Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Not Caroling for Holot

When asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan walked out of the Holot Prison last week, they walked out of obscurity.  Until then, even many people like myself who had been involved in their community six years ago when they first spilled into Israel—and who, three years later, had protested against the Holot prison—had allowed them to disappear.  The truth was, even though I live in the Negev, I wasn’t even sure exactly where Holot had been built. 
At the same time, Christmastime was making me homesick for family and friends-who-knew-me-before-I-was-forty; I had this embarrassing impulse:  I wanted to Christmas Carol for the Holot prisoners.  I knew that only some, Eritreans, were Christian, and that even they celebrated the Coptic Christmas on January 7th, and that anyway, neither they nor most Israelis would know the songs that I, an American Jew, had grown up on (Silent Night, Little Drummer Boy, Oh Holy Night…), but I felt, somehow, that it would bless them, and us, if we, their Negev neighbors, knocked on their door and sang these Noels of love and devotion.
            It was six years ago that my friend, Tsehaye showed me how if you want to reach out to people, you simply show up.  Tsehaye had overheard me, a stranger then, on the telephone talking to Israeli NGOs about wanting to help African refugees, and he’d approached me, saying, “I am an African refugee.”  Like many, Tsehaye had walked from Eritrea through Sudan and Egypt into Israel, all along risking his life, imprisonment, and paying enormous bribe money to human smugglers.  He offered to take me to South Tel Aviv to meet his community.  We went.  After that, I visited people at the shelter once a week.  It was there that I finally met the NGO workers I’d been trying to connect with by telephone, but really, they were just people doing what I was doing and a lot more of it:  learning what people needed, trying to help. 
            So it was with Tsehaye’s guidance in mind that I simply put an event on Facebook:  “Caroling for Holot”.  There:  it was happening.  There was only one person I was sure would come:  SH of +972 Mag commenting fame.  We had met each other commenting on the site and had been in touch for years, but until Thursday, had never met in person.  After creating the event, I posted confident posts, though in truth, I suspected SH and I would be singing duets.  
            But Tsehaye taught me this, too:  if you show up, somehow, it will be.  And it was. Four others joined us.  We had a mat to lay on the desert ground, a car full of food and gifts (hats, scarves, socks), and a packet full of Christmas lyrics; what more could we need?
            One thing we were very curious about was this oxymoron:  Open Prison.  Israel calls it an Open Detention Center, but it’s impossible to distinguish between Ketsiot, the old prison the refugees call “The Palestinian Prison”; Saharonim, the other prison in which African refugees have been detained; and Holot, the new, “open” place, all three a part of one complex.  In fact, prisoners refer to them interchangeably; I received an SMS from a prisoner, thanking us for our visit, referring to himself as “Emmanuel from Saharonim”.  We were not surprised when we showed up to heavy security between ourselves and the prisoners; the gate was padlocked, the security intense, as they came out slowly, one by one.    
            We’d also received word that since the week before, not many prisoners remained in Holot, since the hundreds who had walked had been punished by being put back in Saharonim.  So we were surprised to learn from the remaining prisoners—35 (20 Eritreans, 15 Sudanese according to Aman from Eritrea)—all who seemed to join us that day—that they prefer Saharonim to Holot.  Why?  First of all, it’s nicer; Saharonim has televisions in the rooms and a library.  Secondly, from Saharonim, there is at least the hope of getting out.  From Holot—Sands, in English—you aren’t going anywhere.  Ever.  I was reminded of an Eritrean refugee I’d met in the Tel Aviv shelter so many years ago, Solomon, who had told me that he’d been in a Sudanese prison for twenty years, but never had he been as depressed as he was now that he’d come to Israel.  “At least then,” he’d told me, “I could dream of being free.  Now, we are stuck.  We can’t work.  This is not a life.”  
