A Nation like All Others

A curious thing happened to me tonight.  I was sitting at a hostel in Israel eating dinner with a nice young Mexican woman.

She’s not Jewish and I explained to her in Spanish great Christian sites to visit in Israel.  We had a great chat for about an hour and a half about tolerance, the complexity of conflict here, and the beautiful sites to see in Israel.

Then she said it: “Mexican Jews are rich.”

I wish, wish, wish this was the first time I had heard this comment.  And for those who think this is some deep insight into the wealth gap in Mexico, she then followed up by saying: “like Jews in all countries”.

Israel is a place where it is pretty easy for an open-minded person to get discouraged.  The level of hatred here, if I’m honest with you, feels much higher than America where I grew up.  Particularly the diverse melting pot of suburban Maryland where people of all races and religions interact, date, learn, and play together.  Not that it’s without its problems, but it’s a pretty stable and peaceful place compared to the Middle East.

To be a progressive-minded Jew, or for that matter Israeli, is a difficult position.  On the one hand, I want to offer meaningful, important critiques of my government.  A government which, I feel, often seeks conflict rather than resolving it.  One that, for all the problems that surround this country, would sometimes rather pour fuel on the flames.  And sow internal discord by discriminating against Druze, Arabs, LGBTs, refugees, Reform Jews.  The “other”.  It should go without saying, but it must be said, that this government’s recklessness extends to its policies towards Palestinians.  Certainly a complex and multifaceted conflict (I’ve never seen a Tibetan suicide bomber), but one which this government exacerbates with great callousness.  We can’t live in peace or elevate moderate voices if all our neighbors are grouped together with terrorists, deprived of human rights, and live in a void of economic opportunity.

Now comes the other side.  Israel’s founders envisioned Israel as a paradox.  We were meant to be both an “or lagoyim”- a light unto the nations.  And also, to be a nation “like all others”.  Both exemplary and insistently normal.

The young woman’s comment tonight exemplifies this conflict.  For so many years- 2,000+- Jews have been subjected to some of the most horrific discrimination in world history.  Banned from owning land, kicked out of country after country, robbed of our property and our dignity.  Not to mention mass killings- the Holocaust is not the first of its kind.  It’s the grand finale of 2,000 years of Christian European incitement.  And a whole lot of trial runs.

And the Muslim World, while more tolerant than its Christian neighbors until recently, has certainly persecuted us as well.  Especially in the past 150 years.  It’s telling that almost every Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemenite Jew is in Israel and not in the place they called home for two millennia.  And these Israelis can’t even legally enter their homelands.

If we’re really honest, every nation is about colonialism and conquest.  To differing degrees, perhaps.  And certainly at different stages of history.  But no country is “natural”.  Borders shift- and not by accident.  Cultures are exterminated or promoted to suit political interests.  To this day, the French government won’t sign a treaty recognizing minority languages.  That almost every other European country has signed.  Because despite being a global power with 60 million people with a language spoken from Quebec to Senegal.  They are afraid French is “under attack”.  I’ve never heard something more absurd or colonialist in mindset in my life.

But if we’re honest, nationalism is built on fear.  I remembering campaigning for Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary in 2008.  And door after door voters told me their number one concern: “illegal Muslims and Mexicans crossing the border.”  I had to do a double take because the only border between their state and a foreign country is Canada.  And I don’t see many Quebecois sneaking across the Washburn Forest to get inferior healthcare and higher-quality gun violence.

The point is not that international migration isn’t an issue.  It is- for the migrants, for the host countries facing rapid cultural and economic change, and for the countries that send them.  Which are often in chaos or devoid of opportunity.

It’s that New Hampshire is the third whitest state and the seventh wealthiest.  So why are people so worried about Mexicans and Muslims who aren’t even there?

For me, it’s the same reason Benjamin Netanyahu passed a racist law to protect the (already well-known) “Jewish nature” of Israel while alienating almost every minority here.  Why American settlers demonized and massacred Native Americans.  Why Arab countries kicked out their Jews and continue to suppress indigenous minorities like the Berbers, Coptic Christians, and Yezidis.

Fear.  But more particularly- fear is a tactic.  Used to divide people.  It is, in and of itself, not the goal.  The goal is control.  Perhaps living out wild psycho-dramas as well.  It’s to run things.  It’s greed.  It’s anger.  It’s a desire to be the boss.  And for others to show obedience.

So when I look at Israel, I see some exemplary traits.  Abundant hospitality, a creative spirit, flexibility, intimate relationships where when you really need help, your good friends provide it.  Not in a transactional way, nor with the feeling that you’re “imposing” on them.  Just because they want to help.

I also see things that are not so flattering.  Things that resemble other countries- but perhaps not in the way I would like.  When I see our policies towards Arab Israelis and Druze, and most certainly towards Palestinians, I can’t help but think of my other homeland- America.  It’s not by accident that there are only two Arab villages left on Israel’s entire northern frontier and the Jordanian border.  An Arab-less corridor.  For safety, perhaps, but also to steal in the name of safety.  Whatever security rationale people might propose dissolves when you realize Druze who served in the IDF can’t even build homes in their own towns.  While nearby Jewish villages are granted tons of acreage for building.  For, if we’re honest, colonization.  If you take even a brief look at Area C, the part of the West Bank Israel directly controls, you’ll see land use is not an incidental issue here.  Palestinians aren’t even allowed to build in this area, locking them into tiny corridors with limited freedom of movement.  A suffocating social and economic existence.  For the sake of territory- of control.

And then you hear voices like this young woman tonight.  A Mexican woman who- while speaking to a self-identified Jew- somehow thought it was appropriate to stereotype my entire people.  And it’s not coincidental.  Latin America shows one of the highest levels of anti-Semitism despite there being relatively few Jews.  Kind of like New Hampshire with its “Muslims and Mexicans”.  Maybe because since 1492, their own Jewish blood has been drowned in the flames of Catholicism.  A tactic by the ruling Spaniards to purify their country and exert control over their new empire.  At the expense of my people then.  And sadly, to this day.  As I was reminded of tonight.

A Palestinian friend of a friend told me recently that “Israel and America are the racist countries”.  Emphasis on the “the”.  First off, this demonizes millions of people in the name of their governments which they often don’t agree with.  Secondly, yes- these governments use racism to divide people.  Like every government on the planet does or has done to varying degrees.  To pretend this is only a problem is two countries is racist in and of itself.

Diversity is a threat to nationalism.  It’s a threat to the ability of cruel leaders to exert control over vast masses of people who know little about each other.  But are taught who to fear and what to hate.

I’ve seen this in practice in Israel and if we’re truly honest, there isn’t a nation on this planet that at some time hasn’t practiced such black magic.

So what I’m asking for is a little humility on all sides.  For my fellow Israelis to realize that for all our exemplary characteristics and our understandable desire to be normal, we ended up a bit too normal.  A bit too much like the people who oppressed us and a bit too callous.  Is it possible to avoid such cruelty in nation building?  Probably not- though it’d certainly be worth trying.  And other people’s crimes don’t excuse our indifference.

And for other people- look in the mirror.  The virulence of racism here is a reflection of your hatred of us for countless generations.  Mutated by extreme forms of Jewish nationalism, but with roots deep in your own bigotry.  The West isn’t wealthy because it’s smart.  It’s wealthy because it’s built on the BMWs that Jewish slave laborers built in World War 2.  It’s built on our synagogues and land robbed by Europeans and Arabs and turned into discotheques and barns.  Not to mention the dozens of countries they colonized.  And it’s built on my hometown of Washington, D.C.  An entire capital made by African slaves.

I’ve come to hate the tribalism here.  A tribalism yes, much stronger than in America.  Certainly with its social benefits of belonging and support.  But with warmth that often turns to fire when it brushes against the neighboring shrubbery.

So I’d like to suggest a new tribe I belong to: the tribe of reason and kindness.  When I’m with Israelis, I will encourage them to think of the “other”.  The Sudanese refugee who escaped genocide and has no rights here- who will perhaps be expelled if this government gets its way.  Perhaps to her death.

The Arab man I met in Beit Jala who is a citizen of Israel but whose wife is Palestinian.  And as a result, can’t get an Israeli driver’s license.  I.e. make a living.  While Jews like me are given instant passports.  Not that it’s easy for us either when Sabras ridicule our accents and culture like they’ve done for 70 years.

