Thursday, March 30, 2006

The womens' tent

My friend Adina, who I met at the On the way to Sulha gathering last summer, told me about this event when I saw her in Tsfat last month.

The Womens' Tent

March 30 -31 Daliet El Karmel
Rosh Chodesh Nissan and Youm El Ard

Unite with women from all walks, religions, and backgrounds in this holyland. Share stories, traditional crafts, songs, and dances. Participate in workshops on listening, empowerment, healing, and authentic women's womb wisdom.

We are gathering, hundreds of us, in a Tent of Peace. We are birthing a newworld. The Druze women of Daliet El Karmel in the North invite those from all walks of Israeli and Palestinian life who hold the vision of healing, transformation, and empowerment to awaken to the wisdom of their ancestors on the New Moon of Nissan and Youm El Ard. The gathering is co-created by three Israeli women of powerful vision, one Jew, one Druze, and onePalestinian Muslim. In such times of violence and war, we recognize that the simple act ofgathering together in unity is an act of Peace. We hope this gathering underone Tent will strengthen our bond of sisterhood and support our work towarda world in which such gatherings are no longer the exception. We raise up our own stories, our own voices, and seek to find and nourish women's traditional wisdom that is often so lost in today's culture. We hope afterwards to continue to gather on the new moon in villages and towns throughout the land in order to reaffirm our commitment to this vision. Join us for two days of theater, ritual, dance, art, tears, laughter, hugs,intimate stories, and a whole lot of heart wisdom. We will remember andremind, witness, heal, empower, and inspire each other.This is a joint effort of birthing a new tradition for communities hosting gatherings like these. We all need each other to help facilitate, build, create, and support our sister hostesses.We need:1) You!2) All your sisters!3) Your wisdom. Give a workshop, have a booth to sell your wares, offer yourhealing expertise. We are still birthing this gathering and are open tosuggestions. 4) Logistical help. We will have many international guests and will need volunteers for transportation and accomodation. If you live near the gathering and can offer home hospitality, if you are traveling to thegathering and can offer rides, or if you can help subsidize transportation for others, please contact us.

S O . . . Bring your visions, your sisters, and a sliding scale donation of ten to one hundred shekels. Please give as much as you can so that other sisters can join us. Peace, Shalom, Salaam
Ibtisam 054-670-2403Dorit 04-686-0736Siam 052-426-7228
For English-speaking contact in the Israeli Jewish community, contact MiaCohen, 972-54-222-4278.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

31 flavors and then some

So, just as it always does, election day came and went. Security was up, Israelis all had a day off, four people were killed by felled rockets and the Islamic Jihad sent its first Katyusha flying in from Gaza.

I voted in Jerusalem, because that's where my permanent address is listed. Before I actually cast my ballot, I got the feeling I was about to take a final examination I was bound to fail. Not because I hadn't studied - I had - but because I really suck at multiple choice tests.

There was only one question on this exam, though the implications were endless. The actual voting was simple. It involved taking one slip of paper from the 31 possible party choices, sticking it inside a soon-to-be-sealed envelope, and dropping it into the box.

I ended up voting Labor. My grandmother was livid when I told her. She voted Likud. "You voted for the moustache? What do you have with the moustache?" She asked me. I made up my mind sometime before the election, but only really decided while waiting in line for my turn at the polls. My decision was based mostly on the idea of strategic voting, and on the realization that when it came down to it, my two narrowed-down choices of Meretz and Labor weren't so different from each other. Amir Peretz is no prince, but he's better than Yossi Beilin, the capitalist communist. Labor and Likud were neck to neck in the polls (Labor expected to win some 16-18 seats, Likud 15-17), and I felt like my vote was most needed to get Labor as far ahead of Likud as possible. So I went with Labor. Then I called my mom and made sure she was voting Meretz.

It seems to have been a good call, though who knows what's going to come of all this. Most likely another corrupt government stacked with politicians who are more than willing to break those same ideologically based campaign promises they made a few weeks ago when trying to win over the disillusioned ideologues.

My predictions for the results were pretty accurate, but there were definitely some surprises. I thought Kadima would win 30-31 (they got 29), Labor 20-22 (they got 20), Likud 15 (got 12), National Union-NRP 12 (they got 9), Shas 7 (12), Meretz 5 (got that one right), Green Leaf 2 (none), combined Arab parties 7-9 (they got 9).

What nobody expected was that the Pensioners party was going to get 7 seats. Seven seats? This was a nonexistent party before these elections. Their MKs are already retired. They barely campaigned. But for some reason, more young Tel Avivers voted for pension than for legalizing marijuana.

What everybody expected, and what I kept going on and on about - the need to focus on the security situation before implementing necessary social reform - proved to be completely backward. Israel voted for social change. Or else - and just as likely, more likely, even - Israel voted for the most obscure parties they could think of out of political frustration and aggravation.

The next thing on everybody's agenda is the coalition. When I heard the results, my first thought was that there is no way this government is going to make it past a year. It is the definition of a minority government. Kadima won only 9 seats over Labor, Labor only 8 seats over Shas. Labor has refused to be in any coalition with right-wing parties (another empty campaign promise?), and truthfully, there is no way Kadima could join with one either, considering that would require breaking the party's raison d'etre, pulling out of the territories. While each party may have some elements in common, they are really just too different to be successful partners for very long.

The best possible coalition is actually the one that seems not so far from the one most likely to be formed. The best would be Kadima, Labor, Shas, Pensioners and Meretz. This would mean a coalition of parties completely dedicated to social reform (aside from foreign policy-based Kadima), willing to disengage (Shas could be convinced, easily) and a fairly left-wing (ok, left of center) one at that. The coalition that will most likely be formed will include Kadima, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners. While that is probably one of the more democratic ways to go about it (considering where the votes went), I think it's one that will make it harder to get any sort of agreements made.

As it is, Olmert's already said he's planning on focusing on social policy this year, saving disengagement (or the new term, convergence) for next year. Since I don't actually think this government's going to last that long, I guess that means the security situation, which a week ago seemed to be the highest on everybody's agenda, isn't going to even factor into Kadima's policies. Ironic, considering why the party was formed.

