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 😉


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:

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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.

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.


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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31812266


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.


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.


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.