I woke up after my long-haul flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv feeling blurred and jaded. It might have been the paradigm shift of suddenly finding myself back in Israel; the shock of realizing that my house and family are now based in America; or just the prescription strength sleeping tablets my father-in-law had given me. I think it is a sign of the quality of our relationship that I am prepared to swallow drugs he offers me, without even looking at the box. And I was regretting this as I climbed into the driving seat of the rented car, set Galatz and 88FM as my presets, and launched onto Route 1. And suddenly I got my perspective back: there was a student demonstration against over-funding for Haredi yeshiva students; a general strike on the cards; and Ofer Eini (head of the Histadrut Labor Union) called Ehud Barak an Ahabal (fool in Arabic). Israel in HD. Doesn’t get better than that. And it made me remember the wonderful Hebrew adage – What you see from here you can’t see from there. It’s a famous excuse from Israeli politicians when they don’t fulfill election promises, yet there is a lot of truth to it.
On this trip to Israel the shoe has been on the other foot and I noticed how even sophisticated analysis of the US lacks the all important nuances which provide the backdrop. US coverage in Israel seems to be at a peak at the moment. The American elections of Nov. 2nd have been reported so widely that right-wing activist Moshe Feiglin accused secular Israel of treating America as a divine entity. And many Israelis have been waiting for these elections as expectantly as Americans. There are 2 main schools of thought, the first (which I may be so bold as to suggest is lead by our fearless Prime Minister) feels that a Republican-led congress will weaken Obama’s administration and ultimately take the heat off Israel - Obama’s perceived animosity towards Israel will be blunted. The second school of thought, propagated by Alon Pinkus (the former Israeli consul in New York) and other analysts, is the exact opposite. They suggest that with Obama’s ability to impact on domestic affairs in decline, his attention will be turned towards the international arena, and in particular the Middle East.
There has been a good deal of insightful analysis of the state of American politics, with questions as to Obama’s sincerity in his humble-pie defeat speech, and the economic-centric nature of the American voter. But other areas have been neglected – especially the grassroots changes within the Republican Party and the repercussions of evolving streams of political thought in America. I have also found a growing misconception that support for Israel in America follows party lines, with Republicans presented as Israel saviors and Democrats rabid critics.
Just as music happens in between the notes, understanding where a society is “at” takes more than a collection of news reports. A good example of this is a stunning book I have started reading authored the food correspondent for the local Jerusalem Time Out-esque magazine Kol HaIr – all the city. In Ochel BaAmida – Eating standing up, Asaf Gavron chronicles his experiences with Jerusalem fast food establishments in diary-style entries which use political and social intrigues as a Technicolor backdrop. His style, more than the content, encapsulates what Israel is all about, the blurring of boundaries, between art and life, people and concepts, and plate and pitta.
On my return to America I made my regular stop at dunkin’ doughnuts and ordered a gingerbread latte, I was engulfed in a sea of Latin American Spanish as I spilled coffee on my copy of the Washington Post. No matter where you are context is king.
This trip to Israel raised many questions for me but it also crystallized several others: We need to start focusing more on the set and less on the action. It is the background which creates the depth and clarity of the picture – we can’t bluescreen Israel.
This week I was roundly derided for my choice of traffic routes. Apparently the beltway, a high speed road created to bypass traffic congestion, is in fact a low speed highly-congested traffic jam created to move you back onto local roads. If this is common knowledge, with hoards of people laughing smugly at my ignorance, who are all those drivers making up the traffic jams on the beltway, and why has no one told them? I am sure that there is a mind-numbingly obvious solution to my question, so please send your answers on the back of a 20 dollar bill…
Whilst sitting on the aforementioned beltway, I had the opportunity to consider my driving experiences in the Holy Land. I learnt to drive in Israel, subsequently the horn, the fog lights used for blinding and the finger, are a central part of my repertoire. Road rage is a cathartic, almost zen-like, interaction with my motoring peers. I love driving in Israel. And despite what you may think, it is safer than driving in America: in Israel 5 per 100,000 citizens are killed in car accidents, in the US that figure is almost triple at 14 per 100,000. When we arrived in Australia on our first Shlichut I had trouble understanding the different road culture, the flashing of lights was especially bewildering. In Israel you flash your lights at oncoming traffic (if you are a good citizen) to warn them of an upcoming police speed trap. If you flash the vehicle in front of you it means speed up and move out of the way, if they do not comply, the flashing ends – you leave your high beams on. But whilst I could pontificate on the niceties of Israeli road etiquette, it was not this that I was considering on the beltway, but the subtexts of the roads we travel on in Israel.
