Inside the Whale

September 26, 2006

Israel 5

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 2:57 pm


Monday morning began at 3:30am. I went to Nachlaot to hear Slichot (see last entry for explanation). At first it was very strange, to see that I was not the only one there to just listen. The first small synagogue that I stopped at had a group form the army listening also. It was all women and they were there for educational purposes. It’s funny, this is a major part of the Israeli military – they frequently have seminars, lectures and tours about various facets of Israeli and Jewish existence. Far from the typical image of the military. I wonder what it is like for the few Bedouin, Druze or Arabs that are in the army to experience this kowtowing to Jewish mythology.

In any case, the sounds were beautiful. Prayers poured out from open windows of Iraqi, Persian, and Greek congregations. One synagogue was almost empty, populated by only old men. They were fervent as ever but I felt like I was witnessing something dying, a tradition that has not dealt with contemporary realities. What does it mean for Israeli Jews to wake up in the middle of the night and beat their chests and ask for forgiveness? What does it mean for there to be a culture where this act has also become a performance to which many including myself have taken seats in the audience?

Later, I talked to Rivka Lehman, who works for the Nesiya Institute, an art program for Israeli and American high school and college students. Like many Israelis, she has an interesting background. Israel is a country of many recent immigrants (that is from the past 100 years, most within the last 50) that include both European and North African roots.

Rivka’s father emigrated from Paris. His parents were French, going back for generations. In WWII, his father was in the French military and was taken prisoner along with a group of Jewish officers and spent most of the war in confinement. It is in captivity that he became much more invested in his Jewish identity. I know I’ll get in trouble for saying this but I can’t help thinking of many Palestinian stories in which their nationalism is born and developed in Israeli prisons. His mother was in the resistance, taking Jewish kids from the Vichy side to the non-Vichy side of France. After the war they decided to stay in Paris, believing that France was ultimately their home. Rivka says that she is aware that this is an “easy” holocaust story, compared to many others that she has heard growing up in Israel.

Rivka’s mother came from a Moroccan family that came to Israel early on as “halutzim” (pioneers). This is unusual because most Moroccan Jews came to Israel in the 1950’s escaping from the anti-Semitism of growing Arab nationalism. Her mother’s father worked for the Mossad and brought the family to Paris for a while as he worked covertly in North Africa to prepare the groundwork for the airlifts of Jews to Israel.

Her parents now live in Gilo, the neighborhood that I discussed in the last post. A few years ago, in conjunction with the second intifada, snipers were firing into Gilo from Arab neighborhoods across the valley. I talked to Riva at the time and she seemed unnerved but today she said that they never thought much of it.

Later I talked to Zvi Hirschfeld, an American immigrant to Israel who teaches at a religious Jewish school called Pardes. He lives in Alon Shvut, an Israeli settlement just over the green line, as a part of Gush Etzion. He described himself as a Jewish Nationalist, that is that for historical and religious reasons he believes that the Jewish people should develop a majority culture in Israel and that he moved there to be a part of it.

Our conversation very quickly became quite contentious. “It hasn’t been safe to be Jewish for…ever,” he said. So moving to Israel, even though it is an unsafe environment is a kind of explicit acknowledgement of Jewish vulnerability. But he moved there from Cleveland with his family in order to feel a part of a majority Jewish culture, a culture which he believes has been given a task by God to create a just society that can be a model for the world. He acknowledges that aside from the difficulties of war, issues like prostitution, slave labor, tax evasion, and money laundering have plagued Israeli society.

He moved to Israel during the Olso years, before the second intifada. Since then, he has been shot at on the road to his house, had two students killed in a suicide bombing and just three weeks ago had rocks thrown at his car that broke his mirrors. They didn’t shatter the glass because he has plastic windows to protect against such incidents. In his words he was simply driving to a swimming pool but needed to pass through some Arab villages and as a result got stoned.

The issue of how innocent people are targeted, both Jews and Arabs came up. This has most recently been discussed internationally regarding the war in Lebanon. Zvi said that if Hezbollah or Hamas are going to shoot at his children from a schoolyard, they have put their own children at risk and he has a right to shoot back, regardless of the consequences. Zvi said, “I don’t have the same gut feelings of empathy that I used to have because I’m too pissed.”

This was a difficult conversation for me. Mostly because it cut to the heart of the most pressing moral questions of this past war, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the question of Jewish alienation and victimhood, and the questions of Israeli and Arab culpability in a conflict in which no one can simply sit on the sidelines.


1 Comment »

  1. I find it interesting that from your Nesiya contacts that you really got to the heart of the present conflict. Waiting to see all of this weighty material presented visually…so proud.

    Comment by Mom — September 27, 2006 @ 7:26 am

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