Dodging swastikas and Israel hate, Jordan’s secret Jews slip beneath the radar

Syndicated post first released @Times of Israel.

The untold story of the Jewish-American aid workers living, studying and traveling in the Hashemite Kingdom

AMMAN – Skilfully dodging mid-afternoon traffic, Tariq, my Palestinian taxi driver raced past a blur of mosques and hotels, blackened by the exhaust of the endless flow of trucks, cars and buses squeezing through the narrow streets of downtown Amman. Two rusty keys dangled from the rear-view mirror – not a decoration, but real keys that belonged to his grandfather and once opened a door somewhere in Jaffa, beside modern-day Tel Aviv.

I turned silently back to the view, soaking in the smell of incense and fuel exhaust, my Jewish identity and Israeli passport neatly hidden in my pocket. Keeping one hand on the wheel, he turned to me almost accusingly: “The Israelis, you know – the Jews – the Yahud, kicked us out. They kicked us out of Palestine.” Without another word we continued our journey in silence, the jingle of keys a wry smile, a little “welcome to Jordan” drowning out the honking cars outside.

Little has been written about Jews in Jordan. For starters, open academic discourse on Jews residing in an Arab state has been a virtual taboo in the Middle East outside of Israel since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Jews are almost always synonymous with Israelis or Zionists, and therefore the subject has largely been overlooked or approached with hostility or suspicion.

Second, very little precise data on religious demographics exists throughout the Middle East, compounded by the tribal and often semi-nomadic nature of population groups in the region. Jews visiting or still living in the Arab world are often hesitant to reveal their identity for fears to their personal security.

Before heading to Jordan I met with Sarah Zaides, a doctoral candidate in history who studied in Amman in 2011 on a US State Department critical language scholarship. She gave me a kind of heads-up on what to expect before hitting the streets.

“I absolutely had to hide my Jewish identity. I have a Jewish name. Every taxi I would get into — they were very friendly — the first thing they would ask is: where are you from, what is your name?” Zaides recounted a few weeks ago over a cup of coffee in a Jerusalem café.

“I couldn’t say American because we were told to keep that quiet. I couldn’t say Russian (my family’s of Russian descent), so I’d say I was from Spain,” she told me, adding, “They would respond: Sarah is a beautiful Arabic name — it’s from the Koran. I would reply: Exactly,” she said.

I looked back at Tariq as he dropped me off on a busy street corner against the backdrop of the setting sun. I was still quite sure I was under no suspicion, camouflaged by my Western guise. “Shukran Habibi” – thank you – I told him. He offered me a warm smile and a handshake, and then disappeared with his taxi to join the late afternoon fray.

No Jews on the east bank

Since a peace treaty was signed between Israel and Jordan, no restrictions exist on Jewish travelers to the Hashemite Kingdom, but every person I spoke to told me that they were discreet about their identities. It was not because of any overt danger — “chances are you’ll be fine,” Zaides told me, “but you just don’t know who’s listening.”

‘I feel threatened every day. I pass swastikas, ‘kill the Jews’ slogans and protests against Israel’

Almost all countries throughout the Middle East boast illustrious Jewish histories and long-standing Jewish communities – nearly all of which were expelled and depopulated with the establishment of Israel. Actually, a dwindling handful of Jews still lives — beleaguered and, at least publicly, hostile to Zionism — in some of these countries; Yemen, Egypt, Iran and Tunisia come to mind.

Yet one country in the region is noticeably absent from the tribal map — Jordan. Despite its proximity to Jerusalem and references to biblical Israelite settlement within its borders, no Jewish community in recent memory ever resided within the borders of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Today, the Jews of Jordan — a trickle of American aid workers in Amman who hide their identities, alongside Israeli officials at the local embassy — may be the first Jews to live on the east bank of the Jordan river for centuries.

Jews are prohibited under Jordanian law from owning property or acquiring citizenship.

A midday view of a sleepy town south of Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
A midday view of a sleepy town south of Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
Midday traffic as people head home from their offices after 3 pm (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
Midday traffic as people head home from their offices after 3 pm (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

The elephant in the room

Granted, Jordan’s relationship with Israel is furtively blooming albeit deeply unpopular. Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom signed a $15 billion agreement in September under whose terms Israel will supply natural gas from its Leviathan reservoir to Jordan over a 15-year period – the biggest-ever contract signed between the two countries.

A 2013 accord signed between the neighbors to save the dying Dead Sea by constructing a canal to transport water from the Red Sea is another example of rare strategic cooperation in a region often marred by tribal politics and existential threats.

However, growing internal opposition and calls against normalization of ties with the Jewish state are threatening to put the kibosh on the energy pact and the conduit. But still, Jordanian officials, and most importantly, King Abdullah, who rules much like an enlightened despot — are risking popular anger at home, amid domestic calls to review the two countries’ 20-year peace treaty, in order to proceed with the deals.

In a region where my enemy’s enemy is usually my enemy, with Islamic State sitting on Jordan’s borders, and Hezbollah and Al-Nusra camped on Israel’s north and Ansar Bayit al-Maqdis in the south, a subtle friendship has emerged between the Jewish state and the Palestinian-majority country. But it is for all intents and purposes a peace between governments and not between people.

‘My friend did mention to me that I was the first Jew he had ever met’

As an island of stability surrounded by fundamentalist, failed or collapsing states, Jordan is one of the few places tourists, Jews, and Israelis can securely travel to.

“Jordan is a safe place, I definitely felt safe there,” Zaides told me.

“When I was ‘discovered’ [as Jewish], people were very friendly, I had a lovely time. I think that at the end of the day nothing will happen. It’s not as if you say ‘Israel’ and the Mukhabbarat come running out of the bushes,” she said, referring to the national state intelligence agency.

“You’re living in Amman beside two million Palestinians. Palestinian refugees are not going to like Israel any way you cut it. But this is just politics, this isn’t some kind of primordial battle between Islam and Judaism or the West. It’s politics; most people just want to live their lives,” she said, noting that some of her best friends in Jordan were Palestinian, and, “once I got to know them, I never hesitated to tell them that I was Jewish.”

Downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Swastikas and Stars of David

Jordanian society has a peculiar attitude when it comes to Jews. Walking through Amman, one can find copies of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” translated into Arabic and proudly adorning the windows of bookstores and street newspaper vendors.

For me, looking back at Hitler’s image juxtaposed with a Star of David had a somewhat cathartic effect — it was so open, so public; but meeting and talking to local Jordanians gave me the impression that this was almost a cultural, non-malicious anti-Semitism. A society where the pernicious “al-Yahud,” or Jew, hangs like a dark cloud over the city, but where meeting an individual Jew on the street – a rarity given their paltry number, the transitory nature of their sojourn, and their unwillingness to self-identify — will elicit a curiously friendly, if uneasy reaction.

Unlike in Iraqi, Egyptian or Syrian circles where an aging World War II generation still fondly recalls the Jewish neighbors who were “lost” to Israel in the 50s and 60s following a spate of pogroms, Jordanians have no such reference point. There simply were no Jews historically in the area.

Unlike their cousins over the border, they meet and live “the Jew” vicariously through their local Palestinians – and the image is overwhelmingly negative. A Jew who is an occupier. A Jew who is a baby killer. A Jew who is an obstacle to peace in the region.

Street newspaper vendor in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)
Street newspaper vendor in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

I picked up a copy of “Mein Kampf” in Arabic lying beside how-to yoga guides and “50 Shades of Grey” in a trendy Barnes and Noble-style bookstore downtown and approached the affable young man behind the counter. I was on swanky al-Rainbow Street, Amman’s version of Rodeo Drive, bustling with flashy sports cars, overpriced restaurants and high-pitched Arabic sprinkled with American slang. “Does anyone buy this?” I asked, indicating the portrait of Hitler indignantly staring from the front cover beside a large swastika. “Sure,” the storekeeper said, “’Mein Kampf’ is very popular in Jordan. For some people [Hitler] is a role model. Other people are just curious to know about him.” My question seemed to elicit as much of a reaction as a query about a comic book.

Arabic version of Hitler's Mein Kampf on sale in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Arabic version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

‘Coming out of the closet’

Jordan is a largely Western construct, sliced off from the British Mandate of Palestine and given to the Hashemites; it’s perfectly angled boundaries are testament to a time when borders were decided upon over a cup of tea in Europe rather than on the ground by the region’s indigenous inhabitants.

