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The Failure of the Tinfoil Yarmulke

When I entered my second hour of a heated Facebook argument over the Gaza crisis, I had a realization: Birthright Israel totally worked.

It’s so easy to get obsessed with Israel.  Israel is like that girl you know who is kind of a trainwreck and is somehow always attracting stalkers and creeps.  You love her and hope she’ll be okay in the end, but man is she a big fucking mess and totally bringing this drama on herself.  And anyway, her crazy-ass problems are a great distraction from your own issues.

That’s how Birthright worked on me.  I care about Israel.  And I care about the Palestinians, although that was Birthright’s unintended side effect.  Birthright’s logic is really quite sound: everyone cares more about places they’ve been to.  And when one of their passport stamps is from the hot mess of the Western world, it’s going to inspire the most fascination.

Following the Gaza crisis has been a great source of escapism for me this week.  I feel like a horrible person just thinking that, let alone writing it publicly.  But my own life has been too legitimately affected by the news lately - my family was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy - and it is a welcome relief to follow news that actually doesn’t have a damn thing to do with me. 

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, you are robbed of the catharsis of anger.  What are you gonna do, storm Mt. Olympus and shake your fist at the gods?  In following the Gaza crisis, you can have ALL the anger.  A hurricane doesn’t have any bad guys in its narrative; in Israel and Gaza, everyone’s the bad guy.  I have spent all week fuming and raging about the Gaza crisis, because no amount of fuming or raging will let my grandmother return to her home in Rockaway.

But why is Israel my anger-providing distraction, and not something else?  A common refrain from those on Team Israel is that the media harps on and on about a measly 100-ish Palestinians killed in self defense when Syrians are being massacred by the thousands.  Why do we pick on Israel, they ask.  Where is my fury about Syria?

That’s an easy answer: I’ve never been to Syria.  I’m totally foggy on the places and peoples and history of Syria.  I hear they have good food. 

There’s also a whole mess of other complicated reasons why Israel’s antics matter more to me than Syria’s, reasons involving Jewish-American identity and American support for the status quo and non-voluntary ethnic association.  Except… all those reasons existed long before I went to Israel.  And before I went to Israel I didn’t really care what happened there.  No more than I care about Syria, anyway. 

No, I think the truth must now be faced.  I give a shit about Israel and Palestine because I’ve been there. 

Well played, Birthright.  Well played.



Ahoy Vey!

This one time, Rosh Hashana fell on the same day as Talk Like A Pirate Day, so I wrote a short story. This incredibly out-of-season post is due to my discovery, when trying to link to it in a job application, that Ahoy Vey had been egregiously omitted from the Tinfoil Yarmulke archives. (Also, job for which punny story about pirates is an appropriate writing sample = best job ever?)

Ahoy Vey!

or, This One Time Rosh Hashana Fell On Talk Like A Pirate Day

There was once a tiny shtetl in the old country; so inconsequential that no one bothered to persecute it, so unremarkable that no one gave it a name. And anyway, the elders argued, how can you order a pogrom on a place when you don’t know what to call it? There were downsides to namelessness, yes: the mail was always lost, but who wrote to them anyway? Not their good for nothing sons, that’s for sure.

One Rosh Hashanah, the esteemed rabbi of the little town stood in front of the shul. The rabbi’s emotion on the holy days was greatly renowned, and the whole town – from Abram the mostly-honest butcher to Shlomo the skill-less liberal arts major (may your family be spared such indignity!) – packed the shul to witness the rabbi’s single dramatic tear as he beseeched the Lord God to forgive his people for not setting foot in His house since the previous Yom Kippur, and would He remind them of the Sisterhood potluck next Shabbos as well?

As the rabbi finished a thinly veiled comparison of the binding of Isaac to the binding of his digestion – thanks to the prune rugelach offered by certain congregants in lieu of membership dues – a commotion was heard outside the shul. People were gathering at the door.

“Uch,” thought Abram, “the lazy-bones are only showing up in time for the Part With The Stuff They Know.”

“Uch,” thought Shlomo, “I could have slept later after all.”

