Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bake Your Own!

I stopped keeping kosher on passover after baking my first matza. My ex-wife was a non-Jew who came from a religious home and loved the ceremony and symbolism of religious holidays. She came up with the idea: let's bake them ourselves.

The experience of baking matzot was so educational and so meaningful, that it made the restriction on consuming baked goods seem entirely meaningless. a matza must be prepared in no more than 18 minutes, from the moment water touches the flour, to the moment it's out of the oven. Preparing the matza in haste created a vivid simulation of the runaway experience. We actually felt as though we had only that night to excape from Egypt.

Passover is about keeping the story of the exodus in the culture and bequething it to the younger generation. Baking matzot does just that, eating matzot doesn't. I live in a country in which beer is banned from the taps for seven days. We can't buy breakfast cereal this week if our lives depended on it. Even soda bottles must carry a "kosher for passover" emblem on them in order to be sold (soda water included). What does breakfast cereal have to do with our mutual heritage? nothing. How does any of this bread-crumb paranoia educate us? It doesn't. In fact, it causes many to feel disdain towards the holiday. It's sacriligious.

Placing a culinary taboo can be effective in distinguishing a portion of the year as sacred and instilling a sense of uniqueness in people. However, in this case, it shifts the focus from the essence of the holiday to sheer nonesense, which is something Judaism's always been good at, as our various shabbat obssesions nicely reveal. The OCD behaviour common among the haredim at this time of year (they don't drink with the meals, lest a drop of water touched the matza and rendered it "chametz"), is further proof of that.

I call for a return to our roots. Lets seek reason, rather than act automatically on rules that have degenerated over millenia into idiocy. Let's eat lovely whole-wheat bread, pizza and hamburgers in a bun throughout passover, and lets bake matzot. I know it's hard to believe, but they come out tasty too.

P.S. Within minutes of publishing this post, top notch poet and editor Eli Hirsh added his two cents. He tells that in many Israeli communities in which chametz is difficult to obtain, passover has become the holiday of baking homemade bread. If anynoe needed proof that the restrictions beat the purpose - you've got it. Hirsh suggests mixing both baking experiences. I certainly have enough of an apetite to deal with that.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Lost in the Hills

The nearby, forested hill, is Israel. The faraway, barren one, is the West Bank.

The Jewish National Fund has for decades been busy foresting large areas of Israel, mostly west of Jerusalem but also in the north and the Neguev. This is really an act of reforestation - much of the territory was covered with woods of oak and pistacia, nearlly all of which were chopped for firewood over history. The JNF chose to plant pine. It grows quickly and gives the landscape a pristine look reminicient of eastern Slovakia, land of our ancestors and where we'd probably feel more comfortable.

So, in Israel even a forest is political. However, as my Palestinian friend Philip pointed out to me years ago, when I ranted to him about our woods, even a political forest is nice. Here, two kilometers from the Green Line, we can enjoy locally made cheese and yogurt

as well as meet those who make it.

At this time of year, the hillsides are exploding with wildflowers. We walk among them, not knowing their names. This is our native country, but we are not strongly enough connected to its soil. Our "cousins" from across the fence will know what they are called. In Israel, even looking at a flower is political.

All we wanted was to have a peaceful day in the countryside, to greet springtime and enjoy the last drop of moisture on the ground before the punishing summer arrives, but everything evokes thoughts. The JNF is a discriminatory organization, preventing Arabs from acquiring land. It is now expending its reforesting activities to the West Bank, closely coordinating its activity with the state, so that it fits in with the occupation agenda. A ten minute drive from where we had our cheese is Bil'in, where the fence keeps an entire village away from its lands. The Israeli supreme court ruled that the fence must be moved, and the state simply ignores the verdict, and shoots at those protesting in favor of the court. The instant Slovakian forests, which conveniantly cover up the ruins of villages destroyed in 1948, are oxidizing the soil and preventing the growth of more wildflowers... There's no end to it. How simple everywhere else seems! How difficult it is to clear the mind and simply be, for one moment only, just so as to remain sane.

Walking in these woods is no walk in the woods, but the flowers do comfort. They deserve a word of thanks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kadima!

