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.

 

The Primary Axis is Empathy

Ok so one of the most confusing aspects of living here, perhaps of life itself, is understanding the context for what people say.  And what it reveals about their intentions.

Most of our public discourse is focused on quotes- and not just here in Israel.  “Gotcha” moments dominate our news cycles and rarely do we consider the surrounding environment.  Critical thinking is not a skill valued by the news media these days- nor by many of its consumers.

So rather than talking public policy or the latest headlines, I’d like to delve into a less-discussed aspect of the conflict here- and its implications for politics everywhere: the axis of empathy.

For most people, the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is broken down into pro-Arab/Palestinian and pro-Israel.  To be one is not to be the other- or at least a lot less.

What I’ve come to realize, both through living here, through spending lots of time in Arab villages in Israel and meeting Palestinians, is that this breakdown is a distraction from the real conflict.

It’s not meaningless, but it obscures the most important dividing line.

When I’m abroad- Europe, America- my primary orientation is to be wary of hardcore pro-Palestinian activists and to feel more empathy for Israel.  For two reasons.  One is that generally speaking, if someone is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel outside of this land, they are an anti-Semite.  And if someone is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish outside of Israel, they are empathetic towards Jews.  And generally, though not always, empathetic in general.  The exception to this rule would be people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish or pro-Israel and extremely anti-Arab, to the point of being an extremist.  There are people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would be a prime example of one.  And there are certainly people who are pro-Israel and hate all Arabs- I met a Dutch guy on CouchSurfing who liked Israel (and gay rights, interestingly enough) because he hated Arab immigrants.  But when it came down to it, he was actually kind of homophobic.  The flowery gay rights rhetoric was merely a convenient tool to oppose (indeed, sometimes homophobic) Arab immigrants in his own country.  Not out of genuine concern.

What is important to note is that this dynamic flips on its head while living here.  In Israel, the least empathetic Jews are unquestioningly pro-Israel and anti-Arab.  And I have more empathy for Arabs here who oppose Israeli government policy than the Algerian man I met in Spain who claimed Israel and America started the Syrian civil war.  And claimed Russia and Iran hadn’t killed anyone.

In other words, the very same sentence in two different contexts can mean two completely different things.  Making identifying toxic people a challenge for someone like me who straddles multiple cultures- often in the same day.

For example, I’ve met Americans and Europeans visiting Israel who only want to visit Palestinian areas and show no interest in Israeli history and narratives.  I once met a German exchange student at Tel Aviv University who came to dance dabke with Arab students- and me.  While I was there out of empathy and a desire to learn more about my neighbors, he was there because he hates Israel and Jews.  But I didn’t catch this at first, which ended up really hurting me.  I figured that because we’re both in the same place and we both have empathy for Arabs, therefore we must both be empathetic people.  The problem is that when we sat in a cafe after dancing, he asked me: “why do Israelis talk so much about the Holocaust?  It’s old history.”  When I tried to explain that in the same city he was sitting, there were actual Holocaust survivors, his response was to defer: “but that happened so long ago”.  In his country.

So here’s the rub.  We’re going to the same event.  We would both probably agree with the sentence: “I’m concerned about the human rights of the Palestinian people”.  But I’m doing it as an Israeli concerned about my neighbors’ well being.  And he’s doing it because he doesn’t like Jews.  My words are out of empathy, and his out of antipathy.

The same can go for Arabs themselves.  Many people throw around the word “Arabs” as if 300 million people were the same.  Yet the experience and positioning of Arabs can be radically different.  When a Moroccan immigrant to Belgium says “Israel is a racist state”, it is without a doubt coming from anti-Semitism.  It is rather unlikely he’d say Morocco is racist for having persecuted its Jewish citizens whose quarters now lie largely empty.  Nor for oppressing its 30% Berber minority.

Yet when an Arab citizen of Israel complains about racist discrimination, it is usually based on first-hand experience.  And unlike the Moroccan in Belgium, who has almost certainly never even been here, the Arab Israeli has felt this in her own life.  So again, the very same sentence, two completely opposite meanings.  In the case of the Moroccan immigrant, anti-Semitism.  And the Arab living here, concern for his well-being and the state of society.  Antipathy and empathy.

Of course there are nuances.  There are Arabs here who care a lot of about racism and injustice, but ask them about gay rights, and sometimes you get a deep silence.  Or in the case of one Palestinian: “I think we should throw them off of buildings like ISIS”.  So the question is whether their concern about racism is because they are concerned about people being hurt, or whether it is only because it affects them.  All other suffering be screwed.  Whether it’s from a place of empathy and solidarity or narcissism.

Which is why I’ve met Americans who care a lot about Palestinians, but know literally nothing about Jewish history.  Whose only experience with Judaism is maybe eating challah at a friend’s house.  But knows nothing about why or how their Jewish friends ended up in Minnesota.  Or why there are more Polish, Romanian, and Iraqi Jews in Israel than in any of those countries.  Whose combined Jewish communities numbered 4,1326,000 before the Holocaust.  Today, standing at 25,000 according to the most generous estimates.  Meanwhile, 4.5 million of their descendants live in Israel, where they found refuge.  While the rest lie buried in foreign soil, millions upon millions in overgrown cemeteries.  That’s if they’re lucky- sometimes our burial grounds are turned into soccer fields.

It’s also important to remember our own positioning.  In other words, when I’m in Israel I feel differently than I do in America or Europe.  Both because of the surrounding environment, my own political interests, and of course, which direction empathy flows.

In other words, when I’m in Israel, again depending on circumstance, but I’m at my most empathetic when I’m able to find concern for Arab Israelis and for Palestinians.  Not an easy thing- it’s not as if these communities don’t have their own extremism.  As I sit in a Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem, I am staring at a book entitled: “Victory for us is to see you suffer”.  Whose WiFi code is “JerusalemIsOurs”.  Just miles away from where a Palestinian shot six Israeli civilians two days ago.  Just last month I lived through a terrifying air raid siren in Beersheva, as Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli towns.

