DYKE, GO LIVE IN GAZA

This directive was sent to me yesterday afternoon through Facebook, from a complete stranger. A little while later another message arrived, with an attached picture of the body of a murdered child, still lying on the floor of his bedroom –  the crime scene – with blood all around. A mezuzah is fixed to the doorframe in the foreground of the photo. The picture was accompanied by the sender’s suggestion that I am in favour of the killing of Jews.

I assume the two messages were sent by the same person, as although they had different names their profile pictures (of two men standing side by side, grinning) were exactly the same. I cannot say with absolute certainty what provoked these messages, as I immediately reported and blocked the sender(s). I am confident it is not connected to the articles I write, as I go by a different name on Facebook (for precisely the reason of trying to limit where and how much hatemail can come my way). Based on past experience, and the timing of the messages, I am fairly positive they arrived in response to my posting in public forums (regarding open positions at the company I work for) while having a profile picture which states ‘Not in My Name’ in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Given the current assault on Gaza, it is fairly obvious to what this slogan relates.

That’s it. No overt side-taking, no public declaration that I consider the Israeli army’s operation in Gaza to be a massacre, and my government to be in the process of committing war crimes (of a far more egregious nature than those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad), although I am taking the opportunity to state these opinions now. Simply a timid, almost platitudinous phrase. ‘Not in my name’ is the epitome of pulling punches; it is my feeble, small attempt to try and create some distance between myself and the thick smog of nationalism and uncontrollable racism blanketing this country. It is a hint at the fact that even as I am woken up in the morning by explosions in the sky above my home, and I check my phone with a pounding heart and a foggy head to confirm the rockets were intercepted, the muted flicker of relief is stamped out by shame and confused despair at the accompanying headlines of the latest heavy artillery rampage in Gaza. It is my subtle way of telling the world that living under regular rocket fire for two weeks has given me the fraction of comprehension needed in order to weep in vicarious terror while watching shelling in Shuja’iyah, and that this video scares me far more than sirens in my own city. ‘Not in my name’ is an acknowledgement that while I deplore what is taking place, I am nonetheless part of a society which is staggering around in a bloodshot-eyed war frenzy, screaming for death and revenge – and that I therefore bear some responsibility. It is an admission that as much as I wish it weren’t, this bloodshed is very much happening in my name.

In the Israel of today, such thoughts and stances are sedition, treason, heresy. To the rightwing here (very much in the majority) I am betraying my (read: our) country, people, history, heritage, religion, land. I am betraying the concept on which this country was founded, and on which it is gradually being torn apart: the united Jewish people, in their united homeland, forever and ever, amen. In this nation which eats, sleeps and breathes its past sufferings, it is our patriotic duty to place every new conflict in the continuous narrative of attempts to extinguish the Jewish people; it is the ethos of the State of Israel that those who live must re-live, mourn and struggle, memorialise and fight. In this mindset, any aggression is merited under the banner of self-defence and survival; to believe otherwise is to forget, and to forget is a crime (unless you are Palestinian, in which case to remember is a crime). We are prisoners to our past, and we have made an entire other nation prisoner to our past, too.

What holds true for the rest of the world holds true for Israel and Palestine: when people attack others for their beliefs or identity, they are not attacking individuals – they are attacking ideas. In any episode of political or ethnic violence, categorisation is a key component; the label replaces the individual’s name. It is an effective tactic. To define is to reduce, for what potential is left in the categorised? A name is more human, more familiar and more expansive than any label can ever be. It is something that everyone in the world has in common. We all have a name, and it is the beginning and end of ourselves, even as we too often forget that the same is true for every other human being. It is what makes naming the dead on ‘the other side’ in wartime such a powerful, transgressive act; it undermines our narrative and the fragile fortress of self-belief and moral righteousness we construct during times of conflict in order to justify the lives we take away and the sacrifices we make. It is why the Israel Broadcasting Authority banned an Israeli NGO’s radio advert listing the names of the children killed by the Israeli army in Gaza.

