist imagination that surrounds it, misleads.  It erases Judaism itself.  Because the miraculous thing about Israel is that people brought their cultures here and managed to build on top of them.  To fuse them.  To find creative ways of building a new future, with all the complexity that came with it.  But by erasing these people’s Judaism, the video demonstrates the central problem of Zionism.  You can’t mold a people that isn’t there.  Most discourse about Israel focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  What is being missed is how the country’s development necessitated an internal paradox that has yet to be solved.  How do you turn a Jew into an Israeli, while needing the Jewishness to justify the Israeliness?  How do you leave behind his Jewishness in order to create a new identity that is founded on it?  In other words, Zionism posits that we are entitled to live in this land due to our connection to it.  But for 2,000 years, most of us have lived outside it, and we’re the population being encouraged to return to it.  In order to make the “New Jew” to populate this country, you have to both take the Jew out of his old land and pretend that he was something different all along.  Because somebody had to start this process.  And that somebody was living in Eastern Europe, not Israel.  Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman in Belarus.

So if Ben Yehuda’s premise was that we need a new type of Jew, one who speaks Hebrew, one who puts aside his Diasporic identity in favor of an Israeli one, how do you do that?  How do you do that when Eliezer himself wasn’t born in Israel, his own culture was one of gefilte fish and kugel and yeshiva studies?  His Hebrew language itself carried across generations through religious texts and countless phrases in the Yiddish language itself.  Which he then used to build Israel’s national tongue.

The way you do it is to stop being a Jew.  Eliezer was the same human being who grew up in Luzhki.  Undoubtedly scared and angered by anti-Semitic violence, he had a different vision.  To leave- not just to move, but to leave his actual identity behind.  Perhaps a response to the intense pain he experienced as a minority, the countless persecutions.  But his response was to disavow himself of his self.  Or, more generously put, to invent a new identity.

But not just any identity.  There was no Jewish country for him to go to.  So for him to build it, for others like him to build it, necessitated a different kind of values.  Polar opposites, mirror images of what he had been taught.  So while Jewish identity for millennia had been built on the interplay of local cultures and Jewish traditions, his identity would be independent and disconnected from the Diaspora.  While Jewish identity for millennia had accommodated the powers-that-be out of necessity, his Israeli nation would be blunt, would be muscular and direct.

In short, for Ben Yehuda and thousands of other early Zionists, and the many olim who followed them, to become Israeli in the fullest sense meant disavowing who they had been.  It meant becoming Israeli instead of Jewish.  A blunt sentence that many of my Israeli friends will find hard to digest.

Because there’s nothing congruous about the countless Romanian and Polish Jews in Corey’s YouTube video deriding their own cuisines.  While feeling that hummus and falafel are what it means to be Jewish.  Because unless your grandparents worshiped in a synagogue in Aleppo, hummus has about as much to do with Judaism as sushi.

Which is the point.  Israeli identity is about a new start.  A new state.  A new place where we control our destiny and not live at the behest of the fragile grace of different rulers.

The challenge for Israelis today, though, is to realize that this new start came at a price and to realize its full potential, it must be understood.  To realize that there’s nothing inherently more logical about being Israeli versus being a Jew in America.  To not be surprised that most American Jews don’t speak Hebrew- because the only Jewish language our ancestors spoke when arriving on Ellis Island was Yiddish.  And sometimes Ladino.  To realize that your national project is unique- but that its foundations, however much you try to untether them, are rooted in Jewish experience.  And not just the ancient Bar Kochba revolt or the Kotel, but also 2,000 years of engaging with the rest of the world.

To realize that your grandparents and great-grandparents are from rich cultures.  Yes, marred by persecution, but also enriched by life.  That there’s no shame that they spoke different languages or ate kreplach or wore turbans.  That your identity today is dangerously fragile and wants for empathy because you don’t understand where you come from.  Because the lifeless stones in Jerusalem don’t explain why your Hebrew accent is a fascinating mishmash of Sephardic and Ashkenazi pronunciation.  Or why you hate Haredim for using the Ashkenazi accent your ancestors did, or for wearing 17th century Polish clothing.  They don’t explain why ayins and alefs magically appear to flesh out the phonetics of foreign words.  But that Yiddish does- because those letters serve as vowels in that language.  In a way that no Hebrew prophet would possibly have understood 2,000 years ago speaking the language you supposedly speak to this day.

None of this is to discredit Israel or Israelis.  Although I’m sure someone will twist my words to try to harm us- an inevitable risk when writing about Judaism and the Jewish people.  Lehefech, to the contrary, my purpose is to help Israelis, including myself, understand.  That when you pretend you can so thoroughly untie yourself from your roots, you don’t understand why you are the way you are.  You don’t understand why American Jews might not want to move here, but care a lot about this place.  You don’t understand why some of your Arab neighbors care what you call chopped tomatoes and cucumbers.  Even as some of them fail to realize that some of the foods they call their own have been eaten by Jews for centuries in the Middle East.

You don’t see that the Ashkenazi Israelis in the YouTube clips I saw are shadows of themselves.  Proclaiming how thoroughly Israeli they are for eating falafel.  Distancing themselves from their Judaism when they make faces of disgust at the mention of the foods their families actually ate for centuries.  It’s an act of self-hatred that Israelis have had to do for generations, a price they pay for building a new identity, but also one worth questioning the value of today.

The question facing us is immense.  If Israelis (and olim) continue to have to distance themselves from their past, from Judaism itself, what will remain of our people?  While this article asks whether Israel and “Diaspora” Jews can survive as one people, my question is were we ever one?  Or do you by definition stop being Jewish in order to be fully Israeli?  Do you have to fully reject the other half of our people in order to be accepted here?

It’s a daunting question.  One that haunts me as an immigrant.  Someone who came here precisely to be able to be more Jewish.  To avoid the awkward and sometimes scary anti-Semitism I experienced.  To be free to be me.  To accept some changes that come with integrating into a new society.  But certainly not to reject who I am, where I come from, and my heritage.  That’s the exact opposite of what I want to do.

So therein lies the rub.  Can I become fully Israeli while remaining fully Jewish?  A seemingly preposterous question, but a relevant one.  As I asked museum staff in Zichron Yaakov where I could find Yiddish documents from the early settlement, and received puzzled and disgruntled looks.  As if it were something I shouldn’t ask about.

In the end, I don’t have an answer.  But I have an inkling.  Judaism is an irrepressible force with thousands of years of history.  Including coping with some of the most challenging and disturbing moments of humanity, and surviving.

Zionism is one way that some Jews have approached solving that problem.  And in some ways, it has succeeded.  Israel is the only growing Jewish community in the world and the only country with a majority Jewish population.  At a time when anti-Semitism is growing and Jews rely on this country for refuge.

But it is also is a ticking time-bomb for Judaism itself.  For what has enriched Judaism over the years was not the sacrifices on the Temple Mount nor the Land of Israel itself.  Rather, it has been our ability to balance, to live in tension with our identity as different and strategically synced with that of our neighbors.  To our benefit, for our growth, and for the enrichment of humanity.  Which is why when I speak Yiddish, I can understand almost any German.  And he can understand me- when I choose to use words he’ll know.  And when I want to have a bit more privacy or protect myself, I throw in some Aramaic and Hebrew and Polish and he has no idea what I’m saying.  It’s the creative Jewish balancing act that has made us who we are.  And allows us to both engage the world and have some distance from it.

To be a Jew is to push in two seemingly opposite directions. To fight to conserve your culture, and to fight for humanity to progress so the former is possible.

Once upon a time, Zionists maybe needed space from the traumas they had experienced to build a new identity.  I can relate to that.  But at a certain point of maturity, it’s beneficial to look back and see where you’ve come from.  To do anything less is to empty yourself of part of who you are.  And to live in perpetual confusion about the state of the world and the meaning of your identity.

I posit that Israelis are Jews, even if some of them would prefer not to be, at least in the sense of the Diaspora identity they have been taught to loathe.  Which is why in Zichron Yaakov, a place that almost entirely spoke Yiddish at its foundation, there is almost no trace of the language today.  But a short visit to the local library and a talk with the friendly librarian helped me find a copy of “Le Petit Prince” in the language of my ancestors.  One of our languages.

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The foundations of Jewish history are underneath our feet.  They are in the Steins and Skys and Mans and Bergs that run in your families.  They lie in my English name, Matt, my Hebrew name, Pesach, and my Israeli name, Matah.  And I lost nothing for calling the last one Israeli and not Hebrew.  They’re all a part of me and my journey.

So my hope for Israel, for my Israeli friends, is that you can synthesize these varying aspects of self.  Not to pretend they don’t exist- nor to pretend it’s an easy task.  There are reasons we give ourselves space from the past.  And there are times to reconnect to it, to better understand ourselves, and to build a better future.

Israel will better connect to American Jews, to Europeans, to our Arab neighbors, and to themselves when we have a better sense of what actually happened here and who we are.  Not in the sense of pretending Israeli identity is fake- it’s not.  That’s an anti-Semitic trope in and of itself.  But rather to see how we got to where we are.  And to realize that it wouldn’t be so bad, maybe even good, to put the pieces of the puzzle back together again.  To see the fascinating kaleidoscope of who we are.

