We’re not always Better off Safe than Sorry

On Friday, I stepped off the light rail onto the road which divides East and West Jerusalem. For the most part, Arabs live in East Jerusalem, where Israel annexed the Palestinian population following the 1967 war and Jews live in West Jerusalem. I crossed the road into East Jerusalem for lunch. Fear simmered in my stomach as I approached the Palestinian market- there was not an Israeli in sight. I looked out of place- My worry was that I could be harassed or hurt for looking Israeli or Jewish. I’m not far removed from Israelis who walked through the streets of East Jerusalem and were stabbed for the crime of speaking Hebrew and being Jewish. My friend and I walked in silence and I considered turning back thinking, “better safe than sorry.”

I want you to be careful to suspend your judgement of me and Israelis as you read through an American lens. It’s easy to see this conflict as a racial conflict and I as sounding, well, a little racist with unfounded fears much like whites of America; Don’t go into that bad black neighborhood, you’ll get shot in North Philly, Blacks will kidnap you.

While racism can be part of the conflict too, One can not simplify the root of someone’s worldview in a simple character attack of Racism from Israelis or Antisemitism from Palestinians. Generational trauma for both sides of expallation, terror attacks, imprisonment, death and so much more informs the views of the Palestinians and Israelis. These days to an extent, Israel proper stays divided because the Arabs and the Jews live with the attitude ‘better safe than sorry.’ Better that I don’t go to the Arab area so I don’t get hurt, Better that I don’t go to the Jewish area so I don’t get hurt. However, With a healthy dose of caution, I couldn’t let fear stifle my adventurous spirit.

I was only 25 minutes walk from where I live but It brought back fond memories of my stay in Egypt. The smells of spices wafted from spit shawarma and coal grilled kebabs. Women in hijabs and burkas bought items from the fruit sellers who conversed in the animated Palestinian dialect of Arabic. At the resteraunt, I employed the tiny bit of Arabic I knew from the show Fauda to greet the cashier; “salaam alekum, keifhallak” (Hello, peace be with you what’s up). When he asked me how many shawarmas I wanted I said “Wahad” (one). He was curt, but in an Israeli way, much like the Jewish Israeli Shawarma vendors across town.

My nerves calmed as my friend and I ate our shawarma on a stoop watching the people go by. Attune to what was going on inside our heads and outside in the world, We spoke In low voices about fear and division, how much we should let fear rule us versus rejecting it. Given the amazing Shawarma I would have missed out on, I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone!

I’ve inherited the caution of Jewish Israelis and to an extent it is good for my protection. The reality is, I would be harassed and at risk of violence if I walked through neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. My roommate walked through the East Jerusalem Neighborhood of At- Tur by accident earlier this year and little kids jeered them, tried to steal their bags, and adults stared and said “Welcome to Palestine, not Israel”. At the same time, I want to believe that the vast majority of people in the world are good actors. And If I let fear dictate my life by making “better safe than sorry” decisions to avoid danger, I’ll only see half the world. That would be the true tragedy.

Wandering Jews: Traveling with a Name Like That

My friend and I spent Saturday in the Israel museum which has vast collection of art and archaeological antiquities from around the world. Her parents are Israeli and she speaks fluent Hebrew despite having spent most of her childhood in the United States. We share a love of travel and have a world perspective; Every artifact we saw in the museum brought back memories of travel for each of us. An interior of a synagogue which was originally in Asia had a floor covered in sand which reminded me of a synagogue I visited in Italy where sand was also used to dampen the sounds of prayer, helping the Jewish community to keep a low profile. A display of menorahs from around the globe reminded her of her fathers family, who immigrated to Israel from elsewhere in the middle east. When we got to the Egyptian galleries, I reminisced about my adventures in Egypt. She said sadly that Egypt is a place she may never see. She explained that her name is a Hebrew word, which makes her a target for Anti Israel or Anti Jewish Harassment or violence particularly in the Arab world. She told me that as a kid her parents would tell her before getting on a plane to a foreign place not to utter a word in Hebrew, or talk about Israel for the entire trip. She didn’t understand why until she got older.

I feel safety in the fact that people don’t know that I am Jewish because of my name. Benjamin is a biblical name for Christians and Jews and Newman is British Anglo Saxon in origin. When I travel abroad, I employ a three step rule when talking with strangers; you need to ask three layers deep for me to reveal my Judaism. While I do believe that most people, especially those in the service industry are accepting, guarding myself is how I stay safe and have the best experience.

When I’ve chosen to share my Judaism with people during travel, I’ve learned a lot. My experience in Egypt was great; After a few days with our guide, who was an Arab Muslim we opened up conversations about our Judaism and trips to Israel, comparing our traditions with with Islam, ancient Egyptian traditions, and learning about geopolitics. In Vietnam, when my dad shared that we were Jewish, our flamboyant guide Li exclaimed with fascination “ohhhh you are ‘Jewit’, so you must teach your kids about money.” He wasn’t wrong. Kayaking through lake superior off of the great swath of homogeneic Anglo Christian America that is upper Michigan, my guide passed the 3 question test and when I said I was Jewish, to my surprise she said she was Jewish also. We talked about Zionism, Israel and the democrats, what it’s like being a Jew in an Isolated outpost.

When I have chosen to share my Jewish identity while traveling, I have been grateful for the conversations and insights I have gained. I am also grateful for my ability to conceal my Identity, a privilege that my friend and many others like her do not have.

Where is Dani Cohen?- Settlers, Chabadniks, and Me During the Most Tense Weekend in Hebron

The Chabad of Kiryat Arba. From left to right; Yitzy Zlota, David Munchnik, Me, Jono Levit

I’m in love with this Netflix show called Fauda about an Israeli Jewish team that goes undercover as Arabs in order to fight terror operations in the West Bank. So, This past weekend I went undercover as a religious Jew in order to understand prayer and settlement operations in the West Bank. 

