Dealing with disappointment

Do you know the feeling you get when you ‘almost made it’? When something was within your reach, and then unspeakably, unexplainably, it slips out of your hands in slow motion? – like in the movies, when the protagnists are hanging off a cliff edge and then one of them loses grip and disappears into the abyss – that stare of doom forever capturing their final moments of fear? It’s the feeling you get when you’re informed of that job promotion, or that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize for sobriety – only to be told later that it was all a mistake, and that your name was mistakenly announced – “you were never sober”, the Nobel Prize Commitee tells you, “you were in fact a raging, inebriated alcoholic from the get go.” These analogies somehwhat exemplify my experience over the past 24 hours. After a year of hard work and training, test and interviews, changing enlistment dates and numerous travels to the army office and back, my dream of enlisting into a particular special forces unit was dashed. I was almost in, with 2 days to go. I was on top of the world. And it felt great. Which makes this emotional rollercoaster so much more painful.

It’s been quite a journey to get here – Gibbush Tzanchanim in May, getting the news that I had passed (!) in June, getting my enlistment date moved from August to November, fighting to attend Yom Sayarot – passing that and then passing Gibbush Matkal as well! Gibbush Matkal is a gruelling week long “hell-week” style physical test, that the most motivated army canditates attend in order to enlist in one of the IDF’s top tier, elite units. Naturally, over the past three weeks since getting the results, I was on top of the world – one of the few who finished the gibbush and got selected  – and today I had to resign myself to being regular, simple and plain again.

I received the call last night – an army clerk informing me that I was to be dropped. I scrambled to make a few late night calls to fellow friends who had already enlisted in these units, and thus had some connections with the officers who pass and fail the aspiring canditates. It was both a disappointment and a relief to find out the reasons behind this last-minute fiasco: They had simply accepted too many canditates, and Olim Hadashim – new immigrants – whose families remain behind overseas, generally have a lower security profile to begin with, than the Israelis that try for these units. I wasn’t the only one held up by this last minute surprise either. Another 5 guys I knew, Olim like me, had been hastily culled from the list, merely 2 days before we were due to go in. Luckily though, I was still given the option of enlisting tomorrow, albeit to the infantry brigades of the IDF.

There are essentially two ways to view this scenario – two outlooks that will define hereafter my service in the IDF:

The first is the negative outlook: That now I will never be satisifed as a regular solider. That I have trained mentally and physically for an entire year, and invested all my willpower for nothing. That the army has screwed me over – like all those stories that I hear about ‘so-and-so’ that will never happen to be – that has indeed just happened to me. This attitude is inherently flawed because it sets me up for disappointment from the outset – even before I have gone in. It is wrong for me to feel this way even though I cannot help it.

The other option is to bite the bullet and look at the positives: I still get the chance to serve in the IDF, I don’t have to wait until March, and it’s still Kravi, Achi! I made Aliyah in order to give back, to contribute and to work hard in the Israeli army – to serve and defend the Jewish people – and that is exacly what I will be doing when I put on my army fatigues tomorrow afternoon – regardless of where the IDF chooses to place me. The brigades – the ‘Gdudim’ in hebrew – have a shorter training circuit by a few months and are generally assigned to the more mundane and routine jobs that keep this country moving. Being in a place where the ‘Yokrah’ (prestige in hebrew) is a little less, is simply a matter of semantics when one looks back on his army service. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that “Gam zoo le tova” – “this too is for the best”. I’m also a strong believer in destiny, and that there is definitely a good reason, and an excellent life lesson learnt with this entire affair. “It is written” before me, my destiny was outlined, and it was simply a matter of living up to this moment and discovering the path that I am to tread. And yes, despite the unsavoury news, I still feel that I have suceeded.

I’ve proved to myself that if I can put my mind to it and give my maximum, I can achieve – anything. You can only give 100%, and the rest, so to speak, is out of your hands. That annoying little element of uncertainty that bugs the hell out of me – that hovers on everybody’s shoulder like an unwanted stain, constantly whispers into my ear that maybe, maybe it will not be. It will not succeed. It will not work out in the end. It was not meant to happen. That yes you have 2 days until you reach the light at the end of the tunnel and there is still a minute chance that they will drop you at the eleventh hour. Anything is possible. Dreams become reality and reality morphs into nightmares. The future is uncertain, yet I believe that “it is written” and this was meant to be. And this thought of all things provides me with the most consolation. I can do everything in my power to minimize the element of uncertainty, yet I can never eliminate it. And that’s the great irony: our path is laid out before us, yet it curves in mysterious ways.

Conversations with Yoni

Over the course of the past few months, I engaged in long discussions with my close friend from the garin, Yoni, about service in the gdudim, in regular infantry, versus that of special forces units, Sayarot in hebrew. It’s a given that Olim normally arrive in Israel with the motivation levels of a horny Chihuahua overdosed on viagra, and thus many of them volunteer and attempt to get accepted into the elite special forces units in the IDF. Yoni however was different. His position – for an Oleh – was rather radical and from what I found, strangely noble. He argued that he “Davka” wants to be a regular infantry solider – to serve side by side with the layman – the ones who spend hours on guard duty, man checkpoints and conduct the day-to-day work on the ground. These are the guys in the “Shetach” (the field in hebrew) – who may go in slightly less motivated than all the GI Joe Olim straight off the plane from America in their quest for modern-day Maccabee-dom – and yes, some of them may be left slightly short of breath after a 5km run, but these are the guys that we should invest our time and effort into improving. ‘From the ground up’ in other words. “We can be an inspiration to others” he argued. After all, the brigades fight the wars and suffer the bulk of the casualties – not that that should be a reason to run there bareheaded – but that Olim and other Israelis who really want to contribute should be ‘side by side with the man in the trench’, not sitting on their high horse within the sayarot. From this persepective it’s easier to be a Special forces solider in the IDF, as everybody there is super motivated, is there on a voluntary basis and absolute discipline and self control is a given. Every one is ‘mentally ready’ over there. That’s not where the work is. That’s not even a challenge. Sure, aspire to aim as high as you can. But anybody who thinks that they have what it takes to be a SF solider should consider first and foremost  the Gdudim. Thats where they need to be. And Yoni wasn’t just saying that. He really believed it and wanted to set a personal example.

