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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This Independence Day, I belong in Hatikvah – שכונת התקווה מעל כולם

Today was Yom Ha’atzmaut.  Israeli Independence Day.  My country, my home turned 70 today- every day and every year a true miracle.  We’ve got our problems and we manage to survive and learn and grow.  And should continue to do so.

This morning, not really knowing what to expect (are stores open?  are restaurants open?  are museums open?  are buses running?), I ended up going for a stroll.

Lately, I’ve been learning more about the areas south of my neighborhood.  Yesterday I discovered Ariel Sharon Park, which is a former waste site turned into a gorgeous park reminiscent of a rural farm or orchard.  Stunning and hard to believe it’s in Tel Aviv.

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Today I was walking down Etzel Street, the main street in Hatikvah, when I bumped into a woman I had met earlier when we laughed at a guy screaming on the phone.  I asked her what was to the left at the end of the street.  She said it was her neighborhood, Ha’argazim.  I asked if there were restaurants and such there and she walked with me to show me.  On the way, she made some racist comments about Eritreans.  I explained I was against expelling refugees, but basically decided to leave the conversation be because I don’t want to lecture people and in Israel, you have to let some things slide.  Also, she’s from this neighborhood and it’s a seriously neglected part of town.

We bid each other a chag sameach, a happy holiday, and went our separate ways.  One particular quote of hers stood out: “they care more about the Eritreans than they do about the people who live here.”

I thought more and more- what if she’s right?  We’ve been so focused on our activism- have we forgotten the people who’ve lived here for 70 years?  Who are neglected by the city and the State?  And most certainly the wealthy North Tel Aviv “liberals” who never venture down to these neighborhoods?

As I strolled through Ha’argazim, I couldn’t help but agree with her.  The houses are shacks.  Literally shacks.  With piles of trash all around the neighborhood, never cleaned up by the city.  In America, it’d be called a shantytown.  Somehow they manage to give the houses some charm.  And that doesn’t excuse the utter indifference the residents have to face.  Any more than their poverty excuses racism.

It was important for me to see where this woman lived.  It was somehow poorer, dirtier, and smellier than my own part of town- which has its own special stench.  I would never agree with or justify her bigotry- and I also feel I have greater empathy for her now that I know her situation.  I feel her anger is misdirected at the refugees, but the anger itself- boy is that justified.  These pictures should outrage anyone in Tel Aviv.  Likud, Labor- no government has helped these people and it’s a stain on our society’s values.  And I want to be a part of fixing it.

Since Israel can sometimes surprise you, I wandered my way into a beautiful park nearby- Begin Park.  There, there are two lakes, one of which has water skiing where you are pulled via cable above your head.  There is a petting zoo.  And it’s just calm and green and wonderful.  There are even roosters that crow!  And people practicing acrobatics from trees!

This park is what Israel looks like when people care.  I hope one day Ha’argazim and all of South Tel Aviv will benefit from such consideration.  And I’m excited to try water skiing right by my house!  Who knew?!

Eventually, I made my way up North to Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square for the “premier” celebration tonight.  I was supposed to meet a friend of a friend.  Who knew I was going alone.  The friend cancelled part of the plans- fine that happens.  Then, he was supposed to come at 9:30.  No show.  Then, he says he’s coming at 10:30.  Already feeling deeply left out- I was alone standing in a see of families (and I have none)- I empowered myself to leave.  And good thing I did- I didn’t get a message from the other guy until 10:45 saying he was “on his way”.  Would’ve been miserable.

Being in Israel- being anywhere- by yourself is hard.  Israel is such a family-oriented society- which is part of why I want to find a partner here.  And part of why I love how willing people are to take you in as their own.

So a note to Sabras.  One of the great things about being Israeli is our flexibility.  When you cancel plans, you figure the other person can figure something else out.  That’s often true- but remember that olim, in particular ones who come here alone, we don’t always have a back-up plan.  We don’t have friends upon friends to call.  So don’t blow us off.  Take it seriously when we’re waiting for you.  You don’t have to make the plans in the first place and half the time we expect you to cancel anyways- it’s OK.  But when it’s a holiday, especially one with family, please don’t leave us hanging alone.  It’s inconsiderate at best and mean at worst.

Sick of standing alone, I hopped into a cab and headed to my neighborhood.  Tired of the yuppie North Tel Aviv vibe, the utterly boring concert, and the loneliness, I felt my neighborhood would have the answer.

