An amazing day that can only happen here

Today, I had the most fascinating and fabulous day.

I started the morning in Shefa’mr (Shefaram) in Hebrew.  Shefa’mr is the most pluralistic city in Israel.  A community with Druze, Muslims, and Christians, it is one of the rare places in Israel where people of different faiths live next door to each other.  As a matter of practice.  Not like Jerusalem, where there are different groups largely in different neighborhoods.  Literally side by side.

It’s one of the reasons I wanted to visit.  The other reason is it, like the North, is absolutely gorgeous.  Take a look at a slideshow of some of my pictures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Before walking around town, I needed some breakfast and got delicious hummus and pita and falafel from a Druze restaurant.  According to the owner, apparently the town loves Argentina’s soccer team.  Someone even went to the World Cup in Brazil to cheer them on.  You’ll see from the pictures below I took today that he’s telling the truth, although you’ll also see there seems to be a (rival?) Brazilian fan club:

Not what I expected to find when I came to live in the Middle East.  Which makes it all the more interesting and fun to discover!  I love finding things that challenge my assumptions.

In the village, I visited churches, mosques, and a Druze holy site.  There’s even a synagogue.  There’s even an ice cream shop that sells KNAFE ICE CREAM!  If you don’t know what knafe is, it’s this.  And it’s delicious, even as ice cream.

I was the only tourist in town today.  Not sure how many come on other days, but I definitely didn’t meet another outsider- not even another Israeli Jew.  And by and large, people were really nice.  It’s important to remember there are toxic and kind people everywhere (and a whole lot of people somewhere in between).  I’ve learned that people of all backgrounds live in gray space and nuance- it has frankly allowed me to see Arabs as people.  Rather than exoticizing them as all good or all bad or “Christian ones are good and Muslims are bad” (as many, many Israeli Jews say)- I’ve worked really hard to get to the point where I just see them as people.  Complex, like me.  It has added a softness to my Arabic that makes the language gentler and even more fun to speak.

I met with all sorts of fascinating people today- the Muslim woman who keeps the keys to the synagogue, the zany ice cream store owner who couldn’t believe a Jew could speak Arabic like me, the Druze women who wanted me to explain Donald Trump to them.

There’s a gentleness to Shefa’mr.  It’s kind of a preview of how this place could look with more peace and harmony.  More mixing and less hatred.  Or perhaps a view into a past here that once was.  Like my cover photo of a Greek Catholic Cross in front of the mosque, Shefa’mr is about living together.  In the words of a Druze woman: “one of our neighbors is Christian, the other Muslim.  Yes there is racism like anywhere else.  But we share in our sorrows and we share in our joys together.”

Before I visited Shefa’mr, when I was deciding whether to go, a Jewish Israeli told me: “why would you go there?  What is there to see?”  When you meet someone like this, ignore them.  She’s missing out and it’s truly sad to live in such ignorance of the beauty at your doorstep.  Shefa’mr is gorgeous and I did some amazing peaceful thinking there today.

After a thoughtful and inspirational morning in Shefa’mr, I hopped on a bus and then a train back to Tel Aviv.  I hate coming back home to Tel Aviv these days.  The city is loud, the people are often rude, there is an intensity to life here that just sucks sometimes.

Luckily a friend had invited me out for Purim, today’s Jewish holiday.  In the U.S., we tend to eat hamantaschen, read the megillah, have carnivals for kids, dress up in costumes, and if you’re a young professional maybe go to a party.  It’s fun and it’s decidedly low-key compared to what I experienced today.

Tel Aviv Purim is Jewish Mardi Gras.  It’s Carnaval.  It’s Jewish Sao Paolo going nuts- and it’s amazing.  I don’t drink.  I do dance.  I do love to talk to random people, including shirtless Jewish boys who are feeling friendly.  Purim is party after party- in the street, in the club.  Everyone is happy.  I have never, ever seen so many Israeli Jews smile and laugh at once.  And it goes on for several days- today was just day one.

