+972 Magazine » Yuval Ben-Ami http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Sat, 23 Aug 2014 18:58:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 A voice calling in the wilderness: A journey to the ‘Castle of the Jews’ http://972mag.com/a-voice-calling-in-the-wilderness-a-journey-to-the-castle-of-the-jews/91528/ http://972mag.com/a-voice-calling-in-the-wilderness-a-journey-to-the-castle-of-the-jews/91528/#comments Thu, 29 May 2014 18:06:01 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=91528 Five hundred words and three photos from one place. This time: a church in the middle of a minefield, water you can walk on, an international border with no soldiers and a legal limbo that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else.

What is the strangest place in the world? Depends how you define “strange.” In English, one must differentiate between strange, weird, bizarre and my personal favorite: eerie.

If there ever was an “eerie” place in this delusional country between the river and the sea, it can be found close to the Jordan River. In the following photo one can see tourists waving hello at a site called “Qasr el Yahud” (“Castle of the Jews” in Arabic). These women are sitting in the Kingdom of Jordan, but the photograph was taken from the West Bank of the river, under Israeli control.

Photos from Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Two years ago, Israel began granting access to the river east of Jericho, once it realized that many tourists could visit the place Jesus was baptized by simply going through Jordan. There is already a road leading to the river between minefields, and once a year the Greek patriarch leads a procession through it. All that’s left to do is grant access to anyone who wants it, build a parking lot for buses and place a soldier to ensure that nobody walks across the river to the other side.

Yes, I wrote “walks.” There is no need to swim. The depth of the “river” at this point is approximately a meter and is, on average, only five meters wide. It is surrounded on both banks by one of the less predictable views this world has to offer. John the Baptist was, in the words of the Gospel, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The desert remains, flat and rocky, full of churches removed from any city, town or village. One is made of fortified concrete, while three others have sparkling, golden domes. An onion-shaped Russian dome decorates a large building as if it were uprooted from St. Petersburg and gently placed here.

Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Another church, near where the buses park, is entirely surrounded by mines. The small, destroyed chapel is surrounded by a rosy, stone wall. Near it are signs that read “beware of mines.” Not a soul has stepped into the garden since the sixties. Its tall, iron gates are locked. The palm trees that used to stand here are now trunks.

Photos from Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

The beauty of a religious soul is its ability to skip over the strangeness and jump right into the water. Like the worshippers at Rachel’s Tomb, who ignore the fact that the place has turned into a bunker at the edge of a narrow fjord in the shadow of the separation wall, the white robe-wearing pilgrims immerse themselves in rancid water, filled with sewage and waste. Girls from the religious Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva stare at them from the bank of the river (according to tradition, this is where the water split in two and the Israelites followed Joshua to the promised land), while American Protestants singing and guitar accompaniment fill the air. “Michael, row the boat ashore,” they croon, while those sitting on the wooden deck in the kingdom across the river respond: “Hallelujah.”

To me, this is the eeriest thing here, this echo coming from another country. The soldier patrolling the border is nowhere to be seen today, and his Jordanian counterpart is missing too. It seems so simple to cross the river, yet it is forbidden. Should the soldier appear out of nowhere, it could end in shots being fired. An imaginary line in the shallow area of  the river and a keen sense of danger keep us at a distance. For me, the Israeli who cannot cross Allenby bridge, reaching the other side means spending many hours driving and waiting, as well as hundreds of shekels for visas and customs. Once it was totally inaccessible. Perhaps one day it will be so once more.

More strangeness: the line in the water is not the internationally-recognized border. Jordan does not recognize Israel’s control over the West Bank, and the Temple Mount still appears on the former’s currency. Even according to Israeli law I am not in Israeli territory. So where am I? Which inaccessible place are these women waving at? Nowhere? To whom are they responding “Hallelujah?” Without answers, I wait in the heat for Acheron, the the river of souls, to sail my soul on its raft toward a more logical reality.

Read this post in Hebrew on Local Call.

More journeys by Yuval Ben-Ami:
Between elegance and desolation: A short journey to Qalqilya
Bringing the Green Line to Sir Paul McCartney

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Between elegance and desolation: A short journey to Qalqilya http://972mag.com/between-elegance-and-desolation-a-short-journey-to-qalqilya/90580/ http://972mag.com/between-elegance-and-desolation-a-short-journey-to-qalqilya/90580/#comments Wed, 07 May 2014 04:52:41 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=90580 Eight hundred words and three photos from one place. This time, the city from which the muezzins sing over the rooftops of the settlements of Kochav Yair and Nir David.

Here is the closest thing that I will have to a Passover vacation: a hop for one morning to a city that is not especially attractive, though pleasant, smiley and delicious. The separation wall, hated by me as it is, split me from my obligations. So I submitted to sweet tea and pastries (sinning with hametz), to the atmosphere in the street, and to the interaction with this close, yet far away place.

Actually, it’s inaccurate to say that Qalqilya is unattractive. It may not feature many fine buildings but it does have, for instance, wonderful greenery: both banana trees and large patches of grass – two things one won’t find in the better known, mountainous Palestinian urban sprawl. It’s fascinating to peek into the small orchards in each home’s courtyard.

A courtyard in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

A courtyard in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

The city boasts an elegant topography: it possesses patience atop a moderate hillside, and its slope fans the densely populated urban cluster. The streets intertwine interestingly, the market is cute, and the similarity of several of the neighborhoods to parts of Jaffa and south Tel Aviv makes one wonder. “Yesha” [the Hebrew acronym for the biblical names of the occupied territories, Judea, Samaria and Gaza, also meaning “salvation”] – is truly here, for better and for worse.

