Friday, October 30, 2009

The honeymoon

It's been nearly 8 weeks since I got to Israel, and I am still enjoying the "honeymoon period". I have been reminded by a very awesome guy (mush!) to always be aware that I get a very extended honeymoon period on my aliyah (yes, I am biting the bullet) because of the good fortune of having generous and wonderful parents and grandparents who have endowed me with a very soft landing here for my first year or so.

I want them to know that not a moment goes by here where I do not remember how lucky I am to be here on these terms, and I will be eternally thankful to them.

I look around me at people also just arriving (in some cases really crash-landing), and I see the many stresses and fears they have, their lives one endless stream of struggles with language, accommodation, employment, finance, bureaucracy and distance from loved ones. I feel awful that perhaps they do not have the same opportunity to luxuriate in everything that makes moving here momentous. All I can do is try and take advantage of the fact that out here I have the three key features olim hadashim require - chutzpah, protectsia and savlanut, and maybe try to give people a hand where possible. Perhaps this is one country where you really can and should "pay it forward".

On a wider level, one of my ambitions is to eventually set about improving the aliyah experience for people who choose to come here. It sounds odd that those are the ones that need the help, but actually the state does an adequate job looking after those who have no other choice, and in the longer term, Israel needs to attract the best and brightest of the Diaspora. For them to come here voluntarily and put down roots requires material compromise, so they have to be given a chance to experience something meaningful that replaces the loss of earnings that is almost inevitable.

Because Western olim by and large have the safety net of going back, it takes something quite powerful and profound to continue to anchor them here. In the words of one of my new friends (Polo), he is "earning what I did in London 12 years ago, in a position of seniority I had 7 years ago... but in lifestyle terms, back in the UK I wouldn't be at this level for another 10 years."

How can this be translated into spiritual, emotional and intellectual advancement, not just a statement about career, social and material change?

When I tell some of the little anecdotes of coincidences and moments that have happened to me here, something clearly resonates with native Israelis and both recent and settled olim. But whilst some people do have their own stories to tell, so many just don't have the time and cannot find the mental and emotional space to be open to these things, because of the aforementioned draining process of getting here and getting settled.

There is a reason why this place is like nowhere else, and it is because there is a unique quality to the people and a special atmosphere to every inch of the land that is so hard to describe, and indeed is perhaps unique to each of us. Everyone who has been here and felt a moment of love for this noisy, hot, dusty, dishevelled place knows what I am talking about. It could be the waft of hyssop and jasmine when out on a kibbutz, the unique Tel Aviv beach sounds of clip-clopping matkot and the ice-cream guy shouting "artic, artic", or the moment your ears pop when a very fast taxi driver takes you up into the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (I always think this moment marks the spiritual crossing-point, like some higher being clearing your ears so you can hear a different tone and quality of sound that echoes from those white stones).

Now I am learning not to be too pompous or self-important with all these thoughts and what I write here, and perhaps I don't always succeed, but what I hope is that by trying in my own way to express them and tell my stories, maybe the odd visitor or olah hadashah will just be a bit more open to these experiences for themselves. Not just having them, but being willing to recognise and explore them, without seeming weird or religious. It doesn't help physically with the chores and pressures of being here, but mentally I think it changes the experience completely.

But how to channel this into something practical? This being Israel, everyone has their ideas. I enjoyed a fabulous meal out with T&T (mazel tov on your engagement!) and their lovely friends last night, and we had some discussion about this.

One of the great assets of Israel is the heavily subsidised ulpan system to ensure that anyone who wants to learn Hebrew for any reason and any period of time can do so at a very affordable price. Despite this being a fantastic attraction for many young Jews who want to "try before they buy" - I was one of them - I was horrified to learn that the government are cutting ulpan budgets, and this will have the effect of raising prices or losing classes, or both. This is tragic, short-sighted and counter-productive. Having an accessible ulpan is just as important as Birthright or Masa. Write to the Knesset immediately!

