Saturday, April 30, 2011

Yevus, Yevus, Yevus

Three stars in the sky and she left us for another week. As Shabbat exited, the J Street Leadership Mission entered.

We opened with a dinner featuring Bernard Avishai, the author of a NY Times Magazine article detailing how close Israelis and Palestinians were to negotiating a final peace agreement in September 2008, and Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, a former Fatah Cabinet Minister, who been taken hostage and had his home destroyed by Hamas.

Sufyan spoke first, as he was scheduled to make a television appearance on a Hamas broadcast. News had broken earlier this week that the two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, who had been in open and sometimes violent conflict with each other, reached a reconciliation agreement. Much of the Israeli press and an overwhelming majority of Israeli politicians greeted the announcement quite harshly, with Prime Minister Netanyahu telling Fatah they must choose between Hamas and peace, and President Shimon Peres, calling it a "fatal mistake."

Sufyan, who welcomed the reconciliation, explained that he expected Netanyhu's reaction because it provided him with a convenient excuse for refusing to negotiate. But Sufyan was surprised by Peres's statement. Sufyan believes that a unified Palestinian body politic is necessary in order to have the legitimacy to conclude a deal with the Israelis. In fact, that is the precise point Israelis had made to him in the past - that without a unified Palestinian partner, there was no use negotiating. And now that it appears that the Palestinian factions are uniting, the unification is being offered as an excuse not to negotiate.

Bernie provided a look into the Israeli political map. He posited that Israelis are basically divided into two unofficial political parties: the Greater Israel Party and the Globalist Israel Party. The Greater Israel Party, he said, was made up of about 35% of the population (tracking the percentage of respondents in a poll who felt that Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, should be freed). The Greater Israel Party had little regard for democracy and could never be persuaded to agree to a two-state solution. To this 35%, he added another 10-20% who are favorably disposed toward them. That leaves 45-55% in the Globalist Israel Party, who want to be bring about a deal, recognizing that the businesses in European countries, to whom Israel exports billions of dollars of technology, will be unwilling to continue business as usual if Israel proceeds on its current path. Accordingly, we are now witnessing the Israeli business class's emerging support for a two-state solution. Strangely enough, my former roommate from my Jerusalem days made a similar point just yesterday, telling me that he will be selling his Israeli stocks ahead of the planned September UN vote on Palestinian statehood. My former roommate has a bit of a track record here. Coming back from his reserve duty in Gaza in 1991, he told me, "Richie, we have to leave that place. I've never seen such hate in people's eyes." It took a little while, but Israel eventually left Gaza.

Bernie explained that while the business elites had been unwilling to take on the "Judeans" referring to the hardcore 35%, for the sake of the Palestinians, they would be willing to do so for their own interests.

For me, Bernie's point provided some optimism. A law professor of mine once explained the golden rule: those with the gold make the rules. If this holds true, there may yet be room for hope.

Bernie's wife, Sidra Ezrahi, a professor of comparative Jewish literature concluded the evening with three love poems. So after suffering through this somewhat sluggish post -- it's approaching 1:00 a.m. and I'm hoping to get up and run to a place in Jerusalem where I used to live for a short while once upon a time, and make it back in time for breakfast -- I'll leave you with her final reading, a Yehuda Amichai poem, Jerusalem 1967:

The city plays hide-and-seek among her names:
Yerushalayim, al-Quds, Salem, Jeru, Yeru,
Whispering her first name: Yevus, Yevus, Yevus, in the dark.
She weeps with longing: Ælia Capitolina, Ælia, Ælia.
She comes to anyone who calls her at night, alone.
But we know who comes to whom.

Friday, April 29, 2011


Realized that no one has posted comments. Not sure if that speaks more about my postings or my blogging skills. Didn't realize the comment section had been turned off. Just turned it on, so I guess we'll find out.

