Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nocturn in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

We were on a rooftop, at a nice party thrown by friends of friends in honor of independence day. There were wonderful chicken wings on the grill and a guitar going around. The sky over the Jerusalem, that sky which always feels somehow like a low ceiling, was warm and peaceful.

I came with Daniel the cellist and his boyfriend Hussein, as well as with the ever adventurous Daniella and another American girl named Emily, who got stranded in the country due to the volcanic ash. In fact, the roof was full of Americans, mostly that particularly lovely breed of religious J Street supporters. I was chatting to an attractive rabbi in the making named Annie. Then the fireworks started exploding over the city.

We turned our heads in the direction of the explosions. The fireworks were being shot from the rooftop of the Sheraton hotel. My mother used to work at that hotel when I was a child, when it was still named "The Plaza". I remember my seven year old's pride, standing on King George street among the plastic hammer yielding masses (this was before they invented the foam or the huge inflatable hammers with the flag printed over them) gazing at up at thunder and color, knowing that my mother worked at this hotel and none of the other kids' mothers did. I was closer to independence day than anybody.

This year I was further from it than most people I know. The legislating of the "Nakba law", which forbids Israelis from observing a mourning day for the Palestinian disaster of 1948, estranged the truly liberal-minded Israelis. What independence are we celebrating if we're not free to decide how we view history?

All in all, the current state of politics here hardly brings out the flag fiend in me. My Prime-Minister talks like the scariest extreme right-wing fringe party leaders in Europe, claiming, among other things, that African refugees take work from Israelis and threaten to turn this into a "third world country". His sidekick, the Foreign Minister, is a fan of totalitarianism, who models his politics after such enlightened leaders as Lukashenko of Belarus. The masses become gradually more affected by the fear tactics these two employ. Change-seekers like myself are now seen as "traitors". A song released to the radio on the eve of the holiday describes us as back-stabbers, literally.

Then there are the old issues, not improving one bit. When I was seven years old and gazed at the fireworks, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip was only 16 years of age, itself a child. Today it's 42. Jerusalem is a city where people are being thrown out of their homes simply because they're Arab. Hostile, reactionary fanatics move in instead of them, with no plans of being good neighbors.

Boom! Boom! the night over the Plaza - green and purple.

The fireworks in these days of white phosphorus bombs turned out to be the same as they were then: not sophisticated or high-tech, not choreographed even to provide even so much as a climax. Standing on that roof, a half-eaten chicken wing in one hand and a plastic cup full of whisky in the other, I found myself looking at that exact moment in my childhood, and that, of course, is enough to shake a strong man. My innocence, that of a child who does not even know he lives on a settlement in the West Bank, who believes his country is always right and will be growing stronger and more beautiful in days to come, exploded in my face, yet it did so so sweetly. Those fireworks resembled a bouquet of flowers that somehow ended up being brought to a funeral, but can't help looking cheerful.

Touched by the distant rumble, I even mumbled: "there's something nice about this nation after all." Hussein, sitting next to me, smiled quietly. Then the fireworks died down.

(artwork: "Nocturn in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket" by Whistler)

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Israelis who feel more and more estranged from the collective psyche have some thinking to do tonight. If Holocaust commemoration day, which was observed last week, is charged, then Israeli memorial day, which begins tonight at sunset, is truly a challenge.

Israel has a powerful collective identity. We say "we" a lot, referring to Israelis as a whole. This is rooted in Jewish culture. The Passover Haggadah direclty states: "In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt." Later on in the text, historical first person is introduced: "He took us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to festivity..."


Ok, let's fulfill our obligation and assume it was us. It shouldn't be difficult, since there's no baggage involved. "We" probably shouldn't feel bad for inflicting the ten plagues. Firstly, it was "him" who did it, not "us". Secondly, "we" were slaves. Alex Haley would have approved.

A week following passover comes yom hashoa - Holocaust commemoration day. "We" had our beards cut off on the street in the 30, "We" were starved and gassed in Birkenau, "We" were slaughtered in Babi Yar.

