The Aramaic-speaking gay Iraqi in Tel Aviv

Lately, living in Israel has kind of sucked.  My government has turned into some sort of slimy festering poop mobile, spurting out nothing but shit whenever it opens its mouth.  A law against gay surrogacy, a law against the Arabic language, a law against non-Jewish minorities, arresting a liberal rabbi for performing a marriage, the list is almost endless.  Also, there’s something about pollution in the Mediterranean which I haven’t had the time to read about.  Plus the normal pressures of life here- like Hamas rockets and Iran threatening to obliterate us.  Not to mention thousands of Syrian refugees crowding our border trying to escape their murderous government.  A government that makes ours look like sheep.

When things suck here (yes, they sometimes really do- and if you’re considering moving here, you should be ready for that), I try to think of what I like about this place.  Am I just insane or did I find something here that makes me stand in awe despite all the idiocy that surrounds me?

And a story came to mind.  A few months ago, I went clubbing.  I love to dance and need to more often, but I don’t go clubbing that much.  I’m 32, I don’t have a lot of friends who like to club, and it’s not like I feel up for it every weekend.  It’s energizing and it takes a lot of energy.

But one weekend I went.  In the club, I was very friendly.  It was a gay night and there were tons of cute guys!  I’ve been so busy doing everything here- learning about Israeli culture, making friends, exploring identity, finding housing, getting important healthcare, and sweating a lot- that I haven’t dedicated a lot of time to men.  Although I am single- so if you’re cute and smart and like an adventure, hit me up 😀

But this night I did go out.  And in the club there is this very cute guy.  Very typically Jewish looking- yes we come in all shapes and sizes, but I mean that kind of “I know you’re a Jew from a mile away” look.  Typically Semitic.

I go over to him and start dancing with him.  Turns out he’s from Germany.  Surprise number one.  Because I speak Yiddish, I could communicate with him.  I wondered if he was a German Jew.

But as I got to talking to him, the surprises kept coming.  He’s German, but actually Iraqi.  His family became refugees after the absurd American war in 2003.

What’s particularly strange is why he was in Tel Aviv.  At a gay club.

Iraq and Israel have no diplomatic relations, so I presume he entered on a German passport.

But why did he look so Semitic?  I mean Arabs are Semites, so I spoke to him in Arabic and he said he understood a little.  Huh.  So maybe because he was born in Germany?

No.  He was born in Iraq.  I asked what languages he spoke.  German, some English, and- prepare to be in awe- Aramaic.

Aramaic.  The language of the ancient Middle East, the Talmud, many Jewish prayers, Jesus Christ, yeah.  Aramaic.

I was so turned on.  Intellectually and yeah, the other kind too.

And guess what?

He’s gay!!!!

GAY!!!  An Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Christian German GAYYYYYYY.  The cute guy who looks like a Jew looks like a Jew because we’re from the same neck of the woods.  And boy would I like to be in HIS neck of the woods.

You might be thinking, well duh, he’s at a gay club.  But many straight people in Tel Aviv go to gay parties.  And all of his German friends with him were straight.  In fact he wasn’t even out to them, which is why I’ll use the Aramaic pseudonym Michel when talking about him.

It was simply some sort of Semitic gaydar that allowed me to connect with him.

He loves Tel Aviv and actually came back for Pride.  It’s probably the closest Michel can get to a queer Semitic vibe, as his homeland is plagued with homophobic violence.

For me, this story is nothing but romantic.  Ancient cultures, beautiful languages, the unexpected- combining in one thrilling moment in Tel Aviv.  You couldn’t have written a sexier story if you tried.  Israeli independent film doesn’t even have the imagination to concoct such a scenario.

And there we were.  One gay Aramean Christian, one gay American-Israeli Jew.  But at a certain point, the labels didn’t matter.  He was cute and we liked to dance.

So that night in Tel Aviv reminds me of the unexpected surprises and glorious nuggets of hope that lie in this land.  A land tortured by fanatical power-hungry idiots who unfortunately run it.  And the psychotic neighboring powers who torture us and their own peoples.

For one moment that night, all of that didn’t matter.  Because I was dancing at a gay club in Aramaic.  And the 21 year old Matt who downloaded his first Iraqi Aramaic song a decade ago was smiling ear to ear.

Sometimes I yearn for a calmer life- in America, abroad, traveling, or even elsewhere in Israel.  Who knows where I will roam.  What I know is this kind of night- that’s what makes this place special.

p.s.- the cover photo is a Syriac church in Jerusalem.  If you can’t read it, it’s because it’s in Aramaic 🙂

Tribes gone wild

This blog might sound a bit strange after I just wrote one celebrating my first year in Israel.  The reality of being in Israel, though, is that I find my emotions yo-yo on a daily, often hourly basis.  Things go from very bad to very good to bad again- sometimes minute to minute.  The shifts in mood are palpable- and far more frequent than I experience in any other country I’ve visited.

In the past week, Israel has experienced multiple earthquakes, hundreds of Hamas rocket attacks, Syrian refugees crowding the northern border desperately trying to escape their own government, settlers attacking Israeli soldiers, Haredim attacking young women for being “immodest”, the increasingly psychotic government refusing to give gay men the right to surrogacy.  And trying to pass a law that would allow communities to bar members of the basis of religion, race, sexuality, or any of a number of identities.  It was subsequently watered down, but still pretty bigoted, and now is successfully winding its way through the Knesset.

Through all of this, I’ve tried to speak out, mostly in Hebrew.  One, because that’s what most people speak here- people who follow these events and can influence them.  Also, because there’s a problem.  The far-left in America and Europe has made it nearly impossible for left-wing and centrist Israelis to successfully rally support for their causes or criticism.

