10 things that I miss about Melbourne

As I sit 10000 meters above sea level, with the monotonous hum of the airplane engines gliding me into stranger shores, flashbacks of Melbourne – the city of my childhood – indelibly sketch themselves upon my mind like a memorable film.

The familiar city skyline, stands proudly on the horizon like the ramparts of a medieval castle; the algae-blue of Port Phillip bay superimposed on the endless ocean licking the curvature of the earth outside my window seat. So without further a due, as my childhood blends into memory which blends into nostalgia, here is, quid pro pro, the 10 things I miss about Melbourne.

1. Graffiti –

Crawling from the pavement – as an outstretched hand clinging to life below the sand – Melbourne’s graffiti is forged in the night, coming to life by day, and then returning to the shadows, only to be replaced again with the rising sun. Weird cartoons, political statements, illegible tags and signatures – graffiti is a subculture unto itself, and reflects on society as a whole. We, the interpreters, the amateur art critics, the lovers of impromptu art –  take away tid bits of inspiration with each passing glance: hours of painstaking, unrecognized work facing the train-line, pleading for recognition from the distracted and uninitiated. Perhaps what inspires me the most, is not the beauty or quirkiness of some of the artworks – but the fact that the work is anonymous. The graffiti artist seeks to leave his mark and gain street cred, but his public displays function as our collective voice. A subculture of the day, that is borne of the night.

2. Crickets

Apart from the occasional severe heatwave or devastating flood – the next worst thing about the Melbourne summer are cicadas. Eating away at your brain with their incessant signature ‘chirp’, the crickets bury themselves deep beneath street lawns and backyards – spawning to life when the temperature hits a cool 35. Accompanying their monosyllabic symphony is the unparalleled beauty of the setting sun, usually throwing an orange backdrop across the city sky. Many times I tried unsuccessfully to track down the army of hidden cicadas and extinguish their mind-numbing mating cries. As yet, each attempt ended shamefully – the cicada would lie low for a couple of hours – only to restart like a broken record once I made it to bed.

Crickets 1. Yours truly, 0.

3. Four seasons in one day.

Each discussion about Melbourne invariably turns to the state of the weather, and every single time – without fail – somebody lets out (mid conversation) the triumphant cliché: “We’ve had four seasons in one day.” And indeed, this overused, trampled maxim does have an element of truth to it. Mornings are cold – the embodiment of winter – with a thin later of dew coating the grass, accompanied by the frosted windows of each car that make for some interesting street art. As the dew melts and lunch trickles by, sanguine autumn leaves line the leafy streets, and a light shower from the bay coats the city in a pluvial mask. By afternoon, you must escape the oppressive heat, as the clouds give way to our neighbouring star – casting down all those who dare to enter the cool murky waters of St. Kilda beach. By dusk, the city recovers – like a newly baked loaf straight from the oven – providing a pleasant “Spring-y” end to the lesser liked three seasons, as they prepare to wreak havoc upon Melbourne’s inhabitants the next morning.

4. Public transport

Everybody in Melbourne says that hate it, but nobody can live without it. This love-hate relationship with the mass transit system has existed in Melbourne from the beginning of time, when our ancestor, John Batman rented out his horse and carriage after losing a poker game to John Faukner. Perhaps Melbourne’s single most identifiable feature is the iconic green tram that snakes its way from the CBD to the suburbs. Every train ride into the city is always an interesting experience: when the train is empty you have the freedom to rest your head against the glass and doze off to the view of abandoned warehouses, parks and family homes. When travelling at peak hour, you squeeze in between a white collar lawyer and patriotic footy supporters, huddling alone in that last gap of fresh air, whilst you listen to the revellers singing the Collingwood anthem al the way to Frankston.

5. Footy

Speaking of revellers, nothing electrifies this city more than footy. It is Melbourne’s very own, born and bred – and our proudest export to the northern states. Whilst I’m not an avid supporter, nobody can escape the media obsession with the Australian game – on and off the field. From the latest player frug scandal, to the injured list, to fantasy football. For 8 months, we all hold our breath to deliberate and argue and bet on, who will win this week. Cricket, rugby and basketball are evicted from the schoolyard and the national psyche – and one game takes over – footy. Luckily I brought one with me overseas, to continue the tradition.

