Sunday, November 28, 2010

"You're Living Their Reality"

Of course I knew before coming to Israel that the work I was about to begin was going to be challenging. Being an emotional person, I was certainly nervous to embark on this difficult journey working with people of cultures I had never encountered and dealing with issues I had never been exposed to. But still, you can’t always be prepared for everything.

Last week, after spending an amazing day learning about coexistence and meeting a group of Israelis and Palestinians who participate in cross-cultural understanding programs in Jerusalem, I got a call from my volunteering coordinator, Tamar. She wanted to let Julie and me know that we would no longer be working at the day care center where we have been spending time with the migrant workers’ kids every Wednesday morning. So, first off I have to inform all of you that I have been telling you the wrong thing about the day care center. I had thought that it was run by a governmental organization Mesila; I guess there was a miscommunication at some point. Anyway, the day care center was a privately owned place that was only overseen by Mesila, run by the Tel Aviv Municipality, after it was discovered. Apparently all of the day cares that are associated with Mesila are privately owned and often go a long time without being found because then, they are able to charge less to parents who can’t afford better ones and do not have to follow governmental standards.

Last week, during one of our shifts at this particular day care, a few Israelis came in and looked around. No one said much and then they left. I’m guessing they were checking out the place to see if everything was running smoothly. Obviously it wasn’t. Tamar explained that the owner of the center was warned several times to fix certain aspects of the day care and neglected to do so, ultimately causing her to be forced to shut it down. There is no telling exactly which day care centers the children will now find themselves, but it must be such a difficult adjustment. I felt angry and confused when I found out the news that I would no longer be working with the same children. Julie and I had just felt the week before that we had FINALLY broken some of the barriers with the toddlers especially the tough boys who wouldn’t play with us previously. Now we have to start over with a new set of kids. At first I wasn’t sure if wanted to take on this task, but after thinking it over for maybe 15 minutes I snapped out of my selfish thoughts and realized there was no question. Even spending a few weeks or months with these children I know will make a difference. Sure, it’s going to be emotionally difficult to start over and honestly, it sucks really bad that I didn’t get to say good-bye to the others, but I gotta do it. And you would too if you saw how cute they all were.

When Julie and I met with Tamar to talk about what had happened there, we ended up getting pretty chocked up about the whole thing. It was really tough to think about the parents and their little babies who have to relocate on a second’s notice, especially now because that’s exactly what we have to do too. “You’re living their reality,” Tamar said. And she’s absolutely right.

*Very soon to come: posts about trip to the Dead Sea & Judean Desert as well as a night out with my Sudanese students!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

All or Nothing

Shalom Chaverim, Hello Friends!
I’ve been meaning to fill you in on the recent happenings here in TLV, but you know the drill. The past few weeks have been eye-opening for me in many ways. Let’s forget for a bit that Jews are the majority here in Israel and look at the bigger picture. When doing this, even in Tel Aviv, you’ll be surprised at how much diversity exists in the Jewish State. So, yallah, let’s jump right in.

Two weeks ago (yes, I know I’m behind), we traveled to a town called Abu Ghosh, a few miles outside of Jerusalem. After some of us sampled “The #1 Hummus in the World” in local restaurants and cafes, we made our way through the village to meet Rabbi Ron Kronish, president of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel. Ron had made aliyah probably 30 years ago, but so obviously comes from Florida there is no mistaking his Miami-roots. Sorry to use the stereotype, but think about old American Jews in Florida and all of the characteristics that go with it, and you’ll have Ron. He was a nice guy and to give him some credit, he did speak Hebrew, but I have never heard such a thick American accent. Anyway, our 1st speaker was an Arab Israeli man named Issa (actually I think that was his name; as you can tell, it’s hard for me to keep track of people’s names; they don’t stick because I’m not used to them!) who talked about what it’s like for Arab Israelis living in Israel as the minority as well as the school systems, daily life, etc. I was so enthralled by everything he had to say in his nearly perfect English that I even took notes.

Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, there were a lot of Arabs living on the land here. Then when the Jews declared their own state, most of the Arabs found themselves within the new borders. First reaction: shock. Issa tried to explain that once this happened, these Arab Israelis now had to redefine themselves, find a new identity in a way. I think he was trying to compare Arabs to Diaspora Jews (Jews who live outside of Israel) showing that both peoples have family outside of Israel and also a strong connection to the country. (*Side note: I’m not sure if you can use the terms “Arab Israeli” and “Israeli Arab” interchangeably, but labels are stupid anyway. I think they are the same so in case I switch between the two, there is no significance to that.) It was refreshing to hear his side of the story considering, especially in the US, all we hear is conflict and horrible fighting between religious groups in Israel, but of course that’s not really what it’s like all of the time. Besides, who could even live here if it was that bad? And more importantly, why would I have come here???

A moderate, Issa’s choice of words was very interesting and is still causing me to think about certain things that have never really challenged me before in regards to the State of Israel. First, the Israeli State vs. the Arab/Palestinian Nation. He doesn’t recognize the “Land of Israel,” but gladly accepts the existence of the “State of Israel” and the “Palestinian Territory” (West Bank & Gaza). So what is the difference between the Land and the State? Well, the “Land of Israel” is totally religious and is what god gave to the Jewish people, if you believe that. I remember sitting in the small conference room and having a light bulb go off above my head. Aha! That is genius! Issa also said that it obviously isn’t so easy to be the minority living in the Jewish state, especially when you are part of the enemy religion. He talked about the daily dilemma of Arab Israelis longing to identify themselves as Israelis, but constantly being treated as Arabs. I’m not going to lie, and I’m sure you’re aware that it happens here anyway, but there is so much racial profiling and racism towards Arabs—and Africans, and mostly towards non-Jews in general—that it makes it difficult to keep a high spirit on a daily basis.

What about the Israeli army? All Israelis have to serve in the army here—although there are exceptions if you’re orthodox or even do something else, whatever I don’t really know—but Arab Israelis don’t serve. I’ve always thought that in order to feel truly Israeli you have to serve in the army just because it’s such an important part of life here, so how can these people feel they are an equal part of society if they don’t participate? I’ve gathered they can’t, another reason they are set apart. I’ve thought previously that Arab Israelis are simply not allowed to serve in the Israeli army, but according to the Military Law of 1949, it is stated that every Israeli must serve, regardless of religion. However, the government said that Arab Israelis shouldn’t have to fight against their brothers because like I mentioned, they have a lot of family outside of Israel, which just so happen to be ALL Arab countries. Anyway, the real reason is because the Israeli government doesn’t want to take its chances with allowing the Arab Israelis to serve AKA they don’t trust them. Great. In order for some Arab Israelis to feel a greater connection to Israeli society they do serve in the National Service instead of the army.

Lastly, and not surprisingly, Issa discussed the best solution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Israel and the Territories. Simple: 2 state solution. No hesitation. Although, in his opinion, he thinks that even if there was an independent Palestinian state, 99% of Arab Israelis would stay in Israel. OK, what? He said that Arab Israelis have a sense of belonging to the homeland, not the political regime, so it wouldn’t really matter for the Arab Israelis. He compared the potential Palestinian state to the likes of Syria and Lebanon, two places he said he has no interest in inhabiting. So for now, what does he want? Arabs and Jews together “living a peaceful life inside Israel.” If only, Issa, if only.
Abu Ghosh

Next, still in Abu Ghosh, we made our way down a hill and entered into a French Monastery. From the top of the hill you could also see several large Jewish stars signaling synagogues in the area. So many religions right on top of each other. I don’t really remember much that was discussed with Brother Jean-Michel, but I did catch that these Christians don’t have any participation in the Israeli government, and honestly, are pretty content with that. It was nice hearing all of these positive stories and experiences from so many different people in regards to Israeli society. Check out this picture I snapped inside the 900-year-old monastery.
Brother Jean-Michel (this wasn't planned!)
Our last stop was the community center where we met several Arab women who participate in many secular activities within the center. Part of a women’s empowerment group, these women meet several times a week to talk about women’s health and to let loose in a way. They are currently working towards greater education including English and computer classes. Although this may not seem like much, it is a huge accomplishment that these women have come so far already. Kol hakavod! All the respect!

The day ended in Jerusalem. We had only an hour and a half to grab some dinner on Ben Yehuda Street, the touristiest street in the city—if you’ve been on Birthright, you’ve been there. I also had my 1st shawarma experience. Shawarma is the meat you see in Mediterranean restaurants (I usually think of Greek places) where they slice meat off of this huge spinning thing in the shape of a really, really big cylinder. Sorry to say, I still like falafel better.

We then made our way to the main event of the night. MASA, the organization that my program is a part of, held a huge event in Jerusalem for all of its different programs. My group walked into the concert venue and felt completely overwhelmed by American Jews…everywhere. Apparently there are 200 MASA programs including 10,000 young Jews (not only from the US) and the majority of whom were all running around the lobby. It was mayhem. As we all eventually filed in to take our seats, intense propaganda and threats to “make aliyah or else!” were thrown at us. The main event was a concert by Israel’s Idan Raichel, whose music is a mix of all different world genres. The concert was really great.

The next day, Tuesday, we hopped back onto the bus and made our way north to Mt. Carmel—where we had gone hiking a few weeks ago—to visit the Druze village Isfiya. The Druze people are a very small minority in Israel, only about 100,000, and have their completely own religion and way of life. Our tour guide for the day, Ezzim, is a secular Druze who has lived in the same small town his whole life. He was such a great speaker and made us feel so comfortable constantly addressing us as “My Friends.” I had heard of the Druze people before, but hadn’t really understood what they were all about. I’m not going to give you the whole history and background and current situation of the Druze, but I’ll fill you in on some interesting facts.

The Druze people moved mostly from Lebanon to Israel in the 16th century and have lived peacefully under any political regime they have found themselves in. Although their first language is Arabic, they have absolutely no connection to Islam (or to Christianity or to Judaism, for that matter) and seem to be a people without a homeland; they have been adapting and assimilating to any society they become a part of. Druze serve in the Israeli army, speak Hebrew, and are “regular” Israelis. Well, mostly. In terms of the religion, there are only 2 sects: ultra religious or totally secular. That’s it. No reformed, no conservative, no half-and-half. Thus the phrase Ezzim used, “All or Nothing.” At the age of 14, the Druzes’ “Bar Mitzvah age,” every Druze has the right to choose whether s/he will lead a religious or secular lifestyle. Regardless of how you were raised thus far, you can choose either path and your family (should) completely support your decision. There is a catch though. If you decide to be religious you have to be completely committed to the religion and you pretty much can’t do anything “normal” AKA go to the beach, go to parties, drink alcohol. As Ezzim put it simply “have fun.” But, if you choose the secular way, you aren’t even allowed to step foot inside of their place of worship. He did mention that Druze in both sects are allowed to spend time together though, so that’s good. Druze believe in reincarnation, but not in karma, so I guess you can get away with stuff and still come back as a great person. What I remember most about the discussion is the way they think of death. Since Druze believe in reincarnation, they think that as soon as someone dies, he is immediately reborn and therefore his body is completely useless.
View from Mt. Carmel

After we wandered through the narrow streets of the village, we stopped by the small cemetery. They recycle the graves and so they only have a small plot of land in order to have a proper burial service. We then found ourselves inside someone’s house eating some of the tastiest food I’ve had yet in Israel. And talk about a view. We were on the side of the mountain overlooking a beautiful landscape eating home cooked food. SO. GOOD. We expressed our gratitude and made our way back to TLV.

A few days later, Saturday night, marked the 15th anniversary of Israel’s former Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin. A leftist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Rabin was assassinated after signing the Oslo Accords with Egypt. Only the fifth Israeli PM, an Israeli rightist shot and killed Rabin on November 4, 1995. Every year there is a huge ceremony commemorating Rabin and this year was even more significant as the 15th year since his death. I didn’t end up staying for that long because it was so crowded and everything was obviously in Hebrew and trying to understand people speaking in front of thousands of people in a foreign language is just a headache. I’m definitely glad I went to witness it though.

The crowd at the Commemoration
Me in front of Rabin's slogan: "Peace Now"
What I really love about being in Israel is the amount of diversity around me all of the time. You’re probably wondering, “what diversity?!” Well, there’s a lot more than you may think, especially in TLV. 

Before arriving at the Rabin Commemoration on that Saturday night, I had met up with another participant, Anna, to grab some dinner. She had spent the day at the beach so I had to travel alone to get to her and on my 30-minute journey I passed by so many interesting people and locations. Starting in my own neighborhood, religious Jews were everywhere unable to mistake their yarmulkes and long skirts for anyone else. I then walked about 20 minutes north to the Tachanah Merkazit, the Central Bus Station. On my way to the sheruit, shared taxi, I was going to take downtown I passed by a few other large taxi vans stationed in a parking lot outside of the bus station. As I walked behind the vans, I noticed a man in a sort of “downward facing dog” position with his forehead pressed to the floor of the trunk on top of a mat. I quickly realized I had just caught a Muslim man praying during 1 of the 5 calls to prayer in the Islamic religion. I then boarded the #4 sheruit, paid 7 shekels, and sat back for the ride downtown. As the taxi filled up, all different people boarded, mostly foreigners. I tried to recognize accents, possibly ranging from Russia to the Far East back home to the good ol’ US of A. Exiting the bus station, we passed by the park/garden that is directly next to it. A safe haven and hangout for refugees, the Levinsky Garden was packed with Africans and other asylum seekers with nothing to do on the Jewish holy day, Shabbat. After I jumped off of the taxi, I met up with Anna and we strolled through the quiet streets of the secular city.

*Writer’s note: I added a new feature to the blog! On the top right corner I’m going to be placing “helpful” phrases and words to know when living and/or traveling in Israel. Make sure to take a look when you visit the site J