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 Jew, 2 Druze, and a Christian walk onto a train…

nope, not a joke, just a regular afternoon 😉

Today was tiring, so I thought it’d be nice to remember a really hopeful story from my travels in Israel.

I had gone up to Haifa to explore and was taking the train back to Tel Aviv.  The train in Israel is not just a vehicle- it’s the town square.  People chat, gossip, exchange numbers- even make friends.  It’s a place that reflects the warmth of this country more than any other place on the planet I’ve visited.  You’re never really alone on the train.  Sometimes that means loud music and conversations, but it’s never boring and it just feels like home.

There was one seat left in a four seat area.  The three 20-something guys were talking in Arabic.

I sat down and after about a minute I chimed in in Arabic.  They were stunned.  I love sharing how I speak Arabic with Arabs here.  I recently made a video in Arabic about how and why I learned the language.  In short, I learned Syrian Arabic with a professor from Damascus in America and then with Syrian refugees on Skype.  Which you can do too.  For an Arab here to hear an American-Israeli Jew speaking Syrian Arabic is a bit like an American hearing a North Korean speaking like a native New Yorker.  People are often in amazement.  It’s great 🙂  I like melting hearts.

One guy was a Christian from Mi’ilya, one of my favorite villages in Israel.  It’s a Greek Catholic Arab village that I’ve visited twice.  They have a beautiful historic church and it’s near a Crusader castle I want to visit.  The people are so warm.  They even have a cool locally-made chocolate shop!  For the linguistically inclined among us, they also speak with a “qaf” or what we write in English as a “q”- usually a trait of Druze villages here.  It was really cool to find that out.

And to find out that one of the Druze guys comes from Yarka, a village that despite being Druze, actually doesn’t use the “qaf” but instead uses a hamza, or “hiccup” sound.  So for instance, the word “qalb” or “heart” in Arabic would be pronounced ‘alb.  In short, the Christian speaks like the Druze and the Druze like the Christian- at least on this train 😉

Except for the super hot Druze guy next to me.  See the Christian and the Druze guys across from me are in school together in the south of Israel.  It can be hard to tell with Arab men because they have very intimate male friendships, but I actually kind of wondered if they were a couple.  They’d make a cute one 😉  I noticed a lot of physical and emotional closeness.  It was sweet either way.

Back to the hot Druze guy.  He uses the “qaf” like most Druze 😉  He wasn’t in school, he was in the army.  He had a gorgeous, warm, inviting smile.  A beautiful laugh.  And a kind heart.  And an outside just as beautiful.

We talked a lot.  All of us.  Turns out each village even has its own kubbeh, a Middle Eastern food usually involving meat stuffed into a kind of fried covering.  What I didn’t know is that there are villages up north with RAW kubbeh.  Yes, the kubbeh meat isn’t cooked!  I joked with them that if they opened a restaurant in Tel Aviv and called it Arab Sushi, they’d make a million bucks.  We laughed 🙂

When they got off the train, I was sad to see them go.  I gave the Druze soldier my number and told him and his friends to be in touch when they come to Tel Aviv.

Then, the most curious and beautiful thing happened.

Two Sephardic Haredi men- also pretty young- moved over to my section.  They study in Yeshiva, seminary, in Ofakim.  They needed help figuring out possible routes home, so I opened my app.  They don’t have smartphones- a lot of ultra-Orthodox don’t.  In order to keep out unwanted internet content, etc.  They were really nice and I helped them find some ways home.

Both of them are of Moroccan origin.  We talked about their yeshiva- I was familiar with Shas yeshivas in that they tend to be modeled after Lithuanian ones.  The ones my ancestors prayed in 🙂  We talked about Sephardic culture- they didn’t know about Ladino!  Ladino was less of a Moroccan thing (although they had a dialect called Haketia which was similar), but they were astounded to learn about this Judeo-Spanish language!  And they’re going to search for Ladino music at home…because I think they have Youtube there.  I didn’t ask 😉

Then the best question came up: “so, what were you talking with those kids about in Arabic?”  I smiled.  But before I could answer, they said: “we think you were talking about food!”

And they were right!  I told them all about our conversation.  Their eyes lit up.  They were eager and willing to learn about all that we discussed.  And in a spirit of curiosity.  About their neighbors.