For the torah portion of Chaya Sara (the life of the Matriarch Sara), many religious Jews make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to pray next to her burial site. The complicated thing; Hebron is a Palestinian city, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a Mosque… How then are Israeli Jews to gain safe access to accommodations and prayer? For the past 24 hours I lived inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with settlers, Palestinans, and religious Jews learning so much in a series of eye opening experiences and conversations. 

There were two types of groups at large who attended; Israeli Ideological settlers and very Religious Chabad people. The term settler means an Israeli citizen who chooses to live over the green line in the disputed territories within a settlement for reasons ranging from Ideology, cheap housing, country feel, and more. The settlers who went to Hebron are extremely religious, driven by their belief in settling the area of the Jewish historical heartland. What many refer to as the ‘disputed territories’ or the ‘West Bank’ they would call “Judea and Samaria.” Right wing hippies? Yes, only in Israel. Ideological settlers are extremely right wing but without fail dress in khakis with flowing white shirts, loose side curls, and hiking books. 

On Friday, my friends and I took an armored bus to Hebron and went to the Chabad house where we were staying in a settlement adjacent to the city called Kiryat Arba. Again, complicated; Hebron is a city that is divided into two sections; one controlled by the Palestinian authority, called H1 and one section under Israeli military control called H2. No Israelis are allowed in Palestinian Hebron as it is under the area A designation. Under IDF control, Area H2 encompasses surrounding Arab neighborhoods and protects the historic Jewish quarter and tomb for access by the Jews. We left Kiryat Arba to walk to the tomb and to hopefully connect with Rabbi Dani Cohen who was head of the Chabad of Hebron and supposedly had our meal tickets for the Chabad tent. His instruction “come to the Chabad house, ask anyone in the neighborhood where it is,” would prove to be completely unhelpful- but we’ll save that bit for later.

We followed the crowd of Jews and were greeted by a huge IDF presence; soldiers in green at every corner and armored vehicles roamed the streets. We descended into the valley towards the Jewish quarter of Hebron, snaking through crumbling ruins of islamic sandstone structure straight out of a movie. We entered into a tent city set up by travellers which had taken over the green in front of the tomb… call it the Jewish Woodstock. After a failed attempt at entering the Chabad tent (Different than the Chabad House), we winded through the alleys of Hebron to find Rabbi Dani Cohen. While according to his voice message, ‘everybody knows who I am,’ in reality only a few knew who he was, and no one who knew who he was could tell us where he was. We walked in circles until we reached the unassuming door of the Chabad House and knocked… once, twice, three times… no answer. At this point, we began considering what a Shabbas fast would be like. In a last effort, we hauled all the way back to the tomb and tried to get in, hoping that inside we would meet the famous Rabbi Dani Cohen who everybody knows but was nowhere to be found. Through a stroke of luck, we bumped into his right hand man, Mordechai and he said that he could help us get in to the Chabad meal if we met him by the kitchen in 45 minutes. As we sat in the outdoors air, I observed some curiosities. The store signage in the neighborhood was all in Arabic, but the Palestinians were hardly anywhere to be found. Perhaps the Israelis told them to stay indoors, but I am not sure what went on to make it so. I caught the gaze of a little Palestinian girl who watched with curiosity from the window of an upstairs apartment. I saw the soldier stationed on the corner raise his radio as three Palestinian men walked by with gascans filled with liquid. The soldier 100 meters down the line would stop them. A Palestinian woman with her children had to transit the area and was escorted by a soldier. I got the impression that the soldier was protecting them from the potential of a settler riot; It had happened before.

Mordechai was a man of his word and went inside the tent, saying to wait only a few minutes for him to bring us the tickets from Dani Cohen. After a long time of waiting, we lost hope that Mordechai was coming back and told the guard that we were guests of the famous Rabbi Dani Cohen who understood and let us in. We searched for the two bearded men who could help us get food, and found one, a mortified Mordechai who went beet red when he realized he had forgotten four kids out in the cold. He led us to the second bearded man, the infamous Rabbi Dani Cohen who chided us saying ‘I thought you’d never show up’ and then joyfully ushered us to a seat at a table with a family. The family lived in Beit-El, an Orthodox settlement in the foothills of Jerusalem. The young man of 22 explained to me that he voted for the far right wing parties; Zehut and Otzma Yehudit. Among many policy positions, they seek the annexation of the West Bank and no Palestinian state. To him, Bibi Netanyahu is a fake right winger; a populist who has leftist voting patterns. He explained himself as a victim of the Israeli government who has neglected the religious population of the country, doesn’t not do enough to encourage a Jewish Presence in Judea and Samaria, panders to the Arabs, and takes a soft hand to the Palestinians. I had spoken with my first right wing ideological settler. After filling our bellies with food, we went to the Chabad house and slept. 

I woke up before my friends and took a stroll around Kiryat Arba, practicing my wobbly hebrew on passersbys who asked for directions; apparently I looked like I knew where I was going. At the end of the settlement, the golden dome of a mosque breached over the barbed wire of the wall, a crescent moon glinting in the morning sun. I recalled having been woken up earlier by the call to prayer at 5 am, hearing the intersecting rise and fall of multiple Imams. The beauty of the call to prayer will never get old. We went back down through the narrow passages into the Jewish quarter and entered the Machpelah- Tomb of the Patriarchs. While it’s religiosly significant to the Jews, it’s not a synagogue; Inside the Herod-Era walls is a mosque created by the Muslim conqueror Salahadin. The contrast was fascinating; Jews davened below arabic inscriptions and patterns. Perhaps most interesting is that each Matriarch and Patriarch had a memorial stone which was shrouded in velvet with an Arabic inscription. In this mosque, the settlers greivances lived and breathed; Muslim conquerors took our land and built over the tombs of our forefathers and the origional synagogue, ascribing their own meaning to what was origionally ours. We come to get it back today. 

