This post is part of the series Shoshana in Palestine, which tells the story of Shoshana Austerlitz, the pseudonym for an American Jew™ interloper in Palestine. It is an ostensible Jewish parody on unexamined privilege, benevolent Orientalism, and Jewish-American megalomania.
“I’m sitting by the exit seat, man”
“In case we need to get off fast”
Shoshana, the Hero, is small like a hawk. Sitting judgmentally on the bus to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, she snivels like a tiny squirrel (but feels like an American fantasy of a French espionage agent in a tight red dress, silently), swiveling to listen to a bunch of big and boisterous Israeli-American teenage boys jumping to and fro in the aisle and in the seats. Ugh, Shoshana thinks, Jews are gross. On one hand. But on the other hand, maybe we just got too much power and anyone with too much power abuses it.
“Pass me the munchies, man!” a small pimply boy hollers to his young and pimply friend Like They Own the Place, to which Shoshana shivers, as she knows they are right, and fears that small pimply Jewish teenagers represent her interior. Seated to her left, a tall and elegant Palestinian man cowers alongside her, also craning his neck away from the loud kids, and Shoshana shrinks nonconsensually closer to him, in semi-conscious idealizing identification — and then stops herself, both because she vaguely recognizes her fetishism but also because the Palestinian fellow has inched himself away from her.
Why? Is it because he wants his own space? because he mistook Shoshana’s desires for escape and connection as his own error, for not giving her enough space, necessitating chivalry? Or is it because he too is disturbed (physically or vocally) by invasive Jews? Or perhaps Shoshana is unappealing to him as a potential bus friend or immortal love? Shoshana looks up with a face full of wonder. To this, the man smiles happily at Shoshana, before turning back to his own internal world and by this, Shoshana feels relief, as if she is not her own person, as if she needs Palestinians to ground her and redeem her, forgive her her Jewish-American….
“Stop punching me, I’m dead serious!”
the Israeli-American boys regale
“That’s Arab shit”
“I’ll kill you for that!”
“Fuck you, Ok? Take the snacks! They’re Arabian anyway!”
I understand Zionists, Shoshana thinks to herself in bus reverie. I too feel their obsession. I too chase…
Just on a different scale, and with a different agenda. Shoshana feels the passion, the violence, the luscious, all-consuming love of… slimy and sleazy, hungry, hateful fear & bad taste. Terror.
But she wants to enter that terror like a wind channel or a roller coaster (the only way out is through!) via whipping up her own emotions in reacting to other people’s conversations on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv… and by visiting all the pre-1948 Israeli paramilitary museums in Tel Aviv.
Today Shoshana is visiting the Hagana museum in central Tel Aviv. Hagana… what a beautiful-sounding name, Shoshana absentmindedly thinks to herself, as she inches up the steps. Its name makes her synthetically think of a soft beluga whale or a fluffy, delicious, cloud-like slab of pastel blue meat. But in fact it is a pre-Israel Jewish military organization that fought the British and Palestinians from ~1920-1948.
Shoshana enters the museum with an upturned face and shiny eyes. Hagana! (The boys on the bus! Israel!) Shoshana shivers, and smiles at the soldier guarding the door. I am on a mission. I swim in an ocean full of slime. My bathing suit is blue with ruffles.
Right away, the woman at the front desk beams. Their smiles match. Their passions collide. Right away, the woman knows Shoshana’s name/has her number/feels her fire i.e. she senses Shoshana’s over-excitement as it beats off her face, like she KNOWS how much Shoshana wants to know the folkloric history of the Hagana according to lovers and protectors of the Hagana legacy…. but the Hagana museum woman doesn’t know Shoshana’s game, which is to say she does not realize that Shoshana is an Anti-Zionist, or more immediately, a theatrically undercover solo agent of her own desires.
Shoshana thinks: I want to get in there. I want to know what it’s all about. I’m not looking to be wowed by the official narrative but I wanna put myself in the middle of it, to roll in it, to feel how my blood boils in response to it, to make myself a human test subject. Will the propaganda take? What can I as a petri dish test learn about the banality of evil and road to hell’s good intentions by jumping into the abyss? Intellectually, I do this because I’m interested in taking on the burden personally and physically, to be responsible! to BE THERE and experience it, not ignore it or deny it… but emotionally, and like so many Zionists; I am clearly compelled by….
