Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Odd Moment

While I was teaching at Adam Abdullah's shelter a few days ago a six or seven year old girl named Shima and I started playing together. To help her practice her English I asked her to draw some pictures in her notebook. Once she had drawn the pictures I would ask her what the picture was of (in English) and if she didn't know I would tell her, and then we would spell it. B-U-T-T-E-R-F-L-Y, B-E-E, but then she drew a Magen David, a Star of David. Shima is Muslim and was born in Egypt, but this in many ways embodies the paradox of the Sudanese community. Black-African Muslim children who speak near-perfect Hebrew and dress Israeli, and apparently draw Magen David. This is strange to me, as part of the Jewish Diaspora. I had never been inclined to draw crucifixes or Jesus Fish in elementary school. But to Shima it was just a natural thing to draw. Maybe it has to do with the general love of Israel that the Sudanese now have because of the help it has provided. But I don't think so, after all, Shima can barely read and write, I don't think she's a Zionist quite yet. It's probable that Shima has just seen the Star, one of Israel's national symbols, on enough flags, bumper-stickers, and synagogues that it is normal to her - like the Stars and Stripes to American first-graders. But, there is still a strong symbolism in her action. It says something about Israel and about the situation of the Sudanese refugees who have found themselves here.

I asked Shima and she said that her mom and her had not gone to any Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day) official ceremonies, which makes sense because many Sudanese are afraid of immigration police. However, it's possible that Shima feels Israeli. The question than is what happens when the generation of parents start going back to Sudan, but children want to stay, or what happens when some families decide to make Israel their home. In essence, when does a non-Jew in Israel become Israeli? For many Sudanese, their intentions are clear: they want to go home. Peter from Arad, as an example, always has his TV on SSN, the Sudanese Satellite Network, and can't stop talking about home. But for the rest who want to stay in Israel, estimated by some NGOs as around 25% of the community (though no one is sure), it is unclear what their future holds.

Language, employment, and education are important practical concerns at the center of this dilemma, but even more important is the emotional question. Can Israel be a Jewish state and a post-national state, and does it want to be? The obvious answer is no on both accounts, but the reality seems to suggest otherwise. Sort of. The Neve Sha'anan neighborhood, in the shadow of Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station is made up almost exclusively of Thai, Sudanese, Romanian, and other foreign nationals working in Israel. The neighborhood looks and feels dirty and illegal businesses and prostitution abound. However, there has been some recent excitement about potentially converting the neighborhood into the Tel Aviv equivalent of Chinatown. Additionally, while walking with the kids from Adam's English learning program to a nearby park I've seen multiple Filipino children in Israeli scout uniforms. And these workers are moving up. A handful of non-Jewish, non-Russian, immigrant workers live in Bat Yam, which isn't glamorous, but is certainly a step or two up from South Tel Aviv. All of this implies a sense of permanency about Israel's "non-Israeli" population. The Jewish State seems to be adjusting to an understanding that there will always be some "goyim" among us.

It seems that this is the natural consequence of Israel outdoing itself. If we weren't living in such a vibrant and successful economy there would be no incentive for the foreign workers. If we didn't act accordingly with Jewish morals we would have no refugee "problem" to deal with. As the adage goes, as you make your bed you must sleep in it. So, now that we've made our bed so nice and fluffy, with plush pillows and a down blanket, so nice that some other folks have jumped in, how do we sleep with them, if we do at all. There are three options.

Firstly, we could be assertive and brash, kicking immigrants out of the country. There is currently an ad campaign in Israel against illegally employing foreign workers that shows the pictures of Jewish Israelis with their statue (father of 3, newly released soldier, etc.) and says in Hebrew, "don't give away my job." While this viewpoint has some merit, it also runs the risk of seeming discriminatory to a level even greater than Arizona's S.B. 1070, which has already been disavowed by President Obama, influential Republicans like Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, and even by the Major League Baseball Player's Union. Being under the international microscope of scrutiny, such as Israel always is, imagine the outcry if we were to expel the 20,000 plus refugees and tens of thousands of illegal workers.

Secondly, Israel can drop the whole Jewish thing and make a huge aid project of bringing in more refugees to help them here. While that may boost Israel's public image and do a lot of good, there is still an argument to make that with our limited resources and high poverty rate it may be wiser to spend that money on the citizens of the country in need first and then expand into a project such as this. The Talmud states that one should help their own community first and then those farther away. Additionally, this changes the mission that has held the Jewish State together for over 62 years and the Zionist endeavor for more than 120 years. It's kind of a big deal.