Sheikh Jarrah


Just back from taking part in the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration. The most important thing to know about what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is that Palestinians are being evicted from their homes and Jews, who claim title to the land are moving in. After Israel's War of Independence, East Jerusalem, including Sheikh Jarrah, fell under Jordanian rule. Jews were forced from their homes, and Palestinians moved in. In many cases, Jewish claimants have legal title to the land. So what's the problem? The problem is that it doesn't work both ways. Israeli law prohibits Palestinians, who were forced from their homes in what is now Israel proper, for example in Jaffa, from making the same claim as their Jewish counterparts. In other words, the law is discriminatory.

The people who show up at the weekly demonstrations come at the issue from a variety of perspectives. There is an obvious problem with the law's injustice and the immediate impact on the families who are evicted. There are also very real consequences for the viability of a two-state solution. Under the framework that has been negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians since at least 2001, there is an understanding that  Jerusalem will be shared in some fashion, with Palestinian neighborhoods falling under Palestinian rule and Jewish neighborhoods remaining under Israeli sovereignty. Replacing Palestinian neighborhoods with Jewish ones lessens what one side will receive and increases the other side's take. The oft used analogy is to a negotiation over a pizza, where one side is eating the pizza while he negotiates and the other is too far from the table to reach the pizza. There is also the problem of drawing a border. As Israel gets a Jewish foothold in neighborhoods like Sheik Jarrah, it becomes nearly impossible to draw a border allowing for a contiguous Palestinian presence in the West Bank.

I walked over to the demonstration a block or two away from the hotel and started talking to some people beginning to gather. It was a beautiful afternoon with the sun starting to lower but still providing warmth. Palestinian kids were shouting "Tapuzim! Tapuzim!" offering fresh squeezed orange juice for 10 shekels. It felt like a picnic.The first two people I spoke to were Israeli students at Hebrew University. They were involved with Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, the group that organizes the demonstration. I told them that I was with J Street and they introduced me to Sara Benninga, the group's leader, who was honored at J Street's annual conference in February. I was awed by her smile. If you click the hyperlink you'll know what I mean. We walked a few blocks and stopped in front of buildings that had recently been taken over and chanted in Hebrew, Arabic and English to the beat of a drum. I asked a woman next to me to help translate a word on a sign on one of the buildings. "The Sons Return to Their Borders." Sara then came by and spoke a few words with the woman.

When Sara walked away, the woman said, "That's my daughter."

"Mazel tov," I told her. And Shabbat was that much closer.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem

Feels great to be back in Jerusalem! Above are a few snapshots from Mahane Yehuda, a market in Jerusalem, where people make their last purchases ahead of Shabbat. Take it from me, a kid who grew up in Skokie eating Carson's ribs, if you want to know what Shabbat is, come to Jerusalem and feel it fall over the city. Its beauty is inescapable.

Anyway, enough hocus pocus for now. I checked into the American Colony Hotel, which deserves its own post, and am headed to the weekly Friday demonstration in Sheik Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem, where Jews and non-Jews alike gather to protest the expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Update to follow.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Little Non-Controversy to Get Things Started

The right wing noise machine in Israel is getting silly before the J Street mission even begins.

Here's J Street's statement setting the record straight:

"The report published today in Israel Hayom concerning J Street’s schedule during its upcoming Leadership Mission to Israel is false.  J Street has many meetings scheduled with Israeli officials from President Peres to Deputy Prime Minister Meridor, to the Leader of the Opposition and multiple members of Knesset.  J Street will be visiting Ramallah to meet with Prime Minister Fayyad on Wednesday not on Monday as reported, and the cocktail reception for our supporters in Israel begins after Yom HaShoah ends Monday evening."

Fatah and Hamas agree to historic Palestinian reconciliation deal - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Fatah and Hamas agree to historic Palestinian reconciliation deal - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Like I said earlier, the situation here is very fluid. Lots of instant analysis available, which usually proves worthless. Rather than throw my half-baked ideas into this mix I hope to be able to provide some information pulled from our upcoming meetings with some of the relevant actors. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Making My Way to Jerusalem

I said goodbye to Ayelet and her three kids this morning, as they went back to school after Passover vacation and Ari drove me to the train station in Nahariya. Heading toward Tel Aviv and eventually to Jerusalem in order to attend the regular Friday afternoon protest at Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and get that fix that only Shabbat slowly edging its way into Jerusalem gives me. More on Jerusalem and the protests in another post. In the meantime, I want to put in a plug for the Israeli rail system. Clean, comfortable, with outlets to charge mobile and laptops. Great way to move around the country.