My friends and I relaxed for a few minutes on a creaky abandoned rooftop until a soldier ushered for us to get down; Jews and Arabs often exchange rocks to the head there, something everyone would like to avoid. On the way to lunch we passed a large color printed sign supported by the Jewish community of Hebron that said “Palestine Never Existed, and Never Will.” Yes, Arab Palestine never existed, but to put up a sign saying it never will exist is surely a way to make friends with the local Palestinian population! Instead of waiting for hopeless Mortified Mordechai to help us get into the Chabad tent, we shoved our way in and found the famous Rabbi Dani Cohen who said we could sit at the VIP table. We were sooned joined by a young guy who called himself DJ Israel and shared ‘l’chaim’ with us and we turned merrier through the three bottles of Russian vodka, laughing about how we finessed eating in the VIP section. We posed a Jewish law question to a local rabbi, and while he said he didn’t know the specific Halacha (Jewish Law) in that situation, he could tell us about the Halacha of killing Arabs. In his statement, I was reminded of a lecture I heard in India about how radicalism is one of the four evils that perverts the purity of religion. For him to say that Jews should be able to live in Hebron is not radical. Radicalism comes when he implied the Jews should be able to live in Hebron and there is a religious justification to kill local Arabs. 

DJ Israel and his Chabadnik brother became our tour guides who took us to the top of the Hebron Jewish quarter. Midway, we had to squeeze past an area where Arabs had been throwing stones over the wall at Jews passing by. Up the hill we stopped to talk to a Palestinian man who lived on the street; Immediately a crowd of Israelis crushed around and I knew that the situation could escalate to violence by a man with a kippa who began angrily shouting. By this point I didn’t know the Palestinian man was freinds with DJ israel and his brother. I would learn that a Jew had thrown smashed the Palestinian man’s window with a rock and he said angrily that he would kill the next person to do so. Soldiers came up the way and ushered the instigatory crowd to disperse and the Palestinian family darted inside. We finally reached the top of the hill, where the sounds of Palestinian Hebron echoed. A telling moment took place that I will never forget. The Palestinain kids playing soccer in Palestinian Hebron accidentally kicked a ball over the fence. No one from the Israeli side went to throw it back to them. No one from the Palestinian side called for it. I should have thrown it back, but I chose my own safety, fearful of disrupting the people on my own side. Such is the nature of separation. As we descended a different way, I caught word that the Palestinian media had shown up. There are numerous reports of settlers who threw stones at Palestinian houses resulting in injuries to 5-12 people, one a child. The soldiers were there as much to protect the Palestinians from the radical elements within the 20,000 weekend guests. As we left the town, my I said my goodbyes to the pop pop pop of gunfire. From where or why I do not know. 

I walk away very unsettled with a lot to think about. I’m confused about many things and am trying to guide myself to a better understanding by reading articles on law and what is happening.

Under Attack on Multiple Fronts: my experience of two days living in a country under fire.

Foreword; This is the story of my experience of living in Israel for the first time through a rocket attack. I was lucky to be an observer in Jerusalem where rockets do not often reach. For those targeted in Israeli communities in the south, and those caught in the crossfire in Gaza, I could only begin to imagine what they felt. If you want to read my analysis on the events of the day, read my last post. 

Day 1:

Each morning as I sip my coffee, I read the headlines of the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Ynet. While caffeine provides my chemical wakeup, reading the news is the mental kickstart that assists my transition from the ignorance of sleep to the realities of the world. Two breaking headlines were on Israeli news; Israel executes targeted strike on terrorist Bahaa- Abu- Al- Ata, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is sending a barrage of rockets into southern Israel. No caffeine was needed for my body to tingle and for my mind spin beyond the walls of my Jerusalem apartment. I downloaded red alert, the Israeli created app that warns people about rocket strikes to understand what was happening. Soon, my phone was buzzing 10 times a minute with the names of towns at risk. One by one as my roommates awoke, they joined the conversation in the kitchen as we tried to make sense of the past, present, and future events.

The feeling that lived inside of me during those two days is hard to explain. Every thought that hung in my brain manifested itself somatically in my body. My skin simmered and my gut burned on a constant medium. My breaths drew little air and my throat grew thin with the unrelenting fist of unending anticipation. In the rational brain, my fear didn’t derive from rockets because I knew they wouldn’t come to Jerusalem. I knew my real security risk was terrorists who would feel emboldened to commit stabbing attacks in light of Israeli retaliation, but, I wasn’t so afraid of that either. To an extent, these feelings came from a conflict within; In light of the bloodshed and propaganda wars that ensued over the hours following Al Atas killing, I forced myself to reexamine my positions and question which side was in the right. Didn’t Israel start this fight? How can I support Israel’s military campaign when they kill innocent people? To what extent can I trust Palestinian media? By the same token, to what extent can I trust Israeli media? 

That morning, after reviewing emergency procedures on how to take brace position and where to find shelter in public areas, we took a Tiyull (trip) to East Jerusalem with an organization that advocated Palestinian rights. Needless to say, it was hard for many to sympathize with the Palestinian cause on the day when a militant Palestinian faction from the South was attacking Israeli civilians. As my pocket vibrated, I learned the background of Palestinian anger in Jerusalem and was faced with navigating the uncomfortable middle ground of supporting Palestinian self determination and their right to protest while opposing terrorism and violence. Speaking in generalization; My ‘terrorism and violence’ is often viewed ‘armed resistance’ against an oppressive power. When civil resistance doesn’t work, I can understand the impulse to violence but terrorist acts are not armed resistance; Targeting civilians is to wage an offensive war against a defenseless cohort. 

As the west awoke It was midday here, and Israel had already committed retaliatory strikes against terror targets. I noticed the common trend that western media only reports on the conflict when Israel is involved. No western media reporting happened between after Al- Ata’s killing and when Israel hit terror targets in retaliation, despite the fact that the PIJ had launched over sixty rockets at civilians. 

Despite this, for me, the reporting war happened not in the news but on social media. Stand With Us was extremely active although I was not in the office, reporting the facts of the ground such as rocket counts, impacts, and Israeli strikes. My instagram stories were soon covered with SWU reposts from Jews and non- Jews at like in Philadelphia, from my program and all around. We were successful in filling in the gaps of information that are absent from the larger media which is vital to telling the full story. 

