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Seven Nights 5: Sodom Burning

I don’t always drink beer in bars with racist symbols on the wall. But when I do, it’s for a good cause. Part five of the nighttime journey.

For other nights click here.

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Saturday night we were back on the streets. Hundreds of left-leaning urbanites marching through central Tel Aviv, condemning the government for turning this land into a hothouse for inter-group violence. Pride flags flew alongside banners promoting unity and equality between Jews and Arabs. By now, the fateful morning of July 31 had claimed the life of Saad Dawabshe, father of baby Ali, who had passed away the morning of August 8. “Incitement is borne around the government table!” cried the megaphone. “Racism is born around the government table! The answer is pride! The answer is struggle!”

We reached the Likud party headquarters. Someone brought a projector and illuminated the building with hateful comments made by our leadership. Culture Minister Miri Regev had said that East African asylum seekers are “cancer in our body.” On election day, Prime Minister Netanyahu had threatened that sinister Arabs would take over the country lest Israelis rush to vote for him. Knesset member Betzalel Smotrich had called Jerusalem Pride “a parade of beasts and perverts.” His party member Motti Yogev had said Israelis should topple the Supreme Court with bulldozers because it had issued a minor decree concerning settler land-grab. There were more.

I bumped into Gil, a dear friend and one of my favorite poets. She looked up at the quotes and referred to the weather, as poets should. “The heat rises from the ground like a reflection of the hell that this place has become,” she said. “This is Sodom burning.”

Other things happened that night, but I don’t want to write about it. The heat got to me. I argued about the occupation with a stranger, then about the Nakba with a friend, and went to bed confused and somewhat despaired.

The following night was all joy. Our friend Nicola, an Italian diplomat, celebrated his birthday at the penthouse of another Italian diplomat. There was a small pool on the roof and the view was stupendous. The open bar was manned by hired hands, the pizza was authentic Neapolitan and the gelato the city’s finest.  I had many great conversations that night, none of them arguments, but I don’t want to write about it. That night was ex-territorial. I want to write about Monday.

The Wall

Ruthie hasn’t been herself since we met on the synagogue steps and the doctor suspected mono. The three of us spent a domestic evening: just her, me and the AC. We ate watermelon and watched the 2015 remake of Poltergeist (two thumbs down–just watch the original). At midnight she retreated to complete some work and I headed out for a drink.

Soon I reached Harakevet street, where, to my surprise, I bumped into a wall. It wasn’t nearly as tall as the one Kate and I crossed on the way to Bethlehem, nor was it very solid, made of plywood rather than concrete. This wall served a good purpose. It kept me from falling into a pit. Construction on the Tel Aviv light rail system began this week and involved some digging – a project executed after a 44-year delay, since Golda Meir placed the cornerstone for Tel Aviv’s subway system back in 1971.

Still, by some prank of the gods of irony, this wall did form an ethno-political divide. Harakevet Street separates Tel Aviv’s affluent north and center from its struggling south. In the south lived the city’s poorest Jewish communities: Yemenite, North African, Central Asian, Ethiopian, all trapped for decades in rotting slums with no real social mobility or support. To the south were Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “cancerous cells,” the African asylum seekers. Their petitions are ignored and they may be arrested at will and held without trial. They are forbidden by law from winning their own bread and end up sleeping in parks that reek of the smell of urine and despair.

To the south are economic migrants living in derelict conditions, unprotected by the law, always at fear of deportation. Women enslaved as prostitutes. The junkies. To the south are Jaffa‘s Palestinians, a community so badly cared for that it is in constant state of social crisis. “Isn’t discrimination wonderful?” I once heard a Mizrahi activist say, ‘It’s just like the Occupation, but you don’t need guns.”

To the north is some passable sushi and, oh, our flat.

I could call Irit and ask her to repeat her “white male” comment while flagellating me. That wouldn’t be insensible, but it would miss the point. The point was to find a way across the wall, across all the walls, meet people in order to change the setup of things. This isn’t Sodom, I thought. This is Knossos, city of the Labyrinth. The walls are many: physical and imaginary, separating us by religion, ethnicity, gender, social status, worldview. They have grown taller and taller, granting more and more power to divisive leaders who make sure they will grow taller still. These walls are designed on government tables.

The taller the walls are, the more likely we are to stab each other and burn each other alive, internalizing and mimicking the ill system. A string in the maze won’t do the trick. We must chisel our way through.

Jim Crow of Florentin

The plywood wall stretches a mere 200 yards (roughly .1 miles). I crossed to the south and walked for a while. The streets were sad and smelly and I needed a beer. An unfamiliar bar winked at me on Rabbi Frankel Street with a sign that read, “Rebel Rock Bar.” I stepped underground and was met with a huge Confederate flag, took a scandalized selfie with it and stepped right out.

A few blocks down I posted the selfie on Facebook. A friend suggested I came back with a lighter and set the flag aflame. That isn’t exactly my style, but, still, I felt my selfie didn’t crack it. I soon found myself returning to “Rebel,” walking down those same stairs, and stepping over to the bartender, a girl in her early twenties. No other staff member was visible.

“Beer?” she  smiled.

“No, thanks. Actually I just wanted to make a comment, well, sort of a complaint. See, the flag you have hanging there. It’s a racist symbol.”

The bartender seemed surprised. I did my best to explain the flag’s history, explaining that people were hung and burned to death in its name. “They were black people, and this neighborhood has many black residents. It’s extra offensive.” She clearly had no concept of it. I doubted the owner did. The flag hung here not out because of racism but as the result of provincial ignorance. It was an American symbol linked to Harley motorbikes and Lynard Skynard, like the name “Rebel.” What good would I have done burning it?

“I see,” she said once I was done. “I’ll pass this on.”

Since she was so nice about it,  I actually did decide to have a beer. ordered a Guinness and hummed along to AC/DC as she poured.  Was I being too easy on this place? Was it really that hot outside. Maybe there was more to be said. She came back with the beer and the conversation flowed on the the Pride Killing.

“You really were there?”

“Yes. I saw it happen and i’m still recovering, but I also had a good experience that same night. I decided to make peace with Haredi Jerusalem. I walked into their neighborhood in drag and was surprisingly well received.”

Her expression grew surprisingly sour. “I heard them speaking very differently on television.”

“Of course you did. The media is interested in conflict. The media is a major catalyst of mutual disrespect in this country. It was looking for that. I was looking for the opposite and found it.”

“Sorry. I don’t like them, and I never will” she said, and stepped over to hand a customer another drink.

Here was a wall. I thought. Was it not also an opportunity? I fished my phone back out of my pocket and searched for a photo. When she returned, I showed her this:

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The photo was shared that day by Rabbi Tomer’s fan page. The caption read: “Rabbi Tomer with a transgender person. Making peace with everybody.” I told the bartender who he was and that the girl in the photos was me, told her of how he saved my night, how he stopped the music upon noticing me and expressed remorse before his audience. “Others came over and shared words of kindness, thanks to what he did, religious people.”

“What a sweetheart!” Her eyes were wide open in disbelief.

“Yes,” I said. “And he isn’t alone.”

She handed me back my phone and raised her hand for a high five, the clap was inaudible over Megadeath’s “Super Collider.”

“I hope to see you here again,” she said.

I promised she would. Probably shouldn’t have. I didn’t even place a condition: that I would only return should they remove that flag. Ultimately, I don’t know how to change the world. I have never really chiseled into these walls. At most I know how to uplift my own fragile spirit. Sometimes small amounts of peace and understanding result as a byproduct.

(Continues here)

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