The last, and I think most practical option is to accept what is happening and make it an advantage. After all, this is how Israel has thrived for years, by taking set backs, like the Arab League boycott, and turning them around as Israel did by growing a more independent economy in response to the boycott. The Sudanese are now an economic burden, but they don't have to be. There are creative ways to bring them into the economy and it all starts with teaching language, vocational, and technological skills. This can itself bring the teachers, potentially previously unemployed Jews, some money. The Sudanese want to learn, and Israel is a proven teacher. One way to capitalize on this seeming disadvantage would be to gain foreign investment in an institute that would educate Sudanese, along with Jewish Israelis in the leadership skills they so desperately crave to bring back to Sudan. We can learn from them as much as they can from us, as anyone in Garin Tzedek could quickly tell you. And Israelis are culture junkies that travel the world for new tastes and ideas.

Most important though is that helping these people is not only moral, it can redefine the Jewish condition. We've been hunted and persecuted for so long that our natural instinct has been protectionist and isolationist. However, in a independent Israel, we have our first opportunity to sustain our unique Jewish essence and still extend our hand to others. We are now strong enough that we are beginning to connect globally, it's happening in Israeli business, traveling, and projects - just this month Israel sold millions of dollars of drip irrigation technology to African countries. If we can accept this reality and begin to act accordingly we can help those that need our help from our neighbors to the refugees from Sudan.

So, maybe Shima is just drawing what she's seen all over the streets in the weeks surrounding Israeli Independence Day, but maybe she thinks of herself as Israeli. And while we need to maintain Israel's Jewish character, maybe she can help us redefine who we are as a confident and moral people that can not only govern ourselves, but can also start to save the world.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mourning and Celebration - Zionist Schizophrenia

The last two days have been a rafting trip through a river of emotions, ebbing and flowing by the hour. Israelis are like seasoned guides for this kind of trip but, like guides, even they get surprised every time and get an extreme rush from the experience without fail. Every year, as you may well know, Israel has Memorial Day (or Yom Hazikaron) and then immediately follows the solemn ceremonies for the more than 22,000 fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks with Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) starting immediately thereafter. There is a sense of “schizophrenia” as Judy Cohen, the YJ Bat Yam coordinator, put it. On Memorial Day, all of Israel is in intense and personal mourning. We visited a cemetery full of bereaved families and friends. The radio stations play only sad music. Stores are closed early and everyone goes to ceremonies, large or small, often times through their municipality to commemorate the day. We went to Bat Yam’s ceremony where all of the 522 names of “the children of Bat Yam and their children” who have fallen in the line of duty or as a result of terror attacks were read. There were easily 3,000 people in attendance. There is a siren that begins Memorial Day at 8 pm and another the next day at 11 am and everyone is truly downtrodden throughout the day since almost everyone knows someone directly who has died in the IDF. However, around 5 pm attitudes and morale start to change.

By 8 pm, around the time when the switch from penultimate sadness to incomparable elation is made, everyone has changed from plain white or black shirts to festive hats, pants, flags, and face paints. In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square people were dancing with strangers and children were running after each other with bottles of silly-string. It was hard to be anything but overjoyed, even after my friend JD accidentally threw coffee on me (don’t worry it wasn’t hot.) Independence Day itself is a holiday you can enjoy with all of your senses. Fireworks, barbeques, and family gatherings are commonplace across the country. You can hear old Zionist marching songs, folk tunes by Shlomo Artzi, and Kobi Peretz’s Mizrachi music; the excitement is palpable. But in Israel’s press these two days mean something somewhat different. Political correspondents talk about how we’ve triumphed or what we need to do better in the next year, culture and scene reporters praise Israeli films or shun the new wave in a nostalgic look backwards, and social activists rail on the current administration and ask for what’s next. Now, we could do that, although I think it’s obvious what we’d ask for to anyone who has read this blog before, and we still may do so, but not now. For now, I have had my fill of poignant and well worded social commentary – and I don’t think I could even come close to the neighborhood of Israel’s media in the eloquence of my words. But I do have a different insight that I think only an outsider, particularly a young adult could pick up.

These two days are too emotional to process; it reminds us of our national and personal fragility. I had the choice to either go to a ceremony for Memorial Day or to visit my roommate who was spending two days in the hospital because he had a problem with his vision. I chose the ceremony. And during it, one of the speakers read a well known Hebrew poem about a lost friend that roughly translates to:

And while today we must think of so many names, so many stories and lives, you still come to mind. Even though, when the siren rings I am supposed to remember all those that died for me, I will only think of you and you will be the only thing that matters.

Now, granted, my roommate was only in the hospital and not in life threatening condition, but what I realized a couple hours after I got home, was that I may have chosen wrong. I was all caught up in the day and forgot that it is about appreciating those we love. My roommate will be in the army next year and naturally I’m worried for him. I don’t think anything will happen, but still, on a day like Yom Hazikaron, these kinds of thoughts come up. But, that is what happens. On Memorial Day we remember that anyone, regardless of color, wealth, or country of origin, can be lost at any time. We are always close to the brink here, and today we recognize that through awful humor that tries to make light of things, through ritual, through mourning, through guilt, and through moving on into the best day of our lives come tomorrow and independence day.