I have friends who refuse to travel on Route 6, a mammoth toll road slicing the country from North to South. Kvish 6 is an impressive engineering feat enabling a journey time of one and a half hours from Jerusalem to Haifa (but only if you drive really fast). The toll on Kvish 6 is calculated by how many intersections you pass and gets sent to your home address. However, immense damage was done to natural habitats during the construction of the road and many greens still hold a grudge. Ultra-Orthodox Haredim also opposed the project, but for different reasons, and Yiddish chants accompanied self-chaining to earthmoving equipment as they protested the excavation of ancient gravesites which impeded the road’s path.
I have friends who won’t travel on Route 443, a shortcut alternative to Route 1, which links Jerusalem to Modi’in. The 443 is a classic example of no one knowing who is the legislator: the IDF closed it to Palestinian vehicles, the Supreme Court demanded it be reopened to the Palestinians, and the IDF reopened it in such a way that no Palestinian can logically use the road, and the Knesset… well the politicians got some sound bites. The road consists of strips which are encased on both sides by the security wall/fence, checkpoints that are unmanned, hastily constructed tributaries for Palestinian traffic and other signs of gross misspending. It is a journey of around 30 minutes that can open an internal conversation which lasts much longer.
I especially enjoy not travelling on the new and beautiful 431, which links Rishon LeTzion to the trusty Route 1 (TA – Jerusalem). The road was built by Lev Leviev (Israeli billionaire) and his bombastically named company, Africa-Israel Investments. It is Israel’s first Private Financed Initiative (PFI) in which the government has funded a public infrastructure project with private money. Put simply, Leviev has built a road for the State of Israel and will be paid by the government for every car that travels on it for the next 25 years, when it will finally become public property. This means that every time I don’t travel on the 431 I am saving the government money, I’m not wasting my taxes and I’m freeing up money for better uses than making a billionaire tycoon richer.
And so, I’ve learnt my lesson and I will be avoiding the beltway. It will be novel to avoid taking a road for purely traffic related reasons, and when I visit Israel next week I will go back to travelling and not travelling on various arteries based on complex identity-defining reasoning.
“I declare that I will be a loyal citizen to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and I obligate myself to respecting its laws.”
Isn’t it funny how a seemingly blasé statement, echoing the sentiments of the majority of society, can be so provocative and divisive depending on the context? I am of course referring to the spanking new loyalty oath which the Israeli cabinet passed last week. Despite being a loyal citizen to the State as both a Jewish and democratic state, and obligating myself to not only respecting but actually keeping the laws, the whole episode has left me nauseous.
The problem is that there is no one practically affected by the oath. Current citizens are not required to say it, and Jews repatriating to Israel don’t need to bother with the technicality. That leaves us with non-Jewish immigrants to Israel or more precisely, immigrants to Israel who have not come on Aliyah as defined by the Law of Return. I wanted to find out how many people this could be so I turned to the usually excellent Central Bureau of Statistics (למ"ס) and found nothing. There are plenty of figures for Olim, internal immigration and even numbers of foreign workers with expired work visas, but no non-Aliyah immigration. It’s not even featured in the opening document that defines terms and conditions. This statistical data gives us a good indication as to how many people will actually be required to say the words in the loyalty oath.
