When you bump into a high school friend in your neighborhood

For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know my neighborhood is a bit off the beaten path for American immigrants to Israel.  It’s off the beaten path for most Israelis.  My particular street is quite quiet, kind of like a Mizrachi kibbutz, but a two minute walk away finds you in the poorest neighborhood of Tel Aviv.  And one of the most interesting.  Filled with Moroccans and Iraqis and Eritreans and Bedouin (still figuring that one out) and Yemenites and Russians.  And me.

The first reason I moved to my neighborhood was financial.  The rest of Tel Aviv was too expensive for me to find a place by myself.  Tired of living with roommates and not willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money, I looked where less people “like me” look.

I happened upon a great apartment and snatched it up.  The price was right, it came mostly furnished, it included most utilities, and I was able to negotiate a good lease.  A lot of hard work went into that- I saw easily 40 different apartments in person before finding this one.  You can read about my process here.

One of the downsides to my neighborhood is it’s far from…everyone.  Well, not everyone.  Certainly not my Iraqi neighbor downstairs who likes to “role play” Abu Mazen in Arabic yelling at Israel (my neighborhood is many things but boring is not one of them).  But it is far from other young professionals- some of whom flat out told me they’d be scared to visit me.  Fortunately, I have many friends who feel otherwise and have come to my park for picnics.  But as we say in Jewish English “it’s a schlep“.

That can make me feel lonely sometimes.  Especially on Shabbat when there is no public transit and people are even less willing to make the trek.  And it also becomes hard for me to visit them.  I’ve spent more than a few Shabbat afternoons alone and bored.

My neighborhood has a lot of amazing things.  It’s amazingly diverse, it has great food, it’s cheaper, it’s authentic.  The owner of the Mizrachi music store around the corner was Zohar Argov‘s producer.  It’s a place where almost all aspects of the conflict in this country come together and somehow things manage to stick together.

At night, better than anywhere in North Tel Aviv, you can truly see the stars.  The moon calls out to you.  It calms me to look towards the heavens after a hectic day, no skyscrapers around, and to just breathe.

Tonight, the most unexpected thing happened: I bumped into a friend.  Feeling kind of lonely, I left my apartment and headed towards “the city”.  “The city” because my neighborhood doesn’t feel like the rest of Tel Aviv.  You wouldn’t know it was the same city if you visited here.

On my way there, I saw a group of young people.  I was a bit surprised.  I knew there were a few in the neighborhood, often living with their families, but rarely in large groups.  As I got closer, a bearded man gave me a huge hug.

I was in shock.  Who was this guy??

After a look at his sheyne punim, I knew: it was Omer!  Holy crap!  Omer is an Israeli friend from Beit Shemesh, a suburb of Jerusalem.  We met in high school because his city was paired with my hometown of Washington, D.C. for an exchange program.  We hung out in D.C., I believe I saw him when I came several years later to visit Beit Shemesh, and then reconnected on Facebook.  Once I made aliyah, we got to see each other again in person.

Omer is an avid board games player.  Turns out, so is someone in my neighborhood who was hosting a board games event!  Delighted to bump into someone who knew me, someone who hugged me- spontaneously- in my neighborhood, I immediately asked him to invite me to the next event.

Living alone in a foreign country can be hard.  And I don’t just live here, I immigrated here.  I’m a citizen.  I have no particular plans to move back to the U.S. although as a dual citizen I legally can.  And since my work happens to be done remotely, I can bounce between countries, which is great.  It’s also true that it feels different to live here as opposed to visiting or being on a program.  Washington, D.C. will always be one of my homes.  And what I’m starting to realize, to whatever extent I choose to stay here short or long term, Israel has become one of my homes too.

A place where I bump into an old friend on an unexpected street who cheers me up.  A place where, just twenty minutes later, I bumped into another friend I met outside a nightclub weeks ago.

A place where for all its insanity and its toughness, I guess I just don’t feel like as much of a stranger as when I stepped off the plane on the Fourth of July almost a year ago.  Hopeful, confused, anxious, and inspired.  Jet-lagged and later coping with food poisoning and being stalked by toxic relatives and being yelled at daily by Sabras for no particular reason and being racially profiled as Arab and waking up to 3 A.M. air raid sirens and all sorts of traumas big and small.

Israel is whack.  That’s how I’d say it in American.  And Israel, I’m just not sure I can entirely live without you.  And if you don’t think that’s the most Israeli way of saying “I love you”, then you’re probably not one of us 🙂

p.s.- my cover photo is a picture of teddy bears from the Arab village of Tira because this is a feel good story 🙂


Why Israel doesn’t always suck (and is sometimes good at things)

This is perhaps my most Israeli blog title yet.

I’m writing you from a hostel in Barcelona, an absolutely stunning city.  It’s my first visit back in Catalonia in 10 years, and unlike my last visit, I also speak Catalan in addition to Spanish.

My experience here has been fantastic.  I visited the medieval city of Girona, the absolutely phenomenal and peaceful gem of Perpignan in southern France, and am now in the throbbing yet relaxed metropolis.

The best parts of my visit here have been the nature, the serenity, the smiles at strangers, the cleanliness, the general respect for boundaries, and not having to answer millions of deeply personal questions only to be judged for your answers.  Speaking languages I love.  And the delicious food on every corner.

It’s also nice to take my air raid and terrorism alert apps off my phone for a while and not see 18 year old soldiers carrying guns in the street.  It’s just more peaceful.