When a bunch of Tel-Avivians, among them four journalists, one real estate agent, a cult folk musician, a single mother and a former Eurovision star, gather in an apartment in the city's Yemenite quarter, it can only mean one thing: that they are about to stage a play in Israel's largest sewege treatment plant.

"Kadima!" by Roy Chicky Arad (the guy in blue) was already staged twice in more concievable surroundings: Tzavta theatre and the Barzilai club. This Saturday night it participates in the first art event to take place among Tel-Aviv's filtering pools. It will be featured in "Redemption through the Gutters", a large scale artfest curated by the extra-talented Galya Yahav. (Here's the Facebook event, for all details.)

It may seem unethical for me, as a theatre critic, to function as an actor, so I'll hurry up and confirm: I would have given this show a dreadful review. It's a big anarchic mess, no one knows their lines (we're reading them off the page), most jokes are dreadfully juvenile, and the songs took thirty seconds to compose - I know this for a fact. I composed them.

But Kadima! (Hebrew for "onwards", but also the name of the Israel's major center-right party) does have one thing going for it: It makes one hell of a punishing political statement, and it does so in the rustic spirit of true satire.

The story is that of Tzvika Ofer (Yuval Segev), an IDF colonel whose negligance led to the breakout of the second Lebanese war. Ofer, scolded in Israel, escapes to Mexico and works there as military consultant for a dubius regieme. Then he meets a witch.

The witch tells him that she can send him back to one moment in his past. Ofer, cynical at first, finally decides to return to the days before the war's outbreak and prevent it. His wish is fulfilled, history is reversed. Elyakim Firstater (Moshe Ferster), the simpleton sodier who's abduction kicked off the war, is safe.

For lack of war, Ofer is discharged from the army and becomes CEO of the Trilanium weapons company, producers of a radium-spiked bomb called "The Smasher". Firstater himself gets a job there as a bomb-painter. sometimes fate just binds us with the wrong people.

Problem is, with no war in sight, the smasher has no market. The owners of Trilanium count on Ofer to produce one. When he learns of it, from the company's Chief Financial Officer, Benny Guetta (yours truly), he is in denial.

Ofer: but the IDF couldn't use the Smasher, the border is quiet.

Guetta: The folks at the Brussels office were hoping you could perk the IDF up.

Ofer: There was no war.

Guetta: This is solvable.

Ofer: Solvable?

Guetta: It's solvable, this lack of war, this endless wait for something to happen.

Ofer (loudly): They were expecting for me to arrange a war?

Guetta: There's no need to shout, let's speak softly.

Ofer: They wanted me to start a war? with whom?

Gueatta: Look, I am against wars, I hate wars. I was on the square where Rabin died, when they took him away from us. Then again, some situations are win-win. Let's imagine the "Smasher" were a success on the battlefield. It would have given it great promotion - advertisements on BBC, on AL-Jezirah... we could start a production line for the Smasher that could export abroad. People hear the word "war" and get startled, it's a real holy cow. But who could lose in such a war? If the Smasher works well, we may end up exporting it even to moderate Arab nations, like Morrocco or Jordan. It could improve our relationship with them and maybe even contribute to peace.

Ofer: The war?

Gueatta: Yes! War today isn't what you think, Tzvika, it's like peace, like peace - but with a dividend. Look at me, do I want war? Do I want battlefields? Do I want widdows and orphans? You know I'm left-leaning. No one wants war, but on the other hand, it's not a good idea to be stuck with marchendise.

At the end of the day, our bunch of clowns is a somber bunch. We've been through that war and we'll be through the next one, and the next one. Forever we shall be told that our security is the issue and that our army is the "Israeli Defence Forces", by those who pocket the dough. No dough for us, we play for nothing, just as we'll probably die for nothing sooner or later.

Monday, March 22, 2010

South of Jerusalem, North of Prague

My friend Y the Spy is now writing for a huge daily newspaper. A few days ago she was sent on assignment to Hebron. She returned strongly affected. I wasn't surprised.

Yesterday, while putting final touches on her piece, she rang me up and asked a quastion: "What's the name of the area in Hebron with the narrow streets and the little shops, where the Jews live on one side and the Arabs on another?"

