Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rav Freedman's Yom Kippur Message

Tonight is the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and one of a handful that receives close to impeccable levels of observance (at least in public places) from even the most secular of Israelis, in terms of not eating, driving cars, yacking on mobiles etc. They do however let their kids go cycling and rollerblading down the middle of the totally deserted streets of the city, which is surreal and somehow incredibly beautiful - the buzz of traffic (especially the ubiquitous Israeli honking) replaced by the tinkle of bike bells and sound of children playing everywhere.

Somehow this juxtaposition seems quite appropriate: the solemnity of the day for adults, on a Jewish religious and spiritual level but also as the 36th anniversary of a war that blew away Israel's ideal of invulnerability post-'67; and teenage kids taking advantage of 2 miles of Dizengoff to build up a head of steam on their scooters.

This time of year is always a period of reflection, for the religious and secular, as families get together, broadcasters run their summaries of the year that was, (some) people go to shul in the old-fashioned way, and - even more than it usually does - being in a city composed almost entirely of other Jews, built by our own hand in just the last 100 years, I find myself more contemplative than ever (despite my minimal attendance at shul). I think about all the things I did last year, those I really shouldn't, and consider that the best way to seek forgiveness for the latter is by not doing them again, and striving to redeem myself by actively doing the right things (and doing things right - harming no-one but frittering away time and ability is almost as sinful in my view).

I particularly ponder why I am here - what draws me to Israel, not just on the practical level of it being a financial imperative, a natural break point in my life back in London, crammed full of gorgeous Jewish women at a time when (apparently) I ought to be thinking of settling down with one, and all under delicious blue skies and next to lapping waves.

Some avid readers have been kind enough to post the odd remark or comment on my notes so far, and some more forthright friends have voiced their opinions on my move here. Among these are "I always thought you would go, I am just surprised it took you this long", "why on earth would you live there... there's nothing there", "hope the honeymoon phase lasts", "soooo jealous", "wish I had the courage to do the same" and "still as impartial as ever, Michael!"

With this interesting blend of views in mind, I got to thinking about the bits I am less keen on. Not the obvious stuff that as a Brit abroad, I notice in most places, ie the total ignorance of the concept of personal space, the general barging and pushing by people and vehicles, the grudging service and so on. Israeli society is a long way from perfect, and I question (as do many others) why I would trade the apparent comforts of London life for the daily challenges of living here.

There are problems here on so many levels, with a religious-secular divide, an Arab-Jewish divide, an Israeli-Palestinian divide, a Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide, all the lovely neighbours, water shortages, lack of recycling, general pollution and litter, the fact that having a country has just changed the nature of the Wandering Jew into something more optional, the general level of corruption and protectsia and so on. Then there are all the same ones we suffer from in the UK - a widening gulf between the elite and the poor, alarming levels of hidden poverty, over-reliance on the state by too many sectors of society, concerns about education and health, and the impact of a global financial crisis.

However, the difference I see here, and this is what compels me to be here, is that these are our problems. For all that people in every country like a good old grizzle about such problems, the blame is usually placed on the government or the mystical "they", no practical solutions are mooted, let alone ones which the debaters feel like trotting off and implementing themselves, and the end result is usually a polite but resigned sigh then a cup of tea (British goyim) or a throwing up of hands in the air and an oy va voy then a cup of tea (British Jews).

Here, it is a pretty small country, and the constant interference in each other's personal space and good old protectsia do have their uses. People who feel strongly about something can - and often do - get off their butts and try to fix it. This is the entrepreneurial nature of society, on a commercial and social level. See a disease, an injustice, an empty patch of land, a gap in the market, an opinion that needs a counter-argument, and go do something about it.

For me this is the Israeli way. Or at least, it was.

My greatest concern for Israel is that young people here are tired. They are tired of creating your heart and cancer drugs, your mobile phone chips, your laptops, your desalination and solar technologies, your irrigation systems, your instant messenger, your citrus fruit, only to receive endless calls for a boycott of Israeli goods.

They are tired of silently suffering 8,000 rockets aimed at them with no international condemnation, tired of responding by emailing, texting and leafleting the civilians near the rockets to please step aside, before putting troops on the ground at great risk to check if they left before firing back, when airstrikes would be safer for them, tired of the anonymous and unproven claims of systematic abuse of civilian populations and property during this mission, tired of the world believing every one of the blood libels spread by a side that threw its own brothers off buildings, tired of having to keep checkpoints because although they are inconvenient, they do cut the threat of bombs, tired of removing hundreds of them at their own risk, but getting no thanks from anyone, least of all the Palestinians, tired of being the ones to make concession after concession when the reward for doing so is 8,000 rockets.

And you know what? Sixty-one years of living in this neighbourhood, trying to make peace with neighbours in a white Western Ashkenazi philosophical manner, trying to "civilise" them, has not worked. In fact I think the opposite is starting to happen. Instead, they are brutalising us.