Terror! And rapture. Whip me up into a frenzy. I’m ready to fight!
( ….Ha-a-a-a-tikva….. )
The soldier at the front door stops her before she can embark on her quest. “MISS, you don’t happen to have your passport, do you?” This solder is young, tall and bedecked in green. Light soldier green. “I do!” Shoshana beams. I just happened to grab it out of a pile of rags, snakes and banana peels as I tripped out of my door this morning and whaddya know, here it is! How serendipitous! Do you like my passport, mr. man? In another world—the kind of world where I am only somewhat older—you could be my son or you could be my younger brother and we could break out of this prison together….
Hmm. The childlike soldier looks grimly at her passport. Hmm. I love you. Hmm. This soldier is so mad. Hmm. Shoshana, as the soldier can see, is clearly American, Ashkenazi, with a Jewish surname and the face of so many Russian-Jewish grandmothers. Goodbye, my son, Shoshana declaims to no one but herself in the direction of the teenaged soldier as she walks the exciting gauntlet from the front door to the front desk. We will meet again in a better place.
“That’ll be 20 shekels” the soldier-workers at the front desk tell her. “But it’s 30 shekels if you want to visit ALL the military museums in Tel Aviv.” Wow. Shoshana loves a deal/moral dubiety/confirming Jewish stereotypes/breaking the BDS ban not simply on bad hummus but by Visiting All The Israeli Military Museums in Tel Aviv. Sign me up!
“Do you want to watch a movie? It’s in English” the equally excited lady at the front desk asks her, responding perhaps to her wide eyes and tremulous hands as she clutches her 30nis pass to her bosoms. Shoshana titters. Do I want to do a thing in a place? Of course I do! I need a special sign to wear around my neck that says YES so people know they can just assume the worst about me and be RIGHT.
The excited Zionist leads the excited anti-Zionist to an empty room, and excitingly, their eyes meet. Spark. The lights are lowered as Shoshana sits in her ad hoc VIP Hagana movie room for one. She feels lucky, guilty and adrenaline-reverent. Typical emotional landscape for Shoshana in Palestine.
“The story of the Jewish defense force without which the state could not be established and cannot continue to exist begins in 1907…” Soaring music! iMovie-90s visuals! The IDF, Shoshana learns, was born of several groups, the Irgun and Lehi, and before that the Hagana, and before that, Bar Giora. Wow, Bar Giora is an awesome name but so is Caligula and Dracula and me.
Bright orange flames lick the screen as black-and-white nostalgia footage of brave young men scurry by like so many ants. It’s a flurry of flags, guns, machismo and something that to Shoshana’s mind always feels faintly sick and babyish like colic or old fruit; a baby you don’t love drooling on you when you feel like a baby yourself (as opposed to your own baby when you are the devoted mother, jeez, that’s different).
Shoshana shivers. She loves it. She is practically foaming at the mouth. She LOVES visiting this world, and LOVES leaving it. She loves being undercover, but also loves feeling something real and connective and vomitous. She loves, loves——
“Jews from around the world begin immigrating to Israel and settling in the country. The local Arabs who are concerned at losing their majority revolt…. Joseph Trumpeldor, one of the commanders… defends the Galilee. On March 1, 1920, Tel Hai is attacked.. eight of them fall in the battle, Trumpledor among them. The roaring lions standing over their graves reminds later generations of their legacy of bravery.”
What lions will roar at my legacy? I get the desire for memorialization. I get that melodrama. I get that need.
“The Arab infiltrators attack the infant state of Israel…” Oh wow, infiltrators and infants. Shoshana at the tip of her seat, with her recorder, records.
The other day Shoshana was talking with her roommate Lena, a Polish U.N. aid worker, held for 12 hours at the airport thanks to a lack of Jewish privilege.
As U.N. Lena put it: “I don’t know, to me it’s a bit too cynical, if I may use this word… a bit too… double standard… like, yes, these terrible things happened to the Jewish people but then you go and do the same to Palestinian people. I think it’s a shame on the world community to let it keep happening…”
In the glorious dark of the Hagana museum, watching the English-language video geared towards her comprehension and affiliation, Shoshana feels moved and disgusted (which is the best way to hook her, potential suitors and political movements) for she too is affected by affecting ad hominem art; she too grovels at magnificently tacky 90s movie production values and authentic intensity of feeling and desire e.g. We Were Slaves in Egypt and Now
What is Shoshana doing now, crying? Yes, she is crying. But quietly, and anyway, no one else is in the theatre. Still, Shoshana, with embarrassment but just going for it anyway, what the hell, cries, moved as she is by a moving video about Finally Being Free… but featuring only one side (‘Our’ side, the Jewish side) that doesn’t give a fuck about anyone else (and though ‘her’ side claims her and she’s happy enough neutrally to be part of the Jewish people—fine, accurate; but it’s not her sole identity, like yes she is a Jew, but also an American, a woman, white person, etc). But, Shoshana, in the mid-afternoon dark of the Hagana museum that she is infiltrating, and which welcomes her, wonders How can I love myself if I don’t love other people?
The SS Exodus, the video shows, sailed from France to Palestine full of exhausted and desperate Holocaust survivors, but was denied entry into Palestine and forced to return to Europe… This is a sad story. This is a tragedy. It is horrible that the SS Exodus was denied. It is awful that bad things have happened to the Jewish people. Jews, we are important. Our lives do hold value but why can this value and empathy not extend to Palestinians?
Because while (one) tragedy is acknowledged (and memorialized and worshipped), parallels are not drawn, connections are not made or if they are, they’re deemed pathetically insignificant…
Shoshana wiggles in her chair, with flair and discomfort. It’s not the most comfortable chair but what can you do. If she wanted, she could go to another chair or take the air on Rothschild Boulevard. But WHY. Seek. Comfort. When you can seek pain? In some regards, like when you feel this low (deserving of it)/high(like you can take anything, the world’s pincushion; every impediment a laughable challenge).
Safety, security, soundbite, keyword… The Hagana museum feels like Israel miniaturized, concentrated. Yes, of course the Holocaust survivors on the Exodus wanted to be safe, of course Zionists worldwide want to be safe; of course I want to be safe (so I can have a secure foothold from which to be wild; pain to learn from, not be crushed by). I love feeling at peace and adventurous wherever I go like my freedom is my own personal American bubble…. but I don’t want to be ‘free’ at Palestinians’ expense! Then how would we party together? How would we hang out? I want to be awesome ‘cause I’m AWESOME not ‘cause I’m Jewish! Shoshana raves, but silently, in the dark.
In conclusion, the Hagana museum is pretty, organized, artful (wow, Jews are great at museums. We should only ever be in charge of museums) and totally, unreliably one-sided but of course. It’s an Israeli military museum in an Israeli-American military world and Shoshana got what she paid for. L’chaim.
The Lehi museum
The Lehi museum is in a much hipper part of town. Whatever. “You don’t happen to have your passport, do you?” a different young soldier asks Shoshana at the front door. Wow, they really train them to say the same phrase? I’m sorry, my son. Take my hand. Come away with me.
The Lehi were a lot more underground and intense than the Hagana. Also they came chronologically later. They were basically gangsters (terrorists, freedom fighters etc) blowing up stuff, massacring Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin, wartime sabotage. The woman who leads Shoshana around the museum is clearly very proud of and moved by this history (another personalized tour! As she leads Shoshana around each exhibit with loving intensity, Shoshana feels the same guilt, glee and gratitude she felt at the Hagana museum. Proud military women—who would hate her if they knew her politics?—want to show Shoshana their worlds and she sure wants to see them! A perfect similitude! A perfect… storm?)
Lead me, military lady… lead me to the English-language videos. Cool, this one features historical recreations. And then: Voila! We enter a backlit and beautiful, tawdrily majestic (clearly my aesthetic) religious-looking room with a long winding sequence of 1940s faces … mostly very young, very Jewish-European-looking men. In the U.S., I feel these faces would be punchlines we Jews would joke about ourselves, like look at us aren’t we ridiculous? But here there is NO JOKE. These men DIED so we could be FREE to hurt other people. Isn’t freedom sweet?
I feel like I’m in a cathedral… spinning like a pin amongst a panoply of faces of Young Jewish Men (who died so you could be free, you ingrate) who all look like modern ghosts and old friends and cocky motherfuckers, a whole cast of characters from Newsies, glamour shots, mug shots of essentially ‘martyrs’ —tough guy (self-proclaimed) terrorists who died fighting. I feel a connection cinematically and mythically. I also feel the way I usually feel in situations like this: sick and slimy and kinda turned on… but like by the situation, not the particulars: these dorky aggressive mama’s boys, very young boys with guns, some of them maybe with good ideals and ethics and many more with trauma and displaced anger (all relatable, all human) and all this excites and disgusts me.
Terror! Give me more!
A few more people come in. Like in a Jean Renoir film. We watch the movies and look at the photos and see them seeing us and they even tell us in the past that we are seen in our present and their future.
What’s going on? Is Shoshana hallucinating? Here are her prism-memory shadow-feelings from the Lehi museum:
Sight and joy and fear; a mystery we’re trying to solve; secrets revealed between close friends in the context of hurtful relationships, looking at old pictures.
Interesting, the way war is sold… the Lehi are engaging in terrible violence against non-Jews in the name of Eretz Israel, a cause called just, thus the justification of their violence so “terrorism” in the crazy/bad/irrational sense is only the other sides’ violence; “terrorism” is only what OTHER violent people do. Not the winners. The winners are valiant. The losers are “crazy” “terrorists.”
Shoshana wants to be more responsible than that, this frustratingly whiny name-calling. She want to be more honest: I want you to know that I too am violent. If you prick me, do I not bleed? etc etc but also if you gave me a gun and told me to defend my land/liberty/keywords/soaring national anthem/childhood memories, would I not use it? Of course I would. Bang! Dead!
Am Yisrael Chai. Next.
The Etzel Museum
Shoshana went to this one over Eid. A rare time of West Bank Palestinians receiving permits to enter Israel and pray at the mosque/relax on the beach. Outside, it’s revelrous; the Tel Aviv beach is covered with Palestinian families sunbathing, barbecuing and taking photos. Inside, a sacred tomb to Israeli military victory over the Palestinians.
Shoshana arrives in a rush of sweat, out-of-breath.
“You don’t happen to have your passport, do you?” Her third son asks, a big gun by his side. Is it because he lost his mother? Will the gun ever fill the void? Will Shoshana reach for his forehead and tousle his hair? No, one can’t simply touch a soldier on his face while he is guarding a military museum with a gun but what if one could? What then?
“You have something for self-defense? A knife, pepper spray?” “No.” (One way Shoshana has reacted to the exploitation and politicization of ‘danger’ in the Israeli Weltanschauun is by fearing nothing! courting destruction! and making herself an easy target! out of principled political conviction. Shoshana has always had a hard time with moderation. She is an apprehensive extremist.)
Intimacy, aborted friendliness and apparent suspicion jostle in the vestibule to the Etzel museum as Shoshana tries Americanly to joke with the soldier that if she didn’t happen to have her passport, he surely wouldn’t let her in, to which the young soldier responds seriously that she is mistaken and reaches for his walkie talkie or maybe that’s just her imagination… Shoshana may be getting too loose, too floppy… She should remember, I guess, to stay vigilant. Even dumb American Jews who profess support for Palestine are getting deported now.
What was this museum’s video like? Great? Oh yea. They had me at “the foreign despot Britain” and an American tourist loudly asking the staff if there were any exhibits in English. The whole world is in English. Doesn’t he know? The foreign despot Israel, the foreign despot America… My own foreign despotism giggles, with hopeful ludic joy, rather than fractious malice, as retort.
What is it like to be raised in this world? (Is it like the underbelly of America?) Everyone suspicious, one eye open, knives, pepper spray. “Talk is cheap!” the people say which just makes a strategically adolescent loudmouth like Shoshana want to keep talking… the power of words and stories to change harmful narratives, like…
The word ARAB in this museum—and Israel in general—is the bogeyman. The words Arab and Arabic jump out to scare the museum-goer: “Arab marauders,” “breaking the Arabs”…
Meanwhile, outside, all the Arab sunbathers are smiley and happy, playing on the beach but superimposed, I guess, to the Etzel museum-goer, with… Terror!
Arabs hearing about how bad Arabs are all the time must feel so crazy, Shoshana thinks, like false consciousness, like the ideology of the ruler in the ruled, like women hating themselves for being women; patriarchy albatross, the misery of feeling psychologically overrun with other people’s social prejudices and prohibitions… learning to hate yourself for other people’s problems and suffering for crimes you haven’t committed… I think we can all relate to this. We As A People just have to stop repeating the same sequence and encaging other people when we break out of our own cages…
The Palestinian sunbathers outside the museum make the museum seem like a living relic, a part of the landscape for active use rather than passive genuflection… like turning the Ottoman railway tracks in Jerusalem into a running track; like men using Grindr in Berlin to meet up at the Holocaust museum. I love this idea; life in death, sex as (intentional or not) protest, present and alive instead of long-dead and off-limits… like picnicking in a cemetery instead of bowing somberly at a gravestone like you’re staring across an uncrossable divide. Why SHOULD death be so different than life?
The Etzel museum’s video proudly enumerates the group’s accomplishments to the soaring swells o’ martial music: “Blowing up the British embassy in Jerusalem, blowing up the British embassy in Rome…” What is good or bad, worthy of pride or shame is contextual… the secret sabotage becomes proud paeans to the nation after you win.
None of this makes Shoshana feel victorious. She’s stonelike now, solid in her seat, unexcited and unmoved. I’m supposed to visit this museum and feel the beauty of my glorious history ‘and yet I just feel sad’ (no that’s not it) ‘and yet I feel nothing, just a void, no ancestral, mystical connection’ (no not that either) so what do I feel? I feel… investigative, reconnoitering…
Who is Shoshana? She could be a 19th century ethnographer about all this and describe the people in the Etzel museum: short, curvy, brown and white women with gigantic black machine guns. Is she being racist, covetous, queer, gross… to want those hips (to be and to have), to want the power of a gun but not the obviousness of an actual one. How gauche!
She could be a 21st century bad leftist who believes in socialization and conditioning over inherent essences and biologies, thinking everyone is potentially an idiot and a dupe and we are no better but some of the people to whom I am connected (Jews) suffered, got lucky, existed at a certain point in history and WON at an incredible price that doesn’t seem worth it.
There’s a section like this in several Israeli military museums: adulatory photographs of famous Israeli generals as young dashing white boys
Like yes war is fun
Like Shoshana in a sea of Palestinian dudes at bars
That feeling of connection
You’re a part of something, you feel the thrill etc
Generationally devastating policies are formulated by people many consider to be young hot men who look like their dads or crushes if you’re into that
The moral of these museums seems to be ‘War is fun and valiant. We won. Arabs are bad. Let’s go, Israel! And never forget, or whatever… do you happen to have your passport?’
Shoshana: “But painting the story of Israel and the armed forces as only liberation is so crazy.”
U.N. Lena: “Maybe it’s like they don’t know another way… it was their experience. They saw what was done to them, and it was… maybe the shortest way to achieve what they want.”
Shoshana: “To do to other people what was done to them?”
U.N. Lena: “Yes.”
How do all the big groups of kids on Birthright leaving this museum SEE all the Palestinians outside? Enemies? Or ok because the Palestinians in Tel Aviv/Jaffa are neutral ’Israeli Arabs’ unlike the shadowily dangerous Palestinians in the West Bank or East Jerusalem … who, celebrating here on this beach right now, will go back to the West Bank in a few hours when their permits expire?
Shoshana’s museum experience is nearly done. In fact, maybe she won’t go to all the Israeli military museums in Tel Aviv after all… It’s boiling outside and she heads down to Jaffa.
“Jaffa! With the Arabs!? It’s very dangerous!” the woman at the front desk says.
“But don’t you experience harassment?”
No no no, Shoshana semi-explains. “I spent my 20s in New York. Street harassment—which I really don’t experience here—anywhere else pales.” But also: Nothing here is unsafe to me. I’m a god in a (very comfortable) hell that welcomes me.
Kids and parents play on the beach. Shoshana sits on a rock. Uncharacteristically for her hubris, she feels a bit guilty. Should she really have gone inside all of those congratulatory Israeli military museums? Shoshana glances around with what she thinks is subtlety like a skulking skunk though she looks like an elegant seal, glorious and glistening, a self-righteous tourist to whom Israeli airport security say “Welcome home!” when she comes to call. She wonders if all the Palestinians on this beach by the Etzel museum—laughing and barbecuing, playing with beach balls and dressing their children in bathing suits—know they’re lounging on the site of an exultant Israeli military museum. Beat. That’s a dumb question. All of Israel is an exultant military museum. Still, she feels guilty for going inside. Maybe she can play it off like she was just interested in the air conditioning.
She walks down the beach.