Our names, I believe, are our greatest hope. As Salman Rushdie has suggested, true freedom is the freedom to reject, and he is right: only with complete independence and security is it possible to cast off the definitions that form the boundaries we use to prop ourselves up. It is my profound hope that there will come a day in Israel and Palestine when enough mutual security will be felt in order to unshackle ourselves from our competing categorisations, because the labels that surround and define us – that everyone here is tripping over, choking on, blinded by – have become too burdensome to keep carrying around. For my part, I don’t really belong in Israel/Palestine; I’m not from here and will never understand what it is like to have been born and brought up here. But it is my home and where my heart and mind thrive, and that ambiguity is the source of my privilege here: being on the margins of society offers an easy escape from labels and boxes. All I really brought with me from the UK was my name, and it is therefore in that name that I refuse to step in line behind a massacre masquerading as an existential and moral crusade. It is in that name that I stand against the occupation of 1967, and the ethnic cleansing of 1948. And if in response to these statements one will call me a traitor, an extremist, a leftist, a dyke, a kappo, an anti-Semite, a self-hater – I will respond with my name. If I am called a Jew, a goy, a half-caste, a foreigner, an immigrant, an outsider – I will respond with my name. I have no need to be free of my name, for it is my whole person, and it encompasses all of what I am, of who I am, who I have been, and who I ever will be. And it is for that reason I say, again: not in my name. It may be a small, cowardly stand in the face of such violence, extremism and injustice, but it is a stand that no one else in the world can take.

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“He who believes his birthplace to be his homeland suffers. He who believes all places could be his homeland suffers less. And he who knows that no place can be his homeland is invincible.”

- Chrétien de Troyes

A ballroom in the Middle East

During my last few weeks in the UK before moving to Israel, a little under two and a half years ago, a vivid scene repeatedly played over in my head. I saw a ballroom, filled with waltzing couples, young, dressed in regular clothes but wearing masquerade masks. The ballroom looked as you would expect: wooden floors, plush furnishings, elaborate lampshades on the walls – except that two perpendicular walls and the ceiling were missing, and all that lay beyond were black space and stars. Still, the couples kept up their waltz, seemingly oblivious to – or ignoring – the fact that they were dancing at the edge of the world.

This vision presented itself frequently until I arrived in Israel, at which point it stopped. To this day I haven’t been able to fathom where it came from, but I thought then – as I still do – that it was a rather fantastical metaphor for life in Israel/Palestine, and its society (or societies) that remain perched on the edge, its inhabitants either ignoring or resisting the abyss around their feet and above their heads. Now, as rockets spill and words detonate, as shootings and beatings mount, as fissures gape open in Jerusalem and Gaza is stripped to its bones in a futile mission whose only certainty is that there will be blood, I find myself returning to that scene from two and a half years ago. In the black hole that opened following the murders of three Israeli teenagers and the torturing to death of one Palestinian teenager, boundaries and limits apparently disappeared, sucked in by rage and the desire for revenge. Incitement, mob attacks, civil unrest – all have burst far and wide in the past month, and now we have a grim, one-sided war unfolding before us, crushing the fragile introspection that had begun in the wake of the violent racism unleashed by the kidnappings and murders. The Gaza conflict provides the latest distraction to keep everyone occupied, either mentally or physically; Israel, at once exploding and boxed in, is exercising its power and avoiding exorcising its demons. In turn, the walls and ceilings around us are crumbling, not only figuratively but literally – and with devastating frequency since the start of the Gaza operation. Once again the tense, impossible arithmetic of this land, of 48 plus 67, has been overrun by blood and the tears that follow. We are on the edge, with the ground beneath our feet but a void above and around us. It is time we look into it and start to work out where the boundaries are to be re-established, before we get swallowed up completely.

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A few days ago, following an evening of dull thuds and booms that rattled my office building, the midnight walk home from work was quiet – under my sky, at least, not that other sky in the south, still crowded and wailing. Ahead of me, a few young people were ambling along in good spirits; pausing before crossing a road, they turned their heads to check for oncoming traffic and for the first time I saw their faces – or rather I didn’t, for they were wearing masquerade masks. The blackness and the stars hung above us, watching, waiting, as we all are during these days. In my head, I remembered young people, masked, carrying on as normal amid an oblivion. In a waltz, as others flee.

“Go massive. Sweep it all up, things related and not.”

Throughout the last 18 days, as the search for three missing teenagers kidnapped in Gush Etzion stretched out, a couple of sentences have kept popping into my head. With report after report barrelling into the news of the Israeli army’s rampage through the West Bank – the raids, shootings and arrests that were ostensibly a part of the search for the three youths – the words of Donald Rumsfeld to a Department of Defense staffer in the immediate wake of 9/11 flashed through my mind repeatedly: “Go massive. Sweep it all up, things related and not.”