I’ve never been to a cooler Jewish party in my life.  It’s huge.  And fun.  And for this one moment in time, Israeli Jews let go of the stress and basically don’t give a f*ck.  They just relax and have fun.

I had such a great time.  I suppose the intensity I hate in Tel Aviv has its occasional advantages.  I can’t imagine a small town in Israel- Jewish or otherwise- putting together this level of festivity.  It’s amazing.

I haven’t yet experienced all the holidays in Israel.  I have experienced most of them.  Purim is now my favorite Israeli holiday.  It’s like New Orleans filled with cute Jewish boys, dance music, and silly (sometimes racist) costumes.

If I had it my way, every month, maybe even every week would be Purim.  Israeli Jews need release.  And perhaps if they had more of it, more of them would be nicer and relaxed.

My day started with Druze, Christians, and Muslims and ended with a street fair in Tel Aviv.  Few people here live like I do.  And I encourage more to do so in the way that they can.  Cross boundaries.  Speak Arabic in the morning in the hillsides and rock out to Britney Spears at night.  Discover the secret Argentinean fan club in an Arab village and then flirt with half naked men in Hebrew as the sun rises.

I’m happy I found my way today.  My way to a good day, a fantastic day.  A day that even ended with flirting with a non-Jewish German I met while walking home to my apartment- he’s a nurse at the hospital around the corner!

This place where I live is both terrible and full of magic.  As I drift to sleep after an incredible day, I’m glad I lived today the way I did.

May it inspire us to find the stars shining where we least expect them.


Yiddish softens the heart?

Two weeks ago, I approached my friends at FluenTLV about starting a Yiddish table.  FluenTLV is a fabulous event (my favorite in Tel Aviv) where people get together to exchange languages.  I offered to represent the language and they were thrilled.

Last week, the first week we did Yiddish, probably 3 or 4 people came and it went well.  One German guy, a couple Jewish Americans, and an Israeli.  Given how stigmatized my heritage language is in Israel, I was pretty happy.

Last night, Yiddish came to life.  At the beginning of the night, an Israeli came in and tried to take one of the three chairs at my tiny table.  I said: “actually that chair is for Yiddish.”  He said “well, nobody is going to come anyways, so I’ll take it.”  I said: “nope, this chair belongs here, you can leave now.”  I asked him if he wanted to learn something and he said “sure, teach me a word.”  I did, he laughed, gave me one of those “everything is OK dude” Israeli high fives and left.  Probably without a further thought about what he had said.

The best part of the evening is that this guy was totally wrong.  Group after group came over to my table.  We didn’t have enough chairs.  When all was said and done, about 15-20 people had visited my table.  A German guy and two Dutch men explained how Yiddish had made its way into their languages!  A Brazilian Jew talked about Yiddish in her family.  I met Israelis whose parents or grandparents spoke the language and remembered some phrases.  Together, we read my copy of “Der Blat”, a Satmar Hasidic newspaper.  And I could see the glow in their eyes when they realized they could understand some of it.

What was also astonishing was how willing people were to learn.  I often find Israeli culture frustrating because of the bravado.  So many people here feel the need to be right trumps all.  Hence often endless debate, even when the facts used are minimal.  I’ve even had Israelis try to correct my English- knowing I’m American.  We often laugh that off, but after a while it wears on you.  It’s tiring having to constantly defend yourself.  Humility is not an Israeli value.

Yet at the Yiddish table, Israelis came to learn from me.  And subsequently shared about themselves.  Their families, their stories, their grandparents’ Yiddish phrases.  For the first time, I actually felt in dialogue with Israeli Jews rather than a lecture.  Or an argument.  There was a softness to our conversation that made me happy.  It warmed my heart and it gave me hope.