No Jews lived in Transjordan in 1946 when it became an independent state, following Winston Churchill’s 1921 decision in favor of “preserving the Arab character” of Transjordan and the resulting British policy forbidding Jews from settling there.

‘None of the Jordanians had seen matzah before, so they had no clue what it might imply about me’

Before that, the area that is now Jordan was a relative backwater in the wider Ottoman Empire, consisting of semi-nomadic Transjordanian tribes traversing a desert hinterland hemmed in between prosperous Damascus to the north and Mediterranean port cities and Jerusalem to the west. There was little infrastructure or regional importance to tempt a community of urbane, often bourgeois merchant Jews that happily settled in Gaza but simply overlooked Amman, Irbid and As-Salt.

The country is in many ways sui generis. For starters, it’s (still) one of the few places to have maintained political and social stability throughout the turbulent Arab spring. Second, it has a peace treaty with Israel and Israelis (and Jews) are free to travel there. And third, there is almost no evidence of a Jewish community within its boundaries in the last 1500 years, setting it apart from historical Jewish centers like Morocco or Iraq.

After the peace treaty was ratified in 1994, many in Israel had high hopes that the accord would usher in a period of bilateral cooperation and normalization that would enable Israelis to travel unfettered throughout the region.

As the two countries exchanged ambassadors, there was even talk of opening a kosher restaurant in Amman.

And with the influx of Israeli tourists came American Jews. Not just for a quick vacation, but also to reside in the kingdom for an extended period of time for aid work and Arabic-study programs.

Israelis often experience less of Jordanian society because the length of their sojourn is often limited and they tend to stay away from the major cities. Far less conspicuous than their Hebrew-speaking counterparts, American Jews are able to slip by relatively camouflaged.

More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)
More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

For Moshe Silverman*, who asked me to use a pseudonym for this article, his experiences studying Arabic in the Hashemite Kingdom came full circle and he immigrated to Israel afterwards and enlisted in the IDF.

He encountered overt anti-Semitism, he told me – not directed at him specifically, but a general antipathy to Jews that engendered a sort of camaraderie between people as it unified them in acrimony toward Jews in a self-perpetuating background noise like the constant hum of airplane engine during a trans-Atlantic flight.

Silverman related a conversation he took part in at the local gym that he visited regularly. He and the gym owner had become quite close, trading jokes and spotting one another at the lifting station.

“One day I asked him what would happen if he saw that a Jew had joined his gym, on account of the fact that it was on the questionnaire required for gym membership,” Silverman told me.

“He responded that ‘if I meet a Jew in the gym, I will drag him out into the street and beat him to a pulp’ — and he said it in such a friendly way, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to say,” Silverman said, adding that owing to his high level of Arabic, he passed as a “Palestinian-American from Hebron discovering my roots.”

Yet despite the undercurrents of animosity, Jordan is still a good destination for Jews who want to visit and experience the region, he maintained.

More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)
More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

“In terms of Jews in Jordan, it’s truly the last safe place that you can experience Arab culture and learn Arabic at the same time. There are people who go to Morocco, but the influence there is [heavily] from France, so it doesn’t have the feel of more Levantine Arab areas,” he said, adding that “the Arabic you [learn] in Jordan is closer to modern standard Arabic, as opposed to Morocco, where the language is one-third French.”

“Initially I wanted to go to Syria. I got my visa, I applied, and got into this Aleppo program in the summer of 2011. The civil war hadn’t started yet. By April 2011 it was getting a little heated, but at this time Aleppo was still the safest city. Three weeks before my program was due to start there was a giant protest at Aleppo University and something like 60 students were beaten so badly that a few of them died. I think at that point they decided to cancel the program,” Silverman said.

“‘You have two options,’ they told me, ‘you can either stay in DC and do an intensive Arabic program here, or we can move the program down to Amman.’ My parents said I should go to Israel and study Arabic there. I knew Hebrew pretty decently at that time and I thought it would just confuse me. I wanted to be in completely different surroundings where I would have to immerse myself in the culture and the language. That’s how I ended up in Amman,” he told me.

Like Zaides, Silverman too had to keep his identity under wraps. Upon landing in Jordan, the program director took him aside and told him that his name was changed on the student register “to make it sound less Jewish.” Moshe was simply an inappropriate name to be walking around with in Amman, the registrar noted. From here on in, you’ll be known as Mike.

'Zionism and it's discontents' beside healthy living guides at '50 shades of grey' -- on sale at a trendy bookstore in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
‘Zionism and Its Discontents’ beside healthy living guides and ’50 shades of grey’ — on sale at a trendy bookstore in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Perhaps a common motif connecting all those whom I interviewed was the experience of disclosing their Jewish identity while in Jordan – either to a trusted confidant or to another student who happened to be Jewish as well. “It’s like letting go of your deepest, darkest secret and coming out of the closet,” Silverman quipped.

Zaides recalled such an experience during her stay. “I ran into somebody on the street. She was American. So I said, ‘What’s your name?’ and she replied ‘Shira,’ then I asked ‘Oh you’re Jewish? And she said ‘shhhhh’! She immediately hushed me. We had forgotten for a moment that we were out on the street.”

Another Jewish student who studied recently in Amman summed up the feeling of meeting another member of the tribe: “When we find out about each other’s religion, there’s an immediate understanding of what that means for us.”

Hashem’s for hummus

A gargantuan, low-density urban sprawl, Amman is an idiosyncratic Arab village on steroids, a grossly oversized baby that outgrew its mother and gobbled her up, like a dystopian East Jerusalem consuming the tony western side of the city.

Narrow alleyways defy topography and suddenly veer sharply uphill, houses are in a constant state of renovation with additional floors continuously added to accommodate ever-growing families, thousands of black satellite dishes, as numerous as the stars in the smoggy night sky, point south toward Qatar, and in the evening, fluorescent green lights radiate from the city’s thousands of mosques. Amman is the ultimate Arabic Disneyland, a sprawl of souqs, malls and markets, banks, shwarma stands, government offices, mansions, highways and hookah bars.

Wedged in between languid Jordanian working professionals and American expats, I dabbled my pita into a bowl of ful, savoring a great taste that still fails to distinguish between borders. Sitting at Hashem’s, a popular hummus joint downtown, the tone seemed somewhat subdued, somewhat reticent; a cursory glance between waiters portending some sort of cataclysm, impalpable beneath the surface.

The dialect on the street is increasingly Syrian as Jordan absorbs an influx of refugees from the civil war there. It’s been less than two months since captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive by ISIS in a cage, with the kingdom vowing a protracted revenge against the terror group. Jordan suffered an immediate blow to its tourism industry, a 67% decrease according to one tour operator I spoke to.

“Jordan isn’t a standalone destination,” he told me, asking not to be named because he maintains ties with local Jordanians. “It always comes as part of a package that includes either Israel or Egypt, or both. There are no tours that come direct to Jordan.”

The Jordanian government, he told me, has a vested interested in keeping tourism alive, but after the gruesome death of al-Kasasbeh, they’ve been struggling to remain an attractive destination.

The breaking of the fast at Hashem's, Amman's most famous hummus eatery (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
The breaking of the fast of Ramadan at Hashem’s, Amman’s most famous hummus eatery (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
A view of East Amman from a cafe in the Western part of the city (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
A view of East Amman from a cafe in the Western part of the city (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A lonely Passover in the Hashemite Kingdom

Over the course of their stay in Jordan, most of the Jews I spoke to told me they experienced a sort of personal Jewish renaissance in the face of the cultural hostility to Jews and Israel.

Bart*, an American Jewish environmental researcher working for a small NGO in Amman, said he was careful not to flaunt his identity, even though he felt his time in Jordan brought him closer to his roots.

“I wore my Magen David around my neck at all times – safely hidden under my shirt,” he said. “I was in Amman for Pesach and smuggled matzah across the border from Israel. During that week, I would actually eat matzah sandwiches publicly on my walk to work. The benefit of hiding your religion in a place where it’s not fully understood is that even if people see it, they don’t always recognize it,” Bart told me.

