Chapter 7. Of Language

For the survivor, the one who lives past death,
communication becomes both impossible and essential

Aviva Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep



Language politics in Israel

As a Catalan, language politics are not new to me. However, the intensity of the politics of language in Israel even came to me as a shock. The first story I heard about language use was the most jarring. I was staying with some friends who had just made alyah from England and whom I had met in my ulpan. As we were speaking about safety in Israel, they recounted the story of their nephew. The eldest son of the family went out with his girlfriend in the evening of Israeli Independence Day five years ago. He stopped at a traffic light when a couple of Arab youths got close to their car. He rolled down the window to see what they needed. They asked him a question in Arabic and he answered in Hebrew. They shot him dead. He was able to save his girlfriend as he covered her, but he died.  Since then, the family had not been the same. The kids were hardly allowed out at all. Despite the fact that they live right by the beach, their parents do not allow them to go there for fear they will be shot.

Israeli Arabs recount shocking stories about language as well. My friend Adnan had been at the hospital to care for a relative who had just undergone surgery. He asked a Jewish lady in Hebrew if he could make a call from her cell phone and she agreed. He dialed and started speaking to his wife in Arabic when the lady clutched the phone away from him. Adnan protested that he had not yet finished the conversation and that what he had to say was urgent, but the lady remained undeterred and took the phone away.

These are extreme cases. However, tension around language use seems to be pervasive. Almost all Israeli Arabs with whom I discussed this issue told me that people look at them suspiciously when they use Arabic. I have noticed it myself when I try to greet Israeli Arabs in Arabic in front of Jews. They will often squirm in discomfort and will prefer to speak in Hebrew while they are very pleased to have exchanges in Arabic with me when no Israeli Jews are around. When I meet an Israeli Arab, I always try to use my limited Arabic. It is clear that the effort is invariably perceived as it is intended, namely, as a basic gesture of respect and interest in their culture and an acknowledgement of its place in the country.

Israel is supposed to be a bilingual state, but in reality it is not. Most Arabs speak Hebrew, but almost no Jew speaks Arabic (unless they came from an Arabic-speaking country or work in intelligence). Normalization of language use and Israel becoming a truly bilingual country are key steps toward the transformation of Israel into a country where both Jews and Arabs can feel at home and into an Israel that is at home in the Middle East.

Hebrew lessons at the checkpoints

Saleh is a Palestinian, originally from a village near Bethlehem. He moved to Israel after he married his wife, who is a Jerusalemite.  “When I moved to Israel,” Saleh said, “my attitude was as if I was moving to the States. I would adapt to the country, rather than wait for the country to adapt to me.” I also want my kids to be fully part of Israel and learn Hebrew, so I tell them to practice it at the checkpoints.” “Practice Hebrew at the checkpoints?” I asked dumbfounded, “Don’t they have friends they can speak in Hebrew with?” “No, Saleh said. People don’t mix. The schools are separate and my neighborhood is an Arab neighborhood. So, since we go often to my village in the West Bank, I tell my kids to respond to questions in Hebrew at the checkpoints, even when they are posed in Arabic. This way they practice.”

An insult

I was at my apartment in West Jerusalem with my newfound East Jerusalem Palestinian friend Ibrahim. We were looking at some work in my apartment that needed doing when he told me: “You know that poorly done work in Israel is called “Arabs’ work”?” Sadly, I was aware of that even before going to Israel. So, I told him that I knew of that unfortunate expression. We started to discuss language and relations between Jews and Arabs. “Things are so bad,” he told me, “that the name for each group is an insult in the other’s language—“Jew” is an insult in Arabic and “Arab” is an insult in Hebrew” he concluded sadly.

Superiority and kindness

At an Israeli university, I overheard a young British Israeli enquire about a hard-to-get-into academic conference over the phone. Although she speaks Hebrew fluently and communicates in it regularly, she was using English. I noticed her British inflection seemed particularly accentuated. When she hang up, I asked her whether speaking in English and in particular her British accent helped her get things done sometimes. She said, “Absolutely! If I speak in English, people think I’m superior to them and they are nice to me and help me.” If I spoke in Hebrew, they would not try to help as much. However, it depends on the social occasion. For restaurant reservations and with secretaries, I speak Hebrew.” She explained confidently. It seems that speaking in the language of the most powerful countries in the world and of the wealthiest Jews helps in Israel.  However, Israelis were normally quite nice and helpful to me regardless of the language I spoke in. I felt they just wanted to help out of kindness and a wish to help a new arrival into the country. And I really appreciated it.

Beautiful blondes and Hebrew

We were getting things ready for a party at my place. Orit, a young, dark and gorgeous sabra whose family came to Israel from Iran, was helping me out. She spoke to me in Hebrew and, at one point, I did not understand her. I apologized and told her my Hebrew was not very good yet and asked her whether she spoke English. She said she did and she added, only half tongue-in-cheek, “You are a beautiful blonde, you do not need Hebrew!” I asked her to repeat what she had said because it just sounded so unbelievable to me. But, yes, she had said that. When I communicated my surprise, she just confirmed that that was the way it was. Everybody would be happy to make an effort and communicate with me in English. I thanked her for the compliment, but told her that I did wish to learn Hebrew so I could speak to people in their language. I also started to study Arabic, as I believe that anyone living in Israel should speak both languages. I also remembered that, at the beginning of my arrival in the country, some Israeli friends and I were allowed into an exclusive spa and hotel which is only for guests (and not just meanderers like ourselves) because my friends told the hotel I was from the United States and would like to stay there in the future. When I told my friends that once I had been in Israel longer and spoke Hebrew I would not be able to do that any more, they disagreed. With your looks, your accent and your English, you will always be able to say you came from the US and this will help you get into places. Again, the privileges of whiteness and of association with the most powerful country in the world proved to be an unsought for asset.

English at the checkpoints

I was speaking to my friend Ahmed –a refugee living in a camp near Hebron in the West Bank–about his experience at checkpoints. In particular, I asked him what language he spoke to the Israeli soldiers. Ahmed’s English is very good, but the only Hebrew I have heard from him is “Are you throwing stones, kid?”, something he learned at an early age. He told me that he spoke English. I asked him if he felt that helped him. He said it did, that he felt he was more likely to be treated decently if he spoke English than if he spoke Arabic. I thought this was another twist in the incredibly complex relationship between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Sadly, as I had been finding out, in the minds of many Israeli Jews, Arabic is the language of the enemy, the language of a people they regard as uneducated, uncouth, or both. English, on the other hand, is the language of the United States, the language of the West, of cosmopolitanism, power and money. If a Palestinian spoke English at a checkpoint, perhaps it had the strange effect of “humanizing” him and bringing him up to a level to which the soldiers were otherwise reluctant to let him come up to.

Language and intimacy

Language is at the core of people’s identities, as individuals and as groups. For speakers of a minority language, the fact that someone who comes to live in their country bothers to learn their language is an immediate and deeply-appreciated sign of recognition and respect for their people and culture. As a Catalan, I feel this deeply. Perhaps because of that, it was obvious to me that, if I was to live in Israel for two years, I wanted to learn as much Hebrew and Arabic as I could. Israelis speak great English most of the time. But, like Catalans, they resent people who decide to live in Israel but do not bother to learn their language. I have heard Israeli Jews complain about “Anglos” who immigrate to Israel and never learn Hebrew. I completely empathize with them. It seems to me not only a sign of laziness and arrogance (you expect the people whose country you are in to speak your language rather than learning theirs), but also a terrible waste. Why would a Jew want to immigrate to Israel and not learn Hebrew? Knowing Hebrew, the language in which Jewish scriptures are written, is extremely important for a Jew from a religious perspective. From a secular perspective, if one does not learn the language of the country one lives in, he/she will never understand its culture.

Arabic, despite being a major world language, is a minority language in Israel. Few Israeli Jews make the effort to learn it although it is formally an official language of the country and the language of all the surrounding peoples. It is sad and worrisome to think that, after two thousand years of diaspora during which Jews were amazingly multi-lingual (many European Jews spoke seven or eight languages as a matter of fact), now that we had a country, people would only speak Hebrew and English. It is even more appalling that they should not speak Arabic and not bother to learn about Arab history and culture. It also seems self-defeating from a purely foreign policy perspective.

My personal experience was that the sheer effort to speak Hebrew showed Israeli Jews that I was interested in their country. It warmed them up to me in a conversation and it brought us closer to each other. The effect was perhaps even greater in Arabic. The relationship with Palestinians, normally fraught with tension, would ease up as one used Arabic. Even as fleeting a relationship as the one established in a taxi cab would typically be marked by the fact that I spoke some Arabic. It was clear my interlocutors felt it was a sign of respect and interest in their language and culture –which it is. Only on a couple of occasions did I encounter an interesting outlying reaction –a refusal to speak Arabic with me. I had a sense that it was not because my Arabic was halting but because, in the context of the occupation in Jerusalem, some Palestinians did not wish to establish the degree of intimacy that the use of a common language evinces.


I was at the home of an American Israeli family for a small afternoon holiday gathering. During the gathering, I found out that the family who had invited me used to live in Maale Adumim. Maale Adumim is one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It is in the Judean Hills, strategically separating East Jerusalem from its traditional hinterland spreading toward Jericho. The two other invited families were friends of theirs from that time, namely, settlers from Maale Adumim. This company was unusual for me as I tried hard to avoid gatherings with settlers. Doing so fully, however, seems to be a near impossibility in the orthodox social circles of Jerusalem. I will admit it was an instructive experience for me, mostly because I had trouble following the conversation as the gathering highlighted my enormous knowledge gaps in Israeli social parlance. The conversation was in English, so language was not the problem. Vocabulary was. First off, much of the conversation centered on various settlements, whose names I did not even know. So, people around me would be speaking about places I simply had no familiarity with.

The second source of my ignorance was the army. A disproportionate part of the conversation was about the army service of the various families’ sons and daughters. They spoke excitedly and proudly about the army and used all sorts of terms –in Hebrew—which I had never heard before. This seems to be the case with Anglo immigrants to Israel. They will speak in English, but all army terms will be used, without translation, in Hebrew. I had no clue what they were talking about. I decided to, at least, use my time wisely while there and try to understand something. So, once in a while, I would interject and ask for a translation of one of the Hebrew military words. We had not been taught these words in ulpan, but they seemed quite necessary to follow an Israeli conversation. I was particularly surprised at the delight of the families in talking about military issues. I had never in my life before met a Jewish family which was so interested and involved in military matters. It just seemed so un-Jewish. It was not only the knowledge of all those military terms that surprised me, but also the knowledge of all the names of so many different brigades and army corps, of which there seem to be a legion. I am not sure I learned much from that occasion except that the life of many in Israel revolves around the army, that something that may be a necessity has turned into a value in and of itself, and that this militarism is utterly unlike any value I had ever encountered in Diaspora Judaism. After a long enough time so it would not seem impolite, I thanked my hosts for inviting me and went home. Next day in ulpan, I told a Palestinian friend about my experience. He nodded in assent: “This is Israeli society” he said.

Yad Vashem in Arabic

The Jewish community is rightly concerned about the enormous amount of misinformation about Jews and Judaism printed and posted on the web in Arabic. However, we seem to be doing close to nothing to remedy this situation by offering credible, non-politicized sources ourselves. I became especially aware of this shortcoming when Yusef, a Palestinian friend, told me that he had wanted to learn about the Holocaust and went to the Yad Vashem website only to find out that it did not exist in Arabic. That was such an obvious gap and such an absurd one that it seemed impossible. Yusef told me to check it out myself. I did and, by then, there was a brief summary of the website in Arabic, but no full website at all. With how keen the Jewish community is on righting wrongs on information disseminated about our history, I simply cannot fathom why we would not actually try to provide the information ourselves.

A second incident concerned Judaism. Ishmael, another Palestinian friend, told me that he had been trying to learn about Judaism on the web and had read that Jews drink the blood of gentile children. He was asking me because I was the only Jew he knew and he wanted to know whether this was true. I was appalled that such “information” –the blood libel, a lie fabricated in medieval Europe—was still being propagated, now through Arabic websites, and saddened and surprised that a Palestinian university student would consider it plausible. I told Ishmael about this fabrication and then asked some of my Jewish friends which Arabic-language website about Judaism I could recommend to Ishmael. I also wrote to a major Jewish organization which never wrote back.

One of my friends recommended a website which turned out to be a combination of a few questions and answers about Judaism mixed with a lot of self-glorifying information about Jewish history and, especially, political propaganda about Israel. I told the friend who had made the recommendation that the website did not provide much information about Judaism (not even a summary of the principles and practices of the religion) and that its mixture of religion with Israeli self-promotion would turn away any Arabic-speakers who were simply interested in learning about Judaism. When I told another Palestinian friend what Ishmael had read about the blood libel, he told me: “I have read it and heard it many times, including in Hezbollah TV from Syria.” Great! I thought. We had better improve information about our religion in Arabic as others seem to be doing an excellent job at propagating the anti-Semitic fabrications of medieval Europe. Unless we can separate it from Israeli political propaganda, however, there is no chance we will succeed.

Blondes and guns

I was visiting a non-governmental organization in Hebron where one of my students at Bethlehem University worked. He introduced me to the rest of the staff, including Mohannad, a thin and portly middle-aged Palestinian doctor. Mohannad had lived and studied abroad. He was knowledgeable, insightful, and witty. We had an interesting –albeit short—conversation. We started off in Arabic and then switched to English. I believe he knew I was Jewish though neither of us mentioned it. At one point he told me, “It is good to speak to you. All the other blond people here do not speak Arabic and carry guns.” I think by “blond” he meant “Jewish.” I also got the rest of his message. What a shame for the Jewish people, I thought, that this should be our image.

The difference between Hamas and American Jews

I had taken a couple of weeks off from Israel/Palestine to visit the US. I was standing at the Kiddush at synagogue after Shabbat services when Rabbi Levi walked over to me. He asked me how things were going in Israel and I told him about my unusual job choice of working at a Palestinian university. He took it in stride. I would even like to think that he approved. He smiled at me and in somewhat of a non-sequitur, he told me a joke “Do you know the difference between Hamas and American Jews?” “No” I answered. “Hamas speaks Hebrew” he said. Ouch! I thought. How ironic, even cynical. It is also true.

Many Palestinians (especially older men) speak fluent Hebrew. Some learned it when they were allowed to work in Israel. Others (many) learned it in jail. For some reason, it seems that Hamas men tend to speak Hebrew particularly well. I once read an article in Haaretz about this topic. It included a video-clip of various former Hamas men who said they were determined to use their time in Israeli jails fruitfully and decided to learn Hebrew. They were now Hebrew teachers in Palestinians schools. According to the article, a particularly high number of Hebrew teachers in Palestine are Hamas or former Hamas men. Those interviewed also said that it is simply practical and important for them to be able to understand what Israelis say and what they write.