Last night we had a conference call for the J Street mission and our itinerary is coming into focus and keeps getting fuller. I'm eager to meet everyone in our delegation. I have a very important meeting set for the start of the mission that was somehow left off of the official agenda -- a drink on the balcony at the King David with one of the J Street organizers, and anyone else who cares to join.

But the most important news of the day is that it is my Ari's 14th birthday today. Can't wait to give her a big birthday hug and kiss (and see that second and last ear piercing she got yesterday) when I get home!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Day One

There was evening and there was morning, one day.

Early Sunday evening, after 24 hours of travel, I arrived just in time for the last Passover meal with my friend Ayelet's family in Kfar Vradim, a beautiful village in the Galilee. The meal was held at her parents' and joined by her husband, Ari, their three kids, and her sister and brother-in-law and their three kids. It had been 16 years since I had been here last and it was like being welcomed by family -- with the bonus that they are Sephardic and eat rice during Passover. So having survived 24 hours of travel on matzoh and a couple pieces of fruit, this Ashkenazi Jew gladly partook. Okay, green beans too. (Note to my girls at home: Ilana and Ari, keep it on the down low, no need to tell mom.) Thoroughly exhausted, once I hit the pillow I was out.

In the morning, I awoke to the fragrance of jasmine and lemon trees, and couldn't wait to go out for my first run. I covered about seven miles, going from Ayelet's house to a Druze village called Yanoch. Last time I ran hills like this was at a race in Vail. Here, in the Village of Roses (the English translation of Kfar Vradim), there is a stretch of about a mile straight up to the clouds. Park Avenue hill in Highland park, this was not. Reaching the summit (at least for me) at Yanoch gave me a great expansive view of the insanely blue Mediterranean.

After breakfast, four of us - Ayelet, Ari and their 13 year old daughter, Yael, who gently peppered me the night before with questions of how I'm able to represent "guilty" people, and me - went on a light hike not too far from the Lebanese border and then stopped in Acco, before we headed for the day's destination, Kibbutz Yagur, where I studied on an ulpan for six months covering the first of the Scud missile attacks in January 1991. We first dropped in for coffee with my former ulpan teacher, and then met with my "adopted family" at the kibbutz. The highlight was seeing their 28 year old daughter, Nofar, who was eight when I was in the ulpan program. It was my time with Nofar twenty years ago that made realize that I wanted to have children of my own. And to see her grown up, with her same brimming smile, and now assistant finance director of the kibbutz was really something.

Our final visit at Yagur was with Phil and Vered. Phil had made aliyah from New York and I used to sit at their house, drink beer and talk baseball and listen to music with him, while Ayelet and Vered looked on at us like a couple of crazy Americans. I also knew Phil's politics, and I had had such a terrific time being "non-political" the evening before and all during the day that when he asked me what I was doing in Israel, I told him that I would be joining up with a "group" on Saturday in Jerusalem. He dismissively inquired whether I was going with a tour group, which considering the amount of time I had spent in Israel and my experiences during that time, would have been justified. But I'm not going with a tour group and I told him that I was with J Street. So it began. The only thing worse than arguing with a J Street critic, is arguing with a J Street critic from New York. Still, at the end of our "discussion" it appeared that our main difference was how  Jerusalem's Old City should be addressed, confirming that for a lot of people it ain't so much about the lyrics as it is about the music, which may seem encouraging until you consider that the music they really want to hear drowns out the lyrics they probably don't. Anyway, we respect each other enough that we parted quite amiably and wished each other well.

