Thursday, December 16, 2010

Good News From Nowhere

When counter groups marched in Tel Aviv’s Human Right’s March last week, stating that Jews deserve rights too—they raised the most important human rights issue of all.  Although I trust they didn’t intend this implication, their stance suggests that as Jews, they do not include themselves as humans.  Just as serious is what it seems they did intend to suggest:  that Jews are separate from other humans, or, more specifically, that rights for others threaten their own.  Although it was a group of Jews who took this stand here, we certainly can’t attribute this attitude solely to Jews.  I’ve heard Arab friends respond to Jews recounting their suffering—even from parts of Jewish history that have nothing to do with Arabs--such as the Holocaust—by belittling Jewish suffering in favor of their own, as if one person’s pain can negate, or challenge, another’s, when in fact, the opposite is true:  your own suffering enables you to empathize with another's.  We should thank the group who marched for Jewish Rights vs. Human Rights for raising not only the most poignant issue of the March, but of our time: this idea of separateness, driven by an existential fear that there is not enough of what we need to go around. 

In Israel, a country built by Holocaust survivors and refugees that had to defend itself in war before it could even say “State”, generations of Jewish Israelis have grown up on the doctrine that self-protection against others is a matter of survival.  This attitude actually did contribute to Israel’s survival in its early years, but at what cost?  As we grow into a more mature nation, we must grow beyond our adolescent defenses; the very mechanisms that once helped us survive are exactly those that later hold us prisoner of ourselves.    

The deep-seated belief that there isn’t enough love and aren’t enough crops is rooted in our father, Avraham/Ibrihim:  In the Torah, it wasn’t possible for Isaac and Ishmael both to live in their father’s home, though when God tells Abraham that he will have a child with Sarah (Isaac), Abraham’s first response is on behalf of Ishmael, and God promises Ishmael a great nation (love, family) and land (place, food).  It is clear that Abraham’s love--and God's love--for both sons is strong, yet that is not the emotional experience of either son.  What they both take away is that there isn’t enough love to go around.   They live in separate lands, though finally, they bury their father together.   

This conflict is then passed through the generations.  Isaac and Rebecca bear only two children, twin sons:  Jacob and Esau, who battle it out in Rebecca’s womb “as two nations.”  Isaac has but one blessing to offer to one of his sons, and although it is meant to go to Esau who managed to be born first, their mother, who favors Jacob, convinces Jacob to trick Isaac into believing he is Esau so that that he can receive the one and only available blessing.  After, Jacob has to leave the house so that Esau won’t kill him.  Eventually they reconcile in time to bury their father together. 

Jacob bears many children, but it is Joseph, his youngest (until much later) who is prophetic and his father’s favorite.  His brothers are jealous of their father’s love for Joseph, so they plot to kill him and end up selling him instead to the Ishmaelites.  Eventually Joseph and his brother’s reconcile, are each blessed by their father (phew—a little growth), and, that's right: they bury their father together.  

It’s no wonder we, the children of Avraham/Ibrihim, feel that there isn’t enough love for us all.  But aren’t we supposed to learn from the Torah—and the Koran whose stories share the same source and roots—not by doing as our ancestors did, but learning from the lessons of their lives?  Don’t we know by now that perceiving love as a limited source has caused us nothing but pain, hatred, and war?  Don’t we know, now, that love is not a pie?  Mothers have enough love for all their children, just as God is love.

Dear Land of Israel, if I could be your beloved therapist for a day—not the therapist who diagnosed you or reduced you or told you what was wrong with you, but the therapist who understood you, saw you, helped you love yourself for who you are—if I could be that therapist, I would say:  Listen, Israel.  Many terrible things happened to you when you were just born, and long before that.  You came into the world fighting your ancestor’s fight, and then you had to fight for your own right to exist, to be yourself, before you could even say your own name.  And with time, that fight became not a means to being yourself; it became a part of you.  Without that fight, you felt you would have died, or worse:  lost yourself.  I understand, Israel.

But now you are grown, capable and deserving and needing of love—love you have to give and receive—and you can act from a place of wholeness now, Israel.  You are 60.  You can look at your mistakes, grieve them, even ask forgiveness for them, without giving up your self, your right to be.

