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A Mideast alternative to Israel: A response to Yuval Ben-Ami

 Yuval Ben-Ami is thinking of leaving Israel for a saner life somewhere in Europe. Though I know the feeling he talks about and sympathize with it deeply – my choice, time and time again, is to stay right here, at home. I can even justify it.

A calm, grey and tempting street in Berlin (Haggai Matar)

A calm, grey and tempting street in Berlin (Haggai Matar)

Of course, I totally agree with Yuval. It’s a very rough country that we live in, a country of occupation and racism, a country of militarism, chauvinism and brutal capitalism, a country of fundamentalism and violence, where intimidating winds of fascism are blowing in the air. It’s a country where I spent two years in prison, and where so many others like me get shot at, arrested and beaten for who we are and what we believe in. Not to mention the heat and the humidity in the Tel Aviv summer, the way it usually brings the worst out of people and summons the bugs, the cockroaches and the mosquitoes. I hate mosquitoes.

And yes – there are alternatives for us. Not that I have any other citizenship, but I guess I could obtain one if I really wanted to, and I could have found a safe and comfortable haven in the relatively peaceful and grey-skied bliss of Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam or London if that was what I was aiming at. (Here I have to disagree with Yuval. I love London, not only because desperation becomes easier there – as the famous Israeli song by Hanoch Levin goes – but for the city itself and the people living in it.)

Like Yuval, I too ask myself and my friends the very same question: is it time to leave Israel? Is this place turning into a nightmare? Should we turn to exile before it’s too late and they start locking us up (again) for being leftists? When more than 90 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009 (“Operation Cast Lead”), and only a handful of us were out on the streets demonstrating, and then when the extreme-right government was elected into office, I too started thinking about packing my bags. Even my late beloved grandfather, a devoted Communist who went through World War Two as a Soviet spy in the German army, came to this land at the end of the war, served his entire life in the Israeli security apparatus and was given the highest of honors for his service – even he told me in his later years that he wished for me to live abroad, to find a better and safer place to start my own family.

The wall around Jerusalem - part of our lives here (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

The wall around Jerusalem - part of our lives here (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Yet my answer is and has always has been clear to me. I’m staying here.

I’m staying, in part, out of solidarity with those who cannot and will not leave – mainly my Palestinian partners and friends with their tsumud (a term defining the clinging to one’s land in the face of oppression and attempted banishment), their struggle. Part of being a partner in this struggle means working hard on the ground where things matter, be it in demonstrations in the West Bank, lectures, workshops, education projects, journalistic and opinion writing for the Hebrew-reading public, and taking part in the Israeli society’s political discourse. If the Palestinians, who have lived under occupation for decades, keep their spirits up and keep on fighting – who am I to say that there is no hope and start checking out the costs of living in Berlin?

I’m also staying, in part, because I think the alternatives are not as good as we think. Is there really a country we’d like to live in that doesn’t support the Israeli occupation? Are NATO member countries not party to equal if not even more terrible crimes than those committed by Israel? Is extreme capitalism not a global disease? Of course, in other Western countries the horridness and brutality of 21st century international politics and economy are not as blatant and not as present in people’s everyday lives as they are here. However, can we truthfully say that this distancing and denial is really a good thing? I’m not positive of that at all.

But more than anything else, I’m staying because this is my home, because this is where I grew up, where most my friends are (well, the ones who haven’t already left or aren’t planning on leaving the country, anyway), where my family lives, where my love and her family and friends are. The streets I walk have a special meaning to me that other streets in the world cannot have. Even though my English is fluent, I get along in Arabic and I’m learning Spanish – I shall probably never feel at ease with any other language the way I do with Hebrew, with all the cultural associations and nuances it holds for me. There is no people I can better understand and talk to than Israeli people. It is a part of me, and part of who I am, and a part that would always be empty and missing were I to live in exile.

Making the choice to be hopeful

What I’ve actually been saying here is that while this place is violent, extremist and weighs on you like a stone, while I fear the direction  it’s heading in and am quite aware of the price one pays for living here, it is also the place I love most and am quite happy to call home. This does not make sense. Or does it?