Why?  Because there are people who are committed to our destruction.  Who are unceasingly and at times irrationally critical of Israel.  In a way they aren’t of other countries- or sometimes even their own.  One can even view the recent shenanigans of IfNotNow in this light.  A far-left American Jewish group who, in the face of serious global challenges like the Syrian Civil War or Hamas rocket attacks, has instead decided to disrupt Birthright trips for not being left-wing enough.  Ruining the Israel experiences of other young people because the trips aren’t tailored exactly to their tastes like the SweetGreen salads they custom order at lunch for $15.  Excuse my cynicism- I just don’t think that just because someone has come to political conclusions about the situation here (which is their right), that means they get to force an entire organization to adopt their stance.  No one is forcing them to take a free trip to Israel.  If you want to see Palestinian and Arab perspectives, all you have to do is extend your ticket and hop on a bus to Bethlehem.  It’s not complicated and it’s way less confrontational than aggravating a bunch of young people on a trip with an explicit purpose that they simply don’t like.  Stop acting like entitled children.  If you’re really serious about your beliefs, you can buy your own plane tickets.

When people like IfNotNow or groups even more extremist dedicated to destroying Israel harm us, it makes it much harder for those of us on the inside to enact beneficial change.  Because when we speak out about discrimination against gays, Arabs, foreign workers, or refugees- some of these extremists use it as an opportunity to say everyone here is rotten.  Which then gives ammunition to the far right here to silence us- we must be traitors, just like those troublemakers abroad.  It’s not true- but it has resonance in a country under attack with little taste for nuance.

So I’m going to try to offer some criticism of Israel- but understand it’s with the purpose of actually making change.  To help steer this community in a stronger direction.  Not simply to make noise and masturbate my ideology.  I can’t control if you’ll take my words and use them to hurt me.  Just know that I will use every bit of my being to stomp you out and protect us- with the same level of passion that I use to fix what’s wrong here.

So what is wrong here?  A lot.  The earthquakes I can’t do much about- God, stop punishing us, we’ve had enough.  The Hamas rockets- I’m exhausted with our patience.  The world sits silently, mostly unaware as the media ignores our fate.  If Western Liberals showed one tenth of the passion for our lives as they do for immigrant children (which is justified), then the rocket fire would be condemned from wall to wall.  And maybe even pressure Hamas to stop.  Now would be the time to speak up.  For moral reasons.  For Israeli lives.  Frankly, also for Palestinian lives- they’re going to suffer increasing pain as they pay the price for Hamas’s games.  And if you want to get practical, 300,000 American citizens live in Israel.  And we vote.  So if you want our support, show that you give a shit.

Now on to our idiotic government.  I’m not a reactionary far-left voter.  At times in the past, I frequented this space.  I still find some of the ideas important.  And I’d say, while I don’t fit into a box, I’m somewhere left-of-center or centrist in Israeli politics.  And I appreciate some ideas that come from the right- I’m not orthodox in my politics.  Nor in my synagogue, though I have davvened in Bnei Brak.

But this government is leading Israel off a cliff.  The latest Nationality Law seeks to enshrine discrimination in Israel’s Basic Laws- laws that are not exactly a constitution, but are incredibly hard to repeal.  While the law did innocuous things like recognize national holidays, the controversial aspects surrounded a downgrading of the status of Arabic, restrictions on where people can live, and antagonistic attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Jews abroad and at home.  With strong implications for Arabs, LGBTs, and other minority communities.  Until the text was altered, I had to live with the idea that I could be denied residence in a community for being Reform or gay- an almost unthinkable legal reality.  If sadly, the unspoken truth in many places in the world, even democracies.  Enshrining it in law certainly would have given malignant social practice a dangerous boost.

The saddest thing about this law is not the text itself.  Nor is it the future it could portend.  It is that it describes an existing reality.  I’ve traveled extensively in Israel- over 100 different communities in one year.  From every single possible linguistic, ethnic, and religious background.  Places few Israelis visit- Israelis who’ve lived here all their lives in insidious narcissistic bubbles.  Bubbles sometimes created by fear- sometimes even understandable because of that fear.  Bubbles nonetheless.

This is the greatest problem with the law- it makes explicit existing social practice.  Israel is a tribalistic nightmare.  It is filled with rich ancient cultures.  Cultures preserved through insistence on maintaining community and tradition.  In ways unseen in the West, where cultures meld into creative fusions and, if we’re honest, mostly oblivion.  I’ve met rather few Irish-Americans who speak Irish, and not a small number of 3rd generation Latinos who can’t speak Spanish.  The gift of America is its vibrant churn.  Its curse is the evaporation of cultural heritage.

In Israel, that heritage is preserved.  To shocking degrees.  There are Christians in the north who pray in Aramaic- some actually speak it.  Just like the Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem.  And every day Hasidic Jews study 2,000 year old texts in the very same language.  That Jesus spoke.

The problem is that this preservation, this conservation comes at a price: social understanding.  Israel is divided into tribes: secular, traditional, Orthodox, Haredi, Druze, Christian Arab, Muslim Arab.  Left-wing, right-wing, center.  With lines that occasionally are breached, for example by my friends who grew up Orthodox and are now Reform.  But this is by far the exception.  When people plant themselves here, they leave themselves little room to wiggle.  And often little curiosity to explore other pastures.

This is the greatest problem with Israel.  One I recognized half a year ago.  And I have even more evidence for now.  This isn’t a society.  It is a collection of societies.  That mostly don’t talk to each other and are largely content to avoid each other.  From every possible direction, lest someone pretend their tribe doesn’t follow this pattern.  I’ve met Druze who say they keep their Muslim minorities “under control”.  I’ve met Christians who say they keep their Muslim neighbors “in line”- and if there are problems, they’ll “take care of them”.  Muslims have used religion as a wedge against Christians in Nazareth, of all places.  It’s safe to say almost no Muslim villages here would be thrilled to see Jews moving in.  With the exception of welcoming Abu Ghosh, where a woman wanted to know why I didn’t want an apartment there.  Unfortunately, a woman from there was beaten by Jewish girls in Jerusalem for being Arab this week.  When it rains, it pours.   You can extrapolate the same patterns of voluntary segregation among all types of Jews- among themselves and towards Arabs.  Lest you think it’s only right-wing Jews who feel this way, I’ve never ever met an Arab who was allowed to live on a Kibbutz.  And they largely understand they won’t be allowed on a moshav, or village.  I’ve yet to see my wealthy friends in North Tel Aviv show interest in setting up an African refugee community in their neighborhood.