I think this is something Israelis could learn from. I am always appalled at how few Israelis understand and speak Palestinian Arabic (except for the small group that learns it to work on intelligence and the older generation who grew up in Arabic-speaking countries). It seems obvious to me that speaking the language of the world one lives in is critical to understanding it. This is true both for reasons of trade, friendship and cultural understanding as well as for cold intelligence and strategic reasons. It is beyond me that Israelis do not seem to understand this. As regards American Jews, Rabbi Levi was certainly right that our poor knowledge of Hebrew is a serious shortcoming of an otherwise highly educated community. Even among those who are closely connected to Israel and visit often, many do not speak Hebrew fluently. Language is a critical tie that binds and fosters understanding and the Jewish Diaspora would serve itself well to learn the language of our ancestors and of contemporary Israel.

They want us to even forget our language

It was a bright winter morning and I was driving back to Jerusalem from Bethlehem with Mona, my Arabic teacher. Mona is an Arab Christian from the Galilee who has been living in Jerusalem for the past twenty years. I asked her about the Arabic sign for Jerusalem on road signs. It reads “Ur-u-salim,” but in my then over a year and a half in the country, I had never heard a single Palestinian refer to the city by that name. Instead, everybody called it “Al Quds” (The Holy One) or simply, by its shorter form in Jerusalem dialect: “Uds”.  Mona’s voice turned sour: “Yes” she said “nobody call its “Ur-u-salim” “They want us to even forget our language.” It seemed to me to also be an effort to thoroughly reshape the Palestinian Arab landscape physically and linguistically by not only introducing Hebrew names for Arab towns and cities, but also “Hebraizing” the Arab names themselves. In that linguistic obliteration exercise, Arab towns were not only translated into Hebrew, but also made to disappear in their own Arabic vernacular.

Israel and Orwell

Unfortunately, there are many aspects of life in Israel that bring to mind George Orwell’s novels. Israel’s “Jewish and Democratic State” reminds me of Animal Farm’s infamous oxymoron: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.” Many issues in the country are also spookily reminiscent of Orwell’s novel 1984. Perhaps one of the most haunting similarities is the manipulation of the public’s mind and the creation of panic through the media, the education system and the army.

War is indeed the key instrument through which the Israeli government controls the public mind and, to a great extent, public life. If it were not for war and its manipulation, many more questions would get asked by the Israeli public that are now only asked by a tiny intellectual minority in the left of the political spectrum. The most insidious of these similarities is Orwell’s: “War is peace.” The Israeli government, the media and the whole establishment have convinced the public (and much of the Jewish Diaspora) that the only way to keep the shaky “peace” Israel enjoys now is through the continuation of war (on the West Bank, on Gaza, on Lebanon): Peace is not an option–War is peace.

The other side of this twisted aphorism is that “Peace is War.” Namely, as the revisionist Israeli political scientist Baruch Kimmerling astutely points out, even the peace camp has been incorporated by the Israeli establishment as part of war-making. Indeed, many “peace meetings” are rife with spies and collaborators, while others (sometimes even the same ones) are pure façade shows for international consumption about Israel’s “peace efforts” and the country’s “democratic” nature. In addition, the decades of “peace negotiations” have been used by Israeli governments to continue expanding settlements, taking land and water from Palestinians, just as they have made the Palestinian economy increasingly dependent on Israel. Therefore, “peace” has been used as an effective tool to pursue the country’s war objectives. Kimmerling is indeed right, in Israel “peace is war” just as much as “war is peace.”

 The books that did not exist

My East Jerusalemite friend Ibrahim wants his kids to read, understand and speak good Hebrew. Ibrahim works a lot with Jews and realizes what an advantage it is to speak the language well –something not all Jerusalem Arabs are able to accomplish due to the fact that Jews and Arabs are educated and socialize separately. I thought I would buy Ibrahim some children’s books that were bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic and that it would be a nice way for his kids to practice. I had seen such books in English and Spanish in the United States and I thought they were a beautiful tool to bridge languages and cultures from an early age. However, the next few times I walked into bookstores in Jerusalem and asked for children’s books bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic, I got looks that ranged from blank to surprised and even hostile. I was made to feel I was asking for a real oddity, if not a revolutionary item. It was relatively early times of my stay in the country and it was one of the incidents that made me realize just how utterly separate both communities are and how little mainstream Jewish society is doing to bridge the enormous gap between them.

The mystery Arabic speakers

I was on a bus in the Galilee, looking out the window and enjoying the beautiful landscape. All of a sudden, I realized some men were having a conversation in Arabic somewhere around me in the bus. I was somewhat surprised and curious–as not many Arabs ride on “Jewish” buses and, when they do, they try to be as inconspicuous as possible. In fact, in my eighteen months in the country, I had not heard Arabic spoken on an Egged bus, except in whispers. I could not resist the temptation to, as discreetly as I could, turn my head to see who the Arabic speakers were.  As I looked behind me, I only saw some soldiers and some women. I simply could not locate the male Arabic speakers. As I resumed looking out the window, there was the Arabic conversation flowing again. I once again turned around and finally realized what was happening. The soldiers were Israeli Arabs and they were the ones speaking Arabic. They must have been Druze or Bedouins, the only Israeli Arabs who join the army. I realized that the image of Israeli soldiers speaking Arabic was so incongruous in my mind, that until I actually saw it happen, the possibility had not even occurred to me.

Hebrew for travelers

It was a beautifully crisp October morning and I was driving in the West Bank with my Palestinian friend Baha. We were going to check the status of some of his land, part of which had been taken over by Israeli settlers. We drove by the checkpoint and around the wall separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem. At one point in the drive, I took out a little booklet which was in the side compartment of his car door. It was entitled “Hebrew for travelers.” I opened it at a random page. It included the Hebrew words for “scuba-diving,” “snorkeling,” and some other beach vacation-related terms. Just then Baha said: “Look!” As I lifted my head, I saw a big excavator-like machine. “They must be on their way to demolishing a home.” Baha continued, “These are the kinds of excavators they use for home demolitions.” I wondered which poor soul would find himself in the street from the Israeli “operation” that day. As we drove on, I opened again the Hebrew for Travelers book at a different page and read: “opera,” “concert” and some other show-related terms. “We are now going by the prison,” Baha said, “they keep a lot of the detainees of the Bethlehem area here.” I shut my book and thought how surreal it must be for a Palestinian like Baha to have to use a book of “Hebrew for Travelers” which offers such useless words to his life as scuba-diving, snorkeling and opera. I thought –not altogether cynically—that they should make an edition of “Hebrew for Palestinians.” The book would instead include terms such as checkpoint, permit, wall, curfew, closure and prison. I also realized that, unfortunately, these are Hebrew words that all Palestinians already know in any case.


After some time in Israel, I realized that the terms “Palestinian” and “terrorist” belong together. There is no such thing as a “Jewish” terrorist and any Palestinian who kills a Jew is a terrorist. When any Arab kills a Jew –such as in a stabbing, or a car incident –even if it is unclear whether it was intentional or not, politically-motivated or not–, the media immediately splashes about: “a Palestinian terrorist.” The opposite is simply not the case. There are certainly cases of Jewish terrorists. But the media (with the occasional exception of Haaretz) does not call them so. Sadly, this difference in terminology reflects even more disturbing differences in reality. Whenever a Jew kills a Palestinian, the judicial system always finds an excuse to exculpate the Jew. I recently watched a BBC documentary with film footing of a young “religious” Jew–sadly kippa in head and tzizit hanging out–, shooting an unarmed Palestinian man twice, the second time while the man already lay wounded on the ground. That young Jewish man had gotten off scott-free under the indefensible grounds of “self-defense.” For contrast, consider the following case:  a Jewish terrorist boarded a bus full of Israeli Arabs in northern Israel and started shooting at them. One of the Arab passengers shot him to stop him. The Arab passenger was the one who was charged with and convicted of murder. It seems that only Palestinians are terrorists and Jews only kill Palestinians in self-defense. By definition.

The Be’Seder Arabs

I was in an “Arab” bus. We had just entered Jerusalem coming in from the West Bank when our driver saw another “Arab” bus that had stopped by the curb side. The relationships within and among Arab bus drivers and passengers in Palestine are like those among family members. Our driver pulled over near the other bus and asked his colleague in Arabic: “What happened? Is it broken down?” “Be’Seder” (Fine or OK) responded the other driver in Hebrew and we drove on. The Arabic-Hebrew exchange reminded me of a newspaper article I had read about those among Israel’s Arabs who are relatively integrated in the Jewish world. Because of this (partial) integration, they introduce Hebrew words into their Arabic. The article said these people are called by other Arabs the “Be-Seder” (OK in Hebrew) Arabs. Another “Be-Seder” Arab I met was a Christian physician from the Galilee who was working at a Jerusalem hospital. I met him at a party in which he was the only Arab. When he spoke, in Hebrew, he introduced the transition words between sentences used by Palestinians and by Jews subsequently: “Shu-yani…ke-ilu…” he said. I laughed! “Wow! I know “Shu-yani” (“I mean,” in Arabic) and I know “Ke ilu” (“It’s like,” in Hebrew), but “Shu-Yani, Ke-Ilu!” that is new! I told him. He smiled. He knew he was one of a still rare “combo” breed –a Be-Seder Arab. If Israel were to become a normal country with people who talk to each other, there would be more “Be-Seder” Arabs. It would be good for the country.

No one to talk to

I was speaking to David, an American Jewish man who lives and teaches in Israel during part of the year. We were discussing his students and the state of Israeli youth in general. I told him I was surprised that so few Israeli Jews were interested in learning Arabic. “They are not even interested in learning English” David told me, sadly shaking his head. That was surprising to me. Most of the Israeli Jews I had met –granted, mostly people in their thirties and above– were eager to identify themselves and their country with the West –with Europe and, especially, with the United States. English was a central part of that identification. David, however, was talking about the younger generations. These new generations of Israeli youth feel they need nobody, not even the West, not even the United States. They are growing up in a complete bubble. They have been brought up to believe that the world does not understand them and they have no desire to understand the world. They want to live in their Israeli Jewish world –shaky and artificial as it may be–. These youth are not interested in talking to anyone except each other. As such, the only language they need is Hebrew.

Chapter 8. Among Jews


Very often Arabs, even some sensitive Arab writers,
fail to see us as what we, Israeli Jews, really are–
a bunch of half-hysterical refugees and survivors,
haunted by dreadful nightmares,
traumatized not only by Europe
but also by the way we were treated
in Arabic and Islamic countries.

Amoz Oz

Els nostres avis varen mirar,
Fa molts anys,
Aquest mateix cel
D’hivern, alt I trist,
I llegien en ell un estrany
Signe d’emparanca I de repos.
I el mes vell dels vianants
L’assenyala amb el llarg
Basto de la seva autoritat,
Mostrant-lo als altres,
I despres indica aquests camps
I va dir:
“Certament aquí descansarem

De tota la vastitud dels camins
De la Golah.
Certament aquí

I eren tambe enterrats,
Un a un, a Sepharad,
Tots els qui amb ell arribaven,
I els fills I els nets,
Fins a nosaltres.
Car prou sabem que molts
Som encara escampats
En el vent i en la peregrinacio
De la Golah.
Pero ja no volem plorar

Mes el temple
Ni sofrir per l’infinit enyor
De la nostra ciutat.

Per aixo, quan algu
De tard en tard s’atansa
I amb un posat sever
Ens pregunta:
“Per que us quedeu aquí,
En aquest país aspre i sec,
Ple de sang?
No es certament aquesta
La millor terra que trobaveu
A través de l’ample
Temps de prova
De la Golah,”
Nosaltres, amb un lleu somriure

Que ens apropa el record
Dels pares i dels avis,
Responem nomes:
“En el nostre somni, si”



Pride and shame

Synagogue service was over and I was standing in the warm autumn sun in the courtyard when I saw Gila. Gila is a friend from Washington D.C. who was visiting Israel with her family. We started to talk and I told her –more openly than I would to most people– how shocked I was at what I was seeing in Israel. She knew. She is one of those left-wing Jews who are not in denial. In fact, I had attended a meeting of Rabbis for Human Rights she had hosted at her home shortly before I left for Israel. We discussed the roots of Israeli attitudes and behaviors. I told her I understood that much of what was happening was a reaction to the history of the Diaspora and its end in the holocaust and that, to a certain extent, it emanated from that fear. “Yes,” she answered “from fear and from shame.” “Shame?” I asked her. I could understand fear, but had no idea what she meant by shame. Gila told me that many Jews felt shame about the centuries of persecution and slaughter we had been subject to, shame about the powerlessness, the weakness and the dejection they reflected. A few months later, I met an Armenian woman in Washington D.C. who expressed the same view regarding the Armenian genocide: “Some of us questioned why we let ourselves be slaughtered. We thought that maybe there was something fundamentally wrong with us…because, after all, why us?”

Though I can intellectually and emotionally recognize what these two women were saying, I do not share their perspective. It is the slaughterers that ought to be ashamed. It is Germans, Europeans and whoever else treated Jews as they did that should be ashamed. And regarding Armenians, it is Turks who should be ashamed. On the contrary, as a Jew, I feel enormous pride in the outstanding economic, social, political and cultural contributions of the Jewish Diaspora to any country we have ever lived in. I am also proud we never killed others and that we have often built model communities while donating generously to our host countries.

It is a common –but wrongheaded– human reaction to be proud of strength and ashamed of weakness, as if there was any ethical value attached to either. I believe Judaism teaches us that it is only the ethical value of our actions and the goodness of our intentions that count. The same applies to communities and to states. Diaspora communities who did good were good and we should be proud of them, whether they were weak or strong. I personally greatly admire the martyrs of the holocaust who lived righteous lives and died without killing. This does not mean one should be an extreme pacifist and not engage in self-defense. In our relationship as Jews to Israel, however, we have gone to the other extreme. We are proud of sheer power.

Many Jews –like many other people—feel inordinate pride in having their own army and in the strength of the state of Israel. I believe we should feel proud when Israel behaves well and ashamed when it does not. As human beings, I believe we should only be proud if the actions of our people, our state or our army are good –whether they denote strength or weakness. If anything, strength should be a source of particular responsibility. Power is not a value in itself and should not be a source of pride just as the political weakness of a peaceful and righteous minority who changed the world should not be a source of shame.