So that the man in the YouTube video can be proud of our ancient history here, his family’s perseverance in Europe, and his own life here.  That it’s a multilayered, rich, complex story worthy of every chapter.  Because you can’t return to a land if you’ve never left it.  And you can’t live there successfully without some of the wisdom you gained while you wandered.

 

Goodbye America, for now

It’s appropriate that I write this blog on the eve of America’s midterm elections.  As my country prepares to pivot, so do I.  Tomorrow, I board a flight to say goodbye.  For now?

I find myself feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety.  Excitement because I think Democrats will take back the House of Representatives.  And if it’s truly a blockbuster night, even the Senate.  I think Donald Trump needs a wake-up call that he can’t govern this country alone.

Anxiety because I worry about the future of the Democratic Party and what it means for this nation.  The extremes of the Democratic Party, as best represented in the Trump-like antics of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   Someone who on the surface level, I agree with 80% of the time.  But who takes her positions- and most importantly her rhetoric- to extremes.

Ms. Cortez, almost certainly to win her election tomorrow, supports a variety of policies that are fairly standard in Israel and Western Europe.  Socialized medicine, environmental protections, affordable higher education, and civil liberties for LGBT people.

The problem is she takes public policy and turns it into a bombastic crusade in which anyone who disagrees with her is the enemy.  And in which purity Trumps all.

Ms. Cortez compared the threat of climate change to that of Nazi Germany.  She supports impeaching Donald Trump without considering the consequences to her party or the national discourse.  Or the potential counter-reaction of angry armed Americans who will doubtless double down on hunting down minorities.

She criticized Israel for having “massacred” innocent Palestinians in Gaza- without showing any understanding of the fact that many of them were armed Hamas members.  And that while all killing is a travesty and some of the deaths may have been avoidable, it’s not so simple here.  I’d like to see how she’d react as an 18-year-old soldier when people volley rockets and flaming kites at you and your family’s neighborhoods.

The most audacious and Trump-like aspect of this accusation is that Ms. Cortez’s response to criticism was: “I am not the expert…on this issue”.  A bizarre and deeply narcissistic approach to politics.  You are a future lawmaker- if you’re not an expert on an issue, you probably shouldn’t make such wild and factually incorrect claims.  You sound a lot like our Tweeter-in-Chief.  Shooting from the lip.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, I found the most shocking flier walking around Berkeley.  Although if you’re from the area, you won’t be surprised.

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At face value, I agree with some of the flier.  I would like to see more black women in politics.  Minorities are perpetually underrepresented and it changes the discourse to have different people in the room making decisions.

On the other hand, this is no better than Donald Trump’s extremist rhetoric.  “Abolish every jail”.  “Black radical revolution”.  “Justice for PALESTINE”- and the word Palestine written in Arabic.  “Black ballot”.

It’s not that each of these words on their own are necessarily bad.  I advocate for Palestinian human rights.  I want black empowerment.  I think the prison industrial complex needs reform.

But the way it’s presented is so fundamentalist.  It’s a “with-me-or-against-me” rhetoric that is dangerous in and of itself.  It is imbued with a fanaticism, a sense of infallibility reminiscent of a Puritan more than a public policy debate.

I don’t believe in abolishing every jail.  Some people are dangerous and need to be behind bars.  Not everyone can be rehabilitated and I want want serial killers and rapists off my streets.  I also don’t think that any ballot should be all about one group.  I don’t vote a “Jewish ballot” or a “gay ballot”- it’s exclusionary it is very phrasing.  And the Palestine piece- it’s telling that there wasn’t a call for peace, nor was there a condemnation of anti-Semitism.  Let alone an acknowledgment that Israel, that the Jewish people are entitled to empowerment too.  Especially days after the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.  I have never seen an attack so clearly demonstrate the need for a State of Israel or for solidarity with our people.  Yet where are the grandiose words, the empathy for us?

We’re not on the agenda for the far left- and I feel it.  I see poster after poster here in California.  “Hate has no place here”.  “Against hate”.  “Immigrants, Muslims, LGBTs are welcome here”.  But not on one single sign have I seen the word “Jew”.  Out of hundreds I saw, one sign had “you are welcome here” written in Hebrew- a reminder that some people care.  But if I’m honest, I leave California with a deep sense of disappointment and a feeling that most of the left doesn’t feel we are worthy of their solidarity.  I am inspired by the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who came together to #ShowUpForShabbat, but I have yet to see progressive activists put us on their agenda.  We are worthy of our own discussion- not just in terms of Trump, not just in terms of gun control, not just in terms of hate crimes.  All of these are valid issues and related- but they are not the same.  This was an anti-Semitic attack during a period of rising anti-Semitism around the world.  And I expect progressive activists to step outside their comfort zone and learn about us on our own merits- not just when it’s convenient for their ideological agenda.  If the attack makes them reconsider their reflexive support for Palestinians over Israel (as if one should have to choose), then I’m glad it makes them uncomfortable.  Because if you’re upset about Pittsburgh, imagine what Moroccan Jews and Polish Jews feel like about thousands of Pittsburghs and having no home left to go to.  That’s why Israel exists- and you need to face the fact that your society is failing to protect us.  The extremes on both sides.  Which is why a wise Jew will never give up on the state that is our only insurance policy.

Black-and-white thinking results in aggression and a breakdown in communication.  A young Jewish student at Florida State threw chocolate milk at Republican volunteers while invoking the Pittsburgh massacre.  I share her frustration at the rise of the far right and its racist and anti-Semitic elements.  I also will offer some humility in saying its different analyzing this from afar than living here.  I’m American, but I am not here most of the year and it’s different to physically be here.  I think that as a (somewhat) outside observer, I can illuminate things that are hard for you to notice when your surroundings shadow your vision.  And I bow to the fact that we live in different, overlapping existences and I recognize that you bear certain consequences more directly than me.

I will offer this advice- do not behave like the people you hate.  Of all the times people have said nasty things to me (and again- I don’t know what, if anything, the Republicans said to arouse her anger), I have never considered launching my beverage at someone’s face.  It’s not that I thought about it and decided not to- it just never occurred to me.  Everyone has a right to their feelings- but we don’t have a right to attack people.  Even people we disagree with or think are damaging society.  The greatest challenge of being oppressed is not to become the oppressor in fighting back.  I’m a double minority and a survivor of three decades of abuse.  I get it on a gut level- it’s hard.  And I hope this young woman can learn from this experience and realize that she has further poisoned debate rather than showing courage.  We’ve all been impulsive students once, but it’s important to remember our actions have consequences.  And I can’t imagine her behavior has made Jews any safer at a time of deep discomfort about our place in society.

Empathy is about understanding where others come from- not necessarily agreeing with them.  So in that spirit, I’d like to offer this.  I am American-Israeli.  I feel more American in Israel and more Israeli in America.  I am a hybrid.  Some people share my observations, and sometimes people disagree with them.  I address a mostly progressive audience because that’s part of who I am and it’s who I know best.  Its whose actions hurt me the most because I care what they, what you, think.  Many of my observations about extremism apply to the far right as well- it’s just that I don’t have much cachet with them.  I can’t imagine they’re particularly interested in hearing the voice of a queer Jew at this point in history.

There are distinct cultural differences between Israel and America.  Israelis are famously direct, Americans famously polite.  Israelis will message you pretty much non-stop, Americans think you’re in love (or desperate) if you message someone the day after a date.  The words we use, the emotions we feel, the way we convey them- our behavior- is deeply influenced by the culture we live in.  And I live in both.

American friends expecting me to conform to American cultural norms- to always remember them- please consider that I don’t live here.  I’m not an American abroad, I’m not an expat, I’m not on some jaunt or program.  I’m an Israeli, an out-of-the-closet Jew running by completely different norms.  And if I sometimes am too direct for you, consider my reality too.  I shouldn’t (and can’t) always revert to your way of thinking because it’s hard- it’s not fair, it’s not who I am, and it’s not how I live.  If you’re offended by my bluntness, I won’t always say I’m sorry- because sometimes you need to hear some straight talk.  That’s my Israeliness.  But I will say I never intend to hurt you and I care about what you think.  Otherwise I wouldn’t write this blog.

As we sit on the eve of great change- for me personally and for America my country- I want to share my hopes.  I predict Democrats will gain power this week.  Not sure how much, but it will change the discourse and perhaps even bring some balance to the national debate.

The question for my progressive friends is how will you wield this power?  After several years of hearing worn-out tropes from the far right, after being wounded, will you be the adult or the child?  Will you govern with a gavel or a sledgehammer?

I hope you govern wisely.  Yelling at people doesn’t change their opinions.  Some people we can’t dialogue with- but some people are not only open to hearing your thoughts, they could teach you something too.  Protect yourselves, but don’t close off your hearts entirely.  And check in with yourself to see if you’re becoming the domineering person you’re fighting against.

This is something I personally wrestle with, especially in Israel.  A place packed with tension.  Beauty, for sure.  But it’s not for nothing people are angry there- rockets are falling on my friend’s kibbutz this week.  Ideologies, religions collide.  This is not suburban California- it is a country the size of New Jersey with ISIS on its borders.

The best thing I can offer you is to evaluate ideas on their own merit.  Just because Donald Trump likes Israel, doesn’t mean you should hate it.  And just because Alexandria Cortez doesn’t like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean you should join her in hating Israel.