What?  Yes, yes.  Yes, I know.  I know, Israel.  I hear you.  You are saying:  your pain is not all in your subconscious!  It’s not all from the distant past, from your ancestors!  Just yesterday, yesterday!—you gave something to your brother, something precious to you, which was very hard for you to give!  Very hard!  And how did your brother react?  You’ll tell me how!  He hated you!  He tried to kill you!  Again!  Your fear is based on reality!  Today!  Don’t tell you that it is not!  Or you will die!

I hear you, Israel.  I have to say, though, that your brother, too, has an equally painful story—I have heard his as well—and if he were sitting here with you, and you could listen to each other with open hearts, you might be able to hear that the conditions for what you feel, and what he feels, are both present and true and old and new, and that you’re both reacting to something deep and pervasive that hurts you, yourselves, even more than you hurt each other.  You feel that when I acknowledge his story, I’m belittling yours, but I am not, Israel, any more than I am belittling his when I speak to you.  There is enough love to contain every story, every bit of suffering and pain.  And then there is enough love to love you through yourself, beyond yourself, above yourself, into your Self. 

And if some people still hate—and they direct that hate at you—that’s their pain to bear.  It has nothing to do with you, really.  You can still choose love.  Believe me when I say that this will cause the opposite of your death.   


Three years ago, when I was living in the same Negev community where I live now—Midreshet Ben Gurion—I met Tsehaye, who has since become a dear friend and source of guidance. Tsehaye had entered Israel as a refugee from Eritrea, and when he overheard me saying that I wanted to volunteer with Sudanese refugees, he offered to introduce me to the community in Tel Aviv.  At the time, I only understood that there were people in Israel from Darfur.  Like many Americans, I had carried Darfur’s genocide with me numbly; now, it seemed, there might be a way to do something. 

When Tsehaye and I arrived in Tel Aviv, he took me from person to person in meetings he had prearranged.  I’d be talking to one young woman as she held her baby, hearing about how her husband was shot at the water hole while she'd hid, then pregnant, in the forest, and Tsehaye would quietly let us know that I was late for our next appointment.  That day, I met dozens of refugees:  Yosef, who was raising his young daughter, Lidia, unable to obtain information about his wife who’d been imprisoned in Cairo, and Yergulem, who had watched her son shot by the Egyptian border police as they entered Israel; she was held in Ketsiot prison with her daughter when the Israeli Army brought her son to a hospital, and later buried him, in her absence.  They were telling me their stories because they believed I could help.  I began coming to them every Monday.  Ostensibly I was there to teach English.  Really, I was there help in the only way I could:  by listening, holding their stories.

One day, I got a call saying not to come; the community was in mourning on behalf of Mulu, a young, pregnant mother who had crossed the border with her son while her two older children made the journey with their father, her husband.  That day, her children had made it into Israel with the news that their father had died along the way.  The group had buried him in Egypt.  Mulu was later told that he’d died of starvation, feeding their children.     

Because Mulu was Ethiopian, my Ethiopian friend, Mesfin, and I, decided to bring her native food for cooking from Be’er Sheva.  In her tradition, Mesfin explained to me, the person mourning cooks for the community all week.  Mesfin, who had lived in Ethiopia all his life and was in Israel earning a Masters degree in Agriculture, had had no idea until that day that people in his own country were suffering from hunger, risking their lives to leave.  Farmers living with drought, they couldn’t feed their children.  On the way home, Mesfin was very quiet.  Eventually, he said, “It doesn’t have to be this way.  We have resources in Ethiopia—more than Israel.  In Israel, they grow vegetables without earth; fish without water.”