Yes, several of the people who live in this country are Holocaust survivors and can use the word "we" in its original sense. The rest of us should probably be more humble. We were never in Babi Yar. We have no idea what it feels like to be starved and tortured. Sabras poked fun at refugees who came from Europe in the late 40's, calling them "soaps". This state has for decades been delaying compensation payments to survivors.

The trauma of the Holocaust does of course filter to the younger generations. It is very real and effects the actions of the Israeli society and state, still, the collective Holocaust identity is problamatic. It carries even less responsibility than that of the Hagaddah. "We" may have inflicted one or more bullet holes on the SS men in the Warsaw Ghetto, but "they" deserved it big time. By the way, "They" are now in Iran and Gaza and even Jaffa and the Oval office. A collective fear and grudge can be an enormous political treasure.

Then comes Yom Hazikaron - memorial day. "We" mourn "our" dead, victims of the wars and acts of terrorism. The fact that hostility in the region is a current reality that tragically effects both "us" and "them" is forgotten. The idea that the definition of "we" may be expanded to include everyone who lives between the Jordan and the sea, or maybe even every human being, is not acknowledged. "We" are always the same "us", so "they" must always be the same "them". No chance we'll make this day a day of mutual mourning and of aspiration for peace. What? after Babi Yar?! You must be kidding us!

There are several brave individuals who challange this concept of identity. Tonight at 21:00 an alternative memorial event will be held in Tel-Aviv's Tmuna theatre. It is organized by "Combatants for Peace" and features the voice of Palestinian pain as well as the Israeli one. I attended the Tmuna event last year and left it tantalized. a song by Zeev Tene about losing a friend at war and a speech by Bassam aramin, whose ten year-old daughter was killed by soldiers, both left me in tears.

Tonight I'll skip the event and go have a low key dinner with friends, but trust me, I'm mourning. "I" mourn our fallen and their fallen and the very fact anyone has to die for this sad strip of gravel. Once "we" are no longer the issue, the actual dimensions of the tragedy are revealed, and the day becomes all the darker.

(Artwork by Samuel Bak)

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Tuesday night I was here, wearing a suit at the Tel-Aviv opera house, applauding the cast of Jacques Halevy's operaic masterpiece "La Juive".

Wednesday morning, a mere ten hours later, I was here, documenting the Tel-Aviv sewage system for an article and applauding its special emergency task force.

I later went down into the raw sewage myself and took this gentleman's place, removing clumps of hygenic pads, moist wipes and tampons which clog the pipes. All the while I was thinking back to the opera. The profound vocal combinations at the end of the second act haven't left me even when I was in shit up to my navel.

These ten hours are a good metaphor for life in this country. We keep moving between the truly wonderful and the perfectly sinister. An even greater contrast lurks ahead. Monday is Israel's memorial day, observed as an annual day of national mourning. Tuesday is independence day. The switch between the two occasions occures Monday evening at sundown, when suddenly the flags are brought back up from half mast and fireworks begin to shoot into the air.

The contrast doesn't end here. Independence day itself is also the Palestinian day for commemorating the Nakba or "catastrophe" of 1948. This year, Israel passed a law forbidding its citizens from observing the Nakba day as a memorial day. This infringement of our freedom of speech makes many of us want to do exactly that, if only to spite the authorities.

Call us juvenile, but this is a good opportunity for us to learn of what the Palestinians have been through as consequence of the war and to empathize. We'll also be celebrating our liberty to view history in any way we choose, a liberty of which the right-wing government currently seeks to deprive us.

With all due respect for family barbecues and our handsome flag, The only substantial thing we lose by trading independence day for Nakba day (or at least with Nakba-law day) is that sudden bipolar shift we are so used to. Hopefully, we'll survive the deprivation. This land is anyway sure to provide us with some unprovoked contrast which would baffle and confuse us. All we need to do is wait for it with open arms.

(last shot is by chief documenter of local contrasts: Alex Levak)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cliff Notes

1. Off Moher
Four quid a bed in no town
House and mist, not quite a world
Square sliced, elderly coupled was the evening
and what and what.