As I left the train, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied.  I was the bridge between 2 Druze, a Christian, and 2 ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.  When people ask me what I do with my eight languages (expecting that I work for the military or make loads of money)- this is what I do.  If people want to work in other fields, that’s great.  We need multilingual people in intelligence.  The intelligence I’m doing is on how to bring people together.  I use my Hebrew, my Arabic, and other languages to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.  That hopefully shares some of that joy with others.

I couldn’t have had this experience without speaking both Hebrew and Arabic.  One thing I’ve realized lately is that I can’t translate some of my feelings to English.  I’m thoroughly Israeli.  I think and feel in Hebrew- and in Arabic.  Often better than in English.  This is where my soul breathes and lives to the fullest.  America feels cold to me- distant, polite, dull, preoccupied with the self.

Israel is a place of great warmth.  Among every sector of society.  It’s astounding and a beautiful thing to be a part of.  I’m grateful for the dozens of people who host me for meals and to stay in their homes.  I pass that warmth on to the people around me.  Like when I met a lone soldier on the bus the other day from New Jersey, far from home on his birthday.  And took him out to baklava and Eritrean food and hosted him for the night.

Find me an American- in America- who does that.  It just doesn’t happen.  I’m sure there are sociological reasons, fear, crime, who knows.  There are reasons for everything, sometimes valid and sometimes that don’t match up with the facts.

All I know is that in Israel, we are direct, we are generous, we are honest.  I never have to guess what an Israeli is thinking.  Even if I don’t like what they say- I know they’ll speak their mind.  And I can say I don’t like it either.  We can be truthful.

And the honest truth is this: at a time when America is crumbling- when Republicans and Democrats struggle to even be friends.  When my liberal friends bash evangelicals.  And right-wingers pretend anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview is “fake news”.

In Israel, we have a glue that keeps us together.  Perhaps out of necessity, but also just because this is a special place with special people.  Who tend to have a real depth of kindness and a zest for life.

You might like to hate on us for what’s going on in Gaza or barely utter a peep when Iran launches missiles at the Golan.  But in the end, for all the conflict here, Israelis- we’re a hell of a lot better than Americans (or Europeans) at actually getting along.

That’s a sentence that might be hard to stomach- or maybe to believe.  If that’s the case, you’re probably not Israeli 😉  It’s true- there’s a lot of beef between all the sectors of society I spoke to on that train.  But you know what?  You’re never going to see my interaction on CNN.  Because they’ve decided that only dead bodies are sexy.

But guess what?  So are Druze soldiers talking, smiling at an American-Israeli whose life is now a whole lot more hummus than grilled cheese.

P.S.- that’s the Druze flag with a Magen David, the Star of David.  Because I love Druze 🙂

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

Last night, after a day of doctor’s appointments (including randomly cancelled ones), I didn’t want to eat dinner alone.  I felt immense gratitude for the Israeli healthcare system- I didn’t pay a dime for my visits.  And also running from doctor’s office to doctor’s office isn’t the most relaxing experience, though I did get a solid hour at the beach in Herzliya, which is stunning.  Can’t say I ever got to watch the sea while hustling between meetings in Washington, D.C.

beach

I have a favorite (well, two favorite) restaurants in Bnei Brak, a Haredi (ultra-Othodox) city outside Tel Aviv.  I knew I wanted to see my friend Yisrael who works at one.  He always warms my heart.  The thing about Yisrael is he’s kind of a mystical Hasid- I keep forgetting the name of his restaurant but every month or two I manage to find my way there.  In the past month, I so wanted to see him that I started calling restaurants in Bnei Brak asking for Yisrael (a futile task- there are a lot of Yisraels in Bnei Brak).  I couldn’t find him!  But I knew he was there.

So last night I wandered.  I went to a shtiebl, a small synagogue (with a whole bunch of rooms).  Outside, they always have ridiculously cheap Jewish books.  Nice Jewish books.  I got an old, beautiful one for 5 shekels that has the Torah in Hebrew with Yiddish commentary.  That’s $1.39.  There’s nothing better in the world.  And nowhere better to be a Jew.

As I perused Hasidic CD’s at the store next door, a young man in a black hat asked me where the shtiebl was.  And I pointed him to the building to my right and said: “you’re here”.  Bnei Brak is not a tourist destination for me, it’s a part of my life.

