Sojourn in the Middle East

By Eli Braun

“The weather in this country really makes me sweat. It’s sticky and humid and thick. I put on sunscreen and a hat, but I still sweat. It’s the weather I can’t stand. That, and the Jews. I don’t love this antipathy for the Jews; it’s depressing that my long-time infatuation with Jewishness and Judaism would end this way. But I do love that I hate the weather. When people ask me why I itch to return to the USA, I can blame the weather. People understand and sympathize; we nod at each other. If you ever need to reject the Jewish People, just cite the weather.”

January: To be a Jew and an American, to be so egregious to say: when I left the United States and came to Israel, I left one diaspora and entered another. I am a diaspora Jew, a landless, people-of-the-book Jew. Homelands make me nervous. But here I am in Israel. Looking up the Hebrew word “galut,” meaning diaspora, in an English-Hebrew dictionary, I see that the adjective “galuti” is translated as “ghetto-like.” I suppose that’s how Israelis like to remember the diaspora.

January 25: Tu B’Shvat: It’s the Jewish “birthday of the trees,” a day for social action. With Rabbis for Human Rights, I head to the West Bank town of Biddu to work alongside Palestinian farmers in the field. It feels more productive than stapling fliers to telephone poles. But too much involvement draws out the outrage and anger until you become a raging lunatic full of human-rights-this and social-justice-that and blab and blab and no one knows what to do with you anymore.

March: I have come to know the city of Be’er Sheva. And everyday, I am horrified and amused. In downtown Be’er Sheva, Jabotinsky St., named for the fascist Zionist leader, meets Derekh HaShalom, “the way of peace.” Is that a joke? Or simply as nonsensical as the intersection of Golda Meir Ave. and Abravanel St., where the former prime minister meets the medieval Jewish philosopher? Even that seems somewhat normal compared to my daily walk down Warsaw Ghetto Uprising St. The intersections seem random but aren’t totally random. In 1948, the city of Bir as-Saba’ was predominantly Arab, but now, even the streets of Be’er Sheva are Jewish.

April: I volunteer to teach English at a Bedouin encampment that the Israeli government refuses to recognize. The village school provides its own electricity, its own water, its own funds. I want to support these people, the victims of an ethnocratic state. But how should I interact with an oppressed minority group which, in turn, oppresses its own? The Bedouin children I taught were shocked to learn that I have “only” three siblings. In a society where polygamy is expected, some of these children have a dozen siblings or more. I am witnessing a different world, one with anti-feminist values. And yet, confusingly, a world oppressed by the industrialized society I know as my own.

May 11: Yom HaZikaron / Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day: The sirens ring out across the land. In this country where “everyone knew someone,” every person stops, stands, and bows the head for the one-minute siren. I look around at these solemn people and think of my friends in Tel Aviv and know that they are also standing at this very moment. And I think of George Orwell’s party member of 1984, and a quip by the French philosopher Ernest Renan:

“A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors.”

Everyone around me is standing; people have gotten out of their cars, stopped serving their coffee, stopped walking their dogs. They’re all standing, all solemn, all something. It’s powerful, seeing everyone stopped, busy highways stopped. A shiver of meaning runs down my spine.

I snap awake. Revert. “You are all individuals,” declares the state. “We are all individuals,” they answer. And still, everyone knew someone. Dead now, six feet under, a statistic. Everyone’s still standing for this siren. And it keeps going.

May 26: Lag B’Omer: The “grave” of second-century sage Shimon bar Yohai is swarming with a half-million ultra-Orthodox Jewish nuts: Mt. Meron on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. It seems everyone is dressed up as the Lubavitcher Rebbe – a man eleven years dead but no less ubiquitious. Many here oppose the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. At times, I can’t figure out whether I am standing at a religious celebration or an anti-disengagement rally. The colorful combination of black (religious) and orange (anti-disengagement) reminds me of Halloween. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk by, intruding with their forceful eyes, jiggling their tzedakah boxes, even tugging at my clothing. I meet one Brotslover hasid who’s collecting money for an upcoming pilgrimage to Poland, to the home of his hasidic master. “Not a very good Zionist,” was all I could think to say.

A religious man, exuding passion, stops to greet me. I engage. “You know what I’d like?” I jest. “One of those ‘The Rebbe opposes the disengagement’ posters.” Perfect for the wall of my room.