I used to wake up in such beds from nightmare home
Outside mist, inside no house
a pint of tea
There's a war here too they say
Money flows in Limerick's Shannon,
all protection, rots the boats,
It's green and burns slowly
like everything.

And what? I own no camera,
nor the dark road shaped like long me
or no town's late burger.
I own the unenveloped steel.

Oh, and yes,
the lust for heaths.

2. Saaremaa
Near here, I found a Soviet camp.
across camp fence, near here, a corridor,
in a corridor (dark), stepped on something.

Camera flash all I have.

Camera shows, in an instant, bunch of twigs
Sauna down the corridor. In an instant I'll see.
Soviet troop fled, left tub.

Near her, all I think, near her. Now are they?

3. Failed Nocturne
If we abide by lighthouse strategies, I won't get a lift to town.
won't get a lift to town
no lift to town
Promise me you'll leave a fiver at the pub.
By the order of the stone fence, so I vow.

And on the very night which is not night
too blue for night
too blue
Next to the German runaway I sit,
Camper wheels and wine, hopes for the aurora, and hey!

The fiver, Never left it. Done the vanishing act again.
vanishing act again,
vanished again.
Top of Scotland top of of tops
The grass and the cork. Everything's light. No fence in sight.

(photos were taken around Tagaranna cliffs, Saaremaa, Estonia.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The 6,000,001st Victim

A friend wrote me today, outraged. She is a non-Jew from a former Soviet country and is spending time here on an internship. Apparently, an American friend of hers visited her over the week before leaving the country. That American is a scholar of the Yiddish language.

When the American reached Ben-Gurion airport, the security staff detected Yiddish books in his luggage. That provoked their suspicion. A young, non ultra-orthodox man reading Yiddish? They took him to a back room for interrogation. When they found out he was staying with the former Soviet girl, they pieced the different clues together and deduced that she was a fancy hooker, somehow catering to clients who have a Yiddish fetish.

The American was kept under interrogation for a while, insisting that his hostess is not a prostitute and that he's not involved in the flesh-trade. Finally, the security agents faced him with a conclusive question: "Do your Yiddish books contain stories that portray Ultra-Orthodox Jews as involved in Human trafficking?"

I can't swear by this story because I wasn't there, but this is how it was told by my friend, and it's not all that implausible. Ben-Gurion security personnel are as known for their strange questions as much as they are for ethnic profiling.

Moreover, Yiddish does threaten us as Israelis. It's written in the Hebrew alphabet, yet we can't read it. It's been so firmly confined to either the aged or the Hassidic, that we suspect anyone else who takes interest in it. Yiddish was of course banned by early Zionists, who sought to create a new Jewish identity. In the Fifties, protesters used to stand outside the Yiddish theatre in Tel-Aviv and throw stones at the actors and audience as they left the show.

To this day, the attitude remains the same. My Belorussian friend Vola told me that Israel's embassy in Minsk refused to host the launch of the first Yiddish -Belorussian dictionary. Their explanation: Yiddish is not Israeli.

Tonight marks the eve of our Holocaust memorial day. I'd like to take this oppurtunity and mourn one of the more unique victims of that horror: the native language of my grandparents. The Nazis murdered millions of speakers of this beautiful tongue, itself a dialect of German. Had they and their offspring been alive today, Yiddish might have lived, and with it all the poetry, humor and wisdom of East Europe's Jewry.

As it is, we're left with a precious few who are dedicated to keeping it alive, among them are certain gringo potential pimp types and a few Israeli loonies, like Tel-Aviv's own Assaf Galai. Non-Jewish Russian animation artist (and possibly prostitute) Elizaveta Skvortsova produced this amazing clip for Itzik Manger's lullaby "By the roadside stands a tree". She gave us another gift we are unable to give ourselves.

In the song, The mother sings to her child of a tree that was abandoned by birds in wintertime. The child, compassionate, wishes to turn into a bird and sing for the tree. His mother sows him warm cloths, lest he is inflicted with Tuberculosis on those bare branches. Burdened by the weight of wool, the child can't take wing. "You love me so much mother," he sings, "that I can't become a bird."