In a society where, as I see it, traumatized Jews faced 2,000 years of violent persecution with few options for safety and survival.  Sadly, some of these Jews ended up traumatizing and displacing Palestinian Arabs in a bid for a homeland.  Some of these traumatized Palestinians subsequently re-traumatized the Israelis.  And now we’re stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

That’s how I see it on regel aches- or “one on leg” as we say in Yiddish.  My Tweet-length version of the conflict here.  The saddest part is the trauma on both sides continues.  Anti-Semitism is not just the Holocaust.  It’s a two-millennia phenomenon that continues to this day from America to France to Iran.  I’ve personally experienced it in the liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C.  When Jews are persecuted, we often have nowhere to go, which is why some people believe in a Jewish state.  I’m not sure it’s the best solution and I completely understand why people feel we need it.  It’s not by accident that there’s a lot of French people in Israel- they’re Jews fleeing violence and bigotry.  Palestinian terrorist attacks on pizza shops and buses and schools only feed this narrative as we feel under attack yet again.  Trauma piled upon trauma.

And for the Palestinians, you have those who are citizens of Israel yet continue to face discrimination, racism, and often poverty.  Whose lands were robbed of them- and are still in the hands of the Israeli state 70 years later.  You have those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who live in immense poverty, have little right to travel, have few if any civil liberties, and often face violence from the Israeli military.  And even some settlers who burn their trees, deface their houses of worship, and physically assault them.  And you have Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere who can’t even come back to the land they once called home.  Who have no rights in the villages they come from and whose host states often extensively discriminate against them.

Sometimes its enough to just make you cry and cry and weep for humanity.  With no end in sight.  Ya Allah, God please send us all healing.

So in the face of all this sadness, what gives me hope?  Yiddish.  Because tonight, I saw the softer side of Israeli Jews.  When they don’t have to be “tough”- not against Arabs, not against other Jews, not against their own heritage.  Rather, by connecting to their roots- roots violently uprooted both by European anti-Semites and the Israeli state– they felt warmth.

I hope politicians can figure out a solution to this problem.  Given their proclivity for narcissism and greed, I’m not sure what they’ll do.  In the meantime, perhaps part of the solution is culture.  When you feel connected to something bigger- especially something a part of your heritage- it puts things in perspective.  Rather than having to show how “Israeli” you are, you can be the multifaceted Jew beneath the uniform.  The Jew whose family was persecuted by Polish Nazi collaborators, the Jew whose family escaped to Israel, the Jew who lives on Palestinian land, the Jew who wishes to reconnect with his heritage.  A complex one, of persecution and co-existence.  Of perseverance and of trauma.

A little less prickly sabra and a little more soft kneydlach.  Those fluffy yet durable matzah balls that comfort you when you feel sick.

Cover photo by Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL 1.2,

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.


The internal struggle

Today I went to Tira, a Palestinian village in Israel.  I’d be shocked if any of my Israeli Jewish friends have been here (maybe a brave or open-minded one or two!).  This is not Abu Ghosh or Yaffa.  This is not a tourist area.  This is simply a Palestinian town- not for outside consumption.

Tira, even when I asked locals about it, does not have any particularly old mosques or historical sites.  It has old homes from the original residents, but let’s just say the Ministry of Tourism probably doesn’t mark this on their map.  Although it should.

Why wouldn’t the ministry mark it?  Because the more people know about what actually happened- and still happens- here, the less they may want an Israeli Ministry of anything.

Tira is actually quite pretty, despite one of my Arab friends calling it the “Detroit” of the Arab Triangle, a region abutting the West Bank.  It’s literally an hour walk to the border.

Today I met all sorts of interesting people.  I met a high schooler in a hijab who loves Harry Potter and says Hebrew is her favorite school subject.  She she said likes how Israeli Jews are “freer” to wear what they like and to ride bikes- apparently women in her community get flak for doing so.  I also met an adorable 6 year old obsessed with Real Madrid and even had a book about their players.  Since he’s 6 and super cute, I’ll let his poor taste in soccer teams slide (I’m a Barça fan) 😉  I even met a basketball player with Jewish friends in Baltimore and absolutely amazing English.  My bus driver was a Bedouin who loves Akon and American hip hop- and the Quran.  We listened to some of our favorite Quranic verses on our empty bus until an Israeli Jew got on the bus and started complaining about bus schedules.

