Total War.

Mensches ready for battle

As I walk the neighborhood this Saturday, I try to articulate the unsaid to myself. The skies cast a steely sheen across everything and the sidewalks are eerily quiet. The sellers on the street below my apartment no longer joke and laugh, for there is no joy in losing profit. The tattoo parlor we live above is closed, and to my surprise, I find myself missing the constant laughter and banter coming from people relaxing and smoking on the patio. The party store beside our apartment no longer blasts music all day and the only comparably loud sound now is a garbage truck. The shuk (market), once filled with wandering tourists, is now only of service to cautious Israelis with a mission. The coffee shop which usually has a line out the door now has only a collection of people, all warily standing two meters apart. If I speak English in a store, they ask how long I’ve been here, taking caution that I may be a traveler who is breaking the mandatory two week quarantine.

People walk around with various face-masks and rubber gloves which is quite amusing; I saw a woman wearing a full gas mask, and many people wearing common paint masks which don’t do anything… nor is it clear that a medical face-mask does anything also. I guess it is an outward expression of the fear and anxiety hanging heavy in the air.

I walked into the moadon the yesterday to get a guitar to play, which is the meeting room where our program hosted talks, classes, and activities. I was there nearly every day, but I haven’t been since the government outlawed gatherings of more than 10 people over a week ago. I heard echoes of a time past, hit with that sunken feeling of never getting them back. I guess walking around the neighborhood feels like going after a breakup to that special place you and your ex went to; you recognize it, you loved it, but it’s loaded with a past rosy view which clashes with a duller present. Yes, It feels like i’m living in a parallel universe. Further contributing to my feeling of loss, many of my closest friends are leaving for home to be with their parents. I can’t leave a community behind here and crazy as it sounds America, my place of birth, one of the mightiest powers on earth, is less safe than Israel.

Amit and I shopping for doomsday

As I write about my Saturday morning walk, I see a connection to some of the greatest war accounts from the Homefront perspective. My mind went to how Anne Frank felt in the early parts of her Diary about transitioning from freedom to lack thereof. This is the first total war not just for my generation but for my parents too where the public is key to the war effort.

Rach, Jono, and I doing online classes

Despite, I’m trying to keep my spirits high and all of these limitations has spawned a burst of creativity from all creators. My program is coming up with solutions for activities with under 10 people or online. At Koolulam we are dreaming about online events. The international artist community is converging over social media to help each other. Last night I did a livestream concert from my couch for the people on my program. About 25 people engaged over google hangouts, sharing song suggestions, giving applause and laughter. I sang the Beatles, Elton John, Maroon 5 and of course my hit Sunsets Past. It made me so happy to sing and bring some happiness to my friends who are like me, cooped up in their apartments. In times like these we could let the rain drown out our voices. But I choose to be like Gene Kelly, and sing in the rain.

Me playing to a livestream audience

Pandemic in Israel- March 15th

It’s been a while since i’ve written an update- that certaintly does not mean that I haven’t been busy. I think I attribute my lack of writing updates to being TOO busy, and having less politics to talk about in Tel Aviv.

Since I’ve lived in Florentin I tell people that I’ve become a little more liberal and I’ve started eating a lot more salads and vegan food. Most of all, I’ve gotten a proper taste of being a working person in a bustling city. I have a full trello each day which I never seem to get through, I do presentations to the Owners/ CEOS, schedule meetings in my calendar and spend weekend mornings chugging coffee and working at the local hippie caffe. It’s been amazing to work at a place where I’m valued for creative insights.