I found Yoni’s outlook interesting for a few reasons: firstly, because he was not only motivated by a desire to serve, but because he was motivated by a desire to improve. The Zionism running through his veins is one of self sacrifice in a place where much of the blood, sweat and tears that he – we – will endure will go largely unsung and unnoticed. After all, a SF soldier has but to board the bus as all heads turn accordingly in awe and admiration (perhaps slightly exaggerated, but you get the drift). A regular ‘Gdudnick’ does not bask in the aura of everlasting glory – his is the curse of the foot soldier – he may put in more work and effort and time and willpower than Moshe and Gidon from Special Forces, yet he remains judged and confined by his shoulder unit-tag. What struck me most about Yoni’s worldview however, was the modesty and humility with which he viewed the whole situation – a modesty welded into his personality that cannot be learned or acquired, and that I can only envy. “This is the real challenge” I hear him saying in my head as I type this up in the wee morning hours before I go in tomorrow (today!), and although the question of ‘what could have been’ keeps on pounding through my skull like a woodpecker, I realize that the experience that I’m in for now is no less honourable, and demands far more patience, effort and respect for those around me. This is the challenge. Now is the time for me to really get to work.

At times like these I remind myself why I immigrated to Israel – the country I love. I came here because I believe in the Jewish state, in our right to self determination as a people, “lihiot am hofshi be’arzenu” as the last line of the anthem goes. I made Aliyah in the hopes of building a fair and equal society that will be the envy of the world. A place where ‘freedom’ and ‘peace’ will one day replace today’s political discourse of ‘war’ and ‘violence’. And of course, I came here to protect the Jewish people and defend their homeland – as a soldier in the Israel Defence Forces. I didn’t come here to get into the elite units per se – even being considered was just a bonus. Yes it is disappointing that I nearly made it, and I’m now coming to grips with it, but I’ve long known that every job in the army is extremely important, and just like in a well designed mechanical clock – you need all the cogs and pieces, no matter how small, for everything to work properly. Frankly, I’m just really excited to get in tomorrow and start my service. This country is dear to me, and I want to give back with everything I can. Sure, there might be less prestige in my new place – but I’m here doing what I believe in, and fighting for a cause that defines my very identity. And that’s what counts.

I go in tomorrow into the infantry brigades, and I’m still as motivated as I was when I got off the plane. I’m young, healthy, and of sound mind (at least as far as I can tell – the rest is between me and my therapist. Just kidding 🙂 ) and the future looks prety bright. I’m finally fulfilling my dream of serving in the IDF and I will proudly wear my uniform and know that I am making a difference. This country was built from the ashes of the Holocaust because of resilience – because of people who in the face of despair chose never to give up. Who never said ‘I can no longer’. People who defied the Nazi beast to immigrate to Israel and turn their hopes into reality.

Tomorrow it is my turn, as I join the IDF and fulfill an ancient legacy dating back 3000 years – I will now be a warrior in King David’s army – and I’m fighting for what I believe in. And when I look at it this way, this whole experience is something that I’m greatful for – far from disappointing, to say the least.

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Consolidation

Where to begin? Mum often nags me to write – to put my thoughts and emotions to paper, to spew out the couscousy mesh of experiences that have been blended into a single stretch of memory – and thus to immortalize the symphony of incidents, stories and smells that accompany me throughout my journeys. ‘Anything, anything at all’, she pleads and reasons. But I never seem to have the desire or the discipline to dedicate the few hours required to put pen to paper. So here I am now – on a bus from Tel Aviv back to the kibbutz, with a few hours to kill, my laptop, and a lump in my throat from not being quite sure how to summarize the past few months, or how to unpack my thoughts.

What is the most suitable way to describe the people I have met, and the gems I have gleaned in a faraway land described by many, simultaneously as ‘holy’, ‘heavenly’ and ‘hell’? How to relate to the people here that I simultaneously love and despise – like the young man, shut off from the world with music blasting through his headphones, who sneaks in front of the ticket machine at the train station, and grabs a ticket that he didn’t pay for – or the young woman who rushed to the aid of an elderly lady who dropped her shopping bag in crowded Jerusalem? How to thank the proverbial Israeli on the street, who insists on inviting me over for Shabbat dinner, “whenever you’re in city X!”, despite having just randomly met me on the street. And how can I even begin to detail the many random acts of kindness – a stranger, in the right place at the right time, bridging the invisible bridge that separates people, and running to the assistance of another.

Which is the best way to describe the uncomfortable feeling I get, when I hear one of my kin preaching hatred against perceived enemies of our people – real or imaginary, or the silent applause during the many moments of social harmony: religious and secular Jews, together celebrating the 60 year anniversary of a local council in the Negev; or the large billboards in Gush Etzion that promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Watching Ethiopian and Russian kids playing soccer in the street, hearing Americans ordering hummus in Jerusalem, watching an impromptu performance of Japansese pilgrims singing in Zion Square, or feeling the heat, as I sunbake amongst a sea of Frenchmen on a beach near Achziv.