I can’t say I felt terribly empathetic to Palestinians then.  Though I imagine life is excruciating for them under Hamas rule and faced with harsh conditions imposed by basically every government in the region- their own, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and Egypt.  Suffocating.  Palestinian extremists storm the Israeli border, some of whom have been quoted as saying they want to get to the other side to rape and murder.  And in the meantime, ordinary Gazans who just want to put food on the table are caught in the crossfire, as are their Israeli counterparts on the other side.  Some of whom are concerned for their Palestinian neighbors as well.

Basically, what it comes down to is empathy.  When someone is an anti-Semite, I’m going to defend Israel and talk about what’s good with the country.  When someone is anti-Arab, I’m going to share why its complex and we can’t generalize about millions of people.  And because the context for identifying these people is extremely hard to pinpoint, it is not so easy.  Because words that have the potential to sound empathetic coming out of the mouth of an Arab citizen of Israel sound horrifying coming out of a far-left European or a Tunisian living in Paris.

And the same goes for pro-Israel.  When I hear someone passionately defend the Jewish people’s right to a refuge and homeland outside this country, it touches my heart.  And when an Israeli rages about anti-Semitism and how the world hates us, but has never left this country, it’s usually indicative of a deep narcissism.  Because someone who has grown up in the Diaspora or has spent significant time abroad experiencing anti-Semitism has a basis for their anger.  But the man I met who has never left Kiryat Gat is raging about anti-Semitism, it is because he is repeating what he read in the newspaper or what he learned in school.  Because he is a fervent, unquestioning nationalist.

So when I hear an American Jew frustrated with his right-wing relatives who shut his progressive Israel views down, I feel empathy.  But when a British non-Jew tells me that “British Jews are ridiculous, why do they care about Israel without ever having been there?”, I know she’s an anti-Semite.  It’s the positioning.

Therefore, to return to the original point, the positioning of “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” obscures the most important axis of this conflict.  Indeed, of human society in general.  The axis of empathy.  Of kindness.  Of care.

Because when you re-orient the conflict this way, you see that the potential allies are much different than what the news media and politicians on all sides would prefer for us to see.  That the Muslim girl in Tira who appreciates Jewish women’s freedom to choose their clothing is as much my ally as the Jewish kid in Tel Aviv of Syrian ancestry blasting Arabic music in his coffee shop on Ibn Gvirol.  He doesn’t understand a word- but he told me he wants to learn and he loves the music.

What unites them is not a nationalistic goal, nor is it a sense of fidelity to a tribe.  It is their desire to see humanity in the other.  To show compassion, empathy, and openness.

It’s the tribe I love the most.  It’s the tribe that no matter where I find myself in the world I want to belong to.  That I strive to strengthen and be a good member of.  The empaths.  Like Marko, the young Slovenian cell phone salesman who was excited to discover a Jewish museum in his city.  And as soon as I told him about it, he scribbled the name on a piece of paper.  We shared about our cultures and our personal experiences with discrimination and overcoming it.

He told me at the time, a moment that was quite hard for me after seeing a Nazi salute in his town’s square: “Grab your heritage and explore! Go for it!”

This is what it means to be a person.  At the time I wrote:

“Then it really hit me. What Marko and I shared in common was not a religion, not a nationality, not much in terms of the typical labels we hear each day. On Tinder, in our passport, when people introduce themselves.

What we shared in common is that we’re members of a tribe I’ll call the ’empaths’. People who care about other people. And not just those who fit their worldview. The people who, instead of spewing hatred at a cafe or boxing people in, encourage others. Growing, changing, and living mostly in those colorful shades between black and white.

While national and cultural labels matter- and to some degree protect and connect us- I’ve discovered that the degree of a person’s empathy is the biggest predictor of whether I will like her. That your warmth and kindness is at least as important to me as how you vote for or to whom (or if) you pray.”

This tribe is the most important one in the world.  More than Israel, Jews, Arabs, Americans, left and right.  And it is the hardest to organize.  Because even after you’ve identified them, there are so many forces pulling us apart.  Telling us the colors of our flag matter more than those of our heart.

But if we are to have a future on this planet, it is a must.  It’s necessary to be like the liberal Washingtonian I read about who visited a gun store in Virginia- just to talk to people.  It’s necessary to be like the Arab from East Jerusalem I met who studied Hebrew on his own to get to know his neighbors.  It’s necessary to be like me, an American Israeli Jew who studied Arabic for years and years because it’s the best way to understand Arab people.  To build bridges in the impossibility that is the conflict which embroils us.  Because my deepest hope is for a day when I can hop on a train from Tel Aviv to Damascus.  And maybe stop over for a night of partying in Beirut.  And then sit sipping tea in the Lebanese mountains overlooking the Jewish towns of the Galilee.  As if the past 70 years have been just a bad dream.

It is not easy.  There are times when I am afraid- and sometimes justifiably so.  There are extremists on every side here and abroad.  There are people who’d rather us- all of humanity- sit in silos.  Easy to market to, easier to divide and conquer.  While both “progressive” and right-wing billionaires continue to rake in our resources.  Palestinians and Israelis fight for crumbs, but who really gains?  Why are there 30 Israeli billionaires but the average New Yorker, in one of the most expensive cities on earth, has 17% more purchasing power than a Tel Avivi?  Why is there a Palestinian billionaire while 32% of his countrymen sit in abject poverty, unemployed?

In the end, the people at the top care very little for the people at the bottom.  If I wanted to indulge my most cynical side, I’d say that’s how they got there.  But I’m really not sure.  What I can say that what interests me less are peace declarations, foundations, donations, and projects.  What interests me more is the well being of the average human being.  And while people here- indeed around the world- rally around the ethnic group or religious community or political party they are supposed to defend- who is really winning?

I’m not suggesting billionaires are necessarily bad people, though.  I’m not sure life is so simple.  There are really mean poor people and generous wealthy ones.

But what I am suggesting is it’s not fair.  And that efforts to focus us exclusively on identities at the expense of our shared human empathy are driving us into a hole.  So while liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has been held up as an exemplary clean energy enthusiast, how often do the organizations who receive his donations wonder where he got his money?  Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and eventually his own investment firm which invested millions in private prison companies.

But let’s join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in storming the office of Nancy Pelosi about climate change and rail against Republicans who receive coal money.  While The Latino Victory Fund which supported her partners with Tom Steyer’s SuperPAC.