"Little shops? Open shops?"

"Yeah."

"That's strange, in Hebron wherever the settlers live the shops are closed by order of the army."

A little bit of questioning taught me that she was referring to the Casbah. "but how come you went through the Casbah?" I asked her, "Israeli visitors are not allowed in there."

"Not allowed?"

"No. Who guided you?"

"The soldiers."

"I guess with them you can go there. Anyway, that's what they pointed out? that Jews live on one side and Arabs on the other?"

"Well, among other things."

"You know, those windows you saw over the Casbah are the back of the selttlements. Did you also see the front side?"

"I think so. Yes."

"So you did see the parallel street, Shuhada street, where all the businesses are closed and the Palestinians are not permitted to walk."

Y the Spy seemed baffeled. "That area did seem pretty dead, but wait, not permitted to walk?"

"Yeah, only Jews and tourists are allowed to walk there, the army welded the doors of the Palestinian houses. They can only leave through the roofs and make their way down to the Casbah, where they may walk, and that's only the beginning. Are you seated?"

Y. the spy went to Hebron to write about the "Shimshon" regiment. When I first visited the city, the soldiers at the deserted street corners were from "Nahal" units, mostly kids from north Tel-Aviv suburbs who were raised to respect human rights. Seemingly, they brought up too many hard questions and were eventually replaced with soldiers closer to the political right. "Shimshon" soldiers made news during their taking of oath ceremony. They presented a banner claiming they will not participate in the evacuating of settlements. These pro-settler soldiers were seen as just the right stuff for maintaining order in Hebron's H2 sector, where several hundred settlers are terrorising a population of nearly 30,000 Palestinians.

"What did they say about their relationship with the settlers?" I asked.

"Not much. They said the settlers give them pizza sometimes."

"This is problematic, they don't get pizza from the Palestinians, if they did, they wouldn't be allowed to eat it, but the settlers are their friends. That's how come they let them do whatever they want, even beat up schoolgirls on their way home.

"They said they have an order to interfere when settlers are harrassing Palestinians" Y the spy said.

"Well that's as may be, but the taste of the pizza is still in their mouths. There's an olive still stuck between their teeth! who will they protect?"

Y the Spy is not naive, and her research of the Shimshon-Hebron question is to be thorough. I'm confident. But I was left upset. Avi Benayahu, IDF's spokesman, who arranged the tour, is the deciple of some great teachers.

When the Nazis allowed journalists and members of the red cross to visit the ghetto at Terezin (Theresienstadt), they were taking them to the only ghetto in Europe where kids were well fed and the Jews' dignity was preserved. Directly across the mountains was Poland and its horrors. Those were not mentioned on the tour. There's no need to lie, half-truths work just fine.

The IDF spokesman's unit piled obstacles before Y the Spy and her paper. Only barely did she recieve a permit to visit Hebron with the soldiers and speak to them (and even then, only to a chosen few). I assume that the Germans were equally smart, "not wanting" for journalists to visit Terezin and finally giving in.

Mr. Bnayahu should be very careful about where he gets his inspiration. As for us, we should be careful about where we get our information. Israeli journalists are dependent on the IDF's spokesperson unit. Brig. Gen. Benayahu is known to have put pressure on papers not to publish material he considered problematic. That material, such as exlposive evidence about the Gaza war that was minutes away from appearing in prime time, vanishes. When it boiled down to it, the reporters could not afford to lose Bnayahu's cooperation and be denied access to information. All media sources, including the paper for which I write, are faced with this threat.

In this case the newspaper cooperated by sending to Hebron a reporter with no knowledge of the city. It's a smart move as far as its relationship with Brig. Gen. Benayahu, the article will not be harsh, but we all end up with less information in our heads and a strange taste of pizza in our mouths.

P.S. one day later:

I'm naturally getting a fair bit of criticism for "comparing to the Holocaust". This is not a comparison. I am drawing an analogy, and the difference is great. If my little sister draws an angel and I say it reminds me of an angel painted by Michelangelo, that does not imply that I consider her as great an artist as Michelangelo was, nor that I think we're living in the Italian Renaissance. However, if she does have the potential to become a new Michelangelo, we'd better be aware of that and nourish her talent.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Tenth Show

I've been regularly reviewing the theatre for nearly a year now. If you think that's a fun job, you must be frequenting the theatres of another country, Narnia, for example. I don't think there's anywhere in the world where going to the theatre isn't risky business. The odds are similar everywhere: out of 10 shows, one will actually be wonderful.

