Sunday, August 14, 2011

Land of Hope and Glory vs. Land of Milk and Honey

The riots in the UK came at a very poignant time of the year for me as they started almost 32 years to the day of my arrival in Israel. Although I was more or less sure at the time that I was going to end up living in the country, I had no intention in the summer of 1979 of staying. Circumstances, however, (which I am not going to go into now) created the opportunity for me to start thinking about changing my plans and, at the tender age of 18, I decided to make my life here. This decision entailed my joining the army the next year, something to which I had never given any thought up till then.

I’ve never thought that the reason for my decision was due to my dissatisfaction with England. On the contrary, after over three decades in Israel, I do still feel very English although my Englishness is probably stuck in a time warp in the 1982, the last time I spent any significant amount of time there. I just simply wanted to come and live in Israel for reasons that I will list in another blog posting.

Over the years, I have to admit, I have rather idealised Blighty. Even though I have never regretted my decision to live in Israel, England for me always seemed to be a tranquil haven; a place where people queue up patiently, where one gets proper service in shops and government offices, where guns are not seen on streets and where military service is optional. Watching the news of the riots reminded me somewhat that things were far from ideal when I left the country.

My adolescent years were spent in the England of the 1970’s. This was a period punctuated by industrial strife (I remember the Three-day Week and the power blackouts caused by strikes) and the “Troubles” in Ireland which spread to mainland Britain in the form of bombings in the inner-cities. It was a time when racism was rife. There were few inter-racial couples and black players were non-existent in top-level football for most of the 70’s and the first few were only given the chance to prove themselves at the end of the decade as coaches genuinely believed that footballers of colour would not be able to make it in the professional game.

It was this atmosphere that spawned the Punk and New Wave music that we all listened to. For me the artist that provided much of the soundtrack to this era was Tom Robinson. The Tom Robinson Band came out with songs whose lyrics protested against the lack of equality in society and predicted/called for social upheaval and unrest. Tom Robinson himself was one of the few people in the public eye to openly declare his homosexuality. At that time, kiddies, there were no gay politicians, actors, sportsmen or singers. And at a time when gay people were being portrayed on TV as camp and effeminate, for instance, Mr. Humphries on the sit-com, “Are You Being Served?”, Tom Robinson came over as a normal bloke who just happened to be homosexual. 

TRB’s song “Winter of ‘79” seemed to me then to be an accurate prediction of the way Britain was headed.

All you kids that just sit and whine
You should have been there back in '79
You say we're giving you a real hard time
You boys are really breaking my heart
Spurs beat Arsenal, what a game
The blood was running in the drains
Intercity took the trains
And really took the place apart
That was the year Nan Harris died
And Charlie Jones committed suicide
The world we knew busted open wide
In the winter of '79

I'd been working on and off
A pint of beer was still ten bob
My brand new Bonneville got ripped off
I more or less give up trying
They stopped the Social in the spring
And quite a few communists got run in
And National Service come back in
In the winter of '79
When Marco's caff went up in flames
The Vambo boys took the blame
The SAS come and took our names
In the winter of '79

It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top people still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club got petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong
They done in Dave and Dagenham Ron
In the winter of '79
When all the gay geezers got put inside
And coloured kids was getting crucified
A few fought back and a few folks died
In the winter of '79

Yes a few of us fought
And a few of us died
In the winter of '79

Reading the lyrics of this song without hearing the music doesn’t do it justice and I suggest that if you have never heard the song you go to YouTube and listen to it.

Ironically enough, the winter of 1979 would find me in yeshiva in Kiryat Arba which is near Hebron, one of the biggest lunatic asylums in the Middle East. These were three formative months of my life that would shape the way I looked at the conflict in the Mid-East and caused me, for the first time, to question my adherence to Religious Zionism as it was being preached to us then. One of my friends had a TRB album on cassette and I think that listening to it helped me maintain my sanity in that hotbed of religious and nationalist fanaticism.

Perhaps as time passed, my memories of the ‘70’s became blurred. Britain did not descend into lawlessness. It weathered the Thatcher years which brought some type of economic stability at a price and progressed on to the “Cool Britannia” period of the ‘90’s and noughties presided over by Tony Blair and the Spice Girls. And from afar, I viewed the country with even more envy as my occasional visits and television programmes gave the impression that a calm, multi-cultural society was thriving over there.

Back in 2002, the wife and I took the kids for a holiday to England. This was our last family holiday there. The Second Intifada was in full swing. Terrorist attacks were a common occurrence and, like many Israelis, we were hesitant about going places as a family in the country. This trip was a welcome break from the troubles we were facing at home. As we sat on a bus in London, I remember discussing with my wife, the possibility of moving to England. I could find a job in Jewish education with little difficulty, we would be near my parents and the kids would be able to grow up in safety. I had been sucked in by the calm of a society that wasn’t facing the existential threats that we were facing every day in Israel at that time. It was a flight of fancy and didn’t last long. We both came to the conclusion that it wasn’t practical and wasn’t the right thing to do.

