Why I’m not afraid of the word Palestine

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

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

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

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

So I answered the question like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope

A quick glance at the news is enough to make your stomach turn.

Today over 20 Iraqis were massacred by their government.  Hezbollah thugs attacked peaceful protestors in Beirut.  Donald Trump continues to abandon Kurdish allies to Turkish aggression in northern Syria.  Settlers attacked IDF soldiers in the West Bank.

And yet there are rays of hope.  The protestors in Beirut, in particular, inspire me.  Fed up with ineffective government, they have put aside their (numerous and strong) sectarian affiliations to push for a clean house.  Sunnis are protesting Sunni politicians.  Shiiites, Shiites.  Christians, Christian leaders.  The rallying cry of these protestors is beautiful: “kullun ya3ni kullun”.  All of them means all of them.  Meaning not a single politician is being spared the anger of these idealistic protestors.  People brave enough to speak out as the country experiences a severe economic crisis and in a place where politicians don’t take kindly to criticism.  A place that has known Civil War.

They are a role model for what we should all be doing.  Instead of engaging in ceaseless blaming of one group against another, we should realize that the people up top enjoy this conflict.  While we tear each other to shreds because we pray or speak or look differently, our basic needs go unmet.  Patients die because of lack of care, trash goes uncollected, jobs become more scarce, and the rent continues to skyrocket as if none of it was happening at all.

It’s time to unite against the few who control our fate and yet care so little about it.  Israel could learn a lot from the Lebanese protests, especially as Benny Gantz is now charged with trying to form a government.  If he doesn’t, we will see a third round of elections in a country already fed up with voting over and over again.

Much like its neighbor to the north, Israel’s political parties are almost entirely divided by ethnicity and sect.  There’s the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, the Ashkenazi ones, the secular left, the secular center, the secular center-right, the modern Orthodox, the Russians, and the Arabs.  In Lebanon, the names are different, but the concept the same.  A gaggle of Christian sects, Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze jockey for power based on group labels.  An entire bloody civil war was fought over it.  It’s depressing.

And yet there is this ray of hope coming from the north that sometimes people can put aside their partisan and sectarian labels and come together for the common good.  My hope is one day Israelis will be able to do the same, as they briefly did when they protested against rising house prices.  Perhaps the most salient issue in Israel today, yet one repeatedly shunted aside in favor of endless ethnic conflict both within and externally.

This is not easy.  But my hope is that the fervor gripping young Lebanese people can inspire Israelis to follow suit.  Only by putting human interests first will we be able to make the difference we need to see in the world.  And perhaps one day, God willing, we’ll see Lebanese and Israelis joining together in protesting for justice.  In one straight line from Beirut to Tel Aviv, like the British colonial trains used to run.  If you will it, it is not a dream.

Shabbat shalom.

 

An Israel contingent on justice

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, or “judges”.  The word, when used as a verb, also means “they judge”.  You can read the text here.

In this portion, the famous quote “justice, justice shall you pursue” makes an appearance.  What stands out to me, though, is the rest of the quote.  Few people disagree with the concept of justice, even if we might have radically different concepts of what it means.  It is the rest of the quote which particularly intrigues me.

In the Reform translation, it reads: “justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.”  The Jewish Publication Society’s version reads: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

In today’s political climate, the difference between the word “inherit” and “occupy” is everything.  For now, I’ll leave it at that, but the verse clearly complicates your point of view no matter where you stand politically.  “Inherit” is a gentle word.  When someone passes away, you may find yourself with a “yerusha” or inheritance, the same root as the word used in this famous Torah quote.  It is something passive, something that comes to you- that you do not conquer.

Occupy, on the other hand, is a very different way to put things.  And without delving too deep in the morass that is Middle Eastern politics, if you’re on the progressive side of the spectrum, this biblical dictate certainly complicates our relationship with the Divine.  And our engagement with Torah itself.