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(Ignore the mis-transcription of ‘Go’ as ‘So’. See here for the full explanation of the briefing by Rumsfeld and context, and here for the full set of notes along with the Department of Defense letter accompanying the notes, which were released under a Freedom of Information Act request. I came across these notes a number of years ago while researching the Taliban.)

Now, as the (perhaps) inevitable outcome of this tragic event has arrived, we are going to see another example of how governments with immense military capability react when their civilians are attacked. Three lives have been criminally cut short, and an entire people will bear the brunt of the collective punishment. As the families of the boys grieve, and Israelis call for blood, the security apparatus will be sizing up its list of targets – related and not. We are in this for the long haul.

Dysfunction and dislocation in Hebron: “The wake of the departed has settled over the city like dust”

While ‘ghost town’ is the most consistent epithet found amid all that is said and written about Hebron, it is not an entirely accurate depiction. Certainly, it is disorientating to arrive at the city’s centre and find the streets almost deserted, the shops shuttered, the air stagnant. Much like walking around the grounds of a school at the weekend, the emptiness and quiet are disconcerting rather than relaxing. Just as a school must have pupils and teachers, a city must have people, commerce, movement – in short, life. The absence of the very thing the place was designed for renders it haunted. Yet the desertion is not absolute, or uniform. The people are there, but concealed, barricaded, shifted, locked in and locked out. The silence and stillness are pregnant, not dead. And as for the vast numbers that have left the city – their ghosts have been bottled.

It is near-impossible to deliver an adequate potted history of Hebron. One of the four ‘holy cities’ of Judaism, it is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque (wherein the bodies of Judaism’s founding fathers and mothers are said to lie, and which is also holy to Muslims due to the presence of Abraham’s tomb), and the site of consistent blood-letting over the right to claim the area as Arab or Jewish. It represents a microcosm of the broader Palestine-Israel question, and any attempt at resolution is undermined by the same foundational quandary faced by those struggling with the peace process: as long as there is no agreement as to which point of Hebron’s history to start from, there will be no hope of concluding the open conflict. One will hear of certain twentieth-century events time and again – the 1929 killing of dozens of Jews by Arab rioters; the British Mandate’s transfer of almost the entirety of Hebron’s Jewish inhabitants out of the city, for fears that their safety could not be guaranteed during the Arab riots of 1936; Israel’s occupation of Hebron from 1967 onwards; the sporadic arrival of settler families in the 1960s and ’70s, leading to Israel’s formal approval of Hebron as a site for Jewish population; the 1994 murder of 29 Arabs at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs by the right-wing extremist Baruch Goldstein (now a hero to settlers, and whose actions lit the slow fuse of segregation in the city); and the 1997 partition of the city into an Israeli-controlled area and a Palestinian Authority-controlled area, respectively labelled as the aseptic ‘H2′ and ‘H1′, following the Oslo Accords. (I was unable to visit Hebron’s crammed H1 locale, as Israeli citizens are forbidden to enter by the government.) In practical terms, this saw Hebron’s Arab populace become subject to increasing curfewsrestriction of movement and use of excessive force by the Israel Defence Forces, and violence, harassment and  intimidation by Jewish settlers.

As the violence of the Second Intifada swept through Hebron, the killing of its Jewish inhabitants by Palestinians participating in the uprising led to further entrenchment of military control orders over the city and recriminatory IDF attacks which left many Palestinians dead. The demand for the ‘sterilisation’ of Hebron’s Arab centre, ostensibly to protect the settlers, has extinguished its once-active market and left a significant number of H2’s dwindling Palestinian population unable to leave their houses through their own front doors. Those that remain in the H2 area have also been forced to protect their windows with mesh and wires, against stones, eggs and other missiles that settlers pelt at them, with little-to-no protection from the Israeli police or IDF. The human rights violations inherent in the maintenance of such a regime have been starkly described by former IDF soldiers who witnessed and participated in such events during their army service in the city. Violence against journalists has also been observed, and tours organised by human rights or left-wing organisations are frequently heckled and subjected to settler stone-throwing (both of which I can confirm first-hand).