Two lawyers from Hotline for Migrant Workers who showed up to Holot at the same time as us explained it this way:  “Israel calls this an ‘open center’; how can one be released from a place that is open?”  Hopelessness is the strategy:  if people have no hope, they might sign their own release forms to go back to their countries of origin; countries in which the human rights are so bad, it’s against international law to deport them.  The fact that they’ve all been in Holot for one, two, some three years now with no chance of release and have chosen to stay should be proof enough for anyone believing the Israeli government, who had the nerve to tell even the NY Times that most Africans here are economic refugees.  If Israel had a Refugee Status Determination process (for non-Jews) like every other democracy in the world, the asylum-seekers’ status could be determined objectively, by the UNHCR,  but Israel has no such policy.  “Really?” we asked the prisoners.  “It isn’t a bit better to be in Holot, where at least you can take a walk?”  But they are in the middle of the desert, not far from Nizana border crossing to Egypt, with three mandatory roll calls a day; where is there to go?  There’s only one thing that makes Holot more advantageous than Saharonim, and that’s that they can come out if people visit.  Until they put themselves back in the spotlight last week, no one had been visiting. 
            We actually had a great time, picnicking desert style, exchanging stories.  They all speak Hebrew.  I arrived in this country around the same time as them and although I’ve been embarrassed not to have learned more, I’ve never felt ashamed until I visited Holot.  “It’s easier for us,” Amman told me.  “Hebrew and Tgrinya are very similar.”  He pointed to his finger:  etzba; atsabe’ta.  To his hand:  yad; ea-d.  To his leg:  regel; egri.  The same.”  In fact, Tgrinya comes from Ge’ez, the language in which Ethiopian Torahs are scribed, in which older generations of Ethiopian Jews still pray.
Still, we had enough language between us for me to understand that their wives and children are living on the outside.  “Holot is separating families, and for what?” they asked.  They want to be with their children, who speak fluent Hebrew by now.  They want to be learning, working.  What should we bring them when we return?  Toothbrushes and dictionaries.   
We didn’t sing.  It just didn’t feel right.  When we’d seen them coming out, we’d scrambled to set up our mat, and later, once we’d all met each other, what were we going to do; suddenly break out in song?  Holot is not Glee.  Maybe if we’d already been caroling when they’d been coming out.  Maybe when we go back for their Christmas on January 7th, we’ll greet them with these songs of love and devotion.  But somehow, I doubt it.  Just to show up, to connect—to make sure they know they aren’t forgotten, to keep pressure on the Israeli government to remember the values on which Israel is founded and get a refugee policy like every other developed country—this is what we can do.
            When we were ready to leave, there were still two unmatched socks that we’d brought as gifts—new, thermal wool; one dark brown, one black—remaining; someone must have taken a mismatched pair by mistake.  But still, they were warm, new.  Really, we asked—no one wanted them?  No, they said; they didn’t match.  I tried to remember if my own socks matched that day.  But when all of your decencies have been taken, you hold on to what you can.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Pillar Of Cloud

