Michal Barkai-Brody shares how her rage at inequality drove her to create change.
If I’m being honest, the main reason I chose to make aliya, was because in Israel I had a greater chance of getting a job that wouldn’t require me to shave every day. (It was 20 years ago. Designer stubble wasn’t fully respectable, and hipster beards were unheard of.)
So there are periods when I shave daily – mostly when I’m feeling old and don’t want all my white tufts to show – and there are periods where I can go a whole week without shaving. I am a crazy wild man, I know.
Yet while the informality of life in Israel perhaps grants me more freedom than I might have in the UK, it does not free me from being misunderstood in at least four different ways.
First, living in a majority Jewish land means that when anyone sees you are unshaven, their first instinct is to wish you long life. They sympathetically assume that you are in mourning, and so that haggard unshaven look is nothing to do with a hangover (or your advancing age) but only due to a loss in the family. When I dispel their side-angled-head with a “nah, I just couldn’t be bothered shaving”, they look somewhat disappointed.
Second, it is always dangerous to go unshaven between Pesach and Shavuot. It confuses people. They don’t understand why it is that I am strictly observing the counting of the Omer, and yet have no kippah on my head. One year I decided to tell people that I was indeed keeping the Omer, and went weeks without a shave. Got a lovely bush going. But then I forgot to shave it come Shavuot and all hell broke loose.
Of course, here in Israel, a man with dark hair and a scraggy beard may well be a terrorist. Most Muslim men in Israel go for the stubbly look, and racial profiling is nothing if not racially predictable in its predictions. My chances of getting double-checked at the entrance to a shopping mall if I’m unshaven rise exponentially with every morning I don’t put razor to face.
And finally, if we’re talking hirsute cliches, I have learned always to shave before getting on a plane. I’ll never forget the time I was stopped by a plain-clothed policeman at Ben Gurion airport. A scruffy-looking bloke in a short coat, unshaven and sneaky-looking, took one look at my three days’ growth and made a beeline for me. He identified himself to me as a policeman, showed me his badge, and then asked me, in an unshaven sneaky kind of way, “You got any drugs on you?”
It was kind of surreal. As if a) people hawk their razor blades for drugs, and b) lack of shaving makes you stupid. I told him, honestly yet perplexedly, that I didn’t have any drugs on me. And he came back with the classic: “Maybe we should take you off to search you. What do you think? You’re looking nervous. Why are you nervous?” Which of course suddenly made me feel nervous. After a stressful few moments, in the end I ‘fessed up. I told him he was welcome to search me, but all he would find was a few unused razor blades. “Sorry mate,” I said in my best Hebrew, “I’m not a drug-dealer. I just haven’t shaved recently.”
He put his head at a commiserating angle, and said disappointedly, “Ah, I’m so sorry. Death in the family? I wish you long life.”
Identity is both given and chosen: it is given in that one’s choices are not unlimited and it is chosen in that there are multiple groups and ideas to which one subscribes. Identity is gender, profession, religion, ethnicity, and nation among others. What pulls these together is a story or a narrative. Groups need a narrative to justify who and what they are, because they do not want to perceive themselves as either totally eclectic or as totally self-serving. We want the stability provided by the anchor of story.
Yet narratives change; they are ‘puncturable’, and we sense their fragility in the modern history of the Jewish People. Let’s think of the Zionist narrative – on my teenage Israel experience there was no more poignant moment than when we visited the ‘magic mountain’ of Masada, exploring the story of heroism and the symbol of Jewish defiance and dignity, that we had heard so much about from when we were little children. Today, we go to Masada the tourist site and the tour guide relates: ‘But you know, maybe they weren’t heroes. Maybe the story happened in a different way.’ The narrative is punctured the moment we ask: do we really want to view suicide as the embodiment of Jewish potential?
It goes deeper. Think about what Zionism represents – the contemporary realization of millennial Jewish longing for the ancestral homeland. And then recognize that one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world today is in Germany. Germany! Put that in your Zionist pipe and smoke it! Can we just carry on? When there is compelling historical evidence, the narrative is undermined. Yet within the best, most exotic stories, and the Jewish story is certainly that, there is the power to rebuild, to reconstruct, to add and to change.