For the first time in a while, I found myself missing things about Israel.  If you’ve read my recent blogs, you might find that as surprising as I did.  Israel is pretty awful when it comes to human rights, to respecting diversity, to preserving Jewish culture, to living up to Jewish values, to treating people with respect, and to pursuing peace both within society and with our neighbors.

And there are some things Israel does well.  One is helping each other.  Today I found myself sick in Barcelona.  Both physically sick and feeling lonely.  I messaged a few Israeli friends and within seconds they were helping me figure out my insurance, cheering me up, and taking care of me.  Thankfully I didn’t need a full hospital visit, but if I had, my travel insurance would have covered every expense above $50.  Which brings me to something else.  Israeli healthcare is leaps and bounds better than anything I experienced in America.  Health is not just wealth- it’s survival.  Everything else is details if you can’t live.  Israel is a super stressful place to live and one stress I don’t have is that I’ll go bankrupt because I’m sick.

It speaks to a certain social(ist) value in Israel.  And when I say Israel, I mean both Jews and Arabs.  In Israel, anywhere you go you can charge your phone or refill your water bottle.  For free- you often don’t even need to buy anything.  In the places I’ve visited in Spain and France (and much of the U.S.) you need to buy something to charge up or you need to buy actual (expensive and wasteful) bottles of water.  These examples are not anecdotal- when combined with Israeli willingness to host guests (and sometimes strangers) for long periods of time, you sense a pattern.  When it comes to certain things, Israelis display a generosity found in few places.

While in Spain/Catalonia/France, I’ve met some people who reminded me why some Israelis are so nationalistic and racist.  There’s the Dutch guy who told me he could probably understand Yiddish because “it’s just fucked up German.”  There’s the researcher in France studying medieval Jewry who, instead of dialoguing with me, started lecturing me about my own people’s history.  I appreciate his work and would prefer someone not pin me in a corner and try to teach me about…myself.  There are also the formerly Jewish houses in Girona where you can see where the mezuzahs once hung.  And the historic synagogue that now houses an architectural firm.  I think I can understand how Palestinian refugees must feel about the remnants of their village in my neighborhood.

This is not to say that most people here are bigoted.  Most people when I say I’m Jewish or live in Tel Aviv are either neutral, polite, or even show great interest.  I’m grateful to cities like Girona that are preserving my heritage.  And to their archives for preserving Judeo-Catalan documents I got to see first hand.  And many of them were improperly labeled.  To the archivist’s credit, I submitted some corrections and she gladly marked them down.  It’s just an apt metaphor that even when some people are trying to get Jewish history right, it can feel uncomfortable.  I don’t want to impose or discourage them and I also find it irritating that most of their archived documents are upside down.  The documents of the people they expelled.  Some of whom live in their veins.

That’s the complexity of Judaism in Europe.  For 2000 years, we’ve called it home.  To this day.  And not just during the Holocaust, but over and over again throughout that time, we’ve been mercilessly expelled, burned, and murdered.  Property robbed and now turned into moneymaking tourist attractions.  That keep bits of our heritage on the map.  When I visit the Jewish quarter of Girona, I’m not just visiting a tourist attraction, I’m a Cherokee visiting the Trail of Tears.  It’s complicated, to recall the words of a Palestinian friend I talked with before moving to Israel.

Which brings me to what else Israel does well- it gives me a place where if people are ignorant about my tradition, they can learn on my terms.  It gives me a place where I’m in a position of power- as fraught as that is.  A place where if people want to expel us or lecture us or deride us, we don’t have to grit our teeth and put up with it.  Some people take this power a bit too far- and spending a bit of time outside of Israel reminded me why they do so.  Even if it’s not justified.

While in Barcelona, I went to Reform services.  I’ve been pretty fed up with God lately, tired of Zionism, and not even really sure if I feel Jewish anymore.  So I decided to see if maybe Diaspora Judaism, the Judaism I grew up with, still fit.  The services were wonderful.  They were in Catalan, Spanish, Hebrew, and English- a polyglot like me couldn’t be happier.  And it adds a spiritual dimension to share our hopes in different languages.  Hebrew alone bores me.  The people of all ages were warm and welcoming and treated me to a free meal.  As good Jews, there was tons of food.

I can’t say every part of the service spoke to me.  There are problems with Jewish liturgy I’ve only fully understood while living in Israel.  The idea that we’re the “Chosen People” or asking God to bless “His people”- that doesn’t work for me any more.  It feels racist.  I’m tired of the idea that religion should be supremacist- as pretty much every Western religion is in some sense or another.  Our prophet is the best.  Only our people go to heaven.  God chose us above all other peoples.  Try reading the words of your Friday night Kiddush in English.

And it’s my capacity to read Hebrew and my living in Israel that has shed light on these problems.  Judaism is due for a new reformation.  It has beautiful sparks as evidenced by the parts of the service and the dinner that lit my spirit again.  The music, the poetry, the community, the evolving tradition.

Much like Israel, Judaism needs a revamp.  No need to throw everything out, but the way it’s going isn’t working- at least not for me.  As I watched two Israelis living in Barcelona learn the Reform liturgy Friday night- and engage in gentler, more peaceful ways than I usually see in Israel- I see a bit of light.  Jews outside of Israel need Israel.  Yes, it’s a deeply f*cked place and I would rather the world not have states at all.  And I’ll keep fighting for that.  And the reality is we don’t know the next time anti-Semitism will strike.  Israel is the only state on earth, for better or worse, that cares about my healthcare- about my ability to live- simply because I’m a Jew.  That formula is problematic and perhaps sometimes necessary.  While we can’t live in paranoia that everyone is out to get us, the fact is some people are.  And because we’re a minority easy to scapegoat, some people always will be.