Seven days of War in Facebook Status Updates:  

Thursday, November 15th:

"Whenever there is war or warfare here--as there is now, very close to my home and personally affecting many people I care about--facebook is full of status updates from Israel supporters (many of them far away, some here) saying: The Media doesn't show how many rockets have fallen on Israel! The media only shows what we do; not what is done to us! and also from Palestinians and Palestinian suppo
rters--and I really understand this from people in Gaza right now--saying, The media has forgotten us! This is happening to us! And I understand, but it's as if we're all children going to Mom and Dad to say: this happened to me! He did this to me! When what we need now is to turn to each other, brothers and sisters, and say: I am so sorry this is happening to you. I don't want to hurt you. Please, let's fight together, against the media, against the so-called leaders, who turn us as pawns against each other. I am not against you."

Friday, November 16th

"My friends and family in the States keep asking me what's really going on here. The truth is that if you live here, the inside perspective is daily life. I should say, first, that I am very, very safe where I live, everyone--it's very quiet here. I work in Be'er Sheva where rockets are falling, but I work there once a week, and the University where I teach is closed now. For rockets...). Daily life here is knowing that my friends in Be'er Sheva are undergoing sirens constantly and are in and out of bomb shelters, with their children. After a siren goes off, there is the loud boom of a missile falling, somewhere. Daily life is knowing about how people I don't know personally but care about nonetheless in other desert towns west of me are experiencing this even more constantly. It's knowing that my friends in Tel Aviv are experiencing a brand new alertness and for many of them, fear, because of the attack yesterday that actually fell short of the city (seemingly a warning, or demonstrating capability), but the next one, who knows. It's knowing that my Palestinian friends' relatives are right over the border, experiencing the Hell that is being in Gaza while under Israel's fire. It's reading live blogs out of Gaza from teenagers who can't sleep. Ever. I read the stories of the Israelis who died yesterday (or was it the day before?)--their stories are insanely tragic--beyond sad. I read about the 8 month year old girl killed in Gaza and see her father holding her, weeping, and weep. The inside story is that several of my students are on their way to reserve duty in the army, and so are the sons of some people I love here. That is the inside story. The inside story is: I guess I'm not going to pick olives at my friend's today because I don't want to drive through Be'er Sheva. The inside story is that I have a novel to write, and I'm aware that I could get sucked into this all day to no one's benefit, so I'm going to shut down my internet now until the evening. The inside story is that this is very sad for everyone, and will cost many more innocent lives, and I happen to be on the cynical side of not trusting this particular government at all, and feeling that they chose this action at this time for their own popularity. There are always reasons... I don't want to believe that, especially as people are risking and giving their lives to this operation, but I do believe it. So, I pray.

Saturday, November 17th

last night, i lay awake listening to planes--low and fast--heading to gaza, feeling dread and fear for people there. we have seemingly reached a point of no return, here. 75,000 israeli reservists are being drafted. During the war in Lebanon, 60,000 were drafted, and I walked around feeling that all the men were gone. That was before I made friends with all the people who get out of service by
 claiming psychological problems (you know, because it's crazy to be sensitive enough not to be able to stand violence), and that was when I started coming down to the Negev, not knowing what else to do with myself during wartime. Now, the Negev is my home. The only place left to go this time is further into this novel I'm writing. Which is where I'm meant to go, I'm sure of it. But I will put this out there: There are anti-war protests now, but most of them are in solidarity with Gaza against Israel. I get that. However. Being against one people in order to be for another does not work. This will never free us. Only solidarity together, against our governments, will free us. This war presents the perfect opportunity, because this one was really created by them, unnecessarily. This one could have, and should have, been avoided. Instead, it may be turning into our biggest war in recent history. I pray not. But it may. Are we willing to rise up, together? This means swallowing a lot of ego (needing to prove rightness or another's wrongness) for the sake of freeing ourselves. Of course this movement can't be only for peace and a return to the way things have been; it must also be for freedom for all. Leave the details out. If we, the people, join together, everything is still possible. This is a turning point in history, in every realm. The moment of power is now.

ast post of the day, because I'm weaning myself off: The moon is gorgeous right now. Charlotte and I went for a beautiful walk earlier, and the birds and yaelim/ibex were still enjoying the effects of rain from a few days ago. Also, I'm eating a lot of soup. with beer. The reason I said "this is amazing" on the post I shared about an hour about about soldiers refusing to serve in this war is
that it went so much against the feeling I'm getting from things around here right now: it seems that most people are feeling depressed because here we go again; some depressed because they've been hard fighting to wake people up, and now this is it--we didn't make any important societal changes since the last war in Gaza, so, inevitably, here we are; some, of course, are raring to go to defend the country--especially with actual rockets falling in Tel Aviv and some before shabbat around Jerusalem. It turns out that the video I shared isn't amazing, because it's from 2009, during the last war in Gaza. I hope it will still inspire some people, and trust that there are people, now, who feel the same. But that is not the mood now. I wish it were. I wish that people didn't accept that things have to be like this. They don't. I'm not saying it's all in Israel's control; I'm saying that this is not, and has never been, the answer. In so many areas of our life right now--environmentally, politically--we are creating or contributing to messes that then, Yes, reach a critical point where something must be done. And it's at that critical point that we have to have tremendous courage to break our patterns. If they have never worked before, they won't work now. If people have been hurt before, they will be hurt again. Alternatives are scary--they are the unknown. They are putting ourselves aside for the greater good. Both sides. We don't need everyone on board for this, just a critical mass. It's possible. It's in our hands.