And boy was I right.  As soon as I got out, I noticed a store selling Israeli flags.  I had never gone in, but they were blasting Mizrachi music, so I popped in.  I was wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Without even two words of introduction, we pumped up the music and danced.  Me and the three young women.  One of whom put bunny ears on me.  People walking by smiled and joined in.  A confused old lady kept coming in and out, so I gently helped her walk towards her house.  We exchanged phone numbers- one of the women, Sivan, lives right down the street from me!  And she has a cute guy she’s going to try to set me up with 😉

Once when I was at a Reform Movement event in Israel, a decidedly “liberal” environment, someone laughed when I said I lived by Shuk Hatikvah and grew up in Washington, D.C.  He was amused by the “contrast” between living in “amazing” D.C. and (fill in the blank) Hatikvah.  People giggled.

My response: “you obviously haven’t spent much time in D.C.”  That’s true on many levels- one, because D.C. is a much, much more violent place than my neighborhood.  And while it has its pluses, it’s an utterly sterile “networky” work-obsessed city that’s not that fun.  I’m happier here than I think I’d ever be in D.C.

So on Israel’s 70th, I have a few thoughts.  Refugees and low-income Mizrachim- we can and should care for them both.  Not just theoretically or with slogans, but with real kindness and action.  Someone’s prejudice shouldn’t preclude us from caring for their well-being.  And it might even soften some hearts.

To my fellow progressives, liberals, left-wingers, etc.  Walk the fucking walk.  Compassion and kindness, which I view as fundamental values of our movement, shouldn’t just be extended to people we agree with.  Lehefech, to the contrary, the real test of our values is when they need to be applied to those who disagree with us.

Want to laugh at Shchunat Hatikvah?  Think America or Ramat Aviv or your well-kept kibbutz is better than my neighborhood?

Alek!  Yeah right!  My neighborhood has something your high-tech stock options can’t buy: soul.

My neighborhood sometimes smells like crap, but at least it isn’t full of it.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut, I got the greatest gift of all: I know I live where I belong.  May you find your own sense of belonging wherever you call home.  Chag sameach 😉

The first pro-refugee sign in my neighborhood

As some of you may have heard, just last night I was celebrating with refugee friends the defeat of Bibi Netanyahu’s deportation plan.  They would be given refuge in Western countries or in Israel.  Their lives, in short, would be saved.

After many, many sleepless nights and demonstrating and activism and awareness, I was so delighted to finally feel victorious.  To have literally saved lives.  And all in partnership with the refugees themselves, who were ecstatic.

We had this brief moment of love and joy in the streets of Neve Sha’anan where we pumped up the music and paraded with the news.  Refugees learned of the news from us as we walked down the street.  You could see them smiling from ear to ear.

It was, for a brief moment, perhaps the single most positive step the progressive moment had made in either Israel or the U.S. in the past year.  And against great odds.

I came home feeling happy and relieved.  Perhaps one of my best moments in this country.  Only to find that Netanyahu had paused (and later cancelled) the agreement.  Specifically after meeting with “activists” in my part of town.  Including a woman pictured kissing Bibi’s hand.  They wanted every last black person gone.  No deal with the U.N., no “half-assed” measures.  They don’t want to incentivize other “infiltrators” to come.

I can empathize with their frustration- their (our) neighborhood is frankly smelly, neglected, and poor.  And they are taking it out on the wrong people.  The refugees didn’t cause these problems- they’ve been here for years.  In the early years of Tel Aviv, the municipality didn’t even provide social services to Hatikvah.  The hard-scrabble people here did it themselves, which is amazing.  And also has literally nothing to do with African refugees.  This neighborhood, my neighbors, will continue to neglected as most poor people are.   Whether we live amongst Sudanese people or not.  Neighborhood investment can’t come at the expense of human lives- regardless of their race or religion.  It’s wrong.

Now Netanyahu is preparing to reopen the detention center, circumvent the Supreme Court ruling barring deportation, and ship my friends to their deaths.  I’m sad, I’m furious, I’m tired of this back-and-forth game.

It also frankly makes it hard to live in my neighborhood.  I wonder how many of my neighbors support the deportation.  Sometimes I’m afraid to ask.  I’ve been yelled at before walking home from rallies.  I did discover two neighbors who support the refugees, which was reassuring and also a reminder not to stereotype an entire part of the city based on a bunch of wacked-out media personalities and corrupt officials.  Because if I don’t have some counterexamples to the hatred, I just start hating my own Jewish neighbors.