And yet what intrigues me the most about this particular verse is the connection made between pursuing justice and receiving political autonomy.  In other words, the Land of Israel isn’t simply given to the Jewish people in the Bible.  This verse makes abundantly clear that it rests on the pursuit of justice for it to be fully realized.  After all, one could simply say “justice, justice shall you pursue” without any mention of the Land of Israel.  But this verse makes the connection explicit.  That our gift of self-determination is contingent, indeed dependent, on doing the right thing.

The implications are enormous.  The Bible, after all, is an incredibly political document.  To pretend otherwise is to ignore the text itself.  And the text has enormous implications for today’s world.  After all, the early Zionist movement explored other locations for a Jewish homeland, including in Africa.  But the heart pulled us in the direction of our ancestral land.  A land which did not lay empty- which is still precariously shared between two peoples.  If the text of the Torah did not include verse after verse promising the Jewish people this sliver of territory, today’s politics would be quite different.  And we might be eating yams instead of hummus.

The implications also extend to how we engage as a people in this Land.  It is, in my view, not enough that we are simply promised a piece of territory by an ancient document.  This ancient document, filled with wisdom (if sometimes in need of an update), makes clear that any society which is to flourish, to “thrive” in this Land must pursue justice.  It is far from a free pass to do as we will without regard to humanity- both our own and that of other peoples in the region.  The humanity of the poor, the humanity of refugees both Jewish and not, the humanity of Palestinians, the humanity of olim, the humanity of the stranger among us.  The humanity of every person in need.  That is the mandate we are given to pursue over and over again in the Torah.

So where does that leave us today?  It might be enough for me to suggest it as an interesting lesson for our personal lives.  To be good people, and to seek out justice however we can as individuals on a daily basis.  Something I absolutely believe in and strive to pursue.

Yet we can’t ignore the fact that Israeli elections are around the corner.  On September 17, the Israeli public will decide the next chapter of our history.  Far be it from me to endorse a particular political party, I will simply suggest that justice be a metric for our decision-making process.  Does this political party stand for the greater good of society?  Does this party seek peace and pursue it?  Does this party balance our need for security with our need to treat all humans with kindness and humaneness?

That is the barometer our Torah sets out.  There is no more repeated commandment than that which asks us to welcome the stranger.  So this election season, as frustrating as it can be, let us find an opportunity to search our hearts for compassion and wisdom.  So that Israel, the Jewish people, and all humankind can progress in a fashion worthy of the justice we must build.  And to use our self-determination responsibly, on foundations of truth and hope.

The cover photo is of me and an African refugee in Tel Aviv at a rally to support their human rights.

Roots

The premise of this blog is that one needs roots in order to grow, to thrive.  I’ve seen this idea in action.  By connecting to my ancient roots in Israel, my family’s history in Europe, and by understanding where I grew up in the States, I understand myself better than I did a few years ago.  After being in Israel, I know why people think I look Greek, Turkish, Italian, Spanish (and Hispanic)- it’s because my DNA is from the Mediterranean.  After being in Hungary, I now know why my family cooked so much with paprika when I was a kid- the country is covered with it.  And it’s where two of my great-grandparents were born.  And after re-visiting where I grew up, I understand a lot of the challenges I’ve faced and continue to overcome.  And I remembered how the diverse hot pot of cultures known as Montgomery County, Maryland helped nourish my passion for multicultural exploration.

Which brings us back to my premise.  One needs roots.  You can live without them, but to not know where you come from- both as an individual and as part of a broader collective- is to miss out on some fabulous new understandings of the world.  Of your community.  And of your self.

Another benefit of understanding your roots is that you realize how diverse they are.  How generation after generation, my ancestors have planted and re-planted their Judaism and their bodies in new soil.  Often forced by governments and people who hated Jews, or by grinding poverty, they forged their way from Israel to Europe to North America.  And, in my case, back to Israel.  Thankfully, by choice.  Although millions of Jews expelled by Arab governments or whose families were hollowed out by the Holocaust made Israel their home with no other option.  Thank God- and to our pioneers, our soldiers, our brave entrepreneurs- for giving us a place to call home no matter what.