>Read Yuval Ben-Ami’s ‘Round Trip’ travel series through Israel and Palestine

The depth of the tranquility found in the side streets, contrasted with the commotion found in the minds, also generates a form of beauty. I was reminded of Ocosingo, a sweet and unique city I visited in Mexico. Both cities are graceful – Qalqilya even more so. Like Ocosingo, Qalqilya is poor. It was once slightly less poor. Residents of the Israeli city of Kfar Saba and other towns in the Sharon region, along with settlers from the area, used to come here to do their shopping. The signs in Hebrew remain; the customers have disappeared. The Second Intifada created a total disconnect; the separation laws and the ensuing threatening red signs, stating, “they will kill you here,” completed it.

Qalqilya became a place that one sees but does not experience. A sort of menacing Emerald City. We may forget most Palestinian cities, but not this one and not Tul Karem, both so close by. This is precisely why it is so interesting to take a closer look at the city, even if only briefly, and even if there is fairly little to see as a tourist. I deliberately avoided the one attraction, the zoo, after passing a small poultry market where I saw a tied-up owl.

A leashed own in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

A leashed owl in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

It saddened me, and I was not sure I could withstand the sorrows of a zoo in a destitute city. I continued to other sites: the new mosque, the golden dome, the park and the adjacent monuments. And of course the giant wall, the leash that restrains the wild bird that is Qalqilya itself.

The wall seen from Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

The wall seen from Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

Even those who have seen the wall more than once must see it here, five minutes from Kfar Saba, crawling on its belly. Here, the separation barrier’s walls and fences brush up against the actual Green Line, but it tears away from it and encircles the city almost 360 degrees. It leaves only a narrow corridor out of which juts a highway heading eastward. The highway is dominated by an IDF base. It would be no feat to block the highway and complete the circle.

Qalailya is a seaside city that could not be further from the sea. Likewise, there is no city in the world more disconnected from its suburbs than this. In fact, this city has anti-suburbs. Nearly all of the surrounding land has been seized by communities that do not visit it: West Bank settlements on one side and Jewish towns inside Israel on the other. The wall is just one foreign casing.

On the one hand, the wall is almost unseen. A dense row of trees hides it from travelers on Highway 6 inside Israel. In Qalailya itself it can be seen from almost every window above street-level. When one reaches the last row of houses, the soul is confused because the view is seemingly normal. So many cities, from Avila, Spain to Diyarbakir, Turkey, are surrounded by wide city walls enclosing them. It’s just that the wall is usually homemade and less grey. “History hates walls” is written here on a slab of concrete, and it is not entirely true. History actually loves walls; what it hates are blockades, and eventually, sooner or later, they all become history.

Related:
Yuval Ben-Ami’s ‘Round Trip’ travel series through Israel and Palestine

Read this article in the original Hebrew here.

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The world’s only ethnic time zone http://972mag.com/the-worlds-only-ethnic-time-zone/81006/ http://972mag.com/the-worlds-only-ethnic-time-zone/81006/#comments Sun, 27 Oct 2013 21:43:25 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=81006 For the past month, the Holy Land was the only place in the world where time zones are delineated not by geography but by ethnicity. 

World time zones (By Shutterstock.com)

As of this morning, for the first time in a month, all the residents of the Holy Land are living in the same time zone. In late September, the Palestinian Authority switched to winter time, but the West Bank’s Israeli settlers continued living in line with Israel’s clock, which only made the switch today. Thus, for one month, the West Bank became the only place in the world where time is not delineated by geography but rather by ethnicity: different people went about their lives on different clocks, despite the fact that they live in such close proximity to each other within the same territory.

In other words (For the sake of clarifying such strange reality, I add here with thanks a point used in the comments by reader Haifawi) a visitor to the West Bank would be in a different time zone, depending on whether he or she was with Jews or non-Jews.

Settlers today make up over 15 percent of the West Bank population. This means that about every sixth West Bank resident thought an hour ahead of the other five. Drivers passing each other on Route 60 drove in different time zones, depending on to the color of their license plates. Meanwhile, while Israelis on both sides of the Green Line shared the same clock, the Palestinian people was divided in, and by, the dimension of time. Palestinians in Israel and East Jerusalem continued to live according to Israeli time, while Gaza went with Ramallah, switching off daylight savings on September 26.

The lives of West Bank Palestinians who work in settlements or with Israelis, or who have any connection at all with Palestinian citizens of Israel or East Jerusalem residents, became highly complicated. Some of them moved between time zones a few times a day. Many had to wake up at unthinkable hours in order to travel to work across the wrinkle of time. Palestinians who live on one side of the separation barrier and work on the other must anyway calculate the travel time to the checkpoint and the wait at it; this month they were forced to add an extra hour to that.

Ironically, the PA’s early change to winter time was meant to provide synchronicity with Israel. In recent years, Israel’s religious Jewish parties pushed for summer time to end ahead of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, in order to shorten the fast and ease the lives of the faithful. This year, with no ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, the date was changed at the last moment. The Palestinians did not adhere to the change, perhaps fearing that a further Israeli change of heart would force them to switch the date once more, and the bizarre delay was created.

In my work as tour guide, I moved between the two clocks all month. Often I was joined by dozens of tour participants, headed from Jerusalem to meet a speaker in Hebron or Nablus, at an hour on which no one was clear. The experience was annoying at times, funny at others. It was far more tolerable than other phenomena of the occupation, but around these parts we long ago learned to cheer the tiniest changes for the better. Today, with the synchronizing of the clocks, such change has occured: the rate of absurdity dropped by a tick.

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Scenes from a guided tour http://972mag.com/scenes-from-a-guided-tour/77758/ http://972mag.com/scenes-from-a-guided-tour/77758/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 04:33:37 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=77758

1.

Hotel manager in Tiberias: Two members of the group you’re guiding had to move to another room last night. It’s because of all the noise the cousins made in the pool.