How can I begin to explain the time an entire Egged bus erupted into laughter, when an Arab transport van pulled up beside us – with a podgy middle aged man seated cross-legged on the floor between the seats, happily smoked a nargilah and smiled back at us – the mystical plume of smoke that he exhaled, dancing toward the heavens, as if he was relaxing in Abu Gosh. Or the frustration of being screwed around with by the army – that constantly changes my draft date, and insists that all communication be done through faxing? How to picture the warmth and hospitality of the Beduins of Aramsha – a small village that straddles the Lebanese border, or the way that residents of Bnei Brak purposely avoid me with their eyes during a Shabbat afternoon stroll? How to describe the multitude of faces, cultures and personalities that forge this country for what it is – an unprecedented melting pot, instigated by one of the boldest state building projects of the 20th century.

How to express the sheer outpour of otherworldly senses when the sun kisses the pluvial horizon between Gaza and Rafiah, and bids these shores farewell with a spectacular show of colours in the sky – orange, blue and violet? How can I colour with words the jungle-like Wadi’s of the Upper Galilee, and the wild meat cows that roam free, and follow each hiker with their distinctive, pitiful stares? What on Earth is more blue than the Kinneret when viewed from the Golan Heights, or more yellow than the gigantic bees that lap up the water of the kibbutz pool, and then fly off in a hurry to pollinate the fields of the Western Negev desert?

Living in Israel from the inside is nothing like living it from the outside. The headlines continue to ramble on, inexorably and increasingly sensationalist, whilst on the ground, people trudge on, like a backpacker trekking through waist-deep mud: slowly, tiredly and assuredly forward – warding off the hardship and difficulty that surrounds. For in a place so compact and laden with history, which snares the hearts and minds of so many around the world, it’s really easy to get carried away in a biblical fantasy land of prophecies and conflict. It’s a land that brings out the best and worst in people – those guided toward kindness by their beliefs, and those who seek salvation in terror, destruction and death.

Perhaps on this auspicious occasion, at the height of the Arab spring, and Israel’s increasingly difficult political situation it has to be said: Too often Middle East is portrayed as a black and white narrative of hollywood-esque proportions, a game of good vs evil that each side reframes and repackages to suit their bias. The truth however lies in fact this troubled neighbourhood is plagued by many shades of grey, with each opinion offering an element of truth, and an element of sweet illusion. Often I find that the most zealous voices are those of people who have never set foot in the holy land, whilst those who live the reality, lead the moderate voices of peace.

Sure Israel has changed me. There was a time, in the first few weeks, when my heart would open up to every beggar in the street, as I foraged my wallet for all the spare change I could find. Today I join the mass of people who nonchalantly pass them by, choosing to ignore, reasoning that they should get a job, and passing on the assumed responsibility of helping them onto the next stranger. There was a time that I would wait politely in line, whilst the onlookers who pushed in front of me, looked back and giggled at the ‘friar’ (‘loser’ in Hebrew), who clearly has no idea about Israeli society. I remember the days when seeing a wind-torn Israeli flag fluttering in the middle of the desert aroused all kinds of emotional nostalgia and reinforced my sense of purpose here. And how could I forget the tiring bus trips at night, when I would stay awake and rest my head on the window, gazing out to the lights of distant settlements and villages that dot the inland hills; an intense spiritual sense like that of my first visit to the Kotel.

Indeed, as my initial excitement turned to disillusionment, which in turn became a sort of rebellious-teenager apathy, I found myself increasingly sceptical and disconnected from the values that initially brought me here. Whilst now, I find myself in a consolidation of sorts – having sobered up both from the initial thrill this country offered and the mild disappointment that followed.

There was a time when my heart skipped a beat each time I would come across ancient Israelite ruins – and each time I gazed out across the Shfela, the coastal plane, and imagined the ancient wayfarers and merchants that traded spices between the Phoenician north and the Philistine south. There was a period when seeing an Israeli soldier on the train filled me with pride, and almost always led me to make conversation – as I took the role of the excited ‘oleh hadash’ teenager – both astonished and envious.

Yet despite it all, I still feel that I belong here. A humid summer night in June comes to mind: we had just crossed back into Israel from Taba, Egypt, and although the surrounding mountains and the deep dark sea remained the same ominous mountains and sea, the distinct sense of anxiety, and foreignness that accompanied me through Egypt suddenly dispelled across the border. Sure the customs officers cursed in Hebrew, the taxi driver tried to rip us off a few extra shekels, and the size of the Israeli flag, flying white and blue, was no less impressive than her Egyptian counterpart over the border. But I felt at home, and I still do – and that is a feeling that is hard to come by.

Journey to Hebron

When I first arrived in Israel, I believed that I had the entire conflict figured out and neatly wrapped within a few inviolable facts and slogans that validated my worldview of what it meant to be Jewish, Israeli and Zionist: “A Land without a people and a people without a land” I could quote without apprehension – referring to the early Zionist belief that Palestine was empty of inhabitants. Argue “Deir Yassin” and I would respond with Gush Etzion and the Haddasah medical convoy massacre. Discuss the 1948 Arab Palestinian refugees, and I would counter with the massive (forced?) exodus of Jews from Arab countries. Tell me that Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria (the west bank), and I would tense up emotionally and become completely immune to any logical persuasion. In other words, I was like a slave to my own ironclad opinions – almost unwilling to accept the other side of the argument or to see any basic humanity in the Arab/Palestinian narrative. Indeed, the moment that the basic tenets that I had come to believe regarding Israel and her history were criticized, I always tended to dismiss them as irrelevant, untrue or even anti-zionist.