Sunday, November 18th

"you know it's bad when what you're thinking while they're scraping the plaque off your teeth at the dentist is: It's so quiet here; no army planes."

Monday, November 19th

"Well-meaning efforts that are killing us:

1) Jews who care about a just Israel, trying to get the word out about Israel's injustices, but without any sympathy for Israel's actual existential dilemmas and without offering a vision for how it could be on the other side. (I sympathize with this one greatly, but check it out: it's not working, and I understand why. It's not the content; it's the to
2) Palestinians who denounce any argument made by Jews for Palestinian rights and freedom that includes a vision for both people on this land, and/or care for Israel.
3) Anyone trying to defend their side against the media who hath wronged them. People are dying. Fuck PR. You want to look better to the outside world? Care about everyone. Use your suffering as a victim to empathize with others who are suffering; only then will you transform your suffering into healing.
4) All talking points. Israel has the right to defend itself. Palestine has the right to resist. Blah blah blah blah blah. Shut up.
5) Anti-normalization. If you're jewish and you've never heard of this, sorry, but you know nothing about this conflict today. Palestinians, seriously, stop it; you've taken this way too far and you're killing everything good, and there ain't much left (pun intended). show up and change it from within. don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. don't make me use more cliches.
6) Everyone feeling depressed and powerless right now. Yes, you. Me. Us. This is a time of citizen revolution. Arab Spring. Occupy Everything. We must rise up together against our governments who are using us as pawns against each other and say No. Jews: don't say no against Israel; say no against War and for Palestinian sovereignty (no peace without this and it's the only moral way). Palestinians: don't say you won't fight until there's justice; I understand the mistrust, but if you begin with the problems, there's no way out. If we join together--the one thing we haven't tried and continue to block--we will feel empowered like never before and then we will have a vision for the way things can be, and with that vision, we can get there. Somehow. Imperfectly and sloppily, like all love."

"if you are fighting a PR war on Israel's behalf, you are killing israel."

"well I woke up grumpy today, didn't I. something about sleeping with the sound of army planes overhead and waking to read about who died last night. signing off for now. ♥"

"so a friend who I met via political commenting on +972 mag added me to this small, underground-esque fb group in which the sweetest group of Israelis I've ever wanted to be friends with (I don't' know any of them) post lines from literature they love, and the rest have to say what it's from. often, passionate discussions follow about the book. It's almost all in Hebrew (unless the book was written 
in English, in which case it's often classics; not the contemporary, literary fiction my american reader and writer friends would cite) for which I need Google Translate, and like all fb groups, it clogs up my email inbox, but even though I can barely participate, I can't quit because in the middle of this hateful war, little bubbles keep popping up on my fb screen with lines from literature and people who love it and escape to talking about it at this time, and this is somehow the greatest act of faith I can imagine."

"the only good things to do during a war are write your novel and eat and drink and make love and walk in nature. not fight about the war, on Facebook. Good night, and good luck."

Tuesday, November 20th

"so we've all been hearing about this ceasefire scheduled for 11:30 tonight. Until ten minutes ago, army planes were flying over us incessantly, heading in the direction of Gaza. People in Gaza were posting about explosions. Now: silence. One hour before. Is *this* how it works? Crazy."

"the silence is pregnant with prayer."

"planes are back. I haven't read about it yet, but this is my guess: no one would be the first to stop, so no one stopped. boys."