6. The ‘alternative’ image

If I had to stereotype ‘The Melbournian’ – it would be the alternative, inner-city ‘trendy’, sipping latte in a gentrified bohemian café in Carlton, whilst plotting the next Youtube revolution. Besides the fact that the Melbourne electorate was the first in the country to vote in a Greenie, Melbournians have always had a tendency to aim for the ‘hip’ offbeat style – like a cross between a self-aware hippie and a struggling musician with an obscene amount of hair gel. And I like. There is something about being ‘alternative’ that encourages self-thought and innovation. There is a war raging against conformity and Melbourne is in the middle of it. Kudos.

7. The beach

As you’ve probably figured, Melbourne is not the #1 summer tourist destination of Australia, although it does have a few iconic beaches that line the bay. My personal experiences of swimming in Port Phillip range from vomit-induced cholera to radioactive poisoning, however as long as one doesn’t enter the polluted waters, Melbourne’s beaches have something for everybody (except swimmers). From the over-hyped beach huts in Brighton to something further down the Mornington Peninsula, I’m gonna miss predicted a series of wavefronts when a supertankers waltzes by on the horizon.

8. Multiculturalism and food

The last time I heard anybody brag about plain ‘ol steak and mashed potatoes was …. never. And with such a wide diversity of cultures and cuisines, why would you? My suburb – as a microcosm of Melbourne – contains an eclectic sample of Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican and 7-elevens, so there’s never a boring day when experimenting with a new palate. Since there is no distinctive ‘Australian cuisine’, we seem to have adopted the entire range as are own – but then again, this might just be a consequence of globalization in our society. Nevertheless, still missing it.

9. Queen Victoria Market

There is a humble modesty in earning a living at the market. Each person inquisitively doting along is a potential customer. Each vendor guards his produce like a hawk, waiting for the next sale. One would expect in a capitalist paradigm, that so many similar stalls grouped together would drastically bring prices down in fierce competition. Not so aboard Queen Victoria. The produce might be fresh, but Big W is often cheaper. But just wandering amidst the flurry of shoppers, buskers, ethnic vendors and tourists is a serene experience. Finding parking is a separate issue. For some reason I’ve always romanticised the market vendor. Not as a career prospect, but whenever I think of them a certain image comes to mind: Arriving at the market before the break of dawn, unloading the carts in the icy cold, and putting on that ubiquitous apron, in preparation for another day of hopes and dreams, customer and hagglers, and the continuous sounds of life.

10. Family

Ye, corny I know. But this is probably the thing that I miss the most in Melbourne. Because at the end of the day, it’s just another city, with people and transport and buildings and everything that goes with normal cities. But my family and loved ones quietly wait there in subdued anticipation – as I move ever farther to a distant land. Now that’s definitely something to long for.

Advertisements

Being Jewish and criticizing Israel

Being Jewish today is not easy. Not only do Jews have the burden of religious and cultural obligations, but we are generally expected by wider society to be the archetypal role models of ‘morality’, ‘servitude’ and victim-hood. Indeed, in the wake of 2000 years of pogroms and persecutions across Europe and the Middle East culminating in the The Holocaust, The Jewish people have always been considered the mistreated minority: by the left as the defenseless underdogs and the scapegoats, by the right as the stateless wanderers at the mercy of benevolent kings and tyrannical rulers. But by 2011, a mere 65 years after the crematoria of Birkenau fell into their ghostly silence, everything has been reversed. The State of Israel – a country whose rasion detre is to provide a refuge for ‘The Wandering Jew’, is today portrayed as the aggressor rather than the victim. The words Israel and “apartheid”, “occupation” and “Nazi” have become so synonymous, that with the help of the internet, the transition from ‘helpless Jewish scapegoats’ to  ‘vicious Jewish oppressors’ is accelerating faster than ever.

Jewish and anti-Israel: antisemtism?