Oh, but how amazing that one show is! Theatre may let us down most of the time, but when it doesn't, it changes our lives more potently than any other art could. I was fortunate enough to kick off my career as a critic with one such show. It was the Norwegian National theatre's extremely minimalist interpertation of "an Enemy of the People". Things went downhill from there, steeply.

To my surprise I discovered myself to be a rather harsh theatre critic, (some of the reviews can be found here) much harsher than I have been when writing reviewes of classical concerts. There, at least, the works performed are masterpieces to begin with. In Israeli theatre, the reverance paid to "original drama" ignores the fact that this culture produced a mere handful of great playwrights, perhaps only one.

Playwrights are a rare commodity. Italian culture, for all its glory, produced only two whose names are strongly imprinted in the world's cultural memory: Goldoni in the 18th centuri and Pirandello in the 20th. What makes us think that scores of worthwhile dramatists are surrently living in Gush Dan? What makes us think that they should all be permitted to direct their own plays? Allow the playwrite to direct her or his piece, and you have yourself a show longer by at least 20% than it should be.

Nor do we do such an outstanding job when adopting foreign plays. I had the dubious honor to be mean over theatrical interpertation with both the established repertory theatres (calling the Kameri's Yentel "a fiddler that fell off the roof") and the struggling fringe companies (recently writing of Nikolai Erdman's "The Suicide" at Herzlia ensamble, that spent the duration of the entire show wishing he would just hurry up and do it.) I'm a long-legged man and for a while wondered wheather it was lack of legroom and claustrophobia at the theatres that made me so bitter. I asked for seats with legroom and recieved them. No improvement was registered.

Still, I find that when friends who aren't frequent theatre goers join me for performances, they leave even more upset than I am. Those who are not used to the stage don't understand what a gamble it is. They go expecting to enjoy themselves and are shocked when they aren't. I have come to learn: most shows will be hard to bear or at least mediochre, it's the way of the world, and yet they are still all worth attending for that tenth one, that life-transforming one.

A few of my "tenth" shows of recent months are still playing: "The Great Magic" by Eduardo de Filippo and "Scapin's Deceits" by Moliere, both at Jerusalem's Khan theatre, and Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" at Tel-Aviv's Beit Lessin theatre. One great young fringe production, Ronnie Brodezky's "For she is real" dealing with Kibbutz life, is returning to the stage. Phenomenal theatre of cruely explosion "Abu Ubbu at the butchers' market" by East Jerusalem's Al-Hakawati ensamble is still performed here and there.

The best show I've seen this year was the four-hour-long "Shukshin Stories" by Moscow's Nations theatre. It is also the source of this post's only image. The troup only visited Israel for a week, but if any of you are in or around Moscow, trust me, it's worth every ruble.

All of these are worth running to, and as you run, shed a tear for me who did the legwork for ya'll. Sometimes I nearly surrender and let myself drouse, often I looked more intently at the exit signs than at the stage, but I knew that I have to stay strong. the review must go on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Talent

From Lili Elstein's apartment Tel Aviv looks good. On one side are business towers, alight with the promise of prosperity.

On the other side, at the foot of similar business towers, is culture. Here is the plaza connecting the Israeli Opera house and the Kameri Theatre. The city's central library and fine art museum are less than 100 yards away.

Inside the apartment, the arts meet. The Ariel String Quaertet is giving a superb rendition of the third movement out of Brahms's third quartet, with a sculpture by Sigalit Landau in the background.

They then move on to an equally stunning bit by Beethoven. Never have I had chamber music be played this close to me.

To be honest, the whole setting is quite foreign to me. This is a gala evening thrown by Mrs. Elstein to benefit the Perlman Music Program, or "PMP". Years ago, Toby perlman dreamed up what turned out to be one of the most succesful programs for gifted young musicians in the States. This May, the program expends abroad, not to Berlin, nor to London, Nor to Tokyo, but to the Jerusalem Music Center.