“None of the Jordanians had seen matzah before, so they had no clue what it might imply about me,” he said, referring to the unleavened bread traditionally eaten by Jews during the week-long Passover holiday.

‘The people here are so ingrained with the idea that Jew means the same thing as Israeli’

“I do feel this experience strengthened my Jewish identity. While I was in Jordan, I largely kept that part of me to myself. [My Judaism] was what I made it,” he noted.

“I couldn’t wear a kippah around,” he said, but unlike in the US where “a much more definitive concept of what it means to be Jewish” permeates social norms in the wider Jewish community, in Jordan “I didn’t need to identify as a Jew … which really made it feel like Judaism was mine to keep.”

Zaides too mentioned a clandestine Shabbat dinner she celebrated covertly with a few Jewish friends on her program: “It was all done via word of mouth. No phones, no Facebook. We couldn’t find challah, so we ended up buying a loaf of bread.”

“My introduction to my Jewish identity happened in Jordan, in a weird way,” she told me.

“It made me realize that it wasn’t something to be taken for granted. And it was very real. I was here amongst an enormous population of people who had suffered no doubt, but I was here, two hours from Jerusalem and I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t say I was Jewish or that I support Israel out loud. And it’s something that a lot of American Jews who grow up in strong Jewish communities absolutely take for granted,” she said.

For Bart, ‘coming out of the closet’ and revealing his identity to Jordanian acquaintances didn’t always go smoothly.

“I did confide in several Jordanian friends,” he said, “But I had one Jordanian friend in particular, a man I had become close with over the course of several months. I decided to tell him casually in conversation that I was Jewish – he had never asked my religion, so we had never discussed it before.”

“He didn’t shy away or become wary, but his first reaction was to feel out my opinions about Israeli politics. I answered his questions, and he seemed satisfied,” he recounted.

“Later that night, I overheard a conversation he was having with one of his Jordanian friends. He mentioned my name, and asked his friend if he knew that I was Jewish. There were two things that struck me about the conversation. The first was that he used my Israeli political beliefs, which happen to be left-leaning, as a kind of disclaimer to my Judaism, i.e. ‘He’s Jewish, but since he doesn’t agree with Netanyahu he’s OK.’ The second was that he revealed that he thought the holocaust didn’t happen. I still haven’t fully digested that portion, so can’t begin to attribute where he might have learned that or why he thought it was relevant. I never mentioned to my friend that I had overheard this, and our relationship didn’t change in any significant way after I told him my religion,” Bart said of his colleague.

“My friend did mention to me that I was the first Jew he had ever met. It was surprising to me, but I guess it shouldn’t have been. It seems like a big responsibility, though, to be the sole face of an entire people. I was his only direct exposure to Judaism, despite everything he had learned from other sources,” he said.

The souq in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
The souq in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Sunrise to sundown

The Hashemite Kingdom has huge tourism potential. Most vacationers overlook the majority of the country, opting for a one-day outing to Jordan’s principal tour destination, Petra. The lively souqs of Amman, the archaeological ruins at Jerash and the desert moonscapes of Wadi Rum are ignored.

Jordanian royal desert forces stand guard in front of Al Khazneh, Arabic for the Treasury, the most dramatic of many facades carved into the mountains, in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. March 24, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)
Jordanian royal desert forces stand guard in front of Al Khazneh, Arabic for ‘the Treasury,’ the most dramatic of many facades carved into the mountains in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. March 24, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)

For most Israelis, Jordan is a sunrise to sundown affair; organized excursions cut across the border in the morning – either at Eilat in the south or Beit She’an in the north – and travel directly to Petra.

A few Israelis stay a little a longer but they’re largely the exception. A few brave the steep wadis of the Edom and Moav mountain ranges opposite the Dead Sea, with others seeking to frolic in the Red Sea at Aqaba — considered a cheaper alternative to Eilat.

The kingdom seeks to discourage such one day romps by offering discounts to Petra for tourists who stay in the country overnight. An overnight visitor pays 50 Jordanian dinars ($71) to see the ancient Nabatean city, while a same-day visit will incur a 90 dinar levy ($127). Jordanian citizens pay just 1 dinar ($1.4).

Eli Mali, a veteran Israeli tour operator of 20 years told me that since the second Intifada, Israelis are reluctant to visit Amman. If they stay overnight in the Hashemite Kingdom, then it’s usually at a camping site or at a hotel beside Petra.

“Before the intifada there were heaps of Israeli bus tours around Jordan,” he told me. “Now it’s just a trickle of hikers and a few off-road adventurers: Mostly young people after their army service.”

From late 2014, Jordan began turning away individual Israeli tourists at the border – ostensibly to safeguard their security, amid last summer’s Gaza war and a small but growing number of ISIS sympathizers threatening to attack sensitive targets in the Kingdom. Organized expeditions led by local tour guides continue to be permitted.

Mali, however, believes the reason for the turn-away is financial: “they want every person who crosses the border alone to hire a guide. It’s [not security related], that would be completely unjustified; there have hardly been any attacks on Israelis traveling in the country.”

In Petra I met an organized group from Tel Aviv that had arrived in Jordan that same morning. After spending days masking my nationality and speaking English, I felt alarmed to hear them boisterously chatting in Hebrew, making no effort to conceal their origins – as if mistaking for a moment that they were hiking beside Mitzpe Ramon instead of in an Arab country.

“We got here today, we’re heading back tonight,” one man told me in Hebrew, as a number of local Bedouins grimaced nearby.

Yet even as much as I attempted to cloak my identity during my visit, somehow, inexplicably, I was always ‘discovered.’ Jordanians simply knew that I was Israeli, despite my fluent Australian English.

But how? Was it my post-army hairdo, my Hebrew-accented Arabic? I didn’t think so. It was something deeper, a certain familiarity shared by those of us that live in the region. American and European backpackers by contrast seem almost lost in the Middle East, shrouded behind a veil of politeness and overcome by their confusion of the orient. I was too forthcoming, too open, to chutzpadik, too confident in my Arabic; the kind of familiarity reserved for locals or long-lost cousins. I was too Israeli.

A view of downtown Amman on Friday, Islam's holy day of the week (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
A view of downtown Amman on Friday, Islam’s holy day of the week (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
Downtown Amman by night, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Downtown Amman by night, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Hebrew speaking taxi drivers

But how much had changed with the onset of the Syrian civil war, and could a host country so accommodating to refugees accommodate its Jews too?

An American student who recently spent a year in Amman and who asked me not to disclose her name, told me that on the contrary, the flood of Syrian refugees into the Kingdom was disrupting societal norms and causing political instability that may yet have wider ramifications.

“A lot of Jordanians are really angry with the refugee situation as they believe that job and work opportunities are being taken away from them – and honestly, they’re right. It’s a moral dilemma because where are these people to go if not Jordan, but at the same time they are hurting the economy and the people here,” she said.

“The influx is creating greater instability in a country that is the only stable Arab one in the Middle East. It cannot afford to fall – my worry is that with the continuing influx of refugees – it will,” she said, adding that “other countries need to start taking in more refugees and playing a greater role if, and when, Jordan does fall, there will be nowhere for anyone to go.”

‘It’s like letting go of your deepest, darkest secret and coming out of the closet’

And like the refugees, as a Jew from the US, she told me, she feels perpetually unwelcome.

“The people here are so ingrained with the idea that Jew means the same thing as Israeli that they will never be able to look past it. In their eyes, a Jew is an Israeli, a person who stole their homeland… When I confided my identity in friends that I trust, their reaction was that they ‘don’t hate Jews, only Zionists’,” she said, adding that it’s “normal” for someone on the street to ask you what your religion is, and being a conservative country, sexual preferences and army service fall under the same category as religion — they have to be hidden as well.

“Last semester, I was called into my program director’s office because another host family found out there was a Jew on the program and wanted me to leave the country,” she told me. “I feel threatened every day. I pass swastikas, ‘kill the Jews’ slogans and protests against Israel (which almost always turns into Jews) every day. There is not a day that goes by that I forget that if people found out who I was, I would not be welcome here,” she noted.

“I feel conflicted mostly because I feel very angry about the situation – I feel as though I took a year of my life to dedicate to this country – to learning the language, understanding the culture and meeting the people – yet, if anyone were to find out my religion they wouldn’t want to find out any of those things about me. It hurts to know that this one trait would diminish everything else about who I am,” she said.

