In Israel’s darker moments

It dawned on me recently that in Israel’s darker moments, from which there is increasingly little respite, the behaviour of its government and much of its society makes it near-impossible for me to be proud of who I am and where I’ve come from. On a purely selfish level (for it doesn’t come near to the abuses scattered about here on a daily basis), this is a transgression I cannot forgive. There is a sick, distorted arrogance lying behind the Israeli government’s assumption and assertion that it acts in the name of all Jews worldwide; whenever I consider this, I think of the scene at the end of Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’, in which John Proctor chooses the gallows over signing a false confession that he is in league with the devil. When asked why he will not sign to save his life, he cries: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life. Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”

To reiterate, this is not to draw any kind of symmetry between the conditions Israel inflicts on its subjugated populations, and the despoiling of the name of the dominant group. Such a comparison would be obscene, and also impossible – I cannot approach an understanding of what it means to live under the daily, grinding prejudice, dispossession, obstruction and plain terror that Palestinians do (and my one sneak preview of such fear, when a few rockets came to Tel Aviv, makes me suspect that I would crumble). No; rather, this is an identification with the discomfited surprise that Eva Illouz expresses in her recent article for Haaretz, which is a startlingly profound analysis of the occupation and its gradual imposition of conditions of slavery on Palestinians. In her discussion of the calcification of a ‘situation normal’ in which sometimes-violent, sometimes-insidious oppression is now de rigueur – and unfailingly supported by Israel’s bastardised, labyrinthine, time-warp bureaucracy – Illouz posits the following:

“[When a people] which distinguished itself historically by its love of God, its love of texts and its love of morality… become[s] the manager of a vast enterprise of brutal military domination… the only interesting question about this is not how we got there (domination has its own internal incremental and implacable dynamic), but why so many Jews outside and inside of Israel are not more disturbed by this.”

She continues:

“If indeed the settlers and their representatives in the Knesset have “mainstreamed” views that are strangely reminiscent of those of slave owners, then this only begs further the question of why so many are unable or unwilling to grasp this.”

There are two separate, but related, points to be drawn from this. The immediate issue is one of incredulity: a bewilderment at the muteness of those in whose name such comprehensive human rights abuses take place. The irresponsibility involved in clamming up on the issue of Israel’s repeated violations of international law is immense, and the willingness to perpetuate such silence is as baffling as it is infuriating. This is not new, and has been more fully-explored elsewhere. The second point, however, genuinely breaks the skin of the Jewish body politic. Illouz externalises the complex internal dynamic of being at once wholeheartedly Jewish while rejecting what Judaism has become in its twisted, modern incarnation. There is, to my mind, a parallel despair that winds itself around liberal Jews in Israel and the Diaspora; under the rage forced by an unending landslide of injustices (which should be felt by all people, irrespective of background or culture), there is another, quieter layer – an elegiac realisation of what has been sacrificed. It is an understanding which moves one to weep bitterly at all that has been torn up and thrown away.

What I have expressed here is an extremely reductive response to an incisive, crystalline and (constructively) provocative article. It is a piece that needs to be read,  digested, and acted upon (much like Illouz’s last piece for Haaretz). But there is one final challenge it seems to pose, which can also be detached and shared here. In the end, what can we truly lay claim to? What has this all been for? These are questions I cannot answer, not only because morally-speaking we currently have nothing, but also because in the cacophonous discord that characterises Jewish life in the twenty-first century, there is no longer even a ‘we’.

“Your soul is equivalent to that of a dog.”