And I’ll encourage non-Jews to think of the other.  To think of us.  To think of our history, to think how they’ve benefited from our oppression.  For Palestinians to recognize us as fellow human beings and not stereotype us all as “killers”, thus justifying their own fanatical violence.  For Westerners to remember that the conflict here is complex and simplistic solutions and one-sided blame will only anger our spirit and make us feel justifiably scapegoated.  While you go on vacations to dictatorships like China without even the slightest pang of conscience.

I’d like to encourage us to be the voice of reason.  To challenge each other with the voice we need to hear.  The voice that encourages us towards nuance, towards understanding, towards texture.

For a long time I thought I was a hypocrite for telling Israelis to be more sensitive to Palestinians and Palestinians to be more sensitive to Israelis.  Was I just overly critical?  Was I somehow a hypocrite?  Inconsistent?  Never happy?

In reality, I’m just trying to be kind.  Every country is a contradiction.

What I want in the end is for the rest of the world to see us as a little more normal, and expect us to be a little less exemplary.

And I’d like us to be a little more exemplary and a little less normal.

Normal can be good and sometimes what’s normal isn’t right.

==

My cover photo is of a rock from a destroyed Palestinian well house in my neighborhood.  Where I put clothes to donate.  That’s my religion.

When life gives you lemons, find another fruit

The old adage is “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  It’s sometimes a sweet sentiment- turn the difficult into the delightful.  The hard into the soft.  Swords into ploughshares.  Yada yada.

My experience living here has taught me this is mostly a bullshit philosophy.  There are some lemons so sour you simply can’t digest them- and shouldn’t try to.  When you bite in, the bitterness overwhelms your mouth and your taste buds go dead.

Like yesterday.  I’m walking in my neighborhood with a friend.  We sit down to eat and the men behind us start rambling on about gays taking over the neighborhood like they do “in London and Paris”.  Without even stopping to consider that I might be gay- or their neighbor.  Also ironic because almost no gay people live in my deeply conservative part of Tel Aviv- frankly if they had more, maybe it’d be a better place.  I wish I could turn their comments into some sophisticated commentary on gentrification, but I could tell from their tone that wasn’t all that was at work.

We then finished up our meal and headed to a bakery.  The man at the bakery indicated he was from Ramle, a city with a large Arab population I’ve visited several times.  I said “shoo akhbaarak?”  How are you?  He responded “fine, you speak Arabic?”  Aiwa, yes I do.

At this point in the conversation with many people, they get excited.  How did you learn Arabic?  Why do you speak with a Syrian accent?  Bravo, you speak great!

But instead, this man’s response was: “you’re not Arab so I think you just be who you (really) are.”

Like a sword through my heart.  A punch to the gut.  Rather than seeing my speech as a gesture of kindness, this man sought to put me in my place.  You’re not one of us, so stop trying to be.  He might as well have slapped me across the face instead because it might have stung less.

I’m not Arab, nor was I suggesting I am.  I happen to love Arabic and have been learning it since I was 17 years old– the only teenager in an Arabic class at my Jewish Community Center.  And then in college and with Syrian refugees on Skype and now in Israel- with Arabs in Israel, Israeli Jews, and Palestinians.  I love the language and am a firm believer that learning languages is a source of richness and communication.  That I have Arab friends now, that I listen to Arabic music, dance dabke, and travel to their villages- I may not *be* Arab but I love Arabs like I love all other people on this planet.  And I’m proud to be a fan and active participant in Arab culture.  A not insignificant statement about our shared humanity in a country where so many people hate each other.  It’s a statement most Arabs have told me they appreciate deeply.  And some, like this man, just choose to hate.

At times like this, I get really sad.  It’s hard to even hear or remember the positive experiences I’ve had when the hatred overwhelms and clouds the heart.  Because it really hurts to be profiled, to be discriminated against, to be hated simply for being who you are.

So I decided to look at the notes on my computer.  I keep a special place where I put positive comments on my blog.  People who’ve written on Facebook about how I’ve helped, healed, and contributed to their understanding and hope.

Here are some (last names redacted for privacy):

Orian: “I really like reading your posts and seeing all the beautiful places you visit in Israel.”

Jordan: “I know you are probably busy, but I just wanted to take a moment and say thank you so much for your beautiful writing. I relate to you so much more than I thought. Your experiences have been healing and have helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.  Your blog has also helped me out of the deep depression I am going through being in the USA in these strange times.”

Irene: “You were awesome with him btw, I wish I had someone to talk and guide me through these issues when I was younger.”

Debbie: “I’ve been in Israel for 30 years this September. It sounds as though you’ve broken barriers and understood this society in ways that other people don’t in a lifetime. Kol Hacavod! I remember my days in Israel as a single person, and how lonely and frustrating it can be. Please pm me if you’d like to be in touch.”

Max: “I love hearing the stories of your adventures in Israel thank you for posting.”

Elias: “As a Swede and an American, who’s studied Arabic for over a decade now, I wholeheartedly agree.”

Richard: “What a lovely, thoughtful article. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I hope you have many, many more like it.”

David: “As an older, gay Jew who is planning on Aliyah I have much to learn from your writings. So I am very happy I found them.”

Nancy: “I have not heard Arabic music before but listening to this I’ve grown to love it! So, I’m listening to it over and over again in my car!!! Todah, Matt.”

Goldie: “When I hear of Haredi in Jerusalem, I think of the women blowing whistles, screaming and pounding on tables when Reform Jews are trying to pray at the Kotel. Thank you for giving me Yisroel, a better image of a Haredi.”

David: “Very interesting, especially as I gradually became more dugri after making aliyah (many years ago) – but I am more dugri when I am abroad, and more English-polite when I am at home in Israel.”

Jordan: “Great read! It brought context to things I was already feeling as well gave me entirely new insights. I’m a non-Jewish American living here with my Israeli partner, and even though I also lived and traveled extensively abroad before I came here, I still struggle with the communication style here quite a bit. Perhaps it’s time to become more sabra myself. :)”

Louise: “Very interesting from a sociolinguistic perspective. Thanks.”

Diego: “Great post, I had been waiting for another entry, missing your key insights into Israeli society and the mixture of culture and languages.”

Laura: “Matt, your posts are so honest and profound. Thanks for sharing them here.”

Ruth: “Hi Matt. Your blog posts are very moving to me.And I’m very impressed with you being ready to confront the ‘hard stuff’.  I’m an American Jew who saw your post in Jewish Spirit, although I don’t know think I’ve also seen them elsewhere.I just told a Palestinian friend of mine, Kefah who lives in Shu’fat, about your posts. I think they’ll please her.  I sent one of your posts to a Palestinian friend of mine (Palestinian – American, grew up in Jordan and Lebanon, now lives in Cyprus) and she said ‘Wow! Thank you for giving me heart.'”

Ann: “Very interesting. Your field research Matt Adler is invaluable. Kol Hakavod.”

Howard: “Thanks, Matt, for this powerful, and important, article.  You are a treat to know, and learn from.”

Joanne: “You brought me back in time to my grandmother’s Seder 55 years ago thank you so much for the precious remembrance of my very happy memories .”

Trond: “As always, your thoughts and commentary are amazing. Your observations, the conclusions you draw, and how they seem to inform you worldview and actions (if I may be so presumptuous) really give my hope for humanity a boost (and it isn’t high to begin with).”

Marilyn: “I don’t always agree with Matt Adler’s blog posts, but they are always worth reading. This balanced and poignant article deserves your attention!”

These comments give me a much-needed boost.  When people rain down on you, stop eating the lemon!  Maybe instead of struggling to make the lemon taste good by drowning it in sugar, pick up a new fruit.

People like the Arab guy in my neighborhood exist in every society.  There are Jews here who’ve made me feel like an enemy for liking Arabs or refugees.  There are refugees here who, after telling me how racist Israel is, tell me they like Donald Trump because he’s against Muslims.  There are Muslims here who try to convert me and say deeply anti-Semitic garbage.  And Jews who are just fine deporting Arabs or refugees, even to their deaths.  Homophobic Jews and Arabs, Arabophobic Druze, Druzophobic Arabs, LGBTs against refugees.  The list of hatred is not small here- so let’s stop pretending 99% of people in the world are great.  Because frankly, that’s a lie as dangerous as pretending 99% of the world is your enemy.

And if I’m totally honest, the level of hatred in Israel seems much higher to me than many places I’ve lived or traveled.  Every society has its problems, but here it burns with an intensity of a forest fire.  The trees, never consumed by the flames, simply pass on the burn and soon you find yourself surrounded by heat and ash, struggling to breathe.  Running to gasp for a breath of fresh air while your eyes stay alert for the next spark.  Deep rest is not something you’re likely to find here.