The true practical ramification of the loyalty oath is yet another political success chalked up for Avigdor Lieberman and the Yisrael Beitenu party. He has done the unthinkable in Israeli politics: come good on election promises. “No citizenship without loyalty” was Lieberman’s electioneering mantra, a message he aimed at Israel’s Arab minority, claiming to be the only politician who really “understands Arabic”. These thinly veiled slogans were surprisingly popular at the polls and Yisrael Beitenu recorded an unprecedented number of seats in the Knesset and became the third largest party with around 11% of the vote.
And here lies the problem. In Israel, a party wielding 11% of the vote is a political powerhouse. They can demand the portfolios of the Foreign Ministry, the Tourism Ministry, the National Infrastructures Ministry and the Absorption Ministry. Their leader can voice party propaganda as State of Israel policy at the UN, openly call for the demise of the Peace talks and suggest that the citizenship of certain Arab-Israeli Members of Knesset be stripped. Not bad for a party with only 15 members of Knesset, two of whom who happen to be ex-models, once again (and somewhat sadly) unrepresentative of the rest of Israeli society.
For those who argue that the loyalty oath is just a step in the long path of state building, I would recommend not to expect any great leaps forward. All we need to look at is the Knesset Committee on Constitution, Law and Judiciary. Since 1949, this committee has been charged with putting a constitution together stage by stage. Despite being headed by some exceptional individuals, it has been a fairly ineffective committee, achieving some impressive legislation ideas, but in practical terms, zilch.
What the loyalty oath screams out more than anything is the pressing need for electoral reform in Israel. We need a higher threshold for parties to get into the Knesset, creating stronger, larger parties who will no longer need to pander to the smaller upstarts in order to retain power.
The license plates on the cars in DC may cynically complain of “taxation without representation”, and Israeli proportional representation may be more democratic, but it produces weak, ineffectual governments in a country desperate for strong leadership.
The loyalty oath is an unnecessary piece of policy that reflects our system rather than our soul. Don’t judge Israel too harshly for it. On a brighter note, at least we didn’t end it with “…so help me God” – that really would have been the last straw.
What’s going on with the Redskins? They’re playing a beautiful running game, yet can’t win enough games. The quarterback has a strong arm but the plays aren’t finishing. And their coach is sidelining the older players and introducing fresh blood to the squad. For many it will already be obvious, but I have no idea what I am talking about. When watching American football I am a tourist, a small child who has walked into the middle of a movie and enjoys the costumes. The intricacy is lost on me. And yet, I still enjoy it. I love the pomp and circumstance around the game, the choreographed posturing and most of all the ability of monstrously muscled men to wear spandex and slap each other’s behinds. I am apparently not alone in my enjoyment of this liberated behavior: there were almost 90,000 spectators at the last Redskins game. If this had been in Israel and they had stayed the night it would have made the stadium one of the top ten population centers in the country.
I am a Redskins fan for two very important reasons. First, it endears me to the natives and second, and most importantly, they wear red. And red is the team color of Hapoel. Sport in Israel is as politicized and socially charged as everything else, sometimes even more so. There have been academic works tracing political phenomena through soccer events. Supporting a certain sports team carries with it a distinct political statement. I live in Jerusalem, a stone’s throw from Teddy Stadium – the home of the notorious Beitar Jerusalem. Beitar should be my team, they are the view from my roof, they have all the drama of an ill-fated underperforming team with a string of insane billionaire owners (see: Russian arms dealer Arkady Gaydamark, and Brazilian energy giant Guma Aguiar). Yet I cannot support Beitar, I am repulsed by the politics of the fans. When the team captain Barak Yitzchaki said in a radio interview that he would be happy to have Arab teammates playing on the team, the leaders of the fanbase took him for a drive and the next day he apologized for his insensitive comments.
The ultra-nationalism of Beitar is opposed by the liberal (sometimes fanatically so) ideas of the Hapoel Tel Aviv fan base. Hapoel has always been ethnically diverse and proudly so, with many of the National soccer team’s Arab-Israelis having come from the Hapoel bench. The current captain is Walid Badir – an Israeli-Arab from Kfar Qasim, and he is regularly joined by Salim Touama from Lod, and Maaran Lala a Druze Arab from the Galilee. With Arab-Israelis being an important 20% minority of Israeli society, having them represented on the sports field is an important sign of integration.