I also met a scary guy who started yelling at me for no apparent reason, which was alarming, and fortunately having honed good survival skills, I reached out to local residents who got my back.  Turned out fine, but basically cross-cultural travel can be hard- stay aware of your surroundings and resources.  And build your skills over time.

I want to share a particular story from today.  Fatima is an absolutely amazing pastry maker.  Her shop makes the mouth drool.  I’ve eaten tons of types of baklava here and her cashew baklava was so good I moaned out loud.

She asked what I was doing in Tira- a question I frequently get in Arab villages.  Mostly because other than visiting a restaurant or a weekly market, Israeli Jews rarely interact with Arabs.  Even less so on their own turf or in their language.  I spent the entire day in Arabic and loved doing so.  If you’re Israeli and don’t speak Arabic, you’re not a very good Israeli so pick up a fricking book.  It’s the native language.

When I shared with Fatima that I made aliyah and have since become disillusioned with Zionist nationalism, she started to smile.  She asked why.  I explained that my Judaism is founded on social justice, compassion, and diversity.  And that I see the government doing the opposite- in my name- including the expulsion of Arabs from their lands.  Lands on which I now reside.  That it offends my Judaism and my humanity and I want to show my friends around the world the reality here so we can make it better.

She started to open up to me.  She said her family is not actually from Tira, but rather Miska.  Haven’t heard of Miska?  That’s because the village was depopulated by the Haganah Zionist militia in 1948.  Everything was destroyed except for a boys school and a mosque.  It once had 880 residents and today is empty and in ruins.  With not a single human life living on its soil.  In 2006, after the government realized Palestinians and their Jewish allies used the site to hold remembrance ceremonies, they destroyed the school house.  All that remains is the mosque in the cover photo (credit: Michael Jacobson).  The neighboring kibbutz is named Ramat Hakovesh- Conqueror’s Hill.  And since 1948, the government has forbidden Palestinian citizens of Israel from rebuilding their town.

Fatima said her family used to own land in the village.  Orchards and other property that sustained them through generations.  The village itself is believed to date back to the 7th century.  And today, in Fatima’s own words: “we live in poverty.  We do our best, we have a nice bakery and we’re poor.  We go each year to Miska to remember and to cry together.”

My heart sunk.  I told her about how my neighborhood is built on the Palestinian village of Salame, as I’ve written about earlier.  She knows about the town and finally, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m on the same page with someone here.  Because we both get it.  No need to convince each other- we both realize what is right and what is wrong.  And we connected.

That’s the beautiful part of it.  That my empathy opened her up and hopefully offered some healing.  And that her opening up showed me the problem here isn’t that all Arabs are reflexively anti-Semitic- it’s that the system here has hurt them.  There are real reasons for their anger.  Nothing justifies violence on any side.  And I can understand why Arabs, why Palestinians are pissed off.  Because I am too.

This state is built on so many lies.  And on deep-seated racism- a word I heard over and over again today and frankly agree with.

I’d like to end on a queer note.  For the first time in a while, I was on Tinder today.  And when I told an Israeli Jewish guy what I did today and my concerns about racism, he said “oh well my part of Tel Aviv is a lot less racist, I live in the liberal center of the city.”  And I said: “well, if you walk just a few blocks south, you’ll be in Al Manshiyya.  If you take the bus to Tel Aviv University, you’ll be in Sheikh Muannis.  If you meet me for dinner, you’ll be in Salame.  All Palestinian villages beneath our feet.  Destroyed.

