The story unteller of Jerusalem

In early September a couple of years ago, I spent the night in Jerusalem with a friend who was visiting Israel for the first time. It was the same night on which I experienced the haunting, liminal ceremony of sleeping on a roof in the Old City and being woken at 4.30am by the Fajr adhan from the al-Aqsa mosque. It was also the night that my friend and I met Fayek, upon whom we stumbled as he was curating the one open shop amid the Old City’s shuttered facades. Appearing at first as a lone, featureless figure sitting on a low stool, Fayek’s voice drifted out to greet us in the gloom. We approached, and then followed him down into the ‘Holy Cave’, as he had named his store, neither of us aware of the tales he was carrying inside his chest. After brief introductions the three of us sat down and Fayek began to talk; as the night wore on, his stories became more and more fantastical, unfeasible, desperate, crossing continents, decades, eras. From his monochrome introduction as a shadow backlit by the solitary light of his shop, Fayek – surrounded by a lifetime’s-worth of collected ephemera – transformed into a vivid mouthpiece of magical realism, unable to stop the tales tripping out of him, like an organ grinder who has lost control of the music they are playing. Many hours later, as my friend and I walked back to our hostel through streets submerged in the navel of the night, I asked her if she thought that any of the stories were true. “No, of course not,” she replied. “But that’s not the point…”

Neither of us knew at the time that we had been in the company of a dying man. A year later, almost to the day, I was on a bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles when my friend messaged me to tell me that Fayek had died. The sense of disorientation was acute: I was in the process of escaping westwards when invisible reins suddenly yanked me back to the East. I began to see Fayek’s storytelling in a different light, then – not as pure performance, but rather as necessarily overflowing with vitality and imagination in order to keep the illusion of life going, to keep death at bay. I thought of Scheherazade, extending her life stitch by stitch with every story that she wove. A distant echo of Israel and Palestine and their truths – that I was searching for and running away from – sounded in my mind, then drifted away again. As time passed following the news of his death, Fayek became a memory and a regret; a chapter that closed as abruptly as it had begun.

Half a year later I unexpectedly found myself back in Israel long-term, my own dislocation reversed (not knowing what roots feel like, they took me by surprise). As my soul seeped further into the soil here, while killings spiked, war loomed and incitement lit our tinderbox society, my mind turned again to stories, but stories of this land: those I told myself, those I heard and believed and over time dismissed. And I began to think of Israel, locked in the blackest night, spinning tales over and over again in order to distract from the destruction it uses to forge ahead and that follows in its wake. I thought about the opening lines of ‘there was no other way to found the country’, of ‘we did what had to be done’, of ‘all will be well once we leave the territories’. These tales are told against a backdrop of forests, parks, tunnels and new towns, whose cries of redemption mask the foundations atop and beneath them, and which have turned this country into a giant palimpsest.

And as Israel paves its own road with its own stories, it has stolen the stories of others. “[Colonialism is] a war that captures dreams and re-dreams them,” wrote Arundhati Roy, and so we have captured the dreams of Palestinians. In this context, dreams are potential portraits of the future, and in razing their past and imprisoning their present, Israel is withholding a future from the Palestinians. What dreams can one have, when the reality that they could be converted into is locked away, out of sight and out of reach? The dreams of Palestinians have been subordinated to our dreams; their story has made way for our story; our developing chronology has truncated theirs. With the altneu combination of settler-colonialism and nationalism – diseases of the old world and new world, respectively – Israel’s stories carry with them the weight of history and the drive of progress. Yet the longer these stories persist, the more they decompose before our eyes and the eyes of the world, like an ancient book that crumbles in your hands as you hold it, pieces of the pages weeping onto your chest as you read. For it is not only the Palestinian story that is being obliterated by the expansionist fairytales of the Israeli government and its right-wing supporters; pre-1948 Jewish history, too, is being distended and mutated. In the customary formula for the creation of nationalist myth and identity, the facts of Jewish history are being continually submitted to the abuse of a Procrustean bed. And yet the stories thrive, in the mistaken belief that they are banishing death from our door and strengthening our spirit.

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I can no longer remember the particulars of Fayek’s stories. But I remember their tone, their reach and scope, their atmosphere, their flavour. I remember that time seemed to stop as he was speaking, and then slowly move backwards as the night crossed its halfway point, finally plunging me into a millennial trance at the sound of the dawn adhan that rolled around Jerusalem’s darkened valleys. I remember that compression of time lasting until I arrived back in Tel Aviv the following evening, at which point it sprung back out like an accordion, pulling my perceptions open with it. I’m not sure what it was in Fayek’s words that set off such a chain reaction in me, but more than two years later I am able to pinpoint that as one of the key moments when the stories of this land in which I had placed such faith and emotional trust started to unravel. It was an unexpected and (perhaps) unintentional gift, this exogenous introspection, which though it led to many agonising and disorientating months of self-examination, brought me far more strength and community than can be expressed in words.

Fayek, dear, I hope you are resting in peace. My debt to you is ongoing.

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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

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 an unhealthy, distorted arrogance lying behind the Israeli government’s assumption and assertion that it acts in the name of all Jews worldwide; it brings to mind 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 how Judaism has been applied – and distorted – by the occupying mentality. 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 stream 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 a 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.