Simultaneously, the side against Israel moved into high gear as friends from home advocated against Israeli actions by reposting accounts on their Instagram stories. One profile reposted by my social justice advocate/ peace loving friend had content on their feed glorifying the perpetrators of violent Jihad, and denying the Jewish right to self determination. It doesn’t surprise me how people are taken by the propaganda; the Instagram account Is positioned to resonate with a western audience by highlighting the Palestinian plight in terms of existing social justice paradigms. Another account that was reposted says that they are telling the ‘full story,’ but their comments section is full of people chatting about a Zionist/ Jewish conspiracy against the Palestinians. Let’s be critical thinkers here; When your post has succeeded in uniting antisemites from the Middle East, Europe, and America, you’re either doing a poor job at advocating social justice… or social justice is not your prime mission. 

A comment on one of these accounts steeped in tropes about a world Zionist Conspiracy

In light of the views of my friends shared on instagram, I was faced with a decision. When people express views that are both anti- Israel and ignorant of the facts, I often stay quiet, but I felt that they may appreciate my unique perspective to offer given that I am living in Jerusalem. When I offered a friend to talk about the conflict, she said that she had heard both sides and that a conversation might not be productive. I told her that in Israel there are always three or more sides and that if she wants to hear a fourth side come back to me and talk. I got a thanks. While I appreciated her graciousness, I didn’t respect her choice for comfort. At the same time I was asking her to hear my truth- a position different from hers- I was practicing what I preached by by exposing myself to Al-Jazzeera, Arab News, Quds Social media, #gaza. That night, I reached out to my other friend, who reposted a post about the grief and anguish felt by the young daughter of Abu Al Ata. After hours of back and forth, fact checking (Gaza is not occupied after the 2005 unilateral disengagement, Israel is not seeking to annex the Palestinians, Jews are an indigenous minority in the Middle East as well as Palestinians ETC), and a Jewish money trope, I walked away again unsuccessful in being heard, but having sharpened my argumentative skills. I was confronted with another aspect behind Israel opinion; hatred of the Jewish state due to prejudice. Whether he knew it or not, his argument had Antisemetic undertones such as the idea of a thieving “Rich Zionist government.” After giving a history lesson and explanation, I suggested to him that he could be a better advocate for change if he avoided the Z word or bigoted tropes. While Zionism is an 1800s movement and Judaism is a religion (…people, culture, nationality etc.), the tenets of Zionism, Jewish self determination and wanting to go back to Israel are immutable from Judaism. They are in our prayers, in our culture, in our holidays, and in our sayings. In our ancient prayer the Shema, we say; “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our god and Adonai is one.” To toss around the word Zionist in a negative context is to use a substitute for the word ‘Jew.’ He vehemently denied ill intention, which I believe, but also denied my perception of his remarks as prejudiced. Ever heard ‘Jew’ed me down’ Or ‘Gyped me’ and thought nothing of it’? I know I have. Our socialization can breed unknown prejudice. He now sends me a daily post about ‘Israeli atrocities…’ some real, some imagined, and some more complicated than a post explain.

Photo sent to me by my friend advocating for Gaza. The little girl crying in the video is the daughter of Terrorist Bahaa- Abu al Ata

After I ended the conversation and before I went to bed, I sent a note to my SWU social media team on WhatsApp saying Kol Hakavod (Well done!) for their hard work reporting on the events of the day and to ask if they needed anything. Noam sent me a winky face back saying ‘Coffee!’ The good intern that I am, I sent them a note saying “brewing” and then another one with the coffee emoji. 

As I stepped into my dark bedroom, I prepared for the worst; a barrage of rockets on Jerusalem in the middle of the night. I took shorts, underwear, and a shirt out of my dresser and set it on the floor next to my bed. I stuffed socks in my sneakers and set them where they could easily be slipped on. I wouldn’t have to go far to the bomb shelter; the other bedroom in my apartment is reinforced with thick concrete and a blast door… but who knows how long I would have to stay there if the absolute worst should happen? By that point, 1 million Israelis were in bomb shelter… mind you, Israel only has 9 million citizens.  

I put my clothes by my bed before I went to sleep

Day 2:

While we made it through the night, nothing prepared me to waking up to a phone buzzing at 6:30 am to more rocket alerts. With a fluttering heart I dozed back off to sleep, got up and searched the posts with #gaza on Instagram to see what was happening on the pro- Gaza side. Reports of death tolls climbed, everyone considered a civilian, none a target. My terrorists were their freedom fighters. How and why do we see this differently I thought? I have my thoughts, but I’m still trying to understand. 

Sirens wailed in the city of Jerusalem throughout these two days more than usual and I wondered what it meant. I’d learn that there were 10s of thwarted attacks by Palestinians on police or Israeli citizens. Ambulances carried the terrorists who are more often than not were injured by police before they could commit violence. I heard of an attempted stabbing by a 14 year old Palestinian boy in the Arab shuk in the old city of Jerusalem where I go often to eat. He was tased while rushing a policeman with a knife, stunned on the cobblestone ground. My first two thoughts; Sadness; Who taught him that violence brings redemption? Second; Thank god that the police used non- lethal force.

When I arrived at the office, the environment was anticipatory, with a collective groan everytime the rocket alarm buzzed. Already, the false headlines had taken hold. Amnesty International condemned the IDF for striking a human rights agency in Gaza. It was quickly debunked by a reporter on the ground but the narrative was already drawn. The building actually exploded from a PIJ rocket. People had various different positions on the targeted killing that resulted in the rockets. It was clear that there were a lot of questions to be asked; why did they have to kill this terrorist now? Didn’t Israel know exactly what would happen in response to the rockets? I would later show up in a video broadcast to our social media saying that I support Israel.

Screenshot of the SWU video where I shared my support for Israel

After work, I went to lunch with someone that day who was here during the First Intifada and had missed a bus that blew up at the next stop, killing many. He explained the unmooring feeling of being suddenly unsafe in a place that should be safe. In the 25 years since the failure of the oslo peace process, and in the wake of the Second Intifada and the rise of Hamas, the Israeli public has no doubt become cynical toward peace and collectively scarred from trauma. Everyone is connected to someone who was affected by terror, by stabbing, by car, by bomb, by rocket. 