Find the counterexamples.  When I get angry at Arabs or Muslims (I have a lot of reasons- I have a high likelihood of being killed for being gay, American, Israeli, or Jewish in their societies), I find someone who reminds me.  Who reminds me that there is good too.

My friend Muhammad is a Bedouin student who just moved to Ramat Gan.  He’s having a rough time- it’s not a particularly diverse city and he has experienced racism.

He told me he felt Jews only care about their own.  And I got angry.  I reminded him that I’m a Jew and I helped him find an apartment and adjust to life in his new home.  Hours upon hours of expensive long distance calls from abroad.  And that I was proud to do so.

He relented that it was politics, the TV, the blowhards who got him down.  And I told him I understood- if I went by what the TV told me, I’d think all Muslims want to kill me for being a gay Jew.

And that’s where we found our common ground.  We remind each other of our humanity.

He apologized, which of course I accepted.  And I wrote him in Hebrew:

“No worries, bro.  Remember there are Jews like me, and I’ll remember there are Muslims like you.”

His response: “Exactly!” and a kissy emoji.  Which, to remind my American readers of cultural differences, is not a romantic gesture.  Arab men (and a lot of straight Israelis) show a lot of intimacy towards their male friends.  That in an American setting would make you think we’re heading for the sheets.

But we’re not.  We’re friends.  We’re each other’s alarm clock, a reminder of the people who don’t fit our preconceptions.  The people who value us the way we are.

America- that’s what I hope for you November 7th.  No matter what happens, no matter what you advocate for, do it with humanity.  Remember the other, remember the exception.

I hope next time I visit, instead of a “black ballot” or a “white ballot”, I’ll see people talking to each other face to face.  Instead of a voiceless flier slapped on a cold brick wall.

I believe in you.  And I want you to succeed.

Bediavad – in retrospect

Bediavad is one of my favorite Hebrew words.  Possibly because it’s the name of one of my favorite songs– a song I’ve been listening to on my iTunes for over a decade.

It means “in retrospect”.  Looking back.

After traveling in Europe for almost two months, I have some thoughts on Israel I didn’t have when I left.

When I left Israel, I was pretty angry.  After seeing my hopes for gay rights shrivel in the face of self-righteous rabbis, after seeing my government go after refugees and Druze and Arabs for being non-Jewish minorities, after seeing some particularly egregious and abusive behavior, I had had it.  I had had two different landlords try to steal money from me.  Israel sucked.  And it was time to get out.

I expected Europe to be much easier.  And I was wrong.  That’s Israeli humility- acknowledging when things aren’t what you expected.  When a new perspective helps you change course.

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Europe is a really, really hard place to a Jew.  An ever harder place to be an Israeli.  While it is certainly relaxing to enjoy gorgeous nature, to reconnect with the concept of personal space, and to take the rocket alert apps off your phone, it is not as easy here as I expected.  Take a quick look at my posts from here and you’ll see there is a lot of hardship for Jews here.  A lot of irrational hatred of all things Israel.  Especially by people with fancy degrees, fashionable clothes, hipster attitude- far leftists.  Like the ones yesterday who chastised me for wanting to take a photo of leftist graffiti on their house.  I apologized, I didn’t understand it was their home.  And I said I wouldn’t take a picture.  One woman then told me it was “more radical” to graffiti churches, town hall, and banks.  Their fancy historic home in the Barcelona suburbs didn’t mean they were “rich”, it was the fruits of their hard work, and it was “rude” to desecrate it.  But to do so to other people’s property was totally acceptable- and encouraged.

When I suggested that damaging property is generally a bad thing all around, the woman grabbed my arm, twice.  Completely unprovoked.  After telling her not to after the first time.  She then laughed at me for asking not to be touched.  I doubt she’d feel the same if I violated her space.  As I walked away, they shouted things about me being American.  It’s a good thing I didn’t tell them I was Israeli.  To be an Israeli in Europe is to often live a closeted identity.

The psychology of the far left is the same as the far right in that they are abusive.  The only difference I can tell is the people they hate.  The far right hates gays, immigrants, Muslims, diversity.  The far left hates Israelis, banks, corporations, rich people, and quite often the religious.  And they both hate Jews.  Perhaps the only group they hold in common.  Both groups demand extreme sensitivity to their issues and evade empathy for anyone outside the purview of what they deem as morally acceptable.  It’s a childlike black-and-white thinking perhaps in some ways is meant to protect.  On some level, I understand it- certain groups of people are more likely to be a source of pain than others.

But this thinking alone is ineffective as it immediately renders millions of people off limits and condemned, creating more pain and suffering.  People who boycott Israel have this mentality- lumping together 8 million different people under the category of “wrong”.  While never bothering to consider whether their own countries are worthy of boycotts- or whether boycotting an entire country is ever really fair to the diverse people and perspectives residing within it.  Privilege can be a useful concept in understanding people’s power relative to one another.  But when it becomes weaponized as an entire ethical system, it falls short because nobody is wholly privileged or unprivileged.  And it just creates a lot of guilt instead of progress.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it is often wielded by ultra-wealthy highly educated people who are unwilling to acknowledge or grapple with the benefits they themselves enjoy.

So I’d like to return a moment to the story I shared above about the psychotic left-wing woman grabbing my arm at night in a suburb of Barcelona.  Ranting about how great it is to desecrate other people’s property, complaining about it being done to her, and invading my own space in the process.  This is all true- and important to share.  If you’re a Jew, if frankly you’re any kind of “undesirable” traveling through Europe, you need to be aware that certain types of people are more likely to hate you.  The far left is one of them.

At the same time, I’ve been looking over my writings from when I left Israel for this trip.  It’s clear to me the writings were therapeutic- my blog always is.  Which is why I love it.  And after seeing the depth of anti-Semitism camouflaged as anti-Zionism, I realize it’d be quite easy for someone to weaponize my words against me and my people.  I didn’t understand the intellectual vacuum some people on this continent live within- and how my genuine, heartfelt critiques of Israel could be used against the country as a whole.  Rather than seeing them for what I intended them to be- thoughtful, emotional, personal critiques of a place I love and want to make better.

So in that spirit, first off, I’m going to say that I’m going to try to keep in mind my experiences here when writing about Israel in the future.  Not because I intend to shy away from critiquing my government or society- I think it’s important to do so.  I’m not a voice for conformity or silence in the face of barbarity, nor is outside hatred an excuse to paper over real problems.  What I will say is I’m worried about people taking my words out of context.  I do not under any circumstances want them to be construed as supporting boycotts- which are definitionally anti-Semitic in only targeting the Jewish State.  While dozens of other states do the same or far worse- even in Europe.  Where Jewish cemeteries are regularly desecrated, where synagogues have been turned into casinos, and anti-Semitism is at levels not seen since the Holocaust.  With little public outcry.

If you are only boycotting Israel, you are engaging in anti-Semitism, whether you realize it or not.  And after seeing the psychology of boycotters here in Europe, I understand that better than I did while in Israel.  A stressful place where it can be hard to remember the very real problems occurring outside the country.  The bigotry and hatred that lives in other corners of the planet.  Sometimes shrouded in a soft-spoken “please” and “thank you”, but at its core, sometimes as vicious as anything I’ve seen in the Middle East.

At the same time, I want to take this lesson and apply it to this very post.  I’ve shared with you my experiences with anti-Semitism here in Europe.  It is very difficult to be a Jew or Israeli here and my posts these two months show that.  It’s also important to remember not to deny and not to feed the flames.

In other words, it is equally abusive to deny the existence of hatred as it is to suggest it is the only thing out there.  So I’m concerned about extremist Israeli Jews targeting minorities.  And about Europeans hating, boycotting, and attacking Israelis and Jews.  And I’m inspired by Israeli Jews who show compassion and kindness.  Who care about their neighbors of all backgrounds.  Jews who learn Arabic, who see nuance in spite of conflict.  Who have their own pain to digest.  And I’m inspired by European non-Jews who preserve our heritage and care about us.  I also like people like Greg, the Polish neuroscientist who wants to visit Israel and made my bus ride to Slovenia one of the best conversations of my life.  Like Marko, the Slovenian cell phone salesman who now wants to visit his city’s Jewish museum after chatting with me.  Like Amira, the queer Jordanian girl who went to her first gay club with me, knowing I was Israeli.  I even met a Romanian girl who wants to learn Yiddish!

In the end, I will not claim, as some do, that most people are good people.  And not to fear.  Because there are scary people out there and anti-Semitism dressed as anti-Zionism is very much a real thing.  There is also Arab anti-Semitism here in Europe that has nothing to do with Israeli policy.

I will also not fuel the flames that suggest everyone hates us.  Because not everyone does.  There are non-Jews I’ve met here who are open-minded, who are even actively engaged in keeping our heritage alive.  A heritage sometimes painful for us Jews to connect to, but one that has deeply enlightened me as to my place in the world.  A tough trip at times, but well worth it.

I would wish this same nuance for my friends on the far left.  To see that Israelis are not as simple as black and white.  That we come in all shapes and sizes, with different ideologies and identities.  Some perhaps to be feared or condemned.  And others not.  And a whole lot of people in-between.  Perhaps what I wish more than anything is for Europeans to understand us.  And to understand the Jewish history under their very feet.  Not to necessarily love or hate us, just to actually know something that might prevent them from jumping on us, from thumping us.  To be less like Jeremy Corbyn and more like Josep, the gay Valencian left-winger with a Hebrew tattoo and a nuanced passion for Israel.