People here are generous- about giving directions, about hosting strangers, about feeding you, about giving advice.  And they are utterly selfish when it comes to defending the interests of their community above the dignity of the individual or, for that matter, the well-being of the nation.

If America is far too individualistic, Israel is far too communal.  With pluses and minuses in both directions.  I’ve noticed that not all societies are so extreme- my travels in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have revealed places somewhere in the middle.

Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel is what allows it to be a Jewish state.  The reckless, gung-ho attitude of its early pioneers, the native-born Sabras, is what allowed the state to get on its feet.

But those very pioneers contained a fatal contradiction.  Their disregard for rules, their utter contempt for the Diaspora and all things foreign- it has become limiting.  Because if you look at who can best contribute to the cultural dialogue here that could strengthen bonds and ease tensions- it’s people like me and thousands of olim who’ve chosen to make Israel our home.  People who, at our best, have the sensitivity of having been a minority, as well as the pride of choosing to make this our home.  People who know how to navigate various cultures and come with less preconceptions about different communities.  More often than not, understanding the value of pluralism, or at least the power of listening.  Something sabras struggle to do as they lecture us about how we’re wrong and they know better.  As the country they built rages with fire- fire from the outside, and fire kindled from within.

It’s high time the sabra realized he’s not the only fruit in the field.

p.s.- the cover photo is from a Druze village.  It says: “it’s my fault that I love my sect”.  A kind of Middle Eastern “sorry not sorry”.

My last day as a Liberal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

I come from a progressive background.  I grew up being taught to vote Democrat (and when I threatened not to do so as an 18 year old, got a series of heavy-handed lectures).  My DC suburban life was pretty liberal.  I knew Republicans- and they were a smaller minority than any ethnic or religious group I knew.  And decidedly quieter, for they knew the social consequences of being open about their identity.

I can imagine one could say the same thing in reverse about many other places in America.  I not know not a small number of liberal people who grew up in rural or conservative areas and faced bullying for their identity or beliefs.

When I worked for a variety of political and non-profit organizations, the rhetoric was quite clear: progressive=good, conservative=bad.  Even with regards to the moral standing of the person himself, not just the validity of her views.

One of the famous sayings of the labor movement, a movement that successfully improved living conditions for workers across America and the world, is: “which side are you on?”  There is even a catchy folk tune about it.  The idea was, politically speaking, to force people to choose between management (bad) and workers (good).  I can understand the need for rallying cries and I think the underlying ideology is problematic.

When you ask someone to choose between one human being and another, you set up a dynamic where someone will lose.  And while in some cases that might be necessary, it’s pretty black-and-white thinking that I think gets us into some trouble.  And perhaps gratifies our desire to feel right and just more than providing real solutions.  To the extent that solutions can be found- and they aren’t always so readily available.

Living in Israel and traveling the region has taught me some things.  For one, I’ve spent a lot more time with conservative people.  While I did go to college in the Midwest and summer camp in the South, I can’t really say I had deep relationships over many years with conservative Americans.  Here, my neighbors have pictures of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in their house.  As does almost every restaurant.  I do not live in the Tel Aviv of beach high rises.  I live in a place that loves Benjamin Netanyahu- it’s not on your Birthright itinerary.  Although it should be.

I have friends- not in the metaphorical sense- but actual friends, who have my phone number.  Who are Hasidic, who are Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, who are Druze, who are Arab Christians, who are Arab Muslims, who are Modern Orthodox settlers.  The kind of people, in many cases, that I was taught to fear as an American Reform Jew.  Some of whom know I’m gay and/or Reform and are fine with it.  Some of whom don’t know- or don’t know yet- and it doesn’t particularly matter for me.

The point is I feel at home with these friends and I feel at home at queer parties in Tel Aviv.  Or leading Reform services.  Or going to pride parades.  Or vegan hippie Shabbats.  In fact, I sometimes feel more comfortable in my traditional Mizrachi neighborhood than I do at those vegan Shabbats.  But I try to find something to enjoy everywhere.  I also find it amusing to meet some vegans here who are just as “Orthodox” about their diet as any Haredi rabbi is about his Judaism.  Israel is an interesting place full of passion, contradictions, love, and curiosity.  I would never live anywhere else.

Which brings me back to my original point.  Living in Israel has opened my eyes- not only to insights about life here, but also about my former homeland.  America is increasingly polarized.  I see this also with regards to the absolute nonsense all too many progressives are spouting about Israel.  I met a young man the other day who goes to Williams College.  He told me, over some pasta in Tel Aviv, that activists on his campus put up an “Israeli apartheid wall” every year.  And then naively link the Israeli security fence to the American wall on the Mexican border.  Two rather different issues, but with one common thread: seeing the world through an American lens rather than understanding the nuances of other societies.  Like the fact that for all its complexities (including land disputes with Palestinian villages), the fence between Israel and the West Bank drastically reduced suicide bombings.  Saving who knows how many lives.

Israelis loved to tell me when I made aliyah that living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  Nothing could be more true.  The more you get to know this beautiful land, the more you see the struggle of the soldier, the identity see-saw of being Arab and Israeli, the hardship of checkpoints, the necessity of checkpoints, the suffering of refugees, the suffering of their neighbors who’ve been neglected for years.  The snobbery of wealthy “left-wing” white people, the identity void those people face because their own Yiddish-infused Ashkenazi identity was torn from them.  The anger of Mizrachim towards Arabs.  Because they are perceived as them by those same Ashkenazim who purport to advocate for them.  And because Arabs kicked them out of their countries.  And because the state suppressed their Arab-infused cultures when they arrived.  And because Palestinians mock them for being Arab- without understanding that Mizrachi Jews have lived in the Middle East long before Arabic was even spoken here.