Jews control the largest businesses

It was a bright morning as I took a cab from North Tel Aviv to Ramat Aviv, where Tel Aviv University is. The cab driver noticed my accent in my haltering Hebrew and asked me where I was from. When I said I was from Spain he was surprised. He thought I would be from Eastern Europe, like him. I forget exactly why or how, but he started to tell me how Jews were not such nice people. “Jews own the largest businesses, the most important industries and they are not good to their workers.” I said Jews had also done some of the best things in the world. He responded adding more to the negative list of things Jews were doing in his view. What he was saying sounded like anti-semitic propaganda or prejudice one would hear from non-Jews. I asked him if he was Jewish himself and, to my surprise, he said yes.  I wondered whether the anti-semitic rhetoric of Eastern Europe had been internalized by some Jews (just like some African-Americans have internalized anti-black prejudice in the US) and brought it all the way over to Israel. I was also reminded of the comment from a (Jewish) university student who had told me that “living in this country makes one anti-semitic.” I never asked her what she meant.

Judaism, development and young secular Israelis

We were discussing the project to develop a series of volumes on Judaism and Development. One of the young sabra staff in our team interjected that young secular Israelis would be very skeptical of anything that sounded like we (Jews) “had invented” anything. She explained there was a lot of cynicism among Israeli secular youth and that extracting lessons from Judaism and Jewish history as if we had something to teach that others did not would be viewed with suspicion. I thought this was an interesting statement on Israeli society. On the one hand, it is good not to think one is better than others (which can be the trap under chosen-ness if poorly interpreted). On the other hand, I tried to explain, it is important to use our history, our culture and our religion to inspire us to do better. Any people can and should do that. I told her we would not argue we did things better than others (our work would not be comparative), but rather that we would try to draw inspiration from our religion and our history. She seemed more comfortable with that, but we agreed we would speak more in-depth. I wondered how much of this skepticism bordering on cynicism was a reflection of the kind of Judaism Israelis saw people practice around them or of how they estranged most of them are from Jewish tradition. My two years of experience in the country after that conversation leads me to believe that it is both.

Anglo-Saxons have a better work ethic

I was at the Israeli university where I was working and we were talking about hiring a full-time research assistant for me (as I had originally been promised in my contract). In discussing what kind of research assistant, my colleague, an Anglo immigrant to Israel, said: “It is better to get an Anglo research assistant. Anglos have better work ethics than sabras.” I have since thought about his statement and my admittedly short experience in Israel shows the opposite. The sabras seem to be at work much longer than the Anglos. I wonder if my sample is biased (though it is the same people who are around my Anglo colleague) or whether the self-perception of Anglo-Saxons as the hardest working and most competent had been carried over from other parts of the world to Israel to be applied among Jews.

 Couscous and hospitality

I often shop in the corner store near my house which is run by an Israeli Jew of Moroccan origin. For weeks, I had tried my best to smile and be friendly to him, but to no avail. Meir remained dour and uninterested in me. Until one day when things changed. That day, I had decided to buy couscous as an accompaniment that could be cooked quickly to complement a salmon steak. I was trying to read the cooking instructions in Hebrew when the lady standing next to me looked at me disapprovingly. “You want to make instant couscous? This is not proper couscous. I am from Morocco. I know how to make real couscous. I just made a fresh batch today for my daughters to come to lunch, but they are too busy to sit down and eat with me. Come to my home for lunch! My couscous will be much better!” I looked at Meir for his reaction. “Go! He said. It will be nice!”

The wonderful Moroccan Israeli lady fed me home-made couscous and other tasty foods until I simply could not eat any more. She also told me about her life in Morocco and Israel and showed me her home as the daughters whizzed in and out of the house picking up food their mother had made for them. Next time I went back to the store, Meir’s attitude to me had changed. He was looking at me and smiling. “So, you like couscous! I am from Morocco. We eat couscous there!” “I know! I said. Yes, couscous is great!” I said enthusiastically. He smiled broadly. Something had happened that I did not quite understand until my Palestinian Jerusalemite friend Mufid explained it to me. We were having dinner at my house with him and his wife over a tablecloth with differently-colored squares as I recounted the story to them. “You see,” Mufid explained, “Israel is like this tablecloth. There are squares of many colors. You are a red square and the shop-keeper is a yellow square. Before this event happened, he thought you may not like his square. After you said you liked couscous, he realized you did!”

This is our negotiating position!

I was having lunch at the university cafeteria when Nava –an MA student from the UK– came to ask me if I wanted to join her and another British/Israeli friend at their table. I agreed and walked over to them with my tray. Nava introduced me to her friend Yossi and told me that he was active in an Israeli NGO which fosters dialogue with Palestinians. I asked him what they did exactly. He told me that they took groups of young Israelis into the West Bank to talk to young Palestinians. I enquired what they talked about and what the results of their conversations were. From what Yossi told me, it seemed that, like in many other such groups, there is little continuity and little results. In my experience, under the circumstances of the occupation, Israeli NGOs that are active in the defense of the human rights of Palestinians, in researching and providing information on the abuses of the occupation and its costs to Israelis or in lobbying the Israeli government towards peace are much more effective than those fostering a person-to-person dialogue which both sides right now tend to see as fruitless.

Given some previous experiences, I was also wary of the content and direction of the “dialogue.” So, I asked Yossi: “What can you possibly say to Palestinians that can help in the current situation of the occupation?” “We try to explain to them our point of view,” he told me. That was something I had found in other dialogue groups. There is a great focus on explaining “one’s point of view” and very little focus on “listening to the point of view of the other.” “How can you possibly defend current Israeli policies?” I asked him as I tried to picture a group of rich kids from Tel Aviv going into a downtrodden West Bank town with no jobs, no economy, checkpoints all over, occasional Israeli “incursions” and a separation wall to explain “the Israeli point of view” (whatever that may be given the diversity of perspectives within the country).

But I decided to focus on a more specific question instead. “How can you explain the wall as it is being built, for example?” “What do you mean?” Yossi asked. I explained that I did not see how one could possibly justify building a wall right through the West Bank, well beyond the 1967 line, taking over even more Palestinian land than the settlements had already swallowed up, cornering up for Israel more West Bank water, slashing through some towns and encircling others. At this point, Yossi gave me a triumphal smile and said: “This is our negotiating position!” I shivered as I thought that this young man felt that all the injustice, all the human suffering and all the breaches of international law which building the wall as Israel had done entailed could offhand be justified as a sharp political maneuver. I also wondered about the poor Palestinians who may be dragged or cornered into this “peace dialogue” to listen to the “negotiating position” of the well-heeled youth of Tel Aviv.

Those who have and those who don’t

I was talking to Dina, an Israeli Jewish woman in her thirties. Dina could be described as a leftwing Zionist. She is critical of the occupation, but deeply committed to the State of Israel. Like many other Israeli Jews, however, she is greatly concerned about the fate of her country. Dina told me that many young Israelis believe it is likely that they will have to leave the country. As a result, they are getting second passports “just in case.” Her father is American and she has an American passport. Many other Israeli Ashkenazis have European passports. They constitute the Israeli upper and middle classes. If to that group, we add the well-to-do Sephardic French Jews, the only Israeli Jews left with only an Israeli passport are Jews from Arab countries. For those Israeli Jews, there is nowhere else to go. I felt that this divide replicated the one that exists in so many other areas of Israeli Jewish life –the large and growing gulf that separates those who have (money, second passports, connections, job opportunities, safe positions in the army) and those who don’t have any of those.

When my children ask me

I was visiting Yona, a medical doctor who works at an Israeli NGO that facilitates medical care for Palestinians in need, especially children.  We talked about the occupation and its effect on Palestinians as well as Israelis. Yona told me that, for a number of years, he and his wife preferred to live in London. At one point, a high-level Israeli politician had asked him to come back to be one of the directors of the NGO where he was now working. He agreed. He told me that his thinking was that, if they were to live in Israel again, he wanted to do something he could be proud of. “This way,” he said sadly, “when my children ask me what I was doing during the occupation, I can look at them in the face and tell them.”


When one asks Jews immigrating to Israel what they most like about living in the country, the answer (especially among secular Jews) is that they finally feel at ease. That feeling is experienced in different ways. One of the most common ones I have heard is an overwhelming sense of being at home. Many Jews –even Jews who are highly integrated in their Diaspora home societies—nevertheless feel an uneasiness of not fully belonging, of being the perpetual guests in a society where other peoples and religious groups are the majority and set the rules by which we must play. A friend of mine put it in the following words: “Finally, I am in a country that works for me.” What he means by that is that he can find Kosher food easily, the weekly break falls on the Sabbath and no one expects him to work on it, the public holidays are the Jewish holidays, and the dominant culture is Jewish. Others –especially those less religious—often describe a very simple feeling in arriving in Israel –a great relief, the relief of finally not depending on others, of not trying to hide or appear to integrate, of finally being able to be oneself without fear and without regrets.

Real People

I was at a Shabbat dinner in Washington a few months after my return from Israel/Palestine. One of the guests was a young man who had immigrated to Israel with his family as a child. We began discussing the country and the fact that Israelis tend to be particularly abrupt and aggressive in their social interactions came up. Interestingly, no one around the table disputed this was the case. However, there were different opinions as to whether it was a good thing or not. I offered my view that it was not a good societal –or personality– trait.

After years of working with East Asian societies, I have come to greatly appreciate people being polite, gentle, and soft-spoken. I have also learned the value of silence, deference and emotional self-control. I did not always view these latter characteristics as positive. On the contrary, as a Latin, I used to greatly enjoy loquaciousness and viewed showing one’s emotions as a basically good character trait. I remember that, when I arrived in Vietnam for the first time, I thought people were too quiet and inscrutable, which made me uneasy. Five years later, I was discussing with a Vietnamese colleague from the World Bank how much I appreciated Vietnamese self-control and how, in the West, we tend to overvalue sharing our emotions. “No matter what they are…” he added for me. I thought that was an excellent observation. Sharing joy, warmth, generosity and other positive emotions is a good thing –and East Asians do it as much as anybody else. What they seem to practice much more than westerners is self-control over the expression –and, if possible, the experiencing—of negative emotions –such as anger, greed, or lust.

At that Shabbat lunch, the young Israeli explained how he enjoyed living in a country where people expressed their emotions because that made him feel he lived in a country with “real people.” He did not like the American niceties of greeting and asking people how they are doing even if one does not expect more than a perfunctory answer. The other guests at the table disagreed. As I did, they felt that basic civility is a positive characteristic and that living in a society where absence of basic politeness and the expression of anger are almost the normal means of communication, is unpleasant. I believe it is much more than that. I think it is a sign of a greatly troubled society with a growing distancing from Jewish values. The Ethics of the Fathers –a wonderful tractate of the Talmud–, includes the injunction to: “Be pleasant to the young, yielding to the old, and receive everyone with a pleasant countenance.” I wished Israelis would learn some of those values in their travels to Asia or that they would remember that ancient Jewish wisdom. East Asians, Americans and our Talmudic sages are, after all, “real people.”

Tikkun Olam

I normally get my hair done at the salon of one of the major West Jerusalem hotels. My favorite stylist is Avi, a friendly Sephardic gay man. He always recognizes me, is warm and solicitous and does a good job with my hair. The owner of the salon, an elegant Sephardic lady, also treats me nicely and gives me a good “local” price (below that paid by the average clientele of wealthy Diaspora Jews staying at the hotel). This time, it was lag ba omer, the only day of the fifty-day period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot when Jewish law allows getting a haircut. When I arrived at the salon, I was relieved to see it was not crowded. Avi immediately greeted me and we discussed what I wanted done with my hair.

As I was getting my hair washed by the attendant, an orthodox American man in his thirties walked in. Somewhat apprehensively, I wondered how the interaction between he and Avi would go. It went fine. The American gentleman was polite and even friendly. Avi cut his haircut and then offered him a cup of tea, which he accepted. The whole operation lasted no more than 15 minutes. The American gentleman paid and left. After he was gone, Avi said glowingly to the hair salon owner: “I am so glad he was nice! I always worry. He even accepted my tea!” The hair salon owner assented and she and Avi smiled to each other. That little interaction of civility and kindness across the usually completely separate worlds, rifted apart by prejudice and even hostility, between an Ashkenazi orthodox and a Sephardic secular gay man, seemed to me on that lag ba omer like a little work of tikkun olam or the re-piecing together of the broken vessels of our damaged world.

Orthodox left-wing men in Israel–0 hits

Against my basic instincts and at the active encouragement of some friends, I agreed to sign up for an Israeli religious dating website. As I sat down to explore what it had to offer, I filled in two key characteristics in the desirable male partner. For religious orientation, I put in “orthodox” and for political orientation, I put in “left wing.” After a few seconds, the search engine turned out its search results: “0 hits.” I thought the search engine was not working and altered the sought for characteristics just to find out. To my surprise, the search engine was working fine, it was just that there was not one single man who fit my desired combination of characteristics. I was astounded. I realized that, much more than in the Diaspora, there was a strong correlation between religious observance and political views. I would not have guessed, though, that there would not be a single person among the (at least) hundreds of men signed up in the dating website that would be both religiously observant and politically left-wing. Unfortunately, my interactions in the orthodox community in Israel subsequently corroborated this disturbing finding to be close to –though not one hundred percent– true.

Ordinary Heroes

Tamar had just had surgery for cancer five days ago. Her eye was still showing the result of the surgery and had black marks all around it. Despite this, she was hosting a Shabbat lunch for which she had done all the cooking. Tamar was one of the people injured in what I believe was the first terrorist attack carried out by a Palestinian woman. About seven years ago, Tamar was standing at a bus stop outside the shuk of Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem where she had done her shopping for Shabbat when her bus blew up. She was gravely hurt. She had shrapnel go into all of her body. She says that little pieces still come out from her arms and legs from time to time. She also lost her hearing in one of her ears and had to undergo many rounds of esthetic surgery to reconstitute her face. The cancer for which she had just had surgery was also a belated consequence of the bombing. This, is seems to me, is enough to bring anyone’s spirits down.

But not Tamar’s. Her hosting a Shabbat lunch five days after her surgery was just typical of her. She had recently made alyah from the US when the terrorist attack happened and I remember reading an article in the Washington Post where they asked her “Doesn’t this make you want to come back home?” and she had replied “this is home.” When I was hiking with her and a common friend in Israel some years later I asked her whether this experience had changed her political views or her views of Palestinians. She answered that it had not. Indeed, I have never heard her say one bad word about Palestinians or engage in any kind of right-wing political discourse. She clearly had decided it was best for her to be positive and focus her efforts on making the best out of her life. Her combination of determination to make her life in Israel, her optimism, and her striking lack of either self-pity or hatred are, in my view, heroic. I have asked her a couple of times how she does it and her answer is something alone the lines of: “I could sit around feeling sorry for myself, but after a while, that gets old.”