Faced with an unrelenting and increasingly powerful flame, I’ve realized I can’t exactly douse it.  I’ve most certainly put out a lot of ignorance and hatred here- the comments above show that I’ve been a source of hope.  And for every moment of joy and spirit I have been able to bring, I’m proud and glad.  And I hope you pass that understanding and kindness on so perhaps together we can keep a little oasis fresh with water.  Withstanding some of the heat, pushing it back sometimes, and keeping the tinder from catching on fire.

The Arab man told me to just “be who you are”.  To stop playing games.  To him and people who think like him I say: “you are being who you are.  Not Arab, not Jewish- callous.  Hard-hearted and mean.”

I’m not pretending to be Arab nor am I pretending to be anything.  I’m being exactly who I am.  A kind, 32-year-old human being who likes cultures, languages, and aims to improve himself and be generous to people around him.

Wherever I go, whatever I do.

My greatest accomplishment in Israel is that I’ve managed to maintain my humanity in a place where so many wish to rip it away.

Keep doctoring your lemons.  I’ll have some mango.

p.s.- that’s my mango, my friend Molly whose family owns my favorite sushi joint in Israel 🙂

I came for the Zionism, I stayed for the everything else

When I made aliyah to Israel, I had many reasons for coming.  Some, like the healthcare system, escaping abusive relatives, to travel, to speak languages, and to avoid harsh winters- these are still very relevant.  Especially at a time when the American government seems determined to make healthcare worse, when discrimination against Jews and minorities is on the rise, and I’ve felt increasingly healed being away from toxic people who’ve hurt me.  Not to mention the awesome cultural and travel opportunities- my flight to Cyprus over Christmas was $24 round trip.

Some reasons that I came with are no longer why I’m here.  I have serious doubts whether I’ll find a Jewish partner here- or if I want to.  The Jews here are frankly kind of nuts.  I’ve lived with Jews my whole life (being one), and I can assertively say that while we’re a zany bunch, Israeli Jews take it to a new level.  The nastiness, the harshness, the aggressive behavior- it’s not like anything I’ve seen in any other culture.  I speak 9 languages fluently.  You could say it’s tied to trauma- perhaps that’s a factor.  But I’ve met other people here and elsewhere who’ve been traumatized (including myself, I have PTSD) and some of this behavior can’t be explained by that alone.

Add to that the government’s blatant homophobia that prevents gay men from adopting children together and from using surrogacy, and you have a toxic mix.  I can’t get married, I can’t have children, I can’t I can’t, I suppose in the words of 200 rabbis who signed a public letter- I’m just a fucking pervert.  This country largely sucks for gay people, and don’t let some government brochure convince you otherwise.  It’s better than Russia, it’s better than Jordan, and it’s not better than the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe.  Not even close.  Once you leave Tel Aviv (or just visit my right-wing neighborhood), it’s a veritable desert for gay people much more comparable to our conservative neighbors.  A once-a-year awesome pride parade in Beersheva (which I went to) does not mean you could comfortably walk around that city holding hands with a man.  Good luck.

As for the Jewish part, I don’t believe in God anymore after the horrors I’ve seen here.  Mostly, how people use religion to harm others.  And I was nearly a rabbinical student.  To make matters worse, as a Reform Jew, this government doesn’t recognize my movement.  And if I wanted a religious wedding, they wouldn’t recognize my rabbi’s right to conduct it.  I’d have to join the thousands of Russian immigrants whose Judaism is “suspect” to the religious police i.e. rabbinate- and go get married in Cyprus.  I liked visiting on vacation, but I’d rather not have to pay for a plane ride to get a Jewish marriage that otherwise isn’t recognized.  In a Jewish state.  I have more religious rights as a Jew in America than I do in Israel.

So if I don’t believe in God, and I do find value in Jewish culture, but I find the men (and generally the Jews here) nuts- do I really want a partner here?  So we can get married and…we can’t.  And the sad reality is, I can’t build a family here without spending $140,000 to import a child.  And I don’t have that money- and won’t make that money in a country where unless you work in high-tech, you can’t afford a decent life.  It’s pretty strange that Tel Aviv is more expensive than Rome, Barcelona, Prague- so many European cities.  That frankly are a lot cooler and cleaner than it.

To add to this, while I’m feeling increasingly healed from past abuse, I find that Israeli Jewish culture is, as a whole, one shaped by abusive norms.  Not every Israeli Jew is abusive, nor is every norm.  It is, a whole, governed by the idea that to be gentle, to be delicate, to be sensitive, to be upset- these are signs of weakness rather than simply character traits or emotions.  You have to constantly push push push to survive or you will get trampled.  And dozens of people will tell you why it was actually your fault in the first place.  I have never seen so many different people guilt me, lecture me, shame me, and yell at me without reason.  As much as Israelis want to pretend that Americans are just as racist and abusive but just don’t say it out loud- they’re wrong.  This is a lie they tell themselves to convince themselves that the rest of the world is nuts, not them.  Unfortunately, they’re wrong.  There is a concentration of hatred here I have never seen.  It’s frankly a miracle that the nice people here survive- they are the strongest, sweetest you’ll find.  When you meet one, hang on to him.  Because she will nourish you with great kindness.  Israel has some of the sweetest and meanest people I’ve ever met- a society of true extremes.

Today on the bus, a teenager said “todah”- thank you.  I didn’t talk to him so I had no idea why he was thanking me.  He said: “because you waited a second for me to get out of my seat”.  He was so unaccustomed to someone letting him simply walk off a bus without pushing and shoving that he felt a need to say thank you.  For doing something so basic that I didn’t even know what he was talking about.  Kids like this deserve better- and I’m angry at the society that abuses them on a daily basis so they can be “tough”.

I just got back from a couple days in the North.  Every time I hate living here, I simply find an AirBnB up north and go.  The North is not exempt from Israel’s problems.  I met Christians who don’t like Christians down the road simply because they’re from another village.  And who like southern Bedouin but not northern Bedouin who are “rude”.  And I met Druze who said they are the strongest warriors defeating ISIS, that Obama was a turd (without realizing I worked for him twice), and that there are millions of Druze in India (no there are not).  Even a Bedouin guy had to tell me, while we looked across the Lebanese border, that the Lebanese villagers were “simple-minded people”, not like cosmopolitan Israelis.  Everyone feels a need to be the best.  Can’t we all just be good?

This being said, the North is still 1000 times cooler than Tel Aviv.  As a gay person, it’d be very hard to find a partner up there and some of the societies I love are quite sexually conservative.  But the people are just nicer.  For every Israeli Jew who wants to pretend that their society’s meanness is simply a product of trauma, I’d invite you to visit the Arabs of the North.  Sounds like a soap opera or the title of the next Lord of the Rings movie.

Arabs in the North have suffered many traumas.  In 1948, families that had lived together for hundreds of years were separated, sometimes killed.  Villages were destroyed.  The government regularly limits their ability to build housing, causing children to leave.  Employment is extremely tenuous in the North- the government invests much more in the Center, which not coincidentally is much more Jewish.  And when it does invest in the North, it’s mostly for the benefit of Jews who move there- to “Judaize” it.  The North has also suffered rocket attacks from Hezbollah for many years- including attacks on Arab villages.

With all this- Arabs in the North, as a whole, are just much much nicer than Israeli Jews.  They are both more polite and warmer.  Israelis Jews claim they are prickly on the outside and sweet on the in, unlike their “fake” American compatriots obsessed with politeness.  But they’re wrong- you can be kind inside and out.  And the Bedouin who literally hugged me in their village, the Christian Arabs who opened their bankrupt pizzeria at night just to give me a free pizza, and the Druze who smile and take care of me every time I visit- they are proof you can be both.  Both polite and deeply warm.  You don’t need to throw elbows to smile.

After a few days in the relaxing Arab north, I headed to Nahariya, a Jewish city, to then visit a Bedouin town on the Lebanese border.  That has suffered Hezbollah rocket attacks and from where you could literally throw a baseball and hit Lebanon.  And it is stunning.  But before I got there, I took a cab from Nahariya to Rosh Hanikra.  A beautiful outpost of rocks and shoreline before the Lebanese border.  First off, my driver was a caricature of a crude Jewish Israeli.  He repeatedly screamed and cursed at his friend on the phone and guilted me for not knowing where the place was (how could I know, I’m American and I just gave him the name- I don’t know every turn in Northern Israel).  I wish I could say this was unique- frankly, by Israeli standards, he’s not even being mean.  Maybe not even meaning to be mean.  But frankly it was a rude awakening to the cultural vastness separating Arab (and American) consideration and Israeli brutality even in something as simple as a conversation.