So tonight, fed up with the bullshit, I decided to take a rather brave step.  I live in a neighborhood where there is no- and I repeat no- pro-refugee signage.  No leaflets, no posters, no banners.  You will see those things in other areas of South Tel Aviv, but there are no hipsters on my street.  I am “the American”.  The most common sign in my neighborhood is for a rabbinic study session or pictures of Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.  In my part of town, the Likud is the left wing.  The other voters are often going for Shas.  It’s certainly a complex place, not black-and-white, and it’s also a rather right-wing part of town.  The most right-wing part of Tel Aviv by far.

In this context, I recalled an Arabic word I learned the other day.  Some Sudanese guys from Darfur opened up a brand new produce shop.  Beautiful, clean, friendly.  I bought some fruit and talked to them in Arabic.  Of course, also about the deportation.  They asked if I was a “naashit”.  I couldn’t place the word, but with the help of some explanation and Google Translate, I learned it was “activist”.  And I said “yes!”

My refugee friends taught me the word activist.  In Arabic.  And tonight, it was time to put it into action closer to home.  Closer than a rally, a Facebook post, or even a blog.  Having no idea how my neighbors will react (I still don’t know while writing this post), I hung a huge- I mean huge- banner that says “South Tel Aviv Against the Deportation”.  Right beneath my windows.

Seeing as how it’s on the rear side of my house, I’m not sure how many people will see it.  But people will- because it’s huge and I can see people’s windows from my own.  So somebody, at least one person, will notice.

And that is a good thing.  Because I’m not just hanging this sign for the refugees.  I’m hanging it for my two neighbors who agree with me.  And perhaps others who are too afraid to speak out due to our own community’s aggression.

I may not be originally from Yad Eliyahu or Shchunat Hatikvah or Israel.  But I am a human being, I’m an Israeli citizen, and I live here now.

The merchants of hatred say they represent my neighborhood and I say “no”.  You represent yourselves.  I am going to speak my voice.  I’m going to stand up as a member of the Hatikvah community, of South Tel Aviv and say “not. in. my. name.”

If you want to send innocent people to their deaths, God help your conscience.  I will not be silent.  And even when I’m not talking, I will still be speaking with every glance you take at my big motherf*cking sign.

Love your neighbor as yourself.  Damn straight- my refugee neighbors deserve all the love they can get.

Gaza, Indian Christians, and Passover

A whole lot more happened today, but that’s what I could fit in a title.

Last night was Passover.  Passover in Tel Aviv was amazing.  It was my first time celebrating it in the Holy Land and I loved it.  As a child, Passover was my favorite holiday (though this year’s Purim in Tel Aviv is giving it a run for its money).  It’s a holiday about freedom and especially growing up with abusive relatives, it always had a special meaning for me.  About my own potential for freedom one day and all the other oppressed people in the world who I would make that journey with.

Here in Tel Aviv, I went to two seders: one Reform and one LGBTQ.  Perhaps one of the few places in the world where you can genuinely “Seder hop”, I walked from one to the other in 10 minutes.

At the first Seder, I met a fellow gay Jew, Oscar, who was Spanish and Swiss and spoke French, Spanish, Gallego, English, and some Hebrew.  Pretty amazing to kind of meet a European me!  We agreed to meet the next day for lunch in my neighborhood, the “other side” of Tel Aviv.

I had planned on walking him through the refugee and foreign worker neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, which we started to do.  Then we looked at the Central Bus Station, arguably one of the grittier buildings in the world, and he said “ugh, it’s so ugly!  I hate that place.”

I quickly changed our itinerary to show him the hidden beauty of this chaotic space.  Since it was Passover and Shabbat, most things were closed.  The most interesting things were still open.  An entire area of Filipino restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores was open.  Homemade food filled the air with delicious smells.  We sat and got some food, including my first-ever Halo Halo, a delightful dessert drink with a million types of toppings and fruit.  The woman behind the counter, like most Filipinos here, speaks amazing English and opened her Halo Halo machine just for us 🙂

Passing by a store, I noticed something curious.  Inside was a Sri Lankan flag!!!  I know this flag because in Washington, D.C., once a year, they open all the embassies for visitors.  I had been to the Sri Lankan one and eaten this delicious coconut rice with spicy red sauce.  Turns out the woman inside was indeed Sri Lankan!  And she told me the name of this delicious dish was Miris and Hal Bat, a name I’d been searching for for years!