To what extent this is purposeful, I don’t know.  I do appreciate Ms. Cortez’s critique of money in politics, but I fear the judgmental fire in her belly may scorch us as a society.  Maybe Tom Steyer and other donors’ views are situational.  Some people earn a lot of money to then try to do a lot of good.  People’s motivations are hard to discern.  And I don’t want to support a witch hunt or class warfare, or to suggest people are purely good or evil.

But I do think the result is a game of smoke and mirrors.  Where I should spend my time hating Palestinians or Republicans or Muslims or right-wingers or left-wingers, when in the end most people can’t make ends meet.  Around the world.

So I’ll say this.  If there is a solution to this problem, it’s the empaths.  Whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Benjamin Netanyahu, the BDS movement, or anyone else dominating the headlines these days, let’s focus our attention elsewhere.  Maybe they can join us later, but in the meantime, instead of gazing up at them, let’s look sideways.  Ahead- at the people in front of us.

Those are our allies.  Our potential friends are the people who don’t buy into this warfare.  They’re the Republican willing to buck the party on gay rights.  They’re the Democrat who who dialogues with her anti-abortion neighbors.  They’re the Tunisian who writes about the Jewish history of his land– in collaboration with a Jewish historian.  And the Israelis like me who empathize with the challenges facing our Arab countrymen and our Palestinian neighbors.  Who rather than tearing up at every Ben Gurion quote and saluting the flag, would prefer to talk with the Arab man who cleans their school.  They’re the American Christian who visits this land to understand both Israelis and Palestinians, rather than coming with a pre-set agenda.  Who is willing to confront anti-Semitism with as much vigor as racism or Islamophobia.  To confront their own prejudices.

Because we all have them.  And if we’re honest, if we’re empathetic, we can acknowledge that.  I, for one, have been learning more about transgender experiences.  I don’t know much- and it’s a deeply stigmatized identity and community I don’t know much about.  But I’m putting myself out there and realizing I have a lack of knowledge.  And that doesn’t make me weak, it’s makes me kind.  Because to acknowledge our own gaps in knowledge is to point us in the direction of what we need to learn.

So in the end, I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.  I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice.  I’m not interested whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a left winger or right winger.

What I’m not interested in is “or”.  What I’m interested in is “and”.  Because an empath lives in the and.  The ability to see that the identities we are supposed to defend are only part of the story.  That the words we use aren’t as important as what they indicate- given our position.  That the sentiment behind them, the context is much more important than the vocabulary itself.

So give me pro-Israel Europeans and Israeli Jews who rail against racism.  Give me Americans who fight against BDS and anti-Semitism and give me Israelis who fight against an unquestioning Zionism.  Give me Palestinians learning Hebrew and Israeli Jews learning Arabic.

Give me the and.  Because the real way forward, as I see it, is to step outside our silos.  And find the people whose orientation is towards compassion, who are willing to question orthodoxies, and are struggling to live in the gray space at a time when polarization would make it so much easier not to.

Who are willing to give up the simplicity of living enclosed in the safety of a walled-in tribe.  Whether that tribe be NPR listeners, secular North Tel Aviv, a gun show, or a West Bank settlement.

Because where things get a porous is where life gets dangerous.  And when boundaries become frontiers, they can become markers for progress more than barriers separating us from each other.

Don’t tell me what you think, show me how you care.  Don’t tell me where you’re from, show me where you’re going.  Because perhaps what I’ve learned is it’s not so much where you are so much as how you’re oriented.

The bad news about today’s world is that we’re increasingly divided along national, political, and religious lines.  Which can make it incredibly hard for a double minority gay Jew like me to find a safe and welcoming home.  When I look at a map, my heart wishes I could live everywhere and my mind knows that I can’t.  It’s a force that pulls me apart and forces me to choose between the well being of my identities and my curiosity about the world.  Although as I write this article I wonder if perhaps the most important identity of all, someone’s kindness, may lead me in different directions than I’m “supposed” to pursue.  Maybe it already has.

The strain of trying to find a home, a career, a place where you feel safe, fulfilled, and stable is real and intense.  It’s a lot to handle at once and can feel excruciating.  Especially when your primary communities are targets for so much antipathy and hate.  What I’m discovering is there’s a way to view things a bit differently that can help me find a way forward.  Because when you understand the most important (if not only) characteristic of someone you’ll like is their compassion, you realize that exists in every corner of the planet.  And while it requires some sifting, some risk taking, some potential hurt, you can find people everywhere who will treat you with dignity and compassion.

Israeli identity is not so portable.  Tied to this land, there is nowhere else on the planet that feels exactly like this.  Where Jews live in the majority.  Where Hebrew signs dot the skyline, where Hatikvah is blasted at every sports game.  Where Judaism isn’t something to be hidden at home or behind synagogue security guard.  Where it carries both the power and responsibility of running things.  It exists like this nowhere else on the planet, which is why so many Israelis have trouble adapting to life, including Jewish life, elsewhere.  Perhaps this will change- groups like the IAC are trying to help Israelis build a Diaspora identity, as strange as that sounds.  I can understand why it’s necessary for their well being.

Jewish identity, on the other hand, is the most portable identity in the history of mankind.  It changes and mutates everywhere we go, adapting in extraordinary and creative ways to both fulfilling and extremely scary circumstances.  Sometimes it’s snuffed out- it can’t plant its roots everywhere due to the cruelty of some people.  But it does show an incredible adaptivity that few cultures have managed to replicate.

It is challenging to be an Israeli or Jew in much of the world.  But there are some things you can uncover anywhere.  And can bring to any society.  What you can carry with you to every corner of the globe is a desire to help, to understand, to bring hope and kindness.  And to find people willing to share that warmth with you and to join you in the task of building a gentler, more caring human society.

Because when we understand the meaning of the words others say, we realize that it’s the intent behind them that matters most.  That help us sift through the distractions to see the direction their heart points in.

May we all find the words to bring us peace.  In our own lives and in the lives of the people around us, to the extent we can.  This Christmas, this Chanukah, this Kwanzaa, is the season when the sun sets early, the darkness sets in, and the contrasting blackness surrounds us.  Which presents us with the challenge of finding warmth.  And if we manage to kindle a flame, also gives us the chance to make our little bit of light shine even brighter.  Not as bright as the sun, but brighter than if we try to be a lamppost at noontime.  We can’t choose when the sun sets- nor can we choose when it rises to cover us and glow.  When you find yourself in darkness, you can’t expel all of it.   So rather than struggle against its very existence, perhaps the key is to find someone else willing to light a candle with you.  To make some space for warmth.  Until the morning breaks again.