His response was to talk about U.N. resolutions authorizing Israel’s creation and faults on both sides etc. etc.  I asked him- “what do you know about these neighborhoods?”  He said “not much but…”  Which pretty much says it all.

I’m not asking for Israeli Jews to vacate their homes and hop on a ship.  We’re here.  We’ve built lives.  We have a historic connection to this land that our government wrenched violently from the hands of our neighbors.

What I am asking you to do is Google.  Yes, just Google.  Google the Arab villages you live on top of.  Where your university is, your favorite kibbutz, your nightclub, your life.  Know where you stand and know the people- some of whom are your neighbors- who are suffering because they can’t return to that land.  Because of our government.

Put down the “end the occupation” signs, take a deep breath, and do the hard work of realizing that the occupation isn’t just in the West Bank.  And it’s not just in the past.  It’s here and now as I’m typing this blog on someone’s orchard.  The occupation will end- and freedom will begin for all peoples here- when we change our mindset.  To recognize historical facts and let go of the propaganda we’ve been taught- myself included.  It’s hard.  It’s an internal struggle.

When we let go of what others expect us to be, we can be ourselves.  And we can let others be themselves.  Like Fatima.  Who I pray will live to see the day when she can rebuild Miska and we’ll sit together underneath her orange tree eating cashew baklava.  Looking back at today’s chaos as if it were just a bad dream.


Who’s the real infiltrator?

If you’ve been following my Facebook feed or the Israeli news, you will have noticed that the government is deporting thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.  And according to the reports in Rwanda, where they’re being sent, many of them are being killed, raped, or robbed.  It’s a potential death sentence- from a country built on the ruins of the Holocaust.  It’s appalling.

I’m proud to have joined with friends who support the refugees to advocate for them- and with them.  I helped organize an Olim for Refugees rally (the first ever!) and I helped hang up signs against the deportation another night.  For the first time in many months, I feel Jewish again.  The leaders speaking in the name of my religion who were deporting my refugee friends- they made me feel isolated and distant from my own Judaism.  But no longer- because what I’ve come to realize is they don’t represent me, my values, or Judaism itself.  And I’m representing mine by opposing them.

One of the interesting features of the debate about refugees is how residents of my neighborhood in South Tel Aviv refer to them as “mistanenim” or “infiltrators”.  It’s graffitied throughout my area, along with requests to deport them.  To send them “back where they came from.”

The more I’ve come to learn about my Palestinian neighborhood, the more incongruous these calls sound.  Yes, you read that right- Palestinian neighborhood.  Do any Palestinians live here today?  No.  But, as I’ve come to discover, almost the entirety of South Tel Aviv was once covered by the Arab village of Salameh.  The entirety of its 7,807 residents were expelled by Zionist forces in 1948- on purpose.  In the initial stage of the depopulation in the winter, the Palmach militia’s orders were: “attack the northern part of the village to cause deaths, to blow up houses and to burn everything possible.”

Several months later in April 1948, the Haganah militia succeeded in completely depopulating the town in an operation known as “Mivtza Hametz”.  This phrase bears explaining.  Mivtza is “operation”.  And hametz, or how American Jews might write it- chametz- well that’s the bread we get rid of before Passover.  When we can only eat matzah and unleavened products.  Because the bread is not kosher, it’s not fit for the holiday.  There’s even a ceremony known as bedikat chametz– checking for the chametz- that many Jews do to make sure no corner of your house has any bit of bread in it before the holiday.  The symbolism of cleansing couldn’t have been lost on the commanders choosing such a specifically Jewish name for the operation.  Using symbolism from a holiday about freedom to describe expelling villagers is enough to make this Jew nauseous.

These days, few physical objects remain from the village, although I’ve discovered some important ones and keep finding more clues in my neighborhood.  As I described in a previous blog, I found a mosque and mukhtar’s house covered in graffiti, trash, and shit.  I also found a well about a 30 minute walk away, also filled with graffiti, trash, and shit.  And here’s the kicker- I discovered what used to be another Palestinian well.  As confirmed by both internet research and talking to area residents.  It’s a 4 minute walk from my apartment- and is today largely a trash-filled parking lot.

