Tuesday, June 30, 2009
AN AMERICAN JEW VISITS A VERY FOREIGN COUNTRY: 2 WEEKS IN ISRAEL
Photos above: Anti-Obama poster at ultra-Zionist demonstration: "Obama, anti-Semite and Jew Hater," Old Jaffa, Tel Aviv
An American Jew Visits A Very Foreign Country:
PART I -- Tel Aviv and my impressions, or what kind of a place IS this?
-- Rick Congress
THE INVISIBLE PEOPLE
Tel Aviv is awash with sunlight and has a light airy feel. It’s great to walk along the beach. People young and old are sunbathing, swimming, and I can see many ultra-modern high rises as I look eastward toward the city. I’ve arrived on June 3 to join up with 30 other participants in the Code Pink organized Free Gaza delegation, a follow up on the journey I took in March where 62 of us entered Gaza from Egypt to campaign against the Israeli/US/Egyptian blockade that is strangling Gaza and magnifying the suffering caused by the savage bombardment carried out by the Israeli armed forces in December and January. Our group would team up with the Coalition of Women for Peace made up of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis in an attempt to get into Gaza from the Eretz crossing in Israel.
But right now I’m in a swimming suit, relaxing. Everyone around here is relaxed. No worries or cares. And it’s not just at the beach. In the several days I spend in Tel Aviv out of my two week stay in Israel I can see and hear that the people of this supposedly more liberal and secular city on the Mediterranean shore don’t care about anything except their own well-being (which is hardly a shock, most people in the world are first of all concerned with making a living for themselves and their family). But when confronted with even a whiff of concern about Gaza, the “Arabs,” those other people, they make it clear they don’t care if they live or die (preferably die, or disappear, if you press the point).
This reaction is what you get from Israeli Jews. But it’s hard to find a non-Jewish citizen of Israel to speak with. Not the cab drivers, or the cleaning women in the hotels, or the busboys in the restaurants, or the workers in the stores. They are all Jewish, or maybe they are Russian non-Jews who posed as Jews to get out of the then-USSR and get housing and other subsidies for a good life, thanks to those perennially generous chumps, the U.S taxpayers.
This is “The Jewish State,” or the “democratic state of all the Jewish people” that Netanyahu now demands that everyone recognize Israel as being. With this designation Israel will have a free pass to expel all the Palestinians (“Palestinians” … a word the regular Israeli-in-the-street sneer at. “They are Arabs and don’t belong here”), imprison them all, or anything they want. If Israel is the state for only the Jews, then the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians, Muslim or Christian, don’t have any rights. Not that they have much in the way of right at this moment, but there is some shred of legality they are hanging on to. Now Israel’s Foreign Minister, (a Russian speaker from Moldavia) Avidor Lieberman, wants the Palestinian citizens of the “State for all of the Jews” to pledge that they are loyal to the state that specifically says it doesn’t represent them.
Of course you can’t have a democratic state once you christen it with an ethnic label. To preserve the Jewish majority you have to use undemocratic, positively dictatorial means to keep it that way. Thus the urge to push out all Palestinians. Though Israel knows they have to do it slowly, in covert ways, to cover it up with Orwellian double-talk. Israel in its Pre-1967 borders (without Gaza and the West Bank) has 5.5 million Jews and 1.5 million Palestinians. The West Bank has 2.5 million and Gaza has 1.5 million Palestinians (the 500,000 settlers in the West Bank are counted as living in Israel, since the government won’t recognize what the whole world knows, the West Bank isn’t part of the state of Israel, it is illegally occupied land.)
The long run demographics are against a Jewish majority state. So, warring against these numbers, Israel has laws making it illegal for an Israeli citizen who marries a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza to live with his or her spouse inside the State of Israel. Other laws restrict movement, and others take away the homes of people who have title to their land going back hundreds of years to the Ottoman Empire.
Anyway, back to the streets of Tel Aviv. What I finally realize is that the Palestinians are segregated in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is a Jim Crow town. They aren’t wanted so they are not employed in hotels, or as bus or cab drivers. A premise of Zionism and “Labor Zionism” is that they have a normal society with Jewish rich, poor, middle class, workers, paupers…. all strata of society must be 100% Jewish. They don’t want to exploit Palestinian labor, they want to eliminate it. This is a major difference from South African apartheid where black labor was exploited as cheap labor to enrich all of white society. The Israelis by and large want the Palestinians gone.
Walking around Tel Aviv with other members of the delegation we got strange looks. Some of our group were wearing Code Pink T shirts that said “Free Gaza” and “Lift the Siege of Gaza.” There obviously was something wrong with us. When we decided to go to Jaffa, we finally found some Palestinians. Jaffa is an ancient city dating from the Bronze Age that became a Muslim city in 625 AD. It’s a beautiful, historical place with arched walkways and massive stone building that are many centuries old. If you walk south from our hotel (which was on the corner of Hayarkon St. and Allenby Road and a block from the beach) it takes about half an hour to get to the old city of Jaffa.