Are Israelis Jewish?

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

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

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

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

So now, back to Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why does all of this matter?

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

The implications are enormous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What kind of Jewish State?

Lately, as some of you have noticed, I’ve felt rather down.  Job hunting is stressful- and job hunting in Israel is even more so.  Sending resume after resume, LinkedIn after LinkedIn, call after call.  It’s exhausting.  And knowing that the salaries here are so much lower than the U.S. doesn’t help.  As I’ve written about, Israel is one of the most expensive countries in the world.  Tel Aviv is the 9th most expensive city.  Yet the salaries don’t keep pace.  Out of the 34 OECD countries, Israel is ranked 23rd in purchasing powerAccording to Numbeo.com, an average meal at a low-cost restaurant is $14.78 in Tel Aviv and $20 in New York.  New York rent is also more expensive, although Tel Aviv is actually more expensive than the Big Apple if you want to buy an apartment outside the city center.

In that spirit, let’s compare apples to apples.  While most indices for New York are more expensive than Tel Aviv (although milk is 33% more expensive in Tel Aviv!), you have to remember the salary gap.  The average net salary, after taxes, is $4,505.72 per month in New York and just $2,294.76 in Tel Aviv.  And Tel Aviv is where most of the high paying jobs are in Israel.

All of which is to say that although New York is known for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, a place where most Americans couldn’t dream to live, Tel Aviv is actually worse off economically.  The average Tel Avivi has 14.96% less purchasing power than a New Yorker.

It’s an economic desperation you see on the streets here.  Today alone I noticed two different grown men rummaging in trash bins in the middle of the city.  Looking for food, I presume.  A degrading experience for them, and a deeply sad and disturbing one for me to see.  It makes me read signs like this one, which I saw at a bike store, with a bit of irony:

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Of course, these problems are not only happening in Israel.  Around the world, the gap between wealthy and poor has become a pressing issue.  When I was in San Francisco last month, I saw more homeless people than possibly any other city I’ve visited.  Rural Romania, where I spent some time hiking and backpacking, has largely been hollowed out by migration to London and Spain and Italy in search of work.  Village economy has dried up after joining the EU.

The thing is not everyone is suffering here.  In 2018, Israel counted over 30 billionaires.  In dollars.  High-tech firms here are some of the most successful in the world, with some of the highest salaries in Israel.  If you work in the start-up scene, Israel is the place to be and you could probably build a comfortable life here if you choose to make aliyah.

On the other hand, with the cost of living continuing to increase and other industries’ salaries failing to keep pace, Israelis are being left behind.  Including olim like me.  Who came here with a Master’s degree from Georgetown university, 8 fluent languages (including Hebrew), and 10 years of public relations experience.

I have some more meetings in the next few days.  I have been sending out my resume left and right, networking like a maniac.  Those of you who know me personally know I am an extremely proactive person.  Root for me, encourage me, I need it.

I want to share some stories from this journey.

Last week, I went from bookstore to bookstore in Jerusalem.  Calling, showing up in person, filling out forms.  I figured it’d be good to earn some money while searching for a job with a real salary.  No call backs.  I was even told by one bookstore that I was “overqualified”, even after explaining I was just looking for part-time work.  I also spoke to an employee of an Israeli travel company I was trying to network with.  With the hopes of collaborating on my blog, to hopefully earn some revenue and bring them business.  After I sent some English and Hebrew writing samples, the employee wrote to me: “it is hard to impressed by your writing.”  It was like a gut punch.  I know I’m a good writer- and the 50,000 people who read my blog are proof.  As are the wonderful comments you all share with me.  But it’s just demeaning.  How long should I fight for an underpaid job here?

Needing a break from the stress of job hunting- a hunt which at this point is extending to both Israel and the U.S. out of necessity- I headed to a museum.  Knowledge, history, learning- these things always light me up and give me hope.  Seeing the long spectrum of Jewish history and the beauty of art helps put my current struggles into perspective.  And fills the soul with light when people around you are swallowing your hope alive.

When I visited Italy last march, I learned about the unique history of Italian Jews.  A 2,000 year old community, they predate both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews and have their own rite.  At the Jewish Museum of Rome (which I highly recommend visiting), I learned there was another place in the world where the Italian rite was used: Israel.

In one of the most miraculous stories I’ve ever heard, Italian Jews transported an entire historic synagogue to Israel in the 1950s.  In a bid to preserve this ancient Jewish heritage- seen as endangered even after the Holocaust- the building made its way to Jerusalem where it is now housed in the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art.  It’s a small but absolutely stunning museum.  With ancient and medieval Italian Jewish artifacts, and the synagogue itself.  It is used to this day- and has extremely rare Italian-rite prayer books which I got to hold and read up close.

The museum is a testament to Jewish history and the power and nature of Israel itself.  In the museum, I read from the Sereni Haggadah, a 15th century Italian book illustrated with Ashkenazi motifs and written according to their rites.  I read about how some Italian Jews even spoke and published in Yiddish.  A reminder of how all Jews are connected- that Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Italian flow into one other.  In the sun-soaked land of Italy, where all three communities have co-existed for centuries.

The synagogue and the museum are a reminder of the power of the Zionist ideal.  Without Israel, who knows what would have happened to these treasures, to the synagogue itself.  While some synagogues in Europe are preserved, the vast majority have been destroyed or lay in decay.  I saw some turned into restaurants and casinos and there is even one that was turned into a strip club.  But more than anything, they are usually locked and empty.  To prevent continuing theft and anti-Semitic attacks, an eerie testament to their largely emptied communities.