The more I dig I notice bizarre street patterns- swirly avenues with lots of empty space.  Suspicious in a city with exorbitantly high real estate.  And illogically rounded streets for communities supposedly built in the days of automobiles.  I’ve started to notice some older stones at the bottom of newer walls.  With bullet holes.  And stones in the park near my house with markings indicating they were likely used in a building before.  And an article explaining how the stones of the destroyed well near my house were used to decorate local gardens…perhaps even in my park.  I have to do more digging and am doing some investigating, but I think there are many more remnants of Salameh in my neighborhood than people might expect- or even notice.

What’s particularly interesting is how in many neighborhoods in Israel, including in South Tel Aviv, there are signs congratulating “veteran residents”- havatikim.  The Jewish Israelis who have been there a long time.  The thing is that’s absurd.  The vast majority of Jews in my neighborhood didn’t step foot here until the 1930s or 40s- or later.  The village of Salameh is listed in the 1596 Ottoman Census– and who knows how long before that it existed.  Meanwhile, its former residents and their families, now estimated at over 40,000 people, can’t even come back.


So here’s what really irks me.  A bunch of flag-toting nationalists in my neighborhood are complaining about African refugee “infiltrators”.  When their own grandparents weren’t even born in this country.  When some of them, like me, were actually born abroad in Iraq or Morocco or Uzbekistan.

This land doesn’t belong to Israel.  I’m not even sure about the extent to which I believe people can or should own land- I feel that Native Americans had it right when they said the land belongs to Mother Earth.  And we need to share it.  And I think people should be free to live where they want, including Jews who feel connected to this place.  To the extent the soil beneath my feet does in fact belong to someone, it belongs to the villagers of Salameh who lived here hundreds and hundreds of years before being expelled by Zionist militias.

So to each and every Israeli who has the chutzpah- the gall- to call my refugee friends “infiltrators”: look in the mirror.  Because if you think that only my neighborhood is built on the ruins of Palestinian villages, you’re wrong.  So is Tel Aviv University, so is the awkwardly named “Conquerors Park” (Gan Hakovshim) in my cover photo, so is all of Florentin, and huge swaths of Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, and so many other places.  Here’s a map in case you’re curious whose community you’re living on:

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it.  This country has tried to erase its Arab past- sometimes with great success.  Although because of me and other activists, that task will be quite difficult to complete.  Because you can bulldoze entire villages, but you can’t erase people’s memory.  Nor change the truth.

In the end, on some level every Israeli Jew is an infiltrator.  Including me.  That’s telling it to you dugri– or straight.  We have a connection to this land and most of us haven’t been here for 2000 years.  We’re hardly qualified to tell refugees to “go home”.

So to every Moroccan or Algerian or Libyan in my neighborhood who says “send them back to Africa”, my response is quite simple: pack your bags.  Because guess what?  You’re African too.


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.



I live on top of a Palestinian village

This is what I learned today.  Quite to the contrary of what I had been taught in Hebrew school, Tel Aviv was not simply empty land purchased by Jews.  A lot of the land was inhabited by Arabs, in some cases for many hundreds of years.  Even where Tel Aviv University lies today.

When I first heard this after making aliyah, I pushed it aside.  Yeah, that’s terrible, but I’m too overwhelmed and jet lagged to think about it now and in any case, every country destroys.  A sad fact (and true), and I couldn’t really bear to think of where I fit into this context.

Many good Jewish boys and girls like me in the U.S. are taught that basically Arabs (most of whom today identify as Palestinians) simply packed up their bags and left in 1948 with the hopes that the Jews would be destroyed and they could come home.  While it’s entirely possible some people felt this way and I wasn’t there to verify it, it seems rather implausible that an entire mass of people would abandon their homes to make space for someone else to commit genocide.

