Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Mamluks, Crusaders and our Future Here

I generally received positive feedback from my conversations with two Lebanese about the conflict over the summer. Yet where people disagreed was when I expressed the fear that my grandchildren would not live in Israel because Israel might not exist. Not optimistic I know, but many Israelis have a deep seated fear that our presence here isn’t as permanent as we may like. In England, the question is often whether our grandchildren will be Jewish. In Israel perhaps it should be whether our grandchildren will be Israeli – and whether in 50 years time there will still be a state to live in.

Last week I visited an exhibition at Migdal David, David’s Citadel called Soundscapes, a musical production integrating an archeological site, music, design and technology. The walls were alight with color, and the views were beautiful. Surrounding us was the city of Jerusalem - on the one hand, Israel indivisible eternal capital, on the other, a place captured and lost by vast empires and powerful armies. The Muslims and the Ottomans ruled here for 400 years each. The Romans, Byzantines, Mamluks and Crusaders all ruled for over a century. Even the ill fated Hasmonean dynasty was around for longer than modern day Israel. So what gives present day Jerusalmites the confidence that we will always be a free people in our own land?

In the aftermath of this summer's war, the discussion of our future here seems to have been increasingly discussed. Nobel prize winner Professor Yisrael Auman, a vocal critic of Disengagement, recently claimed that unless Israelis wake up from their slumber the State won't survive another 50 years. ‘Fatigue, in the State of Israel's situation, will lead to death, as occurs with mountain climbing. If a mountain climber is caught on the side of a mountain and it starts to snow, if he falls asleep, he will die. He must remain alert…We are too sensitive to our losses, and also to the losses of the other side...In the Yom Kippur War, 3,000 soldiers were killed. It sounds terrible, but that's small change.’ In a similar vein to Aumann, Effi Eitam leader of the National Union created waves when he discussed how Israel should respond to future attacks on our civilian population questioning whether as a country we are cruel enough to really hit back at our enemies civilian centers if they threaten ours.

At around the same time, the weekend supplement carried an interesting but somber article about Dr Yitzchak Yifat, the main protagonist in one of the most emotive photographs for Jews in the last century – the picture of the paratroopers at the Western Wall in 1967. Dr Yifat, who despite being in his 60’s still comes regularly for reserve duty is particularly pessimistic about the future of the country and for years has been campaigning for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Talking about what he saw as a debacle in Lebanon, Yifat stated,
‘the one thing that will fix this country is to take a bulldozer and completely turn it over; everything here is built on crookedness and needs to be rebuilt anew.’

I drove past a sign today proclaiming that ‘Jerusalem is not Sodom’ the biblical city that was destroyed due to its lack of social justice and perversity. The message was intended as a demonstration against the upcoming Gay Pride event in the capital; But reading today’s headline in Yediot Acharonot entitled
‘Protest, Gays acting like beasts’ it made me wonder about the future of this city and its inhabitants - and whether we can actually be so dogmatically certain about what this land wants from us, and what type of behavior typifies Sodom in the 21st century.

Our prophets warned us that the land doesn’t tolerate injustice, that we will be spat out if we fail to create a society that is befitting of the name…but who is our modern day prophet – Yisrael or Yitzchak, the professor or the doctor, the nobel or the poster boy? Are we too sensitive, or not sensitive enough? Was disengagement a step in the right direction or the beginning of the end? Should we be more parochial or universal, more western or Jewish, promote or oppose Gay Pride in Jerusalem; Should we spend more time negotiating peace or preparing for war?

And the question that lingers, like the various calls to prayer in our capital, is what if, what if we get it wrong, what if we make the wrong choice?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?

In light of my move this week from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to start work at Reut, a non partisan, non profit political think tank, I thought that this short contrast of the two cities by Amos Oz would be relevant...

Over the hills, far away, the city of Tel Aviv was also an exciting place from which came the newspapers, rumors of theaters, opera, ballet and cabaret, as well as modern art, party politics, echoes of stormy debates and indistinct snatches of gossip. There were great sportsmen in Tel Aviv. And there was the sea, full of bronzed Jews who could swim. Who in Jerusalem could swim? Who had ever heard of swimming Jews? These were different genes, a mutation. Like the wondrous birth of a butterfly out of a worm.