“Uch,” thought Carlos the shabbos goy, “I hope they don’t ask me to tear their toilet paper.”

A rough voice outside shouted “amen!,” and “amen,” the congregation hastily assented, with a caterwauled descant provided by Chandleh who-thinks-she’s-a-soprano. “Arrrr, men!” repeated the voice with clearer diction, and a strong scent of highly un-kosher grog filled the air as a crew of pirates shoved into the shul.

The pirates were ill-shaven and well-armed, apart from the hook-handed one who was well-shaven and ill-armed, and their captain tottered atop a wooden peg leg.

“Ahoy, me hearties!” said the pirate captain.

“Oy, my heart!” said Ephraim the kvetch.

“We be needin’ some assistence from ye landlubbers. We may be the meanest, dirtiest, ugliest blackguards ever to sail the seven seas,” the pirate said (“You should see my wife,” added Samuel who-thinks-he’s-funny), “but the scurvy czar (may he prosper on someone else’s back) be refusin’ to issue us a general pillaging license.”

He paused for a moment of general tutting and commisseration.

“So we be sailin’ under the radar, pillagin’ only that which the czar don’t bother to pillage himself.” The pirate smiled with black teeth. “And we be noticin’ that this speck of barnacle is long overdue for a good pillage.”

There were cries and gasps, and a few of the women in the balcony took the opportunity to get better seats by fainting onto the lower level.

"On to the ship!" cried the pirate. The townsfolk were herded towards the door, though in a moment of highly uncharacteristic bravery, Tevye the milkman took a swing at the pirate, who tripped his attacker with a well-placed peg leg.

“You fight like a dairy farmer,” the pirate spat. “Now come along, so’s I can make ye walk the plank.”

But at that moment Mordecai the whittler grabbed the pirate’s peg leg.

“You have this peg long?”

“Arr. A mosquito bit me thigh.” Mordecai looked up. “It was me first day with me hook.”

“You think that’s bad? You should see my goiter,” said Ephraim.

“That peg’s not gonna last long, way it was constructed. Allow me.” And Mordecai grabbed the wooden arm off the end of the pew, and quickly whittled it into a fine new peg leg.

“This be a fine new peg leg,” cried the pirate, dancing a little jig. “But don’t be expectin’ that will save ye from the plank.”

“Oh no,” said Mordecai. “For the Cossacks, sure, a leg will cost an arm and another leg. But for you? For you, I make a deal.” He gestured to the rabbi to come forward.

“This is our rabbi, the wisest scholar in our land. Pose him a riddle. If he cannot answer it to your satisfaction within three days, we will happily offer up our plunder to be pillaged. If the rabbi can solve the puzzle, then we request that you allow us to remain un-pillaged. I’ll even throw in an extra peg leg.”

The pirate thought for a moment, but finding himself unaccustomed to such strain, he slapped his knee in consternation and cried “shiver me timbers!”

"We accept!" said Mordecai.

"Huh?" said the esteemed rabbi.

"Wait, that warn’t any riddle" protested the pirate, but Mordecai put up a hand.

"Captain, let me offer you some counsel, free of charge. If even you don’t know the answer to the "riddle," how can our rabbi hope to solve it?"

The pirate paused. “I accept! Rabbi, ye have three days to shiver me timbers.” (The wife of Samuel-who-thinks-he’s-funny pre-emptively smacked her husband) “I’ll go ready me plank.”

The pirate stomped off.

Mordecai turned to the rabbi with a smile, expecting praise for his quick wit and genre savvy. Instead, he was met with several dozen pieces of stale prune rugelach flying at his head.

For three days and three nights, the rabbi prayed. For three days and three nights, the rabbi studied. For three days and three nights, the rabbi fasted, not that his other options were much better. And after three days and three nights, the pirates met the townsfolk at the shul, and awaited the esteemed rabbi’s solution.

The rabbi stepped up to the bimah, and began to speak. “The Rambam wrote of the many names of the Lord our God,” he began, and proceeded to argue that if “shiver” is broken down into its numerological designation… but we’ll never hear the brilliant conclusion that proved “shiver me timbers” to be the lost fourteenth attribute of Hashem, for by that point all in attendance were fast asleep.

T’kiaaaaah! A loud horn bleat from outside woke congregants, pirate and Jew alike. T’kiaaaaaah!

"What fool is blowing the shofar three days late?" the rabbi muttered, throwing open the doors of the shul to chastise the tardy horn-blower. But when he looked out into the town square, he saw none other than the whittler Mordecai, cheeks blushed scarlet from blowing a strange-looking shofar.

"So this is your plan, Mordecai?" demanded the rabbi. "Lead us into the hands of the pirates while you sound the battle cry on your cheap knock-off shofar?"

"Actually, rabbi, I completely forgot about the riddle. But I was poking around the pirates’ ship, looking for lost dubloons, when I saw a beautiful plank of wood just hanging off the edge of the deck."

"Me plank!" cried the pirate. "Me beautiful plank!"

"And I couldn’t help myself - I had to whittle it. But look at this beautiful horn I made! It works, too!” T’kiaaaaaaaaaah!

The rabbi was all set to strangle Mordecai with his own payyis, but he was distracted by a strange wheezing sound. Coming from the pirate.

"Hee hee hee," said the pirate.

"Hee hee hee?" asked the rabbi.

"Your Mordecai - he took my plank and he… He shofar’d me timber!"

The resulting mass face-palm was so extraordinary that the descendents of the townfolk have had crooked noses ever since.

And the pirate was so taken by this extraordinarily clumsy and painstakingly set-up pun that he spared the village, asking only that Mordecai continue to entertain gentiles for the rest of his days. And so he and his descendents did, inventing musical theater and running Hollywood and generally ruining every nice social gathering, unto this very day.

The end.



A Tu B’Shvat seder

I have never led a Tu B’Shvat seder. I have never even attended a Tu B’Shvat seder. But when I discovered that my birthday was on the same day as this ridiculous minor festival celebrating the birthday of the trees, I knew that I needed to include my arboreal friends in my celebrations.  When I discovered that dear old Birthright Israel would give me a rather generous amount of funding to host such an event, I knew it was destiny.

What follows is the “seder” I wrote for this extravaganza. It is derived from 1 part Wikipedia, 1 part asking people who actually know about this holiday, and about 10 parts making shit up. Enjoy!

A Tu B’Shvat Seder

I learned from Wikipedia that the traditional Tu B’Shvat seder is modeled on the Passover seder. Therefore, we begin with a recitation of our program for the evening. This is so that you know just how quickly you need to drink your wine.

The Order:

First glass of wine
The Invitation to the Trees
A Tu B’Shvat Pageant
Second glass of wine
The explanation of the ritual appetizers
Third glass of wine
The Four Questions
The traditional recitation of The Lorax
The festive meal
Fourth glass of wine
The taking of the group photo that allows Liz to receive reimbursement from Birthright
The traditional insertion of gummy worms into cups of pudding
Singing to the trees
Optional Singalong Time

First glass of wine

The first glass of wine is white, symbolizing winter. Although it’s going to be kinda cold and dreary-ish in Boston for another six months or so, Tu B’Shvat is a celebration of the coming of spring. So drink down your wintry white wine and maybe we’ll finally get some snow.

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam borei p’ri hagafen.  Amen.

We give thanks for the fruit of the vine.  Cheers!

The Invitation to the Trees

This is a birthday party for the trees, after all. So everyone grab one of our many houseplants and bring them to sit in the circle with you.  Go on! Even plants don’t like being wallflowers.

The Pageant: Or, A Brief History Of The Jewish Tree

NARRATOR: In the beginning, or more like four days after the beginning, God created trees.

God: Let there be trees!

NARRATOR: And God saw the trees, and they were pretty great.  A few days later, God created people.  And just to be a dick, he also created a really sweet Tree of Knowledge that the folks couldn’t eat from. That didn’t go too well. From then on, God mostly stayed out of the tree business, aside from the occasional foray into a burning bush.  Many years later, in a surprisingly Eastern European corner of the ancient land of Israel, a young man came in from a hard day in the fields to kvetch at his wife.