Addisso and Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations

Israel had just had its sixtieth anniversary celebrations. A lot of money had been spent in the festivities –parties, celebrations, commemorations, concerts. I boarded an El Al flight in Tel Aviv. The cameras in the plane had a little skit on. I normally don’t watch TV, but the skit looked interesting and I paid attention. It featured a young Ethiopian Israeli with playful antennas on his head. “Happy 60th anniversary Addisso!” a chummy TV interviewer greeted him. “What do you think of our 60th anniversary celebrations?” I forget exactly what “Addisso” responded. It was something along the lines that his town had no jobs, no proper infrastructure and poorly functioning schools, but that the sixtieth anniversary celebrations were lovely. He said so in a purposely innocent and charming way, but his point was clear. I was glad someone was questioning the wisdom of the Israeli government’s use of public resources.


No other religion has achieved its ultimate objective!

I was sitting at a café at the central bus station in Jerusalem waiting for the time to go to dinner at the home of some friends. Two American teenage boys sat at the table next to me. They looked like modern orthodox Jewish kids, with kippot and tzitzit and otherwise modern dress. I was focusing on my reading and did not follow their conversation, but one of their sentences jumped out at me: “Creating the State of Israel, imagine! No other religion has achieved its ultimate objective!” one of them said excitedly. “Its ultimate objective,” I thought to myself, was never the creation of a state. The ultimate objective, according to our whole liturgy and philosophy, is the perfection of the world and of the human being. For two thousand years, the rabbis believed that it would be only after that redemptive process was over that the coming of the Messiah and the ingathering of the exiles in the historical land of Israel would take place. History, as it often does, worked differently than we had imagined and, after the creation of the state, the almost entirety of the Jewish world understandably threw its weight behind it. The confusion between the creation of a state and religious goals, however, is disturbing because it seems to imply both that the creation of a state in and of itself was the goal of our religion –which it was not—and that, since it was “the ultimate” goal, we are done, finished! Not much else left to do! It also makes that state an end in itself and justifies its actions, no matter what they are. The contrast with reality could not be starker since the religious goals of Judaism are far from being accomplished, especially in Israel.

The merit of our ancestors

Sometimes I feel we are living on the merit of our ancestors. The merit of our ancestors is an important concept in Judaism according to which merits accumulated by the ancestors of the Jewish people can help us compensate for our shortcomings of today. It is somewhat of a balance sheet approach to our standing with G-d according to which, if Jews in previous generations accumulated good deeds and a lot of suffering, “merit” accumulates for us. If in the future we commit wrongs not sufficiently compensated with “rights”, the accumulated “merit” goes down in our balance sheet. Therefore, the merit of our ancestors cannot endure forever unless we add to it on our own.

There were times during my stay in Israel/Palestine when I felt that we were living on this historically accumulated merit and that we might be close to running out. So much of world sympathy for Israel and reluctance to condemn and oppose its wrongs are based on a sense of “compensation” for the suffering caused to Jews in the past and the merits accumulated by Jews throughout history. This is also true economically and politically. So much of what the economy of Israel is today is based on past investments–particularly in education– and whatever strength and legitimacy is left in the state is largely due to the efforts at institution-building and fostering social cohesion (among Jews) made in the past which have not been sufficiently continued in the present. Overall, my overwhelming feeling was that we are drawing down on this bank account of world sympathy and real investment in the economy, the state and the society of Israel and that, unless we start investing and doing right again soon, we may find ourselves in overdraft with ourselves, with the world community and with G-d.

This is not us

An American Jewish friend once told me that, though she does not often go to synagogue services, she went for Yom Kippur. The services, however, turned her aback. There was an Israeli flag in the synagogue and the community was asked to recite prayers for Israel and for Israeli soldiers (which is standard in American synagogues nowadays). She almost walked out. “Don’t count me in on this” she thought to herself. She is not alone. The politicization of synagogues is unfortunately driving away many Jews who are keen to explore their Jewish roots and Judaism, but simply do not espouse Israeli policies or Zionism (ironically, I would say, precisely because of their Jewish values). As my friend continued to recount her experience, which seemed to her nationalistic and martial rather than religious and peace-oriented, she said she reflected: “This is not us.”

I know exactly what she meant and hers is a very comforting thought. I shared it myself while I was in Israel and during the first months of my return to the US: Israel is not us. It is some strange mutation caused by the difficult environment of the Middle East and Zionist education. However, after my stay in Israel, I witnessed with more open eyes than I ever had before our unwillingness in the Jewish Diaspora to see what Israel truly is and what it is doing, and our failure to accept what we see, to judge it and to condemn it. As I witnessed our gong-ho nationalism and our uncritical people-pride in Israel, I came to terms with a much less comforting truth: Israel and what it currently represents is us. It is the uglier side of us, the extreme nationalist side, the one that only thinks of us and sees the whole world as us against them.

The value of Jewish life in Israel

In Israel, there is a seemingly great value being placed by governments on each Jewish live lost in the conflict. The death of soldiers is marked through constant commemorations and ceremonies and much effort goes into trying to achieve the freeing of captive soldiers. Not much thought, however, is given before sending young soldiers to fight in Lebanon, risk their lives (literally or psychologically) in occupying the West Bank and Gaza, or wasting two or three of what could be the best years of their lives in the military.

Many Jews, both in Israel as well as in the Diaspora, speak as if this was unavoidable. However, to the extent that it is unavoidable, it is only so in the current circumstances which are, to a large extent, the making of Israeli governments and their settlement and occupation policies. Therefore, though Israeli governments seem to value Jewish life greatly, the policies they pursue endanger these lives they purport to prize while what they value and commemorate in their ceremonies is actually death. This is a sad and ironic turnaround of the original proposals of Theodore Herzl, who was willing to take any land, wherever it might be and as small as it might be, to save Jewish lives.

Un-Jewish State

One Shabbat many years before my move to Israel I had invited two Jewish professors I greatly admired over to my home for dinner. These professors were my mentors and they are among the people who most influenced me to convert to Judaism –though they themselves would have never set out to do so. They are two deeply humane individuals, wise, gentle, dedicated and particularly broad-minded and wide-hearted. I remember they shared an elderly secretary. Those of us who were their teaching assistants had strict instructions on how to deal with her so she would not be put in the embarrassing situation of not being able to do something that was difficult for her. We were also asked to avoid giving her any instructions over the phone as she was hard of hearing. I remember being impressed at the extreme thoughtfulness of my mentors in order to allow her to continue to do her job while keeping her dignity.

These two professors were my Shabbat dinner guests as was Yoav, a young Israeli man. Over dinner, the three of them engaged in a discussion about Israel. Back then, Israel was a very distant presence in my life and I don’t remember what the discussion was about. But I do remember clearly that my professors were highly critical of it, not just of its politics, but of many of its national characteristics. One of them said to Yoav: “It is such an un-Jewish country!” That thought stayed with me though at the time I intuited more than knew what he meant. Sadly, after my two-year stay in the country, I fully endorse his view. My professors’ view was that being Jewish entailed gentleness, keeping a low profile, engaging in the “ways of peace” preached by the rabbis, intellectuality, and a commitment to truth and justice. To their regret and mine, Israel has modeled its ideals very differently.

However, I believe it would not be fair to Israel to say that it is thoroughly un-Jewish. The extreme left with its social advocacy causes and its human rights and pro-peace NGOs reflects the values of the prophets and is the direct continuation of Jewish left-wing movements in the Diaspora. Similarly, the ultra-orthodox in Israel are the sister communities of ultra-orthodox communities elsewhere and, like them, perpetuate traditional Jewish life and study. Actually, even negative trends in Israel are distorted continuations of less-desirable –but nevertheless Jewish—trends. Mainstream Zionism, for instance, is the continuation of Zionist movements that originated in the Diaspora. As such, it manipulates admirably the worrying tendencies of some Diaspora communities, such as a tendency towards self-absorption and the belief that we are always and only victims and always and by definition right. These are warped, but understandable tendencies in Jewish history. They are not, however, borne out by Judaism. The Torah makes clear that Jews should be broadly involved in the wide world and that we can be wrong and Gentiles can be right –and often are.

Overall, however, I believe my professors were right: at present, mainstream Israeli culture and policies are seriously out of touch with the values cherished by Judaism and embodied by Jewish history and a return to those is badly needed. If Israel were to return to the ethics of Judaism, the country could truly, finally, be a much more “Jewish” state. Ironically, for this to happen, it would need to stop calling itself by this name and instead start acting on what it means.

Diaspora Jews had their chance

I was discussing the future of the State of Israel with Yoav, a young Israeli of American parents who directs an NGO. I told him that, although I believed that the definition of Israel as a country should be broadened to include all of its citizens, I viewed the continuation of the law of return for Jews as a pillar of the state. Yoav disagreed with me and told me that he thought that, as time went on, Israeli Jews would decouple from the Diaspora. He felt that was already happening and that the trend would only accelerate in the future. “Some day,” he said, “Israeli Jews may want their country to be a state like any other with no guarantees for anyone to be able to get in.” I was shocked by what he said and asked him whether he truly thought that could happen. “Yes,” he said, “at one point, Israeli Jews will think that Diaspora Jews had their chance and made their choice.” “Moreover,” he continued, “Israeli Jews are more and more Israeli and less and less Jewish.”

I was troubled by what Yoav said and the situation he described, which does indeed reflect a trend in contemporary Israeli society. It is a society which is becoming less and less Jewish without becoming any more Middle Eastern or open to Palestinians. It is closing in onto its own self-made and, in my view, rather shallow secular Israeliness. Because eighty percent of Israeli Jews are secular and many have been brought up not only with little Jewish training, but with strong anti-religious and anti-Diaspora views, they are estranged from Judaism and from non-Israeli Jews. It is because of this that they do not feel in their bones something which was abundantly clear to the founders of the State no matter how secular they were. Namely, that the unity of the Jewish people was a central pillar of Judaism itself and of the Jewish historical experience and that a critical role of the state of Israel was to provide sanctuary for all times to any Jew who wishes to migrate there. This central pillar of Judaism and Jewish experience is increasingly fading in the hearts and minds of Israeli Jews. Just as worryingly, this is happening without a concomitant opening up of the concept of Israeliness or of the country’s immigration laws to non-Jews. The result is a completely abnormal situation which undermines the historical mission set out for the country by its founders while not fulfilling the requirements of a modern secular and democratic state.

Dayenu—it would be enough

I was riding in a taxi in Tel Aviv. The driver and I engaged in a conversation about the state of the country and the conflict with Palestinians. After some discussion, the driver told me: “I don’t like Arabs, believe me, but the only viable option for us is peace.” I could tell from our exchanges that he shared most of the views and prejudices of many Israelis about Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general and that he had no fond feelings for them. He did, however, clearly realize that the only way out, the only real solution to the conflict, was making peace with them. We did not discuss what he would be willing to give up to achieve peace. However, it was obvious that he knew that, although it entailed risks and compromises, it was the only way forward. Though I hope that, some day, the two peoples will know, respect and learn from each other, in the short run, I felt that this driver’s conclusion was all we really needed to end the conflict. As we say in Pesach, Dayenu! (It would be enough!)

De-legitimizing Israel

After the advent of the Netanyahu government in 2009, Israel is engrossed in a campaign to de-legitimize itself. To do so, it is attacking all of its (few) remaining supporters. The Gaza war of 2008-09 was a turning point in the relationship with Turkey and severely strained Israel’s ties with other Muslim countries, like Egypt and Jordan. The European mainstream found the campaign barbaric, but failed to say as much. The ongoing defiance of the United States –particularly through the continued building of settlements in Jerusalem against President Obama’s warnings—is outright suicidal. The Mossad “coup” of using European Union passports to kill a Hamas agent in the moderate United Arab Emirates was another major faux-pas. This campaign culminated with the attack and murder of eight Turkish human rights activists headed for Gaza –including an American citizen—in international waters. This was the end of the Turkish-Israeli special relationship and arguably the fastest moment in Israel’s descent to the status of pariah country. Not content with this, Israel proceeded to antagonize its only remaining firm supporters –the American Jewish community. To do so, Netanyahu’s government prepared a law that would have stopped recognizing conversions to Judaism from outside Israel. This would have been an enormous slap in the face of the Jewish Diaspora, which includes a very large number of people married to converted Jews. While all this was going on, Israel’s unconditional supporters accused the international opinion of “delegitimizing Israel.” This orchestrated accusation has been the least successful of Israel’s public relations campaigns so far. The whole world realizes that the one running Israel’s de-legitimizing campaign is none other than the Israeli government.

Right or wrong, my people

There is a conversation I had several years before going to Israel which kept on coming back to my mind during my time there. The conversation took place over Shabbat lunch in Washington D.C. I was at a friend’s place and there was a woman among the guests who was not part of our regular group. Back then, Israel was not a common theme of conversation around my Shabbat tables. That day, however, it was. I forget exactly what we were discussing, but our guest insisted that we should always be supportive of Israel’s policies. I asked her if that should be the case regardless of what those policies were. She responded in the affirmative and added: “Right or wrong, my people.” I answered her that they for sure they were our people, but they could also be wrong and, if they were, we should not support them. She disagreed. I put an extreme example –in retrospect, too extreme– to try and test her determination. I asked her whether, if Israelis decided to put Palestinians into gas chambers, we should still support them. She predictably answered that Israelis would never do that. My point was that we should not support Israel when it takes policies that are immoral or against democratic principles or international law. She made two different points: first, that we should always support Israel just because it is our people and second, that we should always support Israel because it would never do anything that is truly immoral –by definition. Unfortunately, I know well that her second point simply does not hold–Israel does many things that are wrong and immoral. Regarding her first point –supporting one’s one people whether they are right or wrong–, I believe that we Jews, of all people, should disagree particularly strongly with a principle from which we have suffered so greatly on so many occasions.

Israel in ten years’ time

I was talking to Sergei, a Russian Jew who had immigrated to Israel some ten years ago. Sergei has a sharp, analytical mind and likes to discuss Israel and the conflict with Palestinians with me despite the fact that (or perhaps because) we mostly hold different views. He shares the mainstream negative Israeli view about Palestinians and Palestinian society. However, he is not sanguine about Israel either. He is disappointed about the kind of country Israel has become, not because of how it treats Palestinians, but because of how it treats Jews. Also in this regard, he reflects the views of many Israelis. He is disheartened that Israel is not investing in the education of its population the way it should, betraying millennia of Jewish tradition. He is disappointed that the degree of social cohesion is so low and that economic and social divisions are so great. He is demoralized by the corruption, the dishonesty and the lack of vision of the political leadership. One day, he summarized his views to me as he sighed: “I am not afraid that in ten years Israel will not exist. I am afraid that it will be a country that I feel is not worth fighting for.”