Me: Why do you find it necessary to point out that those were “cousins” [Hebrew code word for Palestinians]?

Manager: What do you want me to say? “Arabs?”

Me: Why don’t you just say “some people”?

Manager: But they’re Arabs; it’s their identity.

Me: Being human is also part of their identity.

Manager: To you they’re human. Anyway, the couple that moved will either have to move back to their room before you leave this morning, or to a larger room on this floor.

Me: They’re Jewish.

Manager: What?

Me: They’re Jewish, you forgot to mention that, it’s part of their indentity.

Manager (smiling): Forget Jewish, just say “human.”

Me: To you they’re human.

2.

On a break in the tour, I am walking down Queen Helene Street in West Jerusalem. Ahead of me walks an elderly Palestinian woman in a long, traditional, embroidered dress. She holds a heavy sack in her hands, while balancing on her head, without any manual support, an equally large parcel.

It’s been a long time since I witnessed such a balancing feat. As a child growing up in Jerusalem, the sight was more common. We kindergarten kids would stand by the fence surrounding the playground, looking out to a path that led to the Palestinian neighborhood of Shu’afat. Whenever such a lady passed, we sang to her:

Arabi’a kushkushi’a
Yesh la tachat
Shel gavi’a

Which can be loosely translated from the Hebrew as:

Silly Arab woman
She’s got an ass
Like a wine glass.

I remember singing this at home one day. My parents became extremely angry. I didn’t understand. Why would they be angry? At kindergarten everyone sang this and it was fine. Later in life, I forgot the song. It only came back me when reading Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” a well-known memoir of growing up African-American in the American south. At one point,Wright tells of how he and his friends used to harass the town’s only Jewish resident with an anti-Semitic ditty.

At first I was in shock. How, I thought, could I continue reading a book by someone who did that? Then it came back to me.

Arabi’a kushkushi’a…

Now it comes back once more. I find myself humming it while walking behind this lady.

Yesh la tachat
Shel gavi’a.

She turns to a young woman who walks up the street, asking her in Arabic how far is it to Damascus Gate. The young woman, who appeared Arab from a distance, turns out to be a Jewish girl, wearing a long skirt typical of the religious Zionist movement. Her choice is to ignore the lady. She walks on as if nobody was there, much less a grandma with heavy bags on a scorching day.

Proud of my shaky Arabic, I walk over to the lady and tell her that Damascus Gate is close: only a five-minute walk. She thanks me profusely, and I head onwards, with “Arabi’a kushkushi’a” playing in my head. Then it hits me that I’m an idiot. I head back and offer to carry one of her bags. She hands me the sack, keeping the other bag on her head. Some prejudice is difficult to get rid of, and instinctively I experience the sack as being filthy.

The lady now walks by my side. She tells me of her late husband. “He was killed by the Jews, 25 years ago, in Bethlehem.” I tell her that I am a Jew. She doesn’t seem fazed. Both her hands being free, she pulls out of her wallet photos of her eight daughters and two sons. One of the sons left for the Ukraine as a medical student, graduated there, and hasn’t visited since.

I tell her of my own family, of my two sisters and of my parents. “My father works on television. My mother is a…” Damn. how do you say “artist” in Arabic? I tell her that I grew up in Jerusalem, that I remember seeing women balancing loads the way she does, and that I think it’s cool. I say nothing of “Arabia Kushkushi’a”. Maybe she can figure out that I, like the girl who ignored her, came from that, but that something in this life forced me to take a bit of her load into my arms.

3.

Bar owner at Tiberias: Sorry for all the cleaning up going on. We stayed closed for three days [during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr]. The city was full of cousins, you know.

Me: (leaving)

4.

The tours are dual-narrative ones. Along with me, a Palestinian guide accompanies each group, and many different speakers meet with them. Days dedicated to the environs of Bethlehem typically begin with meeting a representative of the settler community, in the town of Efrat.

This time, we arrive at the home of a new Efrat speaker. Twenty-one-year-old R. is a guide at a local educational center, who teaches Israelis of the region history from a settler perspective. Before we even get through the door, she steps over to me and asks: “Would you mind if I joined you for the rest of the day?”

The rest of the day, she knows, includes a visit to the Aida refugee camp and to central Bethlehem. According to Israeli law, any Israeli citizen who enters central Bethlehem is committing a criminal act. She knows that too. I don’t mind having her along and neither does the Palestinian guide, Ibrahim. We bring it up with the group at the end of her talk. By now they are so in love with her, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the paradigm she presents, that they wouldn’t mind having her along for the entire tour. Then her mother asks if she can join too.

The following hours present a very different experience for mother and daughter. R. has never been to Bethlehem, which is situated only two miles north of her hometown. She does not know what currency is used there. For her, this is a learning experience. For her mother, it is a nostalgic one. Prior to the first Intifada, settlers from Efrat and the nearby communities known as “Gush Etzion” frequented Bethlehem and were habitually in contact with Palestinians. She is amazed by how the city grew and by all the nice cars.

We arrive at Aida just as the local imam prepares the faithful for the Friday prayer. His sermon is broadcast throughout the camp on loudspeakers. It sounds wrathful. The imam is yelling. R. and her mother are standing in the camp’s slum-like environment, at the base of the separation wall. It is decorated with portraits of Palestinian militants and martyrs, some holding guns. One IDF watchtower was scorched by burning tires. It is chipped at the base, nearly taken apart.

They are here without fear or hate. They are listening to Ibrahim, as he tells of the refugees’ plight. They are both doing something enormous, at least to my heart. The sermon ends as do the explanations. We hurry on, so that the two can make it home in time for Shabbat.