One thing I’ve realized about roots is that they can be nourished by various soils.  Take, for example, the Italian synagogue in Jerusalem.  After the Holocaust, Italian Jews were worried that their already decimated community would find its 2,000 year heritage erased.  Rather than leaving the synagogue to decay in post-World War II Italy, they shipped the entire synagogue to Jerusalem.  I had the blessing to visit it and it is stunning.  Not just because of the outstanding architecture, but because it, like the Jewish people, is the ultimate survivor.  And the fact that it remains an active congregation only makes it more majestic and inspiring.

Like the Italian synagogue, I too am nourished by diverse terrains.  Whether its the deep green of the Galilee, the churches of Eilaboun, the beach of Ma’agan Michael, or the ancient stones of Jerusalem, my heart is in Israel.  And if it’s the eleven Jews of Satu Mare, Romania keeping their community alive, or the pluralistic Jewish community center in the tiniest of buildings in Ljubljana, Slovenia building bridges with non-Jews, or the descendants of conversos in Lisbon who do Shabbat every week in an apartment first rented by Holocaust refugees.  My heart is in Europe too.

And if it’s the smell of whitefish salad, the dozens of times I get to speak to new Arab immigrants about Judaism- and their own memories of their countries’ Jewish communities, and the deep pluralism and tolerance that pervades Jewish institutions, then my heart is in America too.

So in the end, it’s not that roots are overrated.  It’s that you’re allowed to plant them in various places at different times and reap the challenges and rewards that that climate has to offer.  We are each able, to the best of our legal and financial capacity, to explore new places and incorporate new knowledge into our tree rings.  So that as each year passes, we hopefully grow wiser, with a bit thicker skin, and remain sensitive to our selves and our surroundings.

We can only be physically in one place at one time.  With the grace of modern technology, we can communicate across great distances and share ideas faster than ever before.  It’s a conundrum and opportunity wrapped into one.

Like the other day when I sat at Gratz College holding a centuries-old Tseno Ureno and dozens of pre-Holocaust Yiddish and Hebrew books.  Books whose owners may have perished in the fire of Nazi terror, or who after surviving it, may no longer be alive today to read this post.  Let’s hope they died of old age, but we know both possibilities exist.

To hold such books is magic.  Because the great spiritual endeavor, indeed fervor, of the Jewish people lies not as much in our biblical narrative so much as in the reality of our own survival.  That as much as I love our religious heritage, the fact that I’m performing the same act or saying the same words or thumbing the same pages as my ancestors is what draws me to God.  More than the obligation to do so.

Yet what has become clear to me is that if Jewish history, indeed our truth and our reality, is what holds the deepest spirituality for me- our culture, our music, our food, our togetherness.  It is also true that our community survives thanks to obligation.  That even if that space is an uncomfortable one for a liberal-minded Jew to inhabit, it’s one worth exploring.  Because if we don’t find ourselves obligated to a broader set of ethics and laws, even as they evolve, how do we continue to survive?

In short, that is why I’ve found myself, the die-hard Reform Jew who was the RCVP of his Temple TYG, who was on the NFTY-MAR Social Action Committee, who led his campus’s Reform Chavurah, who traveled with the URJ to Argentina, who helped write a Reform sex ed curriculum, who led services in Tel Aviv, who visited Reform shuls on four different continents.  I’ve found myself in a new space.  I’m the Reform Jew who walks to an Orthodox synagogue.  Where for the first time in my life, I’m now a member.

It’s not because I disavow myself of Reform Judaism.  I love a lot of the values and intellect of Reform Judaism and will continue to feel awe-inspired by its willingness to challenge and to change.  I am a proud Reform Jew who thinks this movement has a lot to contribute to Judaism.