In the end, if you really experience the full breadth of Israel, you understand there are no easy solutions.  Anyone who tells you there are is selling snake oil or perhaps listening to a little bit too much NPR.  Here’s the reality: if Israel simply “pulls out” of the entire West Bank, it will become militarized and extremists will use it as a launching point for terrorist attacks.  Just like what has happened in Gaza since Israel exited 13 years ago.  Many Palestinians simply want to make a living and too many Palestinians aren’t willing to let go of the past and move on.  And instead turn to violence, threatening Israeli lives and their own neighbors’ ability to provide for their families in peace.

There are groups out there that would like you to think there are simple solutions to the conflict here.  Or that there are simply “two sides” when there are as many opinions amongst both Israelis and Palestinians as there are stars in the sky.

IfNotNow is one of those groups.  I actually went to one of their events in the States because I was curious.  I’m open to hearing what pretty much anyone has to say and I think every government or ideology should be open to critique.

The problem with this organization is that its entire mission is framed in the negative.  Besides the fact that I have yet to hear a single positive thing about Israel from this group- which is both a moral and practical issue if you’d like us to hear your message- the message is simplistic.  In their own words, they want to “end American Jewish support for the occupation“.  Regardless of the merit of the argument, the framing is entirely negative.  Rather than advocating for peace or for anything- it’s about what they’re against.  Without defining what “occupation” even means.

This is more than a semantic point.  There are Israelis (and even some Arabs) who don’t see Israel as an occupier.  Or even see Arabs as occupying Jewish land.  Most Palestinians who would argue East Jerusalem is occupied- and many who live there want to hold on to their Israeli ID cards even if there’s a Palestinian state.  There are Arabs within Israel who don’t even identify as Palestinian, let alone want to live in a Palestinian state.  And others who do view their land as occupied- in pre-1967 Israel.  Who have citizenship.  There are Palestinians who similarly believe all of Israel is occupied territory.  Some Israeli Jews view the West Bank as occupied, Gaza as Palestinian-controlled, and want a Palestinian state in those two areas.  And other Jews who disagree to varying degrees.  Many Jews also support land swaps which would allow Jewish settlements to be fully integrated into Israel while giving equivalent land from within Israel to the Palestinians.  Largely Arab villages- many of whom despite their sympathies for Palestinians, don’t actually want to be swapped into a Palestinian state.  Who fear it will become an autocracy like all of its Arab neighbors.

So let’s take another look at the platform of this organization as an example of what’s going wrong with certain streams of progressivism.  On the webpage linked to above, they write: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood. We work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”

So in essence, the group is against the occupation- which they won’t define.  They won’t say if they support Israel’s existence, whether it can be a Jewish state, or even if people should boycott the country.  The only thing uniting this group is “ending the occupation”.  What that means- not only do I not know, they don’t know.  I can’t have a rational argument- or even find room for agreement- if I don’t know what somebody believes.  And it seems evident to me that these people are struggling with their Jewish identity, which I can empathize with.  I’m not sure they’re doing it in a way that’s advancing peace.

This past weekend, I spent a lovely Shabbaton with the Israeli Reform Movement’s biennial convention.  Young and old came together to celebrate the growth of, yes, progressive Judaism in Israel.  I enjoy both liberal Judaism and Hasidic Judaism and everything in-between.  They all have their ups and downsides.  Haredim need to work on their homophobia and judgmental attitudes.  And Reform Jews need work on, well, their Haredi-phobia and at times, anti-Mizrachi racism.  Which I did hear quite distinctly from several leaders at the conference.  One of whom decried the “Judaism of the ghettos of Poland and Casablanca.”  Haredim and Reform Jews both have beautiful passion for our religion and people.  And I get something out of all types of Judaism.  I had a great time and made good friends.

As we left the conference to take a shuttle to Tel Aviv, my friend Yarden checked her phone.  We had such a good time, she hadn’t looked for a while.  Turns out, Hamas was shelling her Kibbutz near Gaza- 3 rockets had fallen just that day.  I of course offered to let her crash at my place in Tel Aviv, but she said: “I appreciate it, but I have to get back for class.  I’m used to it at this point.  I was just hoping.  Hoping it had stopped.”  A week after 100 Palestinian Hamas rockets had landed in her area.

I gave her a hug goodbye and told her I’m praying for her and always here if she needs a place to stay.  And I plan on visiting her as well.  I sent her a cute message too after we left.

Do these words alone fix the Middle East crisis?  A crisis brewing in various forms for thousands of years?

No.  But nothing can.  Or at least I’m not sure what can.  Because I’m willing to admit, in a fashion I would’ve struggled to just a few years ago, that I don’t have easy solutions.  I’m not even sure what solutions there are.  And I hope things calm down.

What I did offer my friend- and I try to offer people around me- Arab, Jewish, Christian- whatever.  Is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is a joke.  Is a smile.  Is love.  Is a visit.  Is a cute emoji.

Some people, including my former self, might mock what I just said.  In the face of rockets and “occupation”, of suffering of so many varieties and cultures and religions.  What Matt, Matah, has to offer is kindness?  A joke?  Hah!  Why doesn’t he just go to a rally and stop the occupation!  What a blind superficial hypocrite who’s just trying to blind us to the reality of oppression.

Which side are you on?

To which I say: you’re asking an impossible question.  I’m a proud Israeli Jew.  That’s my side.  And I care what happens to my Arab neighbors.  And I care about refugees.  And I care about my neighbors even if they don’t like them.

In short, I care.  Not about “one side”.  About people.

