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.