For this student, feeling constantly on the defensive – especially during last summer’s war between Hamas in Gaza and the Jewish state – and a general lack of Jewish connection or wider understanding regarding her identity, was the “hardest” part of her year abroad.

“I did meet one taxi driver who was Palestinian and we actually started talking in Hebrew because I told him I had family in Palestine and I knew some too. Once I got into my house that night I cried and cried because it was the only form of Jewish connection I’d had in so long and it was under false pretenses. He gave me his number so we could meet again, but I never called him because I was always too worried he would find out my real identity. That 10-minute cab conversation gave me so much power to carry on here,” she told me.

Downtown Amman at night, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)
Downtown Amman at night, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)
Downtown Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)
Downtown Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

A peace between peoples

The owner of the guest house I stayed at in Amman was an avuncular Palestinian man, originally from a hamlet outside of Bethlehem. He had lived in Jordan since 1978, after being evicted from the West Bank by Israel – and had not been allowed back since to visit his hometown or family. Whether he was expelled on trumped-up security charges or for committing an actual attack, I would never know.

“The Jewish are a religion, not a nationality,” he told me, freely interchanging between the adjective and the noun. “Jewish history is our history, Palestinian history,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye.

Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Despite my protestations that we as Jews viewed ourselves as an “ummah” – ‘nation’ in Arabic – he continued to insist that we were in fact just a religion and therefore our territorial claims to any parcel of land were more than dubious.

“If you’re Polish-Jewish, you’re country is Poland, not Israel. You’re religion is Jewish. If the Buddhists and Christians don’t have an official state, why should ‘the Jewish’?,” he intoned.

But on the peace treaty, my Palestinian host took a line similar to that of most Israelis. He was tired of the conflict, of “politics” as Zaides put it. He just wanted to live his life; he just wanted to go home.

“Peace has to be made through the people, not the governments. It’s not just about giving land,” he said. “Yes, the Israelis have to give us 1967 border for peace. But that’s not enough.”

“Why didn’t it work with Gaza? Because [you] threw it away to let us deal with the problems,” he said, adding that “true peace will come from education. Both sides. Let both sides connect to each other. Let both sides meet. Let me go back home.”

“We have Hamas, you have settlements. I blame both sides for the violence, but I blame your government more — for putting us into a corner in the first place. Abu Mazen was forced into an agreement with Hamas because he had nothing to show for his dealings with the Israelis,” he told me, referring to Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas.

“He had to show the Palestinians that he was doing something; otherwise his leadership would be in danger,” he said, and added that if a peace accord were signed between Israel and the Palestinians it would have to be “first and foremost a reconciliation of the peoples. It would be stupid for two different countries to live in peace as bad neighbors. They will attack each other. It would become an everlasting war between two states without dialogue.”


We both quietly shuffled in our seats, not quite making eye-contact, as an uneasy calm shifted between us.

He then got up, and served me a fresh plate of kanafeh on the house, still warm from the nearby market.

“When you come back to Jordan next time, take me back with you,” he said to me with a little wink.

A view of the al-Husseini Mosque, built atop an ancient mosque believed to be from the Caliphate era -- which archaeologists believe may have also been the location of a cathedral in the ancient city of Philadelphia (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
A view of the al-Husseini Mosque, built atop an ancient mosque believed to be from the Caliphate era — which archaeologists believe may have also been the location of a cathedral in the ancient city of Philadelphia (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
Men engage in communal prayer outside a mosque just before 8 pm, at which time fhe fast of Ramadan is broken in Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
Men engage in communal prayer outside a mosque just before 8 pm, at which time fhe fast of Ramadan is broken in Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

I went to sleep that evening against the unending loop of Koran verses echoing from the alleyway underneath. Both tortured and poetic, the pure voices were not so much confronting as hauntingly beautiful. My body tense at first from the foreignness — and then relaxing progressively, like a sweet surrender, a submission; a child enchanted and put to sleep by a mysterious lullaby.

Jordan is in many ways a bundle of contradictions.

It’s a Muslim majority country that allows Jews to pass through freely. It’s an Arab state that made peace with Israel despite its overwhelming preponderance of Palestinians – only one of two countries in the region to do so. It has absorbed thousands of Syrian refugees just as it prepares to pound that country to defeat ISIS. It is ruled by a secular, authoritarian monarch, but compared to the other countries in the region, is relatively benign towards its citizens.

For the Jews of Jordan however, I fear that the Hashemite Kingdom will continue to offer a mixed bag. Pass through freely, but leave your identity and your values at the border crossing.

“It has to be a peace between peoples,” I thought as I drifted off to the sounds of Amman at midnight.

A desolate street in Amman before the lifting of the Ramadan fast (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
A desolate street in Amman before the lifting of the Ramadan fast (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

What Jordanians talk about when they talk about Israel

Syndicated post first released @Times of Israel.

AMMAN – As Israelis headed to the ballot boxes on March 17, a number of journalists and politicians gathered for a workshop detailing the various political parties, their platforms and campaigns. This pre-election seminar, however, was not held in Hebrew for the disgruntled Israeli voter. It was entirely in Arabic and in the unlikeliest of places — neighboring Jordan.

The initiative, among others, was spearheaded by the Amman-based Center for Israel Studies, an independent nonprofit think tank established in late 2014 that seeks to combat media misinformation surrounding the Jewish state and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by presenting an alternative, neutrality-driven view of Israel in Arabic for Jordan’s decision makers, journalists and wider public.

One of the first of its kind in the Arab world – small Israel-studies circles exist in Egyptian academia — the center hosts lectures, programs, conferences and debates that signal a growing openness to understanding Israeli society amid a post-Arab Spring internet-savvy generation thirsty for a balanced, more objective view of their oft-maligned and misunderstood neighbor west of the Jordan river.

The man behind the institute, Dr. Abdullah Swalha, wants to see an informed Arab public equipped with the tools to relate, deal and negotiate with Israel, by presenting the country as an imperfect democracy and model of tolerance, albeit with inequalities between Arab and Jewish citizens and an occupying power still controlling the lives of million of Palestinians in the West Bank — a far cry from the “Zionist entity” trope widely used for decades in the Arab world as a blanket description for the Jewish state.

Center for Israel Studies conference room, Amman March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel,  Benyamin Loudmer)
Center for Israel Studies conference room, Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

“We don’t see the other side of Israel: Israel as a model of democracy, Israel as a model for prosperity, Israel as a state that respects human rights,” Swalha told this reporter in his cushy, renovated office featuring arresting views of downtown Amman.

“The relationship between the government branch and the people, the separation of power, an independent judiciary — all the necessary democratic criteria exist in Israel,” Swalha said, adding “I speak of course only about Israel within [the 1967 lines], not about Israel in relation to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. We have to be clear about this point.”

Modeling the center on Israeli think tanks and research institutes, Swalha seeks not only to inform the public, but also to provide strategy analysis and recommendations to the Jordanian government — both to shape foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel, and to widen Jordan’s involvement in a binding rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

‘We want to enable ordinary people to understand Israel in Arabic’

The center employs 10 translators to work around the clock, poring over Hebrew news media, Israeli television channels and newspapers as well as government policy reports. Swalha himself speaks a little Hebrew and holds a PhD in political science from Cairo University. He wrote his dissertation on religion and state in Israel.

The content is translated into Arabic, and published in press release and analysis form on the center’s website, which contains continuously updated material on Israeli internal affairs, military matters, statistics, figures, politics, and government policies.

“Why is it that Israeli think tanks know everything about the Arab world, but that Arab think tanks don’t know anything about Israel? I know a person from Tel Aviv University who wrote a book discussing Jordanian tribes. How is it that [Israelis] know things about Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, but we don’t know anything about Israel?” Swalha asked.

According to Swalha there are two principal underpinnings to the lack of understanding and to Israel’s overwhelmingly negative image in the Arab world. The first is a dearth of information. The second is an abundance of misinformation. He believes the institute is well placed to remove these impediments.

“It’s mostly due to propaganda and shortage of [data]. There is no mention of what’s going on in Israel, they only know that there is a conflict going on between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said of the Arab world, adding that the center seeks to fill this gap and provide “clear, objective information about Israel” in order to help solve the 60-year-long conflict.