In the end, there are some things I believe can help make our country greater.  I say greater because it’s already really awesome- in ways you’ll never see on the news.  The relaxing beaches, the Jews and Arabs who are friends, the gorgeous parks, the nightclubs, the life.  The vibrancy of this place and its people that makes New York look like a dull dirty boring rat-infested overpriced city with no beach.  That, OK, has better bagels than here.  But 10% of the soul.

I’d love to see more Jews learn Arabic.  I love to see more Arabs and Palestinians learn Jewish history and recognize our peoplehood.  I like to see more Ashkenazim learning about Mizrachi history- and learning Yiddish to understand their own.  And Mizrachim connecting to their Arabic-infused cultures and languages to realize they share a lot more in common with Arabs than some might like to admit.  Which I get.

Rather than offer easy solutions, I try to embrace that we can’t fix everything and there might not even be solutions to everything.  That can be scary to people who need certainty- I’ve been there before.  Now I’m proud that I am increasingly able to live with that discomfort and treat people with kindness whenever possible.

My wish is that progressives like IfNotNow, even if they continue to advocate in ways I disagree with, can understand where people like me are coming from.  Where my country is coming from.  And to advocate with a little more understanding and love.  And a little less yelling.

Because the one thing every visitor to Israel can agree on is we are already have enough of that.  Even if it’s just the guy selling tomatoes in the shuk.

A Burmese refugee, Libyan Jews, and me

Big moments happen in small ways.  Tonight I was at my favorite sushi restaurant.  You wouldn’t expect to find it in my neighborhood, a place where the Mizrachi music blasts and the streets have a special smell.  Yet my neck of the woods is full of surprises.

As an oleh, an immigrant, who came alone- life can be hard here.  I have no family support network- and this is a country built on family, much moreso than America.  People don’t just see family twice a year on holidays here.  They often live right down the street.  The good part is people are willing, often eager, to take me in.  In America, I felt even lonelier.  Having no family- I cut them off due to their abusive behavior– I had to find places to spend holidays and Shabbat and even dinners.  I found myself growing closer and closer to certain restaurants there because I didn’t want to eat alone.  And some, like my favorite Thai digs in D.C., really loved me and even gave me gifts on my birthday.  When you have no family, you build it yourself.

The downside to not having family here, in such a family-centric society, is you really feel it.  Saturday, Shabbat, is not just a day to relax- it’s a family day.  With family meals.  And if you’re not invited to one, it often feels solitary.

Today, I spent my day exploring the Libyan Jewish Heritage Center in Or Yehuda.  Absolutely free and full of fascinating history, I had a blast.  A Libyan man there gave me a personal tour of the entire place- in Hebrew and Arabic.  Missing the North, where I had just enjoyed speaking so much Arabic, it was great to speak it in my own backyard.  With a Jew 🙂 .

Moshe made aliyah, immigrated to Israel, when he was 7.  He was born in Tripoli, Libya.  Heir to a 2,000 year old Jewish tradition that predates Islam.  Like many Jews in North Africa, Libyan Jews were subjected to Muslim pogroms, or massacres, in the 1920s-40s.  I also learned today that almost 3,000 were even sent to Bergen-Belsen and gassed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.  I had no idea.  We usually associate Holocaust with Ashkenazi Jews (and some Sephardim, like in Greece).  I knew of some persecutions in North Africa, but not much.  But the Holocaust artifacts- even someone’s suitcase from a concentration camp- really took me by surprise.

Moshe walked me through everything, with such patience and kindness.  I had the whole museum to myself- which I hope you’ll fix by going and visiting.  If you don’t, it’s very much your loss.  I saw Jews’ Libyan passports, a Libyan Zionist youth group T-shirt, Arabic-language legal contracts, 500 year old Torah scrolls, and so much more.  A Passover haggadah in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and French.  I got to hear Libyan Jewish music and hear stories of heroism by Libyan-Israeli soldiers in the IDF.  Even a 1950s teudat oleh.  A true treasure.

Libyan Jews lost all their property when they had to flee to Israel.  Now Jewish cemeteries there have been bulldozed, built over.  Jewish homes occupied by Muslims.  Despite the fact that Moshe said Muslim women would look after him and bring him home to his mom.  The relations were not always bad.  Yet not a single Jewish community remains.  So if you want to know why Jews feel like we need a state of our own, just take a look at Libya.  When we are subjected to the whims of non-Jews, it always- always ends badly.  Maybe not during every epoch- but the sad truth is the finale remains the same.  A minority without a home base can’t really protect itself.

After a delicious Bukharan Jewish meal near the museum, I did a little shopping for my apartment and headed home.

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At home, I did a little tidying and started to feel tired.  Physically tired, perhaps- I didn’t sleep well last night.  Coming back to loud and chaotic Tel Aviv after some days in the quiet, peaceful North was hard.  And to boot, it was friggin hot.  But also emotionally tired.  Tired of being alone in this gorgeous land, where I make friends here and there but I just don’t have a home base (though perhaps I’m building many).  I don’t have my own “Israel” to come home to.  But I’d sure like one so anyone looking for a third of paradise, hit me up (that’s a Jewish joke- but it’s not a joke 😉

I realized that my neighborhood sushi joint- that’s where I feel at home.  Any time I need someone to eat with, when it’s just too tiring to make plans, I go there.  And I love the people there.  The Filipinos who run it, the Mizrachi girl who says “be’ezrat hashem” (God willing) every time I tell her about a cute guy, and the adorable Filipino-Burmese-Israeli kids who like to play with me in Hebrew.  One even made me origami 🙂

When I go to this restaurant, I never feel awkward.  In the States, sometimes I felt “weird” or “imposing” or even desperate if I’d go to the same restaurant “too often”.  Here, even if it’s only been a day or two, my friends ask me “where have you been?”