But the thought stuck in my head. As a parent, wasn’t I duty-bound to do everything I could to ensure the safety and well-being of my children? Was staying in Israel really the best idea? It would take three years and the terrorist bombings of the London transport system to prove that nowhere would ever be safe.

And now the riots there have shown that society is not as stable as it was previously assumed. It has taken thirty odd years for Tom Robinson’s visions of social upheaval to actually happen. Perhaps, it’s a touch ironic that the causes that he stood for then were not the impetus for the riots. What seems to have been the spark for them was greed. That’s all.

You could argue that Israelis aren’t much better. At the time of writing, tens of thousands of them are out on the streets demanding more. Yet their way is to pitch up tents in the centres of major cities in protest against the rise in the cost of living. Young people have found that they simply cannot afford the amenities of modern living with the rise in the cost of housing, higher education and basic food products. No one, as far as I know has complained that they cannot afford a plasma TV or a pair of designer sports shoes. Social justice has become the slogan of this protest which has crossed religious and ethnic lines. 

I have a feeling that Tom Robinson  would approve of this.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Turning a corner

As a teacher, I am often asked, especially at this time of year, how I keep myself occupied during the long summer holiday that I get. I generally detect a note of jealousy in the voice of the poser of the question who is one of those for whom July and August are work months. (I am not going to launch into a rant complaining about all the extra unpaid hours I put in during the school year which justify the long break. I’ll leave that to another blog.)  My answer lately is that I find enough stuff to keep busy although I must state that my major achievement this vacation so far, apart from giving a presentation on War Poetry at an English Teachers’ conference, ploughing my way through Tony Judt’s massive tome, “Postwar” and scuba diving in Eilat, has been getting Leyton Orient promoted to the Premiership in the Manager mode of FIFA 2010 (don’t ask – it would take too long to explain.)

Up to a few years ago, however, the answer to this question was far simpler. I would just reply, “Looking after my kids.” Ten days after high schools break up for the summer hols, primary schools and kindergartens cease functioning. I would have a week and a half break before the Fruit of my Loins would become my main concern. Day camp didn’t really solve the problem. It was only for two weeks and entailed my getting up early to get the kids ready and ferrying them there. Then I would get a few hours at home in which I could get things done till I had to make the return trip. If I was lucky then several parents in the area would get together and car pool so I would not have to go every day. 

When camp was over, I would have to find ways of amusing them that, preferably, didn’t cost too much money. The local swimming pool has always been our favourite haunt. Looking back on those years, I can’t remember complaining. I think that I actually enjoyed being with the kids.  It was tough on the wife on the occasions when I was called to do military reserve duty during the summer, but in general I was around for them.

Although for a number of years now my kids have not needed constant supervision, it has only been this summer when I have become aware of the quiet and the emptiness that has engulfed our flat. With daughter no. 1 in the army for most of the week and son no. 1 finishing off his year’s voluntary service before he gets drafted in November, only the twins are at home. However, due to their Scouting commitments they have been away for around three weeks this vacation. And when they have been at home, their friends have demanded more of their attention than I have (thankfully). I get to play the music I want and I don’t have to fight anyone off the computer (hence Leyton Orient’s surprise promotion to English football’s top tier.)
I suppose I have turned a major corner of parenthood; when your children cease to be accessories and become actual people in their own right. One thing that I have managed to do this summer is to get all of the videos that we made of the kids growing up converted to DVDs. For the first time in years, I got around to watching some of them.

It would be trite to say that I was amazed at how much the kids had changed (it would be more amazing if no change had taken place over the past 13-14 years,); what struck me most was how much I had had changed (and I was as bald then as I am now.) On the few occasions that I actually appeared on a video as I was, more often than not, the cameraman, the unmistakable smug expression of a new parent was apparent on my face. 

Okay, it’s unavoidable and, I suppose, well-deserved, but it still annoys the hell out of me when I see it on the faces of 20-something year olds today pushing their new-born around today in a buggy that cost the same as a second-hand car almost willing you to come and look at their progeny and compliment them on their good work. I mean, what does having a baby really prove, apart from the fact that your gonads work?

The smug smile should come after surviving the first 15-17 years of parenthood, yet the expression on the face of parents of stroppy adolescents is far from complacent.

At first, I must admit, I felt almost naked having to go places on my own after all the years that I had got used to having kids in tow wherever I went. They drew the fire away from me. If I met anyone, the questions would inevitably be about the sprogs. I never had to say anything concerning myself. But perhaps I ought to look at the positive side of it all. Now I have my life back and I should make a start on all the things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ll take up the saxophone, learn German, make a start on a doctorate, go on a scuba diving course – but in the meantime, I shall concentrate my efforts on another fruitless attempt at signing Wayne Rooney for Leyton Orient.    

