Monday, November 28, 2011

Israel: my last few days

My class is over and I'm using the last three days to see parts of Israel that I might otherwise miss.   Last night I headed to Jerusalem for a workshop at the Van Leer Institute on Arab and Jewish demography, not normally one of my core interests, but one of timely importance and an opportunity to improve my vocabulary.   (You can only get so far saying “a short espresso and a cheese cake with crumbs, please.”)   Today I’m headed for Ramle, once a large Arab city and now a struggling but still fascinating mix of lower- to-middle class Israelis and Arabs who chose to remain when others fled in 1948.   (There are some funny, or not-so-funny, stories about the city being confused with Ramallah, on the West Bank, which I won’t visit this time but would love to when and if things calm down).   Tomorrow, if I haven’t collapsed, I’ll head to a talk on Italian Jewish architecture which will give me a chance to meet some of the small but spirited Israeli-Italian community.   You can’t say it’s not a diverse place.
The demography workshop was in part an excuse to walk through Rehavia, where my grandparents had an apartment until my grandfather—incensed that the owner was supporting herself wholly withh is rental payments—left for a noisy, entirely inferior apartment near the Jerusalem bus station.    (The Rehavia apartment was down the block from the President’s residence, leading my grandmother, noticing the armed men pacing in front of the gate, to utter the words “Sure, security,” a remark that has become the gold standard for obvious or trivial comments in my family.)   Memories aside, the conference was interesting for its distinction between myths and realities in the demographic issue and much else about the country.   For example, while Israeli Arabs have one of the world’s highest birth rates, it has been declining—radically—for more than thirty years, and varies tremendously between region, religion, and social class.   Indeed, Israelis living on the West Bank have a birth rate that, if present trends continue, will exceed that of Arabs or anyone else in the country within the next few years.   “If present trends continue . . . ;” but of course they never do, which is one reason predictions about the region are so difficult and so risky.   One of my strongest childhood memories is looking up “Jews” and “Germany” in my grandfather’s 1912 Encyclopedia Britannica, which had stayed with us when he moved to Israel in the 1970s.   There’s still some antisemitism in Europe, the encyclopedia said, but it’s a problem of declining significance and will probably be forgotten in the next couple of decades.    My grandmother would probably have made a better prediction.
You may be wondering why there is a Van Leer Institute in Israel altogether.  Well, probably for the same reason there are conferences financed by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Foundation), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Jean Monnet Foundation and an organization named for just about every famous European Jew, or non-Jew, that you can think of.    Whatever else you can say of Israel, it’s a pretty high-profile place, and it seems to be an irresistible temptation for foreigners of all sorts to set up shop here and tell people how to do things.   In recent weeks right-wing members of the Knesset have introduced legislation to force left-leaning lobbying organizations (B’Tselem, New Israel Fund, etc.) either to stop taking foreign money, to pay punitive taxes on foreign contributions, or both.   The problem is that, if you took this logic far enough, have of the country’s intellectual life—or certainly the more critical and thoughtful part—would come grinding to a halt.   Perhaps this is what the Netanyahu Government wants, but in the end it is self-destructive, as even some conservatives are coming to see.   I would personally rather see leftist intellectuals attend a series of poorly attended conferences—there were twenty people in the audience last night, barely outnumbering the presenters—than actually get angry enough to change things.   (Think Italy in the 1970s to get an idea what I mean.)   Besides, it’s the people who read Ha’aretz and go to snooty conferences that pack restaurants and drive up real estate prices --good for the economy if not necessarily its individual components.    If present trends continue, of course.
Addendum: Just back from Ramle which was delightful . . . a mix of Jews and Arabs, a bit downscale, but tons of history and a wonderful museum that the locals are obviously proud of.   The sad part: a wall with drawers for each person killed in one of the many wars, with a book of personal memorabilia inside    A vision of the brighter, more tolerant side of Israel with a reminder of what it took to get here.


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