This was the worldview that – due to my voracious reading habits and to a large degree, my emotional ties to the Jewish narrative – I had come to accept; a scrawny, bespectacled Aussie kid growing up within the Jewish bubble and dreaming of the Holy Land. Perhaps ironically, as I enter my fifth month in Israel and actually live and observe the Arab-Israeli conflict from within, I have come to the tentative realization that conflict is so complex and intricate – that by mentally summarizing the situation into a few historical flashpoints and soundbytes, I have been not only untruthful to myself, but to all the victims on both sides of the border.

The Melbourne Jewish community is by and large one built by Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Ties with Israel are incredibly strong, with large numbers of Jewish high school graduates spending their ‘gap year’ in Israel, and quite a few even staying on to make Aliyah and join the IDF (myself included). Another by-product of this environment, and one that I only begin to notice now, is that the picture we have of Israel is painted with bright colours – one that ignores the Palestinian side or masks over the entire Arab world as bloodthirsty Jihadi terrorists preparing to drive us into the sea. I must admit, that I had even dabbled in literature denying the existence of a distinct Palestinian people altogether: “After all there has never been a Palestinian state or people in history” I convinced myself. Little do I realize that such an argument is inherently foolish, as all identities – regardless of their historicity – are essentially self-conceived. The entire argument would become one of who has stronger links to the Holy land – whilst ignoring the realities and facts on the ground: That the Jewish people and Arab Palestinians have both made their home between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.

The more time I spend here, the more opinions and stories I hear and the more I see, I realize that in their own way, everybody here is very right, and very wrong at the same time. Left wing, right wing, religious, secular, Zionist, Jewish, Arab, Palestinian – this is the crazy concoction of everything that has been thought of and conceived to explain the violence, the anger, the baseless hatred and the unboundless kindness that I have come across in this blood-drenched land during my short stay. I have gone from consuming hours of news and media reports, scouring opinion forums and talkbacks – to becoming completely apathetic toward the political situation altogether – and reading almost nothing; for so many things that I observe here, openly contradict the media reports that I rely on for information and history. My solid opinions and the “I know everything” attitude that I arrived here with have crumbled impressively to the point that I am entirely confused as to who is right and who is wrong; what is true and what is fake. Everybody here is correct, and everybody has their facts (or emotions more-so) to back it up. And who am I really, to question somebody who has lived here their entire life? Who am I to deny to the right of an Arab farmer to till his lands in the seam zone, or for the Israeli victims of Arab terror to call for harsher retribution against terrorists and their sympathizers? I’m just some kid piggybacking this conflict and getting a ride through history. Yesterday I set out to convince the world what needed to be done. Today I keep my mouth shut, listen silently and ask inquisitive questions; powerless to prevent the events spiralling out of control around me.

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron

The more time I spend in Israel, the more I realize that this conflict at it’s core is not so much about religion, nationality or land, but rather it’s about people. Regular people – most of whom don’t get involved in politics or ideology, who prefer to live a quite life, like the life I had in Australia. “We’re not angels or demons,” a local Arab from Hevron told me as I visited the ancient city, “we were born into this crazy situation, and now we just want to live our life normally.” The massive cave of the patriarchs compound loomed before us, cut in half by a wall to separate Muslim and Jewish worshippers for fear of a repeat of the 1994 massacre, perpetrated by a militant Jewish-American that left nearly 30 Muslims dead. The reason I bring this up, is to show that Jews and Israelis are capable of evil as well, the same kind of evil that we vilify Palestinian terrorists for. At least this attack was unequivocally and wholly condemned by Israeli society, whilst similar attacks on the Arab side are usually praised and glorified.

The Casbah in Hevron

Indeed, visiting Hevron was an eye-opening experience for me: a strange journey into a different world of tight alleyways, ancient stones and a tense feeling so thick that you could cut it with a knife. The Casbah – which once housed the ancient Jewish community of Hevron, is now a modern battlefield of ideologies that illustrates this conflict better than another. A populated, dense area – the former principle Arab market of the city spirals through the narrow alleyways, manned by ageing Palestinian caricatures – wearing traditional white-black Kaffiyehs, sitting quietly by embroidered carpets and ‘made-in-china’ souvenirs, smoking tobacco from a pipe, and staring blankly into a bygone era when this market was bustling full of people. In the floors above the market, Israeli-Jews have moved in, reclaiming the houses their parents had been dispossessed from, following their massacre and expulsion in 1929. An Israeli flag flies from the edge of one of the windows.

The Israeli flag from inside the market

Below it, a net has been erected by the Arab shopkeepers to prevent the settlers from dropping stones down below. It was such a strange feeling, standing in the market, looking upwards at the Israeli flag. Up there are my people. Down here are the people I sympathize with. Both sides have claims to this city. Both sides have a right to live here, to pray here. Both sides have ruined this place – a city built by the love of our forefathers, now consumed entirely by hatred.

