Tuesday, November 30, 2010

peace, tolerance, and a waterfront view

There are many ways to observe Shabbat (Sabbath) in Israel, each of them satisfying in their own way. Orthodox people go to synagogue--much earlier than in the U.S.--and return again in the late afternoon after eating, studying, or visiting friends. Secular people, in Tel Aviv especially, tend to hang out in cafes or go the beach: a less traditional form of observance, but still different from what they do on weekdays, which is sort of the point. I decided to take a lengthy walk down the seashore and attend the Day of Tolerance (Yom Ha-Sovlanut) organized by the Israeli-Arab Center in Jaffa, the older and more Arab part of the city, with what appeared to be help or at least encouragement from French and other European interests. What I saw was encouraging in its way, but also reminded me how far the two sides had to go.

The good part is easiest to describe. On a stage in front of a reasonable (several hundred) audience, speakers, musicians and dancers alternated Hebrew and Arabic performances devoted to tolerance, peace, and understanding. Tents and tables represented a range of groups from interreligious youth programs to more overt antiwar organizations. Some of it was a bit on the naive side--songs saying I'm a child who wants to grow up in a world of peace and the like--and if the same event were held in the U.S. I would probably have run in the opposite direction. Still, the overall spirit was a good one: just the audience, Jews in T-shirts mingling with Arab women in traditional dress chasing their children, was novel enough to justify the effort.

The problems were less what was than what wasn't there. One thing that wasn't there was any Israelis flags: a compromise, I suspect, since Palestinian flags are either illegal or dangerous to display in Israel, so the organizers appear to have avoided both of them. Instead, the Tel Aviv city flag, which from a distance looks similar, alternated somewhat incongruously with the flag of the European Union, which gave an earnest but oddly tentative feeling to the event.

Likewise absent were any visibly religious Israelis--although to be fair, the event was held on the Sabbath--or many who appeared to be of Middle Eastern or North African origin. Indeed, many of the mostly secular, European crowd seemed to know each other, giving a sense of the "usual suspects" rather than the mainstream of Israeli society which the organizers presumably wanted to reach. Throughout the event, a large number of Israeli cars passed by on the nearby coast road, headed for restaurants or (perhaps) for one of the real estate open houses in the beachfront area (the Jaffa waterfront is increasingly Jewish and affluent while the inner areas remain Arab and noticeably poorer). A speaker lectured what appeared to be a tour group on the history of Jaffa--Crusaders, Arabs, Europeans--without seeming to notice the event right across the street. While there was little if any hostility--a group of policemen at the celebration had little to do--the indifference, and the distance, were palpable.

Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) I went to a movie in Tel Aviv based on David Grossman's "The Book of Intimate Grammar," the story of a small boy in 1960s Jerusalem who finds refuge from a dysfunctional family in the study of English tenses. Most of my effort was expended trying to follow the Hebrew which I'm not sure I ever quite mastered. Still I was struck by the number of cultural references that were common to Israelis but would have been meaningless to anyone outside the country. At one point the protagonist's older sister says, "Ani mitgayeset mukdam big'lal ha-matsav" [I'm signing up early because of the situation."] No one in the theater needed any explanation that "signing up" meant the army or that "the situation" meant the runup to the Six Day War. For all the country's sophistication, the political and cultural references of most Israelis remain so different from those of most American Jews--let alone Palestinian Arabs--that it sometimes seems hopeless to bridge the gap. Events like the one in Jaffa are worth the effort, but it will take much more effort, aimed not only at a few activists but at the mainstream of both populations, in order to make a real difference.

Friday, November 26, 2010

israel at one week

The difference between Israel's three largest cities used to be described by a syllogism: Israelis prayed in Jerusalem to make enough money in Haifa that they could enjoy it in Tel Aviv. Now it might be replaced by a description of Jewish-Arab relations. In Haifa, it seems, Jews and Arabs actually notice each other and try to cooperate to the best of their ability. In Jerusalem, they live side by side but--when they're not fighting--try their best to pretend the other doesn't exist. In Tel Aviv, outside of Jaffa, the Arabs are hardly present at all.