The woman was so kind.  She’s thinking of opening her own Sri Lankan restaurant in Tel Aviv (friends- keep your eyes pealed!).  She grew up Buddhist and then converted to Christianity in Israel.  Her husband is from Darfur and I presume Christian (perhaps explaining her conversion).  He was super nice and we talked about my favorite Sudanese music.

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Heading out, I let Oscar go on his way and I strolled towards Yaffo.  There, I bumped into some lost tourists from Belgium.  One of whom was exceedingly gorgeous.  I gave them a free tour of Florentin and we decided to sit down to coffee.   They have two weeks in Israel so I chatted with them for a couple hours and helped them plan their trip.  We spoke in a mixture of French and English.

After being so kind as to treat me to my tea, they headed to their hostel and I walked home.  On my way home, I saw women…dressed in saris.  While this might not be such a strange sight in Suburban Maryland where I grew up (with a lot of Indian friends), it felt kind of random in Tel Aviv.  I’ve met Indian Jews here, but there aren’t many in Tel Aviv and I haven’t seen many in traditional clothing.

Because it’s not weird to talk to random people here (like it is in much of America), I went up and asked where they were from.  They said they were Indian Christians.  They were in Yaffo celebrating Easter.  I wished them a Hag Sameach, definitely the first time I’ve used that phrase to wish someone a blessed Easter.

Arriving back in my neighborhood, I saw something strange.  A clean store.  For those of you who’ve spent time near Hatikvah, you’ll know that my neighborhood has many virtues.  Delicious ethnic food, cultural diversity, rare Jewish languages, and a certain warmth to the people.  But nobody would say the virtue of my neighborhood is its cleanliness.  When I come back from a trip abroad, it takes me a day or two just to get used to the smell again.

I walked up to the store and saw beautifully arranged fruits and vegetables.  Seeing as how I was hungry and most restaurants were closed for Passover, I decided to buy some produce.

Turns out it’s a brand new store.  Owned by Sudanese Muslims- from Darfur.  It’s probably rare for someone in the U.S. (or pretty much anywhere outside of Darfur) to bump into both a Darfuri Christian and a Darfuri Muslim in the same day, blocks apart.  Unless they happened to be working with refugees.

I was blessed with the chance to speak Arabic with them, for a few reasons.  One, because I love languages and the chance to hear Sudanese Arabic outside of Sudan is pretty rare.  It’s a really neat dialect.  Also, I wanted to share a message.

I told him: “batmanna inno al-pesakh al-jay, ra7 itkoon 3ankoon 7urriyeh.  3eid al-fisi7 huwwe 3eid al-7urriyeh.”  That I hope that next Passover, they will have freedom, because Passover is the Holiday of Freedom.  We talked about how I’m working with other olim here to support refugees.  And you could see his smile grow by the second.  I know where I’ll be shopping more- and it’s a 5 minute walk down the street.

On my way home, I couldn’t help but think about my fantastic Pesach experience.  This was undoubtedly the most diverse Passover I’ve ever had.  And I grew up in a county that has 4 of the 10 most diverse cities in America.  I’m starting to wonder if in some ways, my corner of Tel Aviv is even more diverse.

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to celebrate this Passover in freedom.  Freedom to do it how I want, with whom I want, and where I want.  Freedom is a blessing every day you can enjoy it.

I pray and will work for the freedom of the Darfuri men I met today and all refugees.  Here and around the world.  There are few causes more dear to my heart or so morally clear.  Whether these refugees continue to live in Israel, are blessed with a secure country to return to, or move elsewhere, I pray that they are able to live in safety.  Nobody- nobody- should be sent to their death.  I hope that next year I won’t need to write this blog again because refugees will be given what they need: refuge.

And now to return to the title of this blog.  As you may have noticed in the news, many thousands of Gazans, along with some Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Lebanon are protesting.  Are they doing it to coincide with Passover, due to its message of freedom?  I don’t know, though it would represent perhaps a welcome recognition of our shared existence, even if the timing might serve to stiffen Israelis’ spines rather than inspire empathy.  Even if the cause is just, I’m not sure I would choose Ramadan as a time to protest Islamic anti-Semitism.  Just like if I’m angry at a friend, I wouldn’t yell at him while he’s studying for a stressful test.  Part of communicating is understand when the other person is ready to listen.