On the ride back to Kfar Vradim, the "non-political" Ayelet and Ari, with whom I had been maintaining a great ongoing dialogue about J Street, Zionism, post-Zionism, and religion's place in the state, continued the discussion.They are both sympathetic to my position, though not totally convinced that a solution is achievable.  I was only happy to oblige, but reminded them that it was Phil and they who turned the conversation to the political. After writing my last post, and clearing my head during my morning run, I thought I had judged the fashion designer too harshly. She was truly smart, and I sincerely liked her and understood her position. So, I had challenged myself  not to turn everything in the political. Being here, afterall, you could swear Jews will be celebrating joyous Pesach meals in Israel at homes like Yossi and Leah's in Kfar Vradim, forever, regardless of what the situation with the Palestinians turns out to be. As if to prove the point, we soon arrived to Yossi and Leah's to "break" Pesach with falafel, pita, and a little arak. And then to put the point too fine, we attended Mimouna, the Moroccan celebration of the end of Pesach, marked with sweets and music.

What is it that they see that I don't; and vice-versa?

There was evening and there was morning, one day. And then some.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Flight to Israel

After a two and a half hour delay at O'Hare, I misssed my connecting flight to Israel, and caught the next flight out of Newark, about 7 hours later. Made it through the day on a box of matzoh, two apples, a bannana and a bottle of Naked juice. On the plane, I sat next to an Israeli woman, maybe a couple years older than me, and her daughter. She had a striking resemblance to my sister-in-law, Judy. She was reading Orwell's 1984 in Hebrew, so Iasked her about that and we started talking. The woman had taken her daughter to California as a gift for her bat mitzvah.

After asking me what I was going to be doing in Israel, she told me that she was "not political." (My friend Ayelet, who I will be staying with for the first few days here, had said the same thing when we spoke last week - that she wasn't political.) That's not to say that she didn't have feelings or opinions. Because she expressed both very well. She lamented the political situation and felt very discouraged about any prospect for change. She was a fashion designer and at one time had a lot of her clothing manufactured in Gaza. She said had made friends there and that the people she interacted with in Gaza just wanted to make a life for themselves and their families. But since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the ensuing chaos, she has her clothing lines manufactured in China and makes regular trips there.Which I suppose allows her to be "non-political" in the sense that she does not feel the urge or need to act on her political leanings.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Shalom Chevrai

OK, so it's like this. On Saturday, I'm going back to Israel for two weeks. And I'll be blogging and tweeting this time. Don't know who will be following my posts or tweets. Neither does my sister, who at our Seder, asked somewhat incredulously, "Who's going to follow you?" Like I said, I don't know. But here goes.

Let me set the scene. I was last in Israel in 1995 with my wife, Debi, and our daughter, Ilana, who was basically a newborn at 5 months. Saw some of my old friends, attended a wedding of my old roommate from my days in Jerusalem. I loved every minute of it; Deb loved the King David. She was a terrific sport. I don't know many women who would've taken their babies on a three week tour of Israel. So now 16 years have passed. As cliched and lame as it sounds, the time never seemed right to get back. I repeated "next year" so often, I'm sure my friends in Israel thought I had gotten lost in a Haggadah. And listening to myself repeat the mantra of "next year," I feared that I had gotten lost in Wrigley Field. Alas, no.

"What's the big deal and what do you have to tweet about anyway?" Fair question.Well, it goes something like this. Two years ago after reading about a friend of mine taking a position with J Street, I called to congratulate him and asked how I could get involved. He told me. Cutting to the chase, I have become active in (my family says addicted to) J Street. After kicking myself for passing on J Street's first mission to Israel, Palestine and Jordan - where I missed out on an audience with Queen Rania - I made sure I'd be on this year's trip. The mission officially starts on April 30 in Jerusalem, although I'll arrive early to see my old friends.