But the significance of sports in Israel goes deeper than this. The red of Hapoel signifies its socialist roots and values, while the yellow of Maccabi has come to symbolize a more capitalistic attitude. The names and symbols of the teams are also Jewishly charged. And Menorot, ancient historical references and Zionist propaganda adorn the sports stadia.
While I will continue to drink light beer and cheer football plays I do not understand, I am beginning to miss Israeli sports. But believe me, not for their quality. I am beginning to miss the areas of our lives in Israel which are steeped in Jewish and Israeli tradition and we take it totally for granted. I admire the effort that the American Jewish community puts into creating Jewish relevance in their lives. But all I have to do is watch a soccer match.
So it’s goodbye to Rahm Emanuel as he leaves the White House and heads for Chicago. In Israel there has been a healthy mix of contradictory emotions towards Rahm, and I think it’s fair to say that we just don’t get him. His father fought in the Etzel (fairly extreme freedom fighters in the pre-State period) and that’s gotta mean something doesn’t it? Yet Rahm has been at the President’s shoulder throughout one of the roughest rides in the US-Israel friendship. Has he been the provocateur stirring the proverbial chulent pot? Yet he brought the family to Israel for his son’s Bar Mitzvah, he wore Bermuda shorts in Eilat and looked uncomfortable next to Bibi in a hotel in Jerusalem. You’ve got to love Israel if you do that, don’t you?
He’s a committed Jew, with his youngest child attending a local Jewish day school, he plays hardball and swears like a trooper – all facts which endear him to the average Israeli. But we just don’t get him, either you’re with us or your against us. It’s just that simple, right?
We have come across this conundrum in the past with an even more prominent American Jewish statesman, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger boasted to a group of leading American Jews in a closed meeting in 1974 that he had personally made the decision which helped Israel win the Yom Kippur War (despite much evidence to the contrary); but then in a meeting with the Iraqi Foreign Minister in 1975, Kissinger offered him a “small, friendly Israel” cut back to her earlier size. Israeli politicians from Rabin to Sharon always made a point to get Kissinger’s blessing, yet Kissinger hobnobbed with the Syrians and Egyptians just as congenially. We couldn’t work out Kissinger’s loyalties, and the Israeli nationalist protests against him have only been matched by those against the Obama administration, and Rahm Emanuel.
But both Rahm and Kissinger have been clear about their allegiance. They have acted and lobbied for policies which they believed were in the best interest for their country, America. They have connections with their Jewish identity, Rahm much more so than Kissinger, but their ultimate national loyalty lies, as befits the positions they held, with their nation. Rahm Emanuel acted how a million Liberal Jews in his position would have done, faced with a new President at his side and a strong right-leaning Israeli coalition government opposite him. I also cannot blame Rahm for some of the controversial policy decisions and poor political plays coming out of Israel during his time in office –even an AIPAC mole in the White House would have slapped his forehead in despair.
Yet Rahm still leaves me scratching my head concerning divided loyalties. I feel that the old chestnut youth-movement question: ‘What are you more – American or Jewish?’ needs to be updated. American Jews have proved that both loyalties can coexist, even complement each other, but what happens when we throw Israel into the mix? If a core tenet of Jewish Identity is a connection with the State of Israel, can a Jewish American ever be truly impartial? If they can are they any less of a Jew? And if they can’t are they any less of an American?
The bottom line is whether political ideologies, American identity and relationship to Israel can honestly align. I get the impression that many American Jews are compartmentalizing and in the long-run that can’t be healthy. I wonder what the alternatives might be.
Anton Goodman is the Jewish Agency Israel Engager Shaliach to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Anton is an English-born Israeli, with an interest in implementing social initiatives in Israeli society, cutting-edge culture, and studies towards an MA in Public Policy. In addition to enjoying a heady mix of local politics and soul-lifting Americana, Anton aims to spark debate concerning the State of Israel’s role in American Jewish life. This weekly blog is one platform for that goal.