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Losing my Religion; part one. An occasional series documenting my disaffection with organised religion.

It was a friend of mine whom I met at the gym the other day who brought to my attention the murder of Rabbi Abuhatzeira in Beer Sheva the night before. Apparently, someone came in while he was hosting guests for consultation at a yeshiva near his home and stabbed the 70-year old cleric to death. “How could this have happened?” my friend asked, “who would want to kill a rabbi?”

Surprisingly, I wasn’t surprised. I replied that it must have been someone who had been given some bad advice by the rabbi. Many of those that seek help from religious leaders are not altogether mentally stable and who knows what could happen if one of them should be given advice or an assurance by a rabbi that turned out not to solve a problem.

When I got home, I went to the Ha’aretz website ( and read up on the case. It seemed that I had guessed correctly. The alleged killer had said on being apprehended that Rabbi Abuhazeira “had failed to solve his marital problems.”

Ok, let me get one thing straight before I launch into my tirade; I am in no way justifying the murder of rabbis. However, in a way, I am quite surprised that this had not happened before.
In certain circles, rabbis have become ultimate authorities on every subject under the sun, regardless of whether or not they are qualified to pass judgment on them. They are ready to hand out advice on medical, financial, marital and even military matters in spite of the fact that they might lack the necessary background to do so.

Just after the first Gulf War, for instance, in 1991, I found myself invited to a Brit of ultra-orthodox friends of ours. The seating was separate and I knew no one there apart from the wife who wasn’t allowed to sit next to me (the harlot.) I had nothing to do but to eavesdrop on a conversation held amongst several yeshiva bochers sitting nearby. They were praising their rebbe for his foresight as he had told them not to shave off their beards contrary to the instructions of the Israeli military authorities. Before the war began, there was a serious chance that Iraq would launch missiles with non-conventional warheads at Israel. Gas masks had been handed out; however, these would be ineffective if the wearer had a beard which would prevent the mask from being hermetically sealed. For children who would have problems in keeping the masks on hooded masks were provided. When haredim announced that they would not shave off their beards in spite of the warnings of the military authorities, they too were given these hoods. This led to a shortage as the IDF had not taken into account that grown men would need these too. Some children had to go without.

As we all know now, the gas masks, luckily, were not needed. This happy coincidence seemed to give those yeshiva students’ rebbe guru status. He knew better than the generals and had prevented the Desecration of G-d’s name which would have been caused had these young men had to walk around bare-faced for a month. It must be pointed out that the judgment of this and other ultra-orthodox rabbis in this case was questionable. Halachically speaking, there is nothing wrong with shaving off a beard (it’s how it is shaved off that is the problem,) especially as people’s lives were at stake here. 

Haredi rabbis have a problem when it comes to their followers listening to secular authority which could detrimentally affect their own influence.  In this instance, the rabbis who instructed against the shaving off of beards were simply very fortunate that their uninformed advice did not cause a major tragedy.

Tragedies, however, have been known to be the result of bad rabbinical advice. When my wife gave birth to our second child, 19 years ago, she was placed in an obstetrics ward. The birth had gone off without any hitches, but there was simply no room in the maternity ward. She was in a room with women who were under supervision due to problems with their pregnancies. One ultra-orthodox woman was there pending her eighth or ninth child. She told my wife that after she had given birth to her last one, she was instructed by her doctor not to get pregnant again as this could endanger her life. She was even asked to sign a document attesting to this to prevent a malpractice suit. This instruction, which in itself carries much halachic weight, was not enough for her and she went to consult her rabbi who told her to ignore the doctor’s advice. Although I don’t know the outcome of this story, several years later, I recounted it to a colleague at work who told me that he personally knew of an identical story in which the woman, who had followed her rabbi’s advice contrary to what her doctor had ordered, died.

Yet, it is not always the rabbis’ fault. Many people turn to rabbis for advice under the naïve assumption that rabbis are, like the Pope, infallible. All professionals, in any field, who are called on to give guidance to the general public, have to choose their words very carefully in order that their advice should not be misconstrued as a fail-safe guarantee that everything will turn out fine in the end. As a teacher, I never tell a parent that if their son studies harder, he will definitely succeed in his matriculation exam. I know that there are too many variables affecting the eventual outcome. All I say is that if he doesn’t study, he will most likely fail.