Dr Abdullah Swalha at the Center for Israel Studies, Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Dr Abdullah Swalha at the Center for Israel Studies, Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

A number of plasma screens affixed side by side in an adjacent viewing room broadcasts an endless loop of Israeli breakfast TV, news and Hebrew films, while the adhan, or Arabic call to prayer, blares loudly outside. Framed photographs of King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Hussein blithely gaze down from an adjacent wall.

“We want to enable ordinary people to understand Israel in Arabic. It is often misrepresented in Arabic media — people in the Arab world want an objective source to know what’s going on Israel. We fulfill this need,” Swalha said, momentarily distracted by a gaggle of mothers in a Tel Aviv studio discussing lunchbox nutrition on morning-show TV.

At first, the center encountered some resistance given the initial suspicion surrounding an organization with the word “Israel” in its title, but it was eventually given a green light and a blessing by the Jordanian government.

“Jordanian politicians encouraged me. They think it’s a good idea to understand Israel. But in the beginning some people were afraid. They wanted to know what is this center, who’s behind it,” Swalha said.

“When you establish a new project like this, you want to talk to the people using their own logic: I told them, I don’t serve the Israelis. I serve my people, my issue, and my country. So if we want to deal with Israel or to achieve peace, we have to understand what’s going on inside Israel,” he said.

The institute is funded through private-sector donations, according to Swalha, but he would be willing to accept grants from Israeli groups as well, in his bid to broaden the initiative beyond Jordan and into other Arab countries.

Know thy enemy, know thy friend

While the institute is certainly indicative of growing but tentative acceptance of Israel in the Arab street, Swalha noted that these initiatives do not herald the kind of normalization of ties that Jerusalem wants to see with surrounding countries. True acceptance of Israel in the Middle East can only be ushered in through an accord recognizing Palestinian sovereignty alongside Israel’s: a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel and its other neighbors.

Dr Abdullah Swalha at the Center for Israel Studies, Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)
Dr Abdullah Swalha at the Center for Israel Studies, Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

“We don’t have a problem with normalization [in principle], but we have to find a definition for this normalization. Normalization does not mean that I accept everything from Israel. Israel must establish an independent Palestinian state and we have to achieve the peace by giving them their rights,” Swalha said.

“The [current situation] is not normalization. It is something more like dealing with Israel. If you consider Israel as enemy you have to study it and you have to deal with it. If you consider Israel as a friend, you have to study it and you have to deal with it,” Swalha said, adding that the Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, are ready for an agreement with Israel and share common interests in the shadow of the Iranian threat, but that the Palestinian issue remains a sticking point. Israel’s relations with the Arab world cannot be isolated from the Palestinian question, he said.

When it comes to the West Bank, Swalha noted, Israel does not respect human rights or international law and “there is no democracy for the Palestinians.”

If Israel wants to be accepted in the Arab world, Swalha said, it must first reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“Normalization of ties [with Jerusalem] hinges on the Palestinian issue. Without it, there will be no peace in the region,” he said, noting that bilateral relations between Israel and Jordan are a “peace between governments, not between peoples,” referring to the peace treaty signed between the two countries in 1994.

The center has thus far received little media attention — an article or two in the Jordanian press — but Swalha wants to seize the opportunity to expand to neighboring Arab countries, so that Israel can be properly understood elsewhere too.

‘Mr. President, are you satisfied with Israel’s current borders? Does it match up to your history?’

The Center for Israel Studies by no means paints a rosy picture of the Jewish state. But it does attempt to construct a relatively impartial view of Israel while still remaining palatable to the Arab ear, which over decades has become accustomed to strictly demonizing depictions of a fervently unwanted regional interloper.

Swalha has visited Israel on a number of occasions, and even fondly recalled meeting with former president Shimon Peres – “he’s 91, and could hardly hear” – and Arab-Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran – “this shows that there is a good opportunity [for peace].”

“Many people criticize Peres and look at him as an imaginary [dreamer], as not realistic — but I like him,” Swalha said.

“I told him: ‘Mr. President, the Jewish people have lots of history, but not enough geography [to make up for all that history]. The Jewish people lived thousands of years without a land, without a state, and in 1948 they established their state. I asked him: [you have] so much history, but not enough geography. Are you satisfied with Israel’s [current boundaries], with Israel’s borders? Does it match up to your history?” Swalha recalled of his meeting with the nonagenarian who served as Israel’s prime minister during three separate terms in the 70s, 80s and 90s and president during 2007-2014.

“[Peres] told me: ‘The land is not so important, because if you want to control large amounts of land you need a [large] army, you need resources, administration, but we [aren’t that populous or powerful]. Here in Israel, our income in the high-tech industry is more than Saudi Arabia’s income from oil. Our issue is not the land, but how to control and manage what [little] land we have,” Swalha said.

Despite poll battering, Jewish Home party defiantly upbeat

Syndicated post first released @Times of Israel.

RAMAT GAN — Despite a poor showing at the polls, feelings were mixed among supporters who gathered at the Jewish Home party headquarters in Ramat Gan Tuesday, as subdued shock over a four-seat decline compared to the 2013 elections gave way to tentative satisfaction in light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overall election victory.

The mood already felt awry as early as Monday, when party chief Naftali Bennett issued a foreboding warning to prevent the “fall of religious Zionism” and stop the apparent “bleeding” of votes to Netanyahu’s Likud — as constituents rallied behind the beleaguered prime minister at the eleventh-hour, seemingly at expense of the Jewish Home party.

Indeed, even before the exit polls were published right before 10 p.m. Tuesday, tones were hushed at the command post, and officials undecidedly mum — with one supporter quipping, “we’ll wait for results and then see,” while other members refused to comment altogether as they worriedly perused phone messages to gather any sort of prior poll indications.

And when the results did filter in — a lackluster outcome of just 8 seats, down from the 12 they held two years ago — supporters immediately reacted with sudden pause followed by muted looks of shock. Yes, Netanyahu had won. But this was not the performance that they hoped for.

As the picture became clearer, the extent to which votes purportedly intended for the Jewish Home party “bled” away to other factions, was splashed bare on every one of Israel’s news channels and over the multiple wall-to-wall TV screens at party headquarters.

The uninspiring result, as party no. 4 Eli Ben-Dahan told the Times of Israel, was because voters neglected their own party and ran to “save” other factions at the behest of political and community leaders within the religious Zionist public.

“[Our supporters] were told that [Eli Yishai’s] Yachad party won’t pass the electoral threshold, so they went and voted for him. They were told that perhaps Netanyahu would receive less seats than the Zionist Union, so they left the Jewish Home party and ran to [Likud],” Ben-Dahan said.

“How do you lose 4 seats? You go to save Eli Yishai and Netanyahu,” he said.

Naftali Bennett speaks to supporters at election HQ, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Jon Weidberg)
Naftali Bennett speaks to supporters at election HQ, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Jon Weidberg)

Again and again, speaking to party officials, activists and supporters, the same message intoned loud and clear: We are the sacrificial lamb upon which a Netanyahu victory was forged.

Yishai and his Yachad party did not pass the 3.25% electoral threshold. But Netanyahu did achieve a dramatic win, heading for 30 seats over the Zionist Union with 24 seats — up from his underdog status on Friday where he was trailing by four. This was a marked departure from the tie between the two parties initially announced with exit polls earlier in the night.

Indeed, if the rapturous crowds of seminary teens and sandal-wearing youngsters in downtown Jerusalem Monday night were anything to go by, then the Jewish Home party was slated to cruise to an easy victory.

From 12 mandates last elections, a strong initial breakout polling nearly 20 seats at the beginning of this election season certainly left party officials feeling that they could become Israel’s new political kingmakers.

However a slow ebb and flow in the straw polls gradually chipped away at the numbers — that remained steady at around 15 the past month, but fell to around 12 late Friday. Party activists went into emergency mode over the weekend after a message circulated by Bennett warned that results could even drop to single-digits.

“It’s not easy to take a blow, and we took a blow,” Yinon Magal, a former journalist and number six on the party slate told The Times of Israel.

“But we’re not working here for the Jewish Home party only. We are working for the Land of Israel, the people of Israel and the Torah of Israel,” Magal said, adding that as long as they are part of the governing coalition, Israel will be saved from future land withdrawals and future concessions to the Palestinians.