We also talked about ways to improve the city using private money, to create new quarters in the way that Neve Tzedek, anchored by a resplendent Suzanne Dallal Centre, has been transformed. There are many neighbourhoods where a similar process would reap benefits. The key is to make this city proud of itself and try to get the residents to look past the end of their noses.

Israel is a funny place with an inverted value chain of civic pride and public behaviour. In the UK, people hold the door open for you, queue politely, generally don't litter, and obey the no smoking sign. Here, the opposite is true - in fact, they almost relish the barging. But here, if you stumbled on the street, people would rush to check if you were okay, whilst in the UK, people might well politely step over you on their way to the Tube. I know which I would rather have.

But it is not enough. If it can be transformed into a wider civic pride, combined with better care of surroundings, for example not just accepting the unkempt appearance of 80% of the buildings here because they look fine from the inside, perhaps we can have the best of both worlds.

We have to start small - and the advantage of being here is that sense of ownership. The other day, I was on a station platform in Netanya, and saw two kids in army uniform. One took out the last ciggie from his packet, and flicked the empty box at the bin. It missed, and he left it lying on the floor. I went up, said in my bastard Hebrew "you're in uniform, set an example and show some respect", picked up the box and dropped it in the trash.

The kid was completely stunned, probably because people here usually let this sort of sloppy behaviour slide. But I think along the lines of "broken windows theory" - you have to fix the small ills in society before going after the big prizes. And today that kid is chucking a fag-packet, but tomorrow he could be holed up in some Palestinian's house in Gaza, showing the same contempt for their home as for the station platform, or he could be letting his dog crap somewhere on Ruppin so Freedmansister is guaranteed to put her foot in it on the way back from the beach.

I think it is incumbent on Israelis and olim to keep trying to inspire and exhort each other to stay here, even when the going gets tough. This is a pioneering country whose frontiers remain unsecured and undefined, 60 years after creation. It is not an easy place to survive, let alone thrive in, and whilst the cliché of the Israeli Sabra (hard and prickly exterior, soft and sweet inside) is true, some people are disillusioned by the barbs that stick in the hand and craw, and never get as far as scooping out the lush fruit within.

An example: last night I was out for birthday drinks of an old friend at the Dancing Camel Brewery, and ran into Arik Bradshaw, a friend from ulpan. We ended up taking a little walk along the seafront and up to Ben Yehuda, just as the heavens were opening, and she told me how she was struggling financially and therefore physically and mentally, to make a go of it here. Her Hebrew was improving at a dazzling pace thanks to a fun but poorly-paid cafe job, but she felt homesick and to some extent thought Tel Aviv lacked certain things she had been relying upon to make the experience worthwhile and complete.

One of the main things she emphasised was that she had expected this to be a city full of live music culture, and that she was learning the violin. I pointed out that there were plenty of places to go, if she knew where to look, but this clearly was not enough to inspire her. Then, just as we walked down Ruppin to the end of the alley that runs down to Ben Yehuda, we suddenly heard the strains of violins and an accordion, playing Jewish or Central European music.

As a light drizzle turned into a full-scale downpour, complete with the crashing cymbals and drums of thunder and lightning, we ducked into the little pitzutzia at the foot of the alley, where half a dozen people were sitting under the awning at 1am, as three guys from Slovakia or somewhere nearby were playing merrily. The Bulgarian shopkeep merrily handed out pints of Czech draught beer, and gradually more and more people passing by, running to get out of the rain, came and huddled in this little corner shop.

The three men played for a solid hour and by the end, maybe 20 people were squeezed in under the shelter, clapping and singing. Arik was delighted and clearly reinvigorated, not least when one of the players let her play a few bars on his violin.

Only an hour or so earlier, when had just been trying to explain that this kind of small miracle makes up my daily experience here, she appreciated it and felt glad for me, but perhaps couldn't really grasp it for herself. Now, she seemed a different person, her eyes shining, a big beaming smile on her face.