This Shavuot the festive celebration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, I would like to remind myself that we would do well both to remember and to forget. Berl Katznelson taught us that: ‘Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed under its burden…And were we ruled entirely by forgetfulness, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness and spiritual life?’ Human beings are really good at both remembering and forgetting, although we sometimes get confused as to what should be in which category.
Eric Hobsbawm taught us that the ‘authentic’ Scottish kilt, which we suspect is an ancient tradition, only achieved widespread use as a result of an enterprising English businessman in the eighteenth century. This should give us heart. We can rewrite the lachrymose view of history, that Jewish life is an ongoing tale of woe, into a creative narrative that gives purpose for the future. The key property will be truth-likeness, rather than truth as the historical record, and its promise is that a people can rebuild and invite us into an ongoing conversation of the many and varied stories that we will create.
Our tradition teaches us that we were all present at Mount Sinai for the receiving of the Torah, those of us then and all those yet to be born, which means us. A few years ago, in a heated debate in the Israeli Knesset the interlocutors pressed their respective claims with reference to the Torah. One secular member retorted to a dismissive claim of her right to quote Torah by declaring: “I too was present at Mount Sinai.” And she continued, “even if it never happened”. Chag Shavuot Sameach.
Jonny Ariel directs Makom – the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency
Professor Alan Johnson is Editor of Fathom and Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. He is an editorial board member of Dissent Magazine and Senior Research Associate of the Foreign Policy Centre.
First, Sean Matgamna
It was Sean Matgamna – or ‘Rebbe Matgamna’ as some in the Union of Jewish Students affectionately called this brilliant Irish intellectual and former Docker at the time – who woke me from my dogmatic One-State slumber in the mid-1980s. Sean was the leading theoretician of Socialist Organiser, the far-left entryist group I had been a member of since 1980. Out of a clear blue sky he walked in one day with a paper arguing that we should drop the demand for a ‘democratic secular state’ and embrace ‘two states for two peoples.’ After a long internal debate – the sophistication and seriousness of which I was never to find in academia – his arguments prevailed.
‘It seems to me,’ Matgamna wrote, ‘that the terms of the only just solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are clear and unmistakeable. Unless you think the interests of one side should be entirely sacrificed to the other – that is, unless you are either an Arab or an Israeli chauvinist – there is only one acceptable solution. Each nation should have self-determination in the territory where it is the majority. I understand that to mean, essentially, the 1967 border. There should be full equality for members of each nationality in the other’s state. The secular democratic state necessarily involves replacing the Jewish state of Israel with another arrangement in which Jews will not have a state. The goal is not only to secure Palestinian rights by putting an end to Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, but to deprive Israeli Jews of their national rights.’
Well, indeed. Obvious enough, you might think, but those ideas were a heresy on the far left at the time. And so we were heresy hunted.
‘Zionists!’ screamed Chris Harman, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. The Workers Revolutionary Party even wrote that ‘a powerful Zionist connection runs from the so-called left of the Labour Party right into the centre of Thatcher’s government in Downing Street’. Armed with those ideas, and those enemies, we fought alongside UJS to prevent the far left drive to ban student Jewish Societies as ‘Zionist’ so ‘racist’.
We worked closely with UJS inside the NUS and I was impressed by the Jews I met. I recall Adrian Cohen, after he was called an antisemitic name at an NUS conference, squaring up and threatening to bury his ‘Jewish fist’ in the guy’s face. How could a Suedehead from North Shields not be impressed with that? It was our youth leader Jane Ashworth – who later set up the Engage website with another Matgamna boy, David Hirsh – who came up with the phrase ‘cultural Zionists’, to describe ourselves at the time.
Second, Leon Trotsky
I still revere the Old Man and bristle when people attack him in words that should really be reserved for his followers. His final words were read out at my wedding to Debbie, a Matgamna girl, by our children:
‘Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.’
And it was from Trotsky that I learned that the assimilationist approach of classical Marxism to the problem of antisemitism was wrong. A target of both Tsarist and Stalinist antisemitism himself, Trotsky understood antisemitism was no feudal hangover. He grasped the modernity of antisemitism. I read his searing account of the antisemitic pogroms of the 1905 Russian Revolution and his desperate and prescient warnings about Fascism. ‘The next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’ (emphasis in the original) he wrote, before his murder by the Stalinists in 1940.
As Enzo Traverso, an intellectual historian of Marxism and antisemitism, has put it, ‘The rise of Nazism in Germany led the Russian revolutionary to a global revision of his approach to the Jewish Question’ i.e. to the question of antisemitism. Though Trotsky never thought of himself as a Zionist – having faith in a World Socialist Revolution which we cannot, in good faith, still claim – he became convinced of the necessity of a national solution to the problem of radicalising antisemitism.
The Jews, Trotsky came to believe, have every right to live in a ‘compact mass’ as a nation. And nations, he wrote as far back as 1915, ‘constitute an active and permanent factor of human culture. The nation will not only survive the current war, but also capitalism itself.’ ‘The Jewish nation’ he said in 1937, ‘will maintain itself for an entire epoch to come.’
Third, Isaac Deutscher
From Trotsky’s biographer, the Polish socialist Isaac Deutscher, I learned that the Jewish state is not only a right but a necessity, and that to oppose its existence on the basis of abstract left-wing dogma is, literally, a matter of Jewish life and death:
I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.
For the remnants of European Jewry – is it only for them? – the Jewish State has become an historic necessity. It is also a living reality. Whatever their cleavages, grievances, and frustrations, the Jews of Israel are animated by a fresh and strong sense of nationhood and by a dogged determination to consolidate and strengthen their State by every means at their disposal. They also have the feeling – how well justified – that the ‘civilised world’, which in one way or another has the fate of European Jewry on its conscience, has no moral ground to stand on when it tries to sermonise or threaten Israel for any real or imaginary breaches of international commitments.
Fourth, the experience of teaching the Holocaust
A sustained engagement with antisemitism as a university teacher – deep reading in the texts, images, films, memoirs, and histories; sustained discussion with your students; the effort to write about antisemitism, in my case about the work of Primo Levi – produced this insight: our natures are mixed, capable of great good and great evil. In the words of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, we are centaurs, a ‘tangle of flesh and mind, of divine inspiration and dust’.
Then add this in: humanity, for reasons that do not concern us here, for no good reason, again and again, has selected the Jew as the scapegoat. More precisely, and with a smidgeon more hope, let us say that humanity has done so for millennia and is still doing so today, though we can allow ourselves the hope – as we may hope for the return of the Messiah – that humanity will not do so in the future.
But what we can’t not know is that from time to time, in the words of Levi’s favourite writer Dante, western civilisation takes leave of its senses and ‘descends into hell with trumpets and drums’. And when it does, the Jews – not only, but above all, the Jews – need a state with ramparts and an IDF standing on those ramparts. At one level, my Zionism comes down to that brute fact.
Fifth, boys and girls in Jerusalem
Walking in Jerusalem one day I came upon Jewish children playing in a narrow street, the early evening sun warming the stone flags and lending their ringlets a glow. They were playing a game I could not understand, white shirts flapping, Kippahs in danger of falling off, one shriek chasing another. I had two thoughts. My first, as ever, was about Primo Levi. I was reminded that in play we adults can find again ‘the savour of childhood, delicate and forgotten,’ and that to enjoy play is rather ‘like receiving, free of charge or almost, a rare and beautiful object.’ A second thought then shadowed my first, a typical experience for anyone who has spent a lot of time reading about the Holocaust, let alone those who have a familial connection to the Shoah: other images and other shrieks from another time arrived unbidden.
In some indefinable way, my own Zionism was expressed at that moment, by that juxtaposition.