But amidst the antisemitic barrage of hate speech and hyperbole, lies legitimate criticisms of the State of Israel – her policies, the domestic and social problems, as well as her relationship with immediate neighbours. Israel is generally accepted as  ‘The Jewish collective’ – the single most identifiable symbol of Judaism across the world, so when Israel is criticized legitimately, this can often be misconstrued as anti-zionism or even anti-semitism. What I wish to focus on however, is the curious (and growing unfortunately) phenomena of Jewish anti-zionism in the wider context of Jewish voices criticizing Israel from the Diaspora. Make no mistake, Jews can be antisemites as well as anybody else (Pablo Christiani and Shlomo Sand instantly come to mind), and many of the voices spearheading the attack against Israel from college campuses across America and Australia, are in fact Jewish. The question is – what motivates so many Jews to rise up against their homeland and side with her enemies?

This is a question that I posed to international human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler when he came to speak to us at school. Is it that because so many Jewish children are raised on a steady diet of social justice, they feel compelled to interpret Israel’s actions as a gross injustice? His answer was insightful and interesting. Many of these Jewish anti-zionists have little or no connection to their heritage, and their campaign against Israel is often misguided, because they are ignorant of the facts on the ground. They are perceived by others to have more legitimacy in this issue because they are ‘Jewish’ – and Israel is ‘the Jewish state’ , yet ironically, the only time they publicly display or feel connected to their ‘Jewishness’ is when attacking Israel or siding with antisemites.

As an example, he reminded us that many of the Soviet Union’s most vociferous supporters were (yep, you guessed it) misguided Jews. Despite the fact that 2 million Jews were caged within the totalitarian Stalinist confines of institutionalized discrimination, and that students and mothers were marching on the streets of London, New York and Johannesburg demanding the freedom of Soviet Jewry – overzealous Jewish communists in the West continued to voice their support for the regime: A regime that denuded millions of Jews of their identity and still insisted that the word “Jew” was printed on their passports, so that they would never forget what they were. Today, a growing number of “Jewish communists” wage a similar, misguided battle. The simple fact that their parents are Jewish instantly makes them “experts” – yet they arrive on campus with little or no idea about Israel, Jewish history, culture or tradition. As little as 25% of American Jews have visited Israel. The number that attend Jewish day schools or youth groups is even lower. Every second Jew intermarries. Chelsea Clinton’s marriage to Marc Mezvinsky was hailed as proof that the golden age of the Jews of America is at it’s peak – however in another age such a marriage would have been widely shunned and criticized.

Martin Luther King: "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.”

At the risk of calling Jewish anti-zionists ‘traitors’, I have to admit that I am somewhat ambivalent about being so quick to dismiss them as loonies or useful idiots. On the one hand, I share many disagreements with them. On the other, I’m proud that there is such a wide diversity of thoughts and opinions within the Jewish community. These people may be the ‘black-sheep’ of the family, but they’re part of the family nonetheless. I see this growing trend of anti-Israel radicalization amongst Jewish youth as synonymous with the distortion and deterioration of left-wing politics – which historically assumed support for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. An example is the Guardian newspaper which initially voiced support for Zionism, only to become infected with rabid Arabism over the course of the century.

Indeed, Jews have historically aligned themselves with the left side of politics. The left demanded Jewish emancipation in Europe during the 19th century. Jewish women spearheaded the fight for universal suffrage and feminism. The Bund, Trotsky and the Mensheviks lobbied to bring down the Czar in Russia, and create an egalitarian socialist utopia for all citizens. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched hand in hand with Martin Luther King at the height of the civil rights movement. These are all examples of Jews and left-wing politics working hand in hand to achieve universal human rights and freedom for all. The bad news, is that for the past 30 years, classic left-wing politics has all but disappeared, only to be replaced with a hollow shell of fanatical, ignorant, youth claiming immediate expertise on the Israeli-Arab conflict after reading Wikipedia.

Secular Jewish antizionism - misguided

This is essentially what Jewish youth face on university campuses across the Western world. They are immediately receptive to any injustice: Tibet, Darfur, The Congo. They hear soundbites on the Israeli-Arab conflict for the first time, and the magical, idealized picture of the Jewish paradise shatters: Israel isn’t the heroic wonderland of their childhood, but an aggressor fighting in their name! Yet rather than researching about the conflict in-depth to discover its root causes: the existential threat Israel faces on a daily basis – and the democratic and human rights afforded there as the only in the entire region – they immediately jump onto the bandwagon of anti-zionism, further propagating the distorted image of Israel as the chief violator of human rights in the entire world. This view is further compounded by anti-zionist academia and faculty on Israeli, American and European campuses – further forcing brutal images down unsuspecting throats. This is at least one of the principle causes of secular Jewish anti-Zionism. Jewish anti-Zionism on religious grounds from groups such as Neturei Karta demands a separate article altogether, however, they too seek to achieve the same outcome: the destruction of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.