And all of this in the rain! It's amazing how that first deluge of autumn doesn't actually dampen people's spirits here but seems to raise them. There is a sense of camaraderie when everyone is caught outside without coats and umbrellas, and a feeling of common sacrifice that although we may not get to have our 158th consecutive day on the beach, this country needs the water. It never lasts too long, as the novelty washes off, but it is delightful to read all the positive Facebook and Twitter updates from olim hadashim about that first moment of British weather.

I hope the forecast 4 days of solid rain will at least focus my mind on actually making a living and doing some work - to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven, right? The glorious weather has put a wonderful gloss on my first few weeks here, but now to knuckle down and make a living, and see if the honeymoon lasts.

Now I am off to make some fresh baklava (almond and orange-blossom this week). Shabbat shalom!

Glossary for the uninitiated (ie uncircumcised)

Ulpan - intensive Hebrew language school
Aliyah - Jewish immigration to Israel
Pitzutzia - little corner shop that always has something random for sale
Savlanut - patience
Chutzpah - blarney/cheek
Protectsia - network of useful people for any problem
Olim hadashim - new immigrants
Matkot - beach bat and ball game

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I loved her, and now she is here

Setting the scene: Freedmansdad has been out here for a long weekend while Freedmansmum and Freedmansister have a girlie (girdly?!) weekend in Lille. So too are the Cors, for a wedding (Ham is at home babysitting the toastie machine), and we met up with them for a drink on the beach (well, I sat there while the waitress pointedly refused to take my order - I guess she was one of those who take the Service Not Included thing on the bill quite literally here). Also flying through were one of Freedmansdad's old friends from back in the valleys, and his goody wife.

The leading questions they all had for me were of course whether I was settling in and whether I would stay, and also what made this place so special and better than London. I could only answer this through a series of anecdotes...

Avid readers of Freedmanslife will recall that I recently described my short time here as a life less ordinary. I said that I felt much more aware of my surroundings, much more in tune with people, nature and the world. I also thought I was in love with the city, and had this strange and magical sense that it loved me back. Perhaps there was some kind of Tel Aviv Syndrome (a cross between Jerusalem Syndrome [Type II] and Stockholm Syndrome but with fewer frummers than the former and better beaches than the latter).

I also felt that this was a place where finally I would find the time and space to become the person I always thought I was capable of - in fact, the person so many others always thought I could become, but that got bogged down in London, became listless and dull, and in relative terms to potential, really was a bit of a failure. I can be this self-critical now, because in just a few short weeks, I have started to turn it around.

This city and its people inspire me to read, write, debate, live a healthier lifestyle (so much that I have gained hair and lost belly at a rapid pace, and an old friend from London didn't recognise me standing next to him on the beach!), give myself quality time alone, blended with meaningful time with other people, try new recipes, hang out with artists, dancers and dandies (longstanding Freedmanslifers will understand this represents a radical change), take long walks, set challenges for myself (ie get fit enough to do shlav bet [short voluntary army service for new olim] and then walk the entire 1,000km Israel Trail - does this sound like the old Fatty Freedman?!) and actually put into practice all those things I said I would do a month ago.

Is this a honeymoon period? Maybe. But so many others I know who have moved here, some quite a few years ago, are still in it. So now I am pretty convinced that this is where I belong, because as the hackneyed expression goes, home is where the heart is.

Last week, I was having my daily sunset swim, when I felt a most powerful sensation that I had to turn around and look back at the beach. On doing so, my eye was drawn immediately to the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I began to swim back to the shore, determined to go up and say something. No sooner had I got close to the beach than an even more powerful feeling overtook me, that it was vitally important not to speak to her after all.

So I sauntered on by, grabbed my towel and went for a shower, before heading up the steps behind the beach, to take my usual seat on a bench on the promenade and enjoy the sunset. As I made my way up, I passed a guy heading in the opposite direction. He was clearly dressed up a bit more than he might be usually, and was holding a large bouquet of flowers. Despite there being hundreds of people on the beach, I knew he was heading to that breathtaking girl.