Rockets continued that afternoon and soon a ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians was announced. the PIJ has broken it in small batches but it has generally been held. I settled a bit, knowing that things would return to normal.

In the days following the conflict, I processed the fallout. My professor told me the story of a friend in his town who was walking with her three kids when the sirens went off. She decided that she could only run with two of her kids to the bomb shelter. She scooped up her older kids and ran, leaving the stroller with her baby in the middle of the road. She prayed in the concrete bunker that someone had taken the stroller. Emerging into the harsh light, the street was empty and within two minutes someone returned the stroller to her. Jono’s senior- aged great aunt who lives in Ashdod had to move her bedroom into the bomb shelter because she couldn’t move fast enough. But those stories of women and children exist in Gaza as well; a family of eight was tragically killed. The IDF misjudged a ramshackle house as a PIJ outpost. Conflicting reports suggest that they had either confused two brothers, one a PIJ member one a citizen- or confused their places of living and working. These mistakes are deady. 

While I felt I helped tell the full story through Stand With Us, I was sadly powerless to broaden the views of my very own friends back home; Just yesterday someone re-posted a video mocking an interview of an Israeli who said she had to miss her birthday party for rockets in a tone that said “Watch your privilege as you kill Gazans who live in hovels.” Yes and no, my friend, no and yes, and whatever lies between. If only you’d come here to see this vast expanse of gray… you would be as uncomfortable and confused as me. 

“Rockets Rain on Gaza and Israel”- False equivalencies and nuances in the latest Conflict with Gaza.

In the wee hours of the morning this past Tuesday, the Israeli airforce carried out a targeted killing against Baha Abu al-Ata, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian linked terror group in Gaza. When the smoke cleared from Abu al-Ata’s leveled apartment, his body was paraded through the streets as a martyr, and over the next 48 hours the Palestinian Islamic Jihad exacted retribution by targeting Israeli civilians with over 450 rockets.

When I woke up that day to the sound of my rocket alerts buzzing 5 a minute about southern Israel, I had to figure out what happened and more importantly how I felt about what was happening. In times of conflict it is instinctual to rally around your own flag to support the fight against the enemy. As a critical thinker however, I felt I had to suspend my blind tribalism in order to come to a more reasoned understanding of the conflict. This started with putting myself in the shoes of the ‘evil other.’

I tried to look for moral qualification to the actions of the Islamic Jihad, where I could find understanding, and where I could sympathize. Although they are considered a terrorist organization by many nations (a designation with which I unequivocally agree), their actions are supported by a sizable cohort of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians being humans and thus at large moral people, there must be something that I don’t understand. After unsettling days of reasearch, news reading, and argument, I’ve first come to the understanding that “It’s complicated,” but that I am not without a judgement. I want to shed light an understanding I’ve come to that is not easy to reach from the outside and not shared in news media.

When discussing military actions, It is wrong to draw a moral equivalency between both the intentions and actions of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Israeli Defense Force. Wedesday’s NPR headline was the poster child for the false moral equivalency; ‘Rockets rain on Israel and Gaza.”

’Rain’ implies two things about the nature of the Israeli and Gazan launched rockets; Like rain, the rockets landing in both Gaza and Israel are high in volume, and like rain, the rockets are indiscriminate of where they land, creating damage in a large area. This Idiom is only descriptive of the actions and Intentions of the PIJ and is fundamentally misleading about the IDF. Did the PIJ send a high volume of rockets as to be described as “rain”? Yes, The PIJ sent 450 rockets into Israel in 48 hours. Comparitiveley the IDF launched limited retaliatory F-16 strikes only in direct response to continuing rocket fire. Like rain, were these PIJ rockets indiscriminate of where they landed? Yes, they were aimed in the direction of Israeli Civilians in towns, kibbutzim, and cities in the south with indiscriminate weaponry to inflict the MOST damage possible. In contravention with the Geneva accords the heads of Al- Quds rockets are filled shrapnel in order to increase damage by spraying on impact. Conversely, the IDF targets individuals of terror organizations and attempts to minimize the damage to the community and loss of life. Of Abu- Al Ata’s three story building, Israeli F-16’s leveled only his floor, the rest intact demonstrated by pictures of the day. A video was aired of a high rise with ONE apartment smoking from a strike.

When people die in Gaza, it doesn’t automatically mean that the IDF committed war crimes. Collateral deaths of innocent Gazans can be explained by many factors none of which are that Israel targets civilians (not all explanations morally absolve the IDF’s conduct.) 1.2 Million Palestinians live in the 141 square miles of Gaza, where terrorists hide in civilian areas, using humans as shields by putting their operations and arsenals in schools, humanitarian sites and neighborhoods. Avoiding collateral deaths is thus difficult and many have urged restraint on Israels part. There is a two sided coin to this; Israel calculates the likelihood of collateral deaths and often still chooses to strike at the time of least impact but still when there could be collateral deaths which is tragic. These collateral killings do not always go without investigation; the IDF publicly announced a probe into the eight person Gaza family that was killed in a strike. On the other hand, the death tolls are a distortion in their own right; many of those killed in Gaza were supposed to be, (We can debate the necessity/ Morality of targeted killings but that’s for another time). Death tolls do not always differentiate between terrorists and innocents because of course, to much of the Arab world (and world), these are freedom fighters and now martyrs of the cause; 25 of the 34 killed were Islamic Jihad Targets. In contrast, no Israelis were killed. Looking from the other side, Israeli safety doesn’t mean the PIJ didn’t commit warcrimes. Israelis stayed safe not because the PIJ showed restraint, or because they sent rockets at non- civilian targets, but because the Israelis have the Iron Dome Missile Defense System which intercepted 90% of the rockets going to civilian neighborhoods, and Israel has bomb shelters and bomb alert sirens. Still, there are pictures of houses in Ashkelon with holes in the ceiling above playrooms with children’s toys strewn about.