Rabbis, however, especially those who dabble in Kabbalah such as the late Rabbi Abuhatzeira, are regarded as the supposed custodians of the Divine Truth and will be seen by their parishioners as incapable of being wrong. This means that when their advice doesn’t work, it can lead to a serious crisis of faith amongst those who consulted them. The rabbi may understand that his guidance will not guarantee absolute success and may even try to make that point clear. But the chances are that the consulter will not see this in the same light. He has gone to the rabbi in the belief that the holy man can work miracles; otherwise he would merely have turned to a marriage guidance counselor, a doctor, a lawyer or a financial advisor to help him with his troubles. These are all people who know their onions but are, of course, fallible.

The situation, at present, is not helped by the charlatans posing as rabbis and Kabbalists who claim to have miracle solutions and cures. They play to the poor and gullible, the weaker strata of society who are looking for their quick fix. How much damage these imposters have done is impossible to know. Now and again, stories of people who have been taken for a ride by them reach the press, but I assume that many, many more are kept hidden by the victims who still believe that the “rabbi” has some mystical power and bad things will befall them should they say anything.

The whole situation, in fact, can be summed up in a joke I once heard (well I assume it was a joke) about a rabbi who can help your wife give birth to a son. You go to him, pay him $100 and he blesses her. It’s okay though because if the blessing doesn’t work, you get your money back.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Message bored -- How to cure yourself of an obsession in one easy step...

For those of you who know me, it will come as no surprise to read that the first words that I ever typed into a search engine were “Tottenham Hotspur.” (For those of you who said that you wouldn’t read any football blogs, please bear with me.) This was over 15 years ago and I was on a course learning how to use this new-fangled Internet thingy. I suppose everybody has their own main reasons for using the Internet. For some it’s to keep up with the news; for others, it’s to keep in touch with friends and family in far-flung places of the globe; for many it’s the easy access to diverse types of pornography (so I am told) and for me and many others like me, it’s to keep up with the goings-on in the world of football.

A few years later, after finally getting hooked up at home to the web (I seriously lagged behind most other people I knew in this respect), I immediately began to look for ways to keep in touch with the team that I had supported, man and boy, for around 3 decades. And, lo and behold, I was able to come across a plethora of fan sites. I was truly spoilt for choice. At first I signed up for an e-mail mailing list. Every day, I would find waiting in my in-box e-mails from Spurs fans. I joined in the conversations as well as I could, being 3,000 miles away from the nerve-centre. It was an exciting but cumbersome beginning.
Eventually, I upgraded and joined a messageboard. For eight years or so, I was an active member. It provided me with a virtual community that often confounded the wife who could not understand how I could spend so much time chatting with people whom I had never seen or had little chance of seeing, for that matter. And for most of that time, I was amazed at the ease with which the members of the MB connected with each other. People seemed always willing to lend a hand. Once I wrote that I was going to England for my father’s memorial service and I thought that I might have to arrive at Luton airport. I asked about the best way of getting to Stanmore and someone even offered to pick me up. (In the end I flew to Heathrow.) . It was, in addition, a font of knowledge for me. I learnt, for instance, what a “Prince Albert” is. (If you don’t know to what I am referring, you can google it for yourself, but I warn you; it is not for the faint of heart.)

The high point came when Spurs were drawn to play Hapoel Tel-Aviv in Israel in the UEFA Cup in November 2007. My dream had come true. I was going to see my team and my boys whom I had brainwashed into suffering along with me as Spurs fans would be coming with me. The other posters realised what this meant to me and wrote to me congratulating me on my luck. Even though the club was arranging tickets, a couple wrote to me asking if I would buy them tickets here where they would be cheaper. I had no hesitation in agreeing. I laid out the money and they wired me the payment. These were guys I had never met. Call me a mug if you like, but supporting the same team seemed to be the only connection that we needed. I met them before the game to give them the tickets.

I have to point out at this juncture that the team I support has a large Jewish following. This was due to the fact that it is based in North London where, at one time many Jews lived, and once was one of England’s most successful teams, a time which has sadly passed. Inevitably, there were many Jews who used the messageboard. Occasionally, we would send Private Messages (PMs) to each other and play Jewish geography. I discovered that one poster, one of the few women on the board, was the wife of a guy who had been a friend of mine from school. Another had been in a youth movement with my brother. Another came to live in Israel and came round to watch games with my mates and me several times. Sometimes, I would get PMs from board members telling me that they were coming to Israel and asking me if they could see Spurs games on telly here. I remember even giving one guy some advice as he was thinking of getting married in Israel.

For a while, everything seemed fine on the messageboard. The Jewish members seemed to be quite open about their beliefs and customs. We would wish each other seasons’ greetings before each festival. Most of the non-Jewish fans took a healthy interest in what was going on and would ask genuine questions about the religion which we were more than happy to answer. When we weren’t moaning about the overpaid underachievers who wore the sacred white shirt of our beloved team, the discussion would tend to turn to politics not only the British domestic kind, but international politics as well with the Israel/Palestine issue being a very emotive one. Despite this, however, I felt at the time that it was possible to have a civilised discussion about the Middle East. Posters would get more worked up about the debate as to which of the strikers should be the first choice for the team than the fate of the Palestinians and Israelis in that volatile region. I had very interesting off-board exchanges of emails with posters who had swallowed the Palestinian narrative hook, line and sinker. We agreed to disagree and left it at that without any unnecessary name-calling. Our love of the same football team was the main reason why we were spending our time on the messageboard.

But then things started turning ugly. I began to notice snide remarks which could have been interpreted as anti-Semitic. For around 25 years, Spurs have had Jewish owners and chairmen. During that time, the team underachieved, failing to live up to the high expectations of its supporters. The successful teams in the Premiership splashed out big money in transfers and salaries to entice top players to join them. There were accusations that Spurs’s owners were being stingy and when you read comments like “Levy doesn’t like parting with his money”, it is hard not to feel a tad paranoid.

I recall one day coming home and switching on the computer and logging on to the messageboard and finding a PM waiting for me from one of the other Jewish members. Had I seen so-and-so’s post, he asked and did I think it was anti-Semitic? A discussion thread on an MB will be displayed at the top of the “page” if someone has commented on it most recently. I had to trail through a couple of pages, waiting impatiently for them to load in order to find the thread in question. As a teacher, I don’t have constant computer access during the day, so I would usually only check up on the more recent threads when I got home. I found the comment in question. It was something about Israel, I think. I carefully worded a reply and posted it. It was not the first time that I had been PMed by Jewish posters who were concerned about some anti-Jewish comment or other. I think that they saw me as the most knowledgeable Jewish member of the MB and living in Israel gave my opinions extra veracity. I didn’t really relish this role. My logging on to the MB was supposed to be a way of escaping the realities of life in the Middle East.

The final straw came on the day of the ill-fated Gaza Flotilla last year. I had done my best to follow the news during the day as the events unfolded. The first reports had described an unprovoked attack on peace activists in which Israeli commandos had killed twenty of them. Eventually it became apparent that the truth was far more complex and that nine people had been killed after attacking the commandos who had abseiled onto the ship. But the fact that the Palestinian side had rushed to the press first being unfettered by censorship obligations meant that more damage had been done to Israel’s already tarnished reputation.

I got home feeling emotionally exhausted and sat down by my PC. I just wanted to escape the events of the day and instinctively guided the cursor towards the icon on the toolbar which would log me in to the messageboard. But then I stopped. The incident would obviously have aroused interest and comment during the day and someone would have started a thread on it. The last thing I needed was to read scathing comments against Israel and to be dragged into an argument. I just wanted to get some up-to-date news on the team that I supported. I did a quick calculation in my head. The incident had taken place in the morning. Any discussion would have taken place sometime in the early afternoon so the thread would not be on the page that would appear when I logged in. Surely, everyone had had their fill of it by now. I promised myself that if I should see a thread about it, I would not simply ignore it.

So much for that. The moment that the MB page appeared on my screen, I saw that there was indeed a thread about the Flotilla debacle towards the top of the page which contained around 40 comments. It was still hot news, it seemed. I would have kept my promise to myself had it not been for the title of the discussion thread; “Nazi Israelis murder Peace Activists”, or something in that vein at least.

The thread had been started by C. with whom I had had several interesting correspondences in the past. He had started off on the board as a born-again Christian. Religion apparently had saved him from his previous life of alcohol and debauchery. Off the board we discussed religion and Israel quite freely. But then something changed in C. In addition to Jesus, he discovered George Galloway, politician, media whore and friend of Saddam Hussein whose anti-Israel agenda bordered on the anti-Semitic. C. accepted every word of Galloway’s as Gospel truth. His posts became virulently anti-Israel and I began to notice that other MB members who knew little about the Middle East were being taken in by what he was writing. Arguing with him was a futile exercise.

The truth is that I didn’t really care about what was written about Israel’s actions that day. I knew that they had appeared far worse than they actually were and that it was still too early to know what had really taken place. I didn’t feel that I was armed with all the facts yet to present a credible case. However, I was not prepared to be called a Nazi on the MB. The word “Nazi” to me is a red rag to a bull. I will always use my status as the son of Holocaust survivors to try and prevent the cheapening of the word.

I started off a new thread in which I complained about the use of the word. As ever I tried to be as civil as possible. Although I am not averse to a bit of effing and blinding in real life, on the MB, I tried to avoid it. I simply requested that he edit the title of the thread. I didn’t want to quarrel over what had happened in the Mediterranean that morning. The word “Nazi” was inaccurate and offensive and out of place on the messageboard. C. wrote back refusing to change the title claiming that Israeli forces had behaved like Nazis. A couple of other posters also commented in offensive ways. Actually at this point, I was quite surprised that the board’s moderators had not intervened and closed down the threads on the subject. They had done so on previous occasions and members had been suspended from the board for what I had considered to be lesser offences.

Another member, Tony, posted a comment asking me to explain what had happened from the Israeli point of view. I had got to know Tony through his postings on the MB over the years. We too had exchanged a number of emails about various subjects. He had never appeared to me be anti-Israel and seemed a decent chap. I knew that his request was genuine. I found a report on the Ha’aretz website and copied and pasted it into my reply. Whilst Tony thanked me for this, others, including C. wrote back implying that this was Israeli lies and propaganda. (Several months later, Tony was to “friend” me on Facebook and tell me about the BBC “Panorama” documentary that he had just seen. He said that it confirmed everything that was written in the article that I posted that day.)

It was at this point that I realised that I had had enough. I simply typed that I thought that my time on the messageboard was up and logged off. This was a slamming of a virtual door. I didn’t even sneak back later to see what reaction there had been as I really couldn’t be bothered. I don’t remember being that angry; I had just come to the realisation that there was little point in arguing with people who were not prepared to accept that there was another angle to the situation in the Middle East. I knew that some of the posters were probably bored individuals who got a kick out of winding others up, those like C. were adamant in their beliefs and nothing would persuade them that they just might be wrong no matter how many facts were presented to them.

And so eight years of what was almost an obsession had come to an abrupt end. During that time I had lived games vicariously through the reports of those that regularly attended them. I shared memories of players with some of the older posters and had got into interesting discussions on all types of subjects.

I can’t say that I left it without a twinge of regret. The next day, I logged on, more out of curiosity than force of habit and found a couple of PMs waiting for me from members telling me not to leave the board and not to take notice of what others wrote. I was truly touched and wrote back saying that I needed time to cool off. I did consider going back, but only for the football talk although I realised that I had a role to play in informing people about what was going on in Israel and trying to represent what I hoped would be seen as the acceptable face of Zionism. I suppose for that reason, I should have returned, but I didn’t have the strength for it anymore. I just wanted to talk Tottenham without being dragged into endless and pointless arguments about Israel’s right to exist. My football fix I would have to get from elsewhere. And anyway, by this time I was using Facebook more and had got in touch with former classmates of mine from 30 years ago. There is a limit to the number of virtual social lives that one can manage at the same time.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Flying the Flag (or not as the case may be)