Israel was the logical place to send this synagogue.  It’s a place where the history of the Jewish people can sit safely, far out of the reach of anti-Semites.  It’s a place where the National Library of Israel preserves 5 million Jewish books, audio files, and other treasures.  An unmatched collection spanning continents and centuries.  A gold mine I got to explore this past week.  The only library of its kind.  I perused Judeo-Arabic versions of the Torah, Catalan-language books about Jewish history, dialect maps of Yiddish, and a book about the xuetes of Mallorca, Jews forced to convert to Christianity.  Who manage to maintain a separate, often persecuted, identity to this day.  Check out the library’s website and discover a digital collection that can transport you from your home to almost any Jewish community- past or present.  If you’re in Jerusalem, go visit!  There are real gems right under your nose- and it’s free!

While visiting the Italian museum, I met some foreigners, who were intrigued by the exhibit.  Including Jews.  I spoke with a British Jew whose parents are Israeli.  He only speaks a few words of Hebrew, but he connects to his Judaism by studying Italian Jewry.  The museum staffer himself had Mexican parents and we spoke in Spanish about the siddurim.

I also made a point of talking to several sabras, or native-born Israeli Jews.  This segment of the population tends to have the least appreciation of Jewish heritage.  Israeli schools teach a lot of biblical history and a lot about modern Zionism.  But Diaspora communities of 2,000+ years are often relegated to discussions about the Holocaust.  Undoubtedly a painful watershed event for world Jewry that a third of Europeans don’t know about.  But hardly the only thing worth mentioning in two millennia of history.  Marked by both persecutions and amazing perseverance and creation.  It leaves the average sabra deeply ignorant of Jewish communities outside of Israel, something I see reflected in the growing gap between American and Israeli Jewry.  Clearly a gap that has origins on both continents, but which I see little effort to tend to here in Israel.

More than this, it also leaves Israelis ignorant of where they come from.  Here our history dots the landscape.  Ancient Jewish archaeological sites sit in every corner of the country.  Ritual baths, or mikvahs, built two thousand years ago- the kind I have personally used at my synagogue in Washington, D.C.  I have even done a genetic test- and my DNA is closest to Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians.  Our guttural Semitic language was birthed in this land.  Yet we also were enriched- at times oppressed- by the cultures we have engaged with since our expulsion from here.  And without understanding the intermediate 2,000 years, the average sabra doesn’t really know a lot about how he or she came to be.  And what it means for the Jewish people- or our state- today.

Two sabra women I met had Iraqi parents.  I think being the children of olim, especially ones so ruthlessly expelled from Iraq, made them more open to learning about Diaspora history.  Perhaps just as importantly, they knew about their own rich heritage, so it might have made them more appreciative of other Jewish cultures.  I sensed their awe as they looked at the synagogue, admired its beauty, and stood in wonder at its journey from Italy to the capital of the State of Israel.  A journey Italian Jewish slaves in Rome 2,000 years ago never could have imagined.  Yet worked and prayed for- and whose descendants made a reality.

There was one young sabra in the museum, otherwise the latest generation was nowhere to be seen.  It’s a stark reminder that once you are cut off from your roots, and as you grow new ones, it is hard to inspire people to reconnect.  It’s a phenomenon I struggled with almost a year ago to the day.  My journey to learning Yiddish as an adult proves that reconnecting with the breadth of Jewish history is possible.  And some young Israelis, like the phenomenal Yemenite singers of A-WA, are joining me on that journey.  As they go around the world singing traditional Judeo-Arabic songs to sold-out clubs.  I personally have seen them three times on two continents- go experience the magic of Yemenite song!  They are keeping their chain of tradition alive while innovating along the way.  A fitting testament to two millennia of Yemenite Jewish heritage and to the fact that it has survived at all.  Thanks to Israel, where almost all Yemenite Jews live today after being expelled in the 1950s.

There is a certain push and pull, perhaps even an intertwined irony to having a Jewish state.  The state has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Jews.  Jews whose countries senselessly butchered them or confiscated their property and expelled them.  From the U.S.S.R. to Morocco, from Algeria to Poland, from Germany to Iraq.  While some Jews have come here voluntarily, the vast majority have come under major duress.  I couldn’t help but notice an Italian and Hebrew prayer in the museum this week dedicated to saving Alfred Dreyfus.  The French Jewish army captain ruthlessly persecuted by his countrymen, by anti-Semites just over a hundred years ago.  Reading that prayer in a museum in Israel reminded me of the importance of having the ability to protect ourself.  That while we work with allies wherever we can find them, we have just as much a right to defend our people as anyone else.  Which is why we have put our lives on the line to make sure the State of Israel exists for all of us.

At the same time, it’s clear that nationl-building has come at a price.  As it does in all states.  Where minority cultures, where immigrant cultures, where the “other” is often ruthlessly assimilated until it is almost unrecognizable.  To this day, France won’t sign a European treaty recognizing its minority languages.  Arab governments such as Morocco and Algeria have forcibly assimilated their native Berber populations linguistically and ethnically.  A deep marginalization that continues to this day.  Turkey for years claimed that Kurds were simply “mountain Turks” despite their completely different languages.

For Jews, the curious thing is we did it to ourselves.  While for sure in Diaspora communities, Russians, Americans, French, and others have pushed us to assimilate into their cultures, in Israel, Jews did it to other Jews.  In other words, the sabras already living in Israel identified as the “new” Jews- strong, masculine, assertive.  And the old “effeminate” and “bookish” Jews of the Diaspora arriving here had to be reformed.  Which is why ancient Jewish languages like Yiddish and Iraqi Judeo-Arabic and Ladino were basically thrown out the window.  Hollowed out.  Jews were forced to take on a new, uniform Israeli identity.  To be more sabra and less Shmuly.  In some sense, more Israeli and less Jewish.  At least as how Judaism had been conceived of until then.  An odd statement to digest.

Some of this is the price you pay for building a nation.  Without a certain degree of cohesion, could Israel have successfully resisted Arab invasion after Arab invasion?  Could a Yiddish-speaking commander have successfully (and quickly) communicated with a Moroccan Jew who spoke Arabic?  If Israelis had had the luxury of being the Switzerland of the Middle East (not coincidentally, a country with four official languages), maybe it would have been seen as more feasible.  To allow a bit more room for diversity.  But our nation was not given an easy start.  So practicality took precedence over preservation, and entire Jewish civilizations were wiped out or cannibalized.  A couple weeks ago, I entered a Persian restaurant in Jerusalem (Baba Joon by the Centra Bus Station- the best Persian food I have ever eaten) and the really friendly waiter was clearly proud of his heritage.  But he didn’t know how to say “you’re welcome” in the language his ancestors spoke for 2,500 years.  I taught him, which made him smile.  There are people who want to connect to their heritage here, but it is hard and there are those who resist.  Partially to avoid painful memories of persecution, but partially because they’ve been taught that that “Diaspora stuff” is worthless.  It’s the dustbin of history.