I’m not suggesting there’s a particularly ideal time to make the powers that be listen.  I’m just saying that if any part of your goal is to reach the Israeli heart, making a Jewish religious holiday a time for protest is going to backfire.  Especially when I remember as a teenager, a Palestinian terrorist blew up a Passover seder killing 30 people and injuring 140 more.  Even I felt angry about the timing of these protests and I’m rather empathetic to the cause.

I have little doubt that it is miserable to live in Gaza.  Unemployment in Gaza, as of 2016, was 42%.  For youth, 58%.  Child labor is on the rise.  The Hamas government is an abysmal filth pit of extreme religious conservatism.  At various times, it has banned Palestinian women from dancing, from riding behind men on motor scooters, from smoking in public, from getting haircuts from male barbers, from running in marathons.  It even banned New Year’s Eve celebrations in the name of Islam.  It has banned Palestinians from reading certain books, from holding hip-hop concerts, and from going to the water park.  Already feeling geographically penned-in on both the Israeli and Egyptian borders, I have to imagine that Hamas’s extremist steps only escalate the tension that Gazans feel on a daily basis.

What’s the solution?  I’m not honestly sure.  Marching to the border with names of their former villages and demanding to “liberate Palestine” is only going to make most Israelis angry.  And scared.  I’m personally scared for what is happening and what may yet happen.  The loss of life, which has already begun, will likely continue on both sides.

I empathize with the anger of many Gazans.  Their life sounds suffocating and if we’re totally honest, no government in the region is totally innocent here.  People, including children, are suffering.

I also feel that the Palestinians striving for their own freedom need to remember that I, along with my fellow Israelis, have worked hard for our own.  We’re not going anywhere.  You can come back to Salameh, the Arab village I live on top of, and maybe we can build a life together.  That’d be a miracle and maybe it’s not possible due to the hatred all around.

What you cannot do- or at least what I will stop you from doing- is kicking me out.  The Palestine of 1947 doesn’t exist anymore.  Pieces of it, perhaps.  Just like the many Jewish communities around the world destroyed or cleansed by both Muslims and Christians.  Which is why we’re here.  Just this week, a Muslim man in France stabbed an 85 year old Holocaust survivor to death while shouting “Allahu Akbar”.  Stabbed 11 times.

Does this man represent all Muslims?  Of course not- and to suggest so is bigoted.  But the thing it doesn’t need to be all Muslims for Jews to feel scared.  We’re scared.

You’re scared.  You don’t like it when Israeli jets bomb your houses.  To get terrorists, but ultimately killing innocent Gazans along the way.  Inevitable.  And sad.  And how does the average Palestinian, who only knows Israelis in an army uniform, build a relationship with our culture beyond warfare?

And for Israeli Jews, while we’re blessed with having Arab neighbors in our own country (who frankly we should get to know better), the only image we have these days of a Palestinian is of a terrorist.  Or of a more “peaceful” person waving a flag, storming the border fence, claiming to liberate Palestine.  From us.  Presumably, to kick us out.  Back to the world that murdered us over and over and over again.

This blog could continue endlessly.  The torment of people here, on all sides, is so, so sad.  My friend Hekmet teaches me dabke, a Palestinian and Levantine folk dance.  The other day I told him how sad it was to learn about how some Zionist militias destroyed Arab villages.  He told me something that both eased my conscience and gave me hope: “Matt, it is sad.  And it’s also sad that Jews were kicked out of Middle Eastern countries.  In the end, we just have to live together.  We can’t only focus on the past.”

The past matters.  And so does the present.  My sincerest hope is that while knowing our past- as Jews, as refugees, as Israelis, as Arabs, as Palestinians- we can live together in peace.  Because re-litigating or liberating or invalidating or denying on any side will just kill and kill.

I don’t want a war here this summer.  I’ve come to a point where I like living in Israel.  And I want to meet Palestinians who want to build a future of hope together.

If I can take away one message from my Passover today, it’s that it’s possible.  Today I spent my holiday with Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  And I had a blast.

And not the kind that kills innocent people.

My cover photo is me eating Filipino chicken wings.  One day maybe me, refugees, and Palestinians can all eat them together and make a delicious mess 🙂