Losing the battle. Winning the war.

Number eight on the party list Bezalel Smotrich noted that although there was hope for a better result, party supporters don’t have “puffed up egos,” and could live with the gentle rebuke they received from the Israeli electorate amid an overall Netanyahu win.

“Given that we were up against a crazy [political] campaign, the proportions of which were never before seen before in Israel, we’re quite pleased that the right-wing bloc won,” Smotrich said.

Crowds look on during a post-election speech by Naftali Bennett, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Jon Weidberg)
Crowds look on during a post-election speech by Naftali Bennett, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Jon Weidberg)

“It was a campaign waged by Ynet, [Yedioth news chief] Noni Mozes and the V15 organization with funding that totaled millions of foreign dollars,” he said, referring to the vocal grassroots campaign currently the focus of a Senate probe for election impropriety that attempted to unseat Netanyahu and replace him with a center-left coalition.

When Bennett finally arrived at the Jewish Home headquarters, thronged on all sides by flag-waving supporters, the dust had inevitably settled and politics would soon be taking its place.

“Netanyahu called me. I praised him for the great victory of the national camp. We concluded that we will begin negotiations to establish the government. I tell you, my friends, in these negotiations we will not focus on cabinet positions, rather on values,” Bennett told the crowd to euphoric applause.

“We will take care to ensure a government … that will safeguard the Land of Israel in its entirety. A government that will ensure the Jewish character of the State of Israel. A government that will protect IDF soldiers from outside [legal] persecution,” he said.

“We will secure a government that will safeguard a united Jerusalem under the sovereignty of Israel, and Israel only. And a government that will not give a centimeter of Israeli land to the Arabs,” he said as the crowd cheered back to him “the nation demands a Jewish Home!”

“We’re running long distance. We are not afraid, and we don’t lower our heads. We raise our heads higher and higher. We love the people of Israel, the land of Israel. We, all of us, love the Torah of Israel and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces,” he said to applause.

The crowd, energized and livelier than ever, chanted back: “The eternal people does not fear the lengthy path,” using an oft quoted phrase coined by prominent religious-Zionist Rabbi Yehoshua Weitzman and utilized by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in one of his speeches.

As Bennett left the room to thunderous acclaim and the crowd of activists and journalists dispersed, this reporter was approached by a young party supporter — still too young to vote — who managed in one sentence to sum up the atmosphere on the ground.

“We wanted the Jewish Home to get more mandates. Even though I’m actually quite content with the overall outcome, I’m disappointed with our party’s end-result,” Yishai of Ramat Gan told me.

“Do you have anything else to add?” I asked.

“Yes! Bennett is a bro!”

The sounds of Melbourne and Jerusalem

When I was a young kid, I would climb onto the toilet seat and peer out toward our backyard from behind the fly-screen, mesmerized and captivated by the sounds of Shabbat wafting over from our neighbours next door. It was Friday night in Caulfield, and my now unfamiliar backyard was illuminated by a sliver of moonlight, transforming it into a shadowy Siberian winter-land punctuated by grey-silver grass and leaves. I could see nothing beyond the fence, but the sounds enchanted me — the harmonies of ancient Jewish melodies imbibed me with wonder. The words, strange and exotic, seemed to take me like a bird to distant Arabian deserts to sit in the company of wise, bearded sages.

I was just a kid. Maybe 9 or 10. My family’s Friday night dinners were dysfunctional — a leitmotif of screaming, arguments and agitated kids. The family dynamic was incorrigible, I thought, every Shabbat dinner ended in tears. And so, after the screaming, the kicking and the fighting, with everybody separated and locked away safely in their rooms with the lights turned off, I would quietly tiptoe across the hallway and into the bathroom, lock the door, and climb onto the vantage point to receive my dose of Shabbat.

As the shadows danced across my face, momentarily hiding the tears in my eyes, I would wistfully stand transfixed by the harmonies, like a diver emerging to the surface to receive his first breath of fresh air. The sounds were beautiful. The tunes arcane. They touched a chord deep inside me; they seemed to nourish my soul. I felt that I needed to keep my ears open, to let in this constant stream of medication, this panacea, before the tunes, so ephemeral, would die down, and the family would start eating their Shabbat evening meal.

I was envious, I wanted that too. I wanted to sit at the table of brotherhood and sing to the heavens. I wanted to feel elevated. I wanted to feel closer.

It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

Now fast forward some 10, 12 years, and that same boy, now corrupted by the cynicism of life, the travails of army service and the daily reality of living in Israel, sits on his rented balcony in Jerusalem on a summery Shabbat afternoon. Another breathtaking hilltop sunset flashes warm orange colours onto the cirrus clouds that punctuate the endless, dark blue sky, creating a vertiginous effect.

And then, as if from the echoes of a memory, a stream of melodies from Se’udah Shlishit from a nearby home disperses the twitter of birds and momentarily captures my attention. Like a little kid prodding me with a stick, the harmonies rise and fall in a spiritual climax that immediately strike my very core, and send me back to Friday night all of those years ago. The tunes are heart-wrenching — they come from the depths of despair and longing. They encapsulate the human experience. It is a cry out to the heavens of a man condemned; the joyful tears of a father holding his newborn.

They seem to rebuke me gently. Never forget who you are. The sounds percolate deeper and deeper into my being. Never forget. Perhaps I have indeed strayed, Father? I stand defenseless as the beautiful niggunim filter in, take me once more like a bird and pluck me back into shul on Yom Kippur, swaying, concentrated on the prayers, begging for forgiveness.

The Friday night discos at ulpan. The insouciant teenager playing with his phone on base Saturday morning. Once in awe of rabbis and religious teachers, now supplanted by a contemporary Israeli suspicion of anything dati. How far had I treaded off the path?

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp

And suddenly, much like the beautiful tunes that had me entranced — far off in the east, a new sound abruptly assails me. The distant thunder of tortured voices, the muezzin of a million mosques. First a whisper, and then an endless feedback loop of the adhan, the Arabic call to prayer, the howls pull me out of my trance and back into reality. The strange and foreign melodies of the clash of civilizations, reverberating off the walls of my apartment built from Jerusalem stone.

The pure voices of Se’udah Shlishit vie for airspace and my attention, but I’m already back in Shechem, in the Balata refugee camp, weighed down by a heavy helmet and a bulletproof vest, besieged by the pre-dawn muezzin that uncovers me and exposes my location. We’re coming for you, they seem to say, at once haunting and enticing — like the pied piper luring me away from my squad and into the dark, narrow alleyways filled with the posters of dead Palestinian shahids toting their AK-47s before of an image of al-Aqsa.

Amid the booms of stun grenades and fire crackers, Shemah Koleinu becomes increasingly drowned out and sinks further and further into sub-conscious like an irritating headache or a daydream. I am now surrounded an all sides by the incessant cries of Suleiman’s Ayyubid hordes encamped beyond the walls of the Old City, like Joshua bombarding the terrified inhabitants with the ghostly warnings and the trumpets of a foreign land.

Never forget, never forget. Forget what? The innocuous call to prayer from the furthest mosque, reigning in the city’s faithful from a tall minaret illuminated by Mordor green? The pitiful sounds of wailing of Lodz and Theresienstadt that captivated me in my childhood?

But I have strayed too far now, I thought, as the adhan wailed louder and louder like a beating drum demanding clear-cut answers to my ambivalence. My inner disconnect was quite apparent: Never forget had become never more; my talking mouth feigning erudition in scholarly matters such as politics and philosophy, but in reality masking an empty, hollow core, devoid of spirituality, thirsty for a lifeline. A fleeting glance of thoughts — reigned in by the newly audible church bells joining the cacophony of piety like an uninvited guest to a party.

As I listened, bewildered on my porch, to the noise of the three great monotheistic religions — taking in the fresh, cool Judean mountain air — I felt this sudden inner tug-and-pull, lasting no more than a blink of an eye. A brief, transient yearning that all but disappeared as I returned my glance from the sky to the trees, from the idealistic dream-world that I had once inhabited, to the harsh reality of life.

I was no longer a child — but a denuded, featherless bird, savagely soaked by a bucket of ice-cold water, scolded and shivering in the breeze.

This 10-year old boy would not get his chance to fly to distant Arabian deserts, and bask in the company of wise, bearded sages.