At the same time, to return to the Israelis I met in Barcelona, Israel needs Jews (and non-Jews) outside of Israel.  Judaism outside Israel is gentler.  It’s more spiritual than secular Israelis and softer than much of the religiosity I see there.  It can offer Israelis an escape valve.  A reminder than life in the Diaspora can be hard due to prejudice and it can be enriching when it engages with the society surrounding it.  It can remind us of our roots and the need to be sensitive and compassionate towards minorities.  Including in Israel itself.  As my cover photo says in French: “shared route”.  Let’s lift each other up, Jew and non-Jew, Israeli or not.

When you go on a trip, you can buy one of those souvenirs that says “I went to Barcelona and all I got was this shirt”.  I went to Barcelona and all I got was a complex textured view of the pluses and minuses of having a Jewish state- and Diaspora life.

More than I expected on a birthday trip abroad?  You bet.  But don’t worry, I’ll be having some chicken paella too 😉

A Tale of Two Orthodox

Ok it’s really four Orthodox Jews, but you’ll get my point.

Last night, I was at a rally for refugee lives in Tel Aviv.  It was exhilarating- over 20,000 people.  Some estimate 30,000.  Considering Israel has only 8 million people, it’s quite sizable.  Although being from Washington, D.C., the capital of rallies, it still feels small 🙂 .

On my way home, I wore my yarmulke (head covering).  Foremost, because last time I walked home from a rally I got shouted down and followed by hateful people in my neighborhood, which was scary.  I have met neighbors for refugee rights and it’s probably a minority position where I live.  Since Judaism is a source of privilege here, I felt wearing a yarmulke might afford me a sense of safety from some people who might otherwise be angry at me.  People who can’t imagine why a religious Jew would even be at a refugee rally.  I suppose once I decided to put it on, I was glad to do so because it made me feel a little bit connected to a religion I increasingly feel distant from.  To put my yarmulke to good use for human and Jewish values.

Before I get to what happened on the way home, I’d like to share what happened the other day.

On my way to get kebabs, I heard English in my neighborhood.  I was so astounded- I am definitely the only American for several blocks around my house- that I asked the people in Hebrew what language they were speaking.

Turns out, they were Americans from nearby neighborhoods coming for food.  Both of them Orthodox Jews.  We bantered a bit, they made some uncouth remark about refugees, but honestly nothing too grave considering what I hear in Israel.  And other than that, it was fine.  I told them I was gay and a Reform Jew, which aroused curiosity- but really nothing beyond that.  When I said I was a religious Reform Jew- they simply pondered, asked a few questions, and said “OK cool, do you want to join us for dinner?”

Which brings us back to yesterday.  On the way back from the rally, wearing my yarmulke, two Orthodox men approached me to say they didn’t like my signs.  They said it was great there was a rally because finally there were enough police to keep the streets safe.  They told me: “it’s so hard to raise children here with these Eritreans around.”  Right in front of the Eritreans standing next to me.

I told them this: “I grew up with Eritreans in the U.S. and we get along fine.  Unlike in Israel, where everyone lives in their little bubble, I’m glad I have friends of different backgrounds.  That we learn and play together.  Here you have four separate school systems based on religion and race.  How many Reform Jews do you even know?”

And the man closest to me says: “None- thank God.”

My heart sunk- and I can’t say I was the least bit surprised because in Israel, I’ve heard this a lot.  I said “well you’re talking to one now.  I am disappointed by your hatred.  In the U.S. I have friends who are secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic.”

He said: “I’m not hateful.  Anyways, all of your mixing in the U.S. is why American Jewry is disappearing.”

At this point, I felt the discussion was useless and went to talk to some absolutely lovely Eritreans who exchanged numbers with me.  We live down the street from each other and are going to hang out.  Our values are infinitely more intertwined than those of the Israeli I just finished speaking with.

If you want to understand in one anecdote the major difference between American and Israeli Jewry- it’s this.  Are there open-minded Israeli Orthodox Jews (or Israeli Jews in general)- yes.  I regularly do Shabbat with a gay Orthodox Israeli Jew who loves to learn about Reform Judaism.

And are there bigoted American Orthodox Jews (or American Jews in general)?  For sure.

Do I believe there is a substantial difference between the two groups’ attitudes?  Yes.

In America, by and large, Jews get along.  Perhaps better than American Jews even realize.  Only by being here in Israel have I realized the degree to which Judaism is different here- and far more divisive.  And far too often hateful.

Where two American Orthodox Jews saw my queer and Reform identities as nothing more than curiosity and an entree to a dinner invite, two Israeli Orthodox Jews couldn’t even stand the thought of befriending me.  To thank God for not knowing a Reform Jew (let alone an Eritrean)- that’s a true perversion of religion.

It’s important to remember people come in all shapes and sizes, both here and in Israel.  I could have turned this blog into an opportunity to hate Orthodox Jews.  And believe me, I was very angry last night and felt some of that hatred.  Instead, my cover photo is my picture of a Hasidic kids book- based on Elsa from the Disney movie “Frozen“.  Because I like to look for the unexpected and to try to speak with nuance and understanding.

For many American Jews, pluralism, diversity, and respect are key values- regardless of religious affiliation.  And for many Israeli Jews, the idea of a school where an Eritrean, a Reform Jew, and an Orthodox Jew could learn together is so out of the norm, it can barely be imagined.  Even if they agree with it.