I don’t mean to go much further than that, but as this is the Garin Tzedek blog, I do want to bring things back to our joint mission. Today and yesterday, we remembered and celebrated some crazy things here and Israel. This kind of distinction is a common theme in Judaism: between the profane and the holy; between the Shabbat and the normal days; between kosher and non-kosher; between death, life and all the stages of life. But those that now the difference between Zikaron and Atzma’ut, literally remembrance and independence, but more appropriately ultimate sorrow and ultimate joy feel how these distinctions sanctify our lives. In Israel how we cope with the responsibility of our independence because of the price we paid for it is a huge part of the culture. The Zikaron-Atzma’ut transition is part of why you can go into an Israeli home and expect to be offered a bed and a meal and why the other passengers on the bus help you find your stop. The understanding that we have to be happy and united because others we too may fall has caused Israel’s greatest victories, and when we’ve forgotten this value, our greatest defeats. This may be the keystone of Zionism and it is something that the Sudanese share as well. There community rises and falls together and they look out for one another because they too are constantly reminded of grief and elation, victories (however small) and their prices (however large.) Today of all days, we can see ourselves within them and them within us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day and yet I’m still wasting time. Here in Israel Yom Hashoah has a different prominence than it does in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Most obviously, here the day is a state holiday. Instead of small and little known gatherings, commemorations are large, obvious, and in your face. Even if one wanted to, one couldn’t avoid the powerful mood of the day, perhaps most symbolized by the two minute siren sounded during the mid morning, during which all activities stop and everyone stands in silence to remember. Rowdy classrooms are muted, businesses take a break, and the highway traffic halts as drivers get out of their cars to stand. This is a truly powerful sight.

However, the biggest difference is not the most obvious one. Perhaps Yair Lapid said it best when he said that he fears anti-Semites and neo-Nazis as a humanist, and not a personal issue. While Diaspora Jews, even in America, still live with some fear or inferiority in the back of their head, no matter how well it may be tucked away – because we are a minority, because we know someone who was affected by anti-Semitism in our community, or for whatever other reasons, our Israeli counterparts are confident and fearless. This entirely transforms the mentality of the day. In America we tell a narrative obsessed with the numbers, with the loss, and with how we can avoid our own victimhood in the future. We are still defensive and passive. Yes, we recall the heroism and bravery of Jews and Righteous Gentiles alike who stood up, but Yom Hashoah becomes a dreary repetition of facts; part of the uniquely Diaspora narrative that we must never be completely comfortable. In my experience Diaspora Jewry is engaged not in remembrance, but instead in “not forgetting.” We are told to battle those rhetorically who deny the Holocaust (similarly to how we are told to combat those who deny Israel’s right to exist.) But, I’ve learned a new way to practice this day in Israel this year. Abba Kovner says, “Build a monument, not of marble or granite, but of actions.” Israelis that I’ve encountered, living in the self-determinist Jewish state, take this sentence to heart today. In a society where the information battle is non-existent we must not only retell the stories of bravery, sorrow, misery, and transcendent pride, but we must also embody that on a daily basis.

Cars stop on the highway in Bat Yam to stand for the Yom Hashoah Siren
(Photo taken by Aaron Beer)

There are projects and good deeds that can be a memorial for the fallen and an act of defiance towards those who would have us not here. They range from projects directly related to the Holocaust, like helping feed the 200,000 Survivors still living in Israel, many too old and decrepit to support themselves, to general societal improvements like beautifying our country by picking up some of the thousands of cigarette butts and Bamba wrappers lying on the streets. The point though, is that we must internalize the lessons of the Holocaust and improve the world around us to show how truly fortunate we are. This is arguably the most Jewish form of practice – creating a ritual around an idea or ideal – and this ritual of Tikun Olam (improving the world) is the ultimate Jewish action.

Yet I’ve still checked facebook four times today and fed no one but my own flat-mates. With the Pesach Holiday break and the transition between cities we have all gotten too lazy and apathetic in Garin Tzedek, and no one more than me. But in fact this Spring season, from Passover, also known as Z’man Chiruteinu (the time of our freedom), to Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, is ripe with a theme that should be inspiring us. Not only does the Exodus from Egypt and Israeli-style Yom Ha’shoah, based on rebuilding after a genocide, directly correlate to the struggle of the Sudanese as well as it does to our own Jewish historical narrative, it speaks to the exact reasons we started this enterprise. We want to rebuild another people and be the “righteous among the nations” for another people. We want to release ourselves from the bonds of typical Western narcissism and reach a higher level. We want to celebrate our Jewish autonomy like Israelis do; not by combating our would-be enemies, but by helping those like and unlike us, by truly being a light unto the nations. I hope that we can concretely do this by not only repeating what we have done up until now this year, but by challenging ourselves to focus on how we can better REMEMBER the Holocaust, and not just “not forget” until the end of Year Course and throughout the remainder of our lives. Because Yom Hashoah is a day of mourning, but it doesn’t have to be only morbid, it can also be a genesis. That is what commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel has taught me.