I was getting hungry so I headed to what I *thought* was Yisrael’s restaurant, only to find a grumpy man.  When I asked for Yisreal’s whereabouts, he asked me: “what do you want, Mashiach?”  The messiah?  Eventually after some prodding, he did know about the restaurant (competition?) and I headed up the street.  As soon as I saw the sign, I knew I had arrived.  Some things you feel your way towards.

Yisrael greeted me with the biggest hug ever.  He is so so warm!  He overloaded my plate with salmon and kugel and pasta and I grabbed a seat.  Yisrael periodically chimes in when I talk with other people.  The people I sat down with were a Yemenite Jew and a 16 year old Litvak, or Lithuanian Jew.  I’m part Lithuanian- we’re probably cousins.  Not a metaphor- we probably are related.

Here’s the shocking thing- the kid doesn’t speak Yiddish.  Well, he understands some but his parents mostly speak it (and English) so he can’t understand.  Interestingly, Eliezer (pseudonym) also knows how to count in Arabic.  Pretty damn well.  He says he learned from undocumented Palestinian workers who live in the city.

Meanwhile, the Yemenite guy- he speaks astoundingly good Yiddish!  As does his father.  From living with Ashkenazi Hasidic friends.  He even understands the nuances of Litvish and southern Yiddish dialects.  We had a lot to talk about.  Including my love for Yemenite language and culture.  I just recently bought Yemenite Judeo-Arabic books and music from a store in Bnei Brak.  So we sat there, me and the Yemenite guy, helping to teach the Lithuanian Jew some Yiddish.  Find me that in another country.

The Yemenite guy had to go back to Jerusalem, so I sat with Eliezer.  Eliezer is a precocious kid.  He goes to yeshiva all day.  He has 10, yes 10, siblings.  And, he says, he likes it.  It’s fun.  When I asked if it’s ever quiet, he laughed and said “maybe around 2am”.

Eliezer was enchanted by something you might not expect.  I needed to charge my phone so I pulled out my brand new portable charger.  He was enamored.  Not because he had never seen one.  Lehefech, to the contrary, he knew it inside and out.  And he doesn’t even have a phone.  He grabs it from me and starts teaching me how to use it.  Things I didn’t even know about it.  So once he had found a new way to charge my phone, he asked me how much it was.  150 shekels.  Oy, I don’t have that kind of money.  And I bet he doesn’t- while his dad is the head of two yeshivas, 11 kids is a lot of mouths to feed.

But Eliezer is not easily deterred.  He wanted to see my smartphone.  I got a bit nervous- not just because generally I don’t like children browsing my cell phone- but also because I couldn’t remember exactly what was on it.  I was wearing a small black yarmulke and they knew I was from Tel Aviv and not Hasidic.  But the last thing I wanted was for little Eliezer to stumble upon a racy WhatsApp chat (yes he opened my WhatsApp) or something he’d find not so “kosher” and it might ruin my vibe in the restaurant.

I showed him pictures of my hiking in Haifa, which he loved.  But what he really wanted was to go to eBay.  Yes, eBay.  The kid who doesn’t have a phone, let alone a smartphone, knew what eBay was and that that would be where he could find a portable charger.  He browsed through the list of chargers with ease.  He knew the megahertz or whatever.  I don’t even know what he was talking about.  He spent a good minute or two looking, but nothing suited him.  He knows he doesn’t have the money now, but he wanted to see what was out there.  A curious kid, like I was.

I told him he could work a little on the side to make some money.  He said he already owed some friends money, including this restaurant.  His dad won’t let him work because the dad wants them to be “super strong” Haredim.  I told him people worked in the Torah, that Haredim work in Bnei Brak, like Yisrael.  He knows- in fact, he said if his father permitted it, he’d consider working.  But as a 16 year old, he doesn’t have much say in the matter and it’s his family.  What’s he supposed to do?

We had a good laugh about many things- he has a great sense of humor.  I told him he’d make a great stand-up comedian, and he smiled.