And that’s exactly the kind of school I grew up at.  Eastern Middle School is where I spent my teenage years in Silver Spring, MD.  To this day, I remember an Eritrean friend of mine there teaching me about Tigre.  And I remember an Orthodox friend who was one of the popular girls bouncing to Backstreet Boys- and who now lives in a Haredi community in London.

And it’s not only “not a big deal”- it’s cool.  Living together is nice.  It can be challenging and mostly, it’s just interesting.  And fun.  And enriching.  And I personally pray for the day when God will soften the hearts of the two Orthodox men who berated me.  So that instead of complaining about their Eritrean neighbors, they might see they have something in common with them.  Or even to learn from them.

May it be so.  May it be soon.


What I (still) like about Israel

Lately I’ve been writing some pretty critical posts about Israel.  I think they are necessary and true.

It’s been making me reflect on what I still like about Israel.  To be honest, I like a lot less about Israel than I did when I first came here.  The racism, aggression, sectarian hatred, and ignorance make my daily life here quite hard.  And hard for pretty much everyone here.  Not everyone embodies these problems and a lot of people do- more than I expected.  In every religious, political, and ethnic group here.  It’s sad to see the Holy Land so filled with hate.

So it got me thinking- what do I like about Israel?

I like the healthcare system.  Israeli healthcare is light years ahead of America, something I noticed when first arriving here.  Treatment is almost always cheaper and more often than not, free.  Even for going to specialists like allergists, sleep labs, and psychiatrists who are part of your kupah, or health network.  Dental work costs a miniscule amount of what it does in the States and there are no deductibles.  You don’t have to guess whether you’ll be covered.  All your records are digitized and you can make appointments on an app.  The system has varying degrees of access in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and French.

I like that you can talk to random people here and it’s not “weird”.  At least in Washington, D.C., where I lived before making aliyah, when I tried to help someone or make small talk, I often felt like I was imposing.  Or that the other person wanted to know what I wanted out of them.  As if a conversation itself wasn’t sufficient- there must be some other motive.  Here, you can talk with almost anyone, Jewish or Arab, sometimes for hours without having met before.  Things are a lot less formal.

The produce is absolutely fantastic and cheap.  And unlike in Washington, D.C., you don’t need to go to an expensive farmers’ market to get delicious vegetables.  In D.C., the veggies at the grocery store are kind of watery- most of them probably sent from warmer climes like California.  According to my friends in Cali the produce is great there.  But if you live in D.C., by the time they get to you, they don’t taste so great.  Unless you’re willing to shell out money to go to Whole Foods.  The market and shops near my house in Tel Aviv have affordable delicious produce all year round.  It keeps you feeling healthful and biting into one of those yummy carrots just makes me happier.

If you need help here, you just ask for it.  There’s no shame in asking for help and people- both Jewish and Arab- more often than not are willing to help.  I’ve been given a free room to stay in a number of times- sometimes by people I had just met- or never met.  In the U.S., I of course have crashed with friends but it felt like a much bigger “ask” than here.  I once saw a woman on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv offer to host someone who was worried she wouldn’t be able to catch the train home to Haifa.  They had just met 20 minutes beforehand.

There are also a series of things I both like and dislike depending on how they’re used.  For instance, I’m less worried about offending someone here when I say something that doesn’t come out right or they disagree with.  At times, I don’t feel like I have to “walk on eggshells”, which can be a relief- we all say things that we regret.  The downside is that I find Israelis much less empathetic than Americans.  So when you are actually offended, people more often than not tell you to stop being upset, rather than acknowledging your pain.

The same goes for rules and formality.  In Israel, I have never worn a dress shirt, tie, or suit.  Thank God- other than an occasional celebration, I hate these clothes!  Here jeans and a t-shirt are totally fine most of the time, even in synagogue.  Israelis generally don’t like rules- this is a place where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission.  That can be helpful in working out creative solutions for business, plans, or even activism.  D.C. often felt rigid to me and stifled my creativity at times.  The flip side is that Israelis’ lack of rules often results in less protections.  Renters here are regularly scammed by landlords- much more than anything I saw in the States.  I’ve been taken advantage of many times here- and it’s even a societal value.  Rather than be the “freier” or “sucker”, Israelis often prefer to strike first and take advantage of you before you them.  It’s a vicious cycle that explains a lot of the problems here.  Israelis often struggle when I say the word “no”.  Rules often have a purpose- boundaries need to be respected to treat each other with dignity.  So the informality and lack of rules that I like can also a problem.

The cultural diversity is amazing here and threatened.  I’ve met Jews from places I never expected- India, Norway, Switzerland, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Ethiopia- and so many other places.  With unique languages, traditions, and cuisine.  And non-Jews such as Druze (whose heart shaped falafel is in my cover photo), Arab Catholics, Arab Greek Orthodox, Arab Greek Catholics, Maronites, Alawites, Muslims, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, and Circassians.  Darfuris, Ertireans, Sudanese, Nepalis, and Chinese.  I speak all eight of my languages here- regularly.  This beauty that I love is what the government threatens by shaming Jews for speaking other languages, by discriminating against Arabs, and by expelling refugees.  It pains to me to see such a beautiful gift under attack.

In short, it’s complicated.  There are good things in Israel.  The nature is also gorgeous, the weather is better than anywhere in the Northeast U.S. or most of Europe.  The location is ideal for traveling the world.