I returned to Jerusalem, dazed and confused – from the heat, from the conflict, from this swimming pool of intensity that I jumped into when I got off the plane. Relieved to be back in Israel proper, I strolled through Yafo st – a lively boardwalk lined with shops – just as the warm Judean sun began casting her shadow over trendy rooftops and balconies. The place was packed with people in every direction, as an impromptu band sang over-played Israeli rock’n’roll from the 80s. I sat down and observed quietly: Middle-aged women sipping late at a nearby cafe. A gaggle of teenagers in summer clothes organizing a sleepover. An elderly couple walking past the band, receiving a nod of recognition from the guitarist and then staying on to listen a little more. A Rabbi hurriedly walking past to make afternoon prayers, followed closely by a religious Muslim woman, inspecting some of the latest fashion at the adjacent boutique. It felt so hard for me to believe that Hevron – a virtual warzone compared to this – was just a cool 30 minutes drive from here.

Israel's graffiti covered separation barrier

That night I stayed at my uncle Ran’s place in Jerusalem, and we began discussing the separation barrier that I had visited that afternoon – built to prevent suicide bombings from the Palestinian territories. At the edge of Bethlehem, the walled, concrete section of the barrier (that makes up 10% of the entire fence) dominates the road in front of it. On my return from Hevron, I stopped by the graffiti covered barrier, that has almost become a post-Berlin symbol for anti-nationalists and anarchists everywhere. Every single message and artwork has turned the wall into a figurative monument: spraying a profound quote is like tagging your name in history books. “‘Alaskans for Palestine’; ‘UCLA ’09 against the occupation!’ – who do these people think they are, coming to this part of the world and getting themselves involved in the conflict?” I muttered openly with a touch of annoyance. “Perhaps they also have a stake in it?” Ran prodded, while concentrating on the dishes. “All the people perpetuating the violence seem to be from outside Israel! Most people here just want to live their lives peacefully. What the fuck do Alaskans have to do with Palestine??” I shuffled uncomfortably on the couch. A brief silence ensued, and then Ran unloaded the big one: “You’re one of them too, aren’t you?” he asked, in a wise, yet humorous way. And as much as I’d like to deny it, he’s basically right. My emotional, historical, religious and family connections have pulled me to this land – an intense yearning unexplained by logic. My desire to enlist in the IDF stems from my ideological perceptions and my belief in Jewish self-determination – a self determination that I believe should not come at the expense of another people’s. Indeed, at my base, I’m still a Jew born in Australia. Maybe a Palestinian born in Alaska, attending UCLA feels the same way?

Overcome by immense tiredness, I shuffled around on the mattress, trying to forget about the collapsing situation around me, and everything that I have gotten myself into. Ran turned off the light, as the sounds of distant traffic and flickering street lights poured in through the fly screen. I dozed off perhaps for a minute, and suddenly I found myself once more in Hevron. The terrible heat of the sun beat down on my face, as I slowly made my way through an abandoned street between an Arab and Jewish neighbourhood: Every door had bolted shut, and every window had been shattered by rocks. Garbage lay strewn beside dust that had been collecting there for years, and the blue sky seemed much paler than usual. My mouth was parched from the heat and the thirst, as I came across half-ripped Arab posters immortalizing Palestinian suicide bombers, right next to Jewish signs proclaiming the message of Rabbi Kahane. Unawares, the muezzin – the Muslims call to prayer – began sounding off throughout the city. First a distant whisper from the furthest mosque, and then closer and closer, until it vibrated in my ears, as if each new voice was a louder echo of the first. It sounded like a proclamation to besiege the Jewish quarter that I now found myself in –  a quarter filled with bumper stickers calling for the forced expulsion of the Arabs in Israel. The Muezzin echoed defiantly loud and clear – beating down on my face like the heat of the sun, whilst the stickers radiated an equally overwhelming political message that seemed too much to bear. There I stood awkwardly not quite part of it, not quite taking sides – the thirst killing me and driving me into a delirious trance, the oppressive heat of the sun frying my thought process. I was stuck in the middle, on the fence, not quite sure where I belong.

Graffiti in Israel

As Assad slaughters his own citizens without compunction in Syria, and Gaddafi vows to fight to the last inch – it’s necessary at times to seek a distraction from this crazy neighborhood and its even crazier dictators.
Which is why I want to point attention to some of the clever political slogans and messages scrawled across neighborhood walls in Tel Aviv – almost like the unoffical mouthpiece of the Israeli street but with that quirky cynical angle.

israeli grafittiReads: “Orthodox Jews, please place tefillin (phylacteries) on our [Secular] children”

This piece of grafitii was taken in South Tel Aviv – reknowned as a bastion of Secularism, and a general enmity toward observance. The reason I chose it is because it’s funny and raises a relevant issue to the fore – that of the secular/religious divide in Israel. Hilonim (Secular Jews) feel increasingly threatened by Hardedim (ultra-orthodox Jews) for what they see as religious intolerance, whilst Haredim feel simultaneously threatened by secular Jews for what they claim is a bid to ostrazice their entire demographic from society.

The sign reads: “חרדים הניחו לילדנו, תפילין”
Prima facie, the text can be translated as “Haredim, please lay tefillin on our children“. The verb in the sentence “henichu” (הניחו) is then exact verb used in morning prayers (Shacarit) before males place tefillin on their arms. (The prayer consists of “lehaniach tefillin” (להניח תפילין). So the verb used in the prayer is essentially a call by the secular residents to educate their children along the lines of religious Judaism. Indeed, at first, this seems like a feel-good bridge-building slogan, in which secular Jewish society reaches out to their God-fearing brothers, in a bid to shoulder and accept the heavy yoke of religious observance.