So I’ve done some research and lo and behold, there were other reasons why people fled.  For instance, the Deir Yassin massacre.  Over a hundred Arab civilians were massacred by two Jewish paramilitary groups – Etzel and Lehi.  The former is now the name of a street in South Tel Aviv where I buy yogurt.

Not surprisingly, a lot of Arabs fled the country fearing they’d be next.  It’s a complex issue and for sure, people have suffered and been killed on all sides here.  Let’s stop pretending that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians packed their bags for shits and giggles.  Or that it was easy for them.  Or that it was entirely voluntary.  There are documented instances of the Israeli military destroying Arab villages and to this day, not only can Palestinian refugees outside Israel not return, but even displaced Arab citizens of Israel can’t go back if they moved to another city.

Which brings us to today.  I had heard rumors that South Tel Aviv used to be an Arab village.  Not Jaffa, which is more well known and still has an Arab community, but one that was entirely emptied of its inhabitants.

That village, which my neighborhood sits on, is called Salamah.  It’s also the inspiration for the street called Salameh in Tel Aviv where a bunch of hipsters live.

Salamah looked like this in 1932.  I can still recognize the town center based on the streets today.  A few weeks ago when I picnicked in the area over Shabbat, I remember seeing an old abandoned building with no signage.  Which is strange in Israel because if it was “historically significant” or a tourist site, it’d have signs all over.  As I later discovered, it’s a mosque.

So today, I decided to explore and accept the reality of my privilege in this country.

First off, the old mosque is in a state of utter neglect, to put it lightly.  Barred so nobody can enter and now attached to some sort of shed with barking dogs, there is dung all around the rear wall.  There is Jewish graffiti spray painted on its walls.  There is trash everywhere.  It somehow still manages to be beautiful.  Let’s say that if this was my childhood synagogue, somebody’s head would be rolling by now.

I then headed to the mukhtar’s house.  A mukhtar is a village chief.  His house was one of the few other buildings left from a town of over 7,000 people.  Now filled with synagogues and menorahs and Stars of David and, sadly, poverty.

His house looked terrible.  For sure, you could see how once it was grand.  And it still had a charm to it.  It was in utter disrepair.  I think the pictures will speak for themselves:

It particularly kicks me in the kishkes- it wrenches my soul- to see Jewish religious graffiti on this building.  One about the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and another saying it’s a mitzvah- it’s a good deed- to always be happy.  How one could be happy looking at this ruin baffles me.  How one could think it’s Jewish to defame it infuriates me.

It occurred to me as I looked at these buildings, as I tried to feel the presence of their former inhabitants- that this is probably what the synagogues of my ancestors’ shtetls in Eastern Europe look like now.  If they still exist.  Abandoned, neglected, if we’re lucky turned into a tourist trap.  My people know from suffering and we have had our treasures robbed from us time and again– from Morocco to France to Poland to Spain to Russia- everywhere.

So why here?  And not only why did this happen but why can’t these people come home?  Why is their heritage neglected?  Why- this is the key question- was I given money from this government to move to Israel and become a citizen when a Palestinian born in Salamah can’t even come home?

These are the uncomfortable, difficult questions I wasn’t ready to answer when I arrived.  And now I’m starting to explore.

The concept of property is a difficult one.  Especially because I work towards a world where things are shared more equally, where borders are nonexistent or more fluid, and where all people are treated fairly.

Oftentimes Jews and Arabs get caught in a spiral of “who was here first?”  Jews claim God gave them this land in the Torah.  And that their ancestors lived here.  That Israel and Jerusalem have been a focal point of our hopes and prayers ever since the Romans expelled us.  And I can understand this and I agree with much of it.  And there’s a lot of history and culture to back it up.