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Israel as a public embarrassment http://972mag.com/israel-as-a-public-embarrassment/77025/ http://972mag.com/israel-as-a-public-embarrassment/77025/#comments Tue, 06 Aug 2013 10:07:35 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=77025 Are the embarrassments Israel’s diplomats produce truly unintentional? They appear to be part of a deliberate policy, intended to promote our sense of isolation.

Facepalm at the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In an episode of the brilliant Danish television series “Borgen” (“The Castle”), Denmark’s fictitious Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg travels to the imaginary African country of Kharun. Hoping to broker a peace accord between warring factions in that land, she rushes from the airport to a meeting with the local prime minister. He, however, fails to attend.

Angered, Nyborg demands to be taken back to the airport. One of her ministers, the Arabic speaking Amir, turns to a Kharunian dignitary and says: “Hadi fadiha.” This is when my girlfriend Ruthie and I burst out laughing in front of the screen. Fadiha! A familiar word! The Arabic expression for “embarrassment” or a “faux pas” was borrowed by Hebrew and is used incessantly in our culture. “Hadi fadiha” – “this is an embarrassment.” Indeed.

Not only do we know the word, we are also amply familiar with the situation, from a Kharunian, rather than a Danish perspective. Fadihas committed by the state have become habit around here, particularly since Avigdor Liberman was instated as foreign minister in the previous government. Liberman brought with him an anti-diplomatic approach that has since turned Israel into a state-sized fadiha. A famous example was the 2010 summoning of the Turkish ambassador to the Foreign Ministry, where he was offered a low chair. The low chair was meant as a public punishment, since the Turkish government allowed a certain television channel to air a drama series critical of Israel. Then-Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon soared above the ambassador on a taller chair and the media was invited to photograph his triumph.

Meanwhile, around the world, anti-diplomats were given prime posts. Among them are Israel’s ambassador to Ireland Boaz Modai, and his activist wife Nurit Tinari Modai, formerly of the Foreign Ministry herself. Last Christmas, the two sent the world a Christmas message of hate. On a Facebook page managed by the embassy, they posted an image of Jesus and Mary with the caption: “A thought for Christmas… If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought …”

Liberman no longer serves as minister while he stands trial for corruption (he is still in the Knesset, however, and last week passed the first reading of the blatantly anti-democratic Governability Law). Netanyahu is holding on to the post until that beacon of international relations is available again. Faithful to Liberman’s agenda, he Netanyahu is keeping anti-diplomats in their posts. Yesterday, the similarly staffed Dublin embassy did it again, this time on Twitter. It claimed that “The UN itself has become a tool against Israel. Hitler couldn’t have been happier.” (Screenshot here)

Ambassador Modai’s position is under no threat. Hadi yet another fadiha, of course, but while most embarrassments are unintended, I have reason to suspect that the ones mentioned above are at least to some extent calculated. When society mocks an individual or a minority group, the one being mocked does not identify with the mockers. Rather, he feels alienated from them, lonely and angry. Netanyahu’s wish is to isolate Israel from the world, while augmenting our paranoia and presenting himself as our only savior. He amply benefits from the goofy hasbara, the misunderstanding and the sarcastic reactions.

As Israelis who do enjoy communicating with people from other countries, Ruthie and I feel the impact every day. We host couch-surfing guests who ask us questions about Israel, its occupation policies and its domestic issues, often with a slight snicker. It has become comical, in a tragic sort of way. I also experience the inevitable reaction of the alienated. “Don’t be condescending!” I warn, in a voice just a tad too defensive. A few more conversations like this and I, too, will move over to the mainstream. Who wants to be a walking faux pas?

How can we prevent this process from taking root more deeply? There are no easy answers. Manipulation is a powerful tool, and the Right has a nearly absolute reign on information in Israel at the moment. Our job as conscious Israelis is to share alternative views and homegrown criticism of our so called diplomacy as powerfully as we can, ignoring our designation as “traitors.” The world would do better not to point mocking fingers and make sardonic remarks, but instead offer a helping hand. Two nations are held hostage in the hands of evil clowns, nothing can be less funny than that.

Correction:
The transliteration of “fadiha” was corrected in order to more accurately reflect both the Arabic and Hebrew pronunciation and spelling. Thanks to commenter Ed for pointing out the mistake.

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Bringing the Green Line to Sir Paul McCartney http://972mag.com/getting-the-green-line-to-sir-paul-mccartney/76493/ http://972mag.com/getting-the-green-line-to-sir-paul-mccartney/76493/#comments Sat, 27 Jul 2013 13:35:44 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=76493

The bathroom at the Glozman family home in the settlement of Givon Hahadasha. (Image from the book “The Round Trip”)

The sea is vast, which is probably why I seldom meet people I know when I go in to take a swim. Another reason is that the sea wets people’s hair and I don’t recognize them quite as easily.

A few days ago two wet-haired people called my name. It happened among the Hawaiian-sized waves of Alma Beach, north of Jaffa’s promenade. They turned out to be my two friends Orna and Loren. We chatted about what’s new and I told them I have a new baby: “The Round Trip,” my new book, and the first ebook to be published by +972 Magazine.

“I feel a little detached from it,” I confessed, “the proper version is available on iTunes for viewing on iPads. I don’t own an iPad and the iTunes bookstore isn’t active in Israel/Palestine, so I haven’t actually seen my own book. To me, it’s a bit like having it released on Mars, via some form of futuristic technology not yet known on earth.”

We all ducked under a huge wave.

“And I don’t know anyone on Mars, either!” I kept on complaining, “I have five free copies to send for promotion. I sent three to friends who sometimes write for the media, but I have two more, and my list of American and European media people is waning.”

“Forget promotion. It’s your first book in English? Send one to your English teacher,” Loren suggested.

“I did have English teachers in elementary school, but the truth is I learned my English from the Beatles.”

“So send it to Paul McCartney,” Loren said.