The famous Al-Fishawy in Cairo - not too far away from here (Haggai Matar)

The famous Al-Fishawy in Cairo - not too far away from here (Haggai Matar)

My first reason for optimism comes oddly enough from abroad, from one of those trips out of the country that make you think of relocating – the kind Yuval so well described in his post. Except that this trip was not to Europe. Over the course of 2007-2008 I spent about three months living in Cairo, learning Arabic and roaming the streets. I fell so in love with that city, that I knew I would never be able to stay away from it for too long. But more than just being enchanted with the city itself, I was thrilled by the experience of being a Jewish Israeli – and one of mostly eastern European background – who could actually fit in quite happily and naturally into an Arabic and mostly Muslim society. Thinking of my home town of Tel Aviv-Jaffa from there, I could suddenly begin to imagine it not only as a European or American colony in the Middle East, but as a city with great potential of fitting in and bonding with Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Damascus…

It was a feeling that would only grow stronger over the coming years, and that I now hold very dear. I seriously believe that the deep inherited Israeli fear of “the neighborhood” can be solved over time, with a lot of learning and attempts at mutual respect (which would of course have to start with Israelis giving up on occupation, Zionism and American interests, just like they would require certain Arab societies to give up anti-Jewish sentiments). We can form a new Middle East– not the kind that Shimon Peres wants, but a different, more complex and more equal one.

The second reason for optimism was given to us almost on a silver platter exactly 10 months ago. Inspired by that very neighborhood that surrounds us, hundreds of thousands of Israelis (if not more) started developing a new discourse last summer, one in which struggles for justice and cross-national and cross-class solidarity are no longer myths or threats – but rather a unifying force. With J14, for the first time in Israeli history, serious cooperation between Palestinian and Jewish citizens became a natural part of mainstream politics, and words like “union”, “socialism”, “real democracy”, “social justice” and “equality” were at center stage. It is not that workers hadn’t struggled before, or that people hadn’t faced home evictions and whatnot – but for the first time ever, the struggle gained some sort of legitimacy and acceptance, which is something that should make most leftists in the country feel at least a little more at home, and a little less alienated.

J14 protest In Be'er Sheva, August 13, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv / activestills.org)

Of course – there is much work to be done. Both the dream of a united Middle East (in one form or another) and that of a strong joint, wide, popular movement for peace and equality are far from being within reach. I know, Yuval, that it’s not going to be easy. Yet the option is there, and we can make the choice of believing in it and making it come true, make the choice of fighting for this country to be a better place for all its inhabitants, make a choice to make this a home for us all. It’s a choice which I insist on making.

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    1. noam

      phew, it’s gonna take time to digest this ammount of optimism for breakfast. i’ll start working on it right away. thanks! 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    2. This is a stunning response, man. I haven’t yet managed to pick my jaw off the floor.

      Reply to Comment
    3. caden

      Haggai I know your head is going to explode but I liked this column. And Noam and Yuval, you need to pcik up a history book. Israel is really not the center of evil in the world, really.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      I would like to hear more about your time in Cairo. New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman who spent a couple of years there, repeatedly pointed out in his articles that Jews and Israel and blamed for all the problems in Egyptian society and that the media is filled with endless diatribes about Israel. One famous example was the “Zionist sharks” who were supposedly turned loose by the Mossad on the beach resorts on the Sinai in order to frighten away tourists. We also heard of the PEW survey from a year ago saying how 70-80% of Egyptians want strict Islamic law applied in public, e.g. death penalty for apostates and adulterers, chopping off hands of thieves, etc and of course, the sweeping victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and Noor-Salafists in the parliamentary elections.
      Given your experience which you say was very positive and how you felt at home there, how do you reconcile these different perceptions? Do the Egyptians really want peace with Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Witty

      Stimulating post.

      You spoke of sumud, as a determined continued connection with homeland, yet you still remain a wandering Jew (the two of you), at heart.