Notice I said friends.  Because we don’t just talk about the weather or football or our plans for the weekend.  We talk about homosexuality, family, children, Tagalog, Burmese, Israeli culture.  We share jokes and we laugh.  I play tic-tac-toe with the kids- and I usually lose. 🙂

The past few weeks, a Burmese relative of one of the employees has been filling in for someone.  My knowledge about Burma basically extends to a delicious restaurant in suburban Maryland, an episode of Anthony Bourdain, and the famed human rights activist whose name I can never pronounce.

What I know about Burma is that it was- and in some ways still is- “al hapanim”- a disaster.  Run by an isolated military dictatorship, many Burmese fled.  A brief glance at Wikipedia reveals child soldiers, slave labor, and ethnic cleansing.

As they shut down the shop at midnight (because I’m lucky enough to be able to walk to a sushi joint open till then), I talked to the Burmese man.  He’s been in Israel for over 20 years.  He has some sort of official refugee status.  It affords him a legal visa, but not citizenship.  He said he might be able to get it through an expensive process, but his coworker indicated he couldn’t.  It wasn’t clear.  He said he could go to America, where he has relatives, but he prefers life here.

It wasn’t even entirely clear how much, if at all, he could travel outside the country.  And this is a country that has lived through several wars just since the time he arrived.

He pulled out his Burmese passport.  I’ve never seen such a thing.  It was worn and full of Israeli visas (which frequently have to be renewed- for some workers every 3 months).  We had a huge laugh together when we saw his picture in the front.  He was young.  Maybe 20 years old in the photo.  Today he’s over 50 and while he has a deep vibrancy and a full laugh, you can see the wear that working hard jobs has taken on him.

To see an expired Burmese passport, from a Burmese refugee, to talk with him in Hebrew- and laugh.  In my neighborhood.  That’s a new feeling.  The same day I saw Libyan passports of Jews who fled for their lives.  I felt gratitude for the fact that I got immediate citizenship and guilt that he still doesn’t have it.  Joy at making a new friend.  And pride that he prefers Israel over America and all other countries.  Deep empathy- it must have been excruciating for him to leave his homeland and to be so far away.  I asked him- he misses it.  Yet he keeps laughing and smiling.  A true survivor and thriver.

Libyan Jews, me, and my Burmese friend.  We all fled our own traumas.  Islamic extremism, a deeply abusive family and anti-Semitism, and a ruthless dictatorship.  And we’ve all managed to make Israel our own.  Our home.  We faced and face our own challenges.  I hope Libyan Jews here manage to remember and preserve their heritage even as they contribute to our beautiful nation.  That Libya will repent and repay the Jews for ethnically cleansing us.  I hope I continue to find stability, love, and happiness – family – in my new country.  A place where I feel increasingly healed and have more healing to do.

And for my Burmese friend- I wish you nothing but love.  May you continue to grow here.  May you get the legal status you need or want to feel safe.  May you feel welcome.  Even if you’re far from your Burmese family, I hope you feel embraced by your Israeli one.

Count me in as a member.

My Yemenite-West Bank-Nepali-Darfuri-Mizrachi kind of day

This morning, I knew I wanted to go on trip.  After my doctor’s appointment, I wasn’t sure where to go.  So I noticed the nearby bus stop went to Rosh Ha’ayin and I hopped on a bus.

I’ve long been fascinated with the city, which was founded largely by Yemenite Jews.  They have a heritage center there, which I’d love to visit another time- it was about to close when I arrived.

Not sure what to do, I simply walked upwards.  I noticed that I was very, very close to the Green Line, the line that separates pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank/Judea and Samaria.  I caught some absolutely gorgeous views of the hills on the other side- just stunning.  The nature was stunning and also the mystery of what’s over there intrigues me.  Yes the hatred and also the forbidden nature of it.  It’s so, so close and it’s legally quite far.  The anger and animosity that forbids me from visiting is overwhelmingly sad.  Also because I know it’s not a simple thing to fix.  There are reasons why Israel needs a security fence and there are reasons why Palestinians are angry about it.

Rather than get into the politics, I want to share an odd observation.  The fence itself in this particular place- it was pretty.  It struck me.  Fences anywhere usually aren’t so pretty.  I’ve seen our border fence with Syria.  It’s pretty much just a fence.  I’ve seen from afar the concrete parts of Israel’s security fence in Jerusalem and they look pretty concrete-y and gray.  For whatever reason, the part of the Green Line that is a wall here is oddly…attractive.  Its yellow stones strangely complemented the gorgeous hills I viewed on the other side.  While not being able to go there frustrated me, I felt oddly at peace.  This is what it is now.  To protect me, this wall needs to be here.  And I hope one day we’ll be in a place where me and the Palestinians on the other side can live next to each other with normality.  We’re pretty different in a lot of ways, but maybe one day I’ll find a friend there.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the view and the hope.

After almost making it to a Yemenite restaurant in Rosh Ha’ayin before a downpour, I decided to take a bus to a mall in Petach Tikvah.  I was in need of a new backpack and since it was raining (torrentially- 9 children were killed in flash floods, z”l), I headed indoors.

I had never been to Petach Tikvah and, to its credit, I have not yet explored there.  I’m sure I will.  The view from the bus wasn’t fantastic- it’s a kind of concrete jungle that reminds me a lot of Northern Virginia.  And like Northern Virginia has the beauty of Old Town Alexandria and the ethnic food of Annandale, I imagine Petach Tikvah has its charm too.  It just wasn’t where my bus was driving.

I got off and went into what has to be the largest, cleanest mall I’ve seen in Israel.  Orderly, calm, and at least when I was there, relatively quiet.  A kind of reminder of what America was like sometimes, just in Hebrew 😉 .  I got a new backpack- I’ve traveled so much that the bottom of my backpack has come unsewn.  I have a great relationship with my backpack- one of my steadiest- and I’ll miss it.  I started to say kaddish for it and haven’t quite yet let it go.  But I do have a new friend to carry with me and it looks snazzy and sturdy.  May it bring me to great adventures and fun.