“Yea,” he says, “the Rebbe’s been saying that for years.”

I pause. Should I tell him the Rebbe is dead?

“I mean,” continues the nut, “he said it about Yamit [in Sinai], he said it about… ya know… anywhere Jews live, any land God gave us. It’s forbidden, it’s just so obvious, I just can’t explain.” We sit silently for few minutes, taking in the apparent tragedy of the situation. “But all is for the good,” he adds firmly, “mashiach [messiah] is coming; it’s for the good.”

In the meantime, some teenage boys have climbed to the roof over Shimon bar Yohai’s grave to hang anti-disengagement banners claiming “the land of Israel for the people of Israel.” One of the bonfires that marks this holiday goes wild and the mountain is on fire, but nobody notices. The mountaintop is all confusion between the hasidic mosh-pit, the holiday bonfires, and the Halloween festivities. But one thing is clear: the former Lubavitcher Rebbe and Shimon bar Yohai oppose the disengagement from Gaza, now just three months away – barring divine intervention.

Thousands flock each year to see the burial sites of their famous rabbis, though no one knows whether they’re actually buried there – well, it depends whom you ask. The real question, though, is what to do when your holy people are buried in another’s city, when the Cave of Machpelah becomes Hebron.

Israelis have many attitudes toward religion: some people are hostile, others indifferent, and many secretly fond of it. Some think the messiah is coming any day now. The most-religious and god-fearing seclude themselves in their ghettos, keeping distance from the blasphemers and fornicators. The most-secular flaunt tattoos and nose-rings, do drugs and alcohol, acclaim free love, and view religious tradition as misguided quaintness at best. Each is an abomination to the other. Each overlooks the similarity inherent in being systematic, articulate, and fervent ideologues.

It’s all-out war sometimes and secularism is winning. I know it when the daughter of the Israeli Chief Rabbi meets boys on jdate.com, and when my Israeli Jewish suitemate breaks out in song: “Heeey Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know, oh oh oh.” I ask my other suitemate whether he keeps the Sabbath day and he replies proudly that he “keeps not to keep.”

April-May: Like everyone here, I’m addicted to the news. Every few weeks, I see an editorial by a West Bank settler, explaining how the land of his or her particular settlement was nothing but a desolate rocky landscape before the Jews arrived. And look, now it’s blossoming. “A land without a people for a people without a land,” as the old Zionist motto proclaims. And I think of those early idealistic socialist immigrants getting off the boat and realizing: Oh shoot, another people already lives here. No, it was not how the Jews envisioned their freedom, saturated in bitterness.

Every Jewish person, religious or secular – it doesn’t appear to matter – seems concerned about the growing non-Jewish population. Forty-two percent of Jewish Israelis think non-Jewish Israelis should emigrate. Another 17% “tend to agree” (Ha’aretz 4 Apr 2005). But no one can quite escape the oddity that a million and a half Arabs have citizenship in the Jewish state. Exclusion comes both de jure and de facto in “the only democracy in the Middle East,” where an Israeli Arab can’t get citizenship for his or her non-Jewish spouse and where non-Jews can’t purchase state land. Nationality here is not about citizenship. “Israeliness” is a long-neglected and irrelevant concept. “Jewishness” is all there is to it. Indeed, the fight for real democracy in Israel has been side-tracked as Israeli Jews refuse to allow the internal Jewish-Arab conflict to overshadow the bloodier, external one.

I debate my politics professor, trying to understand her motivations in avoiding the word “racist” in describing “discriminatory” government policies. I don’t think she appreciates it. So she struck back. A classmate comments on Israel’s “demographic problem” – a code phrase for “oh no, the Arabs are multiplying; they’ll overtake us!” My professor explains that the rate of Arab population-increase is actually decreasing, partly because the ultra-Orthodox population, which has as many as a dozen children per family, is rapidly reproducing. And I can’t help but add, under my breath: “like rabbits.” But she overhears and responds, “now THAT’S racist.” I decide to keep my mouth shut and not remind her that taking the “demographic problem” seriously is also racist. But that’s a pretty good description of the Middle East: everyone competes to see how racist they can be.