I dedicate this song today in memory of those massacred and of their enormous cultural legacy, which we fail to respect.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Where the Sidewalk Ends

They say all roads lead to Rome. They're wrong.

Yes, the roadblocks of the West Bank get a lot of justified bad publicity. However, When thinking of them we envision a long queue of cars in the heat of day, soldiers inspecting documents and giving orders to civilian Palestinians in Arabic words they barely understand. We seldom ever think of a small gravel barrier.

These barriers, the unmanned road blocks or "hasimot" (to be distinguished from "mahsomim") number over 500 in the West Bank. The one seen above was placed in 2002 between the village of Shufa:

And the city of Tull Karem, 6 kilometers to the northwest:

For centuries, Shufa relied on Tull Karem for trade and services. This remained the case after the Israeli occupation of the west bank in 1967. Then, in 1990, a small settlement named Avne Hefez was built right beneath the village, along with a small military base.

Since 2002 the old road leading to the village has been designated for the settlers and the military only.

Two barriers were created. One up the hill, near the village itself, the other - about amile away away, where the road would lead to Tull Karem. This one is a different kind of an unmanned block, made up of concrete slabs.

The villagers can still go to Tull Karem, on foot.

Well, not only on foot.

They can also take the long way around, through the town of Anabta. That road totals 25 kilometers in length and involves going through manned checkpoints. We don't all think that's a good idea. Yesterday, a group of Israelis who never had to go around anything to get home, went to the unmanned block at Shufa to express disdain.

We were joined by about a dozen Palestinians from Tull Karem (who had to be picked up by our bus at the concrete slabs and brought up the hill to the village). Shufa villagers themselves are not allowed to protest. The Army clarified that any political activity on their behalf would cause their village to be disconnected from electricity.

Many of the participants in the event are activists with "Combatants for Peace", an organization made up of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, who've chosen to replace violence with dialogue. Among the activists was Nur, a Palestinian who had served time in Israeli custidy. He called Shufa a prison and joked that the Ktzio't jail, where he was held, has vaster grounds.

While Nur spoke, we recieved guests.

An Israeli activist explained to them that we came over for a peace-making activity. One soldier said: "Let's hope your efforts bear fruit". They then left.

On a different incident, when acrivists tried to take the Shufa barrier apart, soldiers shot at them.

Combatants for Peace have had their share of tear gas in Shufa before. This time they had no intention of causing havoc. Rather, the activity was infomative. We came to learn of the situation and also to meet the Tel-Aviv-Tull-Karem chapter of the organization.

The chapter's activists have been using drama as means of resolving animosity and bringing up questions for debate. They decided that if all the world's a stage, Shufa's blocked road would make a fine place for a presentation. "We are not a performing group" one Israeli activist clarified. "We think of acting as related to activism. Acting is about not sitting there idely, but stepping in and changing things."

In this case they were changing roles. The "soldier" on the right is Nur the Palestinian.

He played the incompassionate officer with a great deal of talent,

But at the end of the day, even the performance at the very site of the gravel barrier dealt with the conflicts and tragedies of the manned barriers. Some of the things we deal with are simply so dark or so absurd that they are truly difficult to discuss. Shufa's barrier is a place where no one goes and nothing happens. How do you act out a silent mound that's been there for so long it's growing bushes? How do you act on it?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Over the House, Large Hanging Fans

On the table is a cat. On the cat is a newspaper. In the newspaper are two poems by Agi Mishol.

I came down to the hamlet of Kfar Mordechai to interview Mishol, One of Israel's best known poets. The interview itself belongs to my own newspaper and is to be published next week. But if I can't speak of Mishol, I'll at least speak of her home.

By now Mishol has lived in Kfar Mordechai, about 30 kilometers south of Tel-Aviv, for 37 years. Many of her poems touch on these surroundings. Her new book opens with a loving words directed at it. "This field is my prayer mat" she writes of the green expanse seen outside the window, and in another verse:

I wish I could shake words out of me
The way I shake pecan trees
till the nuts hit
the ground
So that the poem leads me

I decided to explore that field, that tree, that home. The house itself is drenched in flowers, like everything in Kfar Mordechai.