I got to Rosh Hanikra and I noticed the differences again.  Arab families were rather calm and smiling.  Jewish families were yelling- including one man berating his child for crying.  Holding her outside a restaurant and asking “do you want to keep crying?  You won’t go inside if you do.”  This is one of dozens of times I’ve seen this- never once have I seen an Arab behave this way.

This is not to suggest Arabs can’t be abusive- everyone can be.  My point is more that the Israeli Jewish ethos normalizes a lot of abuse and aggression.  In the name of “Sabra culture”, fairly global norms have been thrown to the wind.  Where the bully is rewarded and the victim ignored.  I could tell you story after story- including how I was physically threatened at my doctor’s office simply for wanting to keep my space in line.  After the man raised his fist at me (he wanted to cut in line), I called the police.  And rather than comforting me for feeling unsafe, people huddled to the man and comforted him.  That somehow screaming and threatening someone meant you needed to be coddled.  The more you live here, the more you’ll see this.  It’s baked into the mentality.  Some people get that it’s wrong, and they are a minority I deeply empathize with.

After Rosh Hanikra I practically fled to the Bedouin village of Al Aramshe.  When I got there, the bus driver was so kind as to find me a local man on the bus to guide me around.  I was so alarmed by the people’s friendliness.  I’ve met Bedouin before- they are famed for their hospitality.  But this was a new level.  Every villager I met talked to me.  Some hugged me, at least 3 or 4 people offered me rides to whatever I wanted to see.  I had never been to this place before- I was probably the first or one of the few American Jews to ever step foot in this village.  I can’t imagine many Sabras come here.  People were absolutely thrilled to see me.  I probably could’ve even gotten invited in for a holiday meal- today was Eid Al-Adha.

Israeli Jews can be friendly too.  Once you get through the initial layer of crap, Israeli Jews can be utterly generous.  In ways I’ve rarely seen in America.  Hosting people- for meals, for overnight stays.  Sometime people they barely know.  Giving directions in such depth that you could never get lost.  And following up to make sure you understood.  Israeli Jewish society has its problems, but it is not overly individualistic.  It has a sense of communal obligation that Americans could learn from.

The issue is is it really necessary to have the hard exterior to have the sweet inside?  Is it necessary to justify or excuse bullying when you see the little guy getting beaten up?  Let alone blame the victim?  Israeli Jewish society, if not all of its members, struggles with these questions.  Perhaps because the society is predicated on stealing what doesn’t belong to it.  To a degree, in 1948 when it expelled thousands of Palestinians in a morally complicated but sometimes purposeful fashion.  And to a much clearer degree, in 1967 when it occupied millions of Palestinians without their consent.  Who for four decades have lived under Israeli military occupation as the government finds lands to build Jewish settlements all around their cities.  Increasingly cutting them off from their own friends and family.  A purposeful stranglehold.

Perhaps if Israelis empathized too much with the plight of their faceless neighbors, they’d realize just how precarious their own presence is here.  In other words, Israelis are the bully.  Not because the entire Middle East conflict is their fault (it’s not), but because that’s how they’re positioned and often act.  By design- this country would probably not exist if it weren’t for this ethos, agree with it or not.  So for an Israeli to give up on justifying the behavior of a bully is to give up on the idea of Israel itself.  At least how it has been conceived of up until now.

There are brave and independent-minded Israelis who disagree with these norms and who see both Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians as human beings.  I have to be honest with you- they are a courageous minority.  Nearly half of Jews here want to expel Arab Israelis, their fellow citizens.  79% think the government should openly favor Jews over Arab citizens.  If Israelis think this simply a matter of them being more “blunt” than Americans, they are delusional.  5.64% of white Americans identify with white supremacy– even if you think that’s survey bias, that’s 1/16th of how many people think similarly in Israel.

These ideas of supremacy also extend to how Israelis treat olim, like me.  Our “diasporic” cultures- American, French, Ethiopian, Russian- are regularly ridiculed.  When I came seeking to feel at home as part of a majority, little did I realize that my American-ness would often become an anchor weighing me down.  Preventing my full integration into society- and acceptance.  I’ve had people yell at me on the bus for speaking English “too loudly”, while they scream at their friends on the phone in Hebrew.  I’ve had my accent mocked.  Something multiple friends have experienced.  Extrapolate from that, plus the Israeli tradition of hazing new immigrants, and you can imagine what it’s like.  Not to mention how they treat non-Jewish refugees.  Who, by the way, even having survived genocides, are often much nicer than my Jewish neighbors.

At this point, you might be wondering “why are you still here?”  The honest answer is I don’t know how long I will be.  I’m an Israeli citizen, I’m an Israeli resident, and I’m blessed to be able to travel here and abroad and remain both.  Even if my center of gravity may shift as my own feelings and the situation here evolves.

I will tell you what I still like about here.  More than anything else.  It’s the stuff Israel hates.  Much like when I lived in America and I loved its cultural diversity and pluralism, I also like the things that “don’t fit” with nationalism here.  In America, I liked the Vietnamese immigrants who taught me their language over pedicures.  I liked the interracial and interfaith couples- including a Jew and Palestinian I know who got married.  A Jew and an Egyptian Copt.  The vast majority of my friends are in relationships that cross race and religion- and that’s really unique.  Americans- please appreciate this gift, it is rather rare in much of the world.  Whether you personally pursue it or not, the option is a blessing.

There are Americans who don’t like that diversity.  Patriotism is a flag, a white guy in a pick up truck, and a lot of corn fields.  Some of that’s cool, but I always felt somewhat excluded from it, along with a lot of the people I care about.

Here, I’ve discovered, it’s no different.  In the sense that I love Arabic.  I love Druze culture.  I love meeting people who are half Bulgarian half Arab.  Who are Sudanese refugees who speak Hebrew, Sudanese Arabic, and Palestinian Arabic they learned here.  I like talking about my favorite Sudanese artists with them.  Artists I discovered at a Sudanese market in America.  I love my Tibetan friend whose son speaks fluent Tigre because he goes to school with Eritrean kids.  Kids who are forced into segregated schools away from Jews simply because they’re uncircumcised.  And with all that, the Tibetan dad (who speaks Nepalese, English, Hindi, Tibetan, and Hebrew) is still an online advocate for Israel.  A country that would never give him citizenship.

Rather than the self-assured chauvinistic sabra who stuffs his face with Palestinian falafel but has never visited most Arab villages in his own country, I much prefer the Arab girl who told me she loves learning Hebrew.  Who has a far more sophisticated understanding of pluralism than our own Prime Minister.  I like the Bedouin guy who married a Kavkazi Jew who then converted to Islam and then send their kids to a Jewish school.  The kids speak fluent Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Kavkazi.  And will learn English by the time they are teens.  Not unlike the Circassian kids in Rihaniya I met who *all* speak English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Adagi, their native language.

Basically, I love Israel for what its founders and leaders wished it were not.  The cosmopolitan, multi-faith, multilingual paradise that is- and can be.  It has some of the most fascinating and rich cultures in the world.  Cultures (including Jewish ones on the edge of extinction) that the government has tried really hard to suppress or stigmatize.  But have managed to make it to this day.

So in the end, what keeps me somewhat connected to this place is not Israel, it’s not really Judaism, and it’s not Zionism.  It’s what all of those things have sought to suppress.

In the swollen, in the valleys bereft of their former inhabitants, a new country arises.  In fact, it has always been there.  It gives this country’s leaders great anxiety.  And if I’m traveling abroad, it gives me a reason to think about buying a ticket.  To head to Ben Gurion Airport, hop off the plane, and as soon as humanly possible, get on a bus to the Deep North or the Bedouin South, and hang out with the people who make me feel at home.  The people you’re taught to fear.  The people I’d put on my travel brochure.

p.s.- the picture is from my trip today to the stunning Al Aramshe.  If you don’t know where that is and you’ve lived here your whole life, get on a bus and fix the problem.

 

 

 

The Worst of Israel

Every country, every society has its pluses and minuses.  In Israel, the sweet tends to be sweeter than honey and the bitter nastier than rotten horseradish.  I’ll probably write a blog after about “The Best of Israel”, but for today, here’s the worst.

Once I visited the Arab village of Tira.  It’s a non-touristy place and it was interesting to walk around.  I spoke to a woman about her family’s history over baklava. I met a young girl in a hijab who loved American movies and studying Hebrew.  And then I headed up the hill to buy some Arabic music.