As the evening drew to a close (11pm on a weeknight- Bnei Brak is not a sleepy suburb), another Hasid asked Yisrael why I made aliyah.  Yisrael, who I met not long after I arrived here almost a year ago, recounted in perfect detail all the reasons I had told him.  9 months ago.  With a depth of emotion and appreciation that warmed my heart.  I know Yisrael is happy I’m here and I’m grateful he’s in my life.  The other Hasid, seeing how I talked and hearing my story said: “atah yehudi cham”.  You’re a warm Jew, a Jew with heart.

Knowing Eliezer owed the restaurant money and grateful for his companionship and his humor, I bought him dinner.  Before I left, Yisrael asked me for my phone number.  He wants to call me from time to time, see how I’m doing.  From his Kosher phone.

Before I left, I told Yisrael I missed him and I’d be back.  He knew.  And he said: “there’ll be two here waiting for you,” as Eliezer winked at me.

I headed back to Tel Aviv with a warm tummy.  Not just because of the delicious kugel, but because the people I spent my night with filled me with warmth and love.

When I was a kid, I was curious about Orthodox Judaism.  I wanted to go to a service.  My family wouldn’t let me because they said Orthodox Jews aren’t feminist.  While my family members abused me– which I don’t find particularly feminist either.

The fact is coming to Israel has allowed me to build a relationship with Hasidic Judaism.  In fact, all kinds of Judaism- Mizrachi, traditional, Israeli Reform, secular, Litvish- everything.  It’s the one place on the planet where we all come together.  And you’ll find a Yemenite speaking Yiddish.

Some people tell me it’s ludicrous for me to spend time with Hasidim.  I’m gay, I’m Reform, I’m progressive- they’d hate me if they knew who I was.  But they’re wrong.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man in Hasidic communities.  And there are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man with secular people, and certainly times I feel uncomfortable as a religious person.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a Jew with Arabs.  Or as an Arabic-speaker with Jews.

Should I live my life in a ghetto where I only go where no prejudice exists?  Where there’s no conflict?  Where everyone agrees with me?

Guess what?  No such place exists.  Anywhere.  Not in Tel Aviv, not in Bnei Brak, not in Ramallah.  The fact is we’re people.  And some places are more comfortable than others, for certain aspects of what I believe and how I am.  And, I get something out of pretty much everywhere I go.

Do I wish the Hasidic community was more gay-friendly?  Yes.  I’d probably spend more time there.  Do I think things are changing and that the community is not monolithic?  Absolutely, as I found earlier this week when I met a gay-friendly Hasid.

And I also believe that the fact that I’m gay isn’t a reason for me not to embrace my Hasidism.  Yeah, I’m kind of Hasidic.  And Haredi.  And Modern Orthodox.  And Reform.  I connect to all sorts of things.  So why should I give up what I love about Hasidic Judaism to satisfy a secular militant in Tel Aviv who believes my identity should be held hostage to their “tolerance”?

The point is we’re all entitled to enjoy what we enjoy.  I like Haredi Bnei Brak.  I like Druze villages.  And Christian ones and Muslim ones and gay pride parades in Tel Aviv.  I like my neighbors with Shas rabbis posted all over their house, who set me up with guys.  Each one of these communities, some more than others, poses challenges for me.  And has something unique to offer.

Lately I’ve been questioning if I want to keep living in Tel Aviv.  Do I want to move North?  I love Haifa and the Galilee and the Golan.  So peaceful, green, co-existency, Arabic-speaking.  That part of me flourishes there.  But what about Tel Aviv?  The convenience, the energy, the international vibe, the interesting cities like Bnei Brak that surround it?  Not to mention its gay life.  And Jerusalem- probably not going to live there, but don’t want to be too far.  Its history and spiritual vibe pulls me in and fills me with wonder.

In the end, what I’ve decided is where you live is not where you pay rent.  That’s an aspect.  Where you live is where you step, where you spend time, where you laugh, where you hike, where you pray.  Where you live is where you bring joy into the world and where you feel filled with wonder.  Even where you cry.

I can’t live anywhere in Israel.  Because I live everywhere.

p.s.- that’s me sticking my tongue out in Kiryat Tivon, the most non-Haredi place in Israel, because I’m going to have a good time wherever I go!