Perlman explained to the guests that the decision stems from values bequethed to her by her father. If she can ever do anything that supports or promotes Israel or the Jewish people, she will.

Readers of my blog know that I'm hardly a staunch Zionist, but somehow this moved me, and not only Because perlman's personality is instantly captivating and enchanting. Yes, creating a top notch program like this is going to make this place better. Perlman is here to lift our self asteem. We are not the chosen people when it comes to politics, but we do possess some talent as fiddlers. I think it was Isaac Stern who once explained Jewish dominance of the violin by claiming: "They circumcise our fingers too."

One man who can certainly claim such fingers was present, Toby's husband, the legendary Itzhak Perlman.

Both members of the couple were there as musicians. They were playing the music of fundraising to some of Israel's most affluent. As Toby explained, the program is "extremely cost inaffective" placing a small group of young students in the hands of a relatively big staff, including Itzhak himself.

Enchanting Elstein's guests with the Ariel musicians, all of them graduates of the American program, helps even the cost out. When someone asked how the program is financed, Itzhak explained: "We changed the form of the handshake. The typical handshake is like this," and he presented his hand as if to be shaken, "but we changed it to this," and he presented it with the palm facing up, as though begging. Everyone laughed, but this is of course not a joke. In the U.S. the program is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Israel's meanger budgets for culture neccesitate approaching the rich personaly. This country has negelected the arts so badly that they are our only hope.

The rich have regained their traditional role as patrons of the arts, without neccesarily being as knowlegable of the arts or respectful towards them as were the aristocrats of lore. Thankfully, the PMP event was highbrow enough to draw mostly true conoisseurs, such as cleaning detergent mogul Bruno Landsberg, who is Israel's greatest afficionado of second Viennese school composers (Shoenberg, Berg, Webern, et al.)

This made me more comfortable in such posh surroundings (I'm a socialist, for Marx's sake) and I endulged a bit in the elegance of the event. The wonderful carpaccio and sashimi

The fine decoration,

And my own oppurtunity to wear a tie (seen here with Haaretz English Magazine editor Tal Niv and musician, activist and prime media agent Roy Yellin).

The one element of the event I couldn't enjoy was the contribution element, so I'll try and conribute here in a statement of support.

This country is currently going to the dogs at great velocity. If it has anything going for it, it is spirit and talent. Let's put ourselves into this. Lets exhaust the spirit and talent. Let's be inspired and allow others to be inspired with us. Any penny that goes into the arts is sacred, regardless of the many other needs of our society. Any initiative that is meant to bring culture to our doorstep is sacred, regardless of how much we often deserve to be boycotted. If our high society contributes to the arts as a way of redeeming its soul, so be it, its soul is redeemed. On my way home I passed the Mann Auditorium, home of the Israeli philharmonic. People were leaving the building by the thousends. I asked them what they attended and learned that it was a Kabbalah even in which people cried in extacy and were healed and saw the light. Let's make sure tomorrow's program is different.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cultura e Basta

Tel-Aviv on a friday can be somewhat bizzare.

It's got its messiahs and those who make offerings of straberries, buns and pineapples to them.

It's got its enthusiastic chanters

and its occasional march of the queen's guards.

It's even got its alternative literaty stalls, run by a mixed staff of humans and cartoon animals.

This is Itka's "Bastarbut" stall, featuring the land's finest offerings in underground comics, poetry and progressive thought. It's about time I wrote something about this project, which was the gateway to many of my adventures over the past few years.

When I met Itka, she had a folding table at the back of her car and a couple of crates full of books and journals. Her idea was to take alternative Israeli literature, most of which is created around Tel-Aviv, and take it to peripherial towns.

Israel's smaller cities suffer from a dreadful lack of cultural activity. A city like Tiberius, for example, has neither a theatre ensamble nor any kind of musical ensabmle to call its own. The concept of young, ass kicking culture is unheard of there. Having said that, the north is rich with music festival and other events. If the comics and poetry get driven there by Itka's little Renault, they go the distance.