SCHMUYLE:  Oy, this was a hard day in the fields!

RIVKA: What’s wrong?  Is the land of milk and honey not milky enough for you, honey?

SCHMUYLE:  Don’t you remember? Today starts the month of Shvat.

RIVKA:  Shvat are you complaining about?

SCHMUYLE: That’s right, I’m complaining about Shvat!  Last year we planted a whole lot of trees this month, and I want to plant more this year.  But there’s just no time!

RIVKA: No time to plant a tree?

SCHMUYLE: Not when I have to go schlepping all over the orchards saying “happy birthday, Mr. Fig tree” and “happy birthday, Mr. Date Tree.” “You’re looking very well for your age, Mr. Pomegranate Tree.” 

RIVKA: But Schmuyle—

SCHMUYLE: “Here, let me make you a birthday cake, Mr. Grape Tree.”

RIVKA: Grapes don’t grow on— 

SCHMUYLE: [sings] “Happy birthday Mr. Olive Tree, Happy birthday toooo youuu!”  Day in, and day out, all the time with the tree births!

RIVKA: Schmuyle dear, why do you need to celebrate all the trees’ birthdays at all?

SCHMUYLE: Rivka, shoosh! What if the trees hear you?

RIVKA: Fine, don’t listen to me.  But there must be a better way!


NARRATOR:  The next day, after sending away the clowns he’d hired to entertain the fig grove, Schmuyle thought about what his wife had said. Schmuyle took off his party hat, wiped his brow, and went to speak to the rabbi.

SCHMUYLE:  Rabbi, you must help me!  I am at my wit’s end trying to keep up with all the trees’ birthdays.

RABBI:  Join the club, dear Schmuyle.  All of the other tree farmers of our surprisingly forested corner of the desert have come to me with this same problem.  Why, even Amelia The Unusually Knowledgeable Shiksa is mystified.

SCHMUYLE: Rabbi, my wife is asking me why we need to remember the trees’ birthdays at all.

RABBI: How would you like it if the trees didn’t remember your birthday?

SCHMUYLE: ….I think I’d get over it?

AMELIA: Oh come on, guys.

RABBI: What’s that, Amelia The Unusually Knowledgeable Shiksa?

AMELIA: You need to know how old the trees are because the Talmud says you should give the fruit of a tree to the temple until the tree is three years old.


AMELIA: Doesn’t everyone know that?

RABBI: So why don’t we just have better record-keeping?

SCHMUYLE: What, and have to hire a record-keeper?  How about we just cut back on the birthday celebrations?

RABBI: And risk angering the trees?  As the Good Book says, if you give a mouse a cookie…

AMELIA: You could just celebrate all the trees’ birthdays on the same day.

RABBI: and SCHMUYLE: Oooooh.

NARRATOR: And so, Tu B’Shvat was born.  No longer did the good Jew have to remember the birthdays of all the trees in his personal forest.  Now he had the arboreal equivalent of the fiscal year .

SCHMUYLE: How will we celebrate this great pan-tree birthday, Rabbi?

RABBI: I dunno.  Passover seders are fun?

SCHMUYLE: But the Passover seder is a 7 hour ritual extravaganza thanking the Lord for delivering us from bondage in Egypt!  Is that really appropriate for a tree’s birthday party?

RABBI: You’re right – we’ll do the good-parts version.

NARRATOR: And that is why the traditional Tu B’Shvat seder, such as it is, includes four ritual glasses of wine… and not really anything else.  To the trees!

Read More



On Columbus Day

An excerpt from my travel notebook, written after a tour guide ranted about the natives (Jews) having to buy their own land from settlers (Turks and Arabs) when it’s supposed to be the white people ripping off the brown:

Well now I feel fucking guilty about the American Indians.  I guess I always should.  But I don’t feel directly responsible because I don’t identify with the early European Americans.  When I rewind myself to the 1830s, I’m not voting for Andrew Jackson - I’m in a shtetl in Hungary.  I don’t have to feel responsible for genociding the Indians because I am a minority outsider too.