On my way to the store, a man asked me where I was from.  I answered in Arabic that I was a Jew originally from the U.S.  He immediately starts screaming, almost incomprehensibly, and starts rousing up the village.  I run into a store and ask the man in Arabic: “huwwe khateer?” (is he dangerous?).  And he said “ahh” – yes.

I ran into another store, the music store, and explained the situation.  My heart was racing, this is the closest I had come to being attacked so far in Israel- for absolutely no reason.  The guys in the store were great and one man, who was somehow a former basketball player who was friends with a Jewish lawyer in the States, offered to take me to the bus stop.  A true mensch.  This was an extremely scary moment and it could’ve been deadly.

Another time I was visiting a Druze village.  I befriended some 20-something men who liked to take selfies with me.  One asked to be my friend on Facebook.  He had seen my various photos of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade (I could tell because they were on my “Facebook story”).  I make no secret of being gay on Facebook.  At some point I asked him on WhatsApp whether me being gay would be a barrier to doing volunteer work to help Druze.  A reasonable question since it’s a conservative society, but one that has extensive relationships with Jews.  His response: “no one will accept you.”  When I switched from Arabic to Hebrew to make sure I was explaining myself well, he said: “speak Arabic.”  I indicated I was sad about the situation.  His final response: “do not contact me again or I will make problems for you.”  An eerie threat considering I spend a lot of time in Druze villages.  I said I’d block him on Facebook…and he thanked me.  I’ll never hear from him again.  Because I’m gay.

The Jews here are often no better.  I was once walking in my neighborhood when some sort of conflict broke out between a faloudeh salesman and his friend (a sentence I definitely have only written here).  Another man tried defending the salesman.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but at some point he just started saying: “what, am I a fag?  Am I a fag?  Are we fags?”  I’m standing right next to him, hoping this will blow over.  He keeps repeating himself over and over.  Fag fag fag fag fag.  I’m getting nervous- not that I think the guy will do anything to me, because he doesn’t notice I’m gay.  But that’s the point, as long as I’m certain not to give off any vibe, I’m safe.  I don’t even wear bright clothing in my conservative neighborhood anymore because people glare at me.  Let’s just say I would’ve felt scared to death wearing a rainbow t-shirt at this point.  Like my friend who got denied service at a Jerusalem restaurant for being gay.  At some point he hugged his friend, promising to defend him from the other guy.  And left.

I wish I could say this was the only homophobia I experienced- by the way, in Tel Aviv.  But it’s not.  I know a Reform Jew who once told me that the key was to “restrain my inclination”.  Another Reform woman once told me: “it’s a shame you’re gay, here’s such a beautiful young woman.”  I once had two Reform Jews- one a rabbinical student and one the spouse of a rabbi- tell me that my friend who got kicked out of the Jerusalem restaurant was being “disrespectful” for wearing a rainbow shirt.  Not a far leap from “her skirt was too short”.  There’s a lot, lot, lot of internalized sexual shame here.  And a tendency, especially among Jews, to let their sympathies linger a bit too long with the abuser rather than the victim.

My neighborhood, for those who follow the blog, is filled with refugees from all over the world, especially Eritrea and Sudan.  It’s a complex issue- a poor neighborhood purposefully flooded with refugees- and a lot of ensuing conflict.  I’m personally an activist against the government’s plans to deport the refugees.  While I can empathize in many directions here, I have seen some pretty unbridled racism that goes beyond trying to fix the situation.

I was once leading a demonstration down Rothschild Blvd, the main drag in wealthy Tel Aviv.  A young, secular-looking woman comes up to us and says she was sexually assaulted (maybe by a refugee- not clear).  We said that was terrible.  I even told her I was a sexual assault survivor.  Before we could get a word in, she noticed my friend’s American accent.  She said: “unlike you, my mommy and daddy didn’t buy me an apartment.  I hope the refugees rape you.  I hope they rape you.”

I have been to many demonstrations in many places and never before had someone told me they wished someone raped me.  Sick.

There’s certainly a lot of low-key racism as well.  Whenever I tell a Jewish friend I’m going to a Druze or Arab village, the usual response (80% of the time) is “but what is there to see?”  Like it’s a trash pit.  I’ve had secular Jews tell me: “Druze are chameleons.  They are liars and untrustworthy.”  One ultra-Orthodox man told me: “the best goy is worse than the worst Jew.”  If that’s not straight out of a neo-Nazi playbook, I don’t know what is.  And this was after I gave him money to buy food for Shabbat.  After I told him I had refugee friends.

Lest you think this is limited to the political right, I was once at the house of an activist in Women Wage Peace, a non-profit activist group.  We were talking about the expulsions- sometimes forced- of Arabs from their villages in 1948.  A complex issue (indeed, some villagers were shooting at Jews), but for me, certainly once that aroused sadness.  Losing home is a hard thing and it’s hard for me to believe that everyone who left was a threat and that nobody should be let back.  The woman, who was a self-aggrandizing super-leftist said: “yeah, but it was necessary.”  Acknowledging that yes, forced expulsions had happened, but they were necessary.  My jaw dropped.  There’s something about Israeli bluntness that’s disarming, sometimes charming, but in this case, just left me stupefied.

The tribalism here is unhinged.  While it gives the nation some of its unique flavor and cultural traditions, it carries the price of sometimes intense bigotry.  I once met a secular guy reading a Japanese comic in a bookstore.  I told him I wanted Yiddish books- he points to the two in the store and says: “why do you want them?”  I explained I speak the language.  He says: “it’s dead, who would you speak to?”  I said I often go to Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, along with secular Yiddish institutions.  He says: “Bnei Brak?  Why would you want to speak with them?”  He goes on to tell me how terrible Haredim are and I said: “how many do you know?”  None.  But he tells me a whole bunch of things he read in the news.  News stories about people who live 20 minutes away.  Who he knows less about than Japan.

I’ve met Christians who won’t marry Christians from the neighboring village- because there was once a feud.  And Christians who told me they keep their minority Muslim neighbors “in line”, or they’d show them who’s boss.  I’ve heard the same thing from Druze about their Muslim minorities.  And then, this was surprising to me, there have been blood feuds between Christians and Druze.  Two relatively well-integrated minorities, but because of a bunch of religious symbolism and tribal honor, somehow got involved in a decade long killing spree.

Many times when visiting mosques, Muslims have tried to convert me- as if I didn’t know what that process was.  It was opaque and manipulative.  Not every time, but many times.  When people ask if I’ve read the Quran and I say yes, they are shocked that I haven’t converted.  They repeat the question.  This is a problem with Islam itself- the idea is the Quran is so perfect that anyone who reads it would obviously convert.  I once, oddly enough given their pro-Israel leanings, had an Ahmadi Muslim tell me the government was abusing the Torah to “let in a bunch of Russian atheists”.  He suggested this was similar to when extremist Muslims like Hamas misinterpreted the Quran.

I was once in Bnei Brak taking a Yiddish lesson.  I was paying an ultra-Orthodox man to learn.  He knew I wasn’t Orthodox- and I told him that from the beginning.  On his “non-Kosher” phone- he also has a Kosher one with censorship.  I was learning a lot and at some point the question of my Jewish background came up.  I said I was a Reform Jew.  This really set him off- he told me all the reasons I was wrong, that I was destroying Judaism, that it wasn’t really Judaism, and that in their eyes, I was more dangerous than a secular Jew.  Because I was laying claim to being religious which, in his eyes, I was not.

The chutzpah of the conversation would not have been surprising (though it’s worth mentioning I have had more positive interactions in Bnei Brak, even once when I’m saying I was Reform).  But for the fact that I was paying this man!  And he was otherwise unemployed- but enjoying the state benefits I pay to him and to his yeshivas.  I tried to reason with him to no avail.  He then tried to extort me by asking for more money for the initial lesson- because (due to this debate) we went over time.  Without him having specified a time limit beforehand.  It was simply a flat fee for a trial lesson.

I went to an ATM to get money and came back.  Deflated, angry.  I told him here’s your money.  He asked, in my view completely delusional, when I’d be coming back!  I said: “I’m not sure I will, I’ll think about it.”  Surprisingly, I got him to apologize to me over text (from his non-Kosher phone).  I accepted his apology and told him I wasn’t comfortable coming back.

Israelis have a propensity for always wanting to be right.  I was once at a board games night- the other players knew I was American.  Seeing a card marked “peaches”, a player said this meant “boobs” in English.  I said no.  He argued with me and when I reminded him that I was American, he said he had visited the White House and was “verrrry fameeeeliar with zee American culture”.  It’d be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that he was dead serious.  I’ve had Israelis try to tell me how much college costs in America (without having studied there).  One woman tried to tell me I didn’t come to Israel for upright Zionist reasons because I also wanted good healthcare.