But politics are politics, and while it may seem like there are new possibilities ahead, we can't forget that state politics are just high school politics, the next generation. No matter who wins an election, left, right or retired, once in government, all politicans are the same.

One thing that really seems to stand out in this election is the evidence of what happens in a country with no limit to the number of parties allowed to run. Democracy is democracy, and it's great to have choice in democracy, but 31 parties is a ridiculous number of parties to be up in a single election. There is no question that aside from the fact that this was an election based on choosing the lesser of the evils, the close outcome was the result of the fact that people threw their votes every which way, ensuring the impossibility of a single party winning any sort of majority. The choice here was between the lesser of 31 evils.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

just to clarify

When I said in my spiel about Labor that Labor said 'no unilateral withdrawal' - contrary to Olmert - a necessary part of any compromise, which withdrawal is meant to be, I meant Labor's insistence on holding negotiations prior to withdrawal is commendable, contrary to Olmert's unilateral decision on an operation which by nature requires compromise.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

admit it - we know nothing

I've done pretty well this year at sticking to the month of Adar's two mottos: 1. Don't worry be happy. 2. Turn everything upside down (nahafoch hu). I've been especially good at the second one.

To be honest, I shouldn't take credit for the upside down nature of my life this month. It's just what happened while I sat by and watched. Happily, of course. And somewhat intoxicated.

Adar is the month of Purim, a holiday that externally seems to be about the external. It's a day of indulgence, a day to get shit-faced for a holy purpose - to recognize that we know nothing.

That's basically what my month has been about. Since the very beginning of the month I've been feeling almost helpless to the forces. Everything has seemed upside down and completely ridiculous - but for some reason, I just kept laughing. And for some reason, it all seems to be working out.

The week before Purim, in a single week (and a little bit into the next), I worked five night shifts, slept maybe 15 hours the whole week, imbibed altogether too many substances, looked for an apartment, found an apartment, put down altogether too much money while signing a lease on the apartment, found out my supposed flatmate had decided to leave the holy land, found out she had decided to stay, maybe, packed my apartment, worked some more, started purim day one, found myself at moshav modiin very exhausted and wearing leaves all over my body, moved onto purim day 1.5, found myself with four friends, including one male inadvertantly dressed like an African whore, at 1 am on the corner of route 6 waiting for unsuccessfully trying to hitchhike a nonexistent ride to jerusalem, moved on to purim days two-three (shushan purim, the real purim for cities with walls, a non-holiday everywhere else), found myself in jerusalem (after a ride the night before which brought us to Tel Aviv, bus in the morning to Jerusalem), found myself back in Tel Aviv entirely wrecked after a day of watching (somewhat participating in, mostly exhausted from) hedonistic glee, packed up the rest of my apartment, woke up, got fired from my second (and very annoying) job that I have been trying to quit since I was hired 8 months ago, ordered a moving truck at the very last minute (when could I have made moving plans?) put down more money, moved into my new apartment, went to work yet another midnight shift, came home, stayed awake till Shabbat, cooked, ate, and then.... passed out.

And then came the next week: more Adar, more of the same. Fewer substances imbibed. Still no sleep.

I read a torah from Reb Shlomo Carlebach, that I think originates in Breslov (?), that basically says that Yom Kippur, the seeming opposite of Purim, the seemingly most important and intense day of the year, is actually only second to Purim. According to this torah, we should read Yom Kippur not as day of atonment, but as day like Purim (Yom Ke-Purim).

It seems completely backwards. Yom Kippur is a day of of awareness and repentance through complete denial. We aren't allowed sex, food, drink or even to shower. The purpose: to take responsibility for our sins and for sins we didn't even commit, and to stand before God empty of everything aside from the desire for atonement.

Purim is the day of complete indulgence. We drink till we don't know the difference anymore between good and bad, we eat till we are sick, and we say basically whatever comes to mind, no matter how stupid it sounds. A rabbi friend told me the other day that Purim is supposed to be torah without derech eretz (essentially meaning manners). That means not to get drunk and belligerent for the sake of intoxication in itself, but as a way of losing all inhibitions and allowing truth to come out in its most unadulterated manner.

So essentially, according to this torah, on the day of denial and atonement we are supposed to be working toward the same effect as the day of indulgence and belligerence.

Before Purim this year, I was thinking about how much I connect to the deeper meaning of Purim, the one that justifies the indulgence and the belligerence. One of the ideas of Purim is evident in the name of the holiday's heroine. Her name is Esther, which in Hebrew contains the word 'to hide something.' Esther's also my middle name. My first name, Aliyana, means 'my god answered.' Which, essentially, gives my full name two possible meanings. The first, is that my god answered, but I will hide that answer. The second possibility is that my name means my god answered, and his answer was, I am going to hide it from you.

Whatever it is, my name means that god's answer is going to stay hidden. Maybe I should change my middle name to gila, which also has two meanings: one happiness, the other revelation. A name also connected to the idea of Purim and to hassidut in general - revelation comes through happiness. The biggest commandment of them all is to always be happy. Even when things seem to be at their most backward, we should be happy.

The reason I'm going off onto this tangent is to say that the whole point of Purim, as I've seen it this year, is to understand that what causes the seemingly holiest day of the year to be actually inferior to the seemingly most debaucherous day of the year is this element of hidden holiness, of hidden answers.

Both Yom Kippur and Purim are days of complete openess. One is a day of estoteric analysis, the other is a day of free physicality. It's said of Purim that it's a day when the wine goes in and the secrets come out. Meaning sometimes the harder we look, the less likely we are to find truth. When we let truth emerge on its own, even when it seems to be coming from a place of debauchery, it could actually be coming from the deepest place of truth.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Where have all the good ones gone, long time passing

Yoseph Leib writes

Another traditional voting foil is to vote for the part that one thinks will do the most damage to the country, in the hopes of embarrasing the enemy by letting them do all the stupid things that they think will help. But why is voting for Labor more effective than for a smaller party bound to be part of the same coalition, like Meretz or something? I ask out of pure ignorance of how Israeli democracy works. Why is supporting the larger kinda-good party more effective than backing the smaller-even-better party?

My hesitation in throwing full support to any specific party is not particular to this year's election. In just about every poll get to vote in, I'm always lost with that exact question - mostly because in every election I've had the opportunity to vote in, the choice has been between the bad, the worse, and the catastrophic.