The claim that ‘all critiques of Israel are antisemitic’ is patently false and ignorant, because that would mean that Israel is the #1 most antisemitic country on Earth. There are no secrets in Israel. The Hebrew press uncovers everything and presents the damning allegations to the Israeli public. Does this make Israeli journalists writing in Hebrew for an Israeli audience antisemitic? Of course not! Every one of Israel’s 6 million Jews has something against the government and its policies: the despicable education system, unnecessary bureaucracy, the communities in ‘the territories’ (West Bank), final status on Jerusalem, and so forth. Their anger is neither antisemitic nor anti-Zionism – it is rather constructive criticism by those who love the country so much that they choose to live there. From this we can deduce the yardstick between legitimate criticism of Israel by Jews in the diaspora: if the criticism is directed to a distinctly Israeli audience, then it is most likely constructive criticism, appealing to voters to rectify the problems in their society. If the criticism is directed at a non-Jewish or a hostile audience, then the criticism, whether legitimate or hateful, instantly is construed as anti-Zionism.

Jewish refusenik turned head-of-the-Jewish-Agency-for-Israel, Natan Sharansky presented the famous three D’s to determine whether criticism of Israel is in fact antisemitic:

1. Demonization: portraying Israel as the single worst violator of human rights in the world and the embodiment of evil. This includes claiming that Palestinians are the ‘new Jews’ or that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are now perpetrating a new Holocaust upon Arabs living in the vicinity.

2. Double Standards:  ignoring other far more serious crimes committed worldwide by focusing solely on Israel and her imperfections, turning a blind eye to Arab incitement and terrorism, and selectively bemoaning the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, whilst ignoring Israeli deaths at the hands of Hamas, Hezzbollah and the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

3. Delegitimization:  inferring that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. This includes incorrectly portraying Israel as a vestige of colonialism or claiming that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’. Other examples include using selective quotations from Jewish texts such as The Talmud or Shulchan Aruch to support an anti-Israel agenda. Additionally, citing being ‘Jewish’ as conferring some type of authority to speak legitimately on behalf of other Jews in order to denigrate Israel is antisemitic.

I have a confession to make: I too have many qualms about the Israeli government and the path the country is taking. The correct place for me to air these complaints is in Hebrew on an Israeli newsite – to those who are receptive to such criticism and have the voting right to change the situation. Attacking Israel on non-Israeli sites or arenas is easily misread as anti-zionism and gives fuel for neo-nazis, Islamists and antisemites who don’t understand the nuanced and complicated problems within Israeli society. It is irrelevant that I’m Jewish, that I’m moving to Israel in a couple of months, or that I plan to enlist in the IDF: If my criticism breaks one of the three D’s or is directed at the wrong audience – then I too am guilty of antisemitism, and I hope that I am the first to recognize this. I remember talking to an elderly Hungarian Jew on our way back from a Passover Seder at night. I asked him why he decided to leave Israel, and what his views are on the country in general. He gave me a sharp stare, and then cooled off a bit: “I could tell you,” he answered me, “but I’m here now, not there. I don’t have to endure the hardships of living in Israel. I have no right to speak out against them.” And then we continued on in silence through the deserted streets and flickering light lamps – his droll, heretical wink giving me the answer that I was looking and hoping for.

2010 Australian election guide (written before the election)

In Soviet Russia, an air conditioner is called a politician because it makes a lot noise, but it doesn’t work very well. Keeping a close eye on the Australian federal elections makes one squirm – because there is a tangible sense that the people running for the ballot are by and large politicians rather than leaders. (Politics: “Poli” a Latin word meaning “many”; and “tics” meaning “bloodsucking creatures”).