Speaking of healthcare, I was at my doctor’s office the other day.  I’m waiting patiently in line when a man comes in, complaining of some sort of ache.  The woman behind the desk tells him to lower his voice.  The man keeps yelling and tries to get in front of me in line.  To make things easier, I tried to schedule an appointment for the next day with the receptionist, which would make my life and the man’s life easier and resolve the issue.  But unfortunately there were no good times and I was about to be let in to see the doctor.  So I decided to keep waiting.

At this point, the man starts screaming to get in front of me.  This is the Israeli way for many people- yell until you get what you want.  It has actually happened to me at another doctor’s office too.  I told the man my appointment would be quick but I had been waiting patiently and wanted to go in.  A pretty reasonable approach.

Instead, the man raises his fist, threatening to hit me.  He calls me an animal.  I’m used to Israeli aggression, but there was something disconcerting about his tone and his physical posture.  I called the police.  What was most alarming is that the people around me, rather than scolding the man for threatening me (when I had done nothing wrong)- they rushed over to make sure he was OK.  While they glared at me.  This is a fundamental Israeli problem- focus your attention on soothing the aggressor rather than enforcing rules to protect everyone.

Eventually, I canceled my complaint to the police, because I realized they wouldn’t do anything anyways.  And sure enough, the doctor let the man in to see him.  While I walked home.

Simple trips to the grocery store or pharmacy can be a struggle here.  Lines are not a thing.  People are jockeying and pushing and fighting to get there first- desperate not to be a “fraier” or “sucker”.  I once saw a fist fight nearly break out at the post office just over who would be seen first.  Consideration is not an Israeli value.  My neighbors behind me run some sort of a kids program and at 9am on the weekend, they blasted techno music with subwoofers while I was trying to sleep.   My downstairs neighbor shouts to Beyonce at 2am on Wednesdays- until I went downstairs and explained that some of us have to work.  He was perplexed and annoyed that I would even care.  I’m pretty sure he’s the neighbor whose pet seems to leave little brown gifts in the hallway, though I haven’t figured out that smelly mystery yet.

Personal lack of consideration often bleeds into the political.  I once met an Arab actor at a bilingual theater guild whose Facebook profile mocked Holocaust Remembrance Day.  He was outraged that I had looked at his page- when he had added me.  He started talking about the Nakba and how we have to respect both- which is clearly not what he wrote.  As I see it, sadness is sadness and there’s no justification for mocking anyone’s tragedy.  And he should probably find a job where he’s not working with the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

A strange thing about Israel is that while the State (and most of Jewish society) wants olim, or new immigrants, like me, there is a lot of prejudice against us.  I was once held up by security guards at the Central Bus Station who just wanted to mock American accents in Hebrew.  I really wanted to get my bus, so I played along at first, but after a few minutes of denigrating my countrymen, I really wanted to go.  And they just kept laughing.  Until I did a pretty spot-on Israeli accent in English.  Then they weren’t laughing- thin skinned much?

Israelis, sabras in particular, love to put down olim.  I’ve heard lots of complaints about how much French is heard in Tel Aviv.  How Americans “stick to themselves in a bubble” (usually couched in a compliment about my Hebrew for not being “like theirs”).  How Russians aren’t really Jewish.  Even as they escaped the Soviet Union for being perceived as such.

The organizing principle of Jewish society is that the Sabra, the native-born Israeli, is superior.  And olim have to be “taught” and put in our place.

I speak fluent Arabic- much, much better than most Israeli Jews who have lived here their whole lives.  With 1.8 million Arabs.  I was once in Ein Hod, an artists colony founded on top of an emptied Palestinian village.  I was speaking to some Arab men in Arabic.  A Jewish woman interjects and starts telling me “about Arabs”- in the third person.  In front of actual Arabs.  Then, a Jewish man comes over, again not party to the conversation, and says to the Arabs: “his accent isn’t native, is it?”  Pointing to me.  I asked the man if he even spoke Arabic.  “Oh a few words from my Iraqi parents.”  But he just had to show he was better than me- even though he literally had no idea what we were talking about.  I’d be more offended if it weren’t for the fact that the most frequent question I get from Arabs is whether I’m Syrian or Lebanese.

The lack of rules and respect here, while occasionally offering opportunity for creativity, is usually a burden.  Rental protections are meager, at best.  Everything is a negotiation- an exhausting and unnecessary process.  My first landlord in Israel once stole a thousand shekels from me and said she’d “give it back later”.  When I asked for the money, she doubled down and it took five days of arguing and talking to my lawyer to get the money back.  Which was never hers.  In her words: “you can have it back.  I’m done with this.”  Was it ever her choice to make?

There’s a lot of distrust here.  Both landlords and tenants don’t really have strong enforceable rules to protect both parties.  A metaphor for a lot of problems here.  General distrust has made it hard for me to travel.  Sadly, it often has historical roots.  In Druze and Arab villages, people tell me a lot of the time they worry I’m an undercover cop.  I’ve gotten mean, sometimes scared stares from Jews when speaking Arabic on my phone in Tel Aviv- so I don’t do so anymore.  It’s not comfortable.  Oddly enough, perhaps given the xenophobia and anti-olim prejudice, I’ve even gotten yelled at for speaking English on the phone on the bus.  While someone shouts into their cellphone in Hebrew next to me.

All of this doesn’t even touch the issue of terrorism and war.  Trust me, that adds to the tension here too.  So does the threat to deport my refugee neighbors.  When I eat at their restaurants, I sometimes don’t know if it’ll be the last time I see them.  Homophobic and racist legislation became an afterthought when writing this post because there were so many other things to share.  Believe me, that’s rough too.

The invasion of personal space (this is not an Israeli concept), the fat shaming, the sexual harassment, the racial profiling (I was once profiled as an Arab), the heavy-handed judgments and overflowing advice peering at you from every corner.  It’s rough.  Some of these things happen everywhere- and I feel they happen more here than I’m used to seeing.  And I speak 9 languages.

Are there good things about Israel?  This is a silly question.  Of course.  There is warmth, there is cultural preservation, there are languages, there is beautiful nature, there are kind people, there are people willing to host you and go out of their way for you.  Even never having met you.

Everyone have unique experiences.  Yours may be different- these are some of mine.

In Israel, be aware that you may have similar ones.  This is not a miniature America nor is it Italy.  This is a rough and tumble Middle Eastern country with an active conflict and a ton of social tension.  Some really important values and others that make me cringe or cry.

I’m proud and strong to have overcome these and many, many other obstacles.  I now find traveling in other countries much easier and have become keenly aware of how to build trust with people- and who to avoid.

Wherever your journeys take you, may they bring you joy, hope, wisdom, and health.

p.s.- my cover photo is of graffiti saying “Kahane was right”.  Meir Kahane was a rabbi who proposed expelling Arabs and Palestinians.  Such graffiti can be found in my neighborhood, sometimes with graffiti opposing it.

What’s God got to do with it?

For those of you who don’t watch the news regularly, Israel has been super stressful.  Between Hamas’s rocket launches, the Syrian refugee crisis brewing on our border, the Syrian civil war which you can hear from Israel’s north, plus earthquakes and the usual backdrop of yelling and frenetic bargaining.  There’s cool stuff here and beautiful nature, but let’s not kid ourselves- between all these problems plus recent homophobic and racist legislation, living in Israel is “lo pashut”.  It ain’t simple.

So many times people come here to “solve the conflict”.  The first question to them should be “what conflict?”  As in which one.  Between secular and Orthodox Jews?  Between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim?  Between LGBTs and the conservative religious establishment?  Between Arabs and Jews in Israel?  Between Israelis and Palestinians?  Between Druze and Muslims and Christians and Jews?  The religious conflicts or the ethnic ones?  The wealthy and the poor?  These are not “stam”, as we say in Hebrew.  They are not just the conflicts of every country.  They are a blend unique to here.  Israel has the widest gap in wealth among developed countries with the exception of the United States.  And a much higher rate of political violence and terrorism than any Western nation.

When I arrived to Israel, I came as a deeply religious Reform Jew.  I would never have called myself deeply religious (although some friends having jokingly called me ReFrum, a pun on the Yiddish word for “pious”), but most of my friends would say I’m pretty Jewish.  I’ve lived and loved Judaism since I was a young kid and discovered its heritage and magic.  And through many tough times, I’ve used that magic to try to pull me through and give me hope.  And many times, it did give me hope and a sense of community when I lacked one at home.

