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.