Dorit Rabinyan was born in Israel to an Iranian-Jewish family. She is the recipient of the Itzhak Vinner Prize, the ACUM Award, The Prime Minister’s Prize and the Jewish Wingate Quarterly Award (London). Her first two novels PERSIAN BRIDES and A STRAND OF A THOUSAND PEARLS were both best sellers and translated into fifteen languages. In 2014 Rabinyan published her third novel, BORDERLIFE, an immediate best seller in Israel. In January 2016 BORDERLIFE became the center of a political scandal in Israel when the book was removed from high schools’ curriculum.
Borderlife, by Dorit Rabinyan
Winner of the 2015 Bernstein Prize
A chance New York encounter brings two strangers together: Liat, an Israeli from Tel Aviv, and Hilmi, a Palestinian born in Hebron. For one frozen winter away from home, on snowy streets, filled with longing for a Middle East sun, Liat and Hilmi demarcate the place reserved only for them, an intimate short-term place, a universe for two. At the fissures and margins of things, in corners and in gaps, the reality lurking in Israel peers at them and snarls. The story, with its passions and twists, follows them even when they each go their own way – Liat returning to Tel Aviv and Hilmi to the village of Jifna, north of Ramallah – refusing to end.
Chayuta Deutsch was born and bred in Tel Aviv. She has taught at Ulpana Kfar Pines, at Bayit VeGan College, Maaleh Film School, Hebrew University, at Bar Ilan University, and at Bet Morasha Academy for Jewish Zionist Leadership. She began her writing career with the children’s magazine “Otiot” in 1983. Between 1997-99 she edited “Otiot” and “Sukariot”. She was the literary editor of “HaTzofeh”, and the deputy editor of “Nekuda”. She has written op-eds for “HaTzofeh”, Ynet, Maariv online, and currently writes her own column “L’pnai ulifnim” in the Shabbat supplement of “Makor Rishon”. “Were I to hear another voice” is her first novel, after having published a collection of short stories “This is what redemption looks like”, and a biography of Nechama Leibovitz. She was among those who established Kolech, Israel’s first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization, and was on the Board of Directors for several years. She is currently the head of publishing for Bet Morasha, and the editor of “Akademot”.
Were I to hear a different voice, by Chayuta Deutsch
After having tried again and again to realize her dream of having a family, Uzia decides to leave her home town of Tel Aviv, and build herself a new life in a small village in the North of Israel. She leaves everything behind: Her memories of her life in Tel Aviv as an only daughter of National-Orthodox parents; the man she had loved all her life; her close childhood friends; and her work as a respected journalist.
A friendly little café in the village becomes her refuge and source of income. She opens up a writing workshop at the cafe for local characters both charming and mysterious, but the demons of her past do not leave her. As the writing workshops become an arena for secrets and confessions, it turns out that Uzia’s refuge is no safe space at all, and that those around her are not who they seem to be.
And all this while, threatening graffiti that appear throughout the country lead a team of secret police to set off in search of the members of a messianic sect who threaten to sow violence and destruction. At the head of the sect stands a charismatic man called “Levi”, who sweeps up youth into acts of rebellion not just against the State of Israel, but also against the world of Jewish religious law. When his dangerous teachings lead the State to the brink of civil war, his pursuers realize they must hurry and uncover the identity of this “Levi” before it is too late.
Joe is an alienated confused and charismatic young woman doing occasional drug errands. One night she comes across a suicidal woman called Belle who has broken into her bathroom in order to slit her wrists. Somehow this later leads to a gun going off a few times in the direction of Joe’s ex-lover, and Joe and Belle need to disappear. But where? When your entire country is the size of New Jersey it’s not easy to disappear, unless there’s a convenient war zone in your neighborhood…
David Deri is a successful film director – a gay man living in Tel Aviv, the pink center of Israel. “Say Amen” follows his journey of coming out to his family in Yerucham. His sisters already know, his brothers suspect, and his traditionally religious parents – devout immigrants from Morocco – continue to pray for him to find a wife. As we follow Deri’s journey, we learn about the distance between Tel Aviv and Yerucham, and the mixed blessing of a close-knit loving family.