Since then Bastarbut (a name bombined of "basta" - market stall, and "tarbut" - culture) became an online store and a sort of an active organization producing spoken word events and supporting other cultural endeavors. This Friday, though, it still looked like the old idealistic traveling one woman show, the peddler's cart next to which we slept in the dirt in the Negev. It's a magnet of good people, too. We got a visit of honor from prime Lithuanian blogger Daiva Repeckaite.

and ended up jamming behind the books with prime Israeli hard rocker and master bratwurst maker Zeev Tene, actress Yael Appelbaum and the legendary Helene Berube.

If all of this looks like an advertisement to my girlfriend's business, you should know that it is not a business. Bastarbut doesn't pay off fiscally. The sales often don't cover the price of fuel to the destination, not to mention the trip back. It's one of those things that happen in this world because they must do, because goodness is there to be shared, even when it's melancholic goodness, as in Yanay Perry's heartbreaking comic book, or dirty goodness as in Merhav Yeshurun's poetry, or painful political goodness as in such journals as "Sedek". This is Hebrew culture's most profound goodness. It's well worth lugging around.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Being There

I'm free to write here about any subject in this world, except journalism. I'm employed under a contract with Israel's second most widespread newspaper, Israel Haiyom, and have made a vow of confidentiality to it, which I intend to respect.

I will tell you though, that I suspect IH and myself are headed for a divorce, or at least a return to casual friendship. No blame. The paper and myself are just mismatched. It took us three years to reach this conclusion. That's not long. It took seven years before I realized such a mismatch existed between me and my ex-wife.

One way in which the paper and I are mismatched has to do with my love of "Gonzo journalism": Journalism that centers on the recounting of experiences. Before writing to Israel hayom, I specialized in such pieces. Once, for Haaretz, I tried to ride in one day the entire NYC subway system and go through each of its 468 stations. Another time, writing for the Hebrew edition of National Geographic Traveler, I disguised myself as a South African backpacker and stayed a week in a Jerusalem hostel. I learned more about my native city on that week than ever in my life.

One of my articles that appeared in the weekly supplement of IH, described a visit to Teufelsberg. An abandoned American intelligence facility outside Berlin. My friend Anna and myself climbed a barbed wire fence on a misty day (see above image) and explored the complex.

As we expected, none of the old equipment remained in the site. The huge globe-like canopies that used to shield sensative antenae are now hollow planetariums. Retreating after Berlin's reunification, the Americans made sure to even remove the screwes that fastened them to the floor, lest someone deducts from these the nature of the devices.

My editors found themselves pleasently surprised. Here was a story about nothing. Two happy-go-lucky travelers walk into a building that turns out to be empty. "This piece holds its water solely thanks to your writing ability" one of them told me. "It's refreshing, in the sea of revelations and exposures."

That was the end of it, though. I can't just refresh all the time, I need to supply the beef in order to bring home the bacon, to chat with celebrities and find out saucy stories, otherwise the readers will ditch IH for its competitors. I respect that. I'm not here to whine about the current state of the press and weep over how competition has cheapened the Israeli media to an intolerable degree, nor do I moan that political biases render the treatment of actual issues virtually impossible. I would like, however, to assert that I believe in what I do.

I believe that fine journalism is an art. I believe that it can be truly delightful literature. I believe that journalism can make a difference through the telling of stories. I believe that we can reflect the world in articles, we can reveal its diversity and complexity, capture its many ambiences and remind, daily, how fascinating it is. If anyone out there knows of an oppurtunity for someone who holds these beliefs, feel free to write me at yuvalba@gmail.com

I'll conclude by posting a few photos from Teufelsberg, and raising two toasts: one - for the wonderful people who've worked with me in IH, and with whom I still hope to freelance from time to time. Another - for the love of life and letters, and pictures, of course.




Sunday, March 7, 2010

What's in a Flag?

As we approached the demonstration, a Palestinian kid about ten years old stopped us, asking for IDs. He was playing the Israeli soldier to Israelis. I showed him my passport with a smile, not realizing what a complicated game of national identities was yet awaiting me.