Once the Israeli people do the hard work of pulling themselves away from the toxic ideologies that gave birth to their country, they might find themselves feeling freer.  Freer for a secular Jew to be friends with a Hasidic Jew.  For an Orthodox Jew to acknowledge Palestinian Arab history.  For a Mizrachi Jew to dance to Eritrean refugees’ music.  For a secular Ashkenazi to raise his kids in Yiddish.  Or an Iraqi Jew to do so in Judeo-Arabic.  For a Haredi Jew to see the good in Reform Judaism.  For a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon to return home to my neighborhood and for me to help renovate her mosque.  For a Christian to marry a Jew.  For a Jew to convert to Islam.  In short, to be the complex beautiful human beings hiding beneath the divisiveness.

For Hasidic Jews, tikkun olam or “repairing the world” begins within.  I couldn’t agree more.  To make the world a better place, we must start with ourselves.  So see the good things I wrote?  Grow them.  And where we find barriers in our souls towards our fellow human beings, join me in tearing them down.  Inside and radiating out towards the heavens.

Israelis often like to think of themselves as a “light unto the nations”.  The thing is to see a candle best, you must first turn off the lights.  Scary and necessary.  Flip the switch.  It’s time for a reset.  Let the flame illuminate our path.


Jewish Supremacy

Ok, so before a bunch of neo-Nazi trolls get excited, I need to define a few things.  First off, every country and most cultures have some similar manifestation.  Whether it’s the alt-right in America, the Front National in France, even Buddhists.  If you think your country is immune- you’re wrong.  It’s a global phenomenon.

Secondly, there are varying degrees of this philosophy.  Not all Israeli Jews agree with this approach.  And certainly not all Jews elsewhere.

In this post, I’m going to discuss both what is Jewish Supremacy and how it ultimately hurts both Jews and non-Jews.  And how it operates in ways you may not expect.

Let’s start with an anecdote.  Lately, I have been advocating for African refugees in my neighborhood.  The Israeli government, in the name of “national security” has decided to deport them- likely to their deaths or torture.  These are people who already live and work in Israel, who largely speak Hebrew, whose children ask them if there will be hummus and bamba in Rwanda.  That’s where they’re likely to be deported.

Not a single one has committed an act of terror.  And I can tell you from living in my neighborhood, the economy depends on them and takes advantage of them.  Which is why the Israeli government is negotiating with the Philippines to send more low-wage workers to replace the Africans already here.  And issuing more permits to Palestinian workers.

The Israeli government, then, is willing to deport these people who it views as economically beneficial.  Why?  Jewish supremacy and racism.

Let’s actually start with racism.  Some of my friends or blog commenters have been hesitant to use this word.  I get it- when you’re a persecuted minority (as Jews have been for thousands of years)- it’s hard to admit when our compatriots are being racist.  So many anti-Semites will rejoice at our introspection and it’ll make us feel protective and vulnerable.

And yet it’s the truth.  I’ve met people here who’ve called African torture and genocide survivors “infiltrators”, “fake refugees”, “rapists”, “criminals”, “n*ggers”, and worse.  Who’ve said: “if I wanted to live in Africa, I’d go move there.”  I heard an out-of-the-closet lesbian say the Africans need to be “cleaned up” and deported.  Lest you think it’s only poor Mizrachim who feel this way, I’ve met Ashkenazi Reform Jews who also “aren’t sure” about letting them stay.  As they munch on cheese in North Tel Aviv.

Even among some of the people who oppose the deportation, the racism is palpable.  To quote Haim Moshe from South Tel Aviv: “If they all walk away, it will be bad for the economy because they take all the jobs no one wants.  There are a lot of non-Jewish people living and working here, but when the Sudanese and Eritreans came it was like an invasion because they live together and are black.”

Save their lives to protect my pocketbook.  But damn, they sure are black.

It’s telling that the government isn’t stepping up enforcement of the thousands of Romanian or Ukrainian or Filipino workers.  Just the really black ones.

So now that we’ve defined the racist aspect, let’s move on to the stickier topic: Jewish supremacism.  One commenter on my last blog suggested deporting African refugees isn’t racist because Israel “absorbed” Ethiopian Jewish immigrants.  The first issue is that actually a lot of Ethiopian Jews here do experience racism.  In words perhaps even I would struggle to say, Ethiopian-Israeli actress Tahunia Rubel said: “Israel is one of the most racist countries in the world.”  And fellow community-member Revital Iyov: “Some people say that in other countries the situation is much worse, so we shouldn’t criticize Israel but only praise it because we’re better than the non-Jews.”

After having established that in fact there is a lot racism towards Ethiopian-Israelis, let’s go a step further.  The commenter does have a point.  Why is it that an Ethiopian Jew- also black, from a country bordering Eritrea (in fact Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia)- is allowed to legally immigrate to Israel.  Whereas an Eritrean refugee, sometimes even speaking the same Tigre language as some Ethiopian Jews, is about to be deported.  Why?

Because the Eritreans are not Jews, and the Ethiopians are.  This may not be racism.  It is Jewish supremacy.  For the simple fact that these Ethiopians are identified as Jews, they are given a passport, Hebrew lessons, healthcare, job training- all the benefits I had.  It should of course be noted the Ethiopian Jews had a particularly tumultuous journey to Israel that was substantially more dangerous than someone coming from America like me.  But the contrast between how they can legally enter the country versus the deportation of their non-Jewish Eritrean neighbors stands.  The Jews get to stay.  The non-Jews must go.  Demographic threat.

This principle of course can be applied to both Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.  There’s even an online database of over 65 laws that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against Arabs, including in land use, language, due process, religion, and politics.  If you have the courage, here it is.  I’ll have to save that for another day because I’m gonna need a lot of foot massages or punching bags to let out the stress after reading it.