J’accuse! – I Accuse!

Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’accuse...!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. (Photo credit: Public domain/Wikipedia
Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’accuse…!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. (Photo credit: Public domain/Wikipedia)

In 1898, as French-Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus languished behind bars in solitary confinement after a botched misrepresentation of justice that saw him court-martialed for treason on account of his Jewish background – preeminent novelist and playwright, Emile Zola sprung to his defense with his seminal and jarring letter of accusation, splashed on the front pages of influential Paris daily, L’Aurore.

J’accuse! – I Accuse!

Simple yet powerful, Zola laid bare the gross miscarriage of justice and incessant antisemitism sweeping the Republic that endangered the very tenets and democratic values that post-Napoleon France claimed to epitomize.

And now, mere days after terrorists, French citizens purporting to act in the name of Islam, killed 12 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and then an additional 4 at a Jewish supermarket, the durability of French, nay European democracy is once more coming into question.

But this was not an isolated event. The pressure cooker was boiling for a while, and it was only a matter of time before it burst:

Europe’s fast growing Muslim minority has alarmed politicians and laypeople across the continent; for their rigid and conspicuous refusal to integrate into society, for importing Islamic antisemitism and for exporting young and healthy men and women to man the Islamic State’s front lines in Syria and Iraq, among other things.

 Therefore, in the spirit of the times and less than a day after the end of last week’s terror spree, J’accuse – I accuse.

I accuse the the French government of completely failing its Jews.

Instead of beefing up security in heavily Jewish neighborhoods (especially in the wake of the 2012 Toulouse attack) and taking an effective hardline stance against extremist imams and suspected Islamist terrorists, France, like most of Europe, is paralyzed by overt political correctness and does not dare offend the religious sensibilities of its increasingly radicalized Muslim minority, even at the expense of the security of it’s own citizens.

If and when France’s 400,000 strong Jewish community dwindles to a handful in the coming years, the blame will rest first and foremost with the France’s leaders.

I accuse the media of shallow, populist reporting, pandering to soapified political correctness and a strikingly oblivious misrepresentations of the facts.

We have another 4 dead Jews whose blood is being wiped as we speak from the floor of the supermarket where they went to do pre-shabbat shopping. Killed of course, because they were Jews, and not because they drew an offensive picture of the prophet Muhammad.

Judging by the coverage of the attack, hidden behind titles such ‘kosher supermarket raid’ and ‘second siege’ one could assume that the perpetrators only had beef with the kosher food on sale at store – and not the Jews inside.

And indeed, Jewish blood could not be cheaper, when a slew of opinion articles posted in FP, US media outlets and the Guardian quickly rush to paint France’s 5 million strong Muslim ‘minority’ as the real victims in the entire story with pre-programmed knee-jerk condemnations of any perceived Islamaphobia that might result in the future.

Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators?

I accuse France’s Muslim community, of not doing enough to distance themselves from the fundamentalists within their fold, and not doing enough to prevent the radicalization of their youth.

Of course, there does exist a hostile atmosphere against Europe’s Muslims. Some of it is unwarranted, and castigating individual Muslims for the actions of their co-coreligionists is wrong and hypocritical.

However it’s no coincidence that after attacking the Charlie Hebdo offices – a symbol of Western ideals and free speech – the terrorists went straight for a Jewish deli during its busiest hour.

As a community, Muslim laymen, leaders and figureheads must come out en-masse to condemn the actions of those who they claim have ‘hijacked’ the Islamic faith and those who kill in their name and in the name of their prophet.

For if they don’t, not only will their silence be deafening.

No, such silence can only be interpreted as tacit approval and thus, indirect culpability for the actions that we witness today – actions which will probably become more violent and spectacular in the coming years.

I accuse for all those whose blood cries out from the violence of the past few days, and for all those whose blood is yet to spilled in the name of radical Islam.


The rebirth of the Jewish People

The rebirth of the Jewish people didn’t occur in the dour, moist halls of the UN buildings amid eager lobbyists and budding ambassadors in NY in 1947.

It didn’t occur either in the cramped salon of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, where all the esteemed dignitaries of the pre-state Yishuv had gathered in 1948 to hear Ben-Gurion’s ominous announcement.

It didn’t occur during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and it didn’t occur in ’67, or in ’73 or in ’82.

No, the rebirth of the Jewish people occurred on the streets of Jerusalem, on a Friday afternoon in early 2015, amid the sounds of heavy psychedelic trance music, dancers, onlookers, shoppers, screaming vendors and the long expected winter snow – acquiescing to the pleas of the holy city’s hopeful kids and falling around like confetti at a rock concert.

The rebirth of the Jewish people wasn’t an auspicious occasion. Perhaps it was never destined to be. Amid a long, onerous history of pogroms and exile, major events and specific dates – be it 522 BCE, 70 AD, 1492, Sep 1, 1939 – this ancient people’s rebirth seemed to crawl upon them slowly and completely unnoticed. No brouhaha or announcement, in fact, there wasn’t even a news story, and suffice to say that the moment – like the crowd of onlookers that quickly dissipated as the music died down – will be quickly forgotten, as if it passed by like the blink of an eye.

But I noticed.

I noticed the group of American Birthright kids dressed head to toe in leather jackets and North Face gear starting their impromptu dance beside a wine shop in the market that was blasting agitated trance beats.

I noticed the hippies – recently returned from their post army trip in India – joining in and grooving to the unrelenting bass – their long, wavy dreadlocks and colourful wrist bands accumulating snow like mosquitoes attracted to a light.

I noticed the security guard, still on duty, jumping in to the middle of the circle to show off his skills – his concealed pistol all but invisible to the untrained eye.

I saw the old rabbi – a shtetl caricature straight out of a Bashevis-Singer novel – look on with a hearty smile – seemingly escaping, but for a fleeting moment, ponderous and pious thoughts that still weighed him down; the burden of mitzvoth and heavy bags of chicken breast and challah rolls.

I noticed the swelling crowd of bystanders – some locals, some tourists, some out-of-towners, some shop-keepers and some other kids from the birthright group – too self conscious to join in the festivities, but happy to document it from the side with their I-phones.

I noticed the two giggling teenage girls dressed in long, tight jeans and not-quite-high heels, tentatively ‘throwing themselves out there’ in the centre of the circle to do a few twirls.

I noticed an old couple, grey hair and woollen scarves, grooving along with a child – neither of them sticking to the beat, but still looking as if they were having a lot of fun.

I noticed a young couple, 25 at most, throwing a little toddler – wrapped in layers and layers of pink – into the air like a defiant sign to the gods; or to destiny; or to whoever happened to witness the scene unfold: ‘Look, we are here. We’re alive. We’re not going anywhere. And we’re having a great time!’

And, as I was noticing the revival of the Jewish people, in Jerusalem’s ‘Mahane Yehuda Market’ – by now covered in a layer of white snow to grace the tranquillity of the oncoming Shabbat – I asked myself: Could the half-dead skeletons of Buchenwald imagine such a scene, as they were being liberated by Allied troops – or was it beyond their wildest dreams?

What about the mothers who cowered underneath their beds, smothering the mouths of their newborn babies so as to stifle any sounds, while Chmielnicki and his men raped, pillaged and murdered on the streets outside; could they believe such a scene was possible?

How about the Jewish community of York as they sought refuge from their fellow Britons in the royal castle above the city in 1190. As they barricaded themselves in the keep from the bloodthirsty mob outside, could they have believed that one day Jews will walk around without fear and dance in the markets?

What about the Jews of Babylon, who after months of forced marches collapsed by the banks of the Euphrates to weep over their beloved city’s former splendour: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.’ Could they believe in such a future?

Or even the Jews of Hebron, who lived in an uneasy peace with their neighbours, until their community was decimated in the riots of 1929. Could they have imagined such a genuine, simple, impromptu outburst of joy – predicated upon nothing at all?

The cries, anguish and torment of the past seemed to melt away with the pit-patter of snowflakes obscuring the dirt on the street below with a blanket of cleanliness, together with the harsh, lurid juxtaposition of random shoppers coming together and breaking out into spontaneous dance.

The rebirth of the Jewish People will not be recorded in the books of history.
It was not a seminal event.

But it did not go by unnoticed.