These events and situations are stitched together by two parallel threads. As with the rest of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Hebron sits between the historical ties and millennial yearning of Jews, and the very real and lived-out connection of Arabs to the land. The city’s frequent mentions in the Jewish holy texts, including the anointing of David as King of Judah, are cited as justification for the occupation of the city – by everyone from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, to current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the broader right-wing national-religious camp (although these convictions are not exclusively held by the religious, nor are they restricted to Hebron). Today, in 2014, Hebron continues to have its reality shaped by biblical diktats.

I have been to Hebron three times – twice with Breaking the Silence and once independently – and this is what I saw.

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Shuhada Street, upon where most visitors’ first steps in Hebron fall, embodies the concept of apartheid with surgical precision. The road is physically separated into a side for Israelis and a far-narrower side for Palestinians, with the discrepancy in width due to only Israeli vehicles being permitted on Shuhada Street. Progressing down into the old city centre, the signs of a dislocated populace accumulate. The shuttered shops and crumbling facades strike first, but it is the snatched glimpses, acquired on closer examination, that give a truer (and more tangible) picture of disappearances: a gap in a wall, a hole in a metal shutter, a window in a fortified gate. Cowering in the gloom behind stale entrances are chests of drawers with their guts spilling out; bathroom sinks with their necks broken; doorways collapsed in a heap. Contorted staircases brace over piles of shattered glass while rent ceilings expose messes of useless wiring and infrastructure. Sun-bleached signs for vanished businesses watch over proliferating expanses of rubbish. The repetition of these scenes, of the evidence of a city that has had its heart scooped out, cloaks Hebron in a sickly, muggy atmosphere; consequently, each time I time I go, I am reminded of a long-ago visit to Vukovar, a Croatian town that was flattened during the Serbo-Croat war and remains snared between ruin and renewal. Hebron appears as a warzone and, as with Vukovar, walking through it feels at once transgressive, voyeuristic, stifling.

At once contrasting with and complementing the decay, signs of the gradual unpicking of Hebron – via the filtering of its history and the appropriation of its future – bubble to the surface through its street art. Trickling along roads, down walls and through buildings, expressions of messianic fervour and settler ideology abound throughout, punctuating the underlying ethos of the city’s Jewish inhabitants. A wall inside a deserted housing unit features a rudimentary depiction of tablets calling for the settlement of the West Bank – referred to by the biblical ‘Judea and Samaria’ – and which name-checks the Halamish settlement, whose inhabitants have taken over the spring of Nabi Saleh, a nearby Palestinian village. A store’s sealed-off doors bear the mark of Meir Kahane, a fascist ideologue whose political party Kach (of which Baruch Goldstein was a supporter), and its offshoot Kahane Chai (“Kahane Lives”) are both banned in Israel and considered terrorist organisations by the US and ­­­the EU (Kahane was assassinated in 1990 in New York by an Egyptian immigrant with terrorist connections). A plain, innocuous-seeming notice posted on an old bus stop turns out to be a quasi-messianic call-to-arms in support of Mitzpe Avichai, an illegal outpost near Hebron that the Israeli government has demolished on numerous occasions. Time and again, Hebrew graffiti lays claim to Hebron as ‘the city of our ancestors’, as if there were not three Abrahamic faiths, but one alone. Bright military emblems – rendered by the pro-Israel outfit Artists 4 Israel – appear here and there, including on a wall surrounding the city’s main army barracks. Further on, past the barracks, are fully-fleshed scenes from Hebron’s Jewish history which decry the perceived desecration of their way of life (not without cause in the case of 1929) and eulogising the city’s central place in Judaism. Looming behind them are water towers, complete with Israeli flag decals and the customary ‘city of our ancestors’ trademark. Close by, a guide to ‘Hebronis’ decorates the doors of a chicken coop, rendering the various characters seen in Hebron as chickens (and relying on offensive stereotypes of Palestinians in the process). Most threateningly of all, ‘tag mechir’ (price tag), the trademark slogan for attacks by settlers against Palestinians (and occasionally reprisals against the IDF if they are deemed to have harmed settler interests) has been scrawled next to stone steps leading up to an Arab neighbourhood. The meaning of the ‘price tag’ label – that you will pay the price for opposing Jewish settlers, who usually retaliate via arson, destruction/theft of crop trees and other acts of vandalism – may have found its purest, most comprehensive expression in Hebron: its Palestinian inhabitants have been so thoroughly dispossessed and shoved to the fringes that there is little left for settlers to destroy.