If I did believe Meretz was without question the better party, my indecision could be chalked up to the typical election concern that voting for the smaller-but-great party doesn't necessarily do anything but take votes away from the bigger-but-still-good party and give them to the extremist-that-must-not-be-elected-under-anycircumstances-party.

In the case of this particular election, I am still torn between voting for Labor or Meretz to sway the coalition. For a number of reasons. Most importantly, I am not sure that Meretz is the "smaller-even-better party" - as much as I really want that to be the case. Considering Labor's jump to the left with Peretz in charge, it is not even clear that the dilemma of whether to vote liberal or radical even applies here.

In a sense, that gives the typical election concern even more validity - do I vote for the bigger party in the hopes of influencing the vote more easily, or do I vote for the smaller, but equally desirable party, to give it a chance to have more of a voice. Should it get enough votes, Labor is almost sure to be invited into a coalition. It is not clear that even if Meretz gets more votes than predicted that it will be invited to join the same coalition.

All the more reason to vote for Meretz? Maybe, maybe not.

I mentioned in my first election post that the main concern I have when considering who to vote for is a party's handling of the security situation. Meretz's position on security, and more specifically occupation, is clear - the occupation must end. This we know because Meretz is a left-wing party, because Meretz stands for civil rights, and because Meretz voters are usually the more adament anti-occupation activists (aside from Green Leaf and absentions). But Meretz has not given a concrete plan to this regard. The majority of my understanding of Meretz-security-plans is inference.

Labor has until recently also been fairly silent about its security plans. Like Meretz, it has been focusing on its social platform. But recently Labor said 'no unilateral withdrawal' - contrary to Olmert - a necessary part of any compromise, which withdrawal is meant to be. Amir Peretz speaks Arabic, appeals to a large sector of the population, and has gone ahead and made connections with Arab leaders in Morocco and Egypt.

I am not campaigning for Labor here. What I do support about Labor's security approach are small potatoes compared to the things that still make me uneasy about Labor as Labor and all its done and been through, and also about Peretz as Labor leader. That said, I feel equally as uneasy about Meretz - particularly its leader, Yossi Beilin- though I am still considering voting Meretz. In both cases, this unease is not enough to push me away from the belief that the best result of this year's election would be a Kadima-Labor-Meretz coalition. When it comes to security, both are weak in clear vision, but when it comes to civil rights and society, both are right on target. I am considering Labor more strongly because I know this vote is essentialy a choice of who I want to see in a coalition with Kadima, and because I know that should Labor receive enough votes it is almost guaranteed a place. I want Meretz to join the coalition as well. But even more than that, I want Yisrael Beiteinu, and especially Likud, to be kept as far away from the coalition as possible.

Monday, March 13, 2006

listen to what they're not saying

Pulsa denura. The whip of fire. Right-wing activists opposed to peace plans initiated over the last few years have used this halachic curse to try to slow down Israeli leaders bringing the country toward compromise with the Palestinians. The two prime ministers cursed with a pulsa denura were Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon - Rabin just a couple months before his murder, Ariel Sharon four months before his incapacitating brain hemmorhage. Both were at the prime of their careers. Both had brought Israel the closest to peace it had ever come.

I don't know how much I believe in halachic curses (or how strongly I scoff) but the 'success' of the curse on the two prime ministers it was bestowed upon is downright spooky, and as absurd as it may sound, begs the question of its possible validity. If it is possible, then my roommate's election advice should be taken with more than a grain of salt - vote for the candidate you want to die. The pattern is even spookier - every time Israel comes close to establishing peace, opponents can and do make damn sure it doesn't come into fruition.

I've had a few revelations regarding elections since my last post, not the least having to do with the pulsa denura.

I realized I've been falling into the typical constituent trap of believing what politicians tell me and having faith in their ability to fully carry out their campaign promises, despite evidence to the contrary. Olmert - a member of the old Likud guard, one of the more corrupt characters to hit Israel in its history, a man vocally opposed to Arab representation in the Knesset, a man who nearly single-handedly allowed Jerusalem to fall during his tenure as mayor - promises to bring Israel back to its '67 borders.

At first I bought it. And I still want to buy it. But it's become clear to me that in a majority Kadima government, it's more than likely that Olmert's promise to secure borders would take on a completely different form than presented now in its campaign. Olmert will not compromise on his vision for unilateral withdrawal. He has already announced his plans - first to the Americans, incidentally - of 'convergence,' meaning full separation of Palestinians and Israelis. His plan is to create solid blocs of Israeli settlements fully connected to Jerusalem, to be separated from the Palestinian Authority by the fence as an official border.

Practically speaking, this is an expected and not altogether un-intelligent plan. There is no way Israel would consider giving over the entire West Bank with patches of Israeli settlements completely annexed from Israel. Yet it is one more example of how the slogan 'forward to '67 borders' is just a slogan.

Likud leader Netanyahu said this week that Olmert was turning the election into a referendum on withdrawal. This is true, and to be perfectly honest, not at all unexpected. This disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank last summer was no small matter. It essentially separated Israelis into more clear a distinction between left and right than Israel had seen in years. It ignited a fierce counter-culture of young people ready to give their bodies to any sort of war, civil included, to prevent the operation from taking place. It employed the largest number of soldiers and security officers in an IDF operation since probably the war in Lebanon.

Could Israelis handle an election based on anything other than this particular referendum? The questions pestering Israel's existence have finally emerged in such full force, that even Israel is beginning to recognize them: Is Israel's presence in the West Bank an occupation? If so, is it perpetuating violence? And if so, what can we do about it? Now that the questions have been asked, we have no choice but to try to find an answer.

My roommate told me the other day that he plans to vote for Green Leaf. My aunt told me the same thing. Their reasoning is good. My roommate explained that he knows that none of the politicians are going to do what they say - and they're all the same anyway, he said - so at least by voting for Green Leaf he's choosing a party that talks about things that matter to him, and not just cannabis, either. My aunt's explanation wasn't so different. She essentially believes that the only way to express her citizen right to the franchise is to make sure that her vote does not go toward electing the party that will inevitably fuck up the country. She wants no responsibility in electing a government that takes away citizen freedom, that strengthens discrimination, that draws Israel even further into its smelly problems. This is an inevitable part of electing a government, she believes, and she wants no part in it.