Just last week, I talked to Tsehaye, who is now living in the United States with his family, about the proposed detention camp for refugees in Israel.  The refugees Tsehaye knew are still here; no one—not a single asylum-seeker here out of 33,000 (and growing)—has ever gotten an exit visa out except for Tsehaye.  Because Tsehaye arrived here with an acceptance letter from an American university, he already had permission to enter the U.S.; all he needed was permission to leave.  When we talked last week, Tsehaye told me a bit about the time he’d spent in Ketsiot prison when he’d first crossed Israel’s border.  A journalist came and told them all that Israel was going to deport everyone who wasn’t from Darfur.   They were scared for their lives.  “We used to create happy news from no source,” he told me.  “We just wanted to hear promising news.  We used to hear good news from no where.”   


Dear Israel, It doesn't have to be this way.  I want you to try this: just for a day, maybe even a week: instead of seeing the world through a magnifying glass on the ways in which you are hated, distrusted, misunderstood—instead of amplifying the bad news, true as it may be—I want you to try to magnify the good.  Imagine it if you have to.  Imagine the ways in which people are on your side; people are conspiring to help you, to support you.  You are loved, Israel.  And once you hold that love with you for a while, you may find that it changes you.  You may no longer feel that someone else’s suffering threatens your own; that the rights of someone else take the place of yours; that your father has only enough love for one; that you may not get your blessing.  Try this, Israel:  Good news from nowhere.  Can you hear those prison walls, crumbling down, around you?       


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why Blog

Until now, I’ve just said no to blogging.  For one thing, I don’t read blogs; they seem, to me, too easy, like emailing your question to your professor, rather than going to his or her office for help.  When my work hasn’t been published in the in the past, frankly, there has been a reason; I don’t want to be the final authority regarding whether or not my work has an audience.  Strangely, I’m patient about publishing.  I’m old-fashioned.  I like to call my short non-fiction “essays”, put them in an envelope with stamps, and receive the rejection letter in the mail months later, delighting in any hand-written feedback from the person who held it while reading.

Perhaps most importantly, I’m working on a novel that covers just about any territory I’d want to blog about;  I’m afraid to consider in non-fiction what needs to rise to the surface in fiction.   As poet Robert Frost says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” 

And if there is one subject I particularly don’t want to blog about, it’s Israeli politics.  And let’s face it; if it happens here, it’s political.  I live here, in Israel, in the Negev.  My novel, Measuring Rain, is set in this very desert, and the characters include an American Jewish water scientist, a Bedouin woman, an Ethiopian Jewish Israeli woman, and two North African refugees in Israel: one from Sudan, one from Eritrea.   In my wildest fantasies, the book gives me an international platform (see:  wildest fantasies) to speak out about refugees, drought, and sustenance, and to start a foundation (wildest) led by my friend, Tsehaye, to provide education for refugee children—wherever they may come from and live at the time—who can’t register for school.  Also, I hope to write a beautiful book that moves people, which is good, because the wildest fantasy part can’t come true without a beautiful book.   
A few things happened this past week to convert me into a blogger.  Mainly, something shifted here in Israel under Netanyahu’s authority—a shift that makes me feel that not speaking out immediately is actually dangerous.  Since African refugees started pouring into Israel roughly four years ago, there have been plenty of Israelis who have devoted their lives to helping, and plenty more who have opened their hearts any way they could.  Too, there have been plenty of Israelis who hold fast that we should help only “our own”, a cultural norm I attribute to the existential fear at the root of so many personal, social, and political problems, here.  But okay:  help your own, help others; see the world in these dichotomies or experience the ways in which everyone and everything is connected; any mulling I have to do over all that can come through my novel however it chooses, however many years from now.  Like I said, I'm patient.    

This past month, however, the overt, systematic and legalized pressure to fire African asylum-seekers who aren’t permitted to obtain legal work permits, evict them from their homes, and the State’s vote of approval to build a detention camp to house 10,000 asylum-seekers in the Negev has me stunned, heart-broken, and, frankly, scared.  I’m afraid for these refugees--most who haven't yet been granted official refugee status and some whom I know personally--but also, for the first time, I’ve joined the fearful masses:  I'm afraid for Israel.  
Does no one adhering to these new regulations hear this echo: People fleeing for their lives, seeking asylum, being turned away by the passive indifference of other countries, sent back to their death?  These asylum-seekers—whom Netanyahu has recently deemed “infiltrators", a term that caught on quickly—from Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Congo, Somolia and Sudan, have fled genocide, torture and imprisonment just for speaking out, rape, and other atrocities.  Once they’ve left their countries illegally—the only way they could—risking their lives and children’s lives—they cannot go back safely.  No country along the way is safe for them, either.  Unlike most of the refugees who found their way to Israel in the past, these people did not intend to come here.  They walked until they were safe.  Israel was the first safe place. 