As an Israeli, I’m offering you my ideas.  Not to wholly agree or disagree with them, but simply to share my perspective and hope you’ll consider my experiences.  That my stories will give you insight and inspire kindness and understanding.

Because when you live in the middle space, you realize that it’s detrimental to always categorize people.  And that sometimes, to protect yourself, it’s wise to.

An eerie and scary space where reality can be as hard to manage as the rigid ideologies that separate us from it.  In a time of increasing polarization, a space I believe is worth fighting for.

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My cover photo is a picture I took in Blanes, Catalonia.  A surprising pro-Israel graffiti that says “am yisrael chai”, the people Israel lives.  In a place where no living Jewish community exists.  Our hope sprouts even in the most arid soil 🙂

Let’s talk about occupation

I want to share an experience I had in Tortosa, Catalonia.  Some call it Spain, for now I’ll stick with Tortosa 😉 .

Tortosa is a city that used to have a sizable Jewish population.  Before the Inquisition and related persecutions, Tortosa had a “call”.  That’s pronounced “caly” (for lack of a better way to write it in English)- and it means “Jewish quarter”.

I decided I wanted to go for a hike.  Tortosa is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, take a look:

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I love nature, but I found myself increasingly drawn to the signs around me that said “call”.  They’re everywhere.  Something I love about Catalonia is that quite a number of cities make preserving their Jewish heritage a priority.  Unlike the mostly derelict synagogues of my great-grandmother’s Romania, Catalans seem generally proud of their Jewish heritage.  Because quite a number of them are Jews themselves- or were hundreds of years ago.  And they know it.

I wandered the call, finding where the synagogue once stood, the kosher butcher shop, even a plaza named after a rabbi, Menahem Ben Saruq.

I found myself humming Jewish tunes, including one of my own creation, and being stared at by some Moroccan men.  Almost the entire neighborhood now is filled with Moroccan Muslim immigrants.

I then headed to the town archives.  I love, love, love archives.  And I want to give a huge shout-out to archivists everywhere.  You keep heritage alive.  Science is amazing and can heal and grow our planet- but without humanities and a sense of morality, it is useless.  Ben Carson is a great example of why science is not a religion, it does not have all the answers any more than any other field of study.  Scientists need ethical systems just as much as humanists need biology and medicine.

The best thing about town archives, other than the ancient documents they contain, is that they are free!  So here’s my travel tip: if you find yourself itching to see unique, cool texts and really learn about where you’re traveling, head to an archive.  If it’s a rainy day (as it was for me), even better.  I walked around Tortosa with a piece of generously donated cardboard over my head until I could find a 9 buck Mickey Mouse umbrella. 🙂  Archives are my refuge.  And unlike museums, you won’t be shelling out tons of cash to wait in line and crowds.  Archives are often quite empty- sad for the state of humanity, but great for someone like me who likes a little peace and quiet.  All you need to do is fill out a form, show your passport, and next thing you know you’re looking at a hand-written 900 year old document.

That’s where I found myself.  The archivist brought me the “Carta de Poblament”.  It’s a Catalan document that the Count of Barcelona had offered the town during the medieval Christian conquest of Spain.  It basically offers new settlers various land privileges and natural resources for settling the territory.  Until then, it had had Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  But with the eventual imposition of the Inquisition, both Jews and Muslims had to convert, leave, or face torture and death.  Their empty houses became the Christian settlers’ homes we see today.  Occasionally, as in Granada, you can still see where the mezuzah was once hanging.

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I then looked at the next documents I had requested.  I wanted to see Jewish documents.  And in some cases, you can still find them in Catalonia.  I once visited the Girona Jewish archive (the city has a particularly well-preserved call) and got to see documents in Judeo-Catalan!  Catalan written in Hebrew letters- and in some cases, with Hebrew phrases.  For a Jewish speaker of Catalan like me, there is nothing cooler.

The first document was in medieval Catalan (did I say archives were cool??) and was about the Jewish community of the city.  The next document was from 1323 and detailed how the local rulers had imposed a tax on the Jewish community to repair a broken wall.  I’m not sure exactly what happened, but Christian rulers (and Muslim ones) often imposed discriminatory taxes on Jews either as “protection money” or simply to raise cash.

The third document is the one that stirred my soul.  It was called “Població de convertits”.  A list of the Jews who had converted to Christianity.  Often under penalty of death.  From the early 1400s.  I have to say that seeing the hand-scribed names really moved me.  I felt deep sadness as my finger scrolled through the names of Jewish souls lost to an ever-encroaching Christian hegemony.  I wish I could say this was only a Christian problem, but it’s not.  Even the relatively tolerant Muslims of Al-Andalus engaged in pogroms, massacring the Jews of Granada in 1066.  A thousand years before the State of Israel, for people who think Muslim anti-Semitism is a recent phenomenon, purely a product of colonialism.

As I flipped through the pages, I wanted to find a specifically Jewish name.  It’s almost as if part of me couldn’t actually believe this document was real.  That maybe I had been given the wrong one.  Persecutions of Jews are often invalidated, ignored.  This must be just history books, it doesn’t feel totally real.  I couldn’t believe I was holding an ancient text of suffering, of my people, for free in a municipal library.

And there it was- Abram.  Abram and his son converted to Christianity.  I paused looking at the name.  I thought about how awful it must have been to be a Jew at that time.  What must have been going through his head and he decided between expulsion, death, and embracing a faith that so hated his identity.

And there it was, his conversion.  I felt sorry for him- and kind of angry.  How could he give up on our tradition so easily?  I’m sure it wasn’t easy.  But I felt torn.  And I felt furious at the authorities who forced him to give up who he was.  His soul, and those of his ancestors, are forever lost to the Jewish people.  Like so many others.  So when quite a number of Latinos or Spaniards I’ve met say that Jews are “racist” or “closed off” for only marrying “their own”, this document is my bold counterargument.  We only exist because we preserve ourselves.  Your people have been nothing but obstacles in our way for hundreds of years and I won’t apologize for keeping my identity alive.  I’m grateful to the non-Jews I’ve met here in Catalonia and Spain who are working to keep our heritage visible.  Thanks to them I can connect to my past- and they connect to me, as you’ll see in my recent post about a gay Valencian man I met with a Hebrew tattoo.  Who changed my life.

Before I left the archive, I thought if there was something creative I could do to bridge the past.  To make my Jewish ancestors proud.  To connect to Abram and to show the vitality to Judaism to this day, despite all of the hatred placed in our way.

When I left Israel for my travels two months ago, I could barely utter a Hebrew (or Arabic) word.  I was so tired of the region, the hatred, the intense pressure to assimilate into Israeli society.  I had chosen a name, Matah, when I made aliyah.  It means orchard.  It sounds like Matt, but is different- it’s about planting roots.  The name of this blog.

In Europe, I’ve been going by Matt.  Occasionally, Mateo.  But this day, I was going to reconnect.  I took a piece of paper, and added a nice touch to the 600 year old remnant of my civilization:

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Right next to Abram’s name, the second line from the top, I wrote my names.

מטע אדלר

Matt Adler

Jew. Jueu. יהודי.

I think Abram would have been proud.  I certainly was.  Half a millennia since the expulsion of Jews from this land, I was here, a proud Israeli visiting from the land of our ancestors.  Living with self-determination after two millennia.  Something Abram could have never even imagined.  And here I was alive in his home of Tortosa.

It’s a reminder that the impossible is sometimes possible.  History changes.  And each one of us can make a difference.

As I left the archives (still with the cardboard box over my head- one of the funnier moments of my trip until my feet were soaked in rainwater), I headed to the cathedral.  There I found a 1300-year-old Jewish gravestone in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.  With a Menorah and, interestingly, a *5* pointed star:

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What’s so amazing is I could mouth out some of the words.  “Kever”- grave.  “Shalom”- peace”.  And “livrachah”- for a blessing.  The last word something we say to this day as we remember loved ones in synagogue.  A stunning reminder that even when the most hateful among Christians and Muslims stole our land, expelled us, and killed us- we held on to the one thing that kept us alive: words.  Evidence of our continuous presence on this continent, one that has tortured us.  But where we have ultimately persevered in existing.  Even if our current existence there is tenuous.  How many people can see a 6th century tombstone and recognize the words from today’s liturgy?    We’re a truly special people with an incredible historical memory.

As I headed home, I felt hungry.  I stopped into a kebab place.  As with many stores here, it was run by Muslim immigrants.  In this case, from Pakistan.  I have had some difficult experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I was curious before going on this trip what it would be like- both figuring that Europe was kind of a neutral space for potential dialogue and aware that there were many reports of anti-Semitism.  I was also keenly aware that I had to be careful in saying where I was from.  While an American Jew can hide behind their red, white, and blue passport, when you say you’re Israeli, people know you’re a Jew (even if you’re not!).

I’ll start by saying I’ve had some incredible experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I went clubbing with a queer Jordanian girl, who had never been to a gay club.  And she knew I was from Tel Aviv- and we’re still in touch.  Our sexy curves swerving on the dance floors of Budapest.  I also met a Syrian refugee there, who lifted my spirits as we chatted in Damascene Arabic late at night over shwarma.  And who I told I was from Tel Aviv.  And had a great time.