Israel and the Diaspora

It is my (uncommon) view that Israel has had a highly detrimental impact on the Jewish Diaspora. This is so largely for four reasons. The first reason is that Zionism has tended to substitute for Judaism as glue for the Jewish community. In some parts of the Jewish community, in fact, Zionism and “support for Israel” have taken the foreground while Judaism has increasingly taken a back seat. Many synagogues have been transformed from places of learning and worship into political pulpits from which Zionism is preached while Jewish law and Jewish ethics take a decidedly back seat. The same could be said of many Jewish summer camps and, to a lesser extent, some Jewish schools. Politics in general and Zionism in particular de facto substitute for Judaism though, in a way, they are their nemesis. This feeds into the second detrimental impact of Zionism–inward-looking nationalism often bordering on Jingoism. As a small community with strong laws biding it together and often in the midst of persecution, a certain inward-looking character of Jewish communities was an almost unavoidable characteristic of the pre-emancipation Diaspora. In most contemporary societies, however, we Jews are full citizens of our home countries and an integral part of our economies, polities and societies. When it comes to Israel, however, these same communities often become just as inward-looking, nationalist and right-wing as we are outward-looking, pluralist and liberal in our own countries.

Which brings me to the third point—the inconsistency in ethics standards we often espouse in the Diaspora and in Israel. At home, we espouse diversity, openness, cultural acceptance, and secularism. In Israel, we tend to espouse a mono-cultural and mono-religious Jewish state. Somehow, the high standards of democracy, international law, human rights, non-discrimination and respect for minorities we hold dear in the Diaspora, are assumed not to be fully applicable to Israel. This moral inconsistency is, in my view, the most damaging effect of the Diaspora’s stance on Israel on our collective ethics. It damages our moral stance and our credibility in our home countries. It also does not help Israel.

The fourth element through which Israel hurts the Diaspora is its encouragement of Anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, Anti-Semitism is far from dead, especially in Europe, and to a growing extent in the Arab world. Israeli policies fuel the fires of anti-Semitism and provide a “presentable” façade for traditional anti-Semites. All in all, as the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel stands now, it is highly damaging to the Jewish Diaspora. A return to Judaism and Jewish ethics (applied consistently across the board) would strengthen the moral fiber of our Diaspora communities, open our minds as far as Israel is concerned, and bring about a more honest and effective dialogue about the country and its policies. I do not believe, however, that it would reduce anti-Semitism by a lot. On that, if anything, only change in Israel’s policies and education campaigns against prejudice among non-Jews have a chance to deliver.

What do you say to a mother?

I took a cab from my home to the train station in Jerusalem. We were listening to the news about ongoing negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The cab driver engaged me in a discussion about the negotiations and the peace process. At one point, however, he stopped the political discussion and asked me. “Tell me. What do you say to a mother who has lost her son in a terror attack?” I am rarely at a loss for words, but I was then. I did not know what to answer him. What can one possibly say that can be of any comfort? Some months later, I watched a documentary in which the filming crew travelled along the 1948 UN partition line interviewing Israelis and Palestinians along it. A part of the film featured an interview with a Jewish family of Tunisian origin. They were asked how, in retrospect, they felt about their decision to immigrate to Israel and their prior life in Tunisia. Both the father and mother remembered their life in Tunisia very fondly, including the ease of interaction and the relationships with their Arab neighbors there. They clearly missed that normality in Israel although there was also much they liked about the country. As the mother described how her life had developed in Israel, though, it became clear that there was one gaping wound that would never heal. She had lost a son in one of Israel’s wars. The way she spoke, the look in her eyes, showed such an unbelievable depth of loss and sadness.  There was nothing in the new country that could ever make up for that and there was nothing one could say to dull the pain. I did not know what you say to a mother who has lost her son to war. I still don’t.

Romanticizing the Old Jew

I was having coffee with a young American Jew who was working at an NGO that brings other American Jews to meet Palestinians so they can get a better understanding of their situation and perspectives. I told him I was working at a Palestinian university myself and we started talking about Palestinians, Israelis and the occupation. I could feel he was more understanding –or forgiving—of Israeli positions than I was. He explained to me that Israelis had tried to forge a new Jew and that was the result. I told him that I knew that and that I much preferred the old Jew. I told him I missed the subtlety, the compassion, the ability to stand up against injustice, the intellectuality and the pacifism of the Old Jew. He looked up from his cup of coffee and said: “You should meet my girlfriend. She also romanticizes the Old Jew.” I thought that was an interesting comment and I tried to think whether what he was saying was true. I realize no individual and no community is perfect. However, with my values –which I believe are Jewish values—, my knowledge of history and my experience in the American Jewish community and Israel, I have no qualms in saying that I see Diaspora Jewish communities as being much closer to what we are meant to be than Israeli Jews are. It is also so by design. As the biography of Amos Oz brilliantly illustrates, Zionists had a dogged determination to remake the Old Jew –his weakness, intellectualism and compassion—into the New Jew –tough, hardened, physical. Unfortunately, they have succeeded and the result is much less Jewish and, by the same token, much less ethical.

Indignation, compassion and disappointment

When I think about my feelings about what Israel is like today, three words come to my mind –indignation, compassion and disappointment. That is, indignation at what Israel does, compassion for what it is and disappointment because of what it could be. When I think of Israel’s policies, in particular toward Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, my main reaction is indignation at the injustice they represent and the suffering they cause (to both Palestinians and Israelis).  When I think about what Israel is today, I feel compassion for how ill the country is. I believe the thousands of years of Jewish suffering in the Diaspora combined with Zionist psychological manipulation has created a particularly dramatic mixture of fear, Angst, aggression, and lack of compassion for the other that make Israelis into a particularly tormented people. I feel sorry for them because I have never seen a less happy people in my travels throughout the world. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I feel enormous disappointment for what Israel could have been. If Israel truly was a Jewish country, it would be a completely different place. If Israel turned to the tradition of Diaspora Jewry, its culture, its ethics and Judaism’s principles, it would become an infinitely more humane place towards Jews as well as towards Arabs. I hope this will happen one day soon because everybody in the country and the region need it.

Winning the media battle

I was at a lecture on the Iraq war delivered at an Israeli university by a guest speaker from the United States. The discussion ranged from the security situation to the economic implications of the war to public perceptions of the war in the US. After the lecture and discussion had finished, I went over to the speaker to further discuss one of the issues he raised. As I was waiting to approach him, a young man in his twenties introduced himself to the speaker as an Israeli journalist. “What you need to do is what we have been able to do in Israel,” he told him self-assuredly, “you need to win the media battle.” I thought that was an interesting and sad way for a journalist to view his profession. According to this young man, the objective of journalists is not to try to reflect reality and inform public debate. Rather, it is to shape reality in whichever way it is politically expeditious. It was also intriguing and scary to think of the power that young journalist felt the press had. He felt the core of the issue regarding Iraq (or the Palestinian Israeli conflict) was “winning the media battle.” Did he really feel that this would affect the underlying reality? Shape political decisions? Or did he think that the only reality that mattered at the end of the day was what was shown in the press?

In Israel, there is more information and more real debate about the occupation and the conflict in general than there is in the United States. Despite that, however, the young journalist was right. The media coverage in all the mainstream Israeli newspapers is disproportionately of one view and even the left-wing press has important shortcomings. Israeli journalists cannot even enter Gaza and, as I was to discover, most do not even travel to the West Bank (except to settlements). When Israel entered Gaza in 2008 and killed some militants and twice as many civilians, including many women and children, Israeli newspapers the day after only reported the massacre in a small inner page article. Even Haaretz, the main left-wing newspaper, chose to feature on its cover a picture of the two Israeli soldiers lost in the attack rather than any of the 160 Palestinians who had been killed. I imagine that is what the young journalist meant by winning the media battle.

Their parents teach them to hate

We were having Shabbat lunch at my friend Avi’s. He had Jewish guests from various origins including Rachel, a Yemenite sabra, and Esther, an American-born and Israeli-raised Ashkenazi. Esther was young and outspoken and had lots to say. She was telling us about her growing up in a town on the Israeli coastal corridor between Tel Aviv and Haifa. “It is mainly Sephardim living there,” she said with evident chagrin, “and it is hard for Ashkenazis.” “Really?” I asked her. I had heard and read a lot about Ashkenazi discrimination against the Sephardim, but not about the opposite. “Yes, she said.  It is not a nice area to live in.” I forget the exact words she used to describe the Sephardim living in her town, but I distinctly remember they were not flattering. Her tone and facial expression in speaking about them was as telling as her actual words. It was as if she was speaking about some other, lower, category of human beings. I had not seen that yet in Israel and was deeply disturbed by it. At that point, Rachel, our Yemenite friend, discreetly left the table. A bit later, when I joined her, she told me she could not hear any more of that young Ashkenazi woman’s superior-minded ranting. Before leaving the table to join Rachel, I asked Esther if she thought that Sephardim were perhaps hostile to her because they felt poorly treated by the Ashkenazi. She retorted that this was a problem which had ended long ago and that there was no discrimination against the Sephardim any more. It told her that, in my experience in many parts of the world, when minorities feel there is a problem, the problem is real and majorities often just do not see it. She shook her head, “the problem,” she said, is how they are educated. “Their parents teach them to hate.”

Let us see who will help them then!

I was having dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant with a couple of European journalists. They are very sharp as well as excellent professionals. They are also quite sanguine about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, arguably, quite tough –though perceptive and probably accurate—in their judgment. They also travel all over Israel and Palestine and speak to a great variety of political actors on both sides. Because of their knowledge and their impartiality, I developed trust in their views. That day, we started to discuss Israeli policies and, in particular, why they were so unsupportive of the Palestinian Authority. In my view and theirs, the Palestinian Authority was going out on a limb to support the peace process and build up the future institutions of a Palestinian state –cleaning up its finances, being as accommodating as they possibly could to the international community and its requests, and strengthening its own security forces, including in their operations to avoid terrorist attacks against Israel. There just wasn’t more one could ask of them. On the other side, Israel’s government was going on as usual –confiscating Palestinian land and water, building up the security wall, expanding settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, not removing any checkpoints and continuing its incursions into the West Bank and Gaza. The contrast was so stark that it weakened the credibility of the PA in front of its own population (though building it up in the international community, which was quite aware of its great efforts and of the contrast with those of the Israeli government).

“Why would they not help them at all?” I asked my friends referring to the Israeli government. “They want to have Hamas in front of them” was their answer. If I had heard this before living in Israel/Palestine, I would have dismissed it offhand. Unfortunately, I could no longer do so. The evidence was too obvious. By then, I knew that Israel had in fact directly supported Hamas in its beginning in order to undermine Fatah. I also knew that the Israeli government was quite adept at playing up the “international Muslim fundamentalist threat” to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause and Hamas was only too eager to help out. My journalist friends’ judgment was confirmed by an Israeli who works in the security area. I was trying to argue to him that, if the Israeli government continued implementing such destructive policies, the PA and Fatah would be so weakened in front of their population that the same kind of scenario we have in Gaza could be replicated in the West Bank and Hamas could come to power. He looked at me smiling and said: “So be it. Let us see who will help them then.”

They are not the Israel Defense Forces

I was visiting a joint Bedouin-Jewish NGO in the Negev and we were joined for our trip by Yoav, the son of the Jewish director of the NGO. Yoav is a young, gentle-looking boy of around 17 who lives in a kibbutz in the Negev with his parents. He has decided not to do army service but to do national service instead. We had just visited one of the region’s unrecognized Bedouin villages and had a conversation with some Jewish youngsters doing volunteer work there before going to the army. We got into the car to continue our tour and started a discussion about army service in Israel. Yoav said he simply could not do his army service in the context of the occupation. “It is no longer the Israel Defense Forces,” he said softly, but emphatically. His point was clear. He would be happy to go to the army to defend his country, but he felt that his army was not just defending, but also attacking and occupying and he wanted no part in that. I could also tell that it was not an easy decision for him, as he did realize that Israel also needed defending. However, given the options he was given by his country’s leaders, he had no choice but to bow out. “My brother,” he said gloomily,” is going to the army and will be posted in Hebron. I don’t know how our relationship will be affected by this.”

The ideological and ethical chasm between him and his brother was obvious and he did not know whether they would be able to bridge it. I thought the bind in which Israel’s leaders were placing their young people was criminal: you either went into an army involved in invading Lebanon and occupying Palestine or you bowed out and were not involved in defending a country that would last less than a week if most people did not join the army. This was a not a choice any young man or woman should have to make and there was no fully satisfactory choice for them in the current context.

The country is rotten

During my life in Jerusalem, I got most of my immediate necessities at the corner store next to me. It was run by two Moroccan-Israeli men in their forties. One of them, Avi, had just returned from living for a few years in France. One day, I asked him if he was happy to be back in Israel. I was expecting a positive answer, as he normally seemed relaxed and enjoying the good weather and slow pace of life in our laid-back West Jerusalem neighborhood, sitting outside his store, chatting with other store owners, clients and the random passerby. His response surprised me: “No,” he said, “I am not. Actually, I am sorry I came back to Israel.” “Why?” I asked him. “Everybody is angry, yelling, aggressive, trying to cheat each other,” he paused before concluding: “the country is rotten.” There was a deep expression of disappointment in his face. “Maybe we should just give up on it” he said as a final thought. “We can’t” I told him, “We need to make it a better place.”

A Victim’s Reaction

I was having Shabbat lunch in Washington D.C. with a group of friends a couple of months after my return from Jerusalem. There were two Israelis in the group. We started discussing the role of religious Jews in Israeli politics and how it is resented by the Israeli secular public. I told the Israelis at the table that I agreed with them that Israel should be run like any other secular democratic society and the influence of the religious should diminish. I also told them, though, that I always hear Israelis complain about this, but that they do very little to change it. The religious are, at most, twenty percent of Israeli society. The other eighty percent can easily change the rules of the game if they so decide—even taking into account the fact that the proportional electoral system tends to over-represent minority parties. A coalition of all the mainstream parties –let alone if they decided to include Arab parties as well—would provide a broad majority willing to transform Israel into a normal secular democracy. Instead, this majority seems to prefer to endlessly criticize the religious for their real as well as their imagined shortcomings.

