Sunday, July 13, 2008

Israel and "Jisrael"

Don't you hate it when you accept an invitation to a wedding or bar mitzvah, and then remember that you have tickets for something that same night?

So what do you do? Try to get rid of the tickets? Try to wheedle out of your social obligation? Try to attend both?

Well, after my wife and I purchased tickets to this evening's screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, we realized that we had also accepted an invitation to a bar/bat mitzvah celebration. You know, family friends from the US on a bar/bat mitvah tour....So my wife, who is native Israeli, went to the Cinemathèque, and I, the native American, went to the Bar/Bat Mitvah event.

Geographically, we were ten minutes walking-distance from each other. Psychologically we were in different worlds

I was in a world or country that I shall call "Jisrael" – Jewish Israel. Jisrael is a country that exists in the consciousness of Jews living outside Israel, and of those Anglos who come to live here. It is the Israel of the English-speaking subculture in Jerusalem, Raanana, Beit Shemesh, and the bedroom yuppie communities of the West Bank like Efrat, Alon Shvut, etc. In Jisrael, Hebrew is spoken, if at all, with an American accent. Most of the inhabitants of Jisrael nowadays are orthodox. In Jisrael, nobody is surprised when the bar and bat mitzvah from America give speeches celebrating their heroes, King David and Golda Meir. Everybody expects them to profess their love for Israel and Eretz Yisrael, and their father to speak with that American religious-zionist twinge of guilt for living in Suburban Maryland and not here. At the reception, the tables for the guests had Jisraeli place names including Masada, Hebron, and Kever Rachel. Now in Israel these places are, respectively, the past home of Jewish terrorists, the present home of Jewish terrorists, and an holy place invented during the Byzantine period, and then appropriated by the Muslims, and later by the Jews. (I don't know many things I, but I know that the odds of the matriarch Rachel being buried in Kever Rachel are one in a zillion.)

Most importantly, in Jisrael the only Arabs are street cleaners, construction workers, or terrorists. They aren't doctors, lawyers, teachers, or professionals. They aren't people you socialize with.

My wife, ten minutes away, was in the country of Israel. She was quite literally sitting in Gehenna, since the Jerusalem Cinematheque is in the valley identified by archaeologists as Gei Ben Hinnom, the Gehenna of the New Testament (and who knows if they are right?). But emotionally she was sitting in another Gehenna, because she was watching ten short films on Jerusalem. Sponsored by the Jerusalem NGO, Ir Amim.

Hebrew readers can read about the films here

While I was singing Hava Nagila and Oseh Shalom Bimromav, my wife was seeing films about four Palestinian brothers who support their families by selling chewing gum to Jewish motorists at intersections. She saw a short film about Said al-Haradin, who wakes up at the crack of dawn each day to embark upon a journey of several hours to get to al-Quds university in Abu Dis – a ten minute walk away from his refugee camp. Or a documentary by a Palestinian film student about how an Arab cab driver took into his home a Jewish woman with her family after they had been evicted from their flat.

The most powerful film was about the hideous "creatures" that for years have terrorized Palestinians, destroying their homes, building walls around and through their lands, and making life miserable for them. Last week, for the first time, the same creatures turned against the Jews. I refer, of course, to the Caterpillar bulldozers.

The films were not, on the whole, heavy-handed or propagandistic. There were no films about Israeli soldiers beating up Palestinian civilians, or about suicide bombers, or about Shin Bet infiltrators. The emphasis was on how normal people live abnormal lives in the shrinking Gehenna that is Palestinian Jerusalem

What would the Jews from Jisrael had felt had they attended the film screening? Some would have been deeply affected and deeply perplexed. Others would have pointed fingers at the Palestinians and would absolve the Israeli Jews of responsibility. But most would have had great difficulty recognizing Israel because of the Jisrael they had created.

What room was there for hope? Only this – the Jerusalem movie theater was filled with Jews and Palestinians, speaking to each other, relating to each other, talking about their experiences. My wife could not remember ever attending any event in Israel where Palestinians and Israeli Jews mingled freely, on the same footing. It gave her some hope for Israel.

As for Jisrael – well, I lost hope for that "imagined community" a long time ago.