Let us not just blame the average Palestinian in the street - it is the result of years of steady inculcation of the message that Jews have no claim over any part of this region, that Jews are evil, that Jews drink the blood of Palestinian children, that Jews killed Mohammed al-Durra, that Jews invented the Holocaust.

For as we tumbled into a chicken-and-egg of being attacked, having to occupy these people, thereby unintentionally and unwillingly reinforcing these myths, and creating the next generation of attackers, the world did not stand idly by. Far from it. The world perpetuated this state of affairs by funding the camps, the textbooks, the weaponry, by allowing the smuggling, the revision of history, the barrage of rockets, by failing to even maintain a pretence of impartiality in its reporting, its institutional rulings, its policies.

So to all those people out there in the world, who really believe they are fair-minded decent liberal people, and if only nasty little Israel would learn to behave, everything would resolve itself nicely, my message
this Yom Kippur is this. You should look at yourselves and understand that you hate Israel because we are a reflection of you. A quote from Stephen King's article in the Irish Examiner - "could it actually be that we see Israelis as very much like ourselves – sophisticated, prosperous, well-educated, fairly pale-skinned democrats? Do we hate ourselves that much?"

I propose that you are so terrified of having this same situation on your own doorstep on a daily basis, and more so, terrified of how you would react, whether submissively or repressively, that you demonise Israel even as it struggles with these demons on a daily basis.

Abbas, Erekat et al have admitted in the past few months (just not to the English-speaking media) that they will effectively never sign a peace treaty. They retained the right to try and wipe out Israeli in their constitution, they stated that there is only Allah above and below the Temple Mount (ie even a theoretical Jewish/Israeli right to what is under the Dome of the Rock would be rejected because the Muslim world would tolerate no less, and how can any Israeli government - especially one in coalition with the frummers, sign that away?!), and they continue with the usual equivocations elsewhere. And these are the "moderates"!

This is a conundrum for the world to resolve - cue throwing up of hands and an exasperated sigh, followed by a cup of tea and a spot of BBC News.

To Israelis and to Jews everywhere, my message is that we do not have to be brutalised by our neighbours, enemies and critics, and we should not try to impose our own cultural and philosophical norms on them.

For the Jews, whether in the Diaspora or Israel, instead let us look to ourselves, to all the problems we need to fix internally. Why is there such visceral hatred between settlers and peaceniks, even though they both love Israel and their enemies want them both dead or exiled (just maybe in order)? Why do I not have a mixed-recycling bin as even backward Blighty manages in many areas? Why does the Gordon Beach manage to look pristine on the sand and in the water most days, but is still subject to a layer of flotsam and debris on others? Why must Israeli drivers continue to kill more civilians than the rockets and bomb-belts? Why can't Israeli society learn that Jews have been around for six millenia, outliving every other tribe and nation, including the ones who tried to wipe us out, and therefore show just a little care and patience when it comes to customer service, waiting, queuing, giving a smile every now and then? Why is anyone homeless or hungry in this land, where we have several billionaires, GDP per capital that competes with Europe, and we "have never seen a righteous person in need"?

Why does everyone use the excuse of "this is the Middle East" to explain away every problem (including why Israel is maybe becoming more desensitised to brutality and violence) when the Bauhaus architecture, phenomenal technology, H&M and Ikea, obsession with education, constant self-flagellation, democracy, social liberalism, melting-pot of opinions and beliefs, and easy ability to obtain schnitzel clearly mark us out as a Western society, regardless of which shore we have washed up on?

We are in a unique and blessed situation. Israel was formed by "kibbutz galuyot", the ingathering of exiles - but it is also "Kibbutz Galuyot" in the sense of being a commune of people from the world over, with their ideas, experiences and enthusiasm, and despite the Israeli post-army wanderlust, still nowhere else to go that accepts us and that we can really call home.

All those years of galut mean we have built up some incredible attributes and experience in how to make the best of what we have, how to make the transient into the permanent, how to give to those around us even as they restrict, spite and persecute us, how we tread the line between their grudging respect and seething jealousy. We do this by looking after ourselves first - the family unit, the synagogue, the shtetl, the community, the city, and now that we have our own country, we can try to improve our nation as a whole.

For the Jews, cue throwing up of hands, an oy va voy and a cup of tea. But after Yom Kippur, let us start finding some solutions for our own problems.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A life less ordinary

I think I am in love. At least, the whole movie schtick about being in love is that all your senses are heightened, and you become almost autistically aware of everything around you in a heady and pulsating new way. Well, if this is the case, I am in love with Tel Aviv.

A simple jaunt to the beach near to sunset brings with it a series of very Israeli cameos.

Firstly, as I come down onto Ruppin, there's the mother with two children in the back of the car, the car wedged into a space about 3 inches longer than the vehicle, warning her kids (in Hebrew - I think I understood this correctly but some of the vocab hasn't come up in my first 4 days of ulpan) that "mummy has to make some bumpies to get the car out so hold on".