Although it’s taken me experiencing Israel to understand the limitations, even the disadvantages of religion.  Judaism and all faiths.  For religion to me is not something inherently bad (or inherently good).  The way you interpret religious text says at least as much about you as it does about the text itself.  Someone can look at the Bible, Torah, or Quran and come to radically different conclusions, some much more humane than others.

It’s also true that not all conflicts are about religion.  The Soviet Union was an atheist government (Russians today are still disproportionately not religious compared to the rest of the world).  And it still managed to butcher millions of people.  Atheists can manage to be quite violent and extremist- even orthodox in their rejection of faith.  A kind of new religion to supplant their old one.

What I’ve noticed in Israel is that religion is quite often a force for evil.  Not because religion itself has to be evil (although by definition it leaves some people in and some out).  It’s because in practice, it often leads to conflict.  While sociological factors often underlie what appear to be purely religious strife, it would be naive to pretend religious dogma plays no role.

Look at the main faiths here- the monotheists- Judaism, Islam, and Christian.  Each one has elements of humaneness and kindness.  Tzedakah, Sadaqa, charity.  Compassion for the weak, the stranger.  Even at times calls for varying degrees of religious pluralism.  And a repeated emphasis on being morally upright and treating your neighbor with respect.

At the same time, we need to be intellectually honest and recognize each of these faiths’ proclivity for exclusivity and superiority.  In Christianity and Islam, this revolves around recognizing the holiness of the main prophet (Jesus or Muhammad) and pursuing the conversion of all nonbelievers.  Sometimes this was done by sword, other times by incentive, but the final goal, even among the most pacifistic believers, is for everyone to believe in your religion.

In Judaism, the superiority plays out differently.  We are God’s “chosen people”.  Israel, our promised land.  These are birth rights.  For being Jewish.  If you want to join us, you can, but it’s quite hard.  It has always been.  And is increasingly so in Israel where the rabbinate veers far to the right of the Jewish mainstream.

In other words, the superiority argument in Judaism is an exclusive one.  It’s not that we want everyone to be like us- we’re explicitly not an evangelical religion (which I like).  The flip side, however, is that we’re quite an exclusive club.  It’s hard to join and harder to be accepted.  And we have a sense, at least among the religiously inclined, that God chose us, our language, our beliefs above all other peoples.  If you think I’m making this up, simply look at the aleynu prayer or Friday night kiddush.

There are progressive religious Jews who have, to varying degrees, changed the liturgy and how it’s taught to be more inclusive.  That’s cool.  The same could be said with certain Christian sects and a small but emerging community of Muslims.

Overall the same problem continues though.  These progressive-minded communities are, without a doubt, small small minorities in the scheme of world religions.  The vast majority of the world’s religions and religious people are against gay marriage.  Even progressive traditions struggle to incorporate women equally in religious leadership.  While you could say that there are cultural factors at work (understood), it’s also true that on these and other issues, “nonbelievers” far outperform their religious peers.

In the United States, the only religious group that is more supportive of gay marriage than non-theists is Buddhists.  Jews, interestingly, are not far behind, perhaps owing to their decidedly progressive religious tendencies compared to their Israeli brethren, where only 40% of the public believes we should accept homosexuality at all.  It’s worth noting that a large portion of American Jews are not religiously Jewish as well.

When I think of specific examples here, I have too many to choose from.  The Muslims who looked at me in disbelief when I said I had read the Quran (and not converted to Islam).  The Muslims who told me Arabic was the first language and all languages come from it (an absurd claim to make to a polyglot- that’s sacrilegious).  The Muslims who laughed at the idea that Jews had ever lived here.  The Muslims whose Facebook profiles were adorned with Palestinian flags, the Al-Aqsa mosque, and Islamist iconography.  Not to mention the one guy who had written Arabic posts mocking Holocaust Remembrance Day- that was a difficult one for me to confront, but confront it I did.  This Jew speaks Arabic.

Before you indulge yourself in bashing Muslims, let me tell you about the Jews who said the Torah *justifies* expelling refugees, even Arabs.  The Christians who told me not to waste time dialoguing with Muslims because they could give me a more “realistic” picture of what’s going on here.  Or the Christians who said Muslims are animals who breed entire tribes of children to take over the land.  Or the Druze man who cut off all contact with me when I told him I was gay- he threatened that if I didn’t do so, he’d cause me “problems”.  Not sure what those would be, but considering I travel a lot in Druze country, I wasn’t ready to take the risk to my safety.

Are secular or atheist people just as capable of hatred?  Perhaps- depends on the individual, religious or not.  In fact, some atheists can be just as orthodox in their certainty and thinking as any religious extremist.  Herein lies the danger.

It’s just that most of the world’s extremism and orthodox thinking is concentrated in religion and perhaps hardcore nationalism.  Of which there is a potent mix here among so many elements of society in many different directions.  Solving Israeli and Jewish nationalism by way of Palestinian nationalism, for instance, will do nothing but create more conflict and bloodshed.  And I do believe that in the end, most people, religious or not, really do want a good life.  Even if some of their beliefs are getting in the way of that.  Humans are nothing if not complex.  But I do have hope.

The point is religiosity is in the eye of the beholder.  We could argue that the examples I gave of egregious hatred are based on a selective reading of religious texts.  True.  But so is reading texts only looking for acts of kindness.  Conquest is written into the Bible, Torah, and Quran.  It is not a new phenomenon, nor one that religious people need to invent today.  The Crusades, the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and parts of Europe, and Isreal’s expansion into the depths of the West Bank (in some respects, its founding)- these are all rooted in long religious traditions.  We can say distorted, complex, for sure.  But eminently present.

In the end, religion can provide comfort, community, and hope.  It can, and does, mobilize some people for good.  Do I personally think it’s worth all the conflict it contributes to?  Maybe not.  What good is the continuation of Judaism if it becomes nothing more than a series of rituals devoid of ethical meaning?  What does Christianity mean when it is used to force gay youngsters into “conversion therapy”, and often suicide?  Why is Islam ultimately beneficial when it is used to massacre Yezidis, Christians, Jews, and others?  Even other Muslims who don’t agree with them?

It’s not because all religious people are like this.  Or that atheists are saints.  I’m not exactly sure where I fall myself.  I’d say that as I write this, perhaps I just don’t believe in God.  I believe in what uplifts the human spirit.  I believe in kindness.  And I don’t believe in divine retribution nor in the sacrosanct nature of a document so clearly written by humans thousands of years ago.  Which may contain some wisdom, but not exclusive authority nor the right to use it to butcher other human beings.

My overall point is that orthodox thinking, the idea that one set of value is always right- that is a problem.  Even if not all religious people end up overly protective of their sect’s interests (as opposed to those of humanity as a whole), the idea behind it is problematic.  When put into practice, religion more often than not divides people who could share other things in common.

Even though Judaism today in Israel is becoming more and more nationalistic and, with the state’s help, more uniform, it was not always this way.  What’s most perplexing about the degradation of religion in Israel is that Judaism was once the playground of questioners.  Of people who debated and divided and built energy off diversity.  So that whether you believed in the God of Abraham or not, the process itself was unique for its depth of heterodoxy.  And at times, its willingness to make room for dissent.  Moreso than any other religion of its time.

So one of the greatest casualties of religious conflict in Israel is not just the Filipino kids who will never get citizenship.  Nor the Sudanese refugees who will be deported.  Nor the Reform Jews who can’t pray together at the Western Wall.

It’s Judaism itself.  And perhaps, perhaps my belief in it.

The universe is full of possibility and I’m exploring.

It’s hard to be a Gay Jew

For those of you who haven’t been following the news lately, Israel has been a hot mess.  After I came back from vacation from Romania- a peaceful, mountain-filled vacation- I turned off the airplane mode on my phone.  And saw 200 Hamas rockets hit my friend’s Kibbutz near Gaza, that Netanyahu’s government had banned gay surrogacy, and that his friends in the Knesset passed a law downgrading Arabic and non-Jewish citizens.  Also, Israeli police arrested a liberal rabbi for performing a (non-legally-binding) wedding at 5am.  Befitting of some of our more theocratic neighbors- and perhaps more authentically Israeli than we’d care to admit.