To be a Jew in Israel is a privilege.  In the good sense, it gives our people a home when the world has turned its back on us for generations.  As we suffered and were expelled.  Much like the refugees living in my neighborhood now.  Or the Palestinians who used to live here before the establishment of the state.

Which is why it’s complicated.  Because when you establish a new nation state, it often displaces the people not considered a part of it.  The thing many Jews like about Israel- that it’s a “Jewish home”- is the very thing that hurts the people not considered Jewish.

“Not considered” Jewish because this even hurts Jews who don’t fit the society’s definition of Judaism.  Whether it’s a woman who converts with a Reform rabbi (which is not recognized by the state), whether it’s a French Jew who continues to speak French (instead of becoming a “real” Israeli who speaks Hebrew), whether it’s the Orthodox Jew who arrived with peyos (and whose kibbutz subsequently cut them off)- if you go outside the norm here, there are consequences.  For everyone.  This is how the state operates.  And it’s not entirely unique to Israel.  Think about how minorities, how “deviants” are treated in your country.

Put it this way- as a Reform Jew I have more civil rights in the U.S. than in Israel.  A pretty astonishing fact for a supposedly Jewish State.

Because in the end, when you build a state, you always exclude someone.  You may say it’s worthwhile, I’m not so sure.

And when you exclude someone, you put someone on top.  Privilege isn’t neutral.

In Israel, who’s on top?  Jews.  And specifically, the more “Israeli” or “sabra” a Jew is, the more privilege she has.  European (but not too Jewish-looking), physically fit, masculine, a loyal soldier, blunt, and aggressive.  Imitating Arabs but never being one.  This doesn’t describe all Israelis, but it does describe many of their ideals.  The darker you are, the more Diasporic you are, the more pacifist or effeminate you are- the more push back you’ll get.

In short, the Israeli ideal is not just different from the Judaism I grew up with in America- it’s the opposite.  It despises my Judaism.  My compassion for the other.  My social justice.  My love for diversity and all cultures, religions, and language.  It despises my interest in Hasidim as much as it despises my empathy for Palestinian refugees.

Which is why it despises my solidarity with African refugees.  Because I’m crossing three lines.  One, I’m helping people who are dark-skinned, vulnerable, and foreign.  Two, I’m helping people who are not Jewish “infiltrate” our land.  And three, I’m doing this in the name of my progressive American Jewish values.

Three strikes and you’re out.

Sometimes it can be scary to see the bigger picture.  If you’re new to my blog, I encourage you to read my other posts.  I’m not a troll and I’m a lifelong Jew who speaks fluent Hebrew.  I’m not here on a program, I immigrated to Israel.  I live in Tel Aviv and have traveled every corner of this land and met every community.  I’ve been involved at every level of Jewish life abroad and in Israel.  Accepting this difficult reality helps me realize my role in the process, uncomfortable as this might be.  It can help me figure out ways to make things better.

Other than the refugees themselves, the people who’ve inspired me the most the past few weeks have been Holocaust survivors.  Dozens of them are speaking out in favor of the refugees and offering up their homes to protect them.  An Israeli survivor, Veronica Cohen, said: “This Holocaust survivor remembers what it means to be a Jew, and remembers what it means to be an asylum-seeker.  Tell me, how is it possible for Jews to forget their past and join in this crime?”

Exactly.  Because a real Jew knows his history and remembers her oppression.  Because a real Jew doesn’t put himself above non-Jews.  Because a real Jew strives to accept and learn from all different races and cultures.

The reason I often don’t feel Israeli is because I feel Jewish.



The No State Solution

I just got back from an amazing trip to Jerusalem.  I hung out in a mosque built in the time of Salah Al-Din, ate delicious Armenian and Arab sweets, met a hot German tourist who knew what Sukkot was (!), and visited dozens of churches- some over 1,000 years old!  I even got a tour of a Catholic church…in Dutch!  And managed to understand most of it- and communicate with the visitors- in Yiddish!  Tel Aviv has beaches and Jerusalem- it has roots.

Which brings me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately.  Politics makes me so angry.  My experiences working in the field in the U.S. were very difficult.  There’s a lot of ego and a lot of immoral behavior – and not just in one party.  The most inspirational experiences I’ve had in politics have been the spontaneous and organic ones.  The rally I organized at my university against the ex-gay movement.  The refugee rights rallies I attended by the White House- organized entirely via Facebook days before.  The 70 and 80 year old women who went door-to-door for Barack Obama and made me matzah ball soup when I was sick.  Pulling off a major upset against the St. Louis Democratic Party chair to become an Obama pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008.  The beautiful.  The unexpected.

I stopped working professionally in politics because I care more about my values than any candidate.  It was so hard for me to see my country more and more hateful and polarized during the last election.  Living in Washington, D.C., the most political city in the world, was so stressful.  Politics there seeps into every aspect of your life personal and professional.  You can’t fully escape it.  At times I felt like a recovering drug addict in a meth lab.  I wanted to distance myself from politics but it was on every sushi bar TV screen, at every party, on every street corner.

So I came to Israel hoping for some space to breathe.  I figured yes, there’s crappy politics here too, but at least I’ll be far away from the environment I had grown to hate.

The problem is that Israel’s politics, while perhaps more predictably bad than in America (where the pendulum swings a bit more), are just as bad if not worse.  And as a Jew I had never really had to deal with politicians speaking in my name.  Or trying to correct my Jewish identity.  Or expelling refugees simply because they’re not Jewish.  Or mocking religious Jews.  And on and on.