A day at university – U of T

The hustle and bustle of young minds are dwarfed by vampire-ish Edwardian architecture – in itself super-imposed before a modern city skyline.
The statue of some great 19th century thinker sits forever doomed to ponder life’s great ideas in some busy cafeteria courtyard.
The echo of history rustles through the vines that scale gothic arches and towers, playfully winking at the unsuspecting students below. Perhaps one of them too will forever be enshrined and immortalized as a statue at the entrance to the student-services building?

Tomorrow’s scientists and engineers delve into their laptops – a coffee in hand for added concentration. Only a curious observer will note that Zuckerburg’s theorem and not Einstein’s occupy their screens.
A labyrinth of halls, courtyards and classrooms seem to entrap all who venture into this realm of study..

The students pour into an elaborate lecture hall like a swarm of ants escaping the oncoming storm. The professor gazes toward rows and rows of faces several stories tall. Illuminated half-eaten apples stare back at him from hundreds of laptop covers. He clears his throat into the microphone, drowning out the chorus of whispers, typing, and shuffling paper.
Class has begun.

Yom Kippur 5775

The smell of sweat, bad breath, dancing, grey beards, ironed shirts, dust and siddurim (prayer books). The “aye-aye-aye’s,” the cries, the pondering of the Oneness of God, the introspection, sunset over Har Meron (Mt. Meron), raucous children screaming in the stairwell. A bed too short, a Machzor (special prayer book for Yom Kippur) too heavy, the honey-cake used to break the fast too sweet, the thought of drinking water too tempting.

The Israelis, the Americans, the rabbis, the Ba’alei Teshuva (newly religious), the secular, the curious, Chabad, Hasidic, Haredi, the French, the ‘Tel-Avivim’, the kids-with-peyos (sidelocks), the kids without, the teenagers in tank-tops, the Mizrachim (Sephardic Jews), the lone-soldiers, the Shabbos-goy.

2 days in Tzfat, a 25 hour fast, 12 hours of sleep, 5-and-a-half hours of Shacharit (morning prayers), 5 hours of thinking about things other than Shacharit, 30 minutes of enjoying the scenery, 32 times getting up, 31 times sitting down. 12 introductions, 4 interesting conversations, 5 meals, 7 new people met, 2 breathtaking sunsets, 1 coffee spill, 11 handshakes, 4 impromptu line-dances breaking out in the synagogue, 3 phone numbers exchanged.

Yom Kippur 5775. The box ticked. The respects paid, the prayers offered, and presence noted. Every year, once a year, I find myself in this same position, resolving to take on the same new-years resolutions as last time. Perhaps, as another Yom Kippur passes me by, I can resolve to bring myself next year to a different place, spiritually and emotionally? Perhaps a place where the sweat, bad breath and dancing will be my own as well …?

Rain over the Negev

Inspired by a bus ride in the Negev desert.

The first thing I feel is the heat. Heat that reverberates off the windows as the sun beats down on all things unlucky enough to catch it’s glare. The cars before us kick up the dust that innocently lies along the windy road, leaving a thin pane of brown residue on the window along with a misty haze. I stare out to the water-starved fields, but all I gather is my own reflection. Hues of yellow and orange as far as the eye can see are occasionally punctured by the withering carcasses of trees, seemingly outstretched in pain and begging for mollification. Sleep-deprived soldiers nod along with every bump in the road, basking in the warm glow that surrounds them – their ‘plasticized’ ears blasting all manners of ungodly music – or perhaps not. The sky offers nothing but ocean-blue.

But dark, heavy clouds in the distance engorged with millions of tiny rain droplets loom over the tiny bus, overwhelming it with their sheer mass and size. We move ever closer to this inevitable storm, marking the end of the summer season. A big grey one blocks off the sun, so that it shall not bear witness to the fury and wrath that we invite upon ourselves by tempting this monster. The lone trees and desert weeds humbly bow to this higher force, helplessly obsequious with nobody to come to their aid. The bus awakens like a tingling sixth-sense visualizing an impending doom. And we move closer and closer…

The first one is faint, like a whimper, a Trojan-horse sent before the entire army. It splashes onto the window beside me, sending tiny-water droplets streaming down like comets drawn to a star. The next one comes in harder and quicker – a foreboding messenger of what awaits us. Startled passengers awaken from their slumber, look around in awe and shift their bodies for a better view. A light crack of thunder, perhaps a figment of my imagination, sounds in the distance. The low hum of the engine slowly fades out; just four wheels lightly gliding along the bitumen. And then nothing…

The conductor readies his orchestra of the sky; the clouds await their orders and move into position. The bus continues unhindered into this ‘ambush,’ its movements drowned out by a deafening quiet, a majestic silence – the calm before the storm. I take a breath. The ‘plasticized’ soldier setting beside me turns in his sleep.

And then it comes. The rain. Not just rain. But the rain. Rain that is the cry of an old, wrinkled Arab fellah, squinting at the sun and cursing the heavens. Rain that is the sweat and tears of Thai labourers tilling the harsh soil beneath the unforgiving sun, with their torn gloves and balaclavas, whilst dreaming of a better life for their children. These first drops are not just rain, but a sudden shriek of horror, the high pierced shrill of murder. Rain that dilutes and unsettles the farmland that has been drenched and soaked with Jewish and Arab blood. Farmland etched with the imprints of tank tracks and mortar holes, fragments of Qassam rockets and bullet casings. Unpicked grapefruits withering and rotting in the dust, a shovel discarded and waiting to be picked up by an owner that will never return. An echo of gunfire, a cry, a body falls to the dirt.

The rain keeps coming, and the sheer volume of it quickly overwhelms all the grief, injustice and despair – bringing with it another winter that cares not for different types of blood or hardship – because they are all the same to it. The mangled leper retrieves his deformed, arthritic hand in indignation. It is now soaked only with water and will not heal his wounds.

The initial rain quickly gives way to normal rain. Regular, voluptuous droplets that irrigate the fields and enrich the farmlands. Gaza in the distance and before it, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, politely tip their hats to the grey sky in appreciation for next summer’s food. It’s all business as usual, another well-timed performance. The bus driver turns on the windscreen wipers, somebody returns their attention to a novel they stopped reading mid-sentence, a phone rings and is promptly answered. I sit mesmerized, listening intently, hoping to receive another clue. But all I hear is simply the sound of rain, beautifully conjoining and falling like millions of tears unshed, lightly tapping on the window as I look out – my reflection now clearer than ever.


Exhaustion, relief, release…

Here I am lying in a “Datak” (jet-fighter storage/hangar) reviewing the day and night that were…

The late-afternoon sun showers the deep blue sky with a fluorescent tint, making the horizon slightly hazy. An amalgam of mattresses, sleeping bags and equipment lies strewn over the concrete surface, lending the place a hodgepodge post-Hurricane-Katrina kinda’ feel. The after effects of various drugs still afflict my recovering body, giving me this strange tired-yet-awake sensation, wherein I’m unable to fall asleep or take a shit. My quads still ache, and my back is yearning for some affection, yet I feel strangely lucid. My phone hooked up to a charger periodically receives a new text, briefly distracting me. But my thoughts slowly return to last night…

The beauty of the landscape. Indescribable rock formations. Pink stones that gave off a strawberry-banana-milkshake hue. Jagged knife-like mountains sheltering us from the cool wisp of wind that blew above our heads. Shadows that danced off two towering cliff walls, as we silently trudged through the night.

There was no excitement. No pride. No ostentatious historic musings. The specifically tailored training had turned us into rote-learned robotic beings, executing every hand movement, every step, indeed – every breath, as planned. Given our over-preparedness, it was easy to mistake last night for just another exercise.

I think that it’s very simple to glorify a particular act from the outside – or with hindsight, as a historian. When you’re in the moment however, you think of little more than where you will place your foot as you take the next step. Or what awaits you next according to plan. Or running all kinds of dire nightmarish scenarios in your head, such as suddenly waking up and finding yourself here (there) alone, and without the team…

Upon our return, I was hit with a palpable sense of tranquillity, a sense of safety. It was the closest I got to sentimentality the entire night. I had come from chaos and anarchy to a place where law and order reigned. I had come home. I joked with Gilly if I needed to present any documents for a stamp. No nationalistic fervour. No over excitement. Just home. Serene.