Leaving Petach Tikvah, I thought to drop my stuff off and go to Bnei Brak for gefilte fish.  I called my friend Yisrael to get the address for his restaurant.  Then, my monit sherut cab dropped me off by Neve Sha’anan, a neighborhood of mostly refugees and non-Jewish foreign workers.  Instead of going to eat gefilte fish, I went to my favorite Nepali restaurant here, ordered chicken momos (a whole plate for 20 shekels!), and chatted with a bunch of friendly Nepali guys.  And debated American politics with the Tibetan chef.  There were moments of discomfort when I explained how I immigrated here and have dual citizenship- something most of them could only dream of.  The tension of feeling bad for them and the tension of feeling like there’s not always an easy solution to these kinds of things.  Because I want them to have equal rights and I also think that in order to have the only Jewish state on the planet, how do we draw a line in a humane way that allows us to continue that miracle?  Not so easy.  On the upside, one of the guys, Diwass, happily agreed to exchange his Nepali for my Hebrew, so we traded numbers 🙂 .  Always good to stay grounded in a place where the “what if-ing” could occupy your whole life.

On my way home, I realized I wanted some produce.  There’s a beautiful new store opened by a Darfuri guy from Sudan.  He recognized me from my last visit and we talked fruits and veggies in Arabic.  I asked him about his former city in Darfur, Kutum.  I told him I’d look it up and learn about it.  We talked about the languages of Darfur and my work and me being a dual American-Israeli citizen.

We wished each other ma3 asalaameh and I walked home.  One of the (many) Mizrachi synagogues on my neighborhood had a huge gathering of people on its porch.  Because in Israel, we treat each other as family more than strangers, I went up to a guy and asked him: “what’s going on here?”  And he said: “It’s a hazkarah.”  Or what Ashkenazi Jews might know as a yahrtzeit, the anniversary of one’s death.  I said: “but everyone is so happy!”  His response is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard: “it’s been a year.”  He smiled and we went our separate ways.

Why is this man’s response one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard?  Because it represents the absolute best of this country and of Judaism.  But a Judaism so concentrated and radically accepting of the present that I’ve never seen such a thing in another country.  We were sad a year ago.  Someone passed.  And now, we come together in a spirit of joy.  Not the joy of pretending it didn’t happen, but the joy that we’re here together.  To remember someone we loved and to thank God for being alive.

Want to know why I live in this Land?  A land threatened by terrorists and missiles and theocrats from every side and all across the region?  A place where your bags are searched in every mall and theater and where soldiers carry guns on the train?  A place where the landlords and real estate agents won’t hesitate twice before screwing you?  A place where the salaries are lower than America?  A place where I sometimes miss the cleanliness and rules and museums and delicious Asian food of America?

Because we know how to live life to the fullest.  And we have the amazing landscapes and people and cultures and kindness to do so.  In America, I often felt distant from my neighbors.  You don’t invite yourself to someone’s home- you ask them for permission.  And don’t want to “impose”.  Here, there’s a deep appreciation for the value of every second you have on this planet.  And there’s an incredible generosity of spirit that allows me to sit with Nepalese workers and Darfuri refugees and my Syrian Jewish neighbors for hours on end.  With no “transactional” expectations of our relationship.  Just because we’re human beings.  And friends.

The other day, when I told my American friend how in Israel you can go from a Bedouin town to a Hasidic synagogue to a gay club in just one day, he said: “but how many people actually do that?”

I’m not sure.  More should.  The point is here you can.  And I definitely do.  So if you’re getting bored on your commute from Rockville to Washington or Evanston to Chicago or Westchester to New York, open up Skyscanner.  Find yourself reaching for your wallet to buy a ticket.  And click “yes”.

Because you might just find yourself having a Yemenite-West Bank-Nepali-Darfuri-Mizrachi Jewish kind of day.

Or as I call it: “Thursday” 😉

p.s.- my cover photo is of Libyan soup I had yesterday.  Because no image could possibly capture such a mix of cultures better than a delicious stew 😉

Independence from black-and-white thinking

Today concluded my first Independence Day as an Israeli.  And the first one I’ve celebrated on my homeland’s soil.  It was an independence day for me, a chance to declare my freedom from my own oppressors.  To celebrate my progress.  It was a day to rejoice.

Rejoice I did- I danced to Mizrachi music in the streets, I hung out with friends, I wore my Israeli flag as a cape, I got congratulated for becoming Israeli many, many times.  There were goofy people dressed up as Israel’s founding mothers and fathers.  There was fun.  We deserve a day to just have fun and be proud of our accomplishments.  In 70 years, we’ve managed to do more than some countries do in 200- and under the near constant threat of destruction.  Just today, I was grocery shopping and read a newspaper article while in line.  About Iran wanting to attack us from Syria.  Welcome to life in Israel, where every day we’re alive is a victory.

At some points, I felt I should be happy but wasn’t quite as happy as I thought.  Maybe it was when the tour guide at Independence Hall said: “we’re all Jews here, so feel free to interrupt.”  I totally get the sense of humor and I had to wonder how the Filipina woman and her child behind me felt.  Or perhaps a Druze man sitting in the back.  I think growing up in the Diaspora made me more sensitive to including others- we have some work to do here.  Because most of us are Jews- and not all of us are.  And we all deserve a seat at the table.

It got me thinking.  I really wanted this day to just be about celebrating Israel.  All year long we talk politics and people around the world hammer us for problems both real and imagined.  It can be hard to tell whether some foreigners are criticizing us out of a desire to make this a better place or because they single us out and want us to fail.  Trust me- I’ve met both kinds of people.