It’s just that much like I don’t need to limit myself to being Israeli or American or Ashkenazi, I can be gam ve’gam.  Both this, and that.

So I’m the American who also votes according to Israeli interests.  I’m the Israeli who speaks Arabic.  I’m the left-of-center voter who has voted for four different American parties (yes, once even for a Republican).  I’m the Reform Jew who goes to an Orthodox shul.  I’m the diverse, multicultural, exploring, driven person who likes to travel and see new points of view.  The gay man who hangs out with the Amish in Yiddish.

So what are roots?  Roots are a start.  They’re a movable foundation.  Whose soaking up of nutrients changes their very composition.  They are a beginning, they change, they are stability.

I find myself, as my blog suggest, bearing fruits.  Making new friends, reconnecting with old ones, writing a new future even as I use my past to inform it.  Not to dictate it.

I will continue to bear fruits wherever I find myself planted.  Bringing nuance, change, hope, and compassion- and seeking it from those around me.  Learning, growing, and contributing to the communities I love.  And discovering new ones to explore.

That’s how you sow an orchard.

Cover photo: “Bereshit” (Genesis) – Tseno Ureno Yiddish Bible,

Gratz College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dual loyalty

Today, the Trump-like Congresswoman from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib, invoked the 2,000 year old anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty”.  When discussing Israel advocates who she disagrees with, instead of talking policy or substance, she simply accused her opposition of trying to undermine America.  In the interest of Jews, oh pardon the typo- Israel.

The conversation is frankly exhausting.  Rep. Tlaib has a serious abusive streak.  Immediately after being sworn into office, she became known around the world for calling Donald Trump a “motherfucker”.  Thankfully, a lot of Americans are capable and willing of expressing their political views without resorting to the profanity of an angry 16 year old.  The situation is all the more depressing because Rashida, as the first Palestinian-American in Congress, could’ve done so much more.  Rather than trying to become something other than a literal walking and talking caricature of what people think Palestinians are, she just hopped right in.  I know Palestinians personally who don’t agree with her- her policy or her rhetoric.  And she does an immense disservice to America, to Palestinians, to Jews, to peacemakers, to her own constituents.  Shooting from the hip, making policy via Twitter, shouting profanity.  Sound like someone in the Oval Office?  Well, apparently he’s got a partner in crime now sitting in Congress.  Rashida Trump.

It’s sad.  America- indeed, every country- could use some more wisdom and less yelling right now.  In the face of growing xenophobia, polarization, and economic uncertainty, we need level-headed people to steer the ship.  Because as I see it, moderation is not entirely about what positions you take.  There are people I know who have a whole variety of views- some I agree with, some I don’t.  And my own views have evolved- and evolve- with time.   The one thing I hold in common with the people I love is that we don’t think we have exclusive ownership of eternal truth.  That even if we disagree, we’re willing to hear out other points of view.  That while there are obviously limits, we’re not going to wholesale discredit millions of people simply for thinking differently from us.  Or wearing a different label.  Which is why I have friends who are devout Muslims, West Bank settlers, Palestinian political activists, and Israeli soldiers.  I don’t believe in categorically rejecting an entire group of people because I’m afraid they’re going to hurt me.

This mentality stems from being hurt.  People naturally want to protect themselves.  And if they’ve been taught, or personally experienced, hurt from a particular type of person, sometimes the response is close yourself off.  I can understand to a degree.  It’s not as if I’m going to wave a pride flag around Ramallah.  There are substantive cultural differences- and prejudices and legitimate fears that come with them.