However, the text is in fact far more sinister and cynical: The meaning is changed, once the comma separating “children” (ילדנו) and “Tefilin” (תפילין) is taken into account. This premidated punctuation mark changes the meaning of the verb “henichu” (הניחו) from “lay” or “place” to “leave” or “go away”. So in fact, once all punctuation is taken into account, the slogan reads: “Hardeim, leave our children alone; Tefillin

Also note the fact that the text itself is written in biblical font. Perhaps a lesson in irony to boot!

Jogging through an Arab village: losing my innocence

What happens when you are so deeply shocked to the core, that you fail to grasp everything occurring around you? When the realization of how close you came to injury or death finally dawns – and you wander about aimlessly in empty alleyways as a shell of your former self? When your existence blurs with survival, and the residual injections of adrenalin – produced in the heat of danger – begin to wear off? As you finally make it to safety, take a deep breath, and holding your sweaty head in your trembling hands, look up into the heavens with a gush of horror and excitement. Perhaps it was curiosity? Perhaps a desire to seek out a passing thrill or danger? With hindsight, it was probably naivety bordering on blatant ignorance.

The run began as any other: a friend and I together on a light jog taking a winding path outside the kibbutz – past pastoral fields and rolling hills, with the Carmel foothills gently bequeathing a long shadow across the fertile valley. A couple of kilometers south of the Kibbutz lies an Arab village, that I regarded with curiosity from the moment my eyes met its distinct mosque and box-shaped houses. Many of the Kibbutznikim regard the village with dismissal or they simply ignore it. High crime rates, nationalism and political factors have almost severed the connection between the Arab town and the Kibbutz. “Lock your doors as night” we were told from the get go – as there is a very really risk of theft from our southern neighbours. “When I was your age, I used to go to that village often and fraternize with the locals, but today there is nothing there. Nothing” another veteran Kibbutz member mentioned to me. But still, curiousity had me ensnared, and I was constantly itching to go the one place that I could not (or should not). The Arab town that I could see from the road had become the apple tree in the garden of Eden, and I was Adam.

I often wonder why I have this innate desire to explore and meet the unknown: the stranger, the ones seen and not heard – the Arab in a Jewish society. True that as Palestinian nationalism and Muslim incitement take hold in Israel’s Arab localities, the Jewish and Arab populations move farther apart. However I always had this constant urge to reach out and understand, to talk to and to empathize, with those who are considered marginalized, oppressed or simply ‘different’ – and the media certainly typecasts the Arabs here as such. Or perhaps it was simply the novelty of meeting someone outside my national bubble.

As we continued southward, we chanced upon the entrance to the village – which was in fact an unintended consequence of our exploratory habits and the long, slow jogs we take as preparation for the IDF. Already the idiosyncratic Arab architecture, the smell of open sewerage and the loose garbage prepared us for a momentary trip backward along the socio-economic scale. Ok, so the Arabs here are underprivileged, they live in a tribal mentality, and every house has a satellite dish pointed toward Qatar. But – there is a large Israeli flag waving at the entrance to the village, and Hebrew writing beneath the advertisements in Arabic. “This village must be “Sababa” (cool in Israeli slang), so Yalla (lets go in slang)” I motioned to my friend as we tentatively scaled the potholes and unused construction materials.

Moving ever deeper into the heart of the village, we began passing the residents who apparently viewed us as threatening, or with surprise. Immediately, a group of youth from the school yard poured into the street, and gathered around the spectacle of two white, skinny, Jews aimlessly jogging through – waving “Ahalan wa-Sahalan” like idiots and handing out friendly nods to the pensive and eerily quiet locals. At this point I realised that this was not the best idea in the world. But the thought still lingered in my mind: We are all human. We are made of the same flesh and blood. The parochialisms that seperate us are merely nebulous political slogans heard in the media – and that hold no bearing in the real world. Peace is possible. Jew and Arab – coexistence as the subtle gesture of passing through a friendly village.

But alas it was not to be. Up until now, the Israeli-Arab conflict existed as a faraway history channel/newspaper fantasy that I visited occasionally when reading inflamed talkbacks on online op-eds. As we continued running, teenagers began gathering beside the steps of the houses – whispering and staring with suspicion. Then suddenly – a moment that I will not forget – a lone rock flew past my head and landed on the pavement beside me. We continued running – pretending to ignore or not to notice – or rather not to believe. “We are friendly. We understand you. We are cousins” I thought to myself as I watched the growing crowd. There could be no way that this tacit mantra of mine could shatter so quickly. But shatter it did, as the second stone came flying past with increased accuracy and intensity. And then the third – and the fourth.

I glanced at the opposite sidewalk momentarily to see a group of kids selecting stones the ground, whilst another stood by – a large rock already in his hand – in preparation for us to jog past. And then it came: the sucker-punch. The blow that placed a large dent on my very being and sent a shiver down my spine. “Al Yahud!” (“The Jew!” in Arabic) the boy shouted in a high pitched macho voice his finger pointed at us in defiance – a brazen gesture as subtle as the kiss of death, marking us for kill as if we weren’t conspicuous enough already. For a split second, we locked eyes – nothing longer than what it takes for a fly to pat its wings, or for pebble to cast a ripple across a calm lake. And what I saw had me perplexed: I saw a burning hatred in his eyes that I could not fathom. At this moment, my perception of ‘the stranger’ shattered for eternity, as I, a survivor of my own sheer ignorance and stupidity, write these shock-tainted words. My adrenalin gland immediately secreted its precious juice, and like a stalked gazelle with black bulbousy eyes noticing the lion erupting from the bushes – my survival instincts kicked into action and I began sprinting together with my jogging partner down the fateful street. The sudden increase in speed meant that the rock narrowly missed its target – us, and flew past like a dragonfly in slow motion.