Buy The Round Trip here>>

Under the gush of the next wave I gave it some thought, and realized it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Of course Ringo is still with us as well, but he composed much fewer lyrics, and would thus count as a beloved teacher’s aid. Here, then, is the letter I wrote Sir McCartney upon returning to land.

Dear Sir Paul.

This is a letter of thanks. Attached to it is a book I’ve written about borders. I grew up in the strange land of Israel/Palestine, surrounded by countless borders: real borders, imaginary borders, international borders, unrecognized borders, borders separating communities, linguistic borders, fenced borders, walled borders, borders that cut through cities, borders that separate families, borders that have to be maintained through use of force. It would have been impossible to put up with all that if not for your music.

I discovered the Beatles as a boy, growing up in a Jewish Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem. The neighborhood was ringed by communities with which we had no dialogue and which I was taught to fear. On one end, my neighborhood was indeed fenced. Today the concrete wall of the notorious separation barrier rises where that fence stood, separating the neighborhood from a Palestinian refugee camp. South of the neighborhood are Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox quarters, situated across a mental border very few care to cross.

In a strange environment such as this, a young boy needs a sense of the transcendental, and this is what you and your artistic collaborators brought into my world. I’m not even talking about messages. True, I listened to “Pipes of Peace” in the late eighties, and later whistled the tune excitedly during the Oslo peace process years that followed, but what I’m really talking about is music being borderless: a neutral territory made up exclusively of love.

Knowing that such a territory exists was healthy, for both myself and my friends. It was essential, and it was greatly your gift. Besides, your songs taught me English. I went all the way from memorizing the difficult word “yesterday” to composing an entire book in this language.

“The Round Trip” is the record of a journey around our borders and across them, an exploration of them, done through conversation and observation, through text and image. By the time it was written, a year ago, my view of my own country had become enormously critical, in particular I am disenchanted with Israeli rule in the West Bank and with settlements, such as the one in which I grew up.

At one point on the trip, I stayed over for two nights in a Jewish settlement near Ramallah. I arrived there after traveling through villages that had been harmed by the barrier and other occupation policies. My anger at settlers and the Israeli Right was huge that night.

My hosts at the settlement were a lovely couple, one of whom, Ira, is a talented artists who decorates tiles. While taking a shower, I discovered her portrait of the Beatles, painted on the tiles. This little work of fan art forced me to remove the border separating me from my hosts. “Ira knows full well that in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” I wrote that night, “She’s not a racist and neither is she a warmonger. Being a free thinker, she’s not even a blind completer of sentences. She simply sees things differently than I do, very differently. Oh well.”

For this, too. I am indebted. Here’s a free copy of the book, and my best regards.

Yours truly,

Yuval Ben-Ami

And now for the big question: Does anyone know how to give this letter “wings” so that it soars over the many borders that separate a Levantine blogger from a musical legend? Anyone got connections at the Mull of Kintyre? Whoever does, and would get this letter over, will get the last free copy and my eternal thanks.

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‘Not born for happiness’: Israel as a Russian opera http://972mag.com/not-born-for-happiness-israel-as-a-russian-opera/74384/ http://972mag.com/not-born-for-happiness-israel-as-a-russian-opera/74384/#comments Thu, 27 Jun 2013 13:47:46 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=74384

The ultimate tale of a missed opportunity, now staged by the Bolshoi on Tel Aviv’s opera stage, resonates strongly in an Israeli heart that still recalls an old hope.

The scene at the opening of the the first act, in the Bolshoi’s traveling production of Tchaikowsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Photo by Yossi Zwekcer, Courtasy of the Israeli Opera

It does not end like an opera. No diva is sprawled on the stage, a dagger in her heart and a high D♭emerging emerging from her throat. I remember stepping out of “Eugene Onegin” stunned. Could there really be an opera that dealt with real life, rather then the melodramatic opera universe? Did Pushkin and Tchaikovsky both just send me off with the message: “life sucks, deal with it?”

It was a typically mild winter day in Eilat. The Marinski Opera House, from Saint Petersburg, visits the city yearly. Back in the 90s, its legendary director Gregeiev dreamed up a tri-national music festival. He hoped that borders would open up, following the Oslo Accords, allowing a flow of spectators into the resort city. That never materialized, but Eilat remains pleasant in winter, so the Russians keep coming.

I remember sitting in the port hangar where a concert performance of the piece was given. At first I didn’t care much. There was an old lady lamenting her lost youth, then a choir of the harvesters returning from the fields… I sank into my notepad and doodled. Then something caught my ears, the most strikingly beautiful theme I have ever heard. Tania, the village girl, was composing a letter to Eugene Onegin, a visiting city lad with whom she had fallen in love. Her letter was over the top – the kind of thing for which the “undo” function on Gmail was invented. She had just met Onegin, and was clearly making a mistake.

Still, we must be swept with her, and so Tchaikovsky composed Tania’s very emotion. He made love into music, a phrase (first appearing in this clip, taken out a production at the Met, at 4:48) that repeats in different intensities, until Tania stops singing and only the orchestra expresses her burst of infatuation (8:36). It was so gorgeous I nearly dropped the notepad.

An aloof Onegin rejects Tania’s words of love. In Pushkin’s astounding novel of sonnets, on which the opera is based, he showers her with cliches:  ”I must confess, though loth to hurt you / I was not born for happiness / I am unworthy of your virtue  / I’ll give you nothing but distress.” (Translation by Babette Deutsch – the best ever). The girls sees through the pleasantries. She knows that he looks down on her from the height of his social status.

Last week, the Bolshoi Opera came from Moscow to Tel Aviv for the first time, complete with its orchestra, as a guest of the Israel opera. They are staging “Eugene Onegin” in a wonderfully minimal production, in which all the action is centered around a huge table.