An article in today’s Haaretz (Hebrew) revealed the world according to Eli Ben Dahan, currently Israel’s Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs and a member of the far-right HaBayit HaYehudi (“Jewish Home”) party.  According to this democratically-elected member of our government, mankind has a distinct hierarchy, in line with his concept of purity.  The Haaretz journalist in question, taking his lead from an interview with Ben Dahan in Ma’ariv (also Hebrew), helpfully created a top-ten list (which is somewhat satirical, but unfortunately in line with the truth) based on Ben Dahan’s comments on Jews, non-Jews, women, gays and the relationships between them.  Resembling a kind of twisted version of the Kinsey scale, here is what Eli Ben Dahan’s ‘humanity chart’ would look like, in descending order:

1. Jewish men who go with Jewish women
2. Jews considered ‘illegitimate’ (e.g. born out of wedlock, or the product of any relationship which doesn’t meet the weirdo Rabbinate’s appropriate partnership algorithm – the Hebrew word he uses in the Ma’ariv article means ‘bastard’)
3. Jewish women who go with Jewish men
4. Jewish men who go with non-Jewish women
5. Jewish gay men who go with Jewish men
6. Jewish lesbians who go with Jewish women
7. Jewish gay men who go with non-Jewish men
8. Jewish lesbians who go with non-Jewish women
9. Non-Jewish men
10. Non-Jewish women

Clearly, the racism, sexism, homophobia and sheer fanaticism inherent in Ben Dahan’s worldview don’t need illuminating; furthermore, such arguments would be meaningless to him.  So, in the spirit of satire, let’s fight fire with fire and look at some of the technical issues.  Firstly, as a friend queried, where are the Jewish women who go with non-Jewish men?  Do they not exist?  Or does Ben Dahan consider such an eventuality implausible?  And, my friend also wondered, would Jesus be a 1 or a 2?  As for my own situation, being patrilineally Jewish probably makes me a 10, but I am an accepted member of the Jewish community in the UK, so perhaps that makes me a 2 (being a product of a mixed marriage).  What’s more, I’m a woman, and I’m gay, so if I am a 2, then it also makes me a 6 and an 8. But if I am a 10, do I at least get some credit for having been in relationships with 6s and 8s? And if, by dating someone who was a 6, I turned them into an 8, do I drop points on some other scale?  Questions abound.

This story also reminded me of a conversation that took place on a flight from the UK to Israel a couple of years ago.  I was sitting next to an Israeli, with whom I was discussing my upcoming aliyah (emigration to Israel) and the dim view the Rabbinate would take of my patrilineal descent.  At one point, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi passed by us, and my Israeli interlocutor – let’s call him ‘A’ – stopped the befrocked gentleman to get some clarity on how I would be perceived by the Rabbinate:

A: Let’s talk about my friend here.  Her father is Jewish, but her mother is not.  So, according to you, she is not Jewish, correct?

Rabbi: Correct.

A: Because she has only two parts of the soul, the ‘nefesh’ and the ‘ruach’, but not the ‘neshama (Jewish soul)’?

Rabbi: Yes.

Me: So the ‘neshama’ is only for Jews?  What is my soul, then?

Rabbi: Your soul is like that of a dog, or any non-Jew.

A: And if she converts, she will then have a ‘neshama’?  She’ll have the Jewish soul?

Rabbi: That is right.

A: So what will happen, exactly?  At the exact moment of conversion, will she feel the ‘neshama’ rushing into her, like a big whoosh?  Or does she have to go somewhere to collect it?

At this point, the rabbi muttered something unintelligible and returned to his seat.  ‘A’ turned to me and said, “I should have asked him one last question – why he thinks there is antisemitism in the world.”


There’s an important lesson here.  As well as highlighting the despicable prejudice embedded in the ideas espoused by Eli Ben Dahan and his ilk, we would also do well to dig out the farcical inconsistencies within it.  We may be speaking a different language much of the time, but stupidity is something everyone can understand.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post referred to Eli Ben Dahan as the author of this list. While his comments and opinions are entirely factual, their ordering into a numbered hierarchy was a (brilliant) satire. Apologies for the error, and I wish I could also say that Ben Dahan’s views are also a joke. Sadly, they are deadly serious.

Soul mining

“But from whom does it protect you,

this exaggerated defense?”

