Monday, August 25, 2008

tel aviv in the summer

I hadn't gone to Israel in the summer for almost 30 years, and I quickly remembered why. It is hot and humid, especially on the coast, which is needless to say where most of the people have decided to live. The heat doesn't so much assault you as simply seep inside of you: the typical North American strategies, like wearing shorts or a T-Shirt, seem superfluous and if anything compound the problem, letting in more heat without allowing any back out.

One of the wonderful things in Israel is the national quality of stubbornness, one could almost say illogic, that persists no matter what else changes. I was reminded of this when our hosts, sensing that even tax professors could not stand three consecutive 8-hours days of tax policy, decided to take us to see the Roman ruins at Caesarea on the Mediterranean Coast. The entrance fee was 20 shekels, which the cashier announced must be paid in exact amounts since no spare change was available. This is, of course, mathematically impossible: assuming that four or more people pay exact change, by the fifth person one would necessarily have sufficient cash to change a hundred shekel note, or a fifty (assuming someone had used a ten) even sooner. There were seven or eight people in our tour group. Yet the woman insisted that no change could be made however many attended. Perhaps she got a commission on credit cards.

I have mentioned before the Israeli penchant for bumper stickers, which unlike those in less spiritual countries ("Obama Means Change," "McCain is McSame") tend to be addressed to the Deity or to no one in particular rather than attempting to influence immediate political behavior. In some cases these consist of Biblical or quasi-Biblical quotations ("Love your neighbor as yourself," "God will watch over us"), while others are whimsical ("Have you hugged your gas station attendant today?") or comical in nature; but almost never practical in import. Somewhat less light-hearted is the tendency toward graffiti and counter-graffiti, which seems especially prevalent in avant garde neighborhoods. Along Rothschild Blvd., in a rather fashionable area, were stenciled graffiti memorializing a young Arab who was apparently killed by security forces in the Gaza Strip. "May he be remembered for good," added one hand-written graffito. A few blocks later: "May his name and memory be erased."

Thankfully, neither the heat nor the controversy penetrated our conference room, which was efficiently air conditioned and where the sessions were conducted exclusively in English. Yet even here, I had occasion to focus on tolerance and its absence. Nearly all the participants, who hailed from a range of countries (Israel, Canada, Australia, even one Italian professor) were of a liberal, internationalist bent. One, an Israeli, had gone to Jordan to learn Arabic, while others had invested years in social justice, feminism, and similar causes. Yet when people spoke of conservatives or the right in their countries many had difficulty hiding their contempt. Perhaps this is the "tyranny of small differences," or simply human nature: we sympathize with people who are opposite from us but find it hard to accept those whose differences hit too close to home. But the contrast remained a telling one.

Or perhaps it is a matter of perspective. On the way home I changed planes in Frankfurt, where a burly policewoman told me to empty my pockets before entering the metal detector. "I'll do it when I'm ready," I snapped back. Was I tired from a midnight flight, or was there something about her German accent that bothered me when I had calmly done the same thing dozens of times before? Is this how Black people feel like at traffic stops, or Arabs at security checks? Next time I'm changing in London.


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