In the course of just 48 hours, I felt like my entire identity was under attack.  As a Reform Jew, I can’t get married here with my rabbi.  As a gay person, I now have no affordable legal way to build a family.  And I can’t get legally married.  As an Arabic speaker and lover of Druze and Arab culture, I saw my identity and my friends under attack.  Somehow, the people doing the attacking- Netanyahu and his allies- somehow think they are the victim.  As if it’s 1939 and the entire world is out to get them.  While in the meantime, they are the ones sitting in positions of power, using that power to persecute innocent people.

The word for this phenomenon is “siege mentality”.  The idea, psychologically speaking, is that you feel the entire world is against you, so you act irrationally, refusing to see gray space, and delineate between “us” and “them”.  And boy you’d better hope you’re not a “them” because you become a living target.  For unbridled and illogical hatred.  We’re hardly the only society to experience this and it has a special intensity here.

That’s partially because siege mentality has deep roots.  Often in a combination of trauma (the Jewish people has had a lot of that), nationalistic feelings, and according to many studies, religiosity.  Not the kind of religiosity where you simply enjoy celebrating holidays and connecting with God.  But the kind of religiosity that bleeds exclusivism and at times paranoia.

As a PTSD survivor, I can relate.  On some level, siege mentality is about siege.  When you feel you’re under attack- as our people has been for centuries for no logical reason- you hunker down.  You put up walls to protect yourself.  Mentally mostly, since as a minority you often have no other recourse.  Though, as we see with time, some of these walls become quite visible and physically manifest.

What at one time was a useful skill to be able to protect ourselves has now become a liability.  Not because we have nothing to protect ourselves from- we traded 2,000 years of Christian persecution in Europe for some pretty rough neighbors.  Iran and Syria are hardly puppy dogs.  And you certainly can’t blame all their societies woes on us- though some people find creative anti-Semitic ways to do so.

What is harder to admit for those who engage in siege mentality paranoia is that sometimes they, we, you, me, people- do make mistakes.  That in fact, while the Palestinians have dangerous streaks of extremism, they are not the Nazis.  And not all of them want to kill us- even though some do.  That Arab citizens of Israel are by and large law-abiding citizens whose roots here often go back hundreds of years.  And that for every extremist among them, you can find dozens of productive, kind, responsible citizens.

Which leads me to today.  Today there was a Druze demonstration in Tel Aviv.  I went- anyone who has read my blog before knows I LOVE Druze 🙂 . The Druze are feeling increasingly angry with Prime Minister Netanyahu for relegating them (and other non-Jewish minorities) to a second class status.  Despite, in their case, having served in the military for 70 years- like any Jewish citizen.  Their loyalty to this country is not only being ignored by this government, it is being thrown in the trash.  A shame and a serious error.

The rally was invigorating.  Over 100,000 people crowded Rabin Square- for the first time I heard Arabic on the loudspeaker right in the center of Tel Aviv.  Since I spend a lot of time with Druze, I even bumped into two different Druze friends at the rally.  I stand with you my sisters and brothers- we will win.

Why has our Prime Minister, when facing *real* threats from Iran, Syria, and Hamas, decided to make the Druze our enemies?  Why has this government diminished and attacked Reform Judaism?  Why does this government deny basic human rights to the LGBTQ community and all non-Jewish minorities in this country?  Something, by the way, many Israelis like me are working to fix.  For ourselves and all who we love.

Because Prime Minister Netanyahu is living in a contorted fantasy.  More like a nightmare.  In which someone’s difference becomes a source of anxiety.  Rather than a challenge to overcome and learn from.  To build a better society.

Which leads me to the title of this blog.  I am a gay Jew.  Always have been.  Being one is not so easy- I’ve discussed it here many times before.  In the States, I often felt like the odd Jew out at LGBT events (not to mention that some are starting to ban Jewish pride flags).  And at many Jewish events, I was in the minority as a gay person.  Often while the singles meat market churned around me.  It was lonely at times.  And sometimes, worse.  I once had a guy dump me because I didn’t eat pork…I didn’t need to read between the lines because it wasn’t particularly subtle.

One of the challenges of being a gay Jew is that our identity pulls us in two very different directions.  Judaism, even in its liberal forms, is essentially about preservation.  It is conservative in the sense that it aims to keep our history and traditions alive.  And we know that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen on its own and we will disappear.  To become the next Akkadians or Shakers.

To be gay is not to invent an identity- we’ve been around forever, as ancient cave pictures show.  It is, however, in modern society, to be an innovative force.  Because our identity is crafted on top of the modern landscape and the people who most reliably support our freedom are the most innovative.  The progressives.  The people who are open to change- rather than focusing on conserving sometimes ineffective or outdated norms.

This is an internal conflict that’s hard to resolve.  Because the instinct to preserve and conserve can be quite repulsive to the progressive elements of society.  And our desire to feel accepted and change some aspects of our traditions to include us- that can deeply offend conservative sentiments.

This past week, I saw this play out.  Before going to Kabbalat Shabbat services, I saw a Facebook post in which a man described how a Jerusalem restaurant refused his friend service because he was gay.  Turns out, perhaps not by coincidence, that both Ben Rosen and his gay friend Sammy Kanter, are American rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College.  Fellow Reform Jews.  In Sammy’s case, a fellow gay Reform Jew.  In my experience, my movement, more than any other, strives to balance modernity and tradition and breeds some pretty amazingly self-confident queer people and allies.  We’re not perfect, but we’re the closest thing to a home that I have found as a gay Jew.  Who likes to conserve and innovate and feel welcome.

I contacted them immediately and have been helping them navigate the bizarre and chaotic world of Israeli politics, press, and advocacy.  They both- Ben as an ally an Sam as advocate- really impress me.  I sometimes miss the rambunctious and proud progressive Jewish queer identity that flourishes in America.  While here, I still encounter (even among some friends in my movement) a sense of deep unresolved sexual shame and conservatism.

I will continue helping them pursue justice.  Nobody deserves to be kicked out of a restaurant for who they are.  Anywhere.  In the meantime, please don’t frequent “Ben Yehuda 2” in Jerusalem.  They don’t deserve your business.

How does this tie together?  Sammy, if he were an oleh like me moving to this country, would probably live in Tel Aviv.  There aren’t a heck of a lot of Reform gay Jews in Jerusalem- for good reason.  It’s a deeply conservative city.

So why is he there?  He’s there, for a year, for the same reason I’m in Israel: we love our Judaism.  And for Jews, nowhere is more Jewish than Jerusalem- black hats or not.

So his desire to conserve his Judaism has landed him- and many gay Jews- in conflict with our queer identities.  Because where we wish to conserve and evolve, some people simply want a deep dive into a protective fortress.  An idea that Judaism never changes- even while their own practices demonstrate that it does.  And which has resulted in untold incitement against their queer brothers and sisters.  Including an article this week that called for us to be killed.

How do you bring folks out of that fortress or at least allow it a bit more room to breathe?  So that it can still be protective- and not necessarily the same as mine- and recognize that not everything they see as a threat is in fact dangerous.  That we have a powerful army and while some people wish us harm, not everyone does.  Least of all from within.

I don’t have a solution at hand.  Perhaps I can suggest to my friends on the far right (and occasionally those who live with this mentality on the far left) to find counterexamples.  Whenever I get nervous about a group of people, I try not to discount my fear, and I try to find some examples of people I feel safe with.  So when I just read an article about anti-Semitism in Romania, I recalled a woman there who asked me for klezmer groups because she likes Yiddish.  Doesn’t take away from the scary nature of persistent anti-Semitism.  And it does give me a nuanced perspective.  That makes me feel a little more relieved and better able to protect myself without isolating my mind from the world.

Whether it’s Sammy or the Druze or Arabs or anyone else- I’m not doing this for you.  Although of course I am- Sammy is a wonderful person who I’ve only talked to a few times, but already see his great courage and resilience.  And sense of humor.  And of course my experiences with Druze and other peoples inspire me to reach out and show some love.

But I’m not doing it for you.  And I’m not doing it for me.  Of course I am, because I’m a queer Reform Jewish Arabic speaker who values diversity.  So yeah, I am protecting myself and want a better life for me here where I feel safe and valued and equal.

But then who exactly am I doing this for?

Us.  Sammy, the Druze, me.  Us.  Because we share a bond, we share a love, we share identity, and together, we might not be able to defeat the siege mentality.  But we will certainly give it a shot.  Because sitting at home complaining, while justified and sometimes necessary, will not alone resolve this pain.

So grab my hand, and let’s give this a shot.  Because I don’t go down without a fight and a bit of hope that we won’t go down.

p.s.- the cover photo is of me with a Druze flag.  Which looks a lot like a pride flag.  So that’s awesome 🙂

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 🙂