And of course, that is exactly what he did. Even from a distance, I could see she was delighted to see him. Although I was desperate to know what the occasion was, the whole point was that she was someone very special whose special moment I had narrowly avoided casting a pall over, and I could hardly pop over and ask.

As I enjoyed another delicious ever-changing canvas of red and orange, misty greys and deep blues, and reflected on this, I felt profoundly connected to my surroundings, and comforted by the knowledge that one day I would be that guy coming down the steps at sunset.

Earlier in Freedmansdad's stay, I had told him I was no longer sure if I believed in coincidence, and indeed, since I had been here, every one of these "chance" encounters had been profound or practical. Last night I recounted some of this, and the sensation of being in a deep love affair with the city, to
Valley and Goody as we headed up to the closing party of the Tel Aviv 100th anniversary celebrations. I think they thought I was a bit mad, until we arrived, and the chorus of the opening song, referring to this city, was "I loved her, and now she is here". As the fireworks went off, and the faces and facades of the city flashed up on a clever screen formed by a mist of water on the Yarkon River, I knew my love was not unrequited.

If I had any remaining doubts, they were dispelled, when after the fog of the fireworks started drifting away along with the audience, we turned around, and right in front of me were four of my most special Israeli friends, who I had yet to see since arriving. After a lot of hugging and kissing, we enjoyed a spectacular concert of some of Tel Aviv's greatest bands of the 80s and 90s, playing together for an immense crowd, in a wonderful, convivial atmosphere.

What a night. What a month. What a life.

She loved me, and now I am here.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Ahmedinejad is a Jew-hating self

Okay, so even though the following appears in the Guardian, it does appear to be quite plausible:

Ahmadinejad has no Jewish roots

Rumours that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's family converted to Islam from Judaism are false. In fact, they are proud Shias, by Meir Javedanfar.

In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's meteoric rise from mayor of Tehran to president of one of the most influential countries in the Middle East took everyone by surprise.

One of the main reasons for the astonishment was that so little was known about him.One recently published claim about his background comes from an article in the Daily Telegraph. Entitled "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revealed to have Jewish past", it claims that his family converted to Islam after his birth. The claim is based on a number of arguments, a key one being that his previous surname was Sabourjian which "derives from weaver of the sabour, the name for the Jewish tallit shawl in Persia".

Professor David Yeroshalmi, author of The Jews of Iran in the 19th century and an expert on Iranian Jewish communities, disputes the validity of this argument. "There is no such meaning for the word 'sabour' in any of the Persian Jewish dialects, nor does it mean Jewish prayer shawl in Persian. Also, the name Sabourjian is not a well-known Jewish name," he stated in a recent interview. In fact, Iranian Jews use the Hebrew word "tzitzit" to describe the Jewish prayer shawl. Yeroshalmi, a scholar at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies, also went on to dispute the article's findings that the "-jian" ending to the name specifically showed the family had been practising Jews. "This ending is in no way sufficient to judge whether someone has a Jewish background. Many Muslim surnames have the same ending," he stated.

Upon closer inspection, a completely different interpretation of "Sabourjian" emerges. According to Robert Tait, a Guardian correspondent who travelled to Ahmadinejad's native village in 2005, the name "derives from thread painter – sabor in Farsi – a once common and humble occupation in the carpet industry in Semnan province, where Aradan is situated". This is confirmed by Kasra Naji, who also wrote a biography of Ahmadinejad and met his family in his native village. Carpet weaving or colouring carpet threads are not professions associated with Jews in Iran.

According to both Naji and Tait, Ahmadinejad's father Ahmad was in fact a religious Shia, who taught the Quran before and after Ahmadinejad's birth and their move to Tehran. So religious was Ahmad Sabourjian that he bought a house near a Hosseinieh, a religious club that he frequented during the holy month of Moharram to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein.