So I wanted to just enjoy.  And at some point, I realized nothing is 100% happy or sad in life.  In the Passover Seder, we dip our fingers in our joyful wine 10 times- once for each plague.  We put that wine or grape juice on our plates to symbolize our empathy for innocent Egyptians who suffered on our way to liberation.  No Jewish holiday is black-and-white, we’re a people who knows how to meld the bitter and sweet to the extent that it can be hard to even untwine the two.

The most obvious elephant in the room on Yom Ha’atzmaut, our Independence Day, is the Palestinians.  We are neighbors and the people right across the border have no independence day.  The reasons are complex- and it would be incorrect and even prejudiced to suggest that all of the blame falls on one side of the fence.  And it’s sad that while I’m celebrating today, some Palestinians are mourning what they see as a catastrophe.  The creation of my state.  While they still don’t have one.

I can empathize with why this day is hard for Palestinians (and Arab-Israelis/Arab citizens of Israel).  For someone whose village was destroyed in 1948, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, this day must be rough.  And the wound is still unhealed as our region has been in a near constant state of war for the past 70 years.  With bloodshed all around, including 37 soldiers from my neighborhood alone.

I also wish my neighbors across the border would try to understand why we’re celebrating.  I’ll tell you personally- I’m not celebrating the destruction of any village.  I’m celebrating the fact that I feel free here as a Jew.  Even in America, I’d feel scared or embarrassed to walk around with a big Israeli flag on my back.  In America, I felt self-conscious as a Jew.  Laughed at, picked on, discriminated against.  I felt my Judaism belonged in synagogue or a community center, not on the streets.  The idea of praying in public or being visibly Jewish was scary and anathema to what I felt we were supposed to do to be “respectable” and “cool”.

In Israel, we also have Jews who survived the Holocaust, with no family members, only to build new families here.  Some of whom then lost their children to terrorism or war.  We have Jews here from Egypt whose government stole their property, robbed them of citizenship, and kicked them out.  Just for being Jews.  And now they’ve managed to build themselves a new life and home here.  The place that would offer them refuge, no questions asked.  A miracle.

You can go through this story with just about any Jew here.  This is the only place on the planet where I feel safe being a Jew.  An out-of-the-closet Jew.  For 2,000 years we’ve been at the mercy of whatever ruler we lived under.  And all too often, turned into scapegoats like Roma/Gypsies or African-Americans- and suffered the violent consequences.  Here, we are empowered to choose our own fate for the first time in millennia.  And we’re not going to give it up.  Our greatest threat is our greatest strategic advantage- we have no other place to go.

As Israelis like to say, living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  And they’re right.  When I saw a person dressed up as Ben Gurion today, I was laughing and also thinking back to when he derided Yiddish.  When I celebrated by dancing to Mizrachi music in my neighborhood last night, one of the women said: “I want to go to America, it’s terrible here.  Well, it’s not the Jews who are terrible…”.  I empathize with her- there are a lot of reasons why a Mizrachi Jew might be prejudiced against refugees or Arabs, as I’ve written about.  And I also hate it.

I am proud to be Israeli.  I love my country and its people.  I’m blessed to be a Jew and I think we have contributed so much to the world and this region.

I’m also sad that many of my Palestinian neighbors live in deep poverty, are ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and are subject to a largely unaccountable and undemocratic Israeli control over their lives.

And I’m sad that Arab-Israelis are basically caught between the two worlds because to a degree they identify with both.

I’m sad that refugees are discriminated against and might be deported.  And I’m sad that their neighbors- my neighbors- have been utterly neglected by the government for 70 years, fomenting their anger.

I’m sad that as a Reform Jew I have no religious rights here.  I have more rights in the States.  I’m sad that as a gay person, I can’t adopt children.  And I’m grateful to live in the only place in the Middle East where being gay is not only legal, it is accepted by a large part of the population.  According to one poll, 40%+ of Israelis say we should accept homosexuality.  The next closest Arab country is Lebanon at 18%.  Palestinians come in at 3%.  Those numbers also obscure a lot of gray space (including among Palestinians).  My city, Tel Aviv, is one of the gayest places on the planet and has a city-funded LGBTQ center.  Almost 80% of Israelis support gay marriage or civil unions.

In the end, living here is complex.  I’ve learned to become a more empathetic and textured thinker by living here.  If you want to come here and try to break things down into good and evil, right and wrong, black and white- you’re coming to the wrong place.  Like the Bedouin man married to a Jew who converted to Islam and are raising their kids in a Jewish school.  We are awesome and diverse and not easy to fit into a box.  So put down your placards and get to know us before boycotting us or telling us we’re all fascists.  While you sit on Native American land or, in the case of Europeans and some Arabs- on our Jewish property.  Life is not so simple when you start to empathize with everyone.

And it makes it much richer.  So on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, let’s declare our independence from black-and-white thinking.  When you start to live in the gray space, you start to realize it’s not gray at all.  It’s the many, many colors of the rainbow.  Each with is unique shade.  Sometimes too bright to stare at, and often too beautiful to gaze away.

In a note to my American friends struggling with a difficult time in history, join me in embracing the complexity.  Get to know your Appalachian neighbors, gun owners, evangelicals- people you don’t agree with.  Not to convince each other or approve of toxic behavior.  Rather, simply to understand what might cause someone to think that way.

Embracing complexity can bring with it a lot of emotions- sadness, fear, joy, anger, hope.  It is eye-opening and sometimes even overwhelming to see the full spectrum of humanity.  The easy solutions don’t look so easy and sometimes, I feel as helpless as I do empowered.  At that point, I invite you to learn from Israelis.  Because what Israelis are astoundingly good at is just letting go.  Give yourself a chance to celebrate- anything.  Because all people- no matter the race, religion, or country- we all deserve time to celebrate.

Happy birthday Israel.  May year 71 bring us, our friends, and our neighbors peace, prosperity, hope, and strength.

I love you Israel.  When I criticize you, it’s because I want to make you better.  I’m glad to be home in your arms.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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