Gay-friendly Arab, homophobic secular Jew

Recently I was up in Haifa and I met Ahmed, a young Muslim man from Nazareth.  He’s open to marrying a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim.  When I asked him to keep his eyes peeled for a partner for me, he laughed and said he didn’t know anyone.  And when I said: “that you know of.  Maybe they’re afraid to share it”- he said “maybe you’re right.”  Without hesitation, just an honest recognition that his preconceptions were faulty and he was willing to listen and learn from others’ experiences.  And in the end, he said he’d let me know if he met someone for me.

Sometimes here it can be excruciatingly hard to differentiate between group dynamics and individuals.  The fact remains, despite Ahmed’s kindness, that it is much more dangerous to be gay in a Muslim village here than in largely-Jewish Haifa or Tel Aviv.  Or even Jerusalem, whose Judaism trends more conservative, but only rarely violent against LGBTQ people.  And while these generalizations are important in protecting yourself or at least being aware before entering a place, generalizations they are.

Because individual psychology matters.  And bigotry exists in all quarters- so does hope.  I personally know straight Arabs from Kfar Qasem, the birthplace of the Israeli Islamist movement, who help gay Arabs in their community come out.  In my heavily conservative South Tel Aviv neighborhood, I’ve met neighbors with ultra-Orthodox Shas rabbis pictures all around their houses.  Who then set me up with guys on Shabbat.  On the other hand, in the middle of the day yesterday I walked by two men who laughed out loud at me as I walked by.  At my clothes, my sunglasses, my hair- my “purple shirt”- that’s what they said when I asked.  Was it at me being gay or my difference?  How easy it is to separate the two?  All I know is they couldn’t stop laughing and it hurt.  Just like the teenagers shouting homophobic things late at night while I walked home alone.  I didn’t feel so safe.

Last night, I went to a hippie Shabbat.  I love certain things about my neighborhood and how it can surprise you.  And I love traveling to Arab and Druze villages, where people also have surprised me- like the bi-curious Druze boy.  Sometimes, I just want to be in a place where I can be queer and gay and laugh out loud and not have to be worried about being judged, being exemplary, being offensive.  I can just be me, an individual who is queer and creative and funny and thoroughly myself.

When I say hippie Shabbat, I really mean it.  Dreadlocks, incense, candles, namastes- and Jewish prayers.  It’s really cool and I have never seen anything like this outside of Israel.  Everyone is young, aside from a few 40 or 50 year olds who totally blend in.  Nobody cares.  In America, Judaism often felt so formalized to me.  So ritualized and rigid.  Perhaps if trying to maintain a tradition in the face of a society gobbling it up, it’s necessary to maintain some things for the sake of continuity.  Or because Americans themselves are more formal, it’d seem out of place for a synagogue to sit in a circle and chant Jewish mantras.  There are a few places in American Judaism I’ve seen that are somewhat similar- and they trend older.  Mostly people in their 60s and beyond who still have that renewal, hippie vibe.  But what I saw last night- people meditating and chanting and dancing and veganing all while people’s kids were crying and screaming and cell phones were going off- that was thoroughly Israeli.  And somehow, rather Zen.

A friend of mine brought a guy she was starting to see to the event.  I met him- a secular, pretty vanilla guy from the center of the country.  He had a kind of gentleness to him, a soft speech, a very bland body frame.  His family was American and made aliyah when he was a child.  Young, educated, open enough to try a hippie Shabbat.  We chatted for a bit- he was excited to hear I was American too- he prefers American culture.  Apparently for the politeness which I now find somewhat superficial.

As we were talking, for some reason drag shows came up.  He said: “I don’t have a problem with it, but…” which is always a solid sign that someone does have a problem with it.  He didn’t like that men dressed as women because it’s not “manly”.  And he claimed that that’s because the Torah prohibits it.  While the Torah does indeed prohibit cross-dressing, I’ve never- never- heard a secular person use this argument.  He felt it was disingenuous for a man to dress as a woman on the street because it could deceive someone.  My friend and I patiently- perhaps too patiently- explained to him why this is bullshit- and he just repeated the same argument.  With an odd gentleness of speech for someone spewing hatred.

He then also said he was opposed to same-sex couples, also because that’s written in the Torah.  I explained it’s not- what’s written in the Torah is about same-sex sex, not marriage, and even that interpretation is challenged by Conservative and Reform Jews like me.  Many of whom believe the prohibition was in relation to pagan cults where there was same-sex rape.  And who also believe rules evolve with time.  We don’t stone people anymore either.  It’s also worth noting the Torah does not even mention lesbians, let alone prohibit their relations, sexual or matrimonial.