And this of course filters down.  To the “progressive” secular Jews who’ve tried to convince me why they should be able to say n*gger.  To the Mizrachi lesbian who wants the government to “clean the streets of refugees”.  To the Jews who told me Arabs don’t understand the concept of diplomacy and have no intellect.  To the Orthodox who’ve told me the secular are “empty vessels” with no culture.  To the Arab guy working at a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic theater in Yaffo who posted Facebook comments mocking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The hatred is palpable and people here mostly live separate lives.  In separate school systems (Arab, Secular, Orthodox, and Haredi).  Separate cities, separate neighborhoods.

It might sound odd given all the conflict in America right now, but things aren’t this divisive there.  For all our issues, we are one of the most integrated and diverse countries in the world where a good part of the populace is committed to advancing those values where they are lacking.  It’d be more difficult for me to think of friends who haven’t dated/married across racial, cultural, or religious lines than vice-versa.  And that is actually quite unique in the world.

That being said, we can’t pretend that the problems in Israel are only found here.  Every state privileges certain groups over others.  It’s not coincidental that racism is on the rise from France to Burma, from Russia to South Africa.  In every country, certain genders, sexualities, languages, religions, and other markers are given more prestige and resources.  As a queer Jew with olive skin, who has been profiled as Latino and Arab, I live these realities wherever I go.

Some minorities when faced with the awful reality of discrimination and violence choose to build their own states.  While, as you’ll see, I’m not sure that’s the best solution, I can understand it.  Tired of having their languages banned (Catalans), religion persecuted (Jews), race degraded (Black Americans), some people coalesced behind the idea of self-rule.  Which came to be understood as a state of their own.  For people unfamiliar with the Black struggle for self-determination, here’s an article from just a few years ago.  And the roots of the movement stretch back much further.  In short, minorities get tired of being trampled on and want to pursue their own dreams.

I empathize with this and it presents a problem.  Because there’s no such place as a country without minorities- of some sort.  Even the seemingly most “monocultural” places like Sweden have 450,000 Finns and hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Persians.  Which now makes me want to visit 🙂

So if we agree that between cultural, linguistic, and religious minorities- in addition to sexual minorities (LGBTQ) and gender- there will always be diversity.  The question is whether the state is capable of treating everyone equally.  If the model works to fully include all types of people.

The results aren’t great.  Israel has never had a Haredi, Arab, Orthodox, or Mizrachi Prime Minister.  It took the United States 232 years to elect a Black President.  I have yet to see a Muslim leading a Western European country- a thought so absurd right now that someone is laughing while reading this.  Or crying.

Because here’s some straight talk: if someone has more power, then someone else has less.  In other words, there is no such thing as “neutral” privilege.  If I’m gay and me and my partner are punished in the tax code, it’s not that we’re not equal.  It’s that your heterosexuality is subsidized.  So while left-of-center Israeli parties would like us to believe- perhaps in earnest or ignorance- that they will treat Arabs and refugees “more equally”, such a statement is an oxymoron.  Because there’s no such thing as more equally.  There’s equal or there’s discriminatory.  There may be such a thing as “less discriminatory”.  I just don’t find that a convincing or fair solution.

I heard a prominent left-of-center Member of Knesset the other day say that she’d let refugees stay under two conditions.  One, they have to be “real refugees” and not economic migrants- an Orwellian distinction in international refugee law.  As if fleeing grinding poverty isn’t a good reason to leave your country.  But then she took it a step further and said “we’ll give the refugees the jobs Israelis don’t want.”  And the two liberal American-Israeli women behind me couldn’t stop gushing about how wonderful this politician was.  I would guess they’re full of rage at Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.  But not a politician on their own team who degrades refugees.

Some people might read this blog and say “well, then we need to reform the system!”  Perhaps- and I’m actually open to piecemeal reform if it gives people some relief.  I’ve worked in favor it.  I’d like to move the conversation beyond this because it’s a band-aid rather than a long-term fix.

As I’ve seen with my Jewish identity in Israel, having a state can be just as much of a curse as it is a blessing.  For sure, saving Jewish lives is important and shouldn’t be dismissed.  At the same time, when you give a small group of people the authority to dictate everyone else’s Judaism (not just the Rabbinate- also militant secularists), then you take the magic out of Judaism.  When you have to rigidly define something for the purpose of governance, then you end up putting it in a box.  When there is a state that purports to be Jewish, it then gets the power to decide who’s in and who’s out.  And so the thing many Jews like about Israel- that it is a Jewish state- is the very thing that makes Jewish pluralism impossible here.  Not unlikely- impossible.  Because someone will always be left out.

The magic of Judaism is that we didn’t have a state for 2,000 years.  So while Christian and Muslim empires fought for control and forced their subjects to follow this or that ideology, Judaism remained an untamed wilderness.  A beautiful one.  Sadly, a persecuted one.  And one worth living for.  A testimony to the chaos and diversity that can give rise to immense creativity, scholarship, and resilience.  It’s not for nothing that we have the famous Yiddish phrase “tzvey yidn dray deyes”- 2 Jews, 3 opinions.  Because unlike in faiths attached to a government, we were free to disagree, to question, to innovate.  No Jew had enough power to effectively extinguish rival ideologies.  They had to be debated or evaded on their merits.

As I wandered the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem, I noticed a bunch of cop cars pulling up.  Apparently, we had to stand around and wait until Vice President Mike Pence could make his way to the Western Wall.  Why my beautiful day of cultural exploration had to be put on hold for this jerk, I don’t know.  I hope God had a good talk with him at the Wall and maybe he’ll search his heart for some kindness towards queer people, women, the poor, and refugees.