      I speak of my Jewish friends as homeless in ways. (Not so much not having shelter, or nomadic – home is the families.)

      I grew up in suburban New York. Maybe 1/100th of my childhood friends still live in the town, even the area. I don’t. Homes are bought and sold, not intended to be lived in a whole life, or a whole generation.

      And, our families are distant physically and interpersonally.

      Israel promised to be home in all the shifts from family and grounded homelessness to living in place (a green value).

      Why not us?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Not wishing to pre-empt Haggai’s response to XYZ’s question, but Sunni fundamentalist politics is something I have spent quite a lot of time on, and my firm belief is that the US is encouraging the Sauds to finance, and even arm, Sunni fundamentalist parties throughout the region, and to bring them to power, with or without any State Dept-approved patina of “democracy”, because the US has despaired of controlling the region in any other way. Where the Israeli power elite stands on this, I’m not sure, but I suspect a secret deal between them and the Sauds. There is clearly a tacit military alliance between Israel and the Sauds regarding Iran, already.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Shua Frazer

      Haggai this was fantastic. High fives all around.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Haggai Matar

      XYZ – of course any view or statement trying to capture “Egypt” or “Cairo” as a whole is bound to be misleading. That said, on the whole I think I can say these two general things: 1. Yes, Egypt is a very extreme anti-Israeli country (not necessarily anti-Semitic, even though you have your share of that kind of rhetoric as well). The old regime used to try and blame Israel for more or less every problem in the world (sharks included), in an attempt to divert criticism (a plan that didn’t work out well in the long run :). While the regime did this, opposition groups (both Islamic and leftist-secular) used to adopt their own anti-Israeli agenda, both as a way of challenging the government (which was very close to Israel) or in solidarity with Palestinians. This solidarity went (and still goes) way further than Palestinians themselves would want, as an cooperation with Israelis is considered “normalization” there, even the kinds that no Palestinian would consider as such.
      2. HOWEVER. First of all, from my experience, there’s a big difference between the approach towards Israel and that towards Israelis. In three months that I lived in Cairo (and traveled a bit) – only once did I run into someone who was unpleasant towards me once he heard where I was from. One person. That’s really nothing. Others had different responses, and all were very interested to hear about my politics and activism. We really had a lot to talk about. To me, all this shows how elusive politics may be. It also shows that once you get people to meet and talk and respect one another – you can go very far, even between people who would normally no imagine getting along with one another.
      Hope that answers your question.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Mihai-Robert Soran

      I wish you well. You already need it and you’ll need it much more in future years. Not that I’m pessimistic, but because I consider Zionism – no matter in which form – as an ideological mummy that has nowadays only the aim to divide our people in two new ones: Jews (by culture) and Israelis (by ideology).
      It is right for of all Jewish Israelis to choose staying in the land their parents colonized and then grabbed. As much as to leave, back to their homelands.

      Reply to Comment
    10. S.L.

      What you are actually saying is that all the immigrants should live Israel because they will never speak hebrew as well as they speak they native languases and the streets of Tel Aviv will never become their own. Another thing that I understand is that there’s absolutely nothing to do in Israel for those who are not political (leftist) activist, if so then the country is doomed.

      Reply to Comment
    11. aristeides

      Of all the tragedies created by Zionism, one of the saddest is the loss of the flourishing Jewish communities of the east.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Haggai Matar

      S.L. – I never said that people should not migrate, or that immigrants should not be welcomed, or anything like it. I gave reasons why I won’t leave here, and why I think other activist friends of mine shouldn’t leave.
      And no – I didn’t say that you can’t be here if you’re not leftist. Again – this is a note about my place, and that of my activist friends (who are the ones considering leaving because they hate what has become of this place, as Yuval noted).

      Reply to Comment
    13. Richard Witty

      Any comments on the affirmation that Palestinians should have a safe, vibrant home place, a place that is haven and root, and that Jews should not?