In a parliamentary democracy like Israel, the only choice sometimes is to vote strategically to draw someone closer to power or to pull power away from someone else. Essentially, it means voting for one party with the intent of voting for a particular coalition. Strategic voting. If the polls are correct, Kadima will win by at least a 20 seat majority. Next in line is Labor. According to the rule of strategic voting, the trick to this election will be to vote to ensure Meretz and Labor come out on top with Kadima, and not Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud.

We're lucky as hell that Labor is next in line. The idea of a Kadima-Labor coalition is reassuring. What with the musical chairs Israel's parties have played in the last six months, Labor has gone through a face lift and is no longer the old boy's club it once was. If Labor secures enough votes to keep Kadima on top but with only enough support to create a minority coalition, that means bringing a fresh face - and a social-oriented one at that - into power. Peretz has repeated that if elected, he will not waive the negotiating stage of waithdrawal. If elected, Peretz would not form a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu, a party gaining speed in the polls and calling for the annexation of Israeli-Arab towns to the Palestinian Authority ('transfer'). If elected, Peretz says he would raise minimum wage, give out mandatory pensions, and erase the poverty line. And of course, to prove just how serious he is, Labor has signed a 'contract' with the public, vowing to fulfill each of its elections promises.

Can we believe them? Does it matter, considering that no-one is going to fully carry out their promises, anyway? Maybe the anwer is to stop listening to what they're saying, and think more about what they are most likely going to do. Or maybe the answer is to throw out a pulsa denura of our own, not to kill anyone, but to weaken Kadima's strength in gaining a majority in government, throw support to either Labor and Meretz, and in a non-violent way curse Likud out of its opposition to compromise.

Olmert said last week that the results of elections are already set, and that the only question left is of who is going to form a coalition. If this is the case - and it seems that this is the case - than the clear choice for government is a Kadima-Labor coalition. With Labor in coalition, perhaps Kadima's left leanings will be strengthened. Perhaps it will reconsider unilateral withdrawal and recognize the necessary benefits of negotiation. Perhaps the social policies we've all been waiting for can come about simultaneously with setting Israel's borders.

And perhaps this is merely idealism.

Whatever the case, I have the right to vote and I am not going to let that right pass me by, no matter how depressing the choices. There is no way that Likud and Kadima could form a coalition - that's like asking Jacob and Esau to form a coalition, or Cain and Abel. But Kadima needs to be restrained, redirected. Sticking to the need for strategic voting in this election, The solution here could be as clear as voting for Labor to ensure that it gets enough seats to form a strong coalition with the already expected winner, Kadima, and to make West Bank withdrawal a reality.

But of course, there's still 15 days till elections. Plenty of time to change my mind.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

wanted, dead or alive

The paradox of democracy. We fight for the franchise, and then when we have it, there's nobody to vote for.

Example number one: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore
Example number two: George W. Bush vs. John Kerry.

When the final lists of U.S. contenders were set in 2000 and again in 2004, it became clear that in a democracy, democracy doesn't always win. The sole choice to be made then in the good-ole democratic U.S. of A was the lesser of two evils - and even with that choice made, the ballot box seemed to have a mind of its own. Lesson learned: Democracy is more than just the freedom to fill out a ballot.

Example number three: Elections 2006 in Israel.

A friend of mine said the other day, "why vote? All the even remotely good candidates die." He ticked on his fingers, "Yitzhak Rabin was killed, Ariel Sharon's now in a coma..."

My roommate, who was listening in the corner, said, "so vote for the person you want dead. Who would you rather die? Olmert or Netanyahu?"

He had a point. But choosing the over-zealous politician you want to see knocked off is not the point of elections - in Israel, at least, it would be counterproductive.

Which leaves all of us frustratingly franchised with a tough decision. Who to vote for?

Of approximately 15 parties in Israel, only about three are even viable options. The country is swimming with extremist factions, a surprising number of which are actually elected into the Knesset every year.

The top three contenders this year, in reverse order according to their standing in the polls, and by no means the three I would consider viable, are: Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, prince of the anti-disengagement activists, king of the anti-Sharon rebels, ultimate duke of hazard; Labor, led by the moustachioed former Labor Federation (Histadrut) chairman Amir Peretz, whose upper lip fuzz and socialist policies are nicknamed Stalinist; and Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon's plucky right-hand man and successor who inherited the prime minister's newly-formed Kadima party just a month after it was created when Sharon fell from his throne as one of the most powerful men in the world into a vegetative state.

Simmering slightly below these are Shas (rightist religious party), Meretz (a secular leftist party focusing on civil and human rights) and Yisrael Beiteinu (hard-lined rightist group). Yisrael Beiteinu is actually putting up a good fight this year, trailing not far behind Likud, and could possibly be party to a coalition government should one be formed. Meretz and Shas will also most likely get seats, though it is doubtful they'll get even six apiece.

There are also a number of Arab parties which, though in past years have secured a few seats for themselves, have faced crisis after crisis this year leading to the possibility that even if they do get seats, it won't be too many - and if Likud has its way, to the possibility of being disqualified from the elections all together. First there was the obvoius lack of women candidates elected to their Knesset list, always a problem in a 'democratic' state like Israel; then there were the rumors, which they fervently denied and Likud fervently belabored, that the United Arab List party was calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Israel; and on top of these systemic problems, there was then the clincher, the report that 46 percent of Arabs were choosing not to vote in this year's election.

So much for democracy.

If Israel were Canada or the United States, then I would without a doubt choose either Labor or Meretz. Labor is a popular but weathered party twice headed by Yitzhak Rabin, which recently re-adjusted its focus to Israel's social problems. Under the leadership of Amir Peretz, Labor has really buffed up its socialist platform, though has also reneged on appearing too consolidated with groups that would make it look 'too leftist,' for instance a group of Labor-supporting youth who went to help reharvest trees in the West Bank a few weeks ago.