The problem is when this fear ends up cutting you off from entire segments of society.  So that rather than saying I’m afraid of Palestinians who are homophobic, I decide that I simply don’t like Palestinians.  That if I don’t talk to them, if I don’t engage with them, I’ll feel safer.  Except in the end, you miss out on potentially life-changing friendships and relationships.  Not to mention the fact that it’s not entirely effective.  There are obviously homophobic people in other cultures too- and people in Palestinian society who aren’t.  When taken to its extreme, this kind of black-and-white thinking doesn’t end up effectively protecting you.  And it does create a lot more prejudice and hate in the world.

So Rashida Tlaib doesn’t like Jews.  If that wasn’t clear until today, accusing us of dual loyalty sealed the deal.  I don’t know why she has come to this conclusion, but it’s sad and scary.  We need to be vigilant against people who subvert democracy out of a desire to see their inner nightmares fulfilled.  People willing to shout profanity and trample on other people’s dignity will continue to do so if left unchecked.  Now that Ms. Tlaib has accused Jews of dual loyalty, when she sees Jews defending themselves, it will oddly enough reinforce her prejudice.  It’s a demented and deeply disappointing reality that is quite hard to break- and depends mostly on the willpower of the individual to change.  Here’s to hoping Rashida has a long talk with her conscience and thinks about what kind of parent, Congresswoman, and human being she’d like to be.

Which brings me to an archive I recently visited.

The American Society of the Cincinnati is an elite organization made up of descendants of Revolutionary War officers.  One of their members, Larz Anderson, endowed a spectacular, grandiose mansion in Washington, D.C. to be its headquarters.  To say it’s beautiful doesn’t do it justice.  If you want to feel rich for a hot minute and enjoy some stunning artwork, go visit.  It’s long been a favorite off-the-beaten-path place for me to let my mind wander and my eyes feast.

Today, as I did several years ago, I visited the Anderson House library.  As a not-so-minor side note, I encourage you to click that link above.  You can see some of my blogs from before my move to Israel.  And you’ll notice that while many of my values are the same, my political perspective and capacity for nuance has grown tremendously.  So that rather than drifting further towards the self-righteousness of folks like Rep. Tlaib or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, I decided to pursue the more difficult if more rewarding journey towards nuance and empathy.  While certain systemic factors are out of our control, every individual has a certain capacity to make choices.  And those choices have ramifications for the thousands of people we meet in our life, for our own lives, and for society as a whole.  I’m proud to have overcome the one-dimensional thinking that these extremist political actors savor.

Now, let’s return to the comfort of the archives.

Archives are soothing.  They offer you a chance to explore without paying any money.  Without the sometimes interesting but ultimately tedious travel logistics.  They give you insight into things you don’t know- and things you don’t know you don’t know.  They are just the kind of place to find an unexpected twist to make you think differently.

And I had that pleasure today.

As a Jew growing up in America, I learned a lot about Judaism.  I learned about the Torah, some Talmud, Pirke Avot, tikkun olam, Israel, Ellis Island, Hebrew, holidays, and more.  I can remember lessons on the Holocaust, on tolerance, and of course a lot of Jewish music.

What I didn’t learn was about our own American Jewish history.  Let alone Yiddish, a language I came later to in life, but was actually the mother tongue of almost every great-grandparent of mine.

There’s something odd, indeed disturbing, that I can tell you much, much, much more about Haifa than I can about American Judaism.  By that, I don’t mean Debbie Friedman melodies or marching for Soviet Jewry, although those are undoubtedly part of our rich story too.

What I mean is I can’t tell you much about how our community actually developed here.

And that’s something I learned about today.

How many of you know who David Salisbury Franks was?

Probably not many.  Before today, I can’t say the name was at the tip of my tongue.

But Mr. Franks was a Jewish officer in George Washington’s Continental Army.  And, to the best of my knowledge, the only Jewish member of the Society of the Cincinnati.  Whose building I sat in.

His story is riveting and filled with mystery.  After several hours of reading, it appears there’s no clear narrative on where he was from.  Some sources claim he was born in Philadelphia, others in Boston.  He also had a cousin (although some say the relationship is not clear) with the same name in New York.  Who unlike this David Franks, was a loyalist to the British Crown.  Which as you’ll see, a resemblance that did Mr. Franks no service later in life.