There was a special magic in the very name Tel Aviv. As soon as I heard the word ‘Telaviv’ I conjured up in my minds eye a picture of guy in a dark blue singlet, bronzed and broad shouldered , a poet worker revolutionary. A guy made without fear, the type they called a Herveman, with a cap worn at a careless yet provocative angle on his curly hair, smoking Matusians, someone who was at home in the world, all day long he worked on the land, or with sand and mortar in the evening he played the violin, at night he danced with girls or sang them soulful songs amid the sand dunes by the light of the full moon, and on the early hours he took a handgun and a sten out of its hiding place and stole away into the darkness to guard the houses and fields.

In Jerusalem people always walked rather like mourners at a funeral, or latecomers at a concert. First they put down the tip of their shoe and tested the ground. Then once they had lowered their foot they were in no hurry to move it; we had waited two thousand years to gain a foothold in Jerusalem, and were unwilling to give it up. If we picked up our foot someone else might come along and snatch our little strip of land! On the other hand, once you have lifted your foot, do not be in a hurry to put it down again; who can tell what menacing nest of vipers you might step on. For thousands of years we have paid with our blood for our impetuousness, time and again we have fallen into the hands of our enemies because we put our feet down without looking where we were putting them. That is, more or less, the way people walked in Jerusalem. But Tel Aviv – wow! The whole city was one big grasshopper. The people leaped by, so did the houses, the streets, the squares, the sea breeze, the sand the avenues, and even the clouds in the sky.

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness p7

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Emek - Good for Coffee, Bad for Sheruts

Living in Emek Refaim is great. The caf├ęs, restaurants, bars, shuls, friends - all accessible and within a short walk. It’s often buzzing with people and is a fantastic location in Jerusalem…that is until you need to catch a Nesher Sherut back from the airport.

The idea behind a Sherut is a good one – lots of people want to go to the same city, so take them in one minibus and it will be collectively cheaper and better for everyone…that’s the idea anyway.

In practice things were slightly different. First up was being bumped off the first waiting Sherut despite being told there was space for two. Then came the trek to Jerusalem in rush hour…and two hours later, after two stop offs in Har Nof, Ein Karem, back to the central bus station to drop off a non Jewish well meaning Irish women, the town centre for this old Israeli shvitzer (you know, grey chest hair coming out of the shirt) who boasted about how much money he made in New York, and a part of Katamon for a nice French girl, we finally arrived back in Emek Refaim where the driver tried to short change me.

We had been chatting for a few minutes so I was surprised he would try and rip me off –

‘I thought you would be happy to mevater al zeh’, to give up on the change, he said.

So basically you never give people the correct change unless they specifically ask for it?’

‘Of course - why not!’ he replied smiling, giving me my correct change.

Welcome back to Israel - not always an easy country to live in, sometimes quite unforgiving and Middle Eastern. Returning after time abroad sometimes feels like being thrown into a cold shower and getting a slap across the face. Sometimes it’s just relentless in terms of the noise, the behavior, the culture, where to succeed you need to be constantly aware and not mevater on any of your rights;

But its feels strangely good to be back…

Friday, October 13, 2006

Am I an Israeli in LA?

LA – a bustling city of 4 million people; a place of doggie bakeries, lots of traffic, too many coffee options and women with plastic surgery. The home of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, CTU and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. A place where seeing snow is an once a year occurence in the local park.

The last week here has been particularly busy - The bike riding and rollerblading along Santa Monica beach, with the painfully out of tune busker playing Beatle songs and randoms talking about Jesus, the trip to universal studios and meetings with Wolverine and Shrek (I think they were dressed up) as well as a day out in the Joshua Tree National Park (U2 1987).

The Park is an immense area comprising almost 800,000 acres and incorporating two deserts, – the Colorado and the Mojave (24 Season 2.) Yet what struck me most was simply the enormity of all these areas – how a return trip from LA was the equivalent of traveling from Eilat to Metulla – how the national park itself was larger than Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa combined and what good use we could put all that space towards if we had it instead.

The Park itself is beautiful, and even though I didn’t catch any glimpses of a coyote or Road Runner, the Joshua trees, massive boulders and beautiful views made it a great day. Yet as we went up to Keys Viewpoint, located along the ridgeline of the Little San Bernardino mountains which form the southern edge of the park, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that ‘our’ Machtesh Ramon in the Negev is actually just as if not more impressive and beautiful (and it doesn’t have smog or annoying German tourists illegally feeding desert squirrels there either)

And I also wondered whether that kind of thought made me a true Israeli, or whether a genuine Israeli would actually wish they could make Aliya to Los Angeles?