The J Street itinerary is pretty packed. We'll be meeting with political leaders in Israel and in the West Bank, human rights organizations, and a variety cultural figures. So my plan is to blog and tweet about my impressions of what's happening on the ground. From Chicago the situation appears to be very fluid. A cease fire seems to have taken hold in Gaza, at least for now. The Palestinians are poised to seek international recognition at the UN in September. Earlier in the month former Israeli security officials, including ex-heads of the IDF, Mossad and Shin-Bet, presented a peace plan which would recognize a Palestinian state on something approximating the 1967 borders. (I know, a pretty naive bunch.) This morning 21 Israel Prize winners declared their support for a Palestinian state, and were met by jeering right wing demonstrators. Against this backdrop, the Israeli prime minister will be addressing a joint session of Congress in May, during which it is expected that he will offer some plan or another of his own.

So after 16 years, this year finally arrived. Without being overly dramatic, I feel like Morgan Freeman's character in Shawshank Redemption, getting on that Trailways bus and can barely sit still long enough to hold a thought in my head. Hopefully that will pass and I'll be able to not only hold a thought but express it on this blog. I'll also be tweeting here:

P.S. Below is an Open Letter to Israel I posted on another blog on the eve of Israel's election two years ago. It is sort of a prequel to this blog.


An Open Letter to Israel

I grew up in Skokie, Illinois. My grandmother, who was one of eight women attorneys admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1932, tutored me in Hebrew. She was an exacting teacher and half teased and half scolded me that I pronounced "Israel," of all words, like a goy. But I persevered; something in me felt some inexplicable connection to Israel, Artzenu, and the language of our heroic brethren. For a 14 or 15 year old Jewish kid in 1980's Skokie, there really was no other choice than to view Israelis in such terms. And certainly not for one of Mar Hoffman's students at Niles North High School. There, we learned as much about Israel's history, culture and politics as we did about conjugating reflexive verbs. Hitahavti, hitahavta, hitahavt . . . . By the time I landed in Israel for the first time in 1987, at age 22, I was already in love.

Once on the ground, Israel did not disappoint. Three weeks I spent volunteering on an army base, and five weeks exploring the country from top to bottom. One evening we dropped into a bar in Haifa, and some elderly man turned to us and for no particular reason told us two stories about "Baron Rothschild." The details of the stories are not that important here, though the first ended with the Baron telling two beggars, who had thought they could take advantage of his generosity, that they could scratch each others' backs. The second, with the Baron remarking that he grew up the son of a shoemaker and that his son grew up the son of a Rothschild. Much later on, and when my two girls were little, I would tell them these Rothschild stories as I tucked them into bed at night.

Yet, my love for Israel was even at that time a mature love. I understood that Israel was not perfect.

Sleeping one night at a beach on the Kinneret, I heard something that has stuck with me to this day. Young kids were running around the beach late at night. Tired and in my sleeping bag, at first I couldn't quite make out the words. Then I clearly heard "Aravim" [Arabs]. Then I heard the word "Mavet" [Death]. And it soon became clear to me that these kids were chanting "Mavet L'Aravim" [Death to the Arabs]. But at the time, this just seemed an aberration and I remained struck by the Kinneret's quiet beauty. 
From there I spent time at the beaches and bars of Tel Aviv, wandering around Jerusalem, Haifa, Naharyia, Netyana, the Golan, sleeping on the hiking trail leading in toward the Banias waterfalls. Fourth of July in Eilat.

When I came back home after that summer to begin my second year of law school, I was determined to find a way to return to Israel. And I found a program that combined a kibbutz ulpan program and a clerkship at the Supreme Court of Israel. So after sitting for the bar, I flew to Israel. It was the summer of 1990, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Scuds would soon be falling on Tel Aviv. It was also the time of Operation Solomon, when Israel flew 15,000 Jews out of Ethiopia. Thousands of immigrants from Russia were still pouring into the country, some of whom I met at Kibbutz Yagur where I spent six months on an uplan program. It is at Kibbutz Yagur that I met Ayelet who took over my Israeli education from my grandmother and Mar Hoffman.