Mr. Franks spent part of his life in Montreal, at the time recently conquered by Britain.  One of the first Jews to settle there, as French colonists had forbidden Jews from moving there.

Mr. Franks is sometimes referred to as a German Jew.  In other places, it seems his family was Sephardic- the descendants of Jews forced out of Portugal by the Catholic Inquisition.  His own surname potentially an anglicization of “de Franco”.  A reminder that Jews have often had to shed parts of our identity to Americanize, whether in 1700s Philadelphia or Hollywood.

I have to admit his Portuguese connection intrigued me.  Having just been in Portugal, I figured I wouldn’t find much to connect me to the place from America.  But I not only found a connection- I found a Jewish one!  Indeed many early Jews in America were Portuguese.  Just like the Jews who I met in Lisbon who after 400 years of hiding, are returning to our people and our faith.  The twists and turns of history can offer hope in the most unexpected times and places.

Mr. Franks was a proud American.  He was even arrested by British authorities for defending freedom of speech and protest.  He helped finance revolutionary troops.  And he put his own life on the line as a soldier.  And he did it in a Colonial America that, while substantially better than Europe, was at best ambivalent about Jews.  Through the 1680s, even in relatively tolerant Rhode Island, Jews couldn’t become naturalized citizens.  We were largely tolerated, but considered “others”.  Something a bit too different to be “all American”.

There are a ton of fascinating aspects of David’s story.  He was a Sephardic Jew, with potentially German Ashkenazi ancestry.  His family likely kicked out of Portugal by Catholic monarchs, only to be appointed an American diplomat to the Spanish king whose country founded the Inquisition.  He was sent to France to represent the new Republic because he spoke French- because of his family’s move to Montreal.  Significant not only because of the roaming, international nature of Jewish existence (one source of our “dual loyalty” accusation), but also because of the very long relationship between Canadian and American Jewry.  It’s one of the reasons I love going to Montreal.  You might be surprised to see they have the *best* Jewish food tour I’ve ever been on.  Twice.

Mr. Franks served as the Parnas, or synagogue president, of the Sephardic and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal.  The city’s oldest.  And at the time, a community only ten years old.  A reminder that what starts today may become deeply significant for years to come.  To remember we are still writers of history.  And that if in fact Mr. Franks was part or entirely Ashkenazi, his acceptance as a leader of the (at the time) elitist Sephardic community is a poignant reminder of the human capacity for crossing cultures.  For empathy and heterodox thinking.  The kind we could use more of today.

His story, and rise to prominence, is also part of the American Dream.  It’s the idea that in this country, you can grow and you can achieve regardless of where you come from.  And while it’s a dream that’s not without its detractors nor faults, it is a part of our history.  Which is why so many Jews have made America their home.  At the time of David’s service in the military, Jews weren’t even citizens of European countries.  The idea that he could lead so prominently is evidence that something is a bit different here.  Even if we should remember that our history as American Jews is not just American.  David’s family came from elsewhere- and appears to have maintained trade and familial ties to far-flung places such as Halifax, New York, England, Philadelphia, Montreal, and beyond.  Jews are from everywhere- and nowhere.  Which is precisely how anti-Semites like Rep. Tlaib are so successful in painting us as “rootless cosmopolitans” who can’t be trusted.  Without considering why we’ve had to move so much- precisely because of people like her.

The very mystery around his origins, his family connections, his own biography is part of what makes him interesting.  Perhaps there are scholars more versed in his life than I am, but what’s clear from my research is that there’s at least some confusion.  Even searching in the Mormon genealogical records on FamilySearch.org shows some varying hypotheses of his own lineage.  We know he was here, we know he was a Jew.  The details, at least from my internet searching, seem partially up for debate.