The “Holy Land”: it’s been said many times before: a holey land, full of holes. Does anybody know why? Is it because of the ubiquitous bullet holes, or the dotted settlement blocs sprinkled across the West Bank? Or because of the holes where shrapnel and nails have entered the spinal cords of suicide bomb survivors? I meet a few of them. “If it had been two centimeters to the right…” they say. Oh yeah, I remind myself, they use the metric system in Israel. At last, a sane thought.

June: The semester closes. I leave the university and cross the Egyptian border into the Sinai wilderness, seeking adventure. I wander out a week later, but not before feeling the awesome humility that comes with standing in the middle of 60,000 square kilometers of uninterrupted desert. The redness of the rock glows with sunset and sunrise, and life is suddenly very simple.

July: For the summer, I move to an immigrant absorption center in Ra’anana, an upper-middle-class Jewish city just north of Tel Aviv where I’ve procured cheap housing. After one person tells me that he would “rather get killed by an Arab in Israel than by a kawfir in South Africa,” I decide to stop asking these new immigrants why they’ve moved to Israel. But another person, sweet and optimistic, tells me: “Yep, made aliyah, I’m here for life. I smile and laugh here more than I ever did.”

It’s a Jewish national dream, where people speak in Jewish, work in Jewish, and live in Jewish. In late nights, I wonder: when did Jewish become a nationality; how was I abandoned in the diaspora? No, they say, Jewish has always been a nationality. An anti-Zionist Jew is no Jew at all.

I work as a counselor for 8-12 year-olds. As a student from the states, I’m very popular. My kids want to know when I’m making aliyah, whether I keep kosher and observe the Sabbath and fast on Yom Kippur. They tug at my shirt, wanting my opinion on the disengagement from Gaza, though they can’t tell me where Gaza is, much less who lives there. They just repeat the questions their parents ask. Everybody asks. Everyone wants to know whether I’m Jewish. Or better: whether I’m “a Jew.”

Jew?

What do you mean by “Jew?”

Jew?

I don’t want to answer.

Jew?

Why does it matter?

Jew?

Leave me alone!

Jew?

Damn it. If it’s a yes-or-no question, then your answer is No.

Everybody asks. My fellow university students, the bus drivers, the people at the café, the post-office clerk… But I am a human being! Take your xenophobic Jewishness, your box-me Jewishness, and shove it up your obsessive Jewish ass! But I smile politely and take off to the bus station. I travel to see family in the evenings. I have family in Jerusalem, Ramat Aviv, Carmiel, Haifa, and Ra’anana. When the university students, bus drivers, and post-office clerks find out I see family on the weekends, family here in Israel, then they know I must be Jewish and it gives them relief.

August: I let my iconoclastic urge take over, and commence my pilgrimages to the Mount of Olives, the Garden Tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Beatitudes, and the Sea of Galilee. I follow the monks along the Via Dolorosa and wander the caves beneath the Church of Nativity. I ascend the Temple Mount to the Dome of the Rock and peer into Al-Aksa. I am a well-traveled, spoiled man. I have seen the grave of Yizhak Rabin in Jerusalem and of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. I have traveled through Jericho, Abu Dis, East Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. I have built houses in Anata and planted trees in Biddu. I have trekked through the Negev desert and played in the waterfalls of the Golan. I have dipped in the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Mediterranean, and have floated down the Jordan River. I have smiled a lot in recent months.

But I am alone. A Jew without a homeland. An American without a religion. I don’t know how to identify anymore. So I say I’m an individual, yes, an individual, and I raise my head and straighten my back. I am an individual. It’s sad, though, to be an individual first and an individual last, to be the kind of person who presses the elevator button when it’s already lit and kisses with his eyes open.

It’s impossible to write anything about the Middle East without upsetting someone, probably someone you love. Surely someone will be angry with me – for neglecting to mention the house demolitions in East Jerusalem or the wall separating Palestinian farmers from their land, for not adequately denouncing the suicide attacks in Jerusalem or the bomber who killed four people in front of their fiancés at a Tel Aviv night-club last February. Maybe I lack historical perspective and don’t understand how much “they hate us.” But I see no reason to identify with the Israelis over the Palestinians. If both are pusillanimous and parochial, eternally victims, I’d rather be alone.

Eli Braun graduated from Brown University in Providence, RI, in 2006, where he studied religion and writing. In 2005, he attended Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, Israel. He works for the bioethics department of SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY.