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. 

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