Anonymous said...

I think that you are capturing an important portrayal of the image of Jisrael. Usually, most articles get caught up in vague words like symbolic, zionist, settlers, or ideological. You got more of the woven texture. I would appreciate another post or two trying to depict Jisrael.

Ben Bayit said...

Do you speak Hebrew like a Yemenite, Moroccan or Iraqi Jew? Or do you still have the Ben-Gurion Polish sound?

Jerry Haber said...

Why would I sound Yemenite or Polish? I am from Baltimore and I speak Hebrew like a "Balamurian"

Actually, my accent in Hebrew, and my ongoing trauma because of it, should be a topic for a special post. I think it has gotten "worse" with the years, not better. I certainly have become more sensitive when people imitate it.

Actually, I don't even have to open my mouth before people peg me as an American. It's enough that I wear button-down shirts and Dockers.

Who's that guy in the picture by the way? That isn't Leadbelly, is it? Just goes to show how little I know about these things....

Jerry Haber said...

Oops, that last comment was addressed to ben bayit, of course.

Anonymous said...

How come you didn't include "Jisrael's" love of the Ma'arat HaMachpela in your ridicule? Is that because you think that maybe there is some historical validity to it, since we know that at least 2000 years ago, during the time of Hordus (Herod) they believed that was the actual location, leading them to build an extensive shrine there? Also, we know its purchase is repeatedly described in great deal in the Bible, or is that also an untrue myth, like Kever Rachel, in your eyes (which is also mentioned in the Bible)?
What do you think about those Muslim buildings on the Har HaBayit? They are certainly built on untrue myths. Do you think Muhammed really made a night visit there on his miraculous steed, Al-Buraq? Jerusalem is not mentioned even once in the Qur'an. Certain verses were later interpreted as supposedly referring to it, but that is no more reliable than Kever Rachel, right? So why not run the Muslims out of there, if there is no historical validity to it? It has also been a center of (Arab/Muslim) terrorism...the 1929 riots were set off by a harangue given there by the Mufti.
Or, in your eyes, are Arab/Muslim legends of greater validity than Jewish ones and to be given thre greatest respect, but at the same time, the beliefs of millions of Jews are stupid and primitive according to your (Orthodox) opinion?

Jerry Haber said...

whooaa, bar kokhba, you are mixing up a few things.

People who build shrines at certain places do so because they think that the place had something special attached to it (miracles, saints' graves, martyrs, etc.) I am not claiming that King Herod himself did not think that the patriarchs were buried in the Cave of the Machpela, if we have evidence that this was his purpose for building the shrine. Certainly the Arabs thought so, and the Jews after them thought so. Ditto for the site of the temple in Jerusalem.

However, many of the other sites like Kever Josef, Kever David, and Kever Rachel are Muslim holy sites, some of which were recognized as holy sites in the Byzantine period., when the concept of holy tombs gained currency. The fact that the Bible mentions Kever Rachel explains why later generations would want to consider a certain site to be "kever rachel". But it is not any evidence for the site that is considered now to be kever rachel. The truth is that there is no evidence besides "tradition" that the Byzantine Muslim holy place is kever rachel. As you know, the Bible lists two places for kever rachel, one near where it is located today, one to the north in Binyamin. Hazal complicate matters further.

Finally, as far as I know, neither Rabbinic nor Biblical Judaism makes a big deal out of graves as holy places. They certainly don't speak of pilgrimages to them. Visiting kivrei tzaddikim are virtually unmentioned in Jewish sources before the middle ages. I found no references in the gemarrah.

Anyway, having said all that -- who said anything about running anybody out? Once the Palestinian state is established, it should give as much free access to holy places as Israel does -- hopefully more, given Israel's restrictions on movement. Frnakly, I would internationalize all the holy places and take them out of the claims to sovereignty of Jews or Palestine.

As for Muhammad's ride -- makes no less sense than God speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai. I mean, once you get into the realm of miracles, who's to say...

Anonymous said...

Hinnom, not Himmon.
And propAgandistic.

Other than that, I think your blog is a breath of fresh air in today's political discourse (I am of course referring to the discourse in Israel).
Even more so because you are an orthodox Jew. I'd long lost any hope of hearing such views from that camp.

Sorry if that last bit comes off as bigoted or stereotypical - just expressing what I've come to experience and believe.
I'm glad to be proven wrong every now and then - it restores my faith in humanity or some such...

Jerry Haber said...

Thanks, nit picker. Keep spotting the typos. My spelling becomes atrocious when I write late at night. Last night I kept falling asleep at the keyboard. (I imagine that some of my readers fall asleep when they read the blog.)

Hey, wake up!

Anonymous said...

Israel and Jisrael - Is there a viable two state solution for this problem?

In the meantime, I think a security fence/wall between Israel and Jisreal would further the development of both -- I am just imagining the checkpoints and how you would resent being singled out for special treatment.

Anonymous said...

"My wife could not remember ever attending any event in Israel where Palestinians and Israeli Jews mingled freely, on the same footing."

Having never been to Israel, I also have an Israel inside my head that I’m hoping has more resemblance to reality than Jisrael. Call it Kisrael for Kumbaya Israel. This is the Israel of Interfaith dialog groups and coexistence organizations that challenge the idea that people must be divided into us and them.

It has been my impression that these groups, although small, are nonetheless extraordinary, as I am not aware of other conflict areas at the present time where such groups have formed in such numbers.

But your wife's comment about the uniqueness of her experience makes me wonder how much of Kisrael exists in Israel and how much is just wishful thinking inside my head.


Jerry Haber said...

Ross, yes there are groups like that and I would rather live is Kumbaya Israel than in Jisrael most of the time. But this was a little different. This wasn't a dialogue or even an activist group. This was a film screening where Palestinians and Israelis showed up to see the movie, since the filmmakers were mostly young Palestinians; so their families came (the boys in the picture also came.) And one thinks -- how many times do you go to cultural events in Jerusalem where there is this mingling?

But, no, this was not unique; it has happened in the past and will happen in the future.

Maybe we should start hanging with that crowd as well.


LeaNder said...

Not the slightest trace you were falling asleep, while writing it. I love your humor, but here it somehow feels I am missing something. Typos? Why is it always more easy to spot the typos of others, while we seem to correct our own somehow automatically in reading???

Good you and your wife went separate ways, it resulted in a wonderful story.

Ben Bayit said...

There is also an Israel that we can call Lisrael - or Liberal Israel. You see, Liberals view the world as they wish it to be - not as it really is, and thus this Israel - and the Middle East - is how Liberals want it to be, not how it really is. Lisrael and Lmiddleeast

The picture is of Son House. He was the great-grandfather of the blues. see here
I think you can figure out the rest....

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiousity, do you consider yourself a follower of Yeshayahu Leibovitch? Many of the comments you make are similar to things he said (but, of course, he considered himself a Zionist).

Jerry Haber said...

Bar kokhbah, you are betraying your Israeli origins when you spell his name "Leibovich"! But that's fine with me.

A "follower" of Leibowitz or Leibowic? No. Influenced by him? Yes. Disagree with him on important issues? Yes. Admire the man immensely? Of course.

By the way, the best book to read by Leibowitz is the collection of letters his family published after he died, "Ratziti li-shol otkha, Prof. Leibowitz." Unfortunately, it has not been translated, as far as I known. There you will see the man revealed in ways that watching him on television, or even reading interviews with him, or his books, cannot do.

Aliza said...

hi mr haber,
one thing i want to ask of you, is more book recs. like this thing by leibovich. (i emailed you once about syllabi for things about jewish history or whatever.)
but really. book recs, things that influenced your views today.. particularly regarding jewishy things .. they are very much appreciated.

Joe Manekin said...

Jerry -

While it's too bad that you had to spend yet another evening on Jisraeli soil, it's terrific that Rachel had such a positive, interactive movie going experience. And the contrast between your evening and hers made for a great blog post.

As for your accent, you are absolutely correct - Bawlmer all the way! While I'm sure it's kind of endearing to friends and family, maybe you could take steps towards shortening those vowels and reducing the American nasal tendencies. Maybe some language podcasts could help as well?