To counter everything I just said, we often miss that the human aspects on the ground between Israel and Gaza are the same. When innocent people die, both Israelis and Palestinians shed the same pained tears, hug their loved ones with the same love that bond the other together, and too often hate with the same face the other who they feel killed their loved one. An exchange from a friend back home illustrates the complicated nature of this situation; He posted a video of the daughter of Abu Al Ata sobbing over the death of her father captioning “Pray for Gaza.” I understood her devastation to be real and valid; her world was truly rocked. For humanities sake we should allow ourselves to empathize with her and what her life is to be now. Her own devastation about her fathers death cannot overrule the fact that for her father, the lives of innocent women, men and children were worthless; he orchestrated hundreds of offensive attacks targeting children the age of his own daughter in kindergartens, and homes in Israel. For the Palestinians connected to PIJ, or simply under Hamas rule, the true yoke of oppression comes from those who see indiscriminate violence as a means to an end.

Social Cohesion and Politics in Israel- it’s complicated. The ADL Conference.

My most interesting experience this past week was going to the Anti Defamation League’s annual Social Cohesion Summit in Tel Aviv. The ADL is a non profit that seeks to combat antisemitism and fight for the rights of all people to live freely. As part of their mission in Israel, they seek to improve relations between Jews and Arabs, and mend divisions created by differences in religion, politics, etc between Jews, Arabs and Christians. 

It was a Ted type of event, full of speakers, important names, and group debates. 

The Keynote speaker was Benny Gantz, leader of the center Left Blue and White party. At the moment he is desperately trying to form a parliamentary coalition in order to lead the country. His message was that social unity would allow a unity government to form. A unity government is where each of the leading parties (Likud and Blue and White) share the role of Prime Minister.  However, both main parties have vowed at different times to never be in a coalition with the other. This leaves Gantz in a position of recruiting the Joint List (Arab Parties), into his coalition. Although partisans in America may say that their elected leaders are trying to dismantle America from the inside (be it ‘Fascist’ trump, or ‘Communist’ Bernie,) in Israel there are actually parties who seek to see it destroyed. Certain factions within the Joint list don’t affirm Israel’s right to exist and seek to dismantle the Jewish state. This last resort makes coalition forming harder. 

Subsequently, panels of former and current parliament leaders from all sides of the spectrum were interviewed. Moshe Gafni, a Haredi Rabbi and Parliament member complained that Gantz’ “Unity” narrative is disingenuous; Gantz seeks a liberal unity which means a government excluding the religious parties which tend to be more right wing. Ayelet Shaked, whose unique character is non- existent in American politics is a right wing superstar, feminist, and bridger of the gap between the Haredi Parties and left. She weighed in on a recent political row, wherein a community held an event in honor of an important Haredi rabbi and invited many political attendees. Men and Women were separated, and women were not allowed to sing or perform , as per ultra religious tradition. Her view was that the organizers had the right a private event in honor of a Rabbi with respect to his religious beliefs, even if they may be widely viewed as sexist. Nitzan Horowitz from the Democratic camp dissented however, remarking that social unity and integration of the Haredi community can never be achieved if the men are unwilling to talk to or even be in the same room with other women. 

The most interesting panel was called Arab Israelis; Separation or Exclusion. There are 1.8 million Arabs living within the green line who are full citizens of Israel and are ensured equal rights. Like many minorities within a majority society, these rights are not always realized. There were four people on the panel, One a Jewish Journalist who lives in a settlement, one a former Arab member of a Zionist party, one a Jewish Knesset member and one a member of the Joint List. So many interesting things were said that revealed divisions in israeli society and arab views on the future of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediteranian. The Arab member remarked that he is a Zionist and thus believes in a Jewish state, but that despite his beliefs and membership to a Zionist party, he was subjected to rascist attacks resulting in shame and his exit from politics. When asked if he would join the Joint List, he said he would not. The Jewish Knesset members felt that the ‘tragedy’ of Israeli Arabs is that most want to be integrated into society but they are kept separated by the actions and propaganda of the Joint List, who Identify with the PA, and identifies with terrorists and murderers. At this time, the Joint List member countered, positing that Israeli Arabs are not integrated because they don’t speak Hebrew and Vice Versa. Perhaps Israeli Jews and secular people should be learning Arabic. The final debate on the panel was about Illegal building. Land ownership in Israel is complicated to say the least. For a construction to be legal it has to be approved by the Israeli government before construction… usually. The Jewish former member of parliament stated that the Arabs have an issue in their villages of illegal construction. Immediately, the member of the joint list raised his voice and shot back; Don’t talk to me about illegal arab building! First, clean your own house of crazy settlement building! The reasons Arabs build illegally is because they aren’t granted legal permits in the first place! The woman who lived in a settlement then chimed in; I’m against both Jewish and Arab illegal settlement construction. As I learned last week in the bedouin village, Jewish settlements are often granted legality Post Ex Facto, whereas Arab constructions rarely are. 

I left that day with my head bursting, affirmed in my conviction that it is impossible to understand this country from the outside. In the knesset, men who won’t hear another woman sing sit across from women who seek to legalize civil unions and gay marriage. Members of the right wing parties who wrote the nation state law saying that Israel is for the Jewish people sit beside members of the Joint List who deny the right of the very country they serve, Israel, to exist. In the knesset, the feminist superstar comes from the right bloc and the champion of the left bloc was a career army guy. The contradictions in the Knesset represent the vast diversity of opinion and experience in Israeli society. This is a good thing.

Shul hopping, Kibbutzim, Bedouins; Different ways of life in Israel

Simchat Torah could be my favorite holiday of the year. Arriving on the heels of the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, Jewish people all around the world finish reading the Torah and start again from the beginning. A new friend Aliya and I stayed over at a family’s house who lives just outside of Jerusalem in order to go to a renewal synagogue called Nava Tehila. I would say that the family’s brand of religion was unconventional. It was more spiritual than strictly observant, adherent to Jewish law but more liberal in lifestyle. The son and I quickly connected over music, but we couldn’t jam for long because they observe the rule that prohibits work- and thus music on the holiday. The mother and I had very interesting conversations about religion, philosophy and politics. I asked her why she does not write or play music on shabbat and she suggested a spiritual explanation. Creativity, she explained, is a one way exchange between G-d and man. For six days out of the week, G-d imbues within us inspiration. It seems to come out of nowhere. However, on the seventh day, we give to G-d through prayer and meditation. 