One of the things that one gets used to after living in Israel for a while is how the appearance of certain pieces of merchandise herald in the next significant date on the Jewish calendar. For instance, as soon as Succot is over sometime in October, doughnuts begin appearing in shops in anticipation of Hannukah which is a mere two months away. And when that festival is over, stacks of dried fruits emerge in supermarkets informing us that the Festival of Trees, Tu B’Shvat (and incidentally my Hebrew birthday) will be soon upon us.
And just as we put away our final piece of Pesach crockery for another year, spotty-faced adolescents suddenly materialise at every other traffic light in town brandishing Israeli flags at any unsuspecting motorist who happens to have come to a halt in the hope that he/she will part with a few shekels in exchange for said flag. Yes, very soon it will be Independence Day.
Time was when I flew the flag from my car with pride, but in recent years, I can’t say that I have been too bothered with this. The kids always ask why we drive around flagless. I think they might be a bit ashamed that I am not showing enough nationalist fervour, but I have explained to them that we always lose the damn things. These flags will remain attached to the car window as long as the window is shut. Inadvertently open it whilst driving and the flag will take off into orbit. As we approach Independence Day, the roads become strewn with blue and white pieces of cloth with tyre marks on them. 
Yet sometimes I do wonder if my lack of willingness to fly the flag is a sign that my own Zionist zeal is on the wane. Am I fed up of Israel after more than three decades of living here?
I was born in England, a country without an independence day. As far as anyone is concerned it has always been independent. Despite all the Pomp and Circumstance attributed to Britain, there is no official day on the calendar on which citizens of the UK celebrate their Britishness. If anything, the British national identity, if there is such a thing, was formed not as a result of the country’s gaining freedom from foreign rule, but from the frequent invasions of the Sceptered Isle; first the Angles and Saxons, then the Vikings and finally the Normans who all donated their bit to the formation of the English language and character. (Okay, this is probably a very trite summation of British history, but it will do for now.)
The British flag itself (erroneously called the Union Jack) is an amalgam of the different flags of the countries that make up Britain. And whilst I was too young to remember the “Swinging Sixties” when the red, white and blue flag came to represent everything hip and fab, my teenage years were spent in the shadow of the Union Flag (to give it its proper name) which had been usurped by the fascist National Front party which would parade it up and down the streets of Britain spewing out its racist and anti-Semitic platform. For years, I was unable to look at a British flag without recalling these thugs who, during the late 70’s, seem to be gaining enough support to get into Parliament. Its rehabilitation for me at least came during the 90’s “Cool Britannia” of Tony Blair when the Union Flag was sported by the Spice Girls who came to represent the post-Thatcher period of hope (and crap music.)
Whilst the Blue and White Star of David always meant more to me than the Red, White and Blue Union Flag, I suppose that I began to be wary of flags during my tours of military reserve duty at the time of the First Intifada (1987-1992). Each year, my unit would be sent out for over a month to some place in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank to keep the peace. Prior to 1987, tours of duty in the Territories could be fairly uneventful, but with the outbreak of the Intifada, nothing would ever be quiet again.
The beginning of the Intifada was characterised by overt expressions of Palestinian nationalism, which had not been visible up till then, and it was our duty to quell them. One of these expressions came in the form of the black, red, white and green flag which at the time was banned by the Israeli authorities. Palestinians, especially younger ones, would take great pleasure in  hanging flags from trees, pole and telephone wires in order to anger the Israeli military patrols. Our instructions were to take these flags down or rather to get some locals to take them down for fear that the flags might be booby-trapped (the practice of the “human shield” has been around for some time.) We would grab some unsuspecting local and tell him (we never approached women) that we would be back in half an hour and expected to see the offending piece of material taken down. So that he would perform the designated task, we would take away his I.D card without which he would almost cease to exist and return it on its completion.
However, once the flag was removed then another ten would pop up in its stead. It became a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse. None of us could understand why the army was insisting that we carry on with this senseless duty. Surely if we ignored the flags then fewer of them would appear. And indeed this is what happened. On our next tour of duty, we were ordered to leave the flags alone and, lo and behold, they all but disappeared.
That is not to say that the Palestinians don’t make a big deal out of flags. We’ve all seen the news reports on TV featuring crowds of incensed Palestinians (or Iranians or anyone else in the neighbourhood who doesn’t particularly like us) getting almost orgasmic pleasure burning Israeli flags – or rather white sheets on which someone has hastily painted two blue lines and a six-pointed star (I blame ourselves actually—we should have chosen a far more intricate design that would have been a bugger for anyone to copy.)
Do they really think it bothers us? I haven’t seen hordes of Israelis taking to the streets protesting this desecration of our most sacred emblem and personally it gives me a giggle to see these rather juvenile antics.  But it is obvious that their flag-burning is an act symbolising the wiping of Israel off the map, so I really shouldn’t be so flippant about it, I suppose.
Personally though, I don’t think that the fact that we don’t take our flag as seriously as our enemies do theirs is a problem. We might be still in need of a day to wave flags around, but as time goes on and Israel gets more stable and institutionalized, there will become less of an urgency to show our colours. Of course, this will very much depend on our security situation, but in the end, isn’t that the aim of Zionism; to provide some normality for the Jewish People. Is it so wrong to yearn for a time when we will be able to take these things in our stride, when we won’t need a flag to remind ourselves that we have a country and an Independence Day to remind us that we are independent? Until then, I suppose, bring on the barbeque.
Happy 63rd Independence Day to one and all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A little paternal gloating