One of the Israelis at the table said: “Yes. You are right. Ours is a victims’ reaction.” I thought that was a very interesting observation. A victim simply blames the perpetrator, but does not take responsibility or action. Though, in some areas, Israeli society has been thoroughly –and dramatically—turned around, in others it still maintains the victim mentality of blaming others for one’s own shortcomings. The relationship of the secular with the religious could be viewed as one of those areas. One could also say, however, that the mainstream public is –probably rightly—afraid that starting the discussion of just how “Jewish” and religious Israel should be would open up a can of worms that they prefer to keep tightly shut. At some point, however, this is a discussion that the Israeli public badly needs to have. It owes it to its citizens –to all of them.

A colonial state

I was visiting the offices of an Israeli left-wing NGO and speaking to one of its staff, an Israeli originally from Latin America. We started to discuss the occupation and the problems of social exclusion existing within Israel itself. My interlocutor, though, went further than I was prepared to go myself. “Israel is a colonial state,” he said self-assuredly. I told him that I did not agree with that statement. I argued that a colonial state assumes a metropolis and that there had never been any metropolis in the case of Israel. It also assumed a relatively small number of “colonials” living in the colonized country, which is ruled for the benefit of the metropolis. The case of Israel was completely different. He said that there had been a metropolis – the United Kingdom. He had no response for the other parts of my arguments. I told him that, in my view, a better parallel were the so-called “new settlement societies,” such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

I should have asked him what future he envisaged for himself as one of the “colonizers” when the end of the “colonization” inevitably came. Going back to Latin America? Or perhaps to the colonizing power –the United Kingdom—which would not recognize him as his citizen? When I am faced with such extreme left-wing opinions questioning the legitimacy of Israel within 1967 borders, I have the sensation that they do not help the Palestinian cause (let alone the cause of peace). Those who espouse them are so radical that their impact on the ongoing dialogue on the future of Israel and Palestine is minimal. Moreover, their arguments are often historically inaccurate and their conclusions incompatible with international law and politically unfeasible. Perhaps most insidiously, they discredit the very legitimate claim of Palestinians to a state of their own just as they fail to undermine the right of Israel to continue to exist.

The gap was too great

I met Gershom when I was visiting Washington DC in the middle of my stay in Israel. Some common friends had suggested I meet him in my search for Jews who were “left wing on Israel.” Gershom is an intellectual in his sixties, sharp, critical and quite disillusioned with Israel. He had spent a few years there with his family and had decided to come back to America. Although he had been one of the founders of the minyan or lay-led prayer group I had prayed at for years in Washington DC, he and his wife had basically dropped out after they came back from Israel. I asked him why. “Being there and seeing the contrast between what people preach and what they do, between all the praying and people’s actual behavior, we just could not stomach it; the gap was too great and we stopped being religious.” “How sad!” I exclaimed. I told him that I hoped that being in America, after a while, they may be able to re-engage. He told me he was not sure. Their disenchantment was so deep. I asked him how people in the Jewish community in Washington took his critiques of Israel. “Very badly” he said shaking his head. “People do not want to hear it.” I sensed he felt very lonely and I deeply regretted what Israel had done to his religiosity. I then remembered an orthodox man I highly respect, who in his youth went to live in Israel for two years. He came back to America as well. “If I had stayed,” he once told me, “I would have stopped being religious or, at least, orthodox.” When he expressed that feeling to me before I moved to Israel, I did not fully understand what he was talking about. Now, unfortunately, I know all too well.

Israel and G-d

Something I have always relished about Judaism and the Jewish communities I have been part of is the freedom of thought and the lack of pressure to conform to a certain way of thinking. Dogma is rather unimportant in Judaism. What matters is practice. The most important differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews are differences of practice, rather than differences of belief. The belief that the Torah has many faces is a central one in the Torah: “These as well as those are the words of the living G-d” is one of my dearest lines of the Talmud. Because of this plurality of interpretations jointly with a deeply-rooted belief in the value of difference and argument, I have never felt pressure to “believe” one thing or another. This freedom and this diversity is healthy, liberating and empowering.

This is why it is so shocking that there is such pressure to “believe” a certain way regarding Israel. In short, whereas dispute is accepted as valid regarding G-d, it is viewed as unacceptable regarding Israel. This is one of the many ways in which Zionism has seriously distorted long-treasured Jewish practice –dissidence is dissuaded, conformity encouraged, and social activities and lectures promoting “one-thought” Zionism are pervasive in the Jewish community. These activities and that pressure, moreover, end up being part and parcel of religious Jewish communities. The result is the distortion of Judaism and Jewish values and the estrangement from the Jewish community of those who do not share mainstream Zionist views. It is a terrible disservice to Judaism, to traditional Jewish values and to the Jewish community as a whole.

You do not have to finish the work, but you are not free to withdraw from it either

I was having a coffee with Yoav, the founder of one of Israel’s most significant left-wing NGOs. It is an NGO which is engaged in the defense of the human rights of Palestinians as well as in awareness-raising about the wrongdoings committed by the Israeli army. Yoav is surprisingly young –he is in his mid-twenties. He was born in Jerusalem of American parents. He started this NGO after his army experience, which was during the peak of the second intifada and the re-occupation of the West Bank. I asked him if there was one specific experience that led him to this path. He said that there wasn’t, that it was a whole host of experiences. He was pragmatic about what could be achieved in the short run and bitter in acknowledging it. I would even be tempted to say that he was cynical, except that would not be fair to him because he is so deeply engaged in working towards a goal that he has little hope can be achieved in the short run.

He told me that he felt he was working along the lines of one of the maxims from Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Talmud): “You do not have to finish the work, but you are not free to withdraw from it either.” This is also one of my favorite passages of Pirkei Avot. It is beautifully pragmatic. Something that speaks to the complexity of so many of the seemingly intractable problems one needs to deal with in our highly imperfect world and in our very troubled Israel. One step at a time, doing our best to make our personal contribution is the most one can hope for, but also the least one must do. The recognition of the fact that systemic change is a long-term project involving a great variety of actors is critical to encourage action and avoid despair. I felt Yoav knew that well.


I was discussing the occupation with a young Israeli active in a left-wing NGO. I praised what he was doing and told him how important I felt it was. I also told him that, in general, I greatly admired the activism of the Israeli human rights and anti-occupation organizations. He said he agreed that they were doing important work, but also that he did not think it was going to be them who would end the occupation. “It won’t be the pacifists who will end the occupation, but the “passivists,” he said. I told him that sounded intriguing and asked him to elaborate. He went on to explain that it would be the Tel Aviv “passivists” who would eventually dictate the end of Israeli militarism and expansionism: “The young Tel Avivis just do not want to fight anymore. They do not want to pay the price one needs to pay in one’s life to occupy the West Bank” he said. “This trend is already under way and it will only accentuate with time” he added. I thought that was a plausible scenario. In any oppressive system, it is always a minority of the oppressing group that is willing to actively fight to end it. Oppressive systems often come to their demise because of a combination of the fight of the oppressed, their allies in the minority of the oppressing society who are willing to stand up to their own and a growing majority of the oppressing society that is no longer willing to fight. The system, to use T.S. Elliot’s words, often ends “not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

The Chevre man and the Freier

A symbol of the change in Israeli society from its first decades to our days is the complete turnaround in the societal type that is considered to be the hero. My ulpan textbook featured an interesting piece describing this change. As it turns out, yesterday’s hero is today’s schmuck. In Israel’s early days, the ideal societal type –Jewish, of course—was the “chevre man” or society’s man. It was the community-oriented person who was willing to selflessly give to society without asking for anything in return that was admired and aspired to.

Today, the chevre man would be called a freier or schmuck. The absolute worst one can be in contemporary Israeli society is someone who is taken advantage of by others. Society is not looked upon as something that binds Israelis together, something worth fighting and sacrificing for, but as a Hobbesian jungle where man is a wolf to man. This, of course, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the characteristics of Israeli society I found the hardest to countenance was precisely that –the fact that everyone seems to feel that others are out to get you (and they often are) and that your goal is to constantly beware so you are not the one who is cheated (which you will be unless you are extremely careful). It is like a nightmare game theoretical scenario in which no one is willing to cooperate or, in other terms, a society completely devoid of trust and a sense of social (or moral) responsibility.

In heterogeneous countries with a thin layer of common societal fabric where the community (rather than overall society) primes –like the United States–, the basic rules of the game that hold the overall economy, state and society together are of great importance. People have a strong sense that they need to abide by them and they trust that others will as well. In more homogeneous societies with a stronger social fabric, such as continental Europe or Japan, people not only have a basic set of rules of the game they hold to, but they also see it as their social responsibility to care for others through the State. Israel seems to follow neither of these models. In its early days, it looked very much like a European society, with a strong sense of social cohesion and a State that catered for all its –Jewish—citizens. At that time, one could have hoped that the social inclusiveness that pervaded intra-Jewish relations could one day be expanded to Israeli Palestinians. Today, by contrast, when even intra-Jewish relations are fraught with distrust, no rules of the game are being respected and an “anything goes” aggressively self-seeking behavior are the norm and the model, how can one possibly expect “fair play,” let alone open mindedness and generosity of spirit toward others? It is indeed a world in which society’s man is considered a freier.

The mean left-wing girls from Kfar Saba

I was having an afternoon chat with a family from my synagogue and their daughter Leah. Leah had finished the army about a year before and was now working in Jerusalem. She was telling me about her army service, which she had done in the West Bank. She explained how some of the girls in her unit were “mean to her.” “They probably resented me because the guys liked me better” she said smiling mischievously. She was indeed pretty and charming. “But mainly, they did not like me because I lived in a settlement,” she said with a hurt look in her eyes. “They were left-wing girls from Kfar Saba” she concluded as if this explained it all. Some time afterward, I had my Israeli friend Rina over at my home for a Shabbat meal. She is a left-wing woman from Kfar Saba herself and I decided to discuss this incident with her. I explained what Leah had said and that I wanted to test my hypothesis about it with her. “Go ahead” Rina said. I told her that I thought the girls from Kfar Saba were probably mean to Leah because they felt they were in the army out of a will to defend their country, but did not wish to be in the occupied territories and that, in dealing with Leah, they thought: “it is because of people like you that we need to be here.” “Bingo!” Rina said.

No Yecches

Noa is a beautiful Yemenite Israeli. She comes from a long-line of Yemenite rabbis who were leaders of her community in the old country. Her family came to Israel early on during the building of the country and can hence count themselves as old-time “pioneers.” She studied economics and has now a good position making investment decisions for large clients in one of Israel’s largest banks. Even she, however, has not been immune to the discrimination against Sephardim. She once told me how, during her university years, a group of students were gathered chatting amiably and someone among them suggested that another of the students in the group –an Ashkenazi— and Noa would make a good couple. “She?” the Ashkenazi student answered in surprise and disapproval, “She is Sephardi; she has no Yecches.” Yecches is the Yiddish term for lineage and it indicates a good family, good birth. In the eyes of that student, it did not matter that Noa’s family came from a long line of Rabbis or that they had helped build Israel from the beginning. He may not even have known about this, but he also clearly did not care. She was an Eastern Jew and, hence, by definition, she had no “lineage.” This attitude is quite amazing, especially if one considers that many Sephardim came from aristocratic families and many Ashkenazi from peasant backgrounds. It is also thoroughly un-Jewish, as in Jewish tradition there is no better lineage than that of the learned, the Rabbis. It was a purely racist statement from a white European to a non-white, non-European.

A good job

I was visiting an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev. We were sitting with a mixed group of Bedouin and Jewish teenagers who worked together doing community service in the village. The Jewish teenagers were part of a program through which unusually highly-motivated youth precede their army service with one year of community service. This seemed to me like the peak of devotion. It is a lot to ask of youth in Israel to do three years of army service for men or two for women, plus reserve duty for many years after that. I strongly sympathize with those doing “national service” instead of army service for political-ethical-religious reasons, but both? Who had the energy –and the time– to do both? Well, those young people did. They spoke to us glowingly about their experience in the Negev and the bonds they were forming with their Bedouin counterparts –equally highly-motivated and energetic youngsters. I asked the Jewish youth why they wanted to do this additional year of service. They said all the right things. Things I wished I had heard more often in Israel about getting to know Arabs, Arab culture, learn Arabic…G-d bless them, I thought. I told them I thought what they were doing was great and asked them whether it would not be hard, after engaging in this one year of joint life with Palestinians, to go to the army afterwards. They had clearly thought that through and were adamant: “Perhaps. But it is what we want to do. We will be responsible. We will do a good job.”

I did not have the heart to tell them that I felt it was impossible to do a good job, that when people are put in nasty situations, they more often than not end up doing nasty things, that it was impossible to “occupy nicely.” But I kept that to myself. When we were walking back to the car, I asked the director of the NGO who had brought me there, a brilliant and charming Bedouin woman, whether she thought what these kids were saying was possible. “Listen,” she said, “as long as Israel’s policies are what they are, it is better to have kids like this at checkpoints rather than other kinds of people.” It is indeed a growing concern that the army and, in particular, the positions dealing most directly with the occupation and with Palestinians, are increasingly staffed by the national religious and, specifically, the ideological settlers. Both liberal Israeli as well as Palestinian friends have expressed this concern to me and I have read about it in the press. In many reports about human rights abuses by the Israeli army against Palestinians there is often a soldier who speaks up and stops, tries to stop or reports an act of abuse. I wished that, when situations like that arose –as they would continue to arise as long as the occupation lasted–, a kid like the ones I had met that day would be there. I also felt it was horribly unfair to them.

I have been dealing with this all my life

It was lag ba’omer and I was visiting some ultra-orthodox friends in their neighborhood in Jerusalem. My friends are a wonderful Sephardic family exemplifying some of the best Jewish values as I see them. They devote their lives to family, praying and Torah learning. They are modest in attitude and treat everyone kindly and their children are a model of discipline and gentleness. I was standing with Leah, the mother of the family, in front of their home as we were watching the lag-ba’omer bonfires. At one point, Chava, an American Ashkenazi lady came over to talk to us. We started up a conversation and it seemed that everything that my friend Leah was saying was not accurate enough. Chava kept on interrupting her and, with a condescending smile, would say, “Well, it is not exactly like this” and then would proceed to tell us exactly how it was. At one point, she specified, “It is not like this etzel ha Ashkenazim (among Ashkenazis).” It was clear from her tone that etzel ha Ashkenazim was a far superior place to be than etzel ha Sephardim (among the Sephardim).