All I was concerned with at this point was survival – getting out of the village alive. We quickly took a right and ran downhill toward the swamps, swerving around a bend to ensure that we weren’t be followed, or that the growing mob wouldn’t spot us helplessly searching for an exit. Continuing along a stream, we managed to pass the final houses toward the village outskirts and the beach – a refuge in the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean. We both stared at each other – excited and shocked at the same time – at the realization of how close we came. None of the adults bothered to stop the kids throwing rocks – perhaps they too were willing to participate in the spectacle. The boy’s high pitched battle cry “Al-Yahud!” echoed in my mind as I buried my hand into my hands and caught my breath. A wry ‘Welcome to the middle east’ cynically scrawled across the sky.

Why do we need a Jewish state? Because when we are defenseless or unarmed, we go like sheep to the gas chambers. When we are armed and united, we are in control of our destiny – and not subject to the will of others. This is perhaps my most blatant firsthand experience of anti-semitism – or rather ‘hatred of the Israeli’ – where Israel always represents the Jew. These were the first few thoughts going through my mind as we both made it to safety. I don’t hate the Arabs. I don’t feel any enmity towards them. I understand that most of them, just like us, only want to live their life – a source of income, a house, a wife, kids and a car. Politics and national divides doesn’t concern the everyman. So why aren’t my feelings reciprocated by the other side? The Arabs in this village are Israeli citizens. We’re not talking about Jenin or Ramallah here. We’re talking about an Israeli Arab town. The parents of the teenagers who missed their chance at hitting a Jew all vote in Israeli elections. They are all entitled to an Israeli passport, with the right to travel abroad. They have access to Israeli healthcare and can travel the length of the country freely. So why is there such animosity toward us simmering beneath the surface?

It is very easy for me to forgive the kids who threw rocks as just ‘kids’ – because they don’t know any better (despite the fact that a rock from a Kid can kill, just like a rock from an adult). The kids can’t tell right from wrong. But I cannot forgive their society that incites and blames Jews for all their problems. I cannot forgive their parents – or the bystanders on those streets that quietly supported our near-lynch. It is true that there is a a passive, unconscious discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society – in the sense that they have bleaker job prospects, or that they are subject to the media’s utmost scrutiny. But this is not tantamount to hatred or anything similar – and hatred is exactly what they felt toward me as I passed through the village.

As I write these words now –  and as the shock, excitement, revulsion and terror slowly seep back into my adrenalin gland – I am left with one overall feeling: sadness. Sadness that I have lost my innocence, and that I have become awakened to such a world. A world outside the cosy confines of the Melbourne bubble, outside the confines of Jewish Israel – where tribalism, honour killings and unchecked violence are the modes of day to day life. A culture that engenders hatred in children, and strikes fear into the weak and elderly. I am sad that my hopes for peace here one day, have diminished, and have been replaced by skepticism and pessimism. For in a land that consumes its inhabitants, and in a world where you have to fight to survive – learning the lesson that as Jew, I will always be hated and hunted has never been more important.

Israel and Kibbutz life: first impressions

Arriving in Israel

The view

So here I am, two weeks in since I arrived in Israel, with the Carmel mountains stretching out beside my window, and the cool, blue Mediterranean humming in the distance.  There is definitely something special about the land here. It carries with it a depth of history that seems to echo from soil and relive itself out again with different characters facing the same dillemas as those that preceded them. The landscape here remains motionlessness, inviolable, bearing witness to us – playing the same foolish game of life, making mistakes, feeling, living , breathing and fighting. Countless people must’ve traversed the ancient roads that are now paved with bitumen, traffic lights and railroad tracks. New houses with Mezuzot are built beside ancient quarries that were appropriated by the Romans to build the outposts of their empire – that today only extends outward into museums and history textbooks. That is what makes Israel special. Past, present and future converge as one, here in the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe. And I feel like I’m in the middle of it, together with everyone else. This is truly history in the making.

Before I arrived in Israel, I always imagined that upon landing, I would suddenly feel something special – like a rush of exctacy to the brain, dilating my pupils with fundamentalist fervour. Needless to say, as I stepped into the terminal I felt numb and sleep deprived – the advertisements in English for McDonalds and Coca Cola seemed to give me the impression that I was in some strange suburb of Melbourne rather than the Holy Land. Western Culture is far-reaching, and fails to discriminate between countries, I thought to myself.

The delayed culture shock only hit me whilst I sat in the taxi from the airport – during the drive northward from Tel Aviv. On face value, the scene was no different from what you would expect in New York or London. There is little difference in the range and quality of cars on the road. Road sings and traffic lights bear resemblance to their counterparts in Oz. The fact that the driver spoke Hebrew didn’t phase me either. What hit me was more subtle: there was a large minority of drivers that completely disregarded the road rules. If changing lanes without indicating was to be the worst offence that I spotted, then I would definitely still be in Melbourne. The perpetual ‘road stress’ that I witness on a daily basis here stems from the ongoing tension of protracted war and conflict. When surrounded by a sea of enemies eagerly waiting for their opportunity to drive you into the sea, every minor formality and road rule pales in comparison. No wonder then, that more people are killed in Israel (during peace time) from traffic accidents, rather than suicide bombings. This is by no means a critique of Israeli society – but merely an observation of a people tired of war and hungry for peace.