I have to admit that I am quite partial to TV police and detective series. When I was a kid, I was hooked on “Z Cars” and “Dixon of Dock Green”. I graduated on to “The Sweeny” and American cop series such as “Starsky and Hutch” and the seminal “Hill Street Blues”. Later in life, I would become addicted to “NYPD Blue”. But it was always the British series such as “Cracker” and “Prime Suspect” that I would wait for. They came in short bursts rather than long series leaving you with a taste for more. They would develop one story over a number of weeks keeping you guessing till the last moment in the best Agatha Christie tradition.
Because of this, I often wonder why I keep watching the “Law and Order” franchise which is repeated over and over on Israeli TV. Each episode features a case which is done and dusted in forty-five minutes; a storyline which, if done on British TV, would have supplied enough material to last three to four episodes with character development and plot twists galore. This is definitely television for people suffering from ADHD.
My favourite series of the franchise is, without a doubt, “Law and Order; Special Victims Unit.” I find the acting less wooden than the other spinoffs and the characters do have a certain charm to them. In addition, the cases centre on sexual assault and child abuse as opposed to your regular common-or-garden murder. (Read into this what you will.)
I suppose that it was unfortunate that this evening, I happened to watching an episode of this programme which featured a particularly nasty serial rapist when my 14 and a half year-old daughter was out with a friend, a girl from her class. She had told me that she was going to a movie; a “chick flick” was how she put it.
Suddenly my brain went into gear. When did the film start? How was she getting back? I phoned her and posed these questions. Apparently, it was starting at 9.45 and she’d come back by bus.
 I went back to “Law and Order”, but a couple of minutes later, I began to feel uneasy perhaps as a result of said programme. I phoned her again. Who was she coming home with and when was the last bus, I wanted to know.
She began to sound agitated. She would ask the bus driver, she told me. A minute later she phoned back and told me that the last bus was at 12 and that her friend would wait with her till the bus came but she’d be coming back on her own.
A couple of minutes later, I phoned back. The delay was not only due to a particularly gripping moment on the programme, but also because I was weighing up whether or not to lay down the law. The wife, you see, was out of town at the opera with the car. I wouldn’t be able to pick up my daughter if she got stuck in town after the last bus. However, I didn’t want to come over as an over-protective father whose sole purpose in life was to be a killjoy to his children. Commonsense won the day though and I told her that she would probably miss the last bus back and anyway I didn’t really want her travelling back alone at that time of night. She had suggested sleeping at her friend’s before and I said that if she wanted to see the film that is what she should do.
For some reason, (go figure teenage girls) she said that she would rather come home without seeing the film. “Are you sure?” I said breathing a silent sigh of relief. “Yes,” she said. ‘’I’m coming home.”
I jumped off the sofa and punched the air. I had dealt with a potentially volatile situation on my own without the aid of the wife or a safety-net. Of course, there was the chance that she would arrive home and have a massive hissy-fit calling me an over-bearing, oppressive father or something. But when she walked through the door at about 10.00 she was surprisingly calm. As a gesture of appreciation for her reasonableness, I surrendered the TV to her and let her watch “American Idol” as I ran for cover to my computer.
I don’t want to be too paranoid of things, but as a parent I have to be practical. I can’t expect my kids to ask the pertinent questions that will help them avoid getting themselves stuck in town in the middle of the night, for instance. I can feel quite proud of myself that I was able to guide my daughter through this evening’s potentially problematic situation, even if I needed a sensationalist American cop series to give me the kick up the tuchus that I obviously needed.  

Monday, March 28, 2011

Just another day...

It was the sirens that were the first hint that something had happened. I was in the middle of a lesson towards the end of the school day when I heard them. Living in any big city means that one gets used to sirens, but this time there were many of them together. Something was going on.
I continued the lesson ignoring the sirens. If anything, I was surprised that the pupils hadn’t drawn attention to them themselves, after all pupils always look for opportunities to disrupt the normal flow of a lesson. It occurred to me only afterwards that perhaps they had been too young during the second Intifada of the early noughties to have had their senses honed to slightest whiff of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. I, in comparison, was a seasoned veteran and when the lesson ended, it seemed that my instincts had not been dulled during the period of relative calm that Jerusalem had been enjoying for a number of years since the second Intifada ended. One of the girls in the class on checking her cell-phone (a reflex action that occurs as soon as a lesson ends) suddenly announced that there had been a terrorist attack near the central bus station.
My brain went into gear. Terrorist attack – Jerusalem – central bus station. I put all of the information together to see how I was affected. At one time, when my kids were younger, I would have been less concerned. During the day they would have been in kindergarten in the neighbourhood. When they started going to school they had a private bus that took them. It was only when they were older that they started taking public transport and the worries began. I needed to take an inventory now to see whether any of them could have been in the vicinity.
Ironically, I suppose, the safest out of the kids was our eldest, Hadas , who is in the army and therefore not in the city. The next down, Amichai, caused me a few moments of concern. He finished school last year and decided to put off his army service and do some volunteer work for a year. He works as a counsellor in a boarding school near Tel Aviv. He had actually been at home during the day and was due to travel back. He certainly would have had to pass nearby. I tried calling, but with little luck. The whole cell-phone system had probably become overloaded by people making calls to check on their nearest and dearest.
After several failed attempts, he finally phoned me. “I’m okay” is all he said as he is not the most verbose of our off-spring, but it was enough. He had already made it back to Bnei Brak.
A quick reckoning in my head ensured me that Ariella, twin number one, was okay. Even if she had come out of school already, her bus route took her nowhere near the troubled area. Na’or, twin number two, however, studies in a school past the central bus station. Although he doesn’t have to, he often changes buses there. At that point, we all thought that the explosion had taken place on a 74 bus, one of the buses that can take him home. (It had actually taken place outside which accounted for the fact that it had been far less devastating than attacks where bombs had gone off inside buses.)
Moments of anxiety followed. I tried phoning his mobile but to no avail; there was still no service (anyway he tends not to switch it on which is very helpful.) I tried to get through to the wife again without any luck. Then I realised that she would probably be at home already. All I needed to do was to use old-time technology i.e. a landline. I went to the teachers’ room picked up the phone, dialed and in an instant I was talking to the wife. No word from Na’or, but she reