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an innocent in Israel

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A few impressions from my first couple days in Israel:

–After a week in an Arab country, the sudden shift when you cross the Egyptian border at Taba is cinematic, like the Wizard of Oz. You might be in Switzerland. Everything is clean and orderly in Eilat. The streets are orderly. Too orderly after the madness of Cairo and the Sinai. And it all seems very white. Where are the rest of the people? Where is the Arab milieu?

–A cab driver recognizes me as Jewish, and I like it. Being ethnocentric, I instantly recognize a Jewish type of interaction that I have with people of my generation– ironical, longsuffering, no boundaries. I think of all the Jews back in the States who say, at forums on Israel, I loved being in a Jewish country where there were Jewish truck drivers and garbagemen. I see what they mean, but it is a mixed pleasure. I miss diversity. My feelings reflect the divide in Jewish life that is growing by the second between the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg and of Anna Baltzer. Goldberg is a race man, Baltzer is interested in other people. Baltzer is winning.

–In the Negev along the highway are historical markers of battles. There are as many battle markers as in the south in the U.S. A howitzer is pointed west, toward the Sinai, with a giant heart hanging from its barrel. Outside a complex of greenhouses, someone has set up a huge replica of a toilet with the lid open and a red seat like a target. At first it strikes me as a sign of the famously crapulous Israeli sense of humor. Then I wonder if it is about the Qassam rockets. Here you are, throw your shit here, is the joke.

–The bus reststops feel as smart and healthy as reststops in Italy. Again, a sense of whiteness, relieved by the black basketball player on our bus who wears a Michael Jordan jersey and the cashier who seems to be Ethiopian in origin and is smiling and helpful. Still it all feels like an ad. My cabdriver moved here from Brooklyn 22 years ago and says it was the biggest mistake of his life. Nothing changes, he said. The “matsav” or situation never changes. “It is static. And meanwhile the world moves forward.” This is the actual contradiction of the articles in the New York Times and Newsweek saying that Israel is accepting a time of no peace and managed containment. I wonder if they’re really accepting it, or if they know it’s draining their souls.  

–Everyone speaks English. It makes sense. They are completely dependent on America and encourage American Jewish tourism, so they accommodate them however they can. Even the greenhouse industry is dependent. You see big structures with names painted on the side and the words USA, to indicate a patron in the US. Lazar, USA. Schwartzman, USA. I remember that a Schwartzman is now the benefactor of the NY Public Library, and wants his name on the outside of it.

–A handsome soldier is on our bus as security, his big gun dangling. He comes back to sort out a seating problem, his forefinger right by the trigger. He ignores the only problem on the bus: a kid in the back row with me is infantile. He is 14 or 15, wears a sweatsuit, and listens to rap music and sexually harasses two young women in adjoining seats, who ignore him or flip their sunglasses down. When the kid stretches, he extends his pimply saplike face into my face and doesn’t care. An older woman starts screaming at him when he opens the window too far, but the astonishing thing is that his juvenile antics are otherwise tolerated. An older guy named Shlomo– Chico Marx version 2.01– in a dark suit and fedora, comes back to hang out with the rapscallion. Later my friends tell me there is a name for this entitled prick type: the arsim. Or arse. They’re everywhere.

–Tel Aviv is great. I like it immediately, it is everything I’ve heard about it. Outside the bus station I go down a few blocks of a mall filled with men of Ethiopian background and various grifters and hippies and bohemians. Several men have set up shell games, either the three-card monte version or three cups and a ball, and bark at the passersby. Any country with an active con culture can’t be all bad.

–Most of Tel Aviv is very Jewish. Or very Israeli, as I’m reminded. You see another type: the man of 25-40 shaped by militarism. He is about 5-10 to 6 feet tall. His hair is shaved. He has wide shoulders and narrow hips, and is muscular and wears a tight shirt. He seems incredibly insensitive/indifferent to anything but physical culture. I see many of them jogging. These warrior types seem to be a beau ideal of the culture and recall the title of Chris Hedges book, War is a force that gives us meaning. Often they are with their women, who are also physically incredibly striking. Tall, sometimes taller than the male, slender, and fit. Many of them are blonde. So: We are forever compensating for our abuse by the Nazis, and we have exalted a variant of the aryan ideal who dispenses violence without thinking about it. So much for the nebbish, the schmuck, the schmendrick, the schlemiel, the gonif. Welcome ubermensch.

— In my internet salon, I hear an American idiot renting a car. He declares to his friend, “Now let’s go out and pick up hitchhikers and kill them. What do you say!” In a loud voice, the twerp, then tries the joke a second time. I look over the divider. He’s surprisingly old, 28, in a Polo shirt, could be an investment banker. Gaza has rotted the Jewish soul. His weird explosion touches on the psychic dynamic of the Israel lobby: the Israeli culture of militarism makes the pencil-necked American Jew feel inadequate. I feel inadequate myself next to the militants. And just think what Malcolm Hoenlein and Mort Klein feel like around Israeli warriors. Thus the passivity of the American Jewish community in the face of glorious Jewish violence.

–I go for a walk into Jaffa at night. The buildings are incredibly beautiful. I vaguely remember the locations in the Palestinian narratives of the Nakba. It is not hard to imagine this downtown teeming with Arab life. But it’s cleansed. The Israelis have set up art galleries and theaters and studios in the old Palestinian spaces. Vaguely horrifying. A large billboard giving the history of Jaffa says that it has been a city for 4000 years and that in 1960 the Old Jaffa Development Corp was given power to rehabilitate the neighborhood, which was teeming with prostitution, drugs and crime. That would have been 12 years after the Nakba, before they discovered terrorism. More ethnic cleansing; and it continues; many Palestinians who wish to develop businesses are blocked with bureaucratic hurdles. 

–I find my friends. It doesn’t take long. They have a deeper sense of irony than my American friends, they are wiser, they have lived here with the Israeli militarism so long. Look at the Apaches, one says, pointing at the sky, they are back from bombing Gaza. I buy beers and one of them makes a mock toast, “To the next war!” Down the table another, bearded, says, “May it end Zionism.” A woman next to me cries out, “Stop, stop. That could destroy the world.” The bearded one nods Talmudically. “Look with everything you have to take the bad with the good.”

–Before I left my father gave me a blessing. He said that he thought I was on a good path. Now I can’t help myself, and in spite of all my political stance-taking back home– to be credible as a journalist, and realistic, so as to participate in the American conversation– I feel a gut level sympathy with the idea of the right of return of the refugees. That is something that might help this place– it would end the idea of the encircled enemy, and bring on the modern struggle with diversity, for both peoples.

Yes but why would they want to come here?

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