I took the long way back to the highway, wandering through the fields, the pomegranate and persimmon groves, the vinyards. Magical? yes, and yet this is Israel, which Mishol knows well. "Pastorale" a poem out of the same book, opens thus:

Over the house, large hanging fans –
combat helicopters from the army base.

Underneath, the scent of rice has already faded
from the Thai workers' trailer.
The sorting machine grumbles in the shed.

Because of his wool hat it’s hard to know
whether he’s Tawa-chai or Nee-pon,
“Kahane was right” printed on the t-shirt
someone gave him.

At this time of year blossoms and fruit share the tree.

The streams, in this case Gamliel creek, just north of the house, are overflowing.

Nature and mankind cooperate in seemingly perfect harmony.

So close to all of this is our imperfect reality. Israeli urbanism, for example, is eating up the fields at an atrocious rate. No less than three massive towns can be reached on foot from Kfar Mordechai (seen here are the outskirts of Rehovoth, to the north). The military base mentioned in the poem, the Tel-Nof air field, is no more than four kilometers away from the Mishols' house. It was from here that planes took off to bomb Gaza during the onslaught.

So is this place good? is it bad? Is it a cosy home? Is it a slaughterhouse? Maybe we should simply learn from our poets and look in both directions.

(portion from "Pastorale" was translated by Lisa Katz)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Silence is Scary

There's a situation here that is nearly too complicated to explain. It is also too explosive to outline. First the state publishes a gag order forbidding anyone from writing about the case. The press keeps mumm, but the blogosphere is exploding with information. 

Then an actual figure involved in the story, a young journalist under secret house arrest, turns to bloggers and asks them to delete their posts. She is involved with a very serious legal issue and would prefer the flow of information to be minimized or at least controlled. 

The blog posts are deleted one after the other, her Wikipedia page disappears. Those in the know get freaked out. The double mechanism of direct state censorship and censorship powered by intimidation managed to erase the information.

Then it starts leaking out in other ways. The foreign press, not subject to Israeli law, is publishing it freely. Jealous Israeli newspapers find subversive ways to hint at the existence of the story. Legal experts express outrage. One radio personality spills the information out while on the air. He is likely to be tried for contempt of court very soon. 

We will all remain shaken for a while. Normally, it's the issue in question that should shake us the most: a revelation that the IDF has been assassinating Palestinian militants in disregard to supreme court orders. In action, it's this new experience with silence that scares us.

Usually it's the army that maintains gag orders, this time it's the court. Transferring authority from military and police establishments, which are subject to scrutiny, to civil establishments which are more immune, is one technique used by our current proto-fascist regime to grant itself flexibility. One example is the annihilation of the old immigration police, subject to the Department of Domestic Security, and the creation of the virtually omnipotent Oz unit, subject to the Ministry of the Interior. 

So it's a different hand than usual that's shutting our mouths, and it does so for a long time (over three months now) and very effectively. That should be enough to spook us out a bit. What provokes actual horror is the combination of that notion with what we already know about those in charge: their disregard for our democracy (non-violent protesters are arrested, sometimes after returning from the demonstrations), their disregard for the legal system (as in the case in question) their perfect willingness to turn Israel into a highly controlled state, isolated from the rest of the world (You can talk all you want, Mr. Obama, we're not listening), their racist, militaristic views, which leave no room for opposition. Their perfect arrogance.

Netanyahu is known for mocking his opponents as cowards. "They are afraid! They are afraid!" is a typical cheer at his election rallies. Afraid is how he wants us, and That's a good point to consider. Let's stop being afraid, and let's make sure we use this affair as a means of criticizing, discrediting and weakening the criminal, anti-democratic rule to which we're subject.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

You've Seen One City, You've Seen Them All

O my hometown, I love you and I failed you. I betrayed you by leaving home for the day without my camera. There was still time to turn back when I hit Yeffet street. There, breaking my stride, was the Greek-Orthodox boy and girl scouts' easter march, complete with a bagpipe band. I chose to use my cellphone cam.