But in Israel, I am the majority.  If I want to use that logic at home, I have to follow its natural extension here.  Am I responsible for the Indians because I am now an American, or am I responsible for the Palestinians because I was then a Jew?

related post: t’nu lashemesh yad



Gai kakhen afenyam

Apparently I misunderstood how the United Nations works. I rather thought that  Abbas would present his application to the General Assembly, Netanyahu would do some last-ditch fear-mongering, and everyone would vote.

Turns out that’s not how it works.

We’ve got at least a few weeks while… well, I’m not sure what’s happening, but presumably behind closed doors Obama is trying to talk his head-of-state buddies into abstaining, so that Obama can avoid using the veto / looking like a sad little puppet-man in the history books. 

Meanwhile, everyone waits. 

Sort of. 

To some people, even just waiting is bad.  To some people, maintaining the status quo is inherently damaging: every day that Israeli settlers remain on Palestinian land means further entrenchment and normalization of the occupation.  To some people, Israel’s best behavior isn’t good enough.

Israel is not on its best behavior. 

Screw the not-good-enough status quo!  The Israeli government is opening up a big can of chutzpah and charging full speed ahead with the occupation and all that jazz.  The world is watching?  Well, the world can go shit in the ocean. 

[conversation with my 93-year-old Yiddish grandmother:
  “Hey Grandma, teach me some Yiddish!”
  “Gai kakhen afenyam.”
  “What does that mean?”
  “Go shit in the ocean.”
conversation with my 92-year-old Hungarian grandmother:
  “Hey Mama, teach me some Hungarian!”
Nem beszélek magyarul.”
  “What does that mean?”
  “I don’t speak Hungarian.”

Last week, the Israeli government approved the construction of 1,100 new housing units for Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem. In the proposed capital of the would-be state of Palestine, the settlers are still setting up camp.  The EU criticized this decision, Hilary Clinton called it “counter-productive,” everyone pretty much agrees that this is really really stupid. 

So now seems like a good time to talk about Jerusalem.  Stay tuned for my long-delayed write up of the day after Birthright finished, when eight of us took a tour of East Jerusalem.



Liveblogging the United Nations

11 AM

Guess I should figure out how I can watch the UN. Maybe I should buy a tv.

11:15 AM

11:30 AM

Wow, simultaneous translation is really really weird to watch. You don’t hear the original as well. You just see the dude who is the president of Djibouti, and hear the voice of some lady talking English with not much cadence.

11:45 AM

A string of African heads of state are currently coming to the podium and saying, essentially, “Good luck Palestine!” Everyone is also congratulating South Sudan on its new membership to the UN.

11:50 AM

This is kind of dull. I’m going to jump on the trampoline until something happens.

Read More



Palestine 194

I took a break from raging about America’s over-involvement in the Middle East to rage about America’s under-involvement in human rights violations in America.  I come back to the topic at hand newly convinced that America is in absolutely no moral position to tell anyone what to do.  But before I get ahead of myself…

We’ve completed our intro-level Palestine 101, and now we’re on to the more focused seminar of Palestine 194 - thus numbered because tomorrow, Palestine seeks to join the United Nations as its 194th member.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people go off and do their own thing, this is often accomplished through war, sometimes through nonviolent protests, and occasionally through diplomatic maneuvering. 

Currently, the Palestinians are trying for option #3.  According to Dr. Husam Zomlot, a Palestinian diplomat I heard give a talk at MIT last week, this is by virtue of a complete lack of other options.

The United Nations can’t create a state, mind you.  It can’t even recognize a state - only another state can do that.  Sweden can look at Mozambique and say “Yup, you exist,” and Mozambique says “Yup, you exist too,” and now Sweden and Mozambique both exist, as far as Sweden and Mozambique are concerned.  I’m seen, therefore I am.

But in the game of diplomatic peekaboo, your ability to negotiate is kinda hampered if the other guy is pretending he doesn’t have an understanding of object permanence and says that if he doesn’t see you, you ain’t there.  And hey, fair enough, pretty clear why Israel doesn’t want to recognize Palestine.  But that claim gets a little untenable when there are 192 other states agreeing that, yup, they are there.