Moreover, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's mother is a Seyyede. This is a title given to women whose family are believed to be direct bloodline descendants of Prophet Muhammad. Male members are given the title of Seyyed, and include prominent figures such as Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei. In Judaism, this is equivalent to the Cohens, who are direct descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. One has to be born into a Seyyed family: the title is never given to Muslims by birth, let alone converts. This makes it impossible for Ahmadinejad's mother to have been a Jew. In fact, she was so proud of her lineage that everyone in her native village of Aradan referred to her by her Islamic title, Seyyede.

The reason that Ahmadinejad's father changed his surname has more to do with the class struggle in Iran. When it became mandatory to adopt surnames, many people from rural areas chose names that represented their professions or that of their ancestors. This made them easily identifiable as townfolk. In many cases they changed their surnames upon moving to Tehran, in order to avoid snobbery and discrimination from residents of the capital.

The Sabourjians were one of many such families. Their surname was related to carpet-making, an industry that conjures up images of sweatshops. They changed it to Ahmadinejad in order to help them fit in. The new name was also chosen because it means from the race of Ahmad, one of the names given to Muhammad.

According to Ahmadinejad's relatives the new name emphasised the family's piety and their dedication to their religion and its founder. This is something that the president and his relatives in Tehran and Aradan have maintained to the present day. Not because they are trying to deny their past, but because they are proud of it.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Ahmedinejad is a self-hating Jew

This one needs to be re-read a few times to be believed:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revealed to have Jewish past... vitriolic attacks on the Jewish world hide an astonishing secret, evidence uncovered by The Daily Telegraph shows.
By Damien McElroy and Ahmad Vahdat

A photograph of the Iranian president holding up his identity card during elections in March 2008 clearly shows his family has Jewish roots. A close-up of the document reveals he was previously known as Sabourjian – a Jewish name meaning cloth weaver.

The short note scrawled on the card suggests his family changed its name to Ahmadinejad when they converted to embrace Islam after his birth.

The Sabourjians traditionally hail from Aradan, Mr Ahmadinejad's birthplace, and the name derives from "weaver of the Sabour", the name for the Jewish Tallit shawl in Persia. The name is even on the list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran's Ministry of the Interior.

Experts last night suggested Mr Ahmadinejad's track record for hate-filled attacks on Jews could be an overcompensation to hide his past. Ali Nourizadeh, of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies, said: "This aspect of Mr Ahmadinejad's background explains a lot about him. "Every family that converts into a different religion takes a new identity by condemning their old faith. "By making anti-Israeli statements he is trying to shed any suspicions about his Jewish connections. He feels vulnerable in a radical Shia society."

A London-based expert on Iranian Jewry said that "jian" ending to the name specifically showed the family had been practising Jews. "He has changed his name for religious reasons, or at least his parents had," said the Iranian-born Jew living in London. "Sabourjian is well known Jewish name in Iran."

A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in London said it would not be drawn on Mr Ahmadinejad's background. "It's not something we'd talk about," said Ron Gidor, a spokesman.

The Iranian leader has not denied his name was changed when his family moved to Tehran in the 1950s. But he has never revealed what it was change from or directly addressed the reason for the switch. Relatives have previously said a mixture of religious reasons and economic pressures forced his blacksmith father Ahmad to change when Mr Ahmadinejad was aged four.

The Iranian president grew up to be a qualified engineer with a doctorate in traffic management. He served in the Revolutionary Guards militia before going on to make his name in hardline politics in the capital.

During this year's presidential debate on television he was goaded to admit that his name had changed but he ignored the jibe. However Mehdi Khazali, an internet blogger, who called for an investigation of Mr Ahmadinejad's roots was arrested this summer.

Mr Ahmadinejad has regularly levelled bitter criticism at Israel, questioned its right to exist and denied the Holocaust. British diplomats walked out of a UN meeting last month after the Iranian president denounced Israel's 'genocide, barbarism and racism.'