- Rilke, Contre qui, Rose?

 Water cannons, skunk spray, stun grenades, tear gas, and live ammunition: these are the weapons used by the Israeli police to beat back and disperse demonstrations against the state, most recently during today’s protests against the Prawer-Begin Plan, which seeks to take tens of thousands of Bedouin away from their ancestral homes in the Negev to make way for national-religious settlements.  Apathy, disdain, mockery, and silence: these are the weapons used by the average citizen against the protestors.

It is easy to understand the determination to get as far away as possible from the blood and rage that these demonstrations unleash on our landscape.  They disfigure our democracy, and incapacitate the fragile sense of normality that we work so hard to maintain.  They plant, front and centre, issues that run to the very core of the State of Israel and its founding, and that cause one’s heart to buckle when they are dwelt on for any length of time.  It is discomfiting to see others continually risking their bodies and minds because they live under occupation or, if they are free, because they refuse to give in to the temptation to look away.  So instead, we airily dismiss the demonstrators, their activism and, by extension, their causes.  We are, with a luxury not granted to Palestinians, shrugging off the Occupation.

Victor Frankl, a Viennese Jew who survived Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs that “[w]hen we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  This is an elegant way of saying that when it is impossible to dig our way out, we must dig our way in.  Certainly, on an individual level, Frankl’s point not only rings true, but is essential.  On a societal level, however, this sentiment permits the spread of the deadening, absorptive ambivalence that characterises Israel today.  This is fertile ground for the emergent ‘status quo’, and as is becoming increasingly evident in demonstrations week after week, the less ‘we’ care, the more ‘they’ shoot, and the wider the range of targets becomes.  The Bedouin are not alone in their persecution; rather, they make up part of the factory-line of dispossession and appropriation that includes every other ethnic minority in Israel.  The Prawer-Begin Plan, which is essentially an ethnically-driven removal policy, is simply the latest aberration from a racist, separation-obsessed and paranoid government that we have sleep-walked our way into supporting, and the violent breaking-up of the ensuing protests just business as usual.  How relevant still are the words of Dov Yermiya, an IDF lieutenant-colonel and veteran of 1948 and 1982 who decried “[t]his arrogant, cruel nation that dances at the edge of destruction.”

And yet, to recognise our reality is to excavate our identity, which can be agonising and destabilising.  It forces us to acknowledge that the unacceptable is taking place, and to choose not to accept it.  It requires personal vigilance and public dissidence, both of which prevent one from ever sitting entirely comfortably.  It mandates the decision to put conscience above unconscious acquiescence, and our lives cannot be the same once that step has been taken.

So, we find ourselves at a fork in the road.  We can turn the page, change the channel, roll our eyes, turn our backs.  We can forget, suppress, join the amnesiac nation that loves building walls and knocking down houses in the race to construct a ghettoised nation-state of our very own.  We can carry on berating the government for the economic inequality in Israel while avoiding a discussion on how much money is vomited at settlement-building.  Or we can dare to examine ourselves, and stand alongside Israel’s voiceless rejects: the Palestinian, the asylum seeker, the immigrant, the conscientious objector, all those strangers in their own land.  Even as they are seemingly trapped under another sky, we can choose not to forget about them.

A healthy debate

Comment“Please leave Israel. You bring negativity and hatred to this country. Please go back to Britain and advocate on behalf of illegal infiltrators there. You contribute nothing to Israel. I’m sure you also take welfare money from the state that you abhor. Your fancy prose in defense of illegal infiltrators doesn’t contribute to Israel. Get out. There are enough Kappos here.”

This comment was left on my website after a piece I wrote regarding the Israeli government’s policies towards asylum seekers was published on +972 Magazine’s website.  It is completely typical of the responses received by anyone who dares to challenge the state’s treatment of its ‘demographic threats’ (i.e. Africans and Palestinians).