We came to East Jerusalem to protest with the Palestinians. In the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrakh, several families were kicked out of their homes to make room for extremist right-wing Israeli settlers. This is only a part in a scheme to "Jewify" East Jerusalem and enhance Israeli control of it. I'll leave the history of this scandal and its legal aspect to greater experts. My story today is one of symbols.

As we joined the great crowd that gathered in the neighborhoods soccer field, several flags were already flying, most were Palestinian, a few were red. The political left takes the cause of human rights here and elsewhere and I respect it for that. However, when more communist-inclined groups arrived, all of them sporting crimson flags, I started expecting Tovarich Lenin to come onstage and greet the proletariat masses.

In one corner, a woman was giving out blue and white flags with the word "shalom" (peace) replacing the hexagram of the Israeli flag. I decided to pick up one of these.

The first person to approach me over the flag was a Palestinian kid, about the same age as the joker who inspected me earlier. He was dying to hold it. I let him wave it a bit and show it off to his friends, then took it back. There were only four or five such flag in a crowd of 3500 people. I didn't want the kid to vanish with it. The demonstration was a cooperation and it was important to show that. If the TV cameras only caprute red, black, white and green, the Israeli public would feel estranged from the cause and the struggle would achieve little.

Next I was approached by a group of Palestinians in their 20s. "Get rid of this flag" a woman said to me, "get rid of your fucking shitty zionist occupation flag right now I tell you."

"Let's talk about this" I suggested.

"No, this is not open to dialogue. You are going to get rid of this flag right now. We are from the neighborhood and you are in our neighborhood now."

I lowered the flag out of respect for the locals, but on second thought and with some encouragment from friends, raised it again. Another Palestinian came over with similar tones, accompanied by an Israeli activist carrying a red flag.

"Put the flag away", the Palestinian demanded.

"Ok," I said. "But I don't have another flag. My country may have become ugly, but it's my only country and this flag is my only way of stating that I am here too and that Israelis support the struggle. Waving it here is my only way of trying to infuse it with new meaning. not an occupation flag, but one that can also represent opposition to the occupation."

They found the idea of infusing blue and white with new meaning laughable. After 40 years of occupation, the Israeli flag seems to be beyond hope.

"It's all I have," I repeated, "You don't like it, give me another flag." I was secretly hoping the Palestinian would remove the kaffiya he wore as a scarf and hand it to me, symbolically inviting me to join him shoulder to shoulder in the struggle. Instead, it was the Israeli who handed me the red flag.

"Stalin!" I retorted.

"What!?" he acted offended, "I am a communist, Stalin is my biggest enemy, he hijacked the values of communism to benefit his murderous totalitarian regime."

"This is the same thing Netanyahu and Lieberman are doing to Israel," I suggested. "If the red flag can be waved despite Stalin, the Israeli flag can be waved despite them, and don't tell me that Stalin is dead and that the occupation is still going on. People are still opressed under this flag all over China, North Korea, Transnistria, Cuba..."

"Listen," he said, "In Israel I would wave this flag proudly, but not here, east of the green line."

"I'm the opposite. I would never wave it in Israel. There I'll be taken as just another supporter of our augmenting fascism, but here, where everybody knows what I stand for, I would."

"Have it your way," said the Israeli, ready to seal the argument. Some other Israeli activist, a girl, hastened to add: "I just want to see you wave this flag after getting beaten up by soldiers and tortured by the Shin Bet. Why don't you try that and see if afterwards you still want to wave this flag".

"I understand what you're saying" I told her, "and that the flag scares and offends some people here, but you're not pragmatic. For things to change we need to be here together and try and influence public opinion. You don't want things to change! all you want is to be radical and beautiful in your own eyes!" It finally happened, I lost my temper. The Palestinian already vanished into the crowd, looking for someone less hopeless.

Onstage, Palestinian playwright and theatre director Samih Jabarin was attacking those waving blue and white flags. Afterwards Israeli activist Elisheva Milikovski came on and apologized to the public, saying the demonstration was inclusive of everyone who wanted to support the cause.

I remained there confused, with my flag at half mast, until the same little Palestinian kid appeared again, his eyes asking for it. I handed it to him and he ran gladly directly to the heart of the flag jungle. His flag was not captured by the media cameras. The demonstration, which was attended mostly by Israelis and was the largest mixed demonstration in a decade, was taken for another Palestinian gathering and didn't even make the front page of Haaretz.