What’s not up for debate is Mr. Franks’s patriotism.

Or is it?

Mr. Franks has the misfortune of being the aide-de-camp of Benedict Arnold, the notorious loyalist traitor.  While several inquiries, including one called by Mr. Franks himself, exonerated David from any responsibility, a lot of Americans weren’t so sure.  Some shunned Mr. Franks and yes, questioned his loyalty.  While George Washington himself had no problem commissioning Mr. Franks afterwards and trusted him, not a small number of people dissociated themselves from the officer.  And left him so socially undesirable he was apparently interred by a friend in hazy circumstances in a Christian cemetery in Philadelphia.  Potentially carrying the body himself.  An undignified end to someone who put his life on the line for his country.

What’s so interesting about this story is how utterly resonant it is today.  And how it shows the deep relevance of knowing American Jewish history at least as well as we know about the Western Wall or Tel Aviv.

Because accusing Jews of dual loyalty is as American as pumpkin pie.  And to this day, just as pernicious as it was centuries ago.  Perhaps even worse.

The saving grace of this country, though, is that some people have a different vision.

The Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island is the oldest in the United States.

The congregation, nervous on the eve of American independence, wrote to George Washington in the hopes of receiving some reassurance.  Reassurance that their fates were safe here- unlike their European relatives regularly butchered by ignorant masses of anti-Semites.  I’d suggest it’s hard to imagine such a need here- but the past few years have put that to rest.  Anti-Semitism, sadly, is alive and well.  And American Jews should remember that for all the special things that make this country infinitely better for us than most places in the world, we are in the end Jews.  And Jews have always been scapegoated in Western societies when things start looking uncertain.

What’s so remarkable about the letter, besides the deep sincerity and hopefulness of the congregation, is also Mr. Washington’s reply:

20190107_153526

It’s a stunning, beautiful, and heartfelt sentiment that has driven Jews to these shores ever since.

Because besides the joy of letting my mind expand and wander, what ultimately motivates me to research this era is a desire to understand the present as much as the past.  And to discover if America has the potential to be different than Europe or North Africa, areas rendered largely Jew-free over the past 100 years.

And there is a difference.  The difference is not that there isn’t anti-Semitism.  That has been- and always will be- here.  You can just look up the case of Aaron Lopez in 18th century Rhode Island.  A colony that refused to recognize his very citizenship precisely because he was Jewish.  Or take a look at Linda Sarsour three hundred years later claiming anti-Semitism “isn’t systemic“.

The difference is that from its very founding, America decided that Jews were to be treated as equals under the law.  That while other Western countries have, at various stages, offered opportunity to Jewish communities, this country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, of separation of Church and State, of liberty.  And while it hasn’t always lived up to that promise, George Washington’s decision has impacted our civic life for hundreds of years.  It’s why my family ended up alive in New York and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. and not as ashes in German ovens.

The problem is that this tolerance, this willingness to forgo the outdated sectarian hatreds of Europe, is fragile.  We’re seeing this today.  And its fragility is only tempered by people’s willingness to defend difference.

Which is why today’s news about Rashida Tlaib is so scary.  As a Muslim American woman, she has no doubt faced persecution and hardship in her life for who she is.  Yet rather than choosing to become more empathetic in the face of hurt, she has chosen to become like the people who persecuted her.  Heaping senseless anger and mean-spirited words into our nation’s political debate.  And most specifically, on Jews ourselves.  Six million of us that she doesn’t even know.

What’s so sad is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Rep. Tlaib could choose to build bridges with people of different backgrounds.  She could acknowledge her family’s pain and challenges as Palestinian-Americans.  Like me, she’s a hyphenated American with various cultural connections around the world.  In her words, “dual loyalties”, but as I see it, an enriching confluence of identities.  She could use this similarity as a way to empathize with Jews and yes, even Israel supporters she might disagree with.  Because, in an ironic twist, its bigotry of people like her that propel people like me to believe in the necessity of a Jewish State.  That for all its faults (which all countries have), Israel is a safe-haven for us when people like her fail to treat us as human beings.  Something that has saved millions of Jewish lives from Tehran to Warsaw.  Which is why there are more Moroccan Jews in Beit Shemesh, Israel than in all of Morocco.

