Friday, December 15, 2006

report from israel--part three

I went to Nahariya, a city on the Israelis coast 7-8 miles from Lebanon, to see how the population was doing five months after the war that bombarded it with Katyusha rockets for a month or so earlier this year. It turned out that--not surprisingly--most people wanted to talk about other things. Well, said the desk clerk at the Park Plaza hotel, whose lobby featured a hip cafe and improbably up-to-the-minute decor, most people with any money left, and it was basically the old and poor people who were left to face the rockets and spend evenings in dismal shelters or "safe rooms" in their own houses. Did your business suffer, I asked? No, we were packed with foreign reporters, it was probably the busiest time we ever had. Everything is a mixture of the personal and the political, I remembered, the warning I had been given when I began studying the Holocaust a few years ago. Never assume that anyone has a neutral perspective.

Rich and poor, or connected and disconnected, was indeed the main story in Nahariya, a smallish city which is sort of a microcosm of the country in general. Until the 1970s the city had something of a German flavor, and somewhat kitschy, Central European-style street lamps continue to surround the tiny river (Nahar in Hebrew) that runs, or more exactly drips, along the middle of HaGaa'ton street, the main thoroughfare. Indeed a number of German-, or at least Western-looking, pensioners have now taken over some of the older beachfront hotels, frequenting Chinese restaurants (there seems to be something universal about Jews and Chinese food) and giving the seaside areas a kind of faded Miami Beach feel. But there is also prosperity here, albeit mixed with desperation: a huge BMW peeks out of a driveway a few doors away from a clinic offering free mammagrams in Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic. (English is something of a luxury in these parts.)

The story is a bit different closer to the train station, where Russian competes with Hebrew and a somewhat poorer, earthier tone takes over. Further inland, as Route 89 begins to climb into the Galilee hills, a new white neighborhood shines out between two faded gray ones, although someone apparently forgot to provide adequate shopping: a trail of people carrying plastic supermarket bags continues to cross route 4, the highway from Haifa to the Lebanese border, with their afternoon necessities. The monotony is broken by Holocaust memorial park and an incongruous statue by an Italian sculpture, which appears to consist of two fish in a quasi-lovemaking posture: memories of Europe as the rode rises further into Asia.

The reminders of war are there if you look for them. On the highway going north a sign expresses love for Israel's soldiers, discreetly reminding them to enjoy Strauss ice cream on their way to the front. Security seaarches are more intense and hi-tech than in the Tel Aviv area. A sign reminds people not to abandon soldiers in the field (lo l'hafkir chayalim ba'shetach) next to a picture of Regev, Goldwasser, and Shalit, taken prisoner in Lebanon and Gaza before the recent war. A square has already been named for Shalit in another seaside town.

The point of all this is that I came looking for the war and instead found a series of ordinary, day-to-day problems: the distance between rich and poor, the clash between old a new populations, the incongruence of a central European city bursting with Russian and Middle Eastern immigrants. There is no obvious hostility between these groups, and no particular reason that this diversity should serve as a source of weakness, rather than strength, for the country. But one has the sense that Israel should be just slightly less worried about the what is going on on the other side of the border and more concerned about what is happening within it: that the future of the country may depend less on external threats than it how it resolves its own, internal contradictions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

report from israel--part two

Although a small country, Israel is indisputably the world capital of bumper stickers. Whereas in most countries people address messages to their fellow citizens, in Israel they are frequently addressed to God (who is after all omnipresent) or simply to convince one's self of the validity or inevitability of one's own cause. Frequently this leads to a war of bumper stickers, or graffiti (a kind of fixed-base equivalent), revolving around specified topics. Thus the famed sticker "Shalom Chaver" (Goodbye Comrade), addressed to the fallen Yitzhak Rabin, was later met by "Ze Lo Shalom Chaver" (This Isn't Peace, Buddy) or the still pithier "Shalom Shalom" (Goodbye to Peace) after the breakdown of the Oslo accords. On Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, I saw liberal graffiti, calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, competing with a suggestion to "Leave your salons and go to Gaza (yourself) ," apparently directing by a right-winger at the local bohemian crowd. Some bumper stickers are more generic: in Jerusalem I made out "The Holy One, Blessed Be He, heal us in Your infinite mercy," together with the optimistic "Smile, this too is for the good." With this, just about anyone can agree.