When presented with these facts- along with the idea that it’s perhaps a bit hypocritical for him to use the Torah to bash gays when he doesn’t even keep Shabbat.  A commandment mentioned repeatedly throughout our Bible.  His answer: “a prohibition is a prohibition.  Where does the same-sex prohibition come from?  Who said it?”

At this point, the conversation was futile.  He doesn’t like gay couples or cross-dressing yet can’t even point to the Bible verse that deals with it.  Nor does he observe anything else in Judaism other than fasting on Yom Kippur.  And yet this secular guy found it convenient to bash my identity based on something he doesn’t even know.  While I have Orthodox friends who study in yeshiva and accept me as I am.  I felt angry, deflated, and sad.  Perhaps proud at how calm I remained despite such provocation in a place I thought was safe.  And angry that I wasn’t showing more anger.

I don’t know if this guy realized I was gay from the outset.  And it doesn’t really matter.  Though by the end, I made it clear.  The point is anyone could be gay- why would you speak with such cruel audacity?  It shouldn’t matter who I am, just that I deserve to be talked to with respect.

I grew up in a deeply homophobic family.  And in many cases, society.  Which can make it hard to find that adequate middle ground where I’m standing up for myself and neither being overly accommodating nor aggressive.  I hope this man takes this experience and uses it to grow and treat others with more kindness than he treated me.  In the one place I thought I would be safe on Shabbat.

In addition to trying to find that healthy space where I’m proud and assertive, understanding and protective- I had another thought.  Nowhere is totally safe.  Even a normal-looking secular guy with a soft voice can use that voice to voice hatred.  And an Arab Muslim from Nazareth can show me great kindness and more willingness to learn than the Jew at hippie Shabbat.  I’ve met Hasidim who chewed me out for being Reform and others who simply accepted me.  I’ve met Arabs who were deeply homophobic and others who were gay themselves.  And afraid their families would kill them.  And others, who help Arabs come out.

Point is this- there is a reason why we Israelis have to generalize about people.  For all the pie in the sky rhetoric I hear from some Americans, the truth is some places- some groups of people- are less safe.  It’s a fact.  A pride flag in Hebron- either the Palestinian or the Jewish side- is not likely to be well-received.  A whopping 4% of Palestinians accept gay people.  And I’ve met some who do.  More Arabs in Israel are open-minded, but it’s still pretty taboo.  And while secular Jews can be ruthless homophobes, it’s usually easier to be gay in that segment of society.

At the same time, I think it’s important to remember we are individuals.  Generalizing serves a purpose- often to protect ourselves- and it doesn’t always match up with the facts.  As a gay Jew, I felt safer in a baklava shop with Ahmed than I did with a secular Jew at a hippie Shabbat.  A sentence I couldn’t have imagined myself saying a year ago.  And here I am.  Because having in-person experiences with different types of people- that’s what helps me stay rooted and realize that generalizing has its limits.  That when it comes to gays, for every society we expect to be safe, there are holes of darkness.  And for every community filled with fear, there are rays of hope.

My cover photo is a rainbow-colored mural in the Bedouin Muslim village of Jisr Al-Zarqa: “hope, culture, creativity”.  That’s what I believe in.

Here are some other photos that fill me with hope, I encourage you to read the captions:

May you go in peace, wherever you go 🙂

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 😉

What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?

No, there’s no racist punchline 😉

This is a question I get a lot.  Sometimes “well meaning” American progressives come here and start calling every Arab they meet a “Palestinian”.  Perhaps out of a desire to validate their identity, but without considering that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

For starters, there are Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  There are also Palestinians in other countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere.  Those in the West Bank are largely governed by the Palestinian Authority and those in Gaza by Hamas.  Israel exerts partial military control within the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and at border crossings.  Gaza is entirely independently governed by Hamas and entry to Israel or Egypt is strictly controlled by the respective governments.  All of those people are pretty clearly Palestinian.  Maybe a few Samaritans in Hebron would identify otherwise- not entirely sure.  But almost to a T, regardless of religion (almost all Palestinians there are Muslim, there is a small Christian minority), these people are Palestinian.