Coronavirus however is injecting a ton of uncertainty into my future where many of my plans are held in the balance. Shit got real when 2020 was cancelled; the NBA was postponed, Americas father Tom Hanks was infected, and the happiest place on earth is set to close the gates for the first time in 19 years. March 12th was my Kennedy day so I have had some time to process. Koolulam has postponed our spring tour because Israel has outlawed gatherings over 100 people (and now 10 people.) I held a meeting with my roomates a few days ago going over cleanliness and health procedures and to come up with a protocol if one of us comes down with the flu. Frankly though, I’m glad to be In Israel because I think we are MUCH better prepared than the United States. This won’t be the first time I’ve faced crisis here; In my time In Israel I’ve been through two near wars (After Israels killing of a PIJ commander, and after Americas assassination of Qassem Soleimani), Many terrorist attacks (car rammings, stabbings), Hundreds of rockets and two elections. I have the privilege to be able to look at them as educational moments; Through every crisis i’ve learned more about the people of Israel and Israeli society. Israel is a country founded by socialist Ashkenazi jews from Eastern Europe and later waves of Jews fleeing Middle Eastern countries. Additionally, Everyone has a sense of duty from the army from terror attacks. All this combined means that the culture of Israeli society is embedded with a distinctly eastern sense of collectiveness which manifests itself in a willingness to give up personal freedoms for the safety of the group. Quite contrary to rugged- individualist Americans, No-one defies quarantine orders or safety orders from the government even when seemingly draconian. Now, all bars, clubs, restaurants and entertainment places are closed and people are being encouraged to stay home form work as cases increase. I’m going to be getting stir crazy.

Last Monday was Purim which was super fun. Jono and I dressed up as Hippies and the rest of Tel Aviv wandered around in drunken possies dressed in a tapestry of crazy outfits. Everyone was observing the commandment which is to drink until you cannot tell the difference between Mordechai (the protagonist of the Purim story) and Haman (the antagonist.) When our room convened the next morning “Hangover style” as we often do, one roomate had a phone stolen, another had a bleeding nose and swollen lip, another broke up with his girlfreind, another spilled broken necklace all over the floor, and Jono said they had found me sleeping on the couch. Commandment fulfilled!

I plan on riding out the storm here with the friends I have and so for the time being i’m working from home, taking classes online and doing activities with the apartment. Stay safe!

Quit Thinking American: Sink or Swim and my first weeks in Tel Aviv

Screenshot of me selling הולצות (shirts)

The Florentin neighborhood is a canvas for the artists who live there… no blank wall stays untagged for long. It’s also the neighborhood where I am living for the next five months in an apartment with five of my other friends. It’s been a while since I’ve done an entry- a sin to which I have no excuse- so I will try to get to what I can. Many of the new people on the program this semester are from South Africa, Australia and Britain, which has been awesome to hang out with people from different places. Us loud Americans are driving especially the arrogant british nuts already and I have, to my happiness, been branded ‘the not annoying American.’ I am working for a company called Koolulam, a social- musical initiative that holds group singing events aiming to strengthen the fabric of society. With 600, 2,000 or even 12,000 people singing in harmony together, the feeling is really powerful. In a meeting, the CEO expressed to me that the Koolulam office is a ‘place for creators.’ If you know me, this is exactly up my alley.

On my very first day, I was thrown in with the production team to help run an event in Jerusalem with 700 participants. Running late, we quickly set up our rig, merchandise, and ticketing apparatus. I was put on scanning tickets. Imagine 700 people pushing in a line, speaking at you in Chinese all with specific questions about a performance which means you need to know specific words that you’ve never heard before like ‘tickets’ and ‘to scan.’ I felt pretty out of place as I tried to help Hebrew speaking Israelis with specific questions; I abandoned any hope of maintaining my high standard of service and impressing my team members. I just had to survive. Flustered, the best I could choke out was “Slicha, ani medber raq kitsat evreit, Anglit?” – “Sorry I speak only a little hebrew, English?” One customer replied characteristically; “llama” “Why?”

Afterwards, I felt terrible like I had failed myself and my team. However, they told me genuinely ‘Kol Hakavod’, ‘good job.’ My feelings, I realized, are guided by my American mindset that I should be a master of my job when I go in the field. However, the mindset of my Israeli bosses is the opposite; jump in the water and sink or swim. If you swim, you are learning.

Last night I was on the production team for a second event, this time in Haifa. Beforehand, I centered myself and tried to maintain confidence in my language skills throughout the night. Whether I was selling shirts or helping to seat people, I communicated in Hebrew in nearly every encounter and I kept calm and problem solved when I couldn’t understand. I felt really proud of myself. I was swimming.

In addition to jumping on the production team, the bulk of my work is in the various groups in the office where I have already worked to edit copy, write scripts, and record voice overs for commercials. 