The Palestinians first declared independence in 1988 (who knew!) and since then have gone around the world, state by state, asking other folks to acknowledge their existence.  They’ve been pretty successful at this.  Palestine, on its 1967-borders, is recognized by South Africa and Russia, Spain and Norway, China and Brazil — basically the entire world, outside western Europe and North America.  At last count, one hundred and twenty-six states recognize Palestine.  Not too shabby.

All the United Nations can add to that is to let a state join its club.  Then Palestine could go hang out in their clubhouse the back-of-beyond of east Manhattan and grouse about the nonexistence of the 2nd Avenue subway (at least that’s what I assume everyone does on the East Side, I don’t know, I don’t go there ‘cos there’s no subway).  Or maybe they all just use their diplomatic immunity to double-park.  I obviously have a very deep understanding of the transportation options of the diplomatic community.

So the Palestinians have two options for trying to upgrade their UN status.  They can go to the General Assembly and seek an upgrade to non-member observer state.  This would put Palestine in the same category as the Vatican, or as Switzerland until it got around to joining for realsies in 2002 (again, who knew!).  Or they can try for full membership, and ask the Security Council to admit Palestine as an equal member of the United Nations.  This requires the vote of nine of the fifteen states on the Security Council, and the absence of a veto from a permanent member. 

The United States is a permanent member of the Security Council.  The United States will veto.

NOT Israel, mind.  Israel isn’t on the Security Council, and Israel itself can’t do shit about a UN vote.  It’s good old freedom-frying America that will make this decision all on its own.  Self-determination?  Who needs it?

The thing is, UN membership is basically symbolic.  At most, maybe it would mean Palestine could try to prosecute Israel in the International Criminal Court, but that’s about it.  The legal ramifications are not of the, like, actually law-related variety.  Dr. Zomlot pointed out that if Palestine were part of the international system, the Israelis would no longer get to establish the terms used in negotiations - the West Bank would not be “disputed territory” but an occupied state, and anything that happened therein would potentially be considered an “international incident.”  It’s mostly just words.

Plus, of course, the statehood bid keeps Palestine in the news and would make jumpstarting border negotiations into a priority issue.  Still, words.

So you might think it’s a dumb thing to try, and that UN membership won’t solve anything.  That’s pretty much President Obama’s argument in his continued attempts to get Palestine to just forget the whole thing.  And you, American reader, are welcome to think it’s a bad idea, too.  But it’s also none of your damned business. 

In Dr. Zomlot’s lecture at MIT last week, he was insistent on letting President Obama off the hook.  In the Q&A, several in attendance (myself included) tried to get Dr. Zomlot to talk about what the heck is going on with Obama, but the diplomat remained diplomatic.  He doesn’t doubt for a second that Obama sincerely wants a two-state solution, and he outlined Obama’s efforts on this front since taking office (mostly of the “hey everyone, let’s hang out in the Rose Garden and try and talk it out like civilized grownups, okay?” variety).  But in the end, Dr. Zomlot would not speak at length about the promised American veto. 

"In the United States," he said, "Israel is a domestic issue."

We’re going to veto Palestine’s bid for self-determination, because it is an election year.  Well done, America.



Palestine 101

So there’s this thing happening that you guys should probably know about.  The Palestinians are trying to enter the United Nations as an independent state.  I’d be saying “swell, good luck!” except there’s something stopping them, and it ain’t the Israelis.  It’s us freedom-loving Americans.

What follows is totally entry-level info, pursuant to my new mission statement.  If you know your shit, you may resume reading Haaretz: this one’s for the n00bs.

Palestine is this weird ambiguous non-state, currently.  In one sense, it was created as a political entity at the same moment as the state of Israel.  In 1948 the United Nations partitioned the land - which had been governed by Great Britain since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI - and split it into a Jewish state and an Arab state.  Look ma, a two-state solution!