Throughout the weekend, we went to three different synagogues each with a different flavour. One synagogue was held in a school gym with lots of chanting and dancing mostly of young folk. The other was a carlebach synagogue where we carried the torahs in the streets and danced joyously. That morning we went to Nava Tehilah. Over 95% of the people at the synagogue were dancing and fully involved- a level of participation I have never before seen. Its difficult to explain the spiritual energy that electrified the air as concentric rings of people spun and swirled around the instruments and torahs in the middle. Voices chanted, sweat pooled but we; young, old, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Sephardic danced on. The joy of worshipping together was undeniable.

Last week, we went to a kibbutz in the Negev Desert. A kibbutz is a socialist commune- essentially a closed neighborhood- where members live, eat together in a dining hall, and work in what they want to pursue. All of the money they earn goes to the Kibbutz Collective- whether you are a scientist who manages their high tec algae operation or the date picker, you receive according to your needs not the amount you make. All in all it was a fascinating experience to understand why socialism continues to work. The answer is that it is goal oriented community who is capitalistic on the outside and socialist on the inside, made of people who elected to take part in this lifestyle. 

When you drive out of Jerusalem into Area C of the disputed territories, little collections of shacks dot the arid hills on the side of the highway. These are bedouin villages. Bedouins are Arabs who were nomadic up until 60 years ago when they settled in semi permanent shacks. We visited one of these villages and talked to a journalist and a smokey man who was the village leader. 

The bedouin village is below a settlement up on the hill. At one point both were considered illegal constructions until the settlement was granted legality. Although the Bedouin village was not a permitted construction, it also was not a permanent construction and thus it’s legality was hard to define in court so it was left alone. 10 years ago, an NGO built the first permanent structure, a school, which thus made the village illegal. The settlement then petitioned the government to remove the bedouin village given its status as an illegal construction, eyesore, and impedance to settlement expansion. The Israeli government proposed eminent domain with little just compensation to be able to purchase a legal home (worth much more than their current shanty.) The smokey village leader told us: we were masons, laborers, and the roofers who built the settlement. Even though we predate them on this land, our existence is at stake. 

Complicating the matter, the bedouins are a stateless people. They are not Israeli citizens and they are not citizens of the Palestinian Authority. They will fly the Palestinian flag when the Palestinian Authority helps them, and will lower the flag when the Israeli government comes to help them. The teachers in the school are paid by the Palestinian Authority and the lawyers fighting the court battle to help the Bedouins are Israeli. 

Some Israelis may say that the Bedouins have it better; that no government at all is better than a government that can’t work for peace- or at all (By the way the Israelis won’t have a government until after the third elections anyways.) For others, when capitalist Israel didn’t work, they created their own semi autonomous government within Israel with Kibbutzim. And the Bedouins…well, they’d rather stay Bedouin; out of this statehood and citizenship madness.

Week 6-7- High Holy Days Madness, Travel, and Embracing Our Differences

The high holidays in Jerusalem have been so full of activity that I have missed a week in my journaling. It’s times like these: Just as you are ready to process your experiences, you are hit with something else that draws your attention. 

So here goes a short update and reflection. Yom Kippur made Jerusalem as quiet as the suburbs- seriously, I could hear the leaves rustle in the park in the center of town during a soft breeze. The city stood still for a day of contemplation and atonement without the usual car horns, shopping, or work. People in white roamed the streets and the kids took over every hill in order to test out the speed of their big wheels and skateboards. I fasted and spent my morning in a Reform service, afternoon in a park, and evening at the Orthodox great synagogue of Jerusalem.

While Israel provided the safe haven for millions of Jews to worship in peace on the holiest day of the year, a shooter in Halle Germany was driven by anti- Jewish white supremecist Ideology to attempt a mass shooting at a synagogue, bomb a gravesite, and kill innocent bystanders. I was met with this reality on my first day back to work when I had to research, fact check, and gather quotes in order to report the devastating news to Stand With Us’ social media following.

Last weekend, I had multiple interesting Jewish experiences like going to a Chabad synagogue where we danced in circles and chanted prayers. It was a joyous take on judaism. The next day, I had lunch at the house of a family who was Haredi or Ultra Orthodox- the people who have side curls and wear funny hats. I heard his answers to questions such as how to make religion relevant to today, and to what extent we can interpret our books and teachings versus taking them as they are. I left with more questions than answers but with a greater respect for people who devote their lives to religion and learning.

That night, Spontaneously, a group of friends and I decided that we would get an airbnb in Haifa, a city in the north, and hang out on the beach. We had a great time on the beach and the next day went to Akko, a beautiful and ancient city where Muslims, Jews and Christians put their differences aside and continue to live together. The skyline of the port town includes a Mosque, Synagogue and Church and represents the face of coexistence in Israel. A highlight of that trip was a beatbox battle I had with a local Muslim kid… he may have shown me up!

Failed jump photo but it’s cute
What a view!

Today, there was the Jerusalem March, which draws groups from over 50 countries to Jerusalem in order to express their support for Israel. Groups came dressed in their countries clothing and held their flags while singing or dancing in a march from Gan Sacher to the Old City. Christians and Jews alike of many colors and cultures were effusive in their love, attempting to speak Hebrew in order to connect to the parade watchers. A han Chinese woman wished me a Chag sameach, an Angolan man in a dashiki said shalom, a group from Papua New Guinea sang the Shema. Such a display of multiculturalism and world unity is enough to get me feeling all warm and fuzzy- but multiculturalism and world unity FOR the purpose of supporting Israel… well that’s enough to be a tear jerker.

Week 5 In Jerusalem: My Adopted Family, Lost in Translation, and Eating Well

Happy new year for those who celebrated this past week. Just like I have been adopted by Jonos family at home, I have now been adopted by his family in Israel.