I’ll also say I’ve had a difficult time here.  More often than not, I don’t reveal I’m Jewish or Israeli to Muslims here.  By the decoration of their stores and their clothes, I can tell they are quite often devout.  And just the other day, a woman 10 minutes down the road from where I stayed in Belgium was threatened at gunpoint by a “bearded man” for being Jewish.  I wish I could say this was the only incident of Muslim anti-Semitism here, but it’s not.  Just a few years ago, the Belgian Jewish Museum I strolled by was attacked by Islamic terrorists, killing several civilians.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe (including from neo-Nazis), and many Muslims’ pointed questions about where I was from didn’t make it any easier.  More than a few times, they didn’t believe me when I said I was American- I didn’t “look” American.  Sometimes they think I’m Arab, other times they ask me what my religion is.  Repeatedly.  Which is incredibly uncomfortable and invasive.

Just the other day, an Algerian immigrant told me Israel and America *started* the Syrian Civil War and he didn’t believe Iran or Russia was killing civilians.  Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t tell him I was Israeli in his kebab shop at 11pm.

I’ll add that I find it doubtful that many of these immigrants know the Jewish history of the land they live on today.  Despite the many signs covering their neighborhood explaining it.  Quite a number of Christian Europeans don’t either.  It struck me as bizarre and sad to see hundreds of Moroccan men walking around the Jewish quarter of Girona.  Seeing them wasn’t bizarre- what was more bizarre was the fear I felt in even singing a Jewish song there.  I couldn’t even get out the melody as two men stared.  Maybe they didn’t know what I was singing- but if they did, would I even feel safe?  Do they care that they live on this land bathed in the stains of our blood?  In fact, both of our blood?

It’s times like these where I feel distant from Muslims, from Arabs.  I’m someone who has invested a lot of time and energy in dialogue and exploring this civilization, as you can see from my previous blogs.  Sometimes it is fruitful and lot of times, it is painful.  We’re like two conjoined siblings who wish they could get away from each other, but can’t escape our shared past- and present.  I sometimes wonder whether learning Arabic was a waste of time, even as I miss the sounds of the language, the beats of its music, even fighting for the rights of Arab-Israelis and my Palestinian neighbors.  Some of whom would rather see me dead.  Who some extremist Jews wouldn’t mind dead.  It’s an odd yin-yang of hope, fear, love, and hatred.

So it was timely that my friend Muhammad called.  Muhammad is a 20-something kid from Rahat, a Bedouin city in southern Israel.  I met Muhammad while asking for directions in his town- I was trying to find a restaurant.  A delicious, delicious restaurant.  Bedouin food is quite different from other Arab food- if you’re in Israel, go to Mansaf restaurant at the entrance to Rahat.  Your life will be changed and your taste buds will thank you.  As will the friendly people there who wanted to take selfies with me.

Muhammad and I have kept in touch over the past 6 months or so.  We even met up again in person.  I knew he was studying for his college entrance exams- he wanted to study accounting.  A few months ago, he got in!  I’m so proud of him.  He just moved to Ramat Gan and starts school this week.  Love you man!

To say this is a culture shock and a brave move is a deep understatement.  Rahat is extremely traditional and entirely Bedouin.  Despite living in the same country as Jews, Muhammad has had limited interaction with them.  So moving to Ramat Gan, perhaps one of the cities with the highest percentage of Jews in the country, will be quite a shock.  Some ways good, but a huge change nonetheless.

Muhammad has managed to get an apartment (something that took me months in Tel Aviv) and find two jobs!  On his own.  I helped him along the way- on WhatsApp.  From my AirBnB in Oradea, Romania, from Hungary, from Almería, and from Tortosa.  I’m so proud of him.

Which is why it was a punch to my gut to hear what he had to say on the phone.  Muhammad went for a job interview in Ramat Gan.  He was offered the job, but the boss said: “our establishment has a lot of religious people, so we need to give you another name.”  Muhammad was a name some people just can’t bear to hear as they’re munching on their hummus and falafel.

Heartbroken, he almost decided to change his name.  He asked me what to do.  I first offered my sympathies.  This is one of the saddest things I can hear- that a young, aspiring young man is being told to cut off his identity.  I’m with you Muhammad.

Secondly, I shared some stories of discrimination I had faced as a Jew and a gay man- in America and in Europe.  The Lyft driver who threw me out of his car for being a gay Jew.  The Muslim man and the Belgian Christian who said I was an apartheid occupier, an ethnic cleanser.  The Argentinian who said Jews control the world.  The Algerian who said Israel did.

He was shocked.  And I think somewhat comforted to feel he wasn’t alone.  See while the reasons we were discriminated against were different, in the end they were the same.  People who hate difference.  People who refuse to see nuance or to empathize with others.

I told him that I love him as Muhammad.  As whatever he chooses to call himself.  And nobody has the right to decide that for him.  He has the right to choose to fight racism, to call a lawyer, to speak with an NGO.  And he has the right to put his energy towards finding a better job where people will appreciate him.  And choosing between the two strategies is not always easy.  I know- I never got a dime from Lyft despite a huge public relations campaign, but I was featured in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court for gay rights.  For a case we lost.  I support Muhammad in being himself, however he chooses to find his way forward.

So you have to ask yourself after all this, what’s in a name?  Abram converted to Christianity- and seeing his name hundreds of years later I spotted him as my landsman.  Matah was a sign of hope for me when I made aliyah, then became a grating sound on my ears.  Until I saw Abram and realized how lucky I was in certain ways to be a Jew at this time, in this place.  With a homeland we can call our own.  And Muhammad- how a brave young Muslim Bedouin man is forging his path forward in Ramat Gan.  Weighing his past identity with his present as he pursues a new future and faces racism.  Holding on to his name even as he wrestles with how to live as a minority.  Something I try to help him manage as someone who can draw on the rich reservoir of Jewish history and gay identity.  Minority persistence.

Muhammad gives me hope that despite my experiences in Europe, there are Muslims out there who like me.  As I am.  A gay Israeli American Jew.  I can’t pretend there are masses of them, but even knowing someone like Muhammad is out there, striving for more, caring about me, relying on me- that gives me a bit of hope.  And warms my soul.

There is a place on this planet where Jews and Arabs live together.  It’s not Spain of 500 years ago.  It’s Israel.  For all its problems, Israel is a place where Arabs know Jews as people.  Not caricatures or cartoons or characters on a soap opera.  Nor memories of 70 years ago, when they used to inhabit the same quarters in Morocco and Damascus.  No, in Israel we live together.  Not always in harmony, but knowing each other.  In a way that, perhaps better than anywhere else in the world, allows me to find people like Muhammad who I can breathe my breathy “habibis” and my deep s “sadeeqs” with.  Where I feel my Arabic is sometimes quite worthwhile.

In the end, what’s in a name?  Occupation is the word you’ll hear most in the news about Israel.  And I’m not going to evade and suggest that Palestinians are not real (that’s a thing), that they aren’t facing human rights abuses (they are), or that some of them weren’t expelled from their lands (some were).  What I will say is that occupation is complex.  As I travel around Europe, I notice all the Jewish lands occupied.  The Jewish bodies and souls emptied.  The synagogues turned into casinos and strip clubs and Italian restaurants.  The Muslim immigrants occupying our former quarters- either oblivious to our former past or some outright hostile to our current existence.

At a time when Catalans feel Spain occupies them (and Spain denies their difference), just how objectively clear is this word?  The far left would have you believe things are black and white, that Israel is an occupier, Palestinians are natives.  But rarely in life are things so clear.  When you visit Peki’in and meet Jews who have been there continuously since the Second Temple.  When you meet Arabs from Ramle who migrated from Libya a hundred years ago.  It’s not to suggest the current situation is good- but it is to suggest it is not entirely one-sided and it does not present simple solutions.

In the end, I also think about this word.  As I travel, one of the great questions on my mind is my own occupation.  How I occupy my time, what I like to do, what I want to do going forward.

Perhaps it’s telling that I recently found this cute sign in Catalan that says: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

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And I’ve come to what I feel is the next step.  As I write this blog, it strikes me that when I left Israel, I wasn’t sure if I’d continue writing it.  Yet I found myself over and over again enjoying the therapy of sharing my experiences, of writing things down so for years on end I’ll be able to remember my adventures.  To share my thoughts, to bring a little understanding to the world, and hopefully to engage you with exciting, unexpected stories from cultures and languages you want to explore.

Which brings me to today.  I’ve written about 140 blog posts, hundreds of thousands of words.  I’ve received the most wonderful, heart-warming comments from readers in San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, and Bethlehem.

And I’ve shared it for free, out of love and a desire to make the world better.

This is how I occupy myself.  I love exploring and want to keep sharing meaningful stories and thoughts with you.

The way I do that is by asking you to contribute to making it possible.  Thousands of miles crossed doesn’t happen for free.  I’ve invested so much of my own time and money, and to keep things going, to be a member of my community, you now have the opportunity to contribute.

Soon, I’ll be making my blog a subscription site.  The format is being determined, but in one fashion or another, you’re going to have to pay to access this well of hope.  It’s fair and I can’t wait to connect with you on an even deeper level as we use this blog to connect open-minded people around the world.