Now, moving westward from the West Bank, there is East Jerusalem.  East Jerusalem came under Israeli control after the Six Day War in 1967.  Because of the sacredness of this city for Jews, Israel treats it differently for legal purposes.  While West Jerusalem was already part of Israel in 1948, East Jerusalem, which was primarily Arab, became officially annexed to the city in 1967.  Meaning, its Arab population has Israeli residency cards.  This allows them greater job opportunities, freedom of travel both within Israel and abroad, and more contact with Jewish Israelis.  There is still discrimination and it’s not on a level that you can compare with the West Bank, for example.  The vast majority of East Jerusalem Arabs would probably identify as Palestinian.  I’ve noticed this anecdotally through my travels there and I believe polls would back this up.  That being said, since East Jerusalem Arabs are eligible to work in Israel, some actually end up working for the government and even volunteering for national service.  Or the Israeli military.  So I think the layers of identity for them would be a bit less straightforward than someone in Ramallah.

Now, on to pre-1967 Israel.  There are several groups of Arabic-speakers in Israel.  First, there are Jews.  Jews have lived in predominantly Arab countries for two millennia.  They lived there, by and large, before the Arabs even arrived.  They then mixed their Hebrew and Aramaic with Arabic to create their own unique Judeo-Arabic languages.  From Morocco to Iraq to Yemen.  Often written in the Hebrew alphabet, like Yiddish.  Sometimes intelligible to their Muslim and Christian neighbors- and sometimes not.  In recent decades, the number of Judeo-Arabic speakers has declined.  And there still are many Jews in Israel who speak Arabic.  Not just those who learn it at school.  But also those, like my Syrian and Iraqi neighbors, who grew up with the language.  The vast, vast, vast majority of these Jews do not identify as Arab.  While some of that is tied to the stigma of being Arab, discrimination against Mizrachim, and the conflict with the Palestinians, there are other factors at work too.  First, there is the fact that Arabs committed massacres against their indigenous Jewish communities in the 1950s and 1960s, which forced Jews to come to Israel.  Most Jews lost their Iraqi, Egyptian, Yemeni citizenship and all their property.  It’d be hard for them not to come to Israel angry and wanting some distance from the people who were supposed to protect them.  Only to find their new Arab neighbors here blowing themselves up in pizzerias.  The other factor is that the Middle East wasn’t always Arab.  Arabs are from Arabia and conquered the region to spread Islam.  Jews have been living in Iraq, for example, since the Babylonian Exile, 600 years before Christianity.  Over a thousand years before Islam.  So to call an Iraqi Jew Arab- that could be a real invalidation of their identity and history.  A small minority of Mizrachim do identify as Arab Jews, often as a way of contrasting with the European elite.  But I would strongly recommend not calling Mizrachi Arabic-speakers Arab and certainly not Palestinian.

Notice we haven’t even gotten to the Christians, Muslims, and Druze.  In general, Arabs who are citizens of Israel do not define themselves as Palestinians.  Here is some polling data:

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Here’s another poll with similar but sometimes contradictory data (perhaps depending on the phrasing of the question- also the first poll doesn’t include East Jerusalem):

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What overlaps is that about 15-20% of Arabs who have Israeli residency identify as Palestinian.  Sometimes hyphenated or attached to the word “Israeli”.  A larger portion identify as some variation of Arab, again sometimes hyphenated as Arab-Israeli or Arab citizen of Israel.  And a significant number just identify as Israeli.  For what it’s worth, there are also Arabs here who primarily identify by their religion, not their language or ethnicity.  Food for thought for people who are looking for a simple black-and-white breakdown.

Druze, Christians, Circassian Muslims, and Bedouin Muslims tend to identify more with Israel and less with Palestinian identity.  There is also a strong contingent of Christians who feel strongly about their Arab or Palestinian identity.  And other Arabic-speaking Christians who don’t even identify as Arab.  Many Druze, contrary to Israeli popular belief, feel they are both Druze and Arab.  I believe I got that info from a Pew survey, but am having trouble tracking it down (feel free to send it!).  Very, very, very few Druze would call themselves Palestinian (though a few do like Maher Halabi).  And many would be quite offended at the statement.  And they are native Arabic speakers.