Catchphrases like “working families”, “the Australian people”, and “for our future” have become so redundant this election, that they no longer make an impact. So if the speeches won’t swing you, here, gratis, is a brief election guide of the contenders, and my bets for the winner. [written prior to the election]

Labor: So Keating dumped Hawke, and Julia dumped Kevin. As the tribulations of our intimate relationships, so too are the chronicles of the Labour party and the extended trade union family. The party has experienced 3 traumatic splits (1917, 1931 and 1955) which debilitated it and kept it out of office for many years. In a stunning victory, Kevin 07, toppled Johnny “go for growth” Howard, and since then he and his party have been spending like mad to get the economy squeaky clean. That is, until he was kindly ‘let go’ a couple of months ago. It turns out that the public wasn’t actually asking for insulation or school halls – just a solution to housing unaffordability, unsecure borders, and an economy over-reliant on the transient mining boom [thanks China!]. Under Ms. Gillard’s helm, the party is trying to do what the Liberals should’ve done with Costello – use a fresh face to win the election (and scream “work choices” loud enough so that everyone can hear). Whilst Australia under the Labour Government has successfully weathered the global financial crisis, the question must be asked: Is it sustainable to throw billions of dollars at your problems to wish them away? Maybe, although the last time I tried I was grounded for weeks. My odds: $2.30

The Liberals: The underdog in this election, the Liberal party seeks to confuse everybody, because the only thing liberal (small ‘l’) about it, is Tony Abbot’s lycra bike short-shorts. Often termed as “fiscally responsible”, “economically conservative”, “financially sound”, or any other two word variant comprised of the aforementioned synonyms, this party has the policies and the know-how – just not the leader. From popular sentiment, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop form the ultimate political dream-team to lead our country into the nebulous future – perhaps the elephant in the room for the Liberal party. These guys tick all the boxes – internal democratic debate and dissent, strong foreign policy and a business minds – but it turns out that voters judge a book by it’s cover and vote for the person running the party, and not the party itself. Thus, there is a chance that the Liberals may languish in the opposition for another term, simply because Mr Abbot is portrayed rather negatively by the media. Let’s just say that his personality doesn’t particularly effervesce with charisma, emotion or politically correct opinions. It’ll be a close one, but Labour hasn’t particularly screwed up the country, and the Liberals are still waiting on that winning team. M

y odds: $2.50

The Greens: These guys appear green on the outside, but really exude a bloody socialist red buried deep within – contributing to the flight from rationality that plagues our society. And I’m not just talking about their illogical polices or complete lack of economic understanding – the main problem with this party is primarily ideological, as it goes with left-wing politics in general. For the record, most of the so-called “environmentally friendly” policies are simply attempts at furthering government control and impeding economic progress. The solution to global warming is not neo-luddism, apocalyptic scaremongering or carbon trading schemes – the solution is alternative energy – after all, you guys aren’t really ready to give up your tv, transport, refrigeration, computers [and yes facebook too], or pay more for them either. Without the green veneer, this party is simply a latent attempt at Trotskyism – and that means that every greeny is just as equal as the last one, comrade! Too bad they’re predicted to become our third major party, mostly thanks to the army of 30 something, latte-sipping bohemians on Flinders Lane. My odds: $4.30

Family First: Brother and Sisters of Australia, can you hear me? Can I get an ‘Mhmm’? A concoction of grassroots evangelical fundamentalism and a vague political attempt to legislate based on family values, this party may alienate everyone left of the centre right on the political spectrum. In fact, the only thing these guys are putting first is a copy of the St. James bible, a gun and an insistence that all debates be conversed through glosollalia. Jokes aside, this party advocates banning abortion, banning euthanasia, and banning everything on the internet that doesn’t conform to their narrow ‘moral standards’. The law of the political jungle states that if you ban too many popular things, then you’re basically banning any hope of making it to the lower house. Of course, you can always fall back on the pure, unadulterated love from your family, and die hard supporters in Midwestern United States. My odds: $6.70

It seems that this election, the important issues such as the war in Afghanistan, the failures of the Capitalist system, and our reliance on China are not discussed – not only because both sides of politics hold similar views on these matters, but more for fear that open, unregulated debate will expose the personal views of the debaters, and maybe a controversial headline on the front page of The Age. Ultimately, the Liberals are likely to regain a few seats, particularly because people are becoming disenfranchised by state labour parties. Labour though is in for a close victory, mostly because after preference deals with the Greens, they’ll have enough seats for a majority in parliament. There is also an acute possibility of hung parliament – and perhaps come this election, it may be better to leave it that way.