Just around the corner on Shalag, I notice a middle-aged lady outside an old block with no lift, in heated discussion with a guy on the ground floor and another on a top floor balcony. They have installed a very neat little winch system and have hooked up crates full of the lady's shopping, and are having the classic 3 Jews, 4 opinions moment on how to get the goods to the 4th floor. I consider adding a 5th and even 6th perspective, but there is a picture-postcard moment in front of me as the sun drops behind a fluffy cloud and a halo of dusty pink rays shoot out in every direction.

As I come down the ramp to Gordon Beach, a very large labrador has just spotted a tiny little bassett and decided to make friends. The owners are giggling away as the lab appears to give it a sloppy kiss on the forehead. One of those instants that ends up on the nasty black-tinged posters with tacky quotations that you used to get in Athena (z"l).

Down on the sand, it's 6.15pm and I think about my friends in London as I kick off my flip-flops and dive into crystal-clear bath-water temperature seas, tinged a lovely ochre by the setting sun. Then I focus on the native wildlife. Sorry, assorted Wifeys!

After an invigorating swim, I trot off to take a shower. A twentysomething Russian dolly-bird is walking along with the tiniest little baby greyhound, which sprints to the foot-washing taps for a frolic, much to the delight of a blonde toddler, who shrieks with delight as it runs around her.

I head up from the beach, a beatific smile across my face, thinking it has been a proper Lou Reed Perfect Day. Halfway up Shalag I realise I left my keys somewhere on the beach. About-turn, more glowing sunset, more dogs, more cute owners, still a great day.

It truly sinks in why Rav Kook always signed letters from his house in Neve Tzedek as "Tel Aviv, Iyr HaKodesh" - Tel Aviv, holy city.

My love affair is such that I am looking at myself in a whole new way. I walk a little taller, I am prepared to make changes and personal compromises to ensure this relationship works, I can imagine myself becoming a better person with every moment together. I want to gain knowledge and lose weight. I want to gain insight on my self and lose my fear of the 'other'. I want to gain experience and lose inhibitions. I want to be free and yet I can best achieve that by committing to this place.

Someone implied recently that my postings on Israel are not objective; I say to you that this is a place I defend with passion as well as reason, because I love it, and I think it loves me back.

With thanks to Berlinerstrasse for also daring to dream.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Five months of Fizzybubbly

Well, there has been a heck of a hiatus since my last posting, but now I am happily settled in Tel Aviv for a 5 month test run ahead of a possible decision to make aliyah. I will try and post regularly with news and views, especially as this will save dramatically on repetitive emails and phone conversations.

A brief explanation of how I got here and why, as my departure seems to have taken some by surprise, despite the 4 different leaving shindigs and efforts to reach everyone by text, email and Facebook. Basically since we got the flat out here about 5 years ago, I have spent 3 months a year enjoying being in Israel, but never for more than 3-4 weeks at a time. With a business to run in the UK, I felt compelled to return and make a go of it, but finally a few months ago I decided to give it a shot. With the forthcoming end of my lease making a natural break-point and a feeling that I was just as unlikely to make a decent amount of money here as in London in the current economic climate, I bit the bullet.

So with the fantastic help of Marlon the black/white van man and Grandpa's garage, I put all my stuff in storage (about 70 crates, a dozen large bags, 60 bottles of booze), booked my bmi ticket with specially schnorrered gold status, and flew off into the sunset.

Now I am safely ensconced in Tel Aviv, have had 3 days of ulpan so far, and am generally having a fantastic time. If I can find a way to eke out a reasonable living, then it's hard to think of any compelling reasons to come back to Blighty. Every day I speak to or email someone and they mention the shit weather, or broken Tube, or dead economy, whilst here the cafes are full, the nightlife is vibrant, the weather is a steady 30 degrees by day and 20 by night, and need I mention the women?

Also as I am in the shadow of Iran's mushroom cloud for a few months, I am once again invigorated with the urge to fight back against the combined efforts of the world media, the Axis of Feeble in DC (Zbig/Hilldog/Obummer), and the wonderful so-called humanitarian organisations with their warped sense of do-gooding.

On this note, a quick celebratory gloat at the exposure of Marc Garlasco as a Nazi obsessive. You might remember I mentioned him in a posting back in January, when the world was having one of its regular feeding frenzies at Israel's expense. Here's what I wrote:
For example, the "neutral" "expert" from "Human Rights Watch", Marc Garlasco. Here is a little snippet about him, and a link to Honest Reporting's article on him, HRW, and some of their previous handiwork. Now whilst the killing of this doctor's family was clearly a tragic accident (unless you are Bowen, Garlasco or Gilbert of course), the IDF's initial reaction was that if they did hit the house with a shell, there was a reason it was targetted. Then they started to carry out a fuller investigation and I found this coverage of the actual tank unit commander's comments.
At the time, I had a bad feeling about him and the various other parties who kept cropping up in the world's media. Now it transpires he has a bit of a Nazi fetish. And it must be true, because I read it here on the BBC. Just the kind of guy to check out allegations of Isreali human rights abuses. He is taken to task in this fabulous article over at Mere Rhetoric.

That's about it for the moment. L'hitra'ot, ani holech lahof!