Among these groups, Druze and Circassians crafted agreements with the Israeli government for their sons to be drafted into the military.  By agreement.  An increasing number of Bedouins and Christians- and even Arab Muslims- are choosing to volunteer or do national service, even though they are not legally obligated.  There are even Arab Christian priests encouraging it.

It’s worth noting the Druze mentioned here are the ones in pre-1967 Israel.  The ones in the Golan Heights were formerly citizens of Syria- and some now are taking Israeli citizenship in light of the brutal civil war.  They are not obligated to serve in the military and would almost certainly identify themselves as Syrian rather than Palestinian.  My friend’s dad says he’s a “Syrian now living in Israel”.  And I imagine people in his community have a variety of ways of describing their multifaceted identities.

If you’d assume that Israeli Muslims would be the most likely to identify as Arab or Palestinian and less so as Israeli, you’d be correct.  With some very important qualifications.  As mentioned, Bedouins and Circassians- both Muslims, are much less likely to identify as Palestinian in any form.  In the Bedouins’ case, Islam is generally much more important than nationalism and they’ve often been discriminated against by their sedentary Arab neighbors.  Circassians are quite fully integrated into the society and while many speak Arabic as a second language, they tend to be much more Israeli.

It’s also worth noting that if someone identifies as Arab or Palestinian here, there is a difference.  When someone says “Arab-Israeli” or “Arab citizen of Israel”, there are a few potential reasons why.  First off, there are Arab nationalists here who are against Palestinian identity.  Pan-Arab nationalism, which believes in an Arab identity stretching from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, is less a fan of state-based nationalism (e.g. Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian nationalism).  There is the concept of bilad al-sham- the Levant.  Some Arabs here prefer to think of themselves as part of the greater Arab culture rather than the particularistic Palestinian identity.  Palestinian identity- like every other country in the region- is a modern concept.  Not because the people didn’t exist here (before anyone goes there), but rather because this area didn’t have borders before colonialism. Which is why the Arabic spoken in northern Israel is almost identical to Syrian or Lebanese and the Bedouin Arabic in the Negev has a Saudi or Jordanian tint to it.

Another reason why people here might prefer Arab over Palestinian is because there is pressure here to dissociate themselves from the conflict.  Someone might even choose one label in one context and another in another.  Identity can be relative.

A final, and important reason, is that some Arabs here just don’t identify with Palestinian nationalism.  And not because, in the case I described, they are pan-Arab nationalists, but because they simply want to live a good life here.  They don’t like politics.  They don’t like violence.  Some may even feel that if they took on the label Palestinian, it does a disservice to the real suffering of people in the West Bank and Gaza.  That basically if you have Israeli citizenship, things might be rough sometimes, but overall the quality of living is quite good.  And to compare yourself to someone living in abject poverty and misery- that’s not quite so fair.

Sometimes when American and European progressives come here, they try to correct me when I call someone Arab.  “Don’t you mean Palestinian?”  or they’ll just work the word “Palestinian” into their response- even though I just said Arab.  Maybe it’s not their intention, but I feel there’s a kind of “let me educate you” haughtiness.  That somehow if I’m calling someone Arab instead of Palestinian- someone who’s a citizen of Israel- it must be because I’m a hyper nationalist intent on denying their identity.  And thank God for the Western Liberal who can come teach me civilization.

And they’re wrong.  Because I have a basic rule- I identify you the way you want to be identified.  If I meet an Arabic-speaker here in Israel who prefers to be called Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli, Palestinian citizen of Israel- I will call them that.  Or Arab.  Or Arab-Israeli.  Whatever they choose I validate that.  And I’m not going to impose my New York Times Huffington Post NPR podcast understanding of the Middle East on them.  Because newspapers are printed in black and white.  Which is about the depth that they can offer of a society thousands of years old halfway around the world.

So I encourage you- don’t put me or my Arab/Palestinian/Arab-Israeli/Arab citizens of Israel/Christian/Muslim/Druze/Bedouin friends in a box.  Because boxes are for shoes.  And unless you’re willing to walk in ours, you should probably return them to the store.

What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?  Ahmed, Maryam, Ovadia.  Even Matt or Matah.

Or as the cover photo says: friend.