Wednesday, November 21st

"My family called hysterical--did I hear about the bus and that there's no ceasefire and am I okay and Iran is scary? I was drinking a beer and grading a student paper in our desert town's only cafe; I'm okay. I mean, physically, in terms of my safety, I'm okay. I have a thin skin; I'm not bred for this. I'm upset. But I'm safe. Today I hung out on the street, talking to friends from Ramallah, Bethlehem, Israel, and Zambia. Yes, Zambia. Why not. Everyone is, in their own way, okay, and upset. People in Bethlehem, who, you know, are Palestinian, are worried about being hit by Hamas rockets. This place is one big grey zone; don't let the news tell you otherwise. Word now from my journalist friends that there is a ceasefire scheduled, again, for tonight. But people--our friends, our students, people's sons--are still being called for reserve (army) duty. The sky from here is the quietest it's been since this all started--nothing heading to Gaza. Nearing ceasefire? Placating Hillary? (Nah, they don't give a shit). Turning into a ground war? Here is my question to you, locals: who here feel safer than they did a week ago? Safer with Jabari dead? Safer in any way? You think you'd feel safer months from now if you went into Gaza on the ground and destroyed whatever there is to destroy? We are all, all of use, a lot less safe today than we were on November 15th, and a lot of what's been done cannot be undone. murders, for example. An intifada seems to be brewing, and that has nothing to do with whether or not we cease fire. A Palestinian friend told me that some of the aggression is against Fatah, so internal Palestinian fighting. It's not brewing from this week. It's from, for starters, over a year of peaceful West Bank protests, gone completely unanswered, unnoticed. No one is more safe today than we were last week. It never, ever works that way. But we do it again and again anyway. A lovely student told me today that if he's called up, he goes. Look what's happening in Tel Aviv. What to do? "Are you willing to die for this?" I asked him. He has a two year old daughter and a wonderful wife who made us cupcakes for my class today. He looked to the ground, then back to me. "What to do?" he said."

  • Thursday, November 22nd

  • "What it's like to be leftwing in Israel:  you wake up the morning after the ceasefire, after sleeping for twelve straight hours--the first night all week you haven't lay awake at night listening to army planes flying into gaza, waking to read the list of the dead--to hear that two palestinian homes were demolished in Silwan. You can't even believe that one of your friends still has the heart to post this on Facebook. You know that nobody cares. You know that since Cast Lead, Israeli journalists and activists have devoted their lives to getting the word out about the actualities of the occupation. You know that no one in Israel, or in the mainstream Jewish American community, is listening. You know that the American Left cares, but understands nothing. You know this because up until recently, you were one of them. You know that most of the people who are listening and do care express this as being against the state of Israel; you know that this is weakening your cause. You know that Palestinians have been fighting weekly, non-violently, to return to their own wells for water, to pick their own olives from their own trees. And you know and that no one knows or cares about these marches. You know that some violent Israelis have been attacking them, and that the IDF has been protecting the Israelis. You know that anyone who marches--Palestinian and Israelis together--risks being tear-gassed and skunk-sprayed and wounded or killed by rubber bullets or tear gas canisters. You know that another man from the Tamimi Family was killed this way during the war, or as Israelis call it, the "situation", this past week. You know that most Israelis don't know this, or who he is, or what this means. You know that most Palestinians do. You wonder how any journalist can still have the will to go to work and try to get the word out now that we've circled back to another war in Gaza that left the majority of Israelis wanting to go back and pummel the place. It is easier to imagine being the activist; at least they get to hang out with each other and cool Palestinians and feel good about the world that day. But they risk the most heartbreak. Hamas is awful. They drag their own people to death. No Jewish Israeli likes Hamas. Not the left, not the right; no one. We, the left, just don't want to go kill a bunch of children to find ourselves in a less safe place than we were in before it all began. What to do? Let's start with: not that. Let's start with accounting for our side of the responsibility for what's happened since 1947 and hasn't stopped to Palestinians. We know what's happened to us, and I am not discounting that, but we don't know what we've done. We're so sure we have the moral high ground, and legal high ground that we don't don't look and don't see. No one has the moral high ground, here. Everyone is responsible for every dead child. There's enough, here for everyone. There's enough on this planet for everyone. Enough food, enough water. There's room in the Holy Land for everyone to live, to benefit from the richness of each other's cultures that all run deep on this land. But we keep damming rivers and pumping potash and grabbing land and genetically modifying food and torturing animals so we can eat them and not looking at ourselves. Look. That's all I'm asking. Take a Breaking the Silence tour. Read an article by Amira Hass. Talk to some Palestinians who grew up in the territories. Look. And then we'll see what we should do."