This constant need to push and ‘be first’ is indeed, a double edged sword. On the one hand, Israelis may come off as too pushy or arrogant (when in fact the opposite is true) , but on the other hand this unique brand of ‘Chutzpah’ breeds innovation and diligence that is only heightened by the inexorable existential threat. For example, Israel’s high tech sector is the envy of the Middle East (“nicknamed “The Silicon Wadi”), and her economy rivals that of all the surrounding countries, despite having no oil and a minuscule population of only 7 million.

Kibbutz life:

Some of my pre-conceived notions about Kibbutz life in Israel have been both shattered and reinforced. I always imagined the Kibbutz to be a nuclear hub of staunch, sun-tanned idealists, plowing the fields by day, and recounting tales of heroism around a bonfire by night. Needless to say, this is the 21st century, and a life of pure agriculture and neo-socialism is economically unsustainable in the real world. This particular Kibbutz is comparatively wealthy – mostly due to the large plastics factory that exports materials around Israel and abroad (in fact it makes up 80% of the Kibbutz’s income). The old days in which children lived separated from their parents are over. Many sectors of the Kibbutz are privatised, Kibbutz members and their families have their own houses, and the food costs money (although workers and members receive a monthly budget from the Kibbutz to spend in the dining room.)

In many senses, the traditional Kibbutz movement – just like the Romans – is confined to the history books. Today, it is simply an attractive place to live and work. Yes, everybody receives the same monthly allowance in the dining room, and Kibbutz members still vote on matters of importance. However I believe that humans are by nature, acquisitive: we want to own, to have more, to aspire to lead and to buy low and sell high. We are naturally competitive – so it was only a matter of time before human nature trumped over ideology.

From the first day, I was assigned to work in the cowshed. My job consists of collecting cows, trudging through hills of cow feaces and urine, milking the cows, returning them to their barns and then washing away piles of excrement with a high pressured hose. Once I got used to the smell (I would describe it as spending time in an airtight room with an un-flushed toilet, with the smell of hay seeping in from under the door)  the work became more enjoyable. The cows are scared-‘shitless’ (pun intended) of us, and their entire social hierarchy within the barn collapses once a human approaches. Some cows are more eager to be milked. Others take some cajoling. A small minority are purely phlegmatic, and resist milking attempts quite violently. Perhaps once they realize their strength, they might band together like in ‘Animal Farm’ and mutiny against our tyrannical rule. But seriously though, they need to be milked. Otherwise their udders might explode like a blended milkshake.

As I write this, two scenes from the cowshed come to mind:

"The carousel"

1. The cows are milked on a large automated carousel, with tube-like sucking machines that we attach to the udder. The milk is then collected into a large vat, and shipped off for packaging so that people all over the country can enjoy cereal, cheese and coffee. One particular morning, at around 4:30am in the heat of work, the song ‘Aint no sunshine when she’s gone‘ by Bill Withers played through the loudspeakers. The cows remained at their stations cluelessly staring at each other from both ends of carousel, as they slowly rotated around the centre, as the sucking machines emptied their udders. This scene seemed to come straight from a horrible nightmare – the cows placidly bobbing to the music like kids on a merry-go-round in first gear. For some unexplained reason I found this situation quite comical, and I just felt the need to record this moment here for future reference.

2. Washing away the large, clumpy piles of cow-shit from the floor with the hose is a long and tedious experience. In the long stretches of time during this activity, I often become mesmerized by the rivers of “chocolate” and “caramel” foam that stream past my feet and into the drain. When the high-pressured water hits a large build-up, the cow-poo is thrown into the air like a mini-meteor shower, and then gracefully floats down the gooey river upon returning to earth. I once had the unpleasant experience of opening up the hose onto the adjacent wall, and immediately thereafter, the cow-remains ricocheted backward into my face. If I can endure this, then every slimy, sticky or disgusting thing that I will ever encounter will probably pale in comparison. Taking out the garbage isn’t so hard after all, mum!

Boycotting hummus for world peace

Looks innocent right? Wrong.

What is the best way to solve an 80 year old conflict, divided across religious, national and ideological lines? Well Princeton University’s  ‘Committee on Palestine‘ has finally figured out a new solution to the Middle East conflict – an intractable war that has baffled analysts for years. The problem is not land for peace, the status of Jerusalem, a Jewish state or radical Islamism as the media will have you believe. The root, principle cause of all violence in the Middle East, is in fact, Hummus.

Are you tired of all the fighting? Do you dream that one day Israelis and Arabs will walk hand in hand through poppy fields, singing Bob Marley and blowing daisies? Do you want to wake up and see a big headline that reads “True peace, finally”? If you answered ‘yes’ to all the above, then the single, most important thing for you to do, to advance the cause of peace, is to boycott Hummus.

According to Yediot:

Hummus feeding the ‘occupation’? Next week students at New Jersey’s Princeton University will be called upon to prevent Sabra-brand hummus from being sold at restaurants and stores on campus.

Hummus sprinkled with blood, oppression and apartheid

It’s time to throw off the yoke of tainted chickpeas, olive oil and garlic. It’s time to finally recognize this so-called “dip” for what it actually is: an obstacle to the peace process. I don’t care if its tasty. I don’t care that it goes well with Shwarma and Sabich. I don’t care that it’s healthy and good for you. Every time that you sample this bloodied concoction of violence and oppression, you are directly responsible for the deaths of innocent children, everywhere. Take a good hard look in the mirror, and decide for yourself if it’s worth it. Hummus is, according to a very reliable source,  the favourite food of murderers on death row, terrorists, extremists and Sheikh Hilaly.

So, decide for yourself right here and now, will you continue supporting mass-murder, violence and the cruel hummus war-machine? Or will you take the high moral ground and start purchasing Tahini instead?