But that’s wrong.  To wander is to be Jewish.  Whether physically, as in the case of Jews across the centuries.  Or intellectually, by visiting the National Library, by learning your ancestors’ language, by going on an unexpected hike or to a new museum.  To explore, to devour knowledge, to take the untrod path- that is Judaism.  We’ve been wandering since Abraham and our legendary trek in the desert.  On our way to the Promised Land.  Just because we have a state now doesn’t mean we should stop our inquiry, our curiosity, our search for the unexpected connections that bind us together and enlighten our selves.

At the end of the day, I stood in line at the grocery store.  Feeling disillusioned, stressed, in need of a smile, I struck up a conversation with the friendly Russian Jewish clerk.  In Slavic-accented Hebrew, she asked me how I was doing and what I was up to.  Our conversation roamed.  We talked about aliyah, the struggles.  She told me how she was Russian but her parents were Polish.  And how she only thought there was sweet gefilte fish until she moved to Israel, unexposed to the salty southern varieties of Ukraine.  A country that in her own words, she inexplicably detests.  Israelis are full of contradictions like all people, but we have a bit more courage to say them out loud.

We laughed as I told her my great-grandparents used to make this food by hand.  Putting entire carp in their bathtub and making the delightful fish balls one by one.

She then asked the best question. “Redstu yiddish?”  Do you speak Yiddish?

And I said “yo!  Ikh ken Yiddish!”  I do speak Yiddish!

And right there, in the line at the grocery store, as an impatient sabra waited behind us, we chatted in mamaloshn, the mother tongue.  A tongue our ancestors have shared for generations.  Filled with warmth and love and the smell of rich chicken broth bathing kneydlakh in the Passover kitchen.  Not to mention a literary tradition that has produced thousands upon thousands of books filled with wisdom, now available for free digitally at the Yiddish Book Center.

In the end, my Yiddish and my Hebrew co-exist, if at times uneasily.  I am no less fluent in one because I speak the other.  In fact, one helps me understand the other, as the languages overlap and have enriched each other throughout Jewish history.

It’s a symbiosis I hope sabras can achieve.  That while building a state does require new models and sacrifice and adaptation, it doesn’t have to completely erase our rich and complicated Jewish past.  To relegate it to nothing but our Shabbat foods, to museums, to archives.

Judaism is alive and kicking.  Despite all the people and peoples who have stood in our way.

The question we face now is what kind of Judaism?  Having built the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, one that continues to require our vigilance to protect, perhaps we need to shift our focus.

Our focus was once state building.  But now the question is what kind of state we want to live in, or have as a safe haven?

Do we want a state where a few people earn millions of shekels in high tech while middle aged men scrounge for food in trash bins?  A state where Jews live disconnected from their own rich heritage, on whose very land Jews mostly spoke Yiddish and Ladino until the 1920s?

Or do we want a state where people can earn a living.  Where, if not rich, people can survive, can build a career.  Can contribute to our people and our economy and connect with the world no matter how wealthy they are.  Where the Russian grocery store clerks who have PhD’s in chemistry can practice the profession of their training.  Instead of giving preference to sabras, who are in some cases far less qualified.

Do we want a state where you can be both Israeli and Moroccan, the kind of hyphenated, hybrid identities that hold so much potential.  That have enriched Jewish history for millennia.  That might even enhance empathy and understanding among Jews of all backgrounds.  And now offer us the rare opportunity to fuse our past to present, without erasing where we’ve been.

My answer is I hope so.  I won’t say yes because most things are out of my control and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Jewish history and from living in Israel, it’s that things are complicated.

But I believe, at the end of the day, that it’s better to strive for something better than to sit stationary, stewing in malaise.

I don’t know where my journey will take me.  I don’t control the Israeli economy, but I do care about contributing to its society.  And I will do so wherever I find myself, even if for economic reasons I find myself longing for a warm plate of jachnoon from the other side of the Atlantic.

One day, I hope to sit in the Museum of Italian Art in Jerusalem.  To guide tours for hundreds of bright young Israelis eager to learn about their heritage.  To connect them with Jews and non-Jews visiting the same museum from around the world, who value them as Jews and as human beings.  Who see their past and their present as intertwined with their own and worthy of their care.

I hope to sit in that museum with a budget.  A budget the government will dedicate not just to security, not just to elaborate national ceremonies, not just to the hundreds of rabbis it employs.

But also to our culture.  To our institutions.  To the humanities, to our humanity that has persisted over generations.  To educators, to social workers, to artists, to after-school programs, to scholars, and to social innovators.  Not just social media.

So that one day, a well-educated, passionately-Jewish oleh like me can find a well-paid job.  Preserving our heritage, educating for tomorrow, and not just running pay-per-click campaigns from the 9th most expensive city on the planet.

Im tirtzu, if you believe it, it is not a dream.  This is the next frontier.  May we be the pioneers.

My cover photo is a medieval Italian Jewish painting.  Proof that our creativity extends not only to high tech, but also to high art.

El meu primer blog en català

Per a tots els meus amics i llectors que no saben, tinc una conexió prou forta amb la llengua catalana i el públic que la parla.

Seguint la recomanació del meu amic Felip Querol, qui em va entrevistar fa uns mesos sobre Israel, escriuré el meu primer blog en català.  O diguem, el meu segon, si s’enclueix el que vaig escribir com a estudiant de català a Georgetown University fa 5 anys 😉 .

Felip em va trobar a un grup de Facebook de Catalans a Israel.  Era curiós perquè justament en aquest moment, jo estava visitant Catalunya.  Tenim una paraula en Yiddish per a explicar aquests moments afortunats: “bashert”.  O sigui, “predestinat”.  Meant to be.

Podeu escoltar l’entrevista Començo a parlar a les 11:15 minuts més o menys.