As we got close to Jaffa we saw some young Palestinian couples and families strolling along the waterfront, but not very many. Jaffa has been taken over by Jewish Israelis. It’s been absorbed as part of the Tel Aviv municipality. In 1948 most of the residents were pushed out by military action. They were marched to the docks and forced onto boats as Israeli soldiers fired over their heads. Many of these Jaffans and their descendants are now in Gaza (see “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” by Illan Pappe www.oneworld-publications.com Pappe is an internationally acclaimed Jewish historian who now is the chair of the History department of the University of Exeter in the UK.). Now Jaffa has become a tourist attraction and a center for Israeli artists. When my wife asked someone who worked at a gallery we were browsing in where she could find Palestinian art the woman looked puzzled and answered, “we only have well know artists here.”
There were a few signs in Arabic in Jaffa. At least they hadn’t been removed yet. All over Tel Aviv, and other cities as well, the public signs and signs on businesses are in Hebrew, Russian (there are 500,000 of them in Israel and is the main voting block for Liberman’s far-right party), and English. Rarely was anything in Arabic.
There are highway signs in Arabic on the main roads between cities. Especially ones that warn drivers that a road is for Jews only (the ones that connect West Bank settlements to cities in Israel proper). Cars registered to Palestinians have different colored license plates than those registered to Jewish Israelis so the police and soldiers can separate out the vehicles they want to.
While in Jaffa I went to a hilltop over the harbor where an archeological dig had unearthed an arch that was constructed by Egyptians during the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II. A blurb on one of Yahoo’s Tourism Web pages says:
On the slope of the green, carefully manicured hill in the park area of Old Jaffa is an interesting archeological site. A massive doorjamb, as it were, stands in front of partially excavated ruins. This is the reconstructed gateway to a building from the time of Egyptian ruler Ramses II (1400-1200 BCE). A portion of the jamb, inscribed with hieroglyphics, was discovered by an Israeli archeologist in the late 1950s. The archeological site has remnants of structures from the many civilizations that established, or attempted to establish, themselves in the area.
Does this trump the 3000 years of history that Zionists say gives them the right to all of biblical (broadly defined) Israel today? Was the Mediterranean coast part of biblical Israel or it’s rival kingdom, Judea? Does the Ramses gate give Mubarak a claim to Tel Aviv? Was the bible written by visiting space aliens as a practical joke? Stay tuned.
During my stay in Israel there were banners hung in Tel Aviv celebrating the city’s 100th anniversary. Why was it founded right next to Jaffa in 1909 by Jewish immigrants during the time of the Ottoman Empire? Because they didn’t want to live with lowly Arabs. They wanted an all-Jewish town.
Ralph Ellison wrote a great novel, “The Invisible Man,” about how white Americans looked right through black Americans, they didn’t want to see them, but they were there. Blacks lived in segregated, run-down housing apart from white society. They commuted into town to work in low-paying jobs and went right home again.
In Israel, in everyday life, the Palestinians are also made to be invisible. But different from the U.S. experience, they aren’t commuting to work for Israelis. There is no work for them. Jobs are for Jews, not Palestinians. Well, not quite. If there aren’t enough Jews to do low-wage jobs then these jobs are for Filipinos, or Indians … anyone but Palestinians. There are thousands of mainly Asian “guest” workers in Israel. One friend who had spent a lot of time in Israel told me the Hebrew word for home health care attendant is “Filipino.”
I was in Tel Aviv during Obama’s Cairo speech at the start of my trip and also, near the end of my trip, was standing outside Bar-Illan University in Tel Aviv where Netanyahu gave his response to Obama’s speech. I was with a group of protesters from the Code Pink delegation, later joined by a small number of Israeli Peace Now members.
My president, Barack HUSSEIN Obama (Israelis stress the Hussein part) isn’t appreciated by Jewish Israelis. “Someone should shoot him in the head, you Americans are crazy,” is a remark a cab driver in Tel Aviv made to a member of our delegation. Newspapers refer to him as “Pharaoh.” Opinion polls show that he is not viewed as a friend of Israel; he’s not to be trusted. Foreign Minister Lieberman made a show of visiting Moscow with the idea that Israel could find other powerful friends. An article in the Jerusalem Post told about a minor cabinet minister’s proposal that Israel impose sanctions on the U.S.A. Would they boycott our money? The article didn’t specify, other than to let the minister vent his anger at Obama for daring to question Israel’s behavior.
Did Obama cut off the three billion dollars a year in foreign aid (Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid)? Did he demand that the borders with Gaza be opened right now or he will impose sanctions against Israel? All he did is make the mildest criticism of Israel, overlooking the systematic theft of land and war crimes, and made a very weak demand of not expanding existing settlements. The prospects of Obama doing anything strong against Israel’s intransigence are slim to none. But his words are enough to make him public enemy number one. Just the departure from the norm of U.S. presidents falling over themselves to shower praise on Israel and give it everything it wants, and a suggestion that Palestinians are an occupied and dispossessed people (or even the assertion that they are a people at all) is enough to drive rightwing Israeli Jews (that is to say, the current majority of the people) crazy.
