Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Why I made Aliya

(published in the Jerusalem Post 20th December 2005 p15)

England has given me a lot – a good liberal enlightened education, a healthy respect yet suspicion of authority, the patience to stand in queues without complaining. I have a fantastic family, wonderful friends and live in a beautiful area. London provides a platform for tolerance and multiculturalism, of respect for differing faiths and opinions, places of culture and entertainment - galleries, cinemas and cafes. It’s hosting the Olympics, has little unemployment and offers good social and financial opportunities for young professionals.

So why I am leaving this to move to what many people consider a war zone?

The issue of safety is perhaps not as clear cut as it may seem. Despite the fact people live a relatively normal life in Israel, there are definitely safer places to be. Things we take for granted in Britain (or perhaps used to before 7/7) about being safe on public transport, that people love life instead of glorifying death are not as certain in a place that has experienced suicide bombings in buses, cafes, clubs and university campuses. And no one knows how Israel will deal with the very real existential threat that a nuclear Iran would cause. Yet if you would have told the Anglo-Jewish community a decade ago that Synagogues would be burnt and cemeteries defaced in the UK they would have been shocked. And no one knows if the slow rise to power and positions of influence of those who thrive on Anti Zionism and Israel bashing, and the increasing influence of those who see Jewish conspiracies behind every policy they dislike is a harbinger of things to come. In short, I think the jury is still out on the case of where it is safer to live as a Jew in the 21st century.

For me, Aliya is more an issue of being in a place where the national holidays are Jewish, the culture is Jewish, a country where even the football commentator on Saturday TV wishes people a Shabbat Shalom (so I’m told.) It’s a place where you can walk down Shimon, Levi and Gad streets, pass through the Kings of Judea and the Rabbis of the Middle Ages and get to the date of the partition plan via modern Israeli poets and writers. Its somewhere where B’ezrat Hashem can be used by someone eating Chametz on Pesach, where you can walk through the Old city and be fulfilling the dreams of a hundred generations, where Israeli phrases conjure up images of Biblical verses; it’s a country still finding its feet, and as yet undefined society.

And yes of course there are problems. The conflict with the Palestinians, what years of wars and checkpoints have done to Israel youth, what future withdrawals from the West Bank and probably East Jerusalem will do to an already strained society. The question of the relationship between religion and state, how Shabbat should be celebrated or marked, how a Jewish state deals with the gap between rich and poor and how a Halacha written and developed in exile can be relevant to a modern 21st Century state. And on top of all of this is the very real issue of how best to integrate the Israeli Arab population and the numerous Aliyot from the former Soviet Union, as well as creating a joint identity for people from over seventy different countries who have all found their home in Israel.

But when all is said and done, I would rather be in the thick of things then clapping or shouting from the sidelines, rather be able to lend my voice (however small) to a cause or idea I believe in, than to be 3,ooo miles away complaining.

No one knows what the future brings, and if things don’t turn out the way I would like, London is a great place to live and raise a family. But for two thousand years, the Jewish people had a dream that was put into action over a century ago by Zionism, a modern day version of Jewish nationalism. Zionism had a vision – to create a modern liberal state where Jews could go and be safe, where never again would they be unprotected, a democracy in an area that has never known freedom, a state where the Jewish language and culture (and religion) could develop and flourish. And despite the many successes socially, technologically and democratically, that experiment is not yet over and the battle to shape Israel in the way we want still continues…and the only place where that battle can be fought is from within.

Maybe this is all a bit ideological. Maybe its enough justification to say that I am moving to a hot climate, with a beach, friendly people and lots of Humus. You earn less, but at least people speak to you on public transport. People may be slightly ruder (or more open) but strangers will go out of their way to help if you are ever in trouble. When friends of mine ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, a car of strangers drove them for miles to the nearest station and then back. In England, people would either be too indifferent or scared to stop.

There’s a book by American/Israeli educator Daniel Gordis called ‘if a place can make you cry.’ It describes his Aliya before the Intifada and how he and his family have coped with the violence. Its well worth a read in itself, but his main point is that if a place can make you cry…how can you not live there? And for me, that’s what it comes down to; if there’s a place that drives you crazy, that makes you shout about who the Prime Minister should be or gets you depressed over a traffic accident, or makes you proud that you’re soldiers are helping people beset by tragedy in India, Armenia or Turkey, a place that can cause joy and depression in equal measure…if there’s a place where you can find all of these things…how can you not live there??

I am off on 25th December, the first night of Chanukah and I can’t wait!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Buenos Baby

Buenos Aires - a city of bars, cafes and markets, where people drive crazily and pedestrians play a contiunous game of 'lets see if the car i am steeping out in front of will stop'.

A place where despite the fact that siesta lasts for a few hours less than in other parts of the country (where it was 11am-3pm) you still cant change money after 3pm, and AIDS awareness was marked by a huge red condom being put on a 30m high obelisk that stands on the main junction in the city centre.

A capital city that wouldnt look out of place in Western Europe yet which has huge levels of poverty.

Where there are more Jews than in England and a 400g steak with chips costs less than a Shwarma at Sollys.

Where no one goes out before 1am but still somehow manage to get to work the next day.

A place where there are police on most street corners, newsagents appear every 50 yards selling the same things, lots of anti Bush grafitti, street demonstrations, street bands, beautiful women and an unhealthy obsession with Che Guevara.

A place where watching Tango helped me to understand the prohibition on watching women dance (i am not planning on stopping...i just understand better where the Rabbis were coming from) and perhaps most importantly, a place where the sun shines in December.

Getting here wasnt as easy as i would have hoped. A pilots strike on an airline that has a virtual monpoly on internal flights left me with the unenviable choice of hanging around on my own in El Calafate or taking a 40 hour bus journey. Yet through a mixture of perserverance, asking the right questions, quite a bit of luck (and i would like to think a certain amount of charm,) i managed to get a flight the next day...its amazing how much calmer you can be if you are not in a hurry!

i had left this group of Israelis who were kind of convinced that because i was dati i could guarantee us good weather on Tiyulim (i dont like to be dogmatic, but i'm pretty sure there is no link between prayer and weather and that Gd has better things to do than to make sure Calev and his friends get a tan...and that if you did believe such stuff, you should definitely consider not being secular...but the theory did work out so im not complaining) and have just spent the last few days walking around Buenos.

i brought my flight forward by a week so i am coming home Wednesday morning. Its been great, but i decided i wanted more time at home whilst it is till home and I look forward to seeing you all in the next few weeks. There are a few hours yet till 1am so may have to twiddle my thumbs till then...