So in the spirit of the resilient David Franks, I’m not going to start hating Palestinians just because Rashida Tlaib hates me for being Jewish and Israeli.  That’s because I took the time to meet Palestinians, to become friends with them.  That I realize that even as she spews conspiracy theories and hatred, I know other Palestinians who don’t see the world as she does.  And that even if we have different cultures and sometimes political perspectives, I know my friends and I view each other as human.  Not political props or opportunities to get likes on Facebook.

What’s so sad is that Rashida Tlaib has become like her abusers.  An abuser herself.  Unhinged and attacking foes real and imagined.  Even as she’s supposed to be doing practical things to help her constituents.  Like re-opening the government.  A government whose very archives and museums house so much knowledge that could benefit us today.  And whose halls sit empty as employees go without pay or hope for a solution.  Indeed, perhaps a visit to these archives would be a wise first step for the Congresswoman rather than pontificating on Twitter.

What I loved about my experience today is how it connected me to myself.  I’m an American Jew, a Jewish American, an American and a Jew.  And part of my journey is piecing together who I am, where I am, and why I am.  And who I want to be.

Knowing more about the history of my people in this country helps me understand the richness of our civilization.  And offers insight into how we got here- and where we might be headed.  What’s unique about America, and what might be a bit uncomfortable to recognize.  That perhaps some things aren’t as unique as we hoped.

But either way, I speak from a place of increasing knowledge- and searching for it.

I’m proud of David Salisbury Franks, even if some of his companions were too cowardly to see his bravery.  I’m proud he put his life on the line for an uncertainty- for a hope that his country would treat him as an equal.  A hope his Portuguese ancestors were brutally denied.

I’m proud to be a Jew and I’m proud of Americans like George Washington who stood up for principles of religious freedom.  Principles that have contributed to this country’s development and rich cultural landscape.  And yes, freedom.

A freedom that is imperfect and like Mr. Washington himself, complicated.  A freedom that is far from guaranteed, but a freedom worth pursuing.

With that, I’d like to suggest a redefinition.  The word moderate these days is often used to suggest someone who splits the difference.  Someone who’s not too Democratic or not too Republican.  Someone in the middle.

What I’d like to suggest is moderation is a demeanor.  That while yes, certain patterns of political thinking can suggest black-and-white thinking, the most important indicator of moderation is how you treat others.  Your tolerance for difference.

If there’s one thing David Franks teaches us, it’s that it’s time for moderates to step forward.  It’s time we figure out a way to mobilize before the patients run the ward and we find ourselves spiraling into an inescapable and even deeper chaos.  A chaos that might start with the brutality of anti-Semitism but absolutely never ends with it.

Jews are a bellwether.  Society should be concerned when people start picking on us.  Yes, even other minorities.  Something even sadder.

But Jews- we’re also people.  And as George Washington made clear, we’re entitled to our rights beyond just being symbolic of waves of intolerance for the rest of the populace.

That as he said, we “merit the goodwill of the other inhabitants” and that “none shall make us afraid”.

I, for one, am afraid of people like Ms. Tlaib.  But I am not afraid to stand up for myself.

Jews have been walking the pine forests and city streets of this country since before it was a country.  And I’m not going to bow down before bigotry.

If you want to see our resilience, just go to the archives of the Society of the Cincinnati.  And learn about the brave members of our tribe who helped build one of the most fabulous countries on the planet.

American. Jewish. Israeli. Proud.

I suppose that’s four loyalties, but who’s counting? 😉

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):

1920px-Expulsion_judios-en.svg.png

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.

20181206_171445

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.