Labor has made its commitment in this year's election to alleviate poverty, to seal the gap between the rich and the poor, to raise minimum wage and get lower tuition for students. It's also signed a 'contract with the public' vowing to fulfill each and every one of its campaign promises. Not bad for a country like Israel, which started as a shining example of socialist idealism and quickly descended into the depths of capitalism and class warfare. Amir Peretz is also a Sephardi Jew [read: de la peuple] who speaks Arabic and moreover, speaks to the oft under-represented Israeli population.

Meretz, to the left of Labor, isn't afraid to be called what it is: sweetly progressive. Lefties par example. Its platform this year calls for a re-evaluation of civil marriages, of gay rights and of civil and human rights in general. Most secular progressives I know here are planning to vote for Meretz. And as I said, it it were anywhere else, I don't think I would hesitate to do so also.

While I agree in social principle with Labor and Meretz, there are a few things that are making me hesitate before throwing them my immediate support. Most glaringly is the security situation. I am under no illusion that this country is anything but a mess economically (much thanks to Netanyahu's stint as finance minister in which he pushed apart with herculetic arms the rich from the poor, setting the poverty line to a defiant and steady decline). I am also fully aware that the giant rift existing between the religious and the secular here is enough to easily instigate a hearty civil war. But without a doubt, the most pressing political issue in Israel today is its security situation. Is an unwanted and internationally recognized occupation. Is terrorism. Is its vague borders. Is its inherent societal discrimination.

With the exception of the final Is, I am not entirely convinced that Labor and Meretz have what it takes to fix this problem. Though I'm not completely unoptimistic about it, neither party has voiced a clear, concrete and long-standing program for strengthening security and ending the occupation and attacks. Israel's social and economic situation has been on a decline for years, and there is no doubt that much of the problem is the result of the country's perpetuous state of war. But before the social situation can be mended, Israel needs to get itself together. This doesn't mean neglecting social issues, but it does mean straightening out imperative questions of existence. For example, its borders.

Kadima, Ariel Sharon's quickly orphaned baby, is promising to return Israel to the '67 borders. That's its motto: "Kadima [forward] to the '67 borders."

What's not to like? This is what we've been begging for years. Set the borders, get the hell out of occupation, and get our lives back in order. Everybody wins.

But of course, Kadima's not all its cracked up to be. It's a party run by some of the most corrupt and disgusting politicians in Israel, former members of Likud. While it has also pulled in some of the more centrist and security-oriented figures from other parties as well, like Shimon Peres (who, while one of the bests of the lot, is still not without fault) it is ill-balanced by scandals from Omri Sharon and Tzachi Hangebi, convicted for campaign fraud, illegality and unlawful relations with the business sector, to the speculated upon Ehud Olmert, who among other things is of late involved in a pseudo-investigation of the possibly sketchy business deal he made during sale of his home.

And other than vowing to evacuate West Bank Settlements, Kadima has given no indication that it has any other progressive plans, and has given no solid platform for curbing poverty levels or ending the growing discrimination in Israel. Olmert has even said that should he form the next coalition government, he would not invite Arab parties to join. Aside from that, what does '67 borders mean, anyway? Gaza's already gone, but what about the big West Bank enclaves? Kadima's pretty much announced its intentions to give up some fairly solid isolated settlements, like Shilo, for instance, but does that mean it's going to withdraw from places like Gush Etzion and Ariel? And would we want them to? And what about the Golan? '67 borders technically means everything from the six-day war, including land that was formerly Syria. But time after time has shown us that a lot has to happen before Israel is going to give up that region. Can we really believe Olmert, a man known for his discriminatory policies against Arabs, when he says he will solidify Israel's borders to where they were in 1967?

And again, is that we want? We want to end the occupation, most have agreed, but how tight are we going to make the borders? Will setting these borders actually end occupation? Will it end Palestinian attacks? Will it end Israeli attacks? And how much violence are we going to see from opponents before that actually happens?

Likud, the other party for whom the bulk of its platform is focused on security, has slanted the rest of its campaign on attacking Olmert. Likud should not be elected - it rides on its opposition to any sort of withdrawal. And in Ariel Sharon's own disengagement from Likud, the party has become lost in nearly every way. Likud is painting Kadima - its estranged brother - as the most leftist faction to hit Israel since the early days of Zionism. Banners adorned with scrawling red script calling Olmert 'Smolmert' (smol as in the hebrew word for left) are displayed on bus after bus and billboard after billboard. Kadima calls itself centrist, but if we thought the right and left division around disengagement time had never been so apparent, we have a surprise waiting for us post-elections. If Likud wins, the right wins. If Kadima wins, maybe everyone wins, but the rightist revolution will be there, ready for the rebound. Not afraid of civil war.

There doesn't seem to be room in Israel for a centrist party. Kadima isn't the first of its kind, and if we look at its failed predecessors, it could be setting itself up for disaster. But Kadima has announced its intention to end the occupation. To stop investing in the territories. To pull out from the territories. This at a time when even those not quite willing to call it occupation are ready to admit that Israel is contributing to the perpetuation of violence in the region. Though its practical implications might seem vague, this is a good step. This is a necessary and politically keen move. This is the step we've been waiting for.

Democracy, in its purest form, is about electing the party and candidates who represent the majority voice of the public. The public in Israel is calling for political stability and security. The public in Israel is also calling for a better financial situation. And Arabs are calling for more representation. And so are the religious Jews. And so are the secular. But Israel is divided and extreme ideology here runs rampant. Sometimes to a point where it seems it would be impossible to compromise.

So what does Israel want most of all? What does Israel need most of all? And are these compatible?

Kadima has until now secured the most support in the polls, though its numbers are falling. Throwing support to Kadima could mean defeating the chance for society-oriented parties like Meretz and Labor from getting any seats at all, perpetuating corruption in government and vetoing a focus on better social policies. And despite Israel's need to set its priorities, we still need those social policies. Likud is now safely riding far behind Kadima in the polls, but who can say for sure what will happen election day? Hamas was safely behind Fatah.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

summer tramp

For some reason, the life lesson to be free and ready for anything is easier to remember in the summer, the official nomadic season.

Patoralists, seasonal laborers and wandering hippies, for example, take sedentary refuge in the winter and use summer to maximize their life potential wandering for/as livelihood.

The drastic North American weather pattern has in the past delineated for me a clear mark between summer and winter, between university semesters and lazier summers, between habitual sedentary work and the ability to actively embark on emotional and geographic wandering.

Lucky for me, life's little changes over the last year and Israel's awesome weather have given me the freedom to be a year round traveler, both physically and mentally. I've learned to balance sedentary and nomadic inclinations, to be a full-time employee and part-time wanderer. I've kept alive my love affair with the road, though truth be told, I'd become more of a habitual pasturer than wandering nomad, spreading my time evenly between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

I hadn't realized how dull the sensation had become for me until I peeked my head out of the bus in Tiberias last Thursday, hot, overdressed, my backpack full of just what I needed to survive in the wild for at least a week, and finally felt infused with that giddy feeling of being alone in an unfamiliar city, ready for anything.

The plan, concocted late Wednesday night, was to meet up with Elisha and Jackie at the foot of some northern trail or another early Thursday morning. That plan fell through when Ami and I realized we didn't have a direct bus to Tsfat until 9 from Jerusalem, and 2:30 pm from Tel Aviv. So Ami and I agreed to meet in Tiberias, early. But when I called Ami on my way out of the city, he was still sleeping.

So we met around noon in Tiberias and started walking up the road hugging the Kinneret to hitch a ride to Mount Meron, the plan loosely ammended on a bench in front of the Tiberias bus station.

Elisha and Jackie were on the other side of the Kinneret, and said they'd try to catch their own ride and meet us when they were ready. We found a bus stop about a mile outside of Tiberias, and waited around for a ride. After about 10 minutes an SUV pulled over to the side of the road and took us all the way to Tsfat. From there we caught another ride to Meron and walked up to the amusement park tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar.

I say amusement park because every time I'm there I feel like I've entered either a carnival or a Grateful Dead concert parking lot. Trance music dubbed with religious mantras pumping from corners of stalls selling paintings, clothing and paraphenelia; white-clad Breslov hippie hasids strolling the scene saying, "who's got my ticket to Uman;" Little Breslov hippies loitering by the dozen. Free food all day long. Sounds, eye candy, worship.

Ami disappeared into the tomb, and was still in there an hour later when Elisha and Jackie showed up. When he came out it was nearing 4 pm. We bought a bottle of arak (anise flavored liquor) and headed off into sun setting forest. We had only walked for about an hour when the dark really began to set in. We set up camp in a huge field at the highest point we could reach (the peak of the mountain is taken up by an IDF base and off limits to civilians). It was an awesome site. The snowy-peak of the Hermon visible in the distance, all the valleys and surrounding mountains in clear sight, and at our own site, a round well surrounded in stone built into the base of a tree that could only be described as bodhi-licious. We made a packed vegetable stew, munched on trail mix and roasted potatoes, and smoked the sage and zaatar we'd picked up along the way.

I woke up freezing the next morning and saw my tent mates moving around. I groaned a little because I thought they were waking up, and I really wanted them to stay in bed to cuddle with me and keep me warm. They weren't getting up, they told me, just going to pee. "But look at the sun rise," Jackie said. I peered outside. The whole face of the mountain was washed in the most vivid and vibrant orange sunrise I had seen in a long time, and the valley looked as if it were built inside a gold mine. I settled back into my sleeping bag, warmer now.

A few hours later, when Elisha had disappeared into the woods to write in his morning papers, and Jackie had gone off to walk somewhere, Ami poked his head into the tent and told me to stay inside for a few minutes, a couple of Brelovers were taking a skinny dip in nature's mikva. When I came out, they were getting ready to go, and Elisha and Jackie had come back. We ate oatmeal and leftover soup, and packed up. We wanted to go for a longer hike than we had the day before, but the sun was so nice and it was so windy, so we lazed around with our head on each other's bellies for a few hours, singing songs and talking.

When we finally emerged from our coocoon, it was getting late in the afternoon, so we headed back down to hike in the rocky valley and up to Shimon Bar Yochai's tomb. There we scored a free challah and bottle of wine and caught a ride to the mouth of Nahal Amud, to the base of Kadita. Kadita is a cluster of mountains dotted with pear trees, horses and maybe thirty families. Most of the residences are illegal, not for defense reasons like in the West Bank, but because most of the occupants chose to squat, rather than purchase their land.

The result is a paradise of sorts inhabited by some of the funkiest people around. My aunt and uncle have been heading up to Kadita for years, a settlement which until just a few years ago had no running water or electricity. It also has a high turnover of occupants, apparently because its location limits any sort of booming business and the character of the inhabitants limits any sort of desire to work for the man. My friend Tiferet's aunt has a 'mansion' in Kadita, meaning a really funky home of her own, surrounded by a small but glamorous guest house, an unused restaurant, shed and tons of property.

The five of us were given our own house in the shed to shack up in for as long as we wanted, we were told. Tiferet's very British grandparents, a far cry from their radical daughter, were staying at the inn for the weekend to celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary. We made a pot of stew and an avocado salad to contribute to the dinner, and without bathing, let Shabbat wash over us.

Max, Devorah and Amitai were supposed to join us for the weekend, but they'd gotten stuck near the Kinneret trying to hitch north, and decided to stay in a cave with some Bedouins they'd met near a monastery. So the five of us sat on a mattress in the middle of the shed's three rooms, in a circle with our laps covered by a blanket, and began to sing Kabbalat Shabbat, a series of hymns welcoming in the day of rest. It's a really beautiful service that if done with the right intentions is as riveting as some of the deepest medidation practices. This one was done with the right intentions, and we were all flying high by the time we joined the rest of the family in the restaurant for the meal.

We spent the weekend sleeping deeply, eating delicious food and walking barefoot on the rocky, thorn-riddled paths of Kadita. The family's property was meant to be a sort of guest house, but since we were the only guests, we got the run of the place. On Saturday night Ami took off back to Jerusalem, and the rest of us set up a bonfire in the yard.

We woke up late Sunday morning, and Elisha had to run off to Tsfat to catch a bus to make it back to Jerusalem in time for his evening class. Jackie went with him to say goodbye. About an hour passed when I heard Tiferet on the phone with her aunt who was saying something about police, and turned around to seek Elisha and Jackie coming back up the road, flanked by four men. Apparently they'd stopped them walking down the path, searched their stuff, and found a pipe, so decided to come back to the house to search. Lucky enough, they stuck only to our stuff, and didn't go into the family's house.

They took Elisha in for an 'investigation' - meaning, they took his ID number and let him go. What a silly bunch of cops. Don't they have more to do in this country than searching us in vain for drugs?

Tiferet's uncle gave the three of us remaining, all women now, a ride into Tsfat. We went for lunch in the square in the middle of the old city, at this vegetarian cafe that Max's sister-in-law's aunt owns. She wasn't around but we got some really awesome sandwhiches and sat around for about half an hour. It's amazing how everybody seems to know each other in Tsfat, and how even though I never lived there, I also seem to know everybody. In less than an hour in Tsfat, I ran into so many different people I'd met at various times in my life, including this woman who I met last summer at a Palestinian/Arab/Jewish retreat called Sulha. She'd been the religious looking woman walking around with her Muslim friend - the one who jokingly told me, "I am the Hamasnakit, and this is my settler friend."

Jackie, Tiferet and I headed about an hour and a half before sunset into the valley of Nahal Amud, an area I have probably hiked more than anywhere else in Israel. The valley was covered by a layer of fog and raindrops were drizzling, but we were steadfast in our mission. They'd built a new road throught Tsfat, just above the entrance to the nature reserve, so we had to walk alongside the highway for about 20 minutes before reaching a tunnel that reached under the road and directly into the valley.

When we emerged on the other side of the tunnel it was like waking up in Oz. The wadi (Nahal Amud) at this time of year was lush green, dotted with all sorts of budding flowers, blossoming trees and rushing waters. We stuck to our trail and hiked until the daylight turned to dusk. We decided to set up camp in the dirt atop an old Roman (?) water carrying system adorned with the sign, "do not enter, danger of collapse."

Jackie and Tiferet went off to gather wood while I started putting up the tent. When I headed out on the trail to get some wood myself, I saw Jackie pulling whole felled trees toward our site.

"Every time we go camping with guys, they always feel like girls can't start a fire," she said, throwing the bunch down near the tent.

We got a nice fire going and sat around eating trail mix and playing on the harmonica. I turned over a couple plates and set the finjan at an angle, and started banging away to the rhythm in my head. It made a really funky little drum set and soon we were singing just about every rock and pop song we could remember the words to.

It was really different and really awesome to be camping with just women. I loved how strong, comfortable and free we felt - so much more so than in a big group with guys.

Even though it was freezing, we decided to take a dip in the river. We walked down the path, Tiferet in her bare feet, to find a clearing. When we found one we stripped off our clothes and went in. Shock and awe.

We walked back to the site with our bottoms bare. We crawled into the tent, got dressed, and cuddled up to sleep. But it was so cold, and there was a big rock right underneath me, so I couldn't sleep. Sometime in early dawn I decided to take off my sweats and put on my long johns, when I remembered what Evan's dad Les had told me a couple years back (when I think he was trying to get me to score with Evan): It's always warmer to sleep naked inside a sleeping bag. He was right. The minute I took off my pants I found I was warmer than I had been with a million layers. So I stripped down completely and finally managed to get some sleep.

I tried to wake the others up at 7, and then again at 8 so we could get a move on the day, but it was past 10 when we finally got up. I could hear groups of people moving around and talking outside the tent, and vaguely remembered that we were sleeping in a nature reserve off limits to camping.

I had to be at work at 8 pm after the five day rainbow flow, and told them that. So we gathered our stuff together, I took a quick piss off the water carrying structure as I'd wanted to do since we'd arrived, and we headed back up the trail. It was really hot, and all we had to munch on was a single avocado and orange pepper, since we'd eaten all our food the night before lazing around the campfire. I was sweating and breathless by the time we got to the top of the hill. We collapsed for a few minutes in the field, and then crossed over the road to try to get a ride down to Tsfat.

There were no buses from Tsfat to Tel Aviv that day (there's only one a day that leaves at 9 am), so we decided we'd either hitch to Tel Aviv or catch the bus from Tsfat to Jerusalem and then to Tel Aviv. The first option was a long shot, we figured, and the second would take forever. But we still had plenty of time, so we caught a ride to the junction at the entrance of the city and waited.

A haredi guy who came up to the hitching station a few minutes after us got picked up almost immediately, and a few minutes later, so did we.

The driver was young, bald and serious looking, his friend bearded, rugged and skinny. The back of their car was a flat surface covered in soft cushions.

The bearded guy turned around to look at me. "Are you more Jewish or a Zionist?" he asked me.

I laughed (nervously?). "Jewish," I said. I'm not sure I am a Zionist, or even what it means."

He gave me the thumbs up sign. "Good," he said, and looked at me intently. "Don't forget that. Zionism is nationalism. Judaism is faith. Always have faith."

We arrived just then at the junction they were dropping us off at down the road. We said goodbye, and hopped out. The hitching station we'd arrived at was swarming with soldiers, but when a car pulled up literally within less than a minute of our arrival, no-one approached it. So I did, tentatively.

It was a soldier, who said he was going to kfar Saba. That would take us at least 2/3 the leg of our journey, so we gladly stuck our bags in the trunk, and got in the back seat.

"Hey, I'm not a taxi driver, someone come up front," he said. Tiferet moved up.

His name was Greg and he was from South Africa. We listened to music and talked the whole way. Somehow we convinced him to stop for lunch in Beit Yanai, where we got falafel and salads and he got a chicken liver sandwhich. I don't usually like falafel, but this was really good, surprising coming from a shopping center restaurant. They also had little cups of coffee, really good and strong. The guy at the counter nodded to the scarf around my head and said, "I like."

"Thank you," I said.

"Like Osama," he went on. "Osama good, Bush bad." I couldn't tell if he was serious. They all laughed.

We got back in the car and Greg dropped us off at the Morasha junction just outside of Kfar Saba. There were a couple of kids there trying to hitch to Eilat. They told us we'd have better luck on the other side of the bridge, where there was a more direct road to Tel Aviv.

Jackie came up to me and said, "ali, someone's one the phone for you." She handed me the receiver and wire end of a broken public phone. I attached it to my bag and we crossed the road to get to the other side of the bridge. On the way we passed a vendor selling strawberries on the side of the highway. She told us they were organic and pesticide free. We bought two cartons.

It didn't seem like the station the guys had pointed us to was visible anywhere, but we finally found it. A car full of happy looking hippies pulled up. "We're going north," they said. I had the urge to say, "Yalla, back to the north," but refrained. A few minutes later another car pulled up, and the driver said he was going to Tel Aviv. We got in just as a dreadlocked dude came up. "Any room?" He asked. There was. He got in.

Less than four hours after we'd set out from Tsfat, we got to the beach in Tel Aviv. We walked back to my house from there. It was sunny and the air smelled different. It felt like summer was really starting.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

freedom to move

I met Jihad a few months ago on the bus from Afula to Jerusalem. About an hour passed before he actually told me his name, and when he did introduce himself, it was with a disclaimer: his name meant closeness to god, he said, and did not necessarily indicate holy war.

I could see why he had a hard time telling people.

He asked me whether I liked Jerusalem or the north better. I told him I liked the mountains and open space of the north but loved the energy of Jerusalem, and asked him which he preferred.

"The north," he told me. "I can't walk two steps in Jerusalem without be stopped for an identity check."


It's like we live in different countries, reflected in terms of both north-south and Arab-Jew. I've noticed it before, but it's not something that affects me on a daily basis. Jihad notices it all the time. When he was telling me about his family, he mentioned it: "I don't know how you" - meaning, Jews, maybe West - can always live so far away from your parents and siblings;" and he mentioned it when talking about his mother's food: "We always have bread with our meals, not like you." Jihad was studying special education at Hebrew University and told me he liked being Israeli, liked speaking Hebrew, but that he really didn't see too much in common between Arabs and Jews. He told me he wasn't a suicide bomber. I hadn't asked.

The division he stated as matter of fact and experience I don't think occurs as easily to Jewish Israelis. Despite the fears of the intifada or of terrorist threats, Israel is one of the easiest countries to move around in. Buses go just about everywhere, and hitchhiking is a well-accepted way of life. The checkpoints heading from the West Bank into Israel are a breeze for Jews, and essentially non-existent from Israel into the West Bank.

For the most part, Arabs with valid Israeli ID cards are still as open targets for security checks as illegal Palestinians. Imagine how shitty it must feel to be treated as a maybe criminal everywhere you go in the country you were born and raised in. Leaving aside for now the terrible infrastructure Arab communities are subject to and the degradation of their school systems, Arab-Israeli citizens are profiled in much the same way as black Americans - danger indicated by appearance and accent.

When I talk about a difference between Jews and Arabs traveling around, I don't mean that there is any sort of legal limit imposed, but a cultural stigma. Everybody can take buses and hitch rides, and Arabs and Jews are nominally equally to do everything in a citizen's right under the law, but when it comes down to it, there is something that hangs in the air that really separates Arabs from the Jews into some misconceived notion of dangerous and safe.

In Jerusalem, especially, the security guards strolling around are wont to look anyone in the eye to make sure they're not terrorists, but Arabs get extra special scrutiny. And most people I know without wanting or meaning to tenses up when an arab (could-be terrorist?) gets on a bus. All I really have to get worked up about during security checks is the way guards force me to open up my stuffed backpacks even when they know damn well I have nothing dangerous inside. In the north, things are a bit different. At the the Afula bus station, for example, where a good 40 percent of passangers are Arab, there are hardly any security checks at all. Just a guy who looks you up and down and sends you on your way. In Jerusalem, the lines outside the bus station extend till the road, always very crowded and nerve racking. It's not that there haven't been terror attacks in Afula - there have. And to be quite honest, I've always thought those lines at the bus station would make a much better terror target than inside.

Feeling free to move around as I please is not hard to do in Israel. This past weekend I went on a camping trip up north with some friends and felt freer than I have in months. It was like my summer officially began and I officially returned to my metaphysical home of wandering. We tickled the northern countryside with either our feet in the hills or our finger pointed downward, inviting a ride. Both were successful, both exhilharating.

Hitchhiking. A culture as passe in North America as most other personal freedoms are becoming there. I've definitely hitched rides in Canada and the States, but usually with a nagging feeling in the back of my mind remembering that nice man giving me a ride could easily be a serial killer/rapist/any other possible horrible criminal I could possibly imagine. A couple winters ago, my friends and I hitched from Quebec City to Montreal on New Year's eve armed with kitchen forks as weapons. The cae that picked us up only 5 minutes after we set out on the road (hey, for better or worse, it's easy for women to get rides) turned out to belong to two young guys who were heading west to bring ecstasy back with them to sell at a party. The kitchen forks turned out to be priceless heirlooms apparently having once belonged to a premier of Quebec, my friend's great grand-father.

In Israel, hithching is second nature, and illegal only to IDF soldiers (government property). In the West Bank, it's incredibly easy to hitch a ride. My theory is that because the roads there are open to both Palestinian and Jewish cars simultaneously (a fact I found really surprising - I don't know why, but I expected there to be much more division there) Jews are really keen on picking up other Jews as quickly as possible to avoid any sort of dangerous situations.

It's just as easy in the rest of Israel, though it sometimes takes longer. I see it as a reflection of the easy and free lifestyle Israelis thrive on. Hitching is called tremping (from the word tramp), reminiscent of the early 20th century American migrant workers for whom public transportation meant illegally hopping freight trains and public housing meant sleeping on the roads. It's indicative of the culture of the western dream to be able to go and do wherever and however you want.

It's a dream everybody wants. Nobody wants to feel stifled and repressed, especially not in the place they call home. Without even getting into the experience of Palestinians over the last five years (I'm qualified only to say what I've read, and the point of this post is not to compare suffering, just to describe experiences I know) I can say Jews were truly scared shitless to go to pizza stores, hop on buses or even to walk down the street. The fear of death was imminent, expected - it was only a matter of time. But they still went out. They still rode buses, and approached their fear with humor. Life did not stop for those who kept living. Nobody stayed bottled up in their house - that would have been surrendering to fear, surrendering to death.

How ironic that in a country racked with domestic war and constant security checks, it is easier to travel than in the land of the free and the home of the brave.