      The phrase that has characterized Jewish life in diaspora was “wandering Jew”, both resulting from Jewish willingness to consider their community as their “home” rather than land or a place so much, and from European and Arab world willingness to consider Jews as NOT rooted “here” (wherever that was), only conditional guests.

      Don’t Jews deserve a home space?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Richard Witty

      And, what changes in Jewish psychology would it take to shift from home-lessness to home-fulness?

      I don’t think it need be exclusive, but it definitely need be accepted to a very very high level of confidence.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Haggai Matar

      Richard – I hope you forgive me if I don’t answer the second question. It’s simply to big for this format…. 🙂
      As to the former, well, I think it goes without saying that Palestinians and Jews alike (like all people of the world) have the right to enojy a home, a safe place to stick their roots in. The question, of course, is how to make this small strach of land such a place for all those who need it, and that is a very complecated one indeed.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Joel

      @Haggai or Yuval.

      When Mahmud Abbas watches Israelis demonstrating against the Occupation , does he become more or less inclined to sign a peace agreement with Israel?

      I would guess that he would be less inclined to deal.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Kolumn9

      I don’t really think that your vision of integration into the Middle East is terribly different from that of Peres, except for the one crucial point where in your vision Israel doesn’t exist.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Shelly

      Thank you Haggai for your optimism. It’s not only intelligent – it’s infectuous. I am imagining a weekend drive someday not to Rosh Hanikra (again) but to Beirut.

      Reply to Comment
    19. sh

      I’ve been imagining that for years, Shelly.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Joel

      @ Aris

      “saddest is the loss of the flourishing Jewish communities of the east”.

      Really? Where did Jews flourish?

      Name the great Jewish religious institutions that flourished in the Muslim world?

      Reply to Comment
    21. caden

      I’d like to get Lara Logans opinion about the Egyptians

      Reply to Comment
    22. aristeides

      Are you so ignorant, Joel, that you don’t know of all the magnificent synagogues, abandoned in the mass abduction of Jewish communities from their homelands? Not all of which were Muslim.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Joel

      I said religious institutions, not shuls.
      We know that if the shuls were built to conform to Moslem building regulations that the interiors could be oppulent, but I’m not talking about buildings, I’m talking about yeshivas, learning centers that produced great Jewish thinkers in the East.

      Reply to Comment
    24. “Thinking of my home town of Tel Aviv-Jaffa from there, I could suddenly begin to imagine it not only as a European or American colony in the Middle East, but as a city with great potential of fitting in and bonding with Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Damascus…”
      Haggai, have you read any of Ammiel Alcalay’s work on this topic? If you haven’t already come across ‘After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture’ you should definitely read it. It’s relevant to what you say here, and it’s a fascinating book.

      Reply to Comment
    25. AYLA

      Amen, Haggai. I can visualize this easily because in the Negev, where I live, there is still a strong feeling of the bigger picture, and our fitting in, rather than bulldozing through. Of course, this is increasingly threatened. But in small, human interactions each day, and in the landscape itself–including her animals and people–there is inspiration for your vision.

      Reply to Comment
    26. AYLA

      Shelly, SH–I’ll drive.

      Reply to Comment
    27. sh

      Ayla, you’re on!

      Reply to Comment
    28. sh

      “I’m talking about yeshivas, learning centers that produced great Jewish thinkers in the East.”
      You’ve got to be joking, Joel. Never heard of the Baghdad Geonim? Saadia Gaon? The learning centres of Salonika, Kairouan, Fez? Rabbi Yitzhak Alfassi? The Rambam? …

      Reply to Comment
    29. sh

      ““Thinking of my home town of Tel Aviv-Jaffa from there, I could suddenly begin to imagine it not only as a European or American colony in the Middle East, but as a city with great potential of fitting in and bonding with Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Damascus…””
      I always did think like that, expected it. Not that I’d been to Turkey at the time, but when I first made Tel Aviv’s and Jaffa’s acquaintance I sensed and saw Ottoman all over the place. Turned out I wasn’t that wrong, but oh, how hard you have to scratch to find out anything real in this place!

      Reply to Comment
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