I’m reminded again and again that I have to adapt my American mindset to Israel. My neighborhood filled with graffiti and grime would be ‘sketchy’ in America. Here, it’s a place where the inhabitants express their views not only in lively conversations in corner bars and cafes but with spray cans on public walls. On the first day of Koolulam when I wasn’t able to do my job well, I the American, felt that I had failed the first test. To pass however, all my team expected me to do was tread water. Then I could learn how to swim.

My Week Back Home: While They Told Stories about Keggers, I Explained the Complexity of Geopolitics in the Middle East

I spent my short break at home in Philadelphia, where I was successful in seeing who I needed to see including my freinds, family and cheesetray. Although there were times where, for fear of animosity, I would’ve rather shoved Israel under the rug, people who I knew were interested and supportive of what I did for the last four months, though many- understandably so- knew too little to ask questions.

While explaining my time at StandWithUs, a friend interrupted me to ask the ‘big question’; “Are you on the Israeli or Palestinian side??” I couldn’t help but give a resigned smile- knowing that most people see this impossibly complex issue as binary. I try to approach subjects to which I am ignorant in a way that anticipates grey area. I replied that I wish it was so simple but that my understanding is a little more complex than some partisan explanation.

A guy friend explained to me that a few weeks ago he had seen a video of Israeli rockets blowing other rockets out of the sky and said that it was pretty damn cool. I explained to him- that first it’s awesome as hell- and then I explained that what he saw was the Iron dome missile defense system which uses laser guided missiles to intercept non- guided rockets before they hit civilian areas.

I went out to eat Cheesestakes with Jackson and Jaspar like the good Philly kid I am. After a while explaining my experiences in Israel, a man came to our booth, said he had overheard us and that he had a question to ask. He was a heavy set black man wearing an outsize Star of David; from his appearance and the question he asked I believe he was a Black Hebrew Israelite, a group which believes that they are the real lost tribe of Judah and that the Jews of today are not descendants of the Israelites. Although there are black Jews, Black Hebrew Israelites are an American movement appropriating elements of Judaism and Christianity. While the organization has a spectrum of belief, they are classified a hate group on the fringe.

He asked a question that was meant to challenge me along the lines of; “Are the Jews who live in Israel right now actually descendants of the Jews who lived there in antiquity? It seems to me that Post- Holocaust (1945), white Jews came to the area of biblical Israel, subjugated the native population and created a state where they weren’t indigenous. Unfortunately for him, he had picked the wrong guy to challenge and I spent over ten minutes unpacking Jewish indigineity to the Middle East, Diaspora, the Jewish return (which began way before the holocaust), and the complications of land ownership that sparked the Arab Israeli conflict. By the time I had finished my monologue he had nothing to say and told me thank you and left.

At a get together, a Christian friend expressed that she was so happy to be around Jewish people again while spending break at home, remarking that the although she was never raised Jewish, the Christian school she goes to feels far from home. She said that her school had invited a Palestinian Christian speaker who in her opinion spoke negatively and unfairly of Israel without another perspective of an Israeli speaker. She remarked that for right or wrong that wouldn’t fly where we grew up.

I was able to make the dress rehearsal for the HTC Winter Show which was arguably my high point of break- the company continues to thrive with fresh creative voices. At one point one of the my friend Patrick starring in an irreverent show about Trotsky’s death had a line listing a bunch of historical events that would arrive after his untimely death in 1940 and he had changed his last line from something else to say dumbfoundedly “the creation of the state of Israel?!” A show truly tailored to its audience member.

I heard a range of views on Trumps executive order allowing Jews a protected class on race and national origin ranging from support, to eye rolling, to fears of another holocaust and a future of having to put ‘Jew’ on our passports.

I was told that Israel is not always a ‘kind neighbor’ and that what I was doing at StandWithUs was ‘great for the world.’

And while I very much enjoyed watching the news every morning, the middle east didn’t stay far away. Trumps decision to execute a target killing of Qassem Solemanei eerily echoed back to Israels targeted killing of Baha- Abu Al Ata. A fight picked, retaliation, and the hope of diplomacy in the end.

Jono and I impressed everyone with our Hebrew- even if at times we deliberately stringed together random phrases to make it ‘seem’ like we were having an endless conversation. I just arrived in Tel Aviv where I will be living in the Florentine neighborhood and my last few days have been a blast. Stay tuned!

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.