If you’d like to join now, you have a chance to subscribe at a one-time, more affordable rate.  If you go to my GoFundMe page and contribute $20 or more, you will get your first year subscription free.  Everyone who has donated up until now will be grandfathered in and given a free subscription as well.  If you wait until I transition the site, the price will start at $36.

I want to keep you along for the journey.  I want to show you amazing archives and diverse people.  The unexpected twists and turns.  In 8 languages.  With a queer angle, an open-minded lens.  Proud of Judaism and Israel and willing to engage in nuance.  To make my communities better, kinder.  Understood and understanding.

I invite you to join me.  Or you can always find another gay Jewish blogger who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish and read his blog instead 😉

Let’s explore together. 🙂

The single best moment of my entire trip

Today, I visited Vila Joiosa, a village in Valencia, Spain.  I went there because they speak Valencian (or as most people call it, Catalan).  I studied Catalan in America at Georgetown University.  I fought my way into the class, which had nothing to do with my Master’s program, because I love Catalan.  I did my undergraduate thesis in Spanish on the Madrid and Barcelona educational systems’ approaches to immigration.  And in Barcelona, I fell in love with Catalan.  A beautiful Romance language filled with x’s and mysterious accent marks.  To me, it looked like a sophisticated, intriguing, sexy Spanish.

So nearly 10 years after my undergraduate education, I found myself at Georgetown studying communication.  And they have a wonderful Catalan program funded by the Ramon Llull Foundation, to promote their culture and language abroad.  And the professor generously let me into the class 😉

I’ve been visiting Alicante, a major city in the province of Valencia.  What’s so striking about Alicante is that it is in the heart of an area that has spoken Catalan for generations (some locals distinguish it as Valencian, but they are essentially varieties of the same language, whatever you wish to call it).  Yet today, almost nobody speaks the language.  The street signs are in Valencian, but you hear nothing but Spanish on the streets.  As if the words are a formality, a reminder of the past, but more of a museum than a living heritage.

So I went searching online to find a village that spoke Valencian, to this day.  I love Valencian Catalan.  I love dialects and accents.  And when I lived in America, I used to watch Valencian-language public TV.  It’s a beautiful variety of Catalan.  And despite what some Catalanists claim, many of its differences can be traced to historical settlement patterns, not just hispanification of the language.  Indeed, I learned today that parts of Valencia use the same unique definite articles as the Balearic Islands.  The only place in the former Roman Empire to keep this unique variety of Latin grammar alive.  Just like one of my favorite bands, Antònia Font.

So it was with great sadness when I saw Spanish nationalists shut down the Valencian-language TV station a few years ago and also stopped broadcasts of TV3 from Barcelona.  I love TV3- I was interviewed on it about my connection to Judaism and Catalan and my gay identity.  You can watch it here and here and test how much Catalan you can understand 😉 .

Every year, I’d check Wikipedia to see whether Valencian activists had succeeded in getting the station up and running again.  Desperately wanting to hear the beautiful Valencian dialect from far away- my only way to engage with it.

Well the station is back up and running.  And it’s thanks to people like City Councilor Josep Castiñeira of Vila Joiosa that it survived.  Along with the Valencian dialect of Catalan.

Vila Joiosa means “joyful town”, and today I had a most joyous experience there.

Walking around town, I noticed a bookstore.  Its name was in Catalan: “Vila Llibres”.  I got excited- this was just why I came to this seaside village.

Upon entering, I noticed a sign that says “here, we’ll serve you in Valencian”.  Whew!  Unfortunately some Spaniards can get prickly when you address them in a minority language, but here I knew I was safe to speak Valencian.

I did get a bit nervous at first.  I noticed a rainbow flag.  As a gay person, you might think this would make me feel at ease.  But in fact, a large portion of the European left, who is generally pro-gay rights has become anti-Semitic.  Quite a number of them, as Josep pointed out later, are quite content to be interviewed on Russian and Iranian TV, but can’t fathom the existence of Israel.  As if our state is somehow less legitimate than the haphazard mess of Middle Eastern states randomly carved out by colonialism.  If you believe your country should exist but Israel shouldn’t (I’ll give a pass to equal opportunity anarchists), you’re an anti-Semite and I don’t like you.

So when I saw this was essentially a left-wing Valencian nationalist bookstore, I got nervous.  Indeed, on the tram on the way to Vila Joiosa, I saw large graffiti calling Israel a murderous state.  Needless to say, there was no accompanying graffiti suggesting Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Spain were similarly murderous despite both past and current colonialism, murder of LGBT people and minorities, and ethnic cleansing (including of Jews).

My conversation with Josep, the bookstore owner, started about Valencian.  I told him I was an American who had studied Catalan and I was excited to see his bookstore.  Stunned that I spoke Catalan without an accent, he welcomed me in and showed me a map of Catalan dialects.  I stood in wonder as he taught me dialectal differences.  I can’t imagine a more exciting experience than chatting in Valencian while learning about the amazing map of Catalan varieties.  Phonetics, grammar, cultural diversity- this is what I love.

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Turns out, it wouldn’t be the only thing I loved about Josep.

I asked about buying a book specifically written the way Valencians speak Catalan.  He pointed me to some, and I went exploring.  Then I noticed a book about the dybbuk, the mythical Jewish spirit creature, in Catalan!  As I brought the book to his attention, he said it wasn’t specifically in the Valencian dialect.  And then I came out as a Jew- not an easy thing here if you’ve read my previous blogs, including from here in Alicante.

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I told him how cool it was to see a Jewish book in Catalan.  And as I spoke with him, I started to notice Jewish books everywhere.  About Jewish history and culture.  I noticed a little sign that even said “shalom”- something I was so used to that I hardly recognized how unique it was in Valencia!

Josep then did the most amazing thing.  He pulled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo that said: “leshanah haba’ah beyerushalayim”.  Next year in Jerusalem.  A phrase we sing at the end of our Passover Seders dreaming of returning to our Holy Land.  A phrase we’ve sung for thousands of years.  Zionism is not a new concept, it is built into our very prayers.  Now is no longer a dream, but a delicate reality we strive to preserve for ourselves and future generations.

I was in the most glorious shock.  Turns out Josep, in his own words, is a Zionist.  And like me, is gay.  And left wing.  And a progressive Valencian nationalist.  In fact, he is a city councilor for the Compromís political party.

After a trip filled with so much anti-Semitism that I often feel afraid to reveal my Jewish Israeli identity here, I can’t tell you how relieved and thrilled I was.  To feel accepted.  Not only because, as some right-wing Europeans feel, that they like Israel because they hate Arabs.  Which puts me in an awkward position as who believes in human rights for all, including Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors.  Something I fight for- as an Israeli.  Even when significant elements of those societies hate me for being gay and Jewish.  It’s simply my value system, regardless of whether all the people I fight for support my own human rights.  Though some of them do.  What’s great about Josep is that we share progressive values.  And support Israel for this reason, and promote the people within it, like me, who are working to make it more and more a reality.

Josep is a hero.  Several years ago, I remember seeing headlines that Valencians were boycotting American Jewish singer Matisyahu purportedly because of Israel.  Where he doesn’t even live.  It’s pure anti-Semitism and it left me feeling distant from this culture that I spent so much time and love connecting to from across an ocean.  It’s beyond hypocritical for Spaniards to boycott Israel when their entire country is built on the bloodshed and expulsion of Jews and Muslims.  And it’s classic anti-Semitism when this hypocrisy is used to target someone who isn’t even Israeli!

Josep told me that he worked with his allies in Compromís to counter this boycott.  Even educating ignorant people in his own party.  He is against the BDS movement which seeks to destroy the State of Israel.  Not alter policies, not debate nuance, but to eliminate an entire country because it is Jewish.  A group of people so delusional that they have no problem traveling to China, meeting Russian academics, or enjoying the fruits of their own colonialism.  But somehow Israel is worthy of the utmost and disproportional criticism.  A 2,000 year old hatred rooted in the New Testament itself is hard to get out of your bones.  Fortunately some Christians today, like Josep’s priest friend in Vila Joiosa who loves Israel, are working as allies of our community to rid their culture of this hatred.

While I was across the ocean learning Catalan and embracing Valencian culture, Josep was here defending my heritage.  We honor each other.  And it is through the grace of our spirit that we met today.  Recently, I’ve felt I don’t believe in God.  And I still feel that the way God is portrayed in religious texts is erroneous and even dangerous.  But perhaps for the first time in months, I felt a connection to my inner God.  Because it’s by following my inner compass that I made my way to Josep’s bookstore today.  And made a new friend, hopefully for life.

Josep made me feel accepted.  He warmed my heart and put a huge smile on my face.  And so I took a piece of paper and wrote him a poem.  In Hebrew and in Catalan.  Here it is:

 

Josep and I are bibliophiles.  Lovers of the written word.  So perhaps it’s no surprise given our many shared passions that we really clicked.  People who love kindness, who seek to learn, who reject black-and-white thinking, that’s my kind of people.  That’s who Josep is, that’s who I am, that’s my life aspiration.  The fuel that keeps me going and pointed in the right direction.

As I read my poem out loud, I could feel his smile.  I live for moments like these.  Faced with so many challenges, these experiences give me a reason to live.