That lasted for about ten seconds.  The surrounding countries immediately attacked Israel, Israel did a pretty good job defending itself, and boom: one state.  The land of woulda-been Palestine that wasn’t conquered outright by Israel - a vast stretch of the Jordan River’s west bank, a dreary glob of stony heights in the Golan, and a teeny strip of the south shore of the Mediterranean called Gaza - fell under the control of [Trans]Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, respectively.

Then there was another war in 1967, where once again everyone stupidly ganged up on Israel, and this time Israel conquered the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip.  Victorious Israel then annexed these territories, creating what is frankly a way less gerrymandered-looking state.

And the Palestinians were accepted as Israeli citizens and everyone moved on with their lives, right?  Nope.  Israel annexed the territories and then never managed to figure out what the heck to do with the people inside.  The Palestinians didn’t want to be Israeli.  The Israelis, with their nascent democracy and tenuous demographic majority (you can’t guarantee a Jewish state and have legit democracy when the Jews are outnumbered), really had no interest in the Palestinians becoming Israeli either.  So they held on to the land, and just kinda tried to ignore these people who were trapped inside without proper citizenship in any of the world’s countries, poor bastards.

And that, my friends, is basically where we’re at today.  Oh, a whole lot has happened since 1967.  Lots of rounds of negotiations and peace talks.  A couple intifadas, when the situation exploded into prolonged bouts of terrorist attacks.  The construction of a big-ass wall around the West Bank.  Thousands of Israelis building illegal settlements in the West Bank in order to later claim squatters’ rights.  The creation of the Palestinian Administration, which takes care of most of the governing in the West Bank.  Routine oppression met with sporadic violence, each feeding the other. 

But all that sums up to 40+ years of Palestine as an occupied territory - a spoil of war - and still no one has figured out what to do with it.  Well, no one except for the Palestinians themselves.

Next week, the Palestinians are going to try to become an independent state in the eyes of the United Nations.  And every indication is that the United States will prevent this effort at self-determination with a veto. 

Next post, I’ll give you an equally broad-strokes primer on what exactly that means (if you want a primer from a somewhat more legit source, try this BBC post).  Then we can start talking about the only part of this in which we have any legitimate say: America’s foreign policy.

There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?



A new mission statement

When I began this blog in February, my mission statement was solely to chronicle my experience on Birthright.  If I got brainwashed, then by gum I’d take you all with me.  But in the months since I returned home from the Middle East, I’ve developed a new personal mission statement: to blithely ignore taboo.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is a taboo on talking about Israel in America.  You might not have noticed it, because it is a more thorough taboo than any other I’ve experienced.  It comes in two entangled strands:

1) The Conflict-Avoider

Some people dodge politics altogether, for fear of argument or being forced to defend their beliefs.  They are dull nitwits, and we need not concern ourselves with them, except to hope that they stay home on election day.

The relevant Conflict-Avoider is the guy who is happy to engage in a spirited debate on health care reform or charter schools.  “Hey Bob!” you say.  “What’s the deal with teachers’ unions?”

"Well!" our guy replies, "They’re ruining our schools through having too much power and/or not enough power!"

And even though a third of the people at the party did TFA or whatever, so long as it’s clear that everyone respects hard-working teachers and the value of education, Bob is free to criticize educational policy to his heart’s content, and hooray America still works.

Now try replacing education policy with Israeli policy.  “Hey Bob!  What’s the deal with the West Bank settlements?”

And Bob might be thinking “settlers are the ruin of the peace process” or “settlers need to be protected at all costs,” but Bob is going to keep his damn mouth shut because he can’t remember if Sarah has any Israeli relatives and Mike is pretty sensitive about minorities and Anna’s really involved with a liberal church and where the hell do they fall on this stuff and Andrew studied abroad in Damascus and fuck it let’s just drink our PBR and talk about Ikea.

So Bob says “I don’t really know enough about it to have an opinion one way or the other,” and everyone nods, and the party moves on to safer topics like, you know, abortion.

2) The Uninformed

Which brings us to the other strand of the taboo, the one which is more salient for my sort of people.