In keeping with its outpourings of messianic zeal, Hebron is also pockmarked with references to the coming of the Third Temple. A cursory knowledge of Jerusalem’s layout and history (and by extension that of Judaism and Islam) is enough to understand how extreme and provocative this idea is; nonetheless, one of the city’s largest murals is a vibrant voicing of the desire for the Third Temple’s imminent construction, also created by Artists 4 Israel. More cryptically, a nearby wall has been stamped with a cave art-style animal, accompanied by the Hebrew word ‘parah’ – a reference to the red heifer (‘parah adumah’) whose biblical role in ritual purification has made it one of the symbols of the Third Temple movement. To position these images in an ongoing political context, a unilateral bill to discuss Israeli sovereignty of the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound, which is currently overseen by the Islamic waqf, was introduced in the Knesset at the end of February 2014. The bill is sponsored by Member of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, a member of the ruling Likud party and endorser of the ‘Kahane was right’ maxim, which is frequently seen around the streets of Jerusalem (and has recently appeared in Tel Aviv).

One solitary pocket of sanity, somewhat removed from the gridlocked tension below, sits above Hebron’s centre. Situated atop Tel Rumeida, past Abraham’s Spring, and amid olive trees and livestock and shepherds, the Youth Against Settlements volunteer centre appears as Hebron’s noble sanctuary, though it is not free from arbitrary incursions by the military. There is graffiti here, too, as combative and political as that in the city centre, but which presents instead the consequences of the settlers’ hold over Hebron. References to Palestine, Shuhada Street and the occupation dot the outside walls of the building, while tucked in next to a patch of earth is a defiant-but-poignant response to the price tag attacks: “They can pull out our trees but we will always plant more.”

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A footnote must be added to these observations. In spite of the abundant evidence of all that has been wrenched away, and remarkably for a city which is on the frontlines of the segregation experiment, the signs of abutment between Jewish and Muslim history and culture in Hebron remain widespread. Separation barriers feature stencils reading ‘Free Israel’ and ‘Free Palestine’ spray-painted next to, or even on top of, one another. Graffiti Stars of David (alongside the notorious ‘death to Arabs’ slogans) appear on the boarded-up shop fronts that were once the livelihood of Hebron’s Palestinian inhabitants, their Arabic-inscribed plaques still hanging above the welded doors. Mezuzot are fixed to gates that still bear old Arabic street signs. A painted scene of bucolic idyll, in which a young man in a kippah and tzitzit plays a pipe while watching his flock, squats under the raised arm of a minaret. At the appointed hours, a cascade of muezzins’ calls tumble into streets that are empty save for scattered IDF soldiers and the odd tourist. Inside the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, an ark and its eternal light upstage glazed tiles with ornate Arabic writing. It seems, in a paradox redolent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on memory and forgetting, that the very act of trying to prise these entities apart has served only to stitch them closer together.

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One need not question what drives Hebron’s would-be masters. The guiding lights are few, fierce and transparent: faith, mythology, fanaticism. Why else subject oneself (and one’s dependants) to an approximation of reality so unwholesome and dysfunctional? In the push to reap ancient legends, moderation is capitulation and the truth is crippled. A cult of martyrdom is also at work here: gates, houses, and military posts all memorialise those who have perished in conflicts and terrorist attacks. Angry, red-lettered signs demand the ‘return’ of the city to Jews. It at times appears to be more of a shrine and a museum than a habitat; as with the accidental, leftover clues from its Arab population, Hebron’s Jewish residents have cultivated a presence of loss in their environment, and the wake of the departed has settled over the city like dust. And ceaselessly, systematically, furiously watching over it all, alternating between brute presence and concealment, between zealous enforcement against Palestinians and brotherly apathy towards settler aggression, is the Israeli military: the ‘most moral army in the world’, and the unblinking eye at the centre of the city’s panopticon.

This is Hebron, the city of lesions whose name comes from the Semitic root for ‘alliance’. Dissonance prevails for now, although attempts to staunch the imposition of a singular Jewish identity on the place are faltering, and any sense of normality has been swept away by a tidal wave of settler ideology realised as military operations. Yet for all its creeping, queasy intensity, the muffled atmosphere of the city makes it feel as if the explosion happened elsewhere, and Hebron’s inhabitants are simply riding out the shockwaves. One senses that it is a satellite of a fanatical dogma whose locus is in Jerusalem. This, surely, provides the overriding concern: that the mentality is metastasising.

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.”

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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.