The issue is that we’re not the only ones here.  And when we started coming back in record numbers- often fleeing persecution- the local people at the time were displaced.  Their lands were bought, often with the help of money from Diaspora Jews.  And eventually, 80% of them were driven out or left during the War of Independence.  And not allowed to return.

The Holy Land, to the contrary of what some people like to claim, was not some barren wasteland with no human life which Jews came to perfect and turn into one beautiful hiking trail from kibbutz to kibbutz.  Salamah, my town, had citrus and banana fields.  It had an elementary school for boys and one for girls.  It had Muslims and Christians.  It’s even listed in a 1596 Ottoman Census.

Were there Jews living here then too?  Sure!  I even met families up north that have been here since the Second Temple.

It doesn’t mean that these people – or anyone – needed to be kicked out.  Or that it should be easier for me to visit their mosque than it is for them!

That’s privilege.  Sometimes the word can twist us in endless debates but sometimes it’s useful.  The Israeli and American Jewish left-of-center ideology distinguishes between a Jew living in Tel Aviv and one living in a “settlement” in the West Bank.  The former is living in “internationally recognized” Israel and the latter is a vagabond.

Here’s the issue: they’re wrong.  The problem is much greater than that.  The reason I got money from the Israeli government to move here- something unheard of in most countries you’d immigrate to where they’re eagerly kicking people out- is because I’m a Jewish body.  I’m a settler.  And if you’re a Jewish Israeli, you are too.  We also have a reason to be here and I believe a right to live here- or anywhere.  It’s our Holy Land too.  I’m just asking us to recognize the way we got here.  And that maybe it’s not the most ethical or kind way to go about building a society.

What if instead of granting extra privileges to Jews and none to Arabs, we leveled the playing field.  Perhaps we’d keep open the option of aliyah, of Jewish immigration, to protect our people from distress and violence.  And come to an agreement that allows Palestinians the same opportunity.  In one state.  With everyone enjoying the same rights.

I’m not a big fan of the nation state.  I think all states, to varying degrees, protect the wealthy and the powerful and harm their residents at least as much as they help.  So while I work towards a more equitable and less hierarchical future, if we do need a temporary solution, I have an idea.  It’s called democracy.  And democracy means one person, one vote.  It means the government doesn’t favor any religion.  It means fair distribution of resources.  It means equality.

It means Muammar Qaddafi, despite being a brutal dictator, was actually on to something with his “Isratine” one state solution.  I can’t guarantee this will work.  There are many fractious states, like Belgium, that struggle to treat different groups equally.

I just think that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working.  So let’s at least start the conversation about some better options.  So my unknown neighbors living in a refugee camp in Lebanon can come home, hang out with me, share some hummus, and be friends.

My cover photo is my little protest from today.  On the metal fence surrounding the mukhtar’s house, I wrote my favorite Syrian proverb: “kull ta’akhira fiha khira”.  In every lateness, there is goodness.  It took me a while to confront the pain and privilege that is living on top of a depopulated village.  And the good – and hard – part is now I know.

Israelis love to blame each other.  Secular against Orthodox and Orthodox against Traditional and Arab against Haredi etc. etc.  In particular, Secular Jews like to rail against religion and religious Jews.  I have a special message for you: the Haredi brigade didn’t expel my neighbors from Salamah.  It was the secular Haganah.  I get that you’re angry about the direction of this country.  What you have to understand is that if Orthodox Jews in the government now are increasingly strident against Arabs, it’s because they’re trying to emulate many of your forefathers.  Who did this damage.

So let’s put aside the cycle of blame and realize we all need to look in the mirror, do some soul searching, learn, and build this place together.  Jews and Arabs.  Secular and Orthodox.  Everyone.

The name of Salamah today is Kfar Shalem.  The Complete Village.  It is anything but.  So let’s make it our goal to help this place- and our country- live up to its name.  To make it whole, to make it at peace.  So it may not only be Kfar Shalem, but also Kfar Shalom.  The Village of Peace.

May we make it so.