Then, when I met Daiva for a Sudanese lunch at the refugee quarter, it was already too late. No way to properly depict the impromptu decor of the restaurant's terrace. No way to capture the tangy aroma of the lamb and injera. The photo of the roll of toilet paper served to us as a napkin failed completely.

We then went to Daiva's place to break bread with salt for the holiday. She decorated eggs and we cracked them against each other in her own Lithuanian tradition. (notice the matza peeking from behind. That matza was blessed in a church.)

Armed with more decorated eggs, we walked to Jaffa and cracked a few with Itka, drank Lithuanian honey snapps in a little alleyway, scaled the fences of the old port's shipyards and met the mediterranean waters on both sides of the great jetty. O my city, How could I do this to you, snapping you with the cellphone cam as if you were a mere yishuv kehilati?

As the sun set, we went looking for a mimouna party. That evening marked the beginning of festivities for Morrocan Jews. They mark the birth of great scholar Mimonedes with a table full of sweets and dances in colorful garb. As you can see, we found a proper one. Seen dancing are Daiva, Kochavit and Itka, perfect partners with whom to expore Tel-Aviv-Yaffo-Glasgow-Khartoum-Vilnius-Casablanca on yet another typical day. O my city, it's anyway so impossible to frame you and shrink you into a snapshot, I might as well no worry and focus on the sweets.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Swing

Passing the Charles Clore playground after sunset, I witness a miracle. Scores of hardcore Hassidic families are enjoying the fancy swings and slides, sharing them with Muslim families from Jaffa. Fathers in black "kaften" coats and mothers in green hijabs stand around the same sandboxes, observing their kids with the same care. The kids themselves run around with the same joy, unaware of the big lie: that which states that they are not the same, that which is law in this land.

I walk among all of them, snapping shots with my cellphone, when a woman approaches me. By her long skirt and fair hair she seems to be a moderately religious Jew. "Who do you work for?" she asks me in English.

"Nobody, I'm documenting this for my own pleasure."

"Too bad, I was hoping you're a journalist."

"I am," I smiled, "but off duty at the moment. Are you a native english speaker?"

"Long story, born in Switzerland, raised in Canada. I was actually thinking of calling the press. This whole family of Arabs took over the big swing over there. They wouldn't let our kids on. I'm so sorry you were not here to see that. I don't understand how come such people are allowed to set foot here."

"'Such people', as in Arabs?"


"But even if they were pushy or mean, it doesn't neccesarily have to do with them being Arabs. People can be rude no matter their language or religion. Families can be difficult to handle." I catch myself trying to educate her and decide to cut it short. "I think what's happening here is gorgeous. It's worth the wait for the swing."

She looks at me with such disdain that I just quit the scene. You know what, she's right. She's got to be right. After all, the majority in this country agrees with her, according to a study conducted in 2007 by the association for civil rights in Israel, 75% of Israelis would prefer not to have an Arab neighbor. A study conducted last year by Tel-Aviv university reveals that 50% of teenagers believe Arabs should not be given full rights in Israel.

The irritated lady, whose kids had to wait for a swing, reflects the majority opinion in Israel, and in a democracy, the majority rules. Here is does more so than elsewhere. People would be racist. It's the role of constitutions and state institutions to keep such tendencies at bay. We have no constitution and our govenment prefers to fan the flames. With openly racist Lieberman and secretly racist Netanyahu running the country, this is the hayday of anti-Arab legislation and court action, from decrees allowing rural communities to ban Arabs from buying houses, to a ban on marriages between Palestinian citizens of Israel and West Bank residents.

We are in control of the big holy-land swing right now. Like a kid with his head in the clouds, we live in the illusion that this will never end, that we'll just keep swinging forever, but our violent attempts to kick the other kid off may cause everybody to fall to the sand. This will end with more than a bruised knee.

(artwork by Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Yinka Shonibare)