Can a country built by refugees and holocaust survivors reconcile rounding people up into a detention camp? Can she reconcile making lists of people who house African refugees, to shame them, as a local Haredi neighborhood did this week, in the name of religious law no less?   Can she reconcile a new implementation of fines against employers who have employed certain refugees for years in jobs that no other Israelis want?  What happens to a people who promise never to forget, when the very lessons they swear upon manifest in walls, not only around the borders of their country, but around their hearts?  Can’t we see that the very way some of us see these “infiltrators” is the way we were seen?

Israel can't grant residency and work permits to every asylum-seeker who crosses her border.  No country can do this.  But Israel's policies of deterrence are hurting everyone.  Where do we see this going?  African refugees in Israel have not delighted in being here in mere safety; many have felt more depressed here than ever before.  Before, there was the dream of freedom.  Now, there is the reality:  no permission to work legally to support their family, no way to leave.  Israel hasn’t wanted to grant official refugee status, enabling many seek asylum elsewhere, because they don’t want to become known as a portal to the West, thus encouraging more people to sneak across the border.  So while many of the refugees here are asylum-eligible in other countries, they can’t go forward, nor can they go back.  Israel can’t deport anyone eligible for asylum, and those they can legally deport would be unsafe.  As long as Israel is more concerned with deterring people than helping them, everyone is stuck.  

This humanitarian crisis is a God-given opportunity for a country built by refugees and survivors--children of refugees and children of survivors--to lead the world in finding international solutions. What is Israel going to ask of the world, and her nations, by way of collective consciousness and responsibility?  After all, Israel knows what happens when people take care only of their own.

Mostly, what are we, residents and citizens in Israel, going to do to stand up against the pressure to fire and evict our survivor neighbors, leaving them without shelter or means to feed their children?  Haven't they lived through enough trauma?  What is the rabbinical community going to do to take back Judaism, sending a clear message to Haredi Rabbis who have so much control in Israel that the more they use Halekha to separate, the more they turn the Jewish diaspora off from Israel; the more they turn the secular Jewish community in Israel, secular?  What are we going to do to fight against the term "infiltrator", because we know what happens when we dehumanize an entire population?  Right now, in the my Negev home, walls are going up to send asylum-seekers back to their death; to build a camp for those who are here.  We can say No, in the names of our family members who didn't survive, in the name of every value on which Israel was built.  We can say no because if this is the direction in which Israel is going, surely she has forgotten.        


I said that there were a few things that happened this past week to convert me into a blogger.   Here are the others:  My friend, Shlomit Zarur, an intuitive counselor and healer, told me, You know, you think you need your novel in order to have a platform to help refugees (on a large scale), but that’s not really the way it works.  It doesn’t work that the world grants you permission because of your book; it works that you see yourself as having that permission because of your book.  

At the same time, my journalist friends, Ilene Prusher and Tovah Lazaroff, helped me turn a facebook note about all this into an op ed for Israeli papers.  When I did so, I felt an awareness of audience as I never had before.  When I write about Israel on facebook, I’m instinctively careful.  People who have never lived here already know enough about Israel’s bigotry, aggressiveness, and stubbornness; they don’t tend to understand the context, nuance, or history here, nor can they know anything they don’t read in the papers:  news, not stories.  I feel a sense of responsibility to share what will open people’s minds, not confirm their outrage.  When I began to write for Israelis, however, the context was a given.  And what I found, in doing so, was that I want to write for Israelis; there is so much at stake, here. 

Shlomit was giving me another piece of advice, something concrete and personal that was essentially about getting centered, and as she did, she said:  If you do this, you’ll find all the questions to your answers.  I smiled, repeating back to her what she had just said.   She started to say, I meant…, then stopped.