Era una entrevista tan divertida.  Com hi ha molt antisemitisme acutalment a Europa, jo estava una mica nerviós.  Felip volia aprendre sobre Israel com un país diverse i complicat i interessant?  O volia fer polèmica?

Jo estava molt content de que ell volia aprendre.  Parlar com éssers humans sobre la complexitat i la bellesa del meu país.

No va ser el primer cop que vaig experimentar la màgia que és parlar en català sobre el judaisme.  Que és teixir junts dues identitats meves.  L’una enriquint l’altra.  Com si no va passar 500 anys de distancament i anhel.

Fa uns anys, quan encara vivia a Washington, D.C., on vaig creixer, vaig tenir l’oportunitat de ser un Katalonski.  Katalonski, per qui no sap, és un programa fenomenal de TV3 que va explorant el món, tractant de trobar gent com jo qui ha aprés el català.

Vaig tenir l’oportunitat de convidar l’equip d’aquest programa, inclouent-hi el presentador Halldor Mar, a la meva sinagoga.  Ell és un Katalonski com jo- nascut a Islàndia i ara un catalanoparlant radicat a Barcelona.  La meva sinagoga va ser la primera que van visitar mai.  No només això, els meus nous amics catalans van venir a fer danses folklòriques israelianes.  O al menys van tractar de fer-les 😉

Podeu veure l’episodi aquí.  Parlo de per què vaig aprendre la llengua.  Com la meva identitat com a minoria va influir la meva decisió.  Com ser jueu gay funciona- i per què em conecta amb el català.

Si dic la veritat, sempre quan em trobo amb dificultats o desafiaments, tinc ganes de parlar català.  I encara més, parlar amb catalans sobre el judaisme i Israel.

No és per casualitat.  Viure a Israel, viure com jueu és difícil.  Et trobes lluitant contra prejudicis àntics.  Per desgràcia, a Catalunya també, on un grup de ignorants van posar un boicot contra el meu país d’Israel.  Però clar, no contra dotzenes d’altres països molt més violents i agressius.  I sense pensar als israelians progressistes com jo que estan tractant de seguir construint una societat cada cop més oberta, tolerant, i diversa.  De lluitar per la justicia i un millor futur.  És la lluita de tot el món actualment- però els que proposen boicotear el meu país només parlen dels “pecats” dels jueus.  Un prejudici ibèric que no va desaparèixer durant els ‘ùltims 500 anys.

El que si m’anima es veure molts catalans que volen aprendre sobre el judaisme i la diversitat israeliana.  La comunitat gay a Tel Aviv, els jueus iraqís que continuen parlant el seu dialecte àrab àntic als carrers de Or Yehuda, els ciutadans àrabs que parlen al menys tres llengües i tenen representació política al parlament.  Un dret democràtic que per desgràcia no existeix als nostres països veïns.

Llavors quan parlo català i em conecto amb catalans que volen aprendre sobre la meva cultura, em fa content.  I m’anima aprendre encara més sobre ells- la seva cultura, la seva història, la seva llengua tan bonica.  Com em va passar a Vila Joiosa amb el meu nou amic valencià Josep.

I és per això que en aquest moment, quan estic buscant feina, quan vaig veure coets del Hamas, quan tinc la vida una mica estressant, em trobo escribint el meu primer blog en català.

Compto amb els meus amics catalans.  Som minories.  Hem sigut oprimit pel mateix estat espanyol.  Les notres llengües- el yidish, el ladino, el català mateix- han sigut ignorades i menyspreades per l’història.  Perque som “cultures petites”.  Perque segons alguns, només una civilització que té 300 millons de parlants importa.

Però jo sé, com jueu, com israelià, i com catalanoparlant, que no és veritat.  Que, com la meva primera professora de català em va dir: “cada llengua és una riquesa”.

Els èxits dels jueus i dels catalans són innombrables.  Hem pogut sobreviure i preservar les nostres cultures malgrat persecucions i ignorancia de fa segles.  Tenim històries riques i conectades.

Seguim tractant de tobar un equilibri entre la modernitat i la necessitat de preservar les notres identitats antigues.  Una cosa que poca gent al món enten.  Però seguim endavant.

Penso en el meu primer blog en català, el que vaig escribir com estudiant universitari a Georgetown gràcies a la Fundació Ramon Llull.  I potser no sigui per casualitat que aquest blog, que jo hauria pogut escriure sobre qualsevol tema, el vaig escriure sobre el ladino.  La llengua judeo-ibèrica que el meu pobre ha preservat fins avui malgrat la nostra expulsió del país que era el nostre.  El nostre- de vosaltres i de nosaltres.  De la vostra sang amagada i de la meva- les dues provenints del país del qual escric aquest blog.  Un miracle que l’Inquisició no hauria pogut imaginar fa 500 anys.

Quan penso en el català, penso en l’esperança.  En el futur.  En les dificultats acutals.  En la riquesa de ser una minoria que segueix contribuint i vivint i sobrevivint.  Rient malgrat l’ignorancia.  Rient en hebreu, en català.  Rient com som.

Per això, quan es parla del català i del judaisme, no em puc separar.  Perque per a mi, són dos aspectes inseparables de qui sóc.

Enviant una abraçada de Jerusalem.  Als meus germans i a les meves germanes a Catalunya.

Us estimo ❤️

La foto és del mapa del call jueu de Tortosa, una ciutat preciosa que vaig visitar l’ùltim cop que vaig anar a Catalunya.

One Catalan tweet

One of the biggest problems facing Israel is “hasbara”.  It is translated as “public relations”, “propaganda”, or “outreach”.  It comes from the verb “lehasbir”, which means to explain.

The idea is that Israel, like any other nation, needs to make its case on the world stage.  At a time when we find ourselves under rocket fire from Hamas (and the world barely seems to notice), it’s more important than ever.

The problem is Israelis aren’t very good at it.  Israeli mentality is rooted in that of a “start-up nation”.  In order to build this state, people had to be creative and, more importantly, just go for it.  There’s no time to refine rough edges or to polish words.  As I’ve written about before, bluntness is the name of the game.  After having personally experienced deep anti-Semitism in parts of Europe veiled in feigned politeness and verbosity, I understand where the mentality comes from.