Later that night I did get to hold a kaffiyah, a Palestinian friend handed it to me in a Shiekh Jarrakh restaurant, but my spirit was low. It was hard to see the Judean People's front and the People's Front of Judea fueding like this. We're doomed to our flags just as we're doomed to this situation. I hope to God we can somehow fold all of our differences away and make progress.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What I know because I'm a Jew

This city I live in is meaningless. It may be destroyed.
This home I live in is meaningless. It may be burned.
This object I hold dear is meaningless. It may be stolen.
This person I love is meaningless. They may be shot tomorrow.
This business I built is meaningless. It may be shut down.
This job I value is meaningless. I may get fired anyday.
This country I love is meaningless. I may get deported tomorrow.
This God I worship is meaningless. He may not stand by me.
This neighbor I trust in is meaningless. He may hand me in.
This freedom I have is meaningless. I may be jailed tomorrow.
This life I cherish is meaningless. I may be murdered tomorrow.
This moment I take to think of all this is everything. I am free.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Aux Armes

Sitting on a bus going through the slushy Polish countryside, I overhear a conversation about the two Warsaw insurrections, that of 1943, and that of 1944.

Oops. what is that about? I grew up learning of only one insurrection, the insanely heroic, ill-fated Ghetto uprising of 1943. I interfere the Pole and the Englishwoman who are chatting behind me and ask them about the other one.

The Pole then tells me an amazing story: As the Red Army was nearing the Vistula, in 1944, the people of Warsaw decided to take arms against the Nazis, in hope that Russian aid was near.

The Russians chose to wait west of the river and let the locals "do the job". While they waited, 250,000 Warsaw residents died in battle or were murdered by the Nazis. After two months of strife. The Germans kicked everyone out of the city and burned it to the ground as an act of revenge. 80% of Warsaw was destroyed, the carnage was greater than that of any other European city.

Dramatic, ha? How come I've never heard of any of this? I'm 33 years old, my roots are Polish, my people's history is strongly interwoven with that of the Polish people, but none of it was ever told to me in class, in Yad Vashem, in conversation about history... It seems as tough the Israeli education system makes sure we see no one's disaster but our own.

Is it an accidental hole in our education? I doubt it. Keeping silent about the suffering of others, or belittling it to the point that it's "not even worth mentioning", facilitates portraying us as eternal victims and the rest of the world as antisemitic. I hate to say so, but ignorance is a political tool in Israel, as it is in many other places.

It works, too. If you ask most Israelis about the relationship between Poles and Germans during the Holocaust, they'll tell you the Poles are an antisemitic people who handed Jews in to the Nazis gladly. No word about insurrections, about the murder of multitudes, about Polish prisoners in the camps, about destroyed cities.

We are vaguely aware of Poles who protected Jews, the "righteous among the nations". i'm glad about that, but even that is a Jewish issue. We know nothing of the disaster suffered by Poland during the war. The first time I arrived in this country, after finishing 12 years of Israeli schooling, I was stunned, no one told me any of this, and for a reason.

Last summer I traveled through Galizia with a group of Israeli guides who show the death camps to groups of Israeli schoolkids. the tour, organized by the polish government, was meant to show the guides "Polish Poland" so that they can give students background on the country, not only from a Holocaust perspective. Jewish and holocaust sites were also featured by the Polish planners, but they were not the focus.

For the most part, the Polish sites were canceled by the Israelis, who cared nothing for them. On several days we ended up visiting only Jewish sites, especially the remains of old synagogues, sometimes four in a day. Those additions to the program were truly moving places, relics of the tragically lost world of Galizian Jewery, but focusing on them beats the purpose: to learn more about something besides our own history.

It is very important that we develop empathy, because we seek empathy. It is also important because without empathy, compassion is impossible, and in our situation in the Middle East we must develop a capacity for compassion.

Knowing of the suffering of others is the key to both empathy and compassion. The Israeli ministry of education, especially under the current minister Gideon Saar, consciously keeps that information away from students, and not only in the case of Poland. prefer unquestioned patriotism to these two qualities.