Friday, November 23rd

"rain in the desert. shabbat shalom."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To Know You is Not to Love You

I just returned from a Jewish, silent meditation retreat up in the Lower Galilee’s Or HaLev.  Although I live in the middle of the Negev, overlooking nothing but desert, I needed this retreat; my mind has been active with clutter.  There is a spiritual teaching, energy flows where attention goes, and lately, I’ve been addicted to comment threads on, a challenging news blog from Israeli and Palestinian journalists, where I’ve been engaging in political discourse with a regular cast of characters. No matter what thoughtful commentary the 972 Journalists offer, most readers fire back with pre-programmed responses aligned with whatever beliefs they clung to before reading.  The few moments we’ve managed to break free of talking points have been moving, but, sadly, rare.  More often, commenters are committed to their certainty that they know everything about everyone else.

Some labels thrown around in these threads include:  settler, Zionist, liberal Zionist, religious right winger, anti-Israeli/Zionist leftist, and this just in from a Jewish American man, “obscenely hypocritical” leftist Jewish immigrants to Israel (that’s me).  We use these labels the way highschoolers do to make sense of their world:  jocks, druggies, popular kids… And we do so for the same reasons:  to separate, through judgment, ourselves from others in order to feel superior, in order to know where to sit in the cafeteria, in order to have a place to sit in the cafeteria, and mostly to avoid the complexities of this world, ourselves.  This is the age of separation via the very religions that connect us—consciously or unconsciously—to this Land.  It is one of the greatest tragedies of our time that the essence of God—the interconnectedness of everything—is used, including by vehement non-believers, for the purpose of disconnection. 

We first arrived at the meditation retreat just in time for one meal before entering silence.  As we registered, I filled out a form about my meditation history and was told by a man I’d just met that he did not like my old teacher.  During the meal, some American new immigrants were talking loudly about their Israeli army service, and a dear friend of mine—a peace activist—whispered, “I didn’t come here to listen to that,” to which I whispered back, “don’t worry—soon we won’t have to know anything about each other.”  Another woman, who, incidentally, is orthodox and lives in a settlement, discovered that a group of young women were from Be’er Sheva and asked, “How did they know about this?”  Across the room, I could see someone I knew who worked with Rabbis for Human Rights, several men (and one woman) in kippot, a Haredi man, a man with an artificial ear (had he lost his to war?), religious students from Jerusalem, and secular residents of Tel Aviv.  The tables were lined up as one, long banquet, yet people sat in packs.   

There is nothing inherently Jewish about a silent meditation retreat:  stay in silence for a prolonged period, practice mindfulness in everything from eating to walking to washing your face, sit on your cushion often, follow your breath, and when thoughts or feelings arise, as they do in humans, simply observe them before waving them goodbye.  When that same thought or feeling returns (and it will—the mind is persistent), acknowledge it again, return to your breath.  This action is not unlike the tool “redirect” that I used to train my dog, except in this case, I’m the dog and the trainer.  Through this practice, one experiences a knowing that you are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings; you are more expansive than your mind, even than your “you”.

What makes silent retreats like this one “Jewish”—besides that the teachers talk a lot and the retreatants, too, can ask unlimited questions—is that they are run by Jews, many of whom are rabbis, and when we wake, we gather together to chant the morning prayers—our voices arising out of silence—about gratitude, compassion, and awe.  Sometimes, teachers will connect basic mindfulness teachings to Judaism, though they’re just as likely to connect them to teachings of monks or Sufis.  If the retreat runs over Shabbat, there are Shabbat meals, prayers, and practice, together in silent communion. 