Actually, the situation is somewhat more asymmetrical than that. While often indifferent to invididual Arabs, Israeli Jews make a determined effort to copy them in food, culture, and even architecture, although like white musicians playing black music they often have mixed success. By contrast, the Arabs seem less to dislike the Jews than to regard them as interlopers who will with enough luck eventually disappear, like the Star Trek episodes where Kirk and Spock go back to the spaceship and the others who are beamed down inevitably die. One goes through the effort to speak a few words of Arabic--kahwa, shukran, adeesh hadda?--but the merchants seem more tired than impressed, as if they have forgotten exactly which year it is and which particular breed of conquerors is now present.

Tel Aviv, of course, likes to think of itself as superior to Jerusalem, and in the hipper quarters goes out of its way to poke fun at Zionist nostrums. (One of my favorites, a play on Herzl's "If you will it, it is not a dream," depicts the old man saying, "If you don't want it, that's no problem, either.") The problem is that--like the Jewish socialists of old--they have simply replaced the older religions with a commitment to environmentalism, pacifism, and la dolce vita that is if anything more messianic than the traditional faiths. At the Tel Aviv port, a young man assures me that he is selling only the finest tapuzei washington--Washington-style oranges--made with entirely natural ingredients. Why, in a country synonymous with oranges, would anyone want to buy a variety named for an American president? And don't they grow apples, not oranges, in Washington State anyway? But the man's fervor [did I say kavanah?] impress me, and I walk off with one in each hand.

Whatever else you can say about Israelis, they haven't lost their penchant for informal dress--a hint of one's backside, particularly for middle-aged men, earns an extra bonus--or their habit of blunt informality. Does my electrical converter work, or do I need a new one, I ask the guy in the home supply shop on Sheinkin Street, the Greenwich Village of Israel. A new one, he says, because the one you have "lo oseh klum"--it doesn't do a damn thing. "Please get your backpack out of my way so I can do my job," implores the man at Assaf's Humus as I wait for my (useless) receipt. A city of people who eat like Parisians and dress and talk like kibbutzniks: maybe not such a bad combination, after all.

And who are not lacking in courage, either. Thursday's papers told the story of A, a woman who make a harassment or some said a rape claim against a high-ranking police official (he claimed it was a voluntary threesome). Later the same day she appeared at a women's event, gave her name (Dr. Orly Ains), age (46), and number of children (four), and said simply "I'm not ashamed, I didn't do anything wrong, and I'm not afraid." When's the last time you saw that happen on Law and Order? The accused continues to maintain his innocence.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

letter from israel day one

The first thing you notice when you fly to Israel is the diversity of people coming here. Half of them appear to be not Jewish, and none of the two Jews looks quite the same. OK, that's a lie, there were two little girls with a traditional-looking mother and matching mini-backpacks--Shira and Malka, I think, or something equivalent--who looked almost identical. But for a country that's supposedly in trouble, an awful lot of people seem to come here .

That last part bears a little more thought. Part of the reason some Jews have mixed feelings about Israel may be less that it is failing than that it is succeeding in a way that they don't like. Each time I come here it seems a little bit more Middle Eastern and a little less, well, American. For one thing the percentage of religious people, to judge from superficial signs like kippot and long dresses, seems to inch up each time I visit. (I'm cheating a little, by teaching at a nominally religious university (Bar Ilan), but the feeling starts right at the airport.)

Counteracting, or perhaps contributing, to the religious revival is the crude or at least earthy nature of a healthy--probably not the right word--portion of Israeli society. Tabloid newspapers carry a steady stream of corruption and harassment allegations against high-ranking officials, which are distinguished from the American variety only by their outrageous character. (American men annoy women with unwanted emails and phone calls; Israelis simply tackle them). Then why not buy the upscale daily (Ha'aretz), you ask, which is relatively free of such stories? Because Ha'aretz is sold practically nowhere outside of central Tel Aviv and seems to exist primarily as a website for foreigners--another sign of the distance between different types of Israelis, not to mention Israelis and foreigners, that is a pervasive feature of the country's life.

Not that there isn't much good here, or that the country doesn't remain, for all it's faults, an infinitely more healthy environment for Jews than North America or anyplace else. There is something reassuring about a country where you can buy Hannukah candles at a newsstand, where notices for Sabbath retreats share space with ads for sports facilites and laser tonail removal. What is striking is how easily, seemlessly the Jewish and even the military aspects blends with the normal rhythms of everyday life. On a bus into Tel Aviv a male soldier flirts with a female one describing his training exercises. She turns around to reveal two green bars on her shoulder: an officer. So they're not intimidated by rank, whatever else their problems.