On Friday, he and I took the bus to Tel Aviv to stay with the same family we had stayed with when we first got to Israel. Jonos aunt, Milka has a son named Ariel and a daughter named Lee who are in their early twenties and recently out of the army. This means that they are in the same life stage as Jono and I; leaving their parents house and deciding about college. 

Like most holidays, our weekend was filled with good food, lots of sleep, and of course family time. I played surrogate cousin to Jonos two 7 and 9 year old boy cousins who climbed on me and yelled at me in hebrew. Luckily in the month since I had seen them I had learned more hebrew and I could communicate with them a little more! The key word is “dai” which means enough! Rather funny hearing mothers walking down the street and yelling “die” to their kids. I’m sure American mothers would like to do the same but It wouldn’t be socially acceptable.

Ariel is a very talented Jazz guitarist with an eclectic music taste. He showed me the first Israeli artist that I vibe with which is super exciting. He and I also recorded a song together in his home setup. On Saturday night we went to his friends house for a pool party and then we all went to the park to play spike ball. They played like a well oiled machine and were impressive. Needless to say, I did not perform well, although everyone was super nice and willing to teach me. At 12am we left the park to get burgers and didn’t get home until 2. Such is Tel Aviv time. 

Building a table for Rosh Hashanah dinner with Jono and Ariel

I had some interesting conversations this weekend, particularly surrounding language. Jonos family are Uruguayan immigrants to Israel- so I may have spoken more Spanish this weekend than I did Hebrew. Hebrew on a level is a simple and direct language. While in Germanic languages such as English and Spanish we have the words “to be” or “estoy,” in Hebrew there is no “to be.” to say that I am good, you say ani (I) tov (good.): “I good.” Lee says that when she journals, she does so in English despite it not being her first language, because she says there are more words with nuanced meanings from which to express herself. We wondered if maybe some of the directness of Israeli culture comes from the limitations of a developing language (hebrew has only been spoken for 100 years.) 

When we got back to Jerusalem Tuesday night, the good food and company did not stop. I went to dinner with Jonos uncle from the states on Wednesday and met up with family friends Carianne and Tito on Thursday for dinner. They couldn’t fit the shuk on their itinerary during the day so unfortunately for them I showed them the shuk on a Thursday night (Comparable to a Friday night in the U.S!) We made it out in one piece and picked up some rugelach! 

The shuk on a Thursday with Carianne and Tito

My roommate and I team cooked chicken fajitas last night and we combined with room four for a raucous friday night dinner.  

I’ve had a great time this week collecting new family, and showing old friends a city new to them. 

Hi Mom! Look at me in the kitchen 🙂
Recording a little music

Week 4 in Jerusalem: My IDF Squad, Antisemitism From Home Hits Home Here, A lesson That the Others are Human

Chag Sameach, Happy New Year. I am writing this from Jono’s aunts house where I am staying for the vacation. It is located in Telmond, a suburb in the middle of fruit fields outside the limits of Tel Aviv. 

I’ll start with how I spent Shabbat last weekend. Through my friends on the program, Jono and Amit, I have connected with a group of Lone soldiers who have come from abroad to join the IDF. On Friday night a week ago, we went to a free shabbat dinner at the Lone Soldier Center which was full of interesting life stories and good food. The next day, we were invited to a Shabbat lunch at another Lone soldiers’ apartment. Where Amit is drafting and Jono is exploring the possibility- I am not. Frankly I fall into “the army is not for everybody” category, although I’m sure I would feel different if I was an Israeli citizen where there is compulsory service. Apart from awkwardly finding ways to explain “I am not drafting but I still hang out with the army guys”, I am grateful to collect a new group of people. There’s a lot to learn from others who have a different life story and a different mindset.

On Sunday, my day at the office started with red wine and Apples & Honey, the typical foods of the Jewish New Year. It ended with cake to celebrate a coworkers birthday. Again, Israeli office culture is joyous, not dour. I read the Jerusalem Post every morning with my coffee. On Wednesday I read that the Beth Israel Sinai congregation of Racine Wisconsin had been vandalized with the Nazi symbol and the word Jude. Racine is the small town of 100,000 (at the time) where my parents grew up and Beth Israel Sinai was my dads childhood Synagogue. It’s strange when the Jerusalem Post and The Stand With Us social media team also now know of your parents small town- and not for not a good reason 

On our Tiyull this week, we went to Gush Etzion, a collection of settlements in Area C of the West Bank. Area C implies that it is under joint Israeli Palestinian control. The formal settlements were lost in bloodshed from Israeli control after the 1948 War of Independence and gained back in 1967. Despite this, the region remains full of tension and has been privy to a host of terrorist incidents in the last 20 years ranging from kidnappings, to stabbings, to car rammings. Feet away from the Infamous Gush Et Zion junction where 3 Israeli hitchhiking teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in 2014 is an organization which is sowing the seeds of peace between Israelis and Palestinians by bringing them together in the same room. Since the intifadas, border walls, checkpoints, and gates enforce separation in the interest of security and create a negative image of the other; the Israeli who spoke to us said that his friends believed that all Palestinians were terrorists. Converseley, the Palestinian who spoke to us explained that his friends thought that Israel was just a giant military base where bloodthirsty soldiers enforced Israeli sovereignty. The conflict is so hard to understand from the outside and calling it Apartheid is a misnomer because among many things blames only Israel and confuses race and nationality; the Israelis and Palestinians are nationalities and Apartheid is a racial subjugation system. However, walls artificially seperate people and it is clear that the unintended social, political and economic consequences of separation will last lifetimes.

Gush Et Zion Junction despite it’s tragic history is a place of coexistence where both the yellow Israeli and green Palestinian license plates drive side by side. If a green or yellow licensed car breaks down, you best bet that a yellow or green License plate will pull up and they will fix the problem together.

See, we have the same human problems on both sides; a broken car, dreams unfulfilled, helplessness against governments who don’t share our interest of peace. We need to look over the mental and physical walls that separate us so we can understand that ‘the others’ are humans just like us.

The peace initiative
The infamous Gush EtZion junction