Over the years I have been thinking much about the story and its lesson. Onegin’s tale is one of regret, of a missed opportunity. His rejection of Tania is followed by a violent event: he kills his good friend Lensky in a duel. In later years, traumatized by the killing, he becomes a wanderer, gambler and drinker. One evening he arrives at a Moscow ball, and finds Tania there, only to find out that she is married to an ageing nobleman. Onegin decides that his rejection of her was the wrong move, as it was then that his life began deteriorating. He arrives with flowers at her home and begs her to choose him over her husband.

Ekaterina Shcherbachenko as Tania and Vladislav Sulimsky, in the final act of the Bolshoi’s Eugene Onegin. (photo: Yossi Zwecker, courtesy of the Israeli Opera)

In the heart of a left-leaning Israeli, this can’t help but resonate. In my mind, Tania represents the two-state solution: a compromise that could have lead to a certain degree of peace and justice.

True, in the Israeli narrative, it is the Palestinians who “turned the tables” on us at Camp David, but this is long after Israel, during Netanyahu’s first term in office, began retracting from the Oslo process. Since then we have resisted all constructive initiatives: the Geneva Initiative, the Arab Initiative, etc. Like Onegin, we placed the envelopes back on the very tables on which they were sealed, bowed elegantly, and headed away on our troika.

Do we regret it now? Some of us do. The government doesn’t. It’s engaged ever more passionately in the insanity of settlement construction and approval. Its ministers are plotting elaborate schemes for the annexation of Area C and the implementation of proper, legislated apartheid for most West Bank Palestinians. The government, like most Israeli dignitaries that attended the Onegin premiere on Monday, left this story during intermission, unwilling to watch the somber last act.

Among those dignitaries was President Shimon Peres, who addressed the audience before the curtain first rose. Peres spoke of the special relations between Israel and Russia, he praised Russian culture, and expressed his delight with poet Avraham Schlonsky’s translation of the Pushkin novel. I leaned over to Ruthie, my girlfirend, whispering that our president is well known for reading only the backs of books and making bad mistakes about details.

Just then Peres said: “Pushkin himself died in a duel, precisely like his hero, Eugene Onegin.” Oops. Onegin does not die in a duel. He kills. The entire tragedy stems from the fact that life goes on, and that the errors we made remain to haunt us. Peres, who, as a mastermind behind the Oslo Accords, played Tania’s messenger in the first act, refuses to acknowledge that the country over which he now presides has wasted its youth, and is likely headed for a bleak old age.

It does not end like an opera, not so far, at least. No diva is sprawled on the stage, a dagger in her heart and a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead emerging from her throat. Currently Israel is still a country which both great Russian opera houses grace with their performances. I urge them to stop. Part of the reason that we keep rejecting Tania is that we lack nothing, not even great sopranos like Ekaterina Shcherbachenko.

Just as the Bolshoi brought true joy to Tel Aviv’s opera buffs, Israel’s Minister of Internal Security forced the cancellation of the Palestinian children’s theater festival, set to take place in East Jerusalem. Is it any wonder why I stepped out of this production with much darker thoughts than I did six years ago in Eilat? Life still “sucks,” but “dealing with it” becomes more and more difficult. We need to try harder and work on a happier ending.

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The fall of the house of Herzl: Israel as a horror flick http://972mag.com/the-fall-of-the-house-of-herzl-israel-as-a-horror-flick/74192/ http://972mag.com/the-fall-of-the-house-of-herzl-israel-as-a-horror-flick/74192/#comments Mon, 24 Jun 2013 08:38:28 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=74192 Horror films are often centered around a house: a safe haven. But they are also a place of danger and sometimes a monster in and of themselves. To Israelis, the Jewish state can play all three roles.  

An Israeli poster for “The Grudge 2,” which conveys with mysterious accuracy Minister Naftali Bennet’s horror at the idea of two states. (Courtesy of Ghost House Pictures)

Last week my girlfriend Ruthie came up with a scary idea: “Why don’t we start watching classic horror films together?” she asked.

This would of course be a perfect remedy for a couple suffering from a decline in intimacy: a lack of clinging to one another. I assure you that we have no need for that. We simply love cinema. Ruthie asked online for suggestions, and soon we headed on our roller coaster of chills. The first film we watched was Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the second: Italian cult classic “Supriria.”

Through all the screams and slashing scenes, I found myself thinking a lot about politics. Here’s the true curse of living in this haunted land: we can’t get politics out of our heads even when the zombies break into the house and reach directly to the throat of the pretty blonde. Why would we? We are made to believe that we live in this house. Ehud Barak called Israel “a villa in the jungle,” aka, an outpost of humanity besieged by wild beasts. Horror cinema is all about stirring anxieties, and this exactly what our politicians do for a living. Israeli society is suffering en-masse from a state of PTSD, a state which our leaders preserve rather than heal, keeping us dependant on their promise of military protection. Last week I heard Netanyahu say on the radio: “The Palestinians don’t only want the West Bank, they want Jaffa, Ashdod and Haifa.” His tone was taken straight out of the radio and television broadcasts in “Night of the Living Dead.”

American horror cinema is indeed borne of political anxieties. The plot of “Night of the Living Dead” incorporates many of the fears experienced by Cold War American society: the fear of nuclear holocaust, the fear of “red” society, in which individuals lose their identity, even the uncertainty of where racial politics are headed, in the age of Martin Luther King Jr. The murderous aliens of B movies produced in the 50s and 60s were always allusions to very terrestrial beings, or at least semi-human ones, such as Brezhnev.

In Israel, we can easily relate to these films’ state of incessant panic. Which strikes me most in the current binge is the influence their use of architecture has on me. In many horror films, a house plays an important role. First it appears as a safe haven, an outpost of normality, where threatened characters may seek refuge from strange forces. Later the house turns out to be the perfect hiding place also for the monsters, or even a monster in and of itself.