I was cringing in embarrassment that such a modest and kind woman as Leah had to suffer such an undisguised patronizing attitude. I was wondering what Leah would say about it, though I anticipated she would say nothing. She is too humble for that. I was right. When Chava finally left, Leah said, “She is a nice lady isn’t she? She is the wife of a very learned rabbi.” I could do nothing but assent. Inside me, though, I wondered whether she felt the patronizing tone from Chava. How could one miss it? I did not know if she was too kind-hearted to notice, whether she was used to such behavior or whether she just decided to ignore it. I related this incident to a Sephardic Israeli girlfriend and asked her what she thought. She recognized the attitude immediately and told me: “Yes. This is how they behave towards us. I have been dealing with this all my life.”

A human being

Ronit is a strong-willed Israeli woman in her early thirties. Politically speaking, she is what would be called a left-wing Zionist. One day, we were discussing the occupation and the choice that young Israelis have to make in deciding whether or not to do the military service in the current situation. She told me that, in her mind, there had never been any doubt. She had to do it in order to defend her country and, as far as the occupation was concerned, she said: “As long as it is going on, I would rather be there so the person who is standing at the checkpoint is a human being.”

I educated my children to leave the country

I was taking a taxi from a restaurant to the central bus station in Tel Aviv. The driver was a secular Jewish man in his fifties. We started a conversation and he began to tell me about his family. He had three children who were now adults. They were all living abroad –one in the US, one in an island in the Caribbean and one in Australia. He seemed proud of his achievement. “I educated my children to leave the country” he told me. “Why?” I asked him in surprise. He seemed to be such the typical Israeli. ” This is no place to live” he said, “The army and the wars are all-consuming and it is very hard to make a living. Life is tense and oppressive.” He clearly was disappointed that things had turned out the way they did in Israel, but he felt he could do nothing about it and, given the status quo, he preferred to have his children live their lives elsewhere. “I am too old to leave,” he said, “but my children have their lives ahead of them and I want them to be able to make the most out of them” he concluded.

No right to criticize

During my first few months in Israel, I encountered a few people who told me –in so many words—that I had no right to criticize Israel or its policies. The first time it was Yoav, a young sabra in his thirties, who told me so. We were having Shabbat lunch and I must have expressed some criticism of the country and its policies. Truthfully, I do not remember what it was. During my first months in the country, I was under a state of shock by what I was seeing and had not yet absorbed the self-censure I would carry with me for the rest of my stay in the country so as to make my life and that of those around me livable. That Shabbat I freely expressed my views. Yoav turned to me and, giving me an intent look, said: “Only Israelis have a right to criticize Israel.” He seemed self-assured, as if the weight of what he was saying was obvious and expecting me to retract and agree (as I believe many people do). I was undeterred, “Since when?” I asked him defiantly. I also told him that, in my view, no country is beyond criticism and this includes Israel. I am not sure whether I also told him that it is our duty as Jews to criticize Israel when needed as it is a crucial factor in having the kind of honest dialogue we should have been having for a long time instead of being silenced by guilt encouraged by people like him.

The second time, I was told something similar by a settler at a work meeting. We had started to discuss Israel and, again, I made a critical comment. The settler turned to me sternly and said: “Many people think that Europeans have no right to criticize Israel.” I told her that Europeans –like everybody else—had a right and a duty to criticize any country whose policies deserve it. She seemed taken aback. I felt she had expected a retreat rather than a confirmation of my opinion. Israelis use the weapon of guilt quite effectively. However, in my view, both the Israelis who use the guilt tactic as well as those who are quieted by it are wrong to do so.

People should be extremely wary of criticizing “Jews,” just like they should be wary of criticizing any vulnerable minority anywhere. Criticizing a vulnerable minority easily gives rise to racism and, in the case of Jews, to anti-Semitism, which so promptly rears its ugly head. Israel is a completely different issue. It is not a minority, but a country and no country is beyond reproach. This is different from the question of who should make decisions for Israel, a matter on which I entirely agree with Israelis –only Israelis can make decisions for their country. Criticism, on the other hand, should not be silenced as debate is at the basis of Judaism and Jewish culture. It is also the basis of real dialogue and democratic practice.

Idan Raichel

Shortly after my return to the United States from my two-year stay in Jerusalem, the Israeli singer Idan Raichel came to Washington D.C. on a tour. A group of people from my synagogue were going to his concert and I decided to join them. It was a fantastic event, perhaps the modern music concert I have most enjoyed in my life. The music of the Idan Raichel Project features a uniquely alluring mix of rhythms from various parts of the Jewish Diaspora that have been reunited in Israel. It draws particularly heavily from the Ethiopian and Sephardic traditions. As Idan Raichel introduced the various members of his troupe, I realized that they symbolized what is best in contemporary Israel as well as its central limitation. The group included Jews from all parts of the world –Ashkenazim from North and South America and the Former Soviet Union, Sephardim, Yemenites and Ethiopians. There was just one voice missing –that of Arabs. I thought that, if one day Idan Raichel’s group included Arabs as an integral part of his Project, perhaps there would be a chance that Israel would as well.

No party for me

I was travelling back from Beit Sahour to Jerusalem with a group of left-wing Israelis. We had just participated in a pro-peace activity organized by a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO and were returning to our various towns in Israel. I was a bit nervous because it was close to midnight and these young people –according to Israeli law– were not supposed to be in the West Bank. In order not to raise suspicions, we were driving to a settlement and were going to enter into Jerusalem from the settlement. As I observed those inside the car, however, I felt we did not look anything like settlers. In part to ease the tension, I engaged one of the young men in conversation. We started to discuss the upcoming Israeli general elections and the dearth of real left-wing choices. “I will vote for Hadas” the young man said. Hadas is a small joint Arab-Jewish communist party. I sympathized with him. There was not a single party in the Israeli political spectrum that would fit the bill of a mainstream political party in a normal democratic country –namely, one that did not support an exclusionary and religious definition of the state and that did not espouse all the discriminatory institutions, laws and practices that go with it. As a result, I realized, there was no “Jewish” party for me. In reality, none of the other Arab parties were “right’ for me either as I am not a communist or an Islamist. I came to the conclusion that there was not a single political party in the Israeli political spectrum that, had I been an Israeli, I would have felt comfortable voting for. As we approached the checkpoint, we slowed down and the soldiers –to our relief—just waved us through.

Skipping Gideon Levy

Gideon Levy is one of the most courageous journalists of which contemporary Israel can boast. He writes for Haaretz, Israel’s premier newspaper. Gideon Levy writes every week about a case of human rights abuse that has taken place in the occupied territories. They are heart-rending human stories –women giving birth at checkpoints, young men shot by soldiers for no reason, children killed by settlers, Bedouins expelled from their homes, harassed by settlers or injured by exploding abandoned IDF ordnance. Week after week, the stories go on. During my time in Israel/Palestine, I would read Gideon Levy’s page religiously. It was a huge eye-opener on the nature of the occupation and, in particular, regarding something which is constantly denied by the Israeli mainstream –that human rights abuses are routine in the occupied territories. I was discussing the lack of awareness of the great majority of Israelis about the nature and consequences of the occupation for Palestinians with a young left-wing Israeli. “They don’t know and they don’t want to know” he summarized in dejection. “How can they not know?” I asked him rhetorically, “They just need to read Gideon Levy every week” I argued. “Not many people read Haaretz,” he explained “and, even among those who do, many skip Gideon Levy.” I guess there is no blinder person than the one who does not want to see, I thought.

The parasitic and the dangerous

I was having tea in a Jerusalem café with Chava, a young left-wing Israeli woman I had met at an activity organized by a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO. Chava was a refusenik, namely, one of those people who refuse to go to the Israeli army and end up spending time in jail. We were discussing various aspects of Israeli society and, in particular, how most Israelis react to people who do not do army service. Chava told me that the reaction was quite different depending on whether one refused to do army service because of religious or political reasons. The haredim or ultra-orthodox largely hold the values and view of the world that had been staple in the Jewish Diaspora –pacifism– and they do not enroll in the army. According to Chava, they are not as strongly rejected by mainstream Israeli society as left-wing political refuseniks are.

She summarized the reason for that difference by saying: “After all, the haredim are just considered parasitic whereas we (the left-wing political refuseniks) are considered dangerous.” I thought that was a very apt way to describe it. I am not sure I would agree with Chava that the reaction of the average secular Israeli is less negative toward haredim than toward refuseniks. It is just different. The average Israeli –unfortunately—considers the haredim a backward, fundamentalist, uneducated, and unproductive burden. Because of that, they are seen as so beyond mainstream society that they are not perceived as a threat to its order. Moreover, they do not make a judgment regarding the right or wrong of the Israeli occupation. The left-wing refuseniks, on the other hand, cannot be considered parasitic or backward. On the contrary, they are part of Israeli society in every other way. Moreover, they actually reflect Israel’s original goals and values much better than mainstream Israeli society does –justice, peace and building an ethical society–. By refusing to participate in such a crucial institution of Israeli society as the army, they stir Israel’s conscience. They clearly make the judgment that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is wrong. That, as Chava pointed out, makes them outright dangerous.


I attended a program organized by a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO near Bethlehem. The program featured a panel presentation by Israeli youth who had refused to serve in the army. Such youth are called refuseniks. The panel included four women –Chana, Ora, Yael and Sara– and one man –Yoel. They were all very different people. Chana was strong and assertive. Although her decision had come as a surprise to her family, who seemed to be left-wing Zionists, she felt completely at ease with her decision. She explained that she had been brought up to think for herself and she did. At the beginning, her father did not take kindly to her decision and expelled her from the family home. Now, however, they were back in talking terms. For Ora, her decision was a given and very much in line with the politics of her family and especially her father, an intellectual left-wing anti-occupation activist.

Yael and Sara, on the other hand, were shy —almost painfully so. They came from traditional Zionist families and it was clear that becoming refuseniks was anything but routine for them. Yael, in particular, seemed terribly pained by the whole experience, pained that she had to say no to her country, pained that she had to stand up to her family and her friends, pained that she was not able to serve in an Israeli army devoted to the defense of its citizens rather than the occupation of its neighbors. Whereas for Chana and Ora their decision had clearly strengthened already strong personalities, for Yael and Sara, the experience seemed to be straining their more demure and non-confrontational natures. What the four of them had in common was a strong inner determination to do the right thing and to be true to their principles regardless of gigantic outside pressures from country, friends and, often, family. I admired all of them.

The Committee

I was attending an evening program organized by an Israeli-Palestinian NGO in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. The program featured a panel of Isareli refuseniks.  One of them was Chana, a woman born of Argentinean parents in Israel. She was self-assured, smart and lively. She explained how she had tried to be exempted from military service –rather than becoming an outright refusenik. In order to be exempted, she explained, one needed to stand in front of a committee and convince them that one was a(n extreme) pacifist. Chana explained how she was asked all sorts of questions, including whether she would truly not fight in any war, including against Nazis. As it turned out, she did not succeed in convincing the committee that she was an uncompromising pacifist and she had to become a refusenik and go to jail for it. I thought that was surreal. According to the committee, people who would under no circumstances defend their country –including against the likes of Nazis– were judged to be OK and let off as pacifists. On the other hand, those who would have been happy to fight had the country been under attack, were sent to jail.

The criteria of the committee seemed outright Orwellian and contrary to both Israeli interests and Jewish ethics. They were also understandable. Extreme pacifists –those who would not fight under any circumstances—are a tiny minority and, hence, non-threatening. Moreover, their arguments do not particularly question the morality of the Israeli occupation enterprise since they oppose any fighting, whether offensive or defensive. On the other hand, regular pacifists, those who view war as a last resort in foreign policy and refuse to serve in the Israeli army because of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, do question the morality of the Israeli system. Therefore, they are a threat to the establishment and cannot be approved by “the Committee.”

Tamar and the Isolation Cell

Tamar is an Israeli woman of about eighteen years of age. She refused to do army service and, because of that, she was sentenced to jail. When she reported to jail, the military officers asked her to put on an American army uniform. She refused to do that as well. She explained to me that she had refused to go to the army for a reason, that wearing an army uniform was bad enough for her, and that being asked to wear the army uniform of a country other than her own was beyond acceptable. She explained the US had extra uniforms and had donated them to Israel. What a strange thing to do, I thought. Because she refused to wear the uniform, Tamar was placed in an isolation cell for several days. The experience was clearly traumatic for her as she recounted it. She is a shy young woman and the whole experience of having to face society, family, and friends was overwhelming for her. On top of that, having to report to a military jail and being put in an isolation cell seem to have been the drop that made the glass overflow. Now, after jail, she would have to face Israeli society at large and the especially harsh and discriminatory attitude it reserves for refuseniks for the rest of her life. She seemed to dread it while, at the same time, being at peace with her choice.

Rosh Hodesh at the Wall

During my time in Israel, I would try to go to the Wailing Wall to pray on each new month, which is a minor Jewish holiday. One time, I seem to have chosen a peak time to go. The women’s section, which is always busy, was absolutely crammed. I had to wade through a thick crowd to get in and it was so tight that I struggled to concentrate on praying with great difficulty as people constantly pushed and shoved just to be able to get a bit closer to the wall. What other times had been a beautiful spiritual experience, was much less so that time around. When I finished praying, I went back to the esplanade behind the wall. As I looked back into the area where I had been, I was astounded –the women’s section was absolutely jam-packed. You simply could not see an empty space anywhere. On the other hand, the men’s section –which is twice as large–, was almost empty. The chutzpah, I thought. Something which had not really bothered me before became a practical concern. Why should men have twice as much space as women at the Wailing Wall? Does it not belong to both of us equally? There certainly are no Talmudic regulations regarding the sharing of the area at the Wall. Although, according to Jewish law, men are required to pray at specific times while women are not, the reality is that more and more women do so. As a result, the old small spaces reserved for women in many orthodox synagogues are increasingly sorely insufficient. The same was happening at the Wailing Wall. Women actually had to fight hard to even get a section there, as originally the rabbi in charge had decided that it should be only for men. In my view, the next step in this ongoing battle for basic dignity is getting the space shared equally. I mentioned my experience and my views to one of my Haredi girlfriends. To my surprise, she agreed with me.