I want to feel accepted.  I’m an unorthodox thinker, but at my heart I’m basically a moderate left libertarian.  Unfortunately, some of the people who claim to carry this banner are anti-Semites.  Jeremy Corbyn, for instance.

It has made me feel isolated from my own natural community.  People who believe in human rights, individual freedom, less imposition of the state, economic fairness, LGBT rights, and compassion.  Something the extremes of our community have twisted so much they’ve ended up allied with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.

What’s so great about Josep is that with him, I can be myself.  While right-wing Jews and Zionists often demand I put my gayness aside and the far left demands I put my Jewish identity aside, Josep lets me be both.  A gay Jewish progressive.  And a lover of Catalan, unfortunately a language community where some speakers are anti-Semitic as well.  And Josep stands as a brave counterexample to their ignorance.  Proudly carrying the banner of a long Catalan philosemitic tradition.

Like most people, I just want to feel accepted.  And people like Josep make me more convinced than ever about how important it is for Jews to engage open-minded people like him.  To support his efforts against anti-Semitism and to empower his own fight for cultural rights.  So that his village won’t end up like Alicante.  A place with Valencian signs but no Valencian speech.

The Spanish state has waged relentless war on cultural minorities.  First, Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition.  But later groups like Catalans, Valencians, Basques, and Galicians.  Certainly nationalism is a delicate question.  If you read my blog, more often than not I’m against it.  Because in its most extreme forms it leads to division and violation of human rights.

What I’ll say, since I am an unorthodox thinker, is that sometimes nationalism is necessary.  As a minority group in the age of globalization, I have yet to find a better solution to preserving our identity than to have our own state.  It’s imperfect, it can lead to abusing other minorities when left unchecked, but it’s the only solution I’ve seen work.

I’m not interested in Jewish museums nor is Josep interested in a museum of Valencian history.  Indeed, when they start making museums about you, like the Museum of the American Indian in Washington (which I love), you better start worrying.  Because you’ve become mundane and weak enough that it’s OK to stop persecuting you and just remember you.  As if you’re a gentle reminder of the past.  We can weep together, but deny you the right to live differently.

Josep and I, while lovers of learning and certainly of museums, that’s not what we want.  We’re interested in being living communities.  It might be inconvenient for your ideology to recognize that nationalism is the only way for us to continue to be who we are.  Indeed, it’s somewhat inconvenient for my own ideology at times.

But it’s a solid fact.  And until you can show me a better way to ensure a Jewish and Valencian future, a little nationalism is what keeps us alive.  As the socialist hymn goes, I want bread and roses.  I don’t just want bread to survive, I want roses.  The beauty, the higher-level fulfillment of cultural identity and passing down my heritage.  As a part of my existence.  Not to go the way of the Shakers, but to be imperfect but real.

If you’re Spanish or American or Chinese or Russian or Arab, you’re not worried for the survival of your culture.  You’re global superpowers with hundreds of millions of adherents.  But Catalans and Jews and Basques and Tibetans- we’re not so lucky.  And we’re not content to rely on your goodwill to survive.  Because we’ve seen that even though there have been periods where you’ve granted us tolerance, there are others where you extinguish us.  And we want the self-determination to protect ourselves when you decide to scapegoat us.  We want self-empowerment.

It’s messy, but it’s sometimes necessary.  Of course, we must be mindful that our own self-empowerment doesn’t turn into the same hatred we’ve experienced.  A delicate balancing act, but one which I’m willing to engage in to ensure my people’s future.

All of my life decisions led to this sweet moment today.  My decision to study Spanish- which led to my decision to study Catalan.  My decision to pursue an active progressive Jewish life in America and Israel.  My decision to move to Israel, and then travel the world exploring myself and discovering new aspects of Jewish identity.  My decision to come out of the closet as gay.

None of today would have happened without me making these powerful life choices.  Nor without Josep making similarly brave decisions that led him to connect with me.  Standing up for his beliefs, for my people, for his own sense of self, even when it was inconvenient or led to threats.  He recently was attacked by fascists, as vicious in their black-and-white prejudice as the far left.  Like me, he remains squeezed between extremes but pursues his identity with vigor.  And I am grateful for his resilient pursuit of purpose.

I have never, ever recommended a specific restaurant or store on this blog as far as I can remember.  I’m not Trip Advisor, I’m here to share my experiences, not plug businesses- nor have I accepted ad revenue from them.  But I’m going to recommend Josep’s bookstore, because it is an oasis of wisdom and kindness.  Whether you speak Catalan or not, go visit.  Tell him I sent you.  And enjoy wonderful conversation and buy something to support such a kind heart who supports us.

At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and anti-Semitic, I have never been more convinced of the need to engage open-minded people like Josep.  I often feel like giving up on the Left, but there are people like him who bravely stand with us.  Or are curious to learn.  This is why I’ve started my new initiative Nuance Israel to empower them.  If you’ve liked this blog and my other writing, contribute to my new project to make my ideas a reality.  To bring together moderate, open-minded people to support a textured engagement with Israel and the Jewish people.  To put a stop to anti-Semitic boycotts which seek to shut down conversation and destroy my country.  Engagement is the way forward for a progressive Israel and to defeat anti-Semitism abroad.

On the bus back to Alicante, some Arab kids in front of me were listening to loud YouTube videos of Arabic music.  I told them: “ana kamaan ba7ibb al-musiqaa al-3arabiyeh, bas biddi naam.  Min fadlak.”

I also love Arabic music, but I wanna sleep.  Please 🙂

They smiled and turned the volume down.

I can see multilingual Maimonides and the other greats of Spanish Jewish history smiling down on me.

A day in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew.  A moment of connection to a great Iberian past.  That Josep and I brought to life again today.

Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.

The wonderful, the ignorant, and the outright anti-Semitic

I’m writing you from Spain.  The past week, I stayed in Almería, a small city in the southeast corner of the country.  This is my fourth visit to Spain.  When I was 13, I came with my school.  When I was 21, I did research here for my thesis (including a fair bit of research on Spanish beaches 😉 ).  This past year, I realized my dream of re-visiting Catalonia after having learned Catalan.  And now, I’m chilling in the south of Spain.

Spain has always been an important place for me.  Spanish is the first foreign language I learned and Spain is the first country I visited without my abusive family.  At a time in my life when I was suffocating, Spain and its wonderful, warm people gave me room to breathe.  And have fun.

I fell in love.  I majored in Spanish in college.  By accident.  I was supposed to major in sociology but my university closed the department midway through my studies (yes, that’s a thing).  And I so loved Spanish that just by virtue of my desire to learn it, I had already taken enough coursework to put together a major.  Follow your heart, not the curriculum.

Every language is a source of richness.  I speak a bunch, including minority languages like Catalan and Yiddish (and have studied Irish and Basque).  Sometimes people shit on these languages for not “being useful”.  As far as I’m concerned, the way you feel about a language (or accent) is mostly about what you feel about its speakers.  Every language, like every culture, has something to offer, to make you grow, if you choose to see it that way.  Perhaps that’s why subconsciously I chose to wear a Catalan t-shirt at the Alhambra on Spain’s National Day.  An unintentional but loud statement in Andalucía, where dissing Catalans is as common as eating Gazpacho.

What enchants me about Spanish in particular is how I fit in.  Most of the time.  Because of my olive skin and Semitic features (Spaniards are also very Mediterranean-looking and have a lot of Jewish blood), I often am seen as Spanish.  Or Latino in America.  Sometimes people overlook Mediterranean/Middle Eastern people, but we look different than the Swedish people in Minnesota or the Irish Americans in Boston.  We look ethnic.  In Belgium, people think I’m Arab (including Arabs).  And I’ve actually had people tell me I don’t look American.  Not the nicest thing, but maybe there’s some truth to it.  Most people in Abercrombie ads don’t look like me.

But in Spain, people think I’m one of them- or at least a native Spanish speaker.  Partially because I’ve got a great accent, but people over the past week thought I was anything from Catalan to Venezuelan to Chilean.  In America, someone once called me a “Spic” on the Metro.  I’ve had multiple cases where people I’ve already known discover I’m not Hispanic, tell me how surprised they are, and suddenly want to be friends with me.  Here, I feel a little more at home.

In Israel too I often felt that physically I more fit in.  My appearance, indeed my DNA (I’ve run tests that show my makeup is closest to Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians), is from there.  Trust me, nobody in Hungary mistook me for an ethnic Hungarian.  Even though my great-grandparents were from there.  Israeli clothing models, politicians, rabbis, studs at the beach look a lot more like me than Channing Tatum.  But don’t get me wrong, I do like Channing Tatum 😉 .

In Spain, I’ve met some incredible people.  I met a Spanish man who told me how proud me was of his town’s judería, or Jewish quarter.  I met a Russian guy married to a Taiwanese woman who owned a bubble tea store.  Who spent 10 minutes looking up directions for me to a Sephardic heritage site.  I told an Afghan baklava seller I was from Israel- and spoke some Farsi with him.  His eyes lit up. 🙂  I ate amazing Moroccan bastilla and chatted with the owners in Arabic.  I even met a very Catholic young man marching in a Semana-Santa-style procession who directed me towards the local Jewish museum.