“Gay Days (Hazman Havarod) chronicles the evolution of the GLBT rights movement in Israel, from 1985 until the current day. It’s a personal story told through the eyes of the director Yair Qedar, the editor of the GLBT paper, The Pink Times. The film begins in 1985 when there are only a handful of openly gay people within Israeli society. But by 1998 this number has increased to over 3000. Using archive materials from television, film and home videos alongside photographs and extracts from Yair’s own diary, the film tells intimate, moving and humorous stories of the fight for equality through the movement’s key players, shedding light on their personal struggles as well those of the movement in general.” – Lucy Kaye & Marc Isaacs
The online version of this article is abbreviated. To see the full text, hover the cursor over the lines in bold, and a text box will appear.
We need to talk about Israel.
Too often it seems that our conversations about Israel are either too cerebral to be meaningful, or too passionate to be intelligent. We need to be able to bring both our heads and our hearts to bear. This is no easy task, as we face at least three challenges.
Tent or Tank?How can we easily delineate the parameters of the tent, making it a Middle Eastern kind of tent – that has defined edges, but that is open to all sides?
How can we speak in universal terms without losing our own particular authenticity?
At Makom, the Israel Education Lab, we believe we have something to offer. An approach and a program that addresses all three of these challenges.
Let’s start from the universal. We would suggest that there are four questions underlying all conflict in the world…
1. One driving question underlying most news headlines is “How do we keep safe?”
2. The second question is: “Who are We and how should We behave?”
3. The third question is simple, but growing increasingly complex: “How can we be free?”
Often the most burning issues draw on all four questions together. As refugees desperately seek safety in Europe, and Europeans ask themselves what is their distinctly European response as well as their national response, while the principle of freedom of movement is suddenly in question, and borders represent a moral challenge – we can see that addressing these four questions is a way of speaking to the world, not just to Jews.
From Universal to Jewish
What is the Jewish way of wording these crucial universally-shared questions?
We at Makom add a question-mark to the four Hebrew words that make up the penultimate line of the Hatikvah Israeli National Anthem:
“To be” asks questions of Safety and Security. “People” asks about who We are and how We should behave. “Free” asks about Rights and Responsibilities, and “In Our Land” asks questions of home, homeland, and borders.
Before breaking down how these four questions play out in an Israeli context, let’s consider the four words as a sentence. “To Be a People, Free In Our Land” is something of a consensus aspiration.
In this language of liberal national aspiration, Israel is the embodiment of being the People of Israel, Free in the Land of Israel. There is also significant international support for the Palestinians to be a Palestinian People Free in the Land of Palestine.
Anyone who does not agree that we have the right to be the People of Israel free in the Land of Israel, is “outside the tent”.
Rather than excluding some, this construction allows us to understand and include many more people “inside the tent”, and to dialogue far more constructively with those outside.
Here the Four Hatikvah Questions (4HQ) come into their own. For while we can expect those “inside the tent” to agree with the sentence, we don’t have to reach consensus on the answers to the questions!
To be? All of us inside the tent agree that Israel should exist. But we do not all agree on the way we should define an existential threat. It is entirely legitimate to argue about the best means to defeat or neutralize a threat, and we are bound to continue to question whether or when we are free to disregard a threat and to just be..
The Jewish People? It would be impossible to be “inside the tent” of pro-Israel discourse without acknowledging the centrality of the Jewish People to the enterprise. But it is completely fair to question the way in which Jewish tradition and religion plays a role in modern Israel. Questions of social solidarity within Israel, and between Jews throughout the world will always be ongoing policy questions. And the way in which the Jewish People should relate to people who are not Jewish will rightly resonate throughout our moral considerations. The fact that we might argue on this question does not make us anti-Zionists…
Free? To imagine a State of Israel that is not democratic is anathema to real lovers of Israel. But questions of pluralism, electoral systems, of how ongoing control over areas East of the Green Line affects our democracy, questions of human rights, creativity, innovation – these are the kind of questions that keep us alive!