Public Relations

I had just come back to Israel after a month in Spain and the United States. I landed on January 8, 2009, the day after the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas had been announced. A few days later, it was Shabbat and I was at a friend’s home for dinner. One of the guests, Adam, was an American who had spent some years in England and had just made alyah to Israel. He had a particularly negative attitude towards Europe and blamed Europeans of anti-Semitism and, in particular, of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israeli posturing. I told him that one needed to make a difference between people and between cases. There are indeed Europeans that are anti-Semitic and use Israel and its policies to vent out feelings that are much less lofty than concern for justice and human rights. I remember one posting in Haaretz of a man who would often write (ranting) comments on that website. His words were something along the following lines: “Yes, I am an old fashioned anti-Semite. I acknowledge it. And Israel represents everything I hate.” This genuinely anti-Semitic group is very loud, a disgrace for Europe and a great burden for the Palestinian cause and the broader cause of peace in the region, but it is a minority. The great majority of Europeans are not moved by anti-Semitism in their critiques of Israel. They simply disagree with Israel’s policies and strongly so.

I told Adam that this was the case. He would not hear of it and went on to say how, given the fact that one could not convince Israel’s critics –because they were simply anti-Semitic and hence irrationally hateful of anything Jewish–, one should simply focus on public relations campaigns. That, he thought, was also the right way to “handle” the Gaza crisis. “Public relations” is the answer, he argued. “Israeli diplomats did really well this time. They gave no real information about the war, did not really answer questions and simply kept on hammering the same messages. It was very effective” he concluded. I was not the only one around the table who disagreed with him. Others also felt that this was most definitely not the way to “handle” the crisis. Some of the other guests –including people who agreed with the war—argued that people around the world were not stupid and that the best way to face the oncoming storm was to provide real answers and engage in a real dialogue. Adam, however, was adamant: “the only answer is public relations.”

Another word

It was Friday night and I had a small group of friends over for Shabbat dinner. One was a Russian Jew, another a European Christian and the third a Palestinian Muslim. In Israel/Palestine, these mixes of people are not only difficult to work out, but also dangerous as one never knows where the conversation may lead and what people’s reactions will be. At the beginning of the evening, therefore, we were all cautious and did not discuss politics in any direct manner.

As the evening went on and we felt increasingly comfortable, however, my Jewish friend brought up politics. I forget exactly what we were discussing, but it involved various aspects of the occupation. I am typically cautious in what I say and how I say it when I am at someone else’s home. In my own home, however, I feel freer to express my views. At one point, my Russian guest had had enough of my left-wing views and he interrupted me impatiently “Can’t you use another word?” he asked referring to “occupation.” I was quite surprised by his reaction. I knew his politics were in many ways Israeli mainstream and I did expect him to dispute some of the points I was making. I was not, however, expecting him to dispute the fact that the West Bank was occupied by Israel. I told him that no, I could not use another word because occupation is the word that best describes the status of the West Bank according to international law and in reality.

The conversation grew tense and we ended up shifting away from politics. I sensed my very polite Palestinian guest felt quite uncomfortable and I feared he was sorry he had accepted my invitation. He and my Russian friend, both engineers, decided to change the topic of conversation to something technical and the rest of the evening went on smoothly. I still wonder what someone as smart and substantively-oriented as my Russian friend could possibly think that changing the term one uses to refer to the occupation would possibly do to change the reality it describes. Perhaps he just prefers to think of it in different terms because it sounds more palatable to him. This is a mental pirouette that, in different ways, many Israelis make to deal with the reality of the occupation: it is not occupation. It is something else. I still have not figured out what.

The State of the Jews

Before I went to Israel, I had not read any of the classical Zionist writers. After some time living in Israel, I decided it would be important for me to do so. So, I started with Theodore Herzl, who is considered to be the founder of the modern Zionist movement and the “spiritual father” of the state of Israel. I read his book “Das Judenstadt” in English. Several things struck me about it. First of all was the title. The title of the book is not “the Jewish state.” In fact, Herzl nowhere in the book speaks about a Jewish state (which would be a Judische Stadt). He only speaks of a state for the Jews. The difference is a critical one. His goal was simply to find a state in which Jews could be safe from the menace he presciently saw approaching for European Jewry. A state of Jews did not preclude that there would be other people who would also be citizens of the state. Therefore, the state would not be exclusively ethnically Jewish. Moreover, it would also not be a religious state –which is the other consequence of it being called “Jewish.”

Second, Herzl was beautifully pragmatic —he simply wanted a State in which Jews could live normal lives, without constantly worrying about being killed. That state, in his book, was placed “over there.” He keeps on mentioning –when we get “over there” we will do such and such a thing to build up the state. Third, there was none of the religious fundamentalism that has overtaken so many Jews regarding the state of Israel since its inception and, especially, since 1967. Herzl never said Jews needed to have a Jewish state in the whole of the Promised Land because G-d gave it to us. He just wanted a state, as small as it may be and wherever it may be so Jews could live like other peoples. Unfortunately, his dream has not come true. I believe that, if he were to raise his head, he would be appalled at how his dream has been hijacked by extreme right-wing nationalists and religious fundamentalists. I believe he would also be disappointed at how Jews in Israel have not adopted the best ways of the nations in their attempt to be –“like other peoples”—and disheartened that the place in the world where Jews are arguably the least safe today is, of all places, Israel.

Jabotinsky versus Buber

In many ways, Jabotinsky and Buber symbolize two opposite visions of Israel and two opposite ways to achieve them. Jabotinsky was the leader of revisionist Zionism during the British Mandate, which had split off from the mainstream movement because it felt it was too soft. He was an extreme nationalist and was clear about the means to be used in the struggle–violence and no compromise with the Arab population of the land. He was a cold-blooded leader and in no way a man of the arts. Buber was his nemesis. One of the greatest philosophers and intellectuals of the twentieth century, the author of “I and Thou” was a Jewish moralist of the greatest stature. He felt that, whether individually or collectively as a nation, one could never truly become oneself unless one recognized “the other.” He believed in co-existence with the native Arab population in Mandate Palestine, was an active supporter of dialogue and espoused exclusively non-violent means of national struggle. Because his positions ended up being so marginal in the Zionist Movement, he left it. As it was increasingly evident already during their lifetimes, the state of Israel that eventually emerged was shaped by Jabotinsky’s ideas rather than Buber’s. This is obvious in the ethos the country has developed, its self-identity and its policies. It is also symbolic that, today, Jabotinsky is the most common street name in the state of Israel whereas, sadly, I still have to find a street named after Martin Buber.

Beit Chabad

Beit Chabad was founded by the late Rabbi Schnerrsson, a tzadik or Jewish sage, born and raised in Europe who spent most of his adult life in Brooklyn, New York. He was a wonderful rabbi in the European tradition. He spoke Yiddish, softly and wisely, and built one of the most impressive organizations that exist in the Jewish world today. The organization is called Beit Chabad or Chabad Lubavitch, after the town of Luvav where this Hassidic group started. Lubavitchers are focused on bringing Judaism closer to all and any Jews who will allow them to do so. Though they themselves are strictly observant ultra-orthodox Jews, their openness, warmth and knowledge of the world of Jews outside their ultra-orthodox microcosm make them enormously successful. They have centers across the world and welcome all and any wandering Jew. I owe them personally. Before I converted to Orthodox Judaism –and hence at a time in which, according to Jewish law, I was not yet Jewish–, they always helped me when I needed them. They offered me kosher food in Peru and hosted me for Shabbat in Barcelona.

I had admired them for a long time, but did not realize just how brilliant they are at their task till I saw them operate in Israel. Sadly, Israel is the ultimate challenge for a group of ultra-orthodox Jews trying to attract non-observant Jews to the Jewish tradition. Contrary to the immense majority of Diaspora Jews and owing to the teachings of mainstream Zionism, the “example” of the right wing religious settlers and their acolytes, and the mixture of “Church” and state in the country, secular Israeli Jews are often harshly hostile to Judaism. Approaching them with religion is no easy task. And yet, I witnessed Chabad doing it successfully. I saw them convincing soldiers to take on a lulav and etrog during the holiday of Sukkot on a train and engaging with a mixed group of young Israelis in Sfat which I had never seen together anywhere else in the country –secular, traditional, modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox. In contemporary Israel, these different groups of Jews are worlds apart, often torn asunder by mutual ignorance and hostility, and simply do not mix. Beit Chabad welcomed them all and organized a weekend of lectures and activities during which we all lived together, talked and re-discovered each other. The Chabad rabbis seemed to know a great deal about Israeli secular culture –enough to engage young and not so young secular Israeli Jews—and were able to create an atmosphere of acceptance and warmth which I wished could have spread from that tiny center in Sfat to the rest of the country.

In one hundred years if the country still exists

I was at the counter of my corner store in Jerusalem and the shopkeeper –a friendly Moroccan Israeli—and I engaged in a conversation. I had wanted to ask him how he viewed Sephardic-Ashkenazi relations in Israel and had not yet gotten around to it. So I did then. He told me that things were bad. He explained that, when they were little kids in school, teachers would discriminate against Sephardic children and treat them like they were dumb. This patronizing and belittling treatment continued throughout adulthood in many realms of life –from the social to the professional and the political. I asked him if he did not think things were at least getting better –which was my feeling. “Yes” he told me “they are getting better, but very slowly. If we are lucky, discrimination may disappear in one hundred years, if the country still exists.” I thought that was quite a pessimistic scenario, both regarding the evolution of intra-Jewish relations as well as regarding the chances of the country for survival. And yet, I was not sure he was wrong.

 Civility and its exceptions

Despite how antagonistic and critical my views of Israel and its policies seem to many Israelis and Diaspora Jews, my experience in sharing them has been largely a positive one. Over many conversations spanning over two years, my Jewish interlocutors have remained civil in all but two instances and listening and open in the large majority of cases. I remember a conversation I had early on during my stay in Israel. I was already quite critical in my assessment of what I was seeing and I shared my views with the guests at a Shabbat dinner. There was one young Israeli woman who debated me throughout much of the dinner and who I thought probably had quite a negative assessment of me and my opinions. At the end of the meal, we left at the same time and walked in the same direction. Before we parted ways in front of my house she told me: “I am glad you converted (to Judaism). You remind us of the importance of ethics.” I was pleasantly surprised by her comment and I thanked her. There have only been two exceptions to this civility and they have helped me realize that, given the sensitivity of the issues and my opinions, it is a very good outcome.

If people change

I was at a Shabbat dinner in Washington D.C. after my return from Israel. My host and most of the other guests were American, but there was also an Israeli woman in the group—Shira. Shira is sweet, gentle and on the quiet side. She works for a left-wing NGO with victims of conflict across the world, including in Israel and Palestine. At one point in the meal, one of the guests asked whether we thought there was a potential solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Shira answered softly: “Yes, there is. If people change.” I did not wish to contradict her, but I disagreed with her. It is of course true that there can only be deep, real, lasting peace if peoples’ hearts and minds change, on both sides. However, I believe this would be a consequence of and not a pre-requisite to political peace.

At present, the views of both Palestinians and Israelis are the result of their life experiences, their education and the media. None of these three important factors leads them toward peaceful thinking, but rather gears them up for continued war. In the current circumstances, with the lives Palestinians are enduring, the education they receive and what the Arab media writes and broadcasts, it is just too tall an order to ask them to change their hearts and minds. Similarly, given the continued threats to Israel from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda and others (including groups among Fatah), as well as the mainstream Zionist education and media Israelis are exposed to, it is too much to ask them to change their minds, feel secure and open up to the Arab world. In my view, first there needs to be political peace agreed at the highest level. Only once Palestinians have freedom and Israelis security and both peoples go through an education system and are exposed to mass media which support peace will most people truly be able to change.

How can they be so blind?

It was a gorgeous Sunday morning in the late spring in Washington D.C. and I was having a cup of coffee with Noa, an Israeli friend. Noa is a left-wing Zionist who comes from a family of Israeli academics and Jewish studies scholars in the old European tradition. We were discussing the unwillingness of a large share of American Jews to be critical toward Israel. “How can they be so blind?” she asked me half-rhetorically referring to the general attitude of much of American Jewry toward Israel’s faults and, in particular, its abuses of Palestinians. “They are not helping” she continued. I told her that I knew where the blindness was coming from and that I had shared it myself. I told her that their attitude comes from excitement that there is a Jewish state, from guilt that Israelis are keeping it afloat and from fear that, if we as Jews begin to criticize it, nobody will support it. That being said, I completely agreed with her that the community as a whole tended to be blind and that their attitude was not helpful. As we continued our conversation, it became clear that we both felt what was needed was an American Jewish community that was committed to and engaged with Israel, but also one that was open-eyed and constructively critical. I hope she will tell many people, because they need to hear it from someone like her.

I’m not doing this for them, I’m doing this for us!

I was sitting in a Jerusalem café talking to an Israeli peace activist. He described his activities and how he was trying to use them to help bring about change in Israeli society and end the occupation. At one point he stopped his discourse and looked at me intently: “You have to understand that I am not doing this for them. I’m doing this for us.” I thought that was an interesting remark. I thought about why I was doing what I was doing and have to recognize that my most important motivations are a deeply-felt outrage at the injustice and the suffering we are inflicting on the Palestinian people as well as a sense of moral duty grounded in Judaism. I would not espouse the rationale of my interlocutor –I am fighting for justice and to end the suffering of Palestinians, for the cause of justice and for ourselves, but not just or even primarily for ourselves. At the end of the day, however, I am not sure the difference in motivation matters much.  Many revolutionary movements have been, to a large extent, self-interested and, the world being what it is, self-interested motivations are more likely to mobilize a majority of the population while altruistic ethical ones only mobilize committed minorities.

I am that girl from New Jersey

Tirza, the sister of a friend of mine, was staying at my apartment in Jerusalem for a few days. Tirza’s family are committed American Jewish Zionists. The oldest brother has made alyah and the rest of the family visits Israel regularly. The younger brother is planning to join the Israeli army in a year’s time. Tirza had been briefed by her brother about the fact that I was teaching at a Palestinian university. She asked me how it was. I told her what I tell everybody: that it was a wonderful experience, that I was learning enormously from my students and that I felt very grateful I had that opportunity. We went on to discuss Palestinian life in the West Bank. I did my best to tread carefully while still passing some messages along about how difficult the everyday life of Palestinians under occupation is. I could tell Tirza was genuinely interested and concerned. I told her that I realized some of the things I was saying –let alone some of the things I was seeing—were difficult to accept for “a girl who had grown up on a rosy view of Israel from Zionist summer camp in New Jersey.” In saying that, I was trying to make a general point, but I had unwittingly described Tirza: “I am that girl from New Jersey” she told me. “I want to know more, but don’t really know how to find out. I would also like to talk about it with my friends, but they are not interested.” I felt for Tirza. It must be extremely difficult to have grown up with a picture of modern Israel as the land of miracles and successes, where Jews are finally free and have built a “Jewish democratic state” with “the most moral army in the world” only to start to find out what reality is truly like and have no one to share it with.