Folks have an admirable reluctance to take a position on an issue they know little about.  Well done, keep it up.  But at some point along the line, everyone - or at least, everyone in my age bracket - decided that Israel was too damn complicated to even begin to understand.  It’s an itsy bitsy country with a super short history, but it’s so jam packed with wars and treaties and peoples that it just feels too late to try to catch up.  We throw up our hands, cuz that shit’s crazy complicated and we ain’t gonna touch it.

I don’t travel in circles where ignorance is cool, mind you.  When my friends don’t know about something, they look it up.  But Israel defies looking up.  Because it is a mess, and any individual news story is pretty incomprehensible if terms like “1967 borders” are meaningless to you, which makes it rather hard to just sort of dive in whenever there’s stuff in the news. 

And so smart, otherwise well-informed people say things like “I don’t really know enough about it to have an opinion one way or the other,” when they wouldn’t dream of saying the same thing about, say, gay marriage.  Israel’s sheer complication has given everyone carte blanche to ignore it and hope for the best.

I totally understand.  A year ago, I was the same way. 

So, getting back to the point, this has been my new mission statement: taboo breaking.  When people ask about my travels, I don’t talk about the Dead Sea and the hummus.  I talk politics.  Not aggressively, not trying to convince anyone of anything (major exception: convincing future Birthright participants to extend their trip and visit the West Bank).  Just starting small to create some dialogue.

I know full well that many people who read this blog know no more about Israel than what I’ve told them.  Well, that’s stupid, and you guys should go get some better sources.  But I’m honored, and will try to use my role responsibly.

All this has been by way of introduction.  For the next week, I’m going to be posting a bit more about some stuff that’s going down right now.  Stay tuned.



The willies

Earlier today, a public bus in Israel was attacked. It was Egged bus #392, from Be’er-Sheva to Eilat. News reports are noting that the passengers were mostly IDF soldiers.

I rode that bus, in March. And yep, the passengers were mostly IDF. In fact, I think the passenger list looked like this:

- One American
- One Frenchman
- A whole lot of soldiers
- A whole lot of guns

And, yep, that totally creeped me out. I felt a little bit like a sitting duck. Or no. Like some sort of embedded journalist.  Surrounding myself with soldiers is one of the few activities that I think my mom was right to warn me to avoid.


In a previous post I described hitchhiking IDF soldiers, and expressed flabbergastment (totally a word) at the idea of offering a lift to a dude with a visible firearm. Someone asked me about this. Wouldn’t a soldier be the safest hitchhiker?, they asked. It’s their job to protect people. And a visible firearm is better than the absence of a visible firearm which, in Schrodinger’s logic, is simultaneously a concealed firearm and a dead cat.

Seriously? Some people feel safe around soldiers? If you like the idea of an eighteen-year-old with a machine gun, you must not remember what it feels like to be eighteen.

There’s also the specific context. In the previous three weeks in Israel, I’d met plenty of current and former IDF — members of the Birthright brigade, CouchSurfers, an old classmate — who were all lovely people. But I’d also met that Canadian girl in Tel Aviv who’d had such an unpleasant experience crossing the Israeli border. And I’d talked to Micha Kurz, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, which aims to help IDF soldiers and veterans discuss the reality of being an occupying force, the mundane, day-to-day injustices committed by otherwise very nice people.[1] He told us about learning to drive a tank, and how within weeks he’d progressed from gingerly easing the tank down West Bank streets, to occasionally tapping the windows off of parked cars, to just smashing the shit out of stuff because he was in a big fucking tank and he could.

And, like, I’ve read about the Stanford Prison Experiments. How can anyone feel comfortable around armed authority after that?


But of course, the soldiers didn’t have anything to do with today’s horrible attacks, except inasmuch as they were presumably a target. And this, kids, is why it’s not a great idea to hang around folks that some people think of as the bad guys, even if you think they are awesome like pie.

I hope there were no stupid backpackers on the vehicles attacked today. Either way, the whole thing is giving me goosebumps.


[1] I am reminded of George Orwell’s short essay, Shooting an Elephant. As a young colonial administrator in Burma, Orwell was pressured into doing something shitty [spoilers! shooting an elephant], not by his superiors, but by the Burmese, who expected him to be a jerk.