The issue is that because Israeli culture is built on straight talk and getting to the point, making a nuanced case for the country doesn’t happen much.  And while talking about (very real) Hamas and Hezbollah fanaticism might work for the Fox News crowd, it just doesn’t touch the heartstrings of centrists and progressives in the same way.  Flexing your muscles is not the only way to get your message across.

This is part of what I do with this blog.  It’s not to say Israel is perfect or that you should always agree with the government.  I can’t say I always agree with any government- so why should I expect something different from other people?

Rather, it’s to show the diversity of Israel to help you understand the many layers of this society and break through stereotypes.  So that the next time you think of Israel, it’s not just rockets falling or political conflict, it’s also the Druze kid I talked about gay identity with in Arabic.   It’s the Haredi black-hat Jew who gave me one of the warmest hugs of my life.  It’s my experience in a Catalan archive reading the 500-year-old names of Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition.  And realizing that sadly, this kind of persecution continues to this day, making Israel the one safe-haven Jews can count on in times of need.  As Pittsburgh, my mom’s hometown, soberly reminded us just one month ago.

When you understand the depth of Jewish experience, when you see layer upon layer of complexity in Israel, you realize just how rich a place this is.  And how foolish it is to think of it in uniform shades of black and white.

And it gives you the courage to reach out to potential friends in new ways.

As some of you know, I have a strong connection to Catalonia.  I speak Catalan, I’ve been interviewed on Catalan TV and radio and newspapers about Judaism and Israel.  It’s a society thirsty to learn about my heritage- and one that inspires me to think differently about my own identity.

Over the past few years since learning Catalan, I’ve connected with thousands of new people interested in my culture.  When traveling in Valencia a few months ago, I even met a gay Zionist bookstore owner with a Hebrew tattoo who has become a dear friend!  I recently posted a 30-second Catalan language video about Israel’s diversity which reached almost 3,000 people in a matter of minutes.  It wasn’t anything complicated and it wasn’t about how terrible our enemies are- it was simply about the diversity of life that I enjoy here.  A diversity their media fails to show.  And it really resonated.

The other day, I was at the National Library of Israel.  If you haven’t yet visited this fascinating institution, do so.  It has over 5 million volumes of books, recordings, and archives.  It is the historical treasure trove of the Jewish people from around the world.  It’s a way for us to preserve our heritage for generations to come.  And most importantly, it’s free!  So instead of standing in line at some tourist attraction, go visit and explore thousands of years of Jewish history in countless languages.

Thinking of my Catalan friends, I decided to try an experiment.  My background is in public relations and social media marketing.  While I sometimes value a break from the endless streams of news feeds and clickbait material, social media does have the power to bring people together.  In ways impossible just a few years ago.

I took some pictures of a multi-volume Catalan dictionary I found at the library.  To the average visitor, it might not seem like much.  But to me, it was an absolute gem.  I poured through its pages, its worn binding drawing me to gently open its doors.

I posted the pictures on Twitter with Catalan-language messages about what I was reading.

And my friends responded.  Within 20 minutes, there were dozens of likes and shares.  All in all, 4,504 people have seen the two tweets, with absolutely no advertising budget.  The National Library responded with a cute short Catalan tweet.

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Why does all of this matter?  Isn’t Catalan just a small, useless language?  Israelis are practical- shouldn’t we just focus on Spanish and Chinese and Russian and English.  Why talk about culture?  We have rockets falling on our heads.  It’s a waste of time, it’s superfluous, let’s talk about the important stuff and “cut to the chase”.

This is the sabra attitude and while it works for creating the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, we sometimes lose out on building relationships with potential friends.  Catalan is not a useless language- I don’t even think there is such a thing.  But for starters, it has over 10 million speakers- more than Hebrew.  Catalonia has a GDP of $255.2 billion.  If you think Israel is a tourist magnet (we had a record-breaking 3.6 million tourists in 2017), the city of Barcelona itself hosted 8.9 million.  And from a strategic angle, Catalonia itself may become an independent country in the years to come and Israel would be wise to find friends wherever we can.

But beyond all of this, Catalans and Jews are minority communities persecuted by global powers.  In fact, the same ones- the Spanish state.  The very country that expelled us 500 years ago- and to this day remains one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world.  Catalonia once hosted one of the world’s largest Jewish communities.  Its own language’s persistence is a tremendous feat that reminds me of how Jews have continued to survive despite thousands of years of being degraded.  Yiddish itself was once derided as a “jargon”, a useless language, just like Catalan.  We share the challenge and the belief in balancing modernity with preservation.  We have a lot of things that can bring us together.

So while some advocates for Israel continue with a one-dimensional message reaching the same audiences over and over again, I do something different.  Their message also needs to be heard, but it’s not succeeding in reaching important communities and it’s only part of the story.  I talk about what’s hard here, what’s awesome here, what’s benign and interesting.  I don’t demand unquestioned loyalty and I do show why our country matters.  I show the burnt fields of Sderot and I take people across the Mediterranean on a virtual tour of one of our best cultural institutions, the National Library.

Israel, like the Jewish people in general, is one of the most diverse, fascinating communities on the planet.  It’s a place where just this week, I saw an Orthodox man listening to Bollywood music on a train next to a Muslim woman in a hijab.  It’s a place where Assyrian churches pray in Aramaic- and where I hit on a cute Iraqi guy who speaks the language of Jesus in a gay club in Tel Aviv.

I admire our nation’s diplomats who are trying to make the case for our country.  And sometimes, we need to try something new.  It’s true there are people who irrationally hate us and who we’ll never convince to embrace us as fellow human beings.  And it’s also true that there are people who like us, if we choose to reach out with sensitivity, nuance, and heart.

Don’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.  I reach out to Catalans and make Arabic-language videos for Syrian refugees (hundreds of whom engage with me) and march in gay rights rallies.  Not because they’re “big cultures”.  It’s because they’re not.  They’re like me.  They’re neglected, they’re minorities, and they matter.

So next time you see a Catalan tweet from the National Library, don’t wonder why it’s useful.  Look around you at the State of Israel, at the Jewish people, and realize we’re proof that there’s no such thing as a small culture.

My cover photo is from the city archives of Tortosa, a beautiful Catalan city with thousands of years of Jewish archives I explored this summer.  Find your adventure 🙂

Goodbye America, for now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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