This ambiguous sense of home, can play strongly on the emotions of both left- and right-wing Israelis. In the right-wing narrative, particularly that of the paranoid Netanyahu variety, Israel is precisely that house. We escaped to it from the zombie apocalypse/Frankenstein’s monster/Mengele’s needles, and are now trying to collect ourselves. Meanwhile, a combination of ever-persistent zombies are still trying to penetrate the house (Arab nations, Iran, Palestinian refugees abroad). The backyard is swarming with them (West Bank and Gaza Palestinians) while inside, evil hides in the closets (Palestinian citizens of Israel, Jewish leftists, likely-to-be-antisemitic tourists).

Meanwhile, left-wing Israelis experience home as a haunted house. In the final scenes of “Poltergeist,” skeletons begin to emerge from the soil of the Freeling family’s front yard, recalling the images taken in the recently discovered 1948 mass grave in Jaffa. The father of the family (Craig T. Nelson) grabs his neighbor who developed the property over a graveyard, a choice which caused restlessness among the dead and punished the living with extremely cinematic paranormal activity. “You son of a bitch!” he yells, “you moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t ya? You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! Why? Why?”

I feel about as bitter toward the people who changed the street names around our cities and kept hidden the secrets of the Naqba.

Dario Argento’s “Supriria” hits this spot in particular. The story takes place at a dance school in Germany, which is in fact run by a coven of witches. How familiar. Here, the glory of the Israel Philharmonic orchestra, of our high tech industry, of pinkwashing and greenwashing, covers for a dark reality. The music plays so loudly at the rehersal room that very few of us notice the calls for help coming from the basement. As I watched the heroine of “Supriria” venture into the school’s hidden chambers, I thought of my own first cautious peeks beyond what  I was “supposed” to know. I thought of my first visit to the refugee camp that is situated not 1,000 feet from the house in which I grew up. It took me 30 years to realize it’s there.

In both “Poltergeist” and “Supriria,” the house in question ends up falling apart, a tribute, perhaps, to Edgar Allen Poe, and his Fall of the House of Usher. In the story, a terrible, unacknowledged crime causes the house to crumble. This is of course the greatest fear of the Israeli Left: that our home and the haunting are one; that the skeletons in our closets will eventually cause this land to fall into greater, inevitable violence; that we can no longer cleanse our environment, not even with the help of Max von Sidow.

Actually, I think that my own worst fear for Israel has already come true, or at least comes true from time to time. This fear is beautifully reflected in the first horror film Ruthie and I watched together, already before we were even a couple. It is Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of B-classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

I refer to this movie whenever Israel launches a Gaza onslaught, or some other offensive. In such times, the press quickly lines up with the government and so does the street. “Everyone starts saying the same things,” I moan, “they lose any form of empathy. Even when children die by the hundreds, they argue that it’s justified. People who spoke against agression a week ago are repeating press releases of the IDF Spokesperson. It’s just like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’!”

No, I don’t think they are “pods” from outer space, who take on human form and replace the Israelis. I don’t think we need pods from outer space. We can be scary enough when we so choose.

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Israel’s control over movement, reflected by a local artist http://972mag.com/israels-artful-control-over-movement-reflected-by-a-local-artist/74111/ http://972mag.com/israels-artful-control-over-movement-reflected-by-a-local-artist/74111/#comments Fri, 21 Jun 2013 21:36:03 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=74111 May Castelnuovo presents a visual representation of 101 things, at which we would rather not look.  

Photo by Meitar Moran

As the crow flies, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design is situated less than one kilometer from the separation wall. Indeed, the crow need not even fly from Israel’s most prestigious art school to the questionable concrete barrier; it can mosey there at ease.

Within Bezalel, one finds the typical Israeli mix of art that concerns itself with local realities and that which stubbornly ignores them. This post is dedicated to one work of the first category, presented only last week by a student at Bezalel’s photography department. I am sharing it for two reasons. First, it is the work of a dear friend, who is also a recent creative partner and +972 contributor. May Castelnuovo is responsible for the photography and film footage of “Last Metro to Taksim,” a five part exploration of protest-Istanbul.

Second, while professedly a rudimentary experiment, it is an enormously educational piece of art. It is made up of permits – permits necessary for movement, permits for crossing the wall. The crow may fly right over it, but it traps men and women. Many Palestinians never get a permit to cross the separation barrier and go into Israel. For those who do, Israel issues 101 kinds of permits: only for Jerusalem, only for a specific hospital in Jerusalem, only for daylight hours, for all hours, for a few hours, etc., etc.

The permit policy can be described as a form of bureaucratic violence, or at least a tool of intimidation. Palestinians receive no information about how to qualify for a permit. One permit expires, and the next offers entirely different liberties, for no apparent reason. The printers at Kafka’s castle work overtime.

Like the wall itself, the policy is presented as a security measure. It is, however, a dubious one. On one fine day last August, Israel experimented with relaxing this policy and lavishly issued nearly 300,000 permits, drawing multitudes of Palestinians to Mediterranean beaches. No violent incidents were recorded that day. The meager value of this gross infringement on human rights was clearly displayed, and yet the experiment has not yet been repeated.

Castelnuovo sought to obtain copies of all the different types of permits and post them as is on one of Bezalel’s walls.  She learned that this is pretty much impossible, even for an Israeli. The permits are issued at the whim of the “Civil Administration,” a incommunicable, totalitarian arm of Israel that manages the lives of 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. The Civil Administration’s headquarters are located in the settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah. It is an organization of which most Israelis know nothing at all. Few express curiosity about it.