In Our Land? The days of considering the Uganda Plan are long gone – Israel must be located in Biblical Israel. But which part? How large a part? With access to other parts? What makes a homeland? These are all legitimate, live, and crucial questions.
The Zionist enterprise can be defined as the ongoing drive to implement ever-better answers to these four questions of Hope.
When it comes down to it, the Israel conversation is made up of four questions.
The Four Hatikvah Questions.
4HQ. The Four Questions of Hope.
4HQ is a simple way to contain the complexity that is Israel. It is universal yet particular, and it offers a constructive approach to the “Big Tent”.
How can we put 4HQ to use?
A Thinking Tool
First of all, 4HQ is a way to listen to Israel conversations, and a way to think clearly about Israel issues. What is she saying? What is he shouting about? Listen for which of the underlying questions they are asking, and address them. The conversation will be far richer, far more constructive. When the latest headline screams across the Washington Post or New York Times, see where it addresses which of the Four Hatikvah Questions. Is it about existential threat? Is it about being Jewish? Is it about democracy? The Land?
A Mapping and Planning Tool
When looking at a calendar of events, ask yourself whether you are covering all four of the questions? If you notice a weight on questions of security and land, with little addressing freedom, perhaps your programming has a right-leaning bias. If freedom dominates your agenda, with no acknowledgement of threats, then the chances are you are leaning left-wards! Programming that wishes to both represent the fullness of Israel, and the breadth of your community’s connections to Israel, should attempt to address all four questions.
An Aid to Celebration
When we celebrate Chanukah, or Pesach, there are one or two texts, a few traditions, that we can easily refer to every year. But Yom Ha’atzmaut? What exactly is it that we are celebrating? For the first time in two thousand years, ever since May 14th, 1948, we have been able to answer all four primary questions of hope with a resounding “Yes!” Do we exist? Are we a living breathing People? Do we rule ourselves democratically in the Land of Israel? Yom Ha’atzmaut is the day to celebrate the fundamentals.
A Response Tool
When the latest hot topic comes burning across the media, and the community looks to you to convene a conversation in response, we tend to look to 4HQ. For example, when Prime Minister Netanyahu came to speak to the U.S. Congress, some communities wished to watch a live screening of the speech, and then sit around tables to talk about what they saw and heard. We at Makom provided them with discussion table mats, presenting key questions in the framework of 4HQ.
Makom training in 4HQ
Tools are one thing, but learning how to use them is another thing entirely!
- Makom can come to you and run short or in-depth customized training for your staff, lay leaders, and/or para-professionals.
- We can offer 4HQ training as a component of your trip to Israel, and/or build for you a a 4HQ-filtered tour of Israel.
- You can turn to us for source materials, discussion guides, etc, according to your needs.
For more details please contact Robbie Gringras,
Makom’s Creative Director, on robbieg [at] jafi [dot] org
In collaboration with the Rabin Center, top Israeli band HaDag Nachash have just released a brand new song for Rabin Memorial Day.
Entitled “What would have been if?” the song remembers and laments.
Here is our translation, officially endorsed by the band:
The past we know, some of us even remember
How a few moments after the end of the speeches
We were all as one fixed to the receivers
Until the message reached our ears – and left us without words or utterance
And with a slightly bashful glance we were sucked back into the cycle
Of wounded and licking and wounded and flogging – like a wave
But you should know, that there are moments
When I see high above the Cypress trees
And above the heads of my exhausted People
A bubble floats and inside three words:
“What would have been if?”
The present is known with no need to expand
How it drains and shakes how it pressures with no quiet
And how every winter we race after the left-overs of the left-overs
Because maybe in the summer we’ll be running to the bomb-shelters
But know that there are moments
In which I see high above the Cypress trees
And above the heads of my exhausted People
A floating tear and inside three words:
“What would have been if?”
And our untrustworthy future what does it have in store
What more can it bury
Your Six Days blossomed a hundredfold
And nowadays not only we declare victory
And to think that you had the courage to change
And to think you knew how to plant hopes
And to think that you raised up to fly and went far enough to see
And to think that you managed to understand:
“What would be if…?”