A further interesting aspect of Israeli life is the proliferation of falafel and orange juice stands, which--like cafes in Italy-- seem to average about one per hundred and be almost wholly incapable of sustaining themselves. There are really only three possiblities here:

1. People eat an incredible volume of falafel.
2. The stands are a front for some other, probably illegal business.
3. The stands don't make very much money.

I ruled out Number Two, less because falafel store owners are necessarily moral than because it is merely a restatement of the problem, i.e., even if they were breaking the law there would still be too many of them for any individual one to make a good profit. Number One is possible but still can't account for the astonishing volume. This leaves (sadly) Number Three, although the problem may be alleviated by Israel's unusual system of tax administration, which leaves wage-earners footing the overwhelming majority of the tax bill and business owners, well, footing quite a bit less of it. Perhaps the tax shelter potential outweighs the economic problems: at least, you don't have to pay for your own lunch. I still don't completely understand it.

Speaking of foodstands, I had a rather sad visit to the Old City of Jerusaelm the other day. Resolved to speak the only Arabic sentence I feel completely confident of--"One Arab coffee without sugar, please"--I walked deep enough to avoid the crowds and had roughly the following conversation:

"Wahad kahwa arabiyya biduun sukkar, iza mumkin."

The store owner looked at me more with a look of more dejection than curiosity.

"Where do you know Arabic from?" he asked in reasonable English.

"I learned it in school."

"Where do you come from?"


What was sad about this exchange was less my unwillingness to admit I was an American Jew--for all intents and purposes, part of the occupation--than how little else we really had to talk about, aside from the obvious fact that Arab [Turkish] coffee is much better than any other (including Italian) and that business was terrible and it probably would stay that way as long as al kharb, the war, was the dominant event in these parts. I looked at his son, a boy of perhaps 8 or 10, and thought of asking his name (one of the few other things that I can manage in Arabic) but decided not to. Was I perhaps afraid I would read it in the newspaper ten years from now?

A happier outcome awaited me in Haifa, Israel's third city and the target of numerous and bloody rocket attacks in the recent war. Although everyone I asked was willing to share their experiences of life in shelters, safe rooms, etc. most appeared to treat the attacks as a sort of cruel act of nature rather than expressing hatred of Arabs, Nasrallah, and so forth. (That many of the people in Haifa are Arabs--so many that you begin to stop thinking about it--may have contributed to this feeling.) The difference became more apparent when I stopped by the Gefen Center for Arab-Israeli Cooperation and the receptionist, a middle aged Arab man, teased me that the pamphlets were usually 5 shekels but were today on sale for 3 (there's not much joking in Jerusalem). When I asked how was the matzav, the situation, in Haifa after the war he seemed almost offended by the question. "Governments make problems," he explained, like someone who had answered the question many times before. "We love each other and we live together in peace."

I walked around smiling until I realized that I had missed the last train to Tel Aviv.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

report from israel--part one

You know you're in Israel when no one waits in line and no one could care less how important you are (or think you are). One of my dinner companions the other night was the sister-in-law of the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Not only did no one recogize her, she insisted on sitting in the (smallish) back seat on the way to dinner. The food was, however, very good.

One of the most noticeable changes in Israel is the psychological difference of the "center," by which people basically mean Tel Aviv, from the rest of the country. When I asked a taxi driver on the way from the airport how the Lebanon War had affected things, he answered, "like nothing ever happened." Whether this is a natural desire to keep on living, or simply an indiffernce to things happening 50 miles away, is hard to say. I'll go to Haifa in a week or two and see how they answer the question there.

I'm teaching at Bar Ilan, the only religious university, which forces one to confront one's stereotypes about the different groups in Israeli society. Generally speaking there are more religious people in the Israeli establishment than a generation ago: one sees people with kippot at shopping malls, nice (kosher) restaurants, and the like much more than one used to. Yet many of the same people live and socialize separately from the rest of society: a bit like different races in America, whom work together more and more but live together less and less. The line of students hitching for rides outside Bar Ilan, many to small West Bank settlements, seems to support this conclusion.

Jews being Jews, everyone has a religion, even if it isn't the old one. I bought a new pair of running shoes at a local mall and showed up at the gym, attached to my hotel, and 7:15 for a run. All the treadmills were taken, as best I could tell, none of them by anyone under 70, all of whom ran faster and were obviously up earlier than I was. Don't worry, said a man in a jacket marked "coach" on the back, this is only their warm-up. They'll be headed to the real exercise program in another ten minutes. Maybe they'll run to Teheran and shut down the nuclear program before anybody wakes up.