So here’s one who did express some curiosity, and found herself running up against a wall. Even Gisha, an NGO that concerns itself directly with the freedom of movement of Palestinians, was unable to supply all 101 variations. Castelnuovo obtained a single permit. It permits its holder only to visit Tel Aviv, for one day only, in order to attend a conference. She photocopied it 101 times, and posted the copies in a form that highlights their prime number (the deletions on the photo are my own, made at the suggestion of the artist).

The piece poses a couple of interesting questions from an artistic standpoint. Here is a photographer making use of the Xerox lens, for want of an effective photographic vantage point on her subject matter. Here is also a very charged use of a replication: does the multiplying of the single permit reduce it to a Campbell’s soup can? Is this work not only repetitive, but redundant?

I think not. Rarely does one encounter a more honest artistic rendering of our homegrown evils. In Maya Angelou’s poem “I know why the caged bird sings”, the caged bird sings of its shattered dreams, while the free bird is oblivious to such sufferings. At Bezalel last week, a free bird lamented the condition of the caged ones, and her song was a concise and precise chirp. With society, the media and the education system looking the other way, this is the most we may know – a single story, and even that, only if we care to listen. Then we must use our imagination to sense the unthinkable reality. Our neighbors, by the millions, are subjected to endless, constant, meticulously designed harassment in our name.

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Yoram Kaniuk – the last great Zionist http://972mag.com/yoram-kaniuk-the-last-great-zionist/73332/ http://972mag.com/yoram-kaniuk-the-last-great-zionist/73332/#comments Sun, 09 Jun 2013 15:45:29 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=73332

“I know that a Jewish state can only be a dream,” Yoram Kaniuk once told me, “but I want to have my dream.” This literary giant and eternal dreamer passed away last night (Saturday) at the age of 83, and an important critical and humanist voice fell silent in this land.

The dream of Israel is one for which Tel Aviv-born Kaniuk nearly gave his life at the age of 17. He lied about his age in order to join the Palmach Brigades and was shot in the leg on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. Six decades later, having finally reached his renown as one of Hebrew literature’s most powerful voices, he told the tale of that war. His book, 1948, is not only a stray from the typical Zionist narrative, it is honest, irreverent and eye opening.

Kaniuk was a quintessential Israeli “sabra.” He was certainly a Zionist, in that he felt the Jewish nation would have no future without a home. Still, he was concerned for the wellbeing of every soul on this soil and frowned at the Israeli Right’s abduction of Zionism. His understanding of the term was miles apart from that which is common in contemporary Israel. “Our Zionism was on the coast,” he told me in another conversation. “When we dreamed of a state here, Jerusalem was not meant to be a part of it, never mind the West Bank and Gaza.”

The Kaniukian middle way may seem contrived to some, but in today’s Israel it is revolutionary. Kaniuk rejected the world view of Messianic religious Zionism, which combines Zionism as an existential solution — a life-saving project — with biblical context and extreme nationalism, a mix that permits inequality and atrocities. He was active in the struggle to secure the right of return for the refugees of Iqrit and Bir’im and cooperated with Palestinian intellectuals long before it was considered “acceptable” behavior. His disdain for mixing synagogue and state played out most powerfully in 2012, when he successfully appealed to remove “Jewish” from the “religion” clause in his Israeli ID card. To this day, he is the only Israeli to have achieved that feat.

He who molds reality with his own hands knows it can be formed into anything. Kaniuk’s reading of Jewish history — and particularly of the Holocaust — convinced him that the Jewish people have a role as a light unto the nations when it comes to human rights and social responsibility. He also knew Israel was not an ideal setting for fulfilling that role. In his iconic novel, Adam Resurrected, published as early as 1963, Kaniuk painted an eerie metaphor for Israel: an ultra-modern lunatic asylum, set in the middle of the desert and in which the patients are all Holocaust survivors.

The asylum was founded by Rebecca Siezling, an affluent American Jew. Siezling arrives in Israel in the early sixties with a sense of spiritual loss. Via a chance encounter with a local spiritualist, she learns that what she misses is God, that God speaks to lunatics and that he does so in the desert. The country, Mrs. Siezling learns, has no shortage of lunatics. Forearms tattooed with blue numbers are plenty and everyone around suffers from some form of PTSD. It has no lack of desert, either. In the heart of that desert, near the town of Arad, Mrs. Siezling’s Institute for Rehabilitation and therapy is thus created.

Like every Kaniuk novel, Adam Resurrected is a human story. Adam Stein, its protagonist, is so deeply scarred by his Holocaust experience that his ability to channel God is greatly impaired; instead, he channels man, ultimately healing himself by helping another heal. His character is the very quintessence of complex, believable humanity. This is Israel as Kaniuk envisioned it.

But Israel itself keeps chasing God and turning its back on man. In love with the nation for which he fought, Kaniuk kept hoping to reconcile the difference between reality and potential. In his later years he abandoned the Left, with which he was plenty active over the years; he hoped that a centrist approach might prove pragmatic. Then he turned back left — stubbornly. Going back to read his own contributions for +972 and my previous mentions of him on this site, I found the following attack he voiced against moderate elements within the #J14 movement.

“They weaken the revolution,” Kaniuk said in September 2011. “This leadership should have openly called for Netanyahu to quit. I want them to say ‘elections now.’ Say it! That would startle Netanyahu. Why not startle him? Netanyahu keeps leading us to Masada. He fights with the Turks, fights with the Americans, fights with everybody. What they express is too mellow. What do they mean when they chant: ‘The people demand social justice?’ What the people demand is a regime change!”

A true revolutionary speaks of revolution also at the age of 81. Kaniuk revolutionized this land in many ways — through war, literature, op-eds and activism. He knew that this country deserves at least one more revolution but was too old to bring it about. We will pick up his books, his train of thought, his faith in the young and keep trying.

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