The People’s Republic of Chinaland

Somehow, China’s complete evisceration of the heart of Tibet – Lhasa – has escaped wide press attention so far.  Yet the government’s ‘modernisation’ programme – another one of those noisome Stalinist euphemisms – is utterly destroying Lhasa’s old city.  I visited Tibet in 2009, with long-nurtured visions of what would be waiting for me when I finally made it to the ‘roof of the world’.  Unfortunately, my dreams were pronounced dead on arrival when I landed at Lhasa airport, and flatlined throughout my first evening in the new part of the city.  But they were resuscitated by an electrifying visit to the old city, which I wrote about at the time - here and here.  In spite of some faith having been restored, however, I could see even then that Old Lhasa was an already rickety bastion against Beijing’s attempts to erase the country’s cultural heritage and replace it with gaudy replications of ‘authenticity’ that one associates exclusively with theme parks and Las Vegas.  (It must be said that my views were already jaundiced by two previous visits to Beijing proper.)

And as we can see, the Chinese government is rubbing itself all over the capital of Tibet.  The photos below show the Barkhor circuit, which winds around Old Lhasa, and passes the Jokhang Temple – the most sacred in Tibet.  The picture on the top is one that I took in 2009; the one underneath was taken in 2013 by a Tibetan blogger called Woeser.  (Woeser writes in Mandarin, but her post on the destruction of Old Lhasa has been translated into English for the High Peaks Pure Earth blog.  Their post contains more photos of what is happening in Lhasa.)  Although the pictures are not taken from identical spots, they do show the same area of the Barkhor – and the differences are stark, and devastating.  This is colonisation as ‘renovation’, and it is being ignored.

Tibet then and now

So we are left with another tragedy wrought by the acidic effects of ideology on heritage and culture.  The fact is that in Lhasa’s case, the damage is done; no letters, protests or sanctions will bring the old city back to what it was.  As with so many ancient sites that broadcast spiritual mystique around the world, and in turn have the wonderment of millions projected back onto them, Lhasa has an inherent mythology which obstructs the myth-making necessary for nation-building.  Combine this with the commercial colonialism that blights so much of the world, and you end up with one of the most revered, adored and prolifically inspiring places in history having an enormous state-sponsored shopping centre built in the middle of it.

There is, of course, not just cultural devastation afoot.  The government’s project in Lhasa is not an isolated one; it is part of a wider drive to photoshop the entirety of Tibet (or the Tibetan Autonomous Region, to give it its official name – another spore from China’s fecund doublespeak dictionary) into something more befitting a ‘socialist republic’.  Currently, it is estimated that over two million Tibetans have been ‘rehoused’ – a benign term for an activity that is slowly strangling an indigenous people’s livelihoods and way of life.  As with Lhasa, the silence from the rest of the world has been deafening; God forbid we should threaten ties with the second-largest economy in the world.  I am reminded of a quotation from an American diplomat, justifying the pre-9/11 US government rolling over when lobbied by oil firms to go easy on the Taliban, so that a pipeline could be built through Afghanistan: “There will be Aramco [a Saudi oil company], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.‟  Money talks, but it also shuts people (and governments) up.

So goodbye, Lhasa.  Another poignant dream has been turned into a painful memory.  But at least the Chinese government can’t touch that.