After a year in Israel, I returned home yet again with the plan to pay off my student loans and make aliyah. I exchanged letters with my friends in Israel. And it was Ayelet who told me that my letters read like love letters to Israel. And of course she was right.

Back in Chicago I met my future wife, had a family, and developed a career. Though I've been back a couple times to Israel since, my dreams of aliyah were never realized. I have had to get along with listening to Galai Tzahal on the internet when I arrive at my office in the morning, by reading Yehoshua, Oz, Segev and Morris, perusing Haaretz, occasionally printing Yoel Marcus's columns in Hebrew for the train ride home, waiting for Broza to play in Chicago, searching You Tube for Einstein's black and white videos, and most recently reading on the internet about Maccabi Tel-Aviv's signing of my all time favorite college basketball player, Dee Brown. 

At this point I suppose it is only right to disclose my political leanings. Unabashed peacenik I am. A believer in a two state solution, even today with all that's happened. My love for Israel has never been diminished by my criticism of her governments. In fact, it is my love for Israel that informs my criticisms. Still I have been very troubled, no, sick is the right word, as I read about the rise of Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Beiteinu party. 

And so it was this morning that I checked out the Haaretz website and read an article reporting on Avigdor Lieberman's popularity among Israeli teens. I have included an excerpt below:

The youths, ages 16-18, many of them good friends from school, had stood for a long time before the event began at the intersection near the hotel, waving Israeli flags and shouting "Death to the Arabs" and "No loyalty, no citizenship" at passing cars.
In the tent, they deliberate over what to shout when Lieberman enters: Calling out "The next prime minister" may sound a bit presumptuous with regard to the leader of what's likely to be the third-largest party in the next Knesset. But during a week when Yisrael Beiteinu won the highest level of support in mock high-school polls - the sky's the limit.

"This country has needed a dictatorship for a long time already. But I'm not talking about an extreme dictatorship. We need someone who can put things in order. Lieberman is the only one who speaks the truth." Adds Edan Ivanov, an 18 year old who describes himself as being "up on current events":
"We've had enough here with the 'leftist democracy' - and I put that term in quotes, don't get me wrong. People have put the dictator label on Lieberman because of the things he says. But the truth is that in Israel there can't be a full democracy when there are Arabs here who oppose it.
"All Lieberman's really saying is that anyone who isn't prepared to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, because of his personal views, cannot receive equal rights; he can't vote for the executive authority. People here are gradually coming to understand what needs to be done concerning a person who is not loyal."
Do these ideas fit with what you're learning in civics lessons?
Ivanov: "In my opinion, school doesn't tell it like it is. In school, you want to get a matriculation certificate, you need the grades, but you don't learn the truth there. The truth you learn from the neighborhood, from the street. I don't mean the street in a negative sense - I mean that you learn the truth from what's happening here."
What's happening here?
"We have a problem: Upper Nazareth is surrounded by minorities. There are lots of incidents with them. Women are scared to walk in the streets, and people are afraid they'll be stabbed. No one knows what to do about it at this point. There are people who live here and during a war they act as a fifth column. It will only be possible to make peace with them after we make war."
Is that why people shout "Death to the Arabs"?
"The people who shout 'Death to the Arabs' - they mean death to those who support terror. There are Druze and Bedouin, too, and we have lots of friends who are minorities and we have no problem with them. By the way, there are also a lot of Arabs who come with us to demonstrations and shout 'Death to the Arabs,' meaning 'death to everyone except me.'"
After seeing Lieberman's rise in the polls, after reading this article, I cannot help but conclude that there are fascist winds blowing in Israel. Some winds die out, some gain strength, but that such winds are blowing is no longer in doubt.     

The article prompted me to cut and paste the above excerpt and email it to Ayelet, whose daughter now is pen pals with my daughter, Ari. Only half jokingly, I commented: "You guys can stay with us if things get really bad."

I suppose as with most love affairs, you are bound to get your heart broken. I just didn't expect that it would come like this.

There are now three days left until the election. For me, the election is no longer about war or peace or the Palestinians. It is about the soul of the country I love.