On this retreat, there was also an option to go to the community mikveh, something that, because I am not married, I’ve never had permission to do according to Jewish Law.  As we waited for our turn to disrobe, shower, and immerse ourselves in ritual water before God with whatever intentions we were bringing for purification, healing, or rebirth, the woman helping at the Mikveh asked us, since many of us were first-timers, if we had any questions.  What began with quiet questions about what to expect quickly snowballed into judgments of various tones:  Did the Jewish laws around mikveh imply that menstruation made women unclean?  Did the fact that only married women could participate mean that the Orthodox world denied the reality of non-marital sex?  Did our own religion deem us unholy?  Yet for some reason, nearly every woman returning to that waiting room after her mikveh was moved to tears.  We lingered in that room, together, long after our turn had come and gone, our hair wet from timeless ritual, from inclusion, immersion; from our womb-like experience, alone with God.

At the end of the retreat, there is a gratitude circle, and people were invited to share their experiences.   One woman told us she had never felt connected to Judaism until the retreat.  A Haredi man, who had sat beside me the whole time, shared that although it was strange for him to practice with women, he felt more connected to prayer on these retreats than ever before.  I shared how surprised I’d been to care about being included in the mikveh.  And then one of the young men my friend and I had heard, days earlier, talking about his army service, spoke.  He said that just after going into silence, he’d regretted not asking a man he’d met that evening about where exactly he lived, what he did for work, or how many children he had in order to know this man, but now, none of those things seemed to matter.  Now, he’d experienced this man through his small, kind gestures; the essence of his being.  In fact, he'd seen all of us this way; so much beauty.  He vowed from this point forward to truly experience people, rather than to try to know them.  

It took me one hour upon returning home to check in with +972 Magazine’s comment threads.  They hadn’t changed.  What had changed was that now, I could feel the pain of everyone involved; the longing to connect to the beauty within ourselves, each other, each piece of fruit, spider, clump of soil.  I could feel our yearning to be included, to include; to recognize and be recognized.  I could feel the suffering we endure in order to deny ourselves the love this world is offering us, every moment of every day.          

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Family Therapy for the Whole World

I’m an American Jew, living in Israel.  In fact, I just became a dual citizen.  This is the only language I’m comfortable using when I tell anyone about my status change—a change I made for the spiritual purpose of being in one place at one time; to reflect the truth—that this is currently my home where I live, work, and pay taxes; and for the logistic purpose of allowing me to stay beyond the expiration of my visa—how much longer, I do not know.  The majority of Jews in the diaspora call this “making aliyah”—ascending, and moving one’s life to the Promised Land. I wasn’t raised with Zionist ideals or even Zionist awareness; moving here was never on my radar.  Even now, I don’t feel I’ve moved to the State of Israel, but rather to the Negev, a desert whose rocks and land called me to come, then called me to stay, and then to stay longer; a desert whose voice long precedes this State, but certainly holds the voices of my own ancestors, along with so many others’.  Nonetheless, I cannot pretend that having Israeli Citizenship—a controversial privilege as well as status—does not come with the responsibility of being a part, now, of the conflict, here. 

This land is full of such rich narratives, each of them carrying truth; what makes the news, by the time it’s boiled down to the jargon of good guys and bad guys, is not even the 10% of the visible iceberg.  As a writer, and a human being, I collect these narratives.  I absorb them.  I try to find a way to carry them all within me.  Even when some narratives don’t seem to include much objective truth, I listen with my heart to the person whose story has led them to their understanding.  There is always truth, there, and often it is more powerful than facts.

Because this is the way I experience the world, I am often accused by friends who are personally connected to this land of not seeing The Real Truth, and willfully not letting that Truth in.  They come at me armed with information—so much information!—about what really happened in 1948 and long before, or 1967, or about Hamas, or about the ethics of the Israeli Army, or etc.  As a writer, I understand that there is a way in which this very essay would be stronger if I were including more concrete examples, yet it is those very examples that lead us into the downward spiral of our own personal hell.  If I add any detail to these arguments, someone reading will need to respond with counter arguments, and we’ll all go home feeling sick and hopeless.    This is exactly why the current “Social Justice Revolution” in Israel is struggling with how to take on certain issues; they know where that snowball goes, and are enjoying an unprecedented moment of unified, if vague, activism. 

