Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Second epiphany as an Israeli by choice

I have been rereading my dissertation and I came across this little passage which I really liked and want to share.

My second epiphany as an Israeli by choice came in the summer before my senior year of high school. It related to a section of the Declaration of Independence that has to do with neighbourliness.
WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

The first time I came to Israel was in 1967, after the Six Day War, in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip and Sinai Dessert from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. My mother became a Zionist when she first came to Israel after her father helped build an ORT vocational school there in 1957, and she fell in love with a lifeguard on the beach near her hotel. My dad was transformed by the movie version of Leon Uris’s Exodus with Paul Newman. I was two and remember nothing of this trip, but 1967 was a turning point in Israeli history in terms of the declared aspiration, “to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East” (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2006).
I returned to Israel in 1975, after eight years of occupation. By this time, King Hussein had driven the Palestinian Liberation Organization out of Jordan to Lebanon. I was indifferent to the politics, but unhappy that the homeland of the Jews didn’t have a Major League Baseball team. If you told me that summer that I was going to spend 10 years in Israel without my Cubs and Bears, I would never have believed you.
In 1980, when I arrived in Tel-Aviv to start my sophomore year at the Kfar HaYarok, we were 13 years into the occupation. Our soldiers were still people who were born as non-occupiers. We traveled in relative safety and comfort on both sides of the Green line that demarcates the border between Israel and the West Bank, and King Hussein had not yet relinquished control over his occupied territories in the West Bank.
After my first year of high school, my 12th grade friends who taught me Hebrew and how to milk cows were drafted into the Israeli army. As students from an agricultural school, they were allowed to go to a special branch of the army that allowed boys and girls to serve together, and part of the service was either on a kibbutz or establishing a new settlement, often in the West Bank.
In 1982, in the second year of these friends’ service, I went home for the summer. My ticket had a planned stop-over in London where I hoped to play tourist for a few days. When I arrived at my hotel, I stopped in front of a teletype machine that had just printed a news alert about Israeli jets bombing Lebanon. By the time I left London and arrived in Chicago, our troops were in Beirut. I remember that my first phone call from home was to my friend Moshe’s parents to see how he was doing. Luckily, he was fine, but several of our friends had been shot or got injured by shrapnel.
At the end of the summer, I was back in Israel. The war was still raging, but the first weekend after I arrived my friends were on leave and I spent my time showering them with gifts and candies I brought from the States. In the pre-globalization era, cultures didn’t mix like they do today and simple things like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter were not available in Israel. That weekend I had my second major Zionist epiphany.
“Everything they taught us in school was a lie,” I remember my friends telling me. “They told us we have an army to defend ourselves. They said we were going to clear forty kilometers north of the border to protect the northern settlements. We went all the way to Beirut, and they hadn’t even shot one missile at us from Southern Lebanon in the last year.” (Steiner, 2006a)
The list went on and on. They reminded me about Joseph Trumpeldor, the pre-state soldier who defended Tel-Chai in the upper Galilee on March 1, 1920, and, we were taught, was reported to have said on his deathbed, “Never mind. It’s good to die for one’s country.” (Trumpeldor, 2006, para 2)
He reminded me that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon lied to Prime Minister Menachem Begin to get him to approve of the war and that Sharon lied to the troops and the nation. He said that he was fighting in Israel’s Vietnam.
“Memory is a motherfucker.” (Ayers, 2003, p.7)
How did I choose to add this citizenship to my identity when the foundations of that identity were not completely honest? Reflecting on this question and trying to understand my own decisions brings me to an inquiry into the notion of citizenship and culture.

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Thank you President Obama

In a June 2nd piece in the Israeli daily HaAretz, I read that “the outgoing commander of the Israel Police in the West Bank praised the settlers and took umbrage with their detractors, particularly residents of Tel Aviv ‘whose willingness to contribute to the state is one big zero.’"

Police Major General Shlomi Katbi, in a tirade against the Israeli left on Army Radio said, "those who sit in Tel Aviv, park their jeeps on the sidewalk on Sheinkin Street, drink espresso with one foot resting on the other, and allow themselves to level criticism and to tell stories."

I found the last part of Katbi’s tirade the most fascinating, we leftists, “allow [our]selves to level criticism and to tell stories." Whoa! When did these basic human behaviors become such transgressions? I can understand the discomfort with drinking espresso with one foot resting on the other, but leveling criticism and telling stories, isn’t that a bit much?

Occasionally, when I talk about critical literacy with my wife, she complains that the connotations of “critical” are negative and that I need to find a better word. She may be right, but when I think of criticality, I think of the effort to look deeply at something and try to make it better by finding the faults. Of course, you could say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but this is exactly what I have when I employ critical literacy to my reading of the world. It is my charge as a Jew who does Tikkun Olam.

And what is so bad about telling stories? When the authors of the Bible put pen to paper, they made God the biggest story teller of them all. Are we to understand that God is as bad as the Sheinkin Street, espresso drinking critics?

Why don’t we just get down to plain facts and speak simple truths? When the right has a problem with the left, they find something wrong with us to shout about because they can’t argue with what we believe. If a Jew says he is opposed to the settlements, he becomes a self hater, an anti-Zionist, etc. A bunch of epithets are slung at him, usually, because it beats arguing the point, but this does not get us anywhere.

As Jews, we have been given a heritage rich in debate. When Reish Lakish died, Rebbe Yohannan was sad because the rabbis gave him a yes man and all he wanted was his chevruta, his study partner, Reish Lakish, because “[He] would challenge me with 24 questions.” Today, instead of having an internal debate among our people, we have a mudslinging fest because its easier to find disparaging epithets than it is to answer the hard questions. But now, in the shadow of President Obama’s speech in Cairo, we are going to have to answer the tough questions, or the world will dictate the answers for us, and they won’t wait for our evasive answers.

Thank you President Obama, your speech is the work of a true friend, and I, for one, can’t wait to see your actions follow suit.