There’s also a lot of ignorance.  Not necessarily outright prejudice, but for sure ignorance.  A lot of people have no idea where their town’s Jewish quarter is- even when the local municipality has developed it as a tourist attraction.  And it’s been there for over a thousand years.  This particularly struck me yesterday on El Día de la Hispanidad, the day “celebrating” Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New” World.  The same year Spain kicked out its Jews.

On this day, I saw a massive Catholic procession which (although it is not actually connected) looks like a much more elaborate and classy KKK march.  Even Spaniards joked with me about it.  It really does look similar, but it is not a hate parade.  I will say it momentarily jolted me.

Spain is known for being the most (or one of the most) anti-Semitic countries in Europe according to the Anti-Defamation League’s polling.  Not surprising given the legacy of the Inquisition, although neighboring Portugal had that too, and moreso than Spain, is undergoing a kind of Jewish renaissance, including a burgeoning philo-Semitism.  Strong ties with both Israel and the Jewish community make it a much more comfortable place to be a Jew, right next door.

Spanish municipalities, particularly those governed by left wing parties, have tried over and over again to boycott Israel.  Something I find ironic, at best, in a country covered with the blood of my ancestors.  Where I’ve seen synagogues turned into office buildings, where thousands of people fill the streets celebrating Christopher Columbus.  A man by all accounts a genocidal maniac.  Incidentally likely the descendant of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism by Spain.  Hired by the royal family celebrated during this week’s holiday.  The family who ethnically cleansed my people from this land.

To return to the issue of these Catholic processions, I’d like to share my experience in Alicante, another city in Spain.  In the province of Valencia.

I was walking down the street and asked someone to explain the meaning of everything.  I’m a curious guy so I listened patiently as someone explained about the various teams that put together the saints displays.  Like I mentioned, some Spaniards like to joke about how it looks like a Klan rally (long robes, candles, crosses…).  I agreed it was a bit of a culture shock, and the rather nice Spaniards I spoke with said: “yeah, it has nothing to do with violence.”

But actually, that’s wrong.  Catholicism in Spain (frankly, Catholicism for most of its existence) has until recently been about violence.  Towards Jews, towards Muslims, towards apostates.  And while today, religious processions are mostly a cute cultural custom (it’s cool to watch, the music is neat too).  Not too long ago, they were a way for the church to impose its will on the people.  Including countless Jews it forced to convert or abandon this land under penalty of death.

After a relaxing bus ride up the coast to get here (the scenery in Spain is spectacular), I went out tonight.  It was a Saturday night and I wanted to talk to people.  Traveling alone can be so rewarding, I’m learning so much about myself.  And sometimes it’s nice to take a break and be with people.

I met an interesting mix of people just by chatting on the street.  Spaniards are known for being friendly and they live up to their reputation.  There are few better places I’ve visited for someone traveling alone.  Everyone is ready to chat.

I spent the night with a mix of Spaniards, Americans, Ukrainians, and one Argentinian man.

When I said I was from Israel, everyone was cool.  In fact, the Spanish guy knows his family has Jewish roots and he wants me to bring him to a synagogue.  And if you saw his cute punim, you could see he wasn’t lying.  He’d fit right in on a kibbutz.

The only person with a problem was the Argentine.  He said to me- to my face- “how do you feel as a Jew, controlling the world’s economy?”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but there was something in his silence when I said I was from Israel that told me he’d be an anti-Semite.  Perhaps a defense mechanism I’ve developed after dealing with so much bigotry.

I told him point blank: “that’s an anti-Semitic question based on stereotypes.”

He didn’t accept it.  When I tried to explain (as if you can reason with someone this insane) that actually Israel has a lot of poor people with one of the widest wealth gaps in the OECD, he pushed back:

“The Jews in Argentina control everything.”

I gave him a deep stare, told him I actually spent two weeks helping poor Jews in Argentina after the economic crisis, and reiterated that he was being anti-Semitic.  And to my great credit, he asked for the check and left.  Two hours later, he came back with free wristbands to go to a nightclub- for everyone in the group but me.  He said: “you don’t get one.”

Message understood.

I still love Spanish.  I love every language I learn.  Every culture has richness to share.

But I don’t fit in here.  For a visit, sure.  I suppose on some level I always thought I could be Spanish or in the words of my former coworkers at a Hispanic advocacy group, an “honorary Latino”.  Before moving to Israel, I spent most of my college years and professional career working for Latino and immigrant rights.  And I’m proud of it.  It reflects my values as a Jew and as a human being and a lover of Spanish-speaking cultures.

In the end, though, it’s not mine.  At least it can’t replace my Jewish identity, though at times I wished it would.  It felt easier- what an amazing global community to be a part of.  There’s a reason everyone’s listening to reggaeton these days- it’s infectious.  For all the wars and coups and discrimination and poverty and dictatorships, being Latino is fun.  I love French and I speak it when I want a sense of calm.  But let’s face it- when people want to get down, they put on salsa, not French folk music.  Although I listen to that too 🙂 .

I wish I could say my experience with the Argentinean man was unique, but it’s not.  In fact, when I visited Argentina, I saw authentic Nazi war medals being sold at the local fruit market.  My middle school Spanish teacher taught us that in her country of Guatemala, to call someone a Jew was to call them a “burro”, an “ass”.  As she laughed.  At a gay club in Spain, men excitedly guessed where I was from and when I finally said “Israel”, two of them fell silent and turned away.  One Spanish woman compared me to an Islamic terrorist because I don’t eat pork.  In Granada, I asked the tourist info booth why the Jewish museum was closed on Friday morning, even though it was listed as being open until 2pm that day.  And the woman sassily snapped: “you have to respect, it’s the Sabbath, that’s why they’re closed, it’s their norms.”  As if I couldn’t possibly know- or be Jewish.  I explained I was Jewish and that Friday morning is not the Sabbath- they chose to list the museum as open then.  The woman couldn’t care less as she ignored me and moved on to her next task.  Her much nicer colleague grimaced.  And tried to help me.  When I worked for a Latino advocacy group in Washington, they refused to give me Yom Kippur off in exchange for Christmas.  I appealed to the president of the group.  And got my vacation back almost a year later.

It’s not because all Latinos or Spaniards are anti-Semitic.  There are people here, as in all cultures, who are curious about Judaism.  Some who love it.  And some who are indifferent or ignorant but not hostile.  Some Latinos are Jews.

I’ve also experienced a deep strain of anti-Semitism in Spanish-speaking cultures.  No doubt a product of hundreds of years of Catholic-church-sponsored hate and Inquisitions.  Today, sometimes repackaged by far-left parties as anti-Israel fanaticism.  A kind of new religion in which Jews remain all-powerful and in need of constant reprimand.

In the end, I’ll always be a Spanish speaker.  It flows off my tongue better than any other, maybe even more than Hebrew.  The language is filled with warmth.  The people such friendliness.  The culture such a diverse and interesting history.  One in which Jews have always played a part.  Our blood flows through the veins of its people, our ruins dot the town squares.  Like the former synagogue in Guadix I visited that’s now an unemployment office.

Tonight, my best conversation was with an Algerian man.  Feeling distraught about the Argentinian anti-Semite as well as some homophobic comments I heard, I wanted a taste of home.  Shwarma.

I talked to the man in Arabic, and he was surprised.  “Where are you from?”

“Tel Aviv.”

“Tel Aviv?  Palestine?”

“Israel.  Palestine.  The Land.”

“Oh, you’re Palestinian?”

“No, I’m Jewish.  I’m Israeli.”

“But you speak Arabic!”

“I do, I love it.  It’s a beautiful language.  And I like Algerian Rai music and I have Algerian Jewish friends in Israel.”

“Wow!!  Rai?!?  And your friends- do they still eat couscous?”

“Yes they do.  Every Shabbat.”

Perhaps the world expects me to have more fun with a bunch of young Spaniards and expats at a bar.  Telling me how progressive and open they are, while spewing bile about Jews and gays after a few drinks.  Perhaps belying what they really think.

But my favorite conversation tonight was with an Algerian falafel man.  Because I’m the first Israeli he’s ever met.  And my language, my heart, brought him a smile from ear to ear.

So in the end, I’m not Latino, I’m not Spanish, and I don’t really want to be.  But I am a Spanish-speaker, an Arabic-speaker, and most importantly, a person who uses language to warm hearts.

Expel us, boycott us, ridicule us in a bar.  But Judaism is as Spanish as paella.

Queen Isabella could have never imagined me staring down an anti-Semite on the streets of Alicante 500 years later.  And winning.  Let alone a Jew and a Muslim speaking in Arabic.

Confuse me for a Latino, I don’t care.  Once it would’ve made me scared that you won’t like me.  Or I’d defiantly wear my honorary Latino badge, proud to be different.  Now, I just feel I’m a human being.  I’m a Jew- who I am and what society makes me.  And I’m happy to explore all cultures and stand with kind-hearted people no matter who they are.  I’ve learned to love my olive skin more.  And I’m grateful to have places like Spain where I look normal.

Libi bamizrach.  My heart is in the East, I’m in the far West.  And the person who brought me there was an Algerian shwarma man.

Yehuda Halevi would be proud.

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This picture is of a door in Granada’s Jewish quarter where you can still, 500 years later, see the marks of a mezuzah.  We’re everywhere.  Scatter us like seeds, but we sprout back up wherever we’re planted.