Recently, however, something happened, my reaction to which will, tragically, make some of my Jewish friends in the diaspora feel gratified.  I was talking to one of my dearest friends here—to protect her identity I’ll say only that she is Arab and Muslim—and she told me that it was obvious that Al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the September Eleventh attacks; after all, why had over 500 Jews known not to be in the Twin Towers that day?  How could some camel-riding men from Afghanistan have pulled off such a high tech operation without the help of the CIA?  And my heart sank.  I had seen this story floating around the web at some point, but I never expected to hear it from my friend.   

One of the many things my Jewish, Israel-loving friends have accused me of is not grasping the magnitude of brainwashing and revisionist history in the Arab world.  I tell them that I am aware of this (and, I am); it is simply not where I put my energy, nor where I want to put my energy.  I believe that we create each other, and our future, with how we see each other.  If we’re always reacting to the places that bring up pain for us, always feeling victimized and defending ourselves, we can never move forward, personally or collectively.  This is Family Therapy 101; also Couples Counseling 101.   If we spend our energy trying to Right ourselves and make the other side and/or the world see how We are right and They are wrong, we get stuck in our own personal hell.

Instead, I look for the equally true goodness, with empathy, as I find that not only is this better for me, but it actually brings out the true goodness and helps to create a better world.  I don't look at a rose-colored surface; I dig deep.  I meditate until I experience the ways in which we are all one, not a We and They.  And when I do break things down—I look to my own people, Jews and Israelis and Americans, for how we and I can do better.  There is, of course, a lot to look at, there.  I stand by this way of being. I find this layer of truth to be truer, and more heart-driven, than the reactive surface on which we usually operate.

But when one of my dearest friends, whom I respect tremendously, who is highly educated, has plenty of access to good journalism including English language journalism, and plenty of Jewish friends (Israeli and American alike)—so, plenty of access to the multi-layered tapestry of reality—tells me this Conspiracy Theory as if it is Fact, and tells me that I have bought into the American Story, I feel the weight of how far we have to go.

All you have to do is incite Jews in the Arab world—why did 500 Jews know to stay home that day?—and then you can add any other fiction you want, and it works.  Of course, Jews didn’t stay home that day and September Eleventh had exactly nothing to do with Jews, who died in the Twin Towers along with their fellow Arab Americans and everyone else—a demographic melting pot the scope of which is beyond the imagination of most people who have never lived in New York City, a city I resided in for ten years, which I often refer to as my true homeland; New Yorkers, My People.    

Here in my heart’s other homeland, the Negev, I just spent a day and night with my surrogate Bedouin family, fasting during Ramadan, praying, watching hundreds of thousands praying in Mecca via television, listening to televised sermons of Imams based on the Quran.  The values of the Quran are beautiful, and the content full of stories of Moses and Aaron resembling the Torah. 

When Islamic terrorist attacks are carried out throughout the world by a small yet organized percentage of Islam, why aren’t respected Islamic Leaders joining together and raising their voice against these attacks carried out in the name of the Quran?  Why aren’t they speaking to their own people about this problem in their world, rather than allowing the problem to be ignored, or worse, denied?   

There’s another lesson I learned in Family Therapy.  We can only take responsibility for ourselves, and our own reactions.  I will not allow the fact that my dear friend buys into this revisionist history to make me operate from a reactive place, trying to get the truth out.  Even here, I had written a paragraph about the September Eleventh hijackers, and then deleted it; this is a level on which I maintain I do not want to engage any more today than I did last week, when my friends accused me of not seeing The Truth. 

But I will ask my Arab, Muslim friends to join me in self-reflection, and to call upon their leaders to do the same. 

And I will call upon the readers of this entry who are satisfied to see me writing about this subject, in this way, to join me in feeling sad, not gratified.  Any response of gratification to this post is just as destructive as denial or reactive accusations against it.  If we really want to score any points, let’s feel something.