Benjamin Netanyahu made an impassioned denunciation of the Iranian leader at the same UN summit. "Yesterday, the man who calls the Holocaust a lie spoke from this podium," he said. "A mere six decades after the Holocaust, you give legitimacy to a man who denies the murder of six million Jews while promising to wipe out the State of Israel, the State of the Jews. What a disgrace. What a mockery of the charter of the United Nations."

Mr Ahmadinejad has been consistently outspoken about the Nazi attempt to wipe out the Jewish race. "They have created a myth today that they call the massacre of Jews and they consider it a principle above God, religions and the prophets," he declared at a conference on the holocaust staged in Tehran in 2006.

[ Incidentally I noticed that whilst Ahmedinevich is busy denying the Holocaust, the Taleban not only recognise it happened, but used it as the basis of a threat to German NATO troops in Afghanistan that they would wipe them out in a similar way to how the Nazis killed the Jews... ]

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Goldstone's passion for works of fiction

I have so far refrained from having a good old dig at Richard Goldstone for his quite incredible (I mean it literally, it's not credible) report for the UN on the Gaza operation. In part this is because Dershowitz (x3), Phillips et al have done such a good job already. I also found a peach from Evelyn Gordon about the use of proportion and force - not recommended for weak-hearted lefties. Even the Economist, which might generously be described as a critical and naive friend of Israel, managed to say something decent. And I had to pick myself up off the floor after reading an article from notoriously self-flagellating former Ha'aretz editor David Landau.

We already know the story of Goldstone sleeping through one of the sessions where residents of the bombed towns of Israel were giving evidence to his committee. But I had to share with you this little treasure which has somehow gone unreported in the British media, despite casting even more doubt over Goldstone's capabilities and ability to discern fact from fiction:

When Goldstone Indicted a Fictional Character (and a Dead Man)

by Nissan Ratzlav-Katz

Judge Richard Goldstone, whose recent United Nations Human Rights Council investigation purported to find evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza, once indicted a fictional Serbian character and a dead man for war crimes as well. As in Gaza, those indictments were also allegedly based on "eyewitness testimony."

Goldstone headed the Office of the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established by the United Nations in 1993. In 1995, one year into his term as chief ICTY prosecutor, Goldstone presented an indictment of several Serbs for war crimes and crimes against humanity. As brought to light in the weekend edition of the Hebrew-language Makor Rishon newspaper, among those indicted was a man identified as "Gruban".

Gruban, later identified more fully as Gruban from Bijelo Polje, was charged with viciously raping Muslim prisoners in what was identified by the prosecution as essentially a Serbian concentration camp. His crimes were given weight by an anonymous individual identified only as "Witness F", who claimed to have suffered at the hands of the notorious war criminal.

As described by Makor Rishon, "Within just a few months, the black silhouette of 'Gruban' was plastered on a poster of the most wanted war criminals in Bosnia." At the time, Makor Rishon noted, the American newspaper The Boston Globe published an article wondering why the poster of "Gruban" stated that his description, father's name, location and age were all listed as "unknown".

The problem for NATO forces in tracking down the serial rapist was that Gruban from Bijelo Polje, also known as Gruban Malic, is a fictional character from Hero on a Donkey, a famous Serbian novel about World War II by Miodrag Bulatovic.

The Gruban hoax was the result of a conversation in a Bosnian cafe between Yugoslavian war correspondent Nebojsa Jevric and an American journalist desperate to see a "real war criminal", according to Makor Rishon. Jevric identified "Gruban Malic" by name as the Serbian people's "worst war criminal", having committed the most rapes.

After the indictment of "Gruban" became known, Jevric capitalized on his countrymen's bemused fascination with Goldstone's "investigation" and wrote a book called Hero on a Donkey Goes to The Hague. In the book he detailed how his comment to an American reporter took on a life of its own.

In 1998, even after the true identity of the "war criminal" was known, the charges against "Gruban Malic" were officially dropped for lack of evidence by Goldstone's successor. Thirteen other flesh-and-blood Serbs were also taken off the same ICTY indictment docket alongside "Gruban" - including a man that Goldstone indicted several years after he had already died.