They aren’t used to hearing any public criticism from the White House. It’s not very likely that Obama will end up doing anything to really stop the expansion of the West Bank settlements, let alone dismantle most of them, which is an absolute necessity for a Palestinian state to be a real one, not the pretend state that Netanyahu proposed in his public response to Obama at Bar-Ilan University June 12.
While I don’t expect any meaningful action on Obama’s part (I’d like to be wrong) words can be important. Israeli leaders must sense, as do their AIPAC (the famous Israel lobby in Washington) surrogates, the slippage in support in the U.S. for Israel due to their murderous attack on the civilians of Gaza.
Standing across the street from the University gates my group of demonstrators -- with signs calling for the ending of settlements, and lifting the siege of Gaza -- were treated to the spectacle of frothing at the mouth counter-demonstrators who help up posters showing Obama dressed up like Yasser Arafat with a keyfaia and military tunic (someone probably just Photo Shopped Obama’s face into a picture of Arafat). The caption in large letters said: Obama, anti-Semite and Jew hater. Nice way to talk about your major financial benefactor!
This prompted me to do something I’ve never done in the U.S.(or anyplace else that I can think of) I supported the president …. Just to piss off the ultra-Zionists across from us. We yelled: “American Jews voted for Obama! Obama won the election, the neo-cons are out! American taxpayers are tired of paying for your war crimes,” and so on.
I came up with a few good chants. Holding up my U.S. passport I yelled, “I want my money back! Three billion dollars a year, we want a refund! Hey Bibi, give me that Armani suit you’re wearing. I paid for it!” I think my best one was “No more U.S. taxpayers money to Israeli schnorers (Yiddish for moocher).
CAN ONE OF THE CHOSEN PEOPLE CHOOSE NOT TO HANG OUT WITH CHOSEN PEOPLE?
Helen (my wife) and I had trepidations about going to Israel. Mainly because we knew of pro-Palestinian political activists who were not let into Israel and summarily deported, sometimes after humiliating strip-searches and rummaging through luggage. Some were detained for hours and finally allowed to enter Israel, but often with restrictions, such as a visa good for only 3 days, or threats of arrest if they participated in any unspecified “improper activity.” We were warned that a careless possession of book by Noam Chomsky, or a “Free Palestine” button in our belongings would lead to our detention and or expulsion (to be put back on the next plane to New York).
When we went to Gaza via Egypt we were welcomed as desperately needed supporters and friends by the officials and people there. Going to Israel was like entering hostile territory. So I got a short haircut and we dressed like well-off old Jews from New York and were square enough looking to clear customs. While waiting in line we saw a couple of young women, each traveling alone, taken out of line and led off somewhere. Someone later told us that young unescorted women were often suspected of being part of some pro-Palestinian activist group like the ISM (International Solidarity Movement). I suppose the reasoning was that if a young woman came in with a husband or boyfriend they wouldn’t get out of control.
On the plane from JFK to Tel Aviv an Israeli woman struck up a conversation with Helen. “Are you Jewish?” The answer being “yes,” the woman went on, “Oh, you’ll love Israel,” and mentioned some sights to see. Then she said, “I’m glad to get back home, it’s great to live in a country where everyone is Jewish.” Helen though it best to let that pass without comment.
As the days went by during our stay in Israel we talked about how it felt to be in a “Jewish State.” Virtually everyone around us in Tel Aviv (even most of the tourists) were Jews. One evening we were in a Jewish owned restaurant in Jaffa and Helen commented how the clientele, a mostly middle-aged to older bunch, reminded her of the people at her parent’s country club in Long Island. She was right, I recognized the type. That’s the problem with Israel, I realized. I know this type of people, having grown up with them and I had to put up with their small mindedness and racism (“Oh, the svartzers, what’s the matter with them?”).
The woman on the plane returning home to Israel thought it was great to live exclusively among Jews. For me, it’s definitely not great to live in a place where the people are all the same. It sucks! I grew up in a small Jewish community in white-bread bland Indianapolis. I was glad to finally get out of there for good and live in places with some variety. I don’t automatically crave Jewish companionship or society. I like rice and beans, hot peppers, Chinese food, but not Jewish heart-attack food. Being a deracinated Jew is great! Living in New York where an Albanian can get into an argument with a Bengali over a parking space in front of a Peruvian restaurant is great! Contrast! Stimulation! Multi-culturalism! Living in this kind of environment is great. The ingrown, ethnocentric, paranoid culture of an exclusvely Jewish state is not great.
MORE POSTS TO COME
Meeting with a Palestinian member of the Kenesset
Jerusalem: the Silwan neighborhood