A year in the making

There’s a sense, in Tel Aviv, that one has ended up in the world’s lost property department.  All is jumbled, chaotic, heaped up – and yet with the sense that nothing and no one here ever belonged anywhere else.  Things turn up (and turn) unexpectedly while others vanish without warning.  And stranger still, that which you did not know was waiting to be found is also chanced upon.  Yes, before I came here I expected to find answers, questions, revelations, confusions, beauty, truth, visions and illusions.  I found all of those, thrown around and piled on top of each other.  I expected to find meaning, and I did, abundantly – for in Israel, a country which uses its past to distract itself from its present, meaning is like brambles; you keep getting snagged, unexpectedly.  Sometimes it tears your clothes, sometimes your skin.  It emerges between encounters with the sacred and the mundane.  (And by virtue of its exoticism, the mundane also becomes sacred.)  All these things I found, yet my biggest discovery is the one I never imagined looking for; namely, my voice.  It is easy, in hindsight, to position this within the ground zero matrix of the immigrant; for when you emigrate you are distilled, and gradually drip back into yourself.   But it is not apparent until the words spill into your mouth and your mind from elsewhere that you realise your voice is the firmament in which these findings embed themselves.  It charts the stars as you seep, returning to the root of the root of yourself, gazing at the constellations of self-discovery.

As such, Tel Aviv has not only re-threaded my ties to myself (as I have written about much in the last year), but also my ties to literature and words.  My final solo trip to Israel coincided with my discovery of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and it has improbably, ineluctably framed my experience of the place since, as well as re-tinting my memories of it.  Or perhaps it isn’t improbable, and it is simply the kind of tortured paean that can be related to by all those who are at the mercy of a city which has electrified their mind and saturated their soul.  A new year’s day cup of coffee at a Dizengoff cafe recast my understanding of my surroundings through the conduit of 1950s New York, as the furious, psychotically urbane, relentless thrust of the poem bled into and snapped away again from my circulating impressions of Tel Aviv.  The infinite rush of inside-out days and nights; glowing, pulsating rooms full of sultry glances behind blackout curtains; curious tastes in ancient new installations and familiar faces in strange places – all skipped across the surface of my imagination and splashed in, followed by another pebble of recollection, and another.  Into these wailing winds (experienced quietly at that cafe) sauntered Ginsberg and his beats, and his Beats; whirling dervishes bearing the gifts of syntax and vocabulary finally sufficient to approach the kinesis and rhythm I had struggled to verbalise.  So it is that each time I pass that cafe, a door bangs in my head somewhere, whipped open and closed by leftover sighs.  It is since I came to Israel that I have been trailed by the idea of books working as a camera lens; adjusting our field of vision and focus on the world around us; picking different bits out for us as we read, and even more so as we ponder what we have read.  It seems that we always manage to begin reading the right book at the right time, without meaning to, and without really knowing why.  And as I have existed in and experienced Israel over the last year, the opening line of Howl has visited me more than any other quotation: “I saw the best minds of my generation…”

Other times, other places…  “My voice was born in Beirut”, the Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi wrote in a recent love letter to the city.  Her words infused with the bewitching fragrance of this region’s writing, she describes the impact Lebanon’s capital has had on her voice, from its offer of “emotional asylum” to its “coexistence of contradictions”, and with a final flourish, that “[s]he experiences her delights like an endangered pleasure, so accustomed is she to snatching joy from the jaws of death.”  (Beirut is referred to in the feminine, as all cities of seduction should be.)  And that is my experience of Tel Aviv; a city which left me reeling, spinning, tumbling, spiralling, finally crash-landing in an endless hall of a new reality, and a new language in which to render it.  It is a ball of wool from which countless threads unravel and are remade.  It goes on spinning stories to keep the outside world at bay, to delay the release from its endless reverie.  It has a thousand voices and one voice.

Scheherazade, what would you have happen tonight?  And will you permit me the words to re-tell it?

Notes on Hebron

1.  Judging by their graffiti, settlers can’t spell.

2.  Hearing the air coated by multiple Muslim calls to prayer while standing in the empty city centre (the Muslim populace having been dismantled) is like hearing voices from beyond the grave.

3.  Palestinian kids have turned military-speak into a playground chant (“1, 2, 3, 4, Situation Normal!”).

4.  Settlers take pride in intimidating tourists, though their words are laughable and their stones inaccurate.

5.  Truth is the forgotten casualty of hatred.

6.  There is not one individual nor a square centimetre that is not being watched by the military…

7. …and yet the children, playing, still run around.