I ran away from America, but America followed me.

Leaving the city walls, I met a nice young Palestinian man named Ahmed.  We chatted in Arabic over tea as he told me about his studies of Sufism.  I’ve long been intrigued by this mystical spirituality and got to see a performance of whirling dervishes with my Intro to Islam class in St. Louis.  Ahmed impressed the heck out of me- he was familiar with Kabbalah, Torah shebe’al peh, perush, and so many other Jewish concepts.  And he allowed me to teach him about Hasidic Judaism.

Because for those who don’t know, Hasidism and Sufism are both extremely mystical movements.  Where, especially in their early years, there was little hierarchy and lots of room for experimentation.  Which is what makes them so beautiful.

What I’ve come to realize from being in Israel is that I’m not sure what the cause is of human suffering.  The modern state may be able to heal some of it and it’s also the source of much of it.  I’ve already come to a point of doubt about how beneficial it is to have a Jewish state, even as I see some of the good it has done and could yet do.

So I approach my Palestinian friends with this thought: be careful what you wish for.  I want you to have freedom, prosperity, dignity, and human rights.  To be able to live in your culture in peace and to embrace you as my brothers and sisters.  I think this is what most Jews wanted out of a Jewish state too.  But we may have gotten more than we bargained for and it is eating our religion and tradition alive.  I hope a Palestinian government wouldn’t have the power to define what that identity means- and who it will inevitably leave out.

What’s the best solution for the Middle East?  Perhaps for the world?  The no state solution.  For anyone.  We need a better way of organizing human life.  I don’t- and can’t- have all the answers because it’s something we need to talk about together.

Let’s put down the flags and get to work.  Because if you don’t think this is realistic, I don’t think guns and bombs are either.


A Jew, a German, and an Italian walk into a bar

No, this isn’t a punchline.  It’s exactly what I did tonight.

Tonight I was helping people practice their English at an event in Tel Aviv.  I love going there to speak other languages and what I’ve realized is sometimes I want to speak my native tongue.  And teach people about my culture.

It’s so nice to be validated as an American, an American Jew, and an English speaker in a place where these identities regularly lead people to discriminate against me.  To try to take advantage of me.  Or to tell me to leave my identities “in the Diaspora”.

So when I sit at the English table to help people practice, it’s nice to meet folks who are genuinely interested in where I’m from.

Tonight, after having fun at the Arabic table, I walk over to the English table.  A young woman, Mara, is sitting smiling at me.  Nothing reminds me of the world outside Israel more than a welcoming smile.  We start talking and it turns out she’s from Sardinia.  Sardinia is a fascinating island that’s part of Italy with its own unique history and languages.  I’ve learned some about it before, I’m very eager to visit, and I was thrilled to meet my first Sardinian!

We talked all about the language of her island– sometimes so distinct from Modern Italian that other Italians can’t understand.  She said she and her husband will speak in their dialects when they don’t want anyone in Tel Aviv to catch on.  Something a great many American Jews may recall about their grandparents and Yiddish.

Shortly thereafter, another woman joins us.  Corinna is German so I launched into a bit of Yiddish which made her smile 🙂  I love doing this with Germans.  It’s a friendly way to show something we have in common- the languages are distinct but share many words- and it’s also a way of showing pride that my identity survives.

Turns out Corinna is fascinated by Yiddish.  We talked about Germanic words in Yiddish and Yiddish words like meshugga and kosher that are in German.  We even had a good laugh at the word “blitzpost”.  In Yiddish, it means “email”.  In German, it’s a phrase you’d say if your snail mail arrived quickly.  Hence the connection.  But really neat to learn from my new German friend about our shared and different identities.  Really cool 🙂

Sometimes it can be hard to see progress when you’re living in the Middle East or watching the absolute catastrophe going on in my homeland right now where the government is literally shut down.

And sometimes you experience little miracles that make your spirits fly.  Who could’ve imagined, just 72 years after the worst genocide in Jewish history, that a Jew, a German and an Italian would be sitting in Israel speaking English?  At a bar?  Laughing?  Exchanging phone numbers.

And Mara and Corinna aren’t just ordinary Italians and Germans- Mara’s husband works at the Italian Embassy and Corinna interns at the German one.  They literally work for their governments.

From a Jewish perspective, you have to understand that if my grandparents met people from the German or Italian governments in Europe, they would’ve been dead.

And here we are.  Sharing a beautiful moment, a quotidian moment, a peaceful moment.  Making friends with each other.

I’d like to remember this experience for the days when I feel really sad.  There are things I see and experience here that are depressing.  I don’t think many Israelis or Palestinians or Syrians or really many people in the region right now feel optimism.  It just seems to be getting worse by the day.  And given the wars, the terrorism, the displacements, the cutthroat politics- I can understand it.  Trauma here is real- and in every group imaginable.

I would like to share a bit of hope.  If you were to ask someone in 1945, just after the Axis powers murdered 6 million Jews, if they could envision a day in which a Jew, a German, and an Italian would be hanging out in a Jewish homeland- they would say you’re fucking nuts.

And they’d be wrong.  Because that’s what happened tonight.  Because progress sometimes passes under our noses unnoticed.  I feel it is a real blessing to have met Mara and Corinna tonight.  We’ve buried the old Axis and made a new one- one that will hopefully be filled with visits to Sardinia, with learning about the German language, with visiting Yiddish libraries and concerts.

Because the seemingly impossible does happen sometimes.  When you lose hope, open up this blog or find something around you that makes you look in awe.

Don’t give up.