And the bumper stickers, like nowhere else in the world. "Whoever Believes Will Not Be Afraid" (Mi she-maamin lo yefahed.) "Don't forget Ron Arad" (an airman lost years ago and almost certainly dead). And of course the endless paens to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, both deceased, but seemingly more alive with each passing year.

A crowd outside the Hen Cinema near Dizengoff Circle, Tel Aviv. Cameras and paparazzi. Leonardo DiCaprio and Bar Refaeli are supposedly on their way. A bearded Israeli artist, who I recognize vaguely from some or another TV program, garners a few photographs. So the secular side still lives, but of course--in true Jewish fashion--they have merely turned celebrity into an alternate religion. No one here is really secular, in the way other people understand it.

A bookstore five blocks away. David Grossman's book To the End of the Land, which of course has a completely different title in Hebrew, is on sale for 98 shekels. But everything in Israel is a mivtsa (a special deal, or literally, an operation). For 100 shekels--50 cents more--I can have three Grossman books and a book of poetry, as well. So we spend a half hour searching the store for the additional books which would take me at least five years to read and which won't fit in may already overstuffed bags, anyway. The absurdity seems somehow fitting, You want normal, go to London, the saleslady seems to be saying.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

women in love with fascists

As part of my general effort to improve myself I've been reading some of the classics that I missed in my, well, liberal arts education in the 1970s. I began with Joyce and Kafka and I'm sort of working my way down. My most recent victim--er, author--is D.H. Lawrence.

I started out with Sons and Lovers, a more or less autobiographical story of a family in the midlands coal country of England around the turn of the last century. While I wondered a little bit about Lawrence's view of the world--he has a tendency to impart global significance to what sounds to me more like a fear of physical intimacy--the sheer power of his story-telling made me an immediate fan. Two parts stood out especially: the internal dynamics of the family, in which the mother withdraws affection from her alcoholic husband and directs it toward her male children, and the protagonist's relationships with two women, one of whom (Miriam) is a friend but never really a lover, and the other of whom (Clara) is a lover but never really a friend. These stories, while highly situated in time and place, obviously touch on universal themes, and Lawrence's treatment of them is as good as any I've seen.

With this in mind I progressed to the much longer and rather more structured Women in Love, the movie for which I had seen as a teenager but which I had never read. Women in Love tells the story of two sisters in 1920s-ish England, Gudrun and Ursula, who couple up with (respectively) a ruthless industrialist (Gerald Crich) and a sort of faux bohemian (Rupert Birkin) said to be a stand-in for Lawrence himself. The book's strong point is its unmatched description of the ambivalence of the male-female relationship--the way love and "hate," or anger, can so easily co-exist-- summarized in Gudrun's request that Gerald "try to love me a little more and want me a little less"(she dumps him, figuratively and in a sense literally, shortly thereafter). No less significant is homoerotic aspect of many male friendships, most famously captured in the nude wrestling seen which is the part of the movie everyone seems to remember. Wrestling and, perhaps, something more: Gerald is said to "withdraw" his hand from Rupert, a rather odd choice of terms for a wrestling match, but less so if a more intimate encounter was hinted.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the book is suffused with a combination of nihilism, pseudo-sophistication, and celebration of Nordic male power--Gudrun becomes attracted to Gerald after (inter alia) watching him terrorize a rabbit and nearly choke a horse--that is perhaps understandable in its historical context but quite disturbing knowing what followed it. That the climactic scenes take place in Austria, and that Gerald eventually loses Gudrun to a Dresden-based artist (Loerke) who Rupert describes as a "gnawing little negation . . . I expect he is a Jew--or part-Jewish" and whom Gerald later attempts (albeit unsuccessfully) to kill--doesn't make thing much better. It must be conceded that this sort of casual antisemitism was pervasive after the First World War: it shows up in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot in frequently more grotesque forms. Still, it is disturbing, especially from someone like Lawrence who believed himself a victim of intolerance and a defier of convention, but appears to have been all too predictable in his cultural prejudices.

It is said that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. Perhaps, since I began to study the Holocaust, I have come to see everything through its prism. But I found it very difficult to get past this aspect of Women in Love, which was not peripheral but central to the book's theme; and I'm not sure at this point I want to.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

election ii: the coming gop civil war

Many people are wondering if the new Republican majority will hang together or break up in internal squabbling. It looks like they won't have to wait long to find out. The challenge for a leadership position by Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party-type congressman from Minnesota, may be only the first battle in a long and drawn-out war.

The problem is a simple one. Tea Party activists, many women and a some not even Republicans, played a disproportionate role in the GOP's recent success. Not surprisingly, they would like a seat at the table. By contrast, Messrs. Boehner Cantor et al., along with traditional operatives like Karl Rove, seem to have in mind something like a third Bush Administration, with business interests in the driver's seat and the Tea Party relegated to the sidelines, if that. This is partly a matter of symbolism and social class, but also a question of policy: as wild-eyed as they may sometimes seem to the Establishment, the Tea Party types actually have a fairly coherent set of concerns, including jobs, the deficit, and a smattering of social issues, and want them to be taken seriously.

As part of its strategy of shutting out the Tea Party, the GOP Establishment is attempting to put a particular spin on the election, under which mainstream candidates did well and those who had Tea Party baggage--Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada are the most frequently cited examples--were defeated. The only problem with this story is that it isn't really true. For one thing, several Tea Party favorites, notably Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky, were quite successful, while many more Establishment types (think Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman) weren't. For another, several of the Tea Party types appear to have lost, at least in part, because of indifference or worse on the part of GOP leaders. I spent several days as a volunteer for O'Donnell, and the only people I ever saw making calls wore jeans and T-shirts and seemed to be on a first-name basis with the candidate: most Party regulars appeared to be either indifferent or actively hostile. For their part the campaign activists appeared to have as little regard for the Republican leadership as for the Democrats, and in some cases even less.

There is a tendency to look at politics as linear in nature, with "extremists" on both sides and "moderates" occupying the center ground. I think it is somewhat more complicated than that. What I see, rather, are two complacent political establishments trying to turn mass movements to their advantage but so far failing to do so. First the Obama supporters ousted the Clintonite mainstream of their party and thought they had something different. They found out otherwise and abandoned the party in droves. If the Republican leadership takes a similar tack, they are likely to achieve a similar result. That doesn't mean that everything the Tea Party wants to do is correct, or even that all its members want the same thing. But there's no question that we are dealing with a serious mass movement--one largely responsible for the GOP comeback--and the Party ignores them at its peril.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

the election results

I won't gloat over the results but a couple of quick observations:

1. The efforts to call it a mixed result because the Democrats held the Senate are unconvincing. Not only did Republicans win 60+ House seats, but they won all or nearly all Senate seats not within fifty miles of a coastline. Essentially the Democrats are limited to the northeast, a narrow strip of the Pacific coast line, scattered parts of the industrial midwest, and a handful of mostly African-American or Hispanic districts in the south and southwest. As we say in my family, the GOP took everything that wasn't nailed down.

2. While for the moment it favors the GOP, the geographic polarization above is rather frightening for the country at large. The areas remaining under Democratic control are small in area, but disproportionately large in population, and (not entirely coincidentally) just happen to be the places where the mainstream media and opinion-makers are concentrated. The already roiling political/cultural war--elite vs. mass, center vs. periphery--is likely to get even worse.

3. It will be interesting to see how the critics of the Senate (Balkin, Levinson, etc.) respond to the current situation. Sure, the Senate is bizarre, outmoded, and run by a group of aging white plutocrats. But it is also fulfilling its precise historical function: to provide continuity and even out the partisan ebb and flow of the more frequent House elections. If we had a unicameral legislature, we'd be that much closer to civil war.

One final thought concerns the turnout problem. People are often surprised that results are so different in "on" and "off" year elections. But a lot of this results from turnout, which is never much more than half in off-elections, but can get quite a bit higher in Presidential years. This year's wave was strong enough that it probably wouldn't have mattered, at least at a national as opposed to statewide (read Pennsylvania) level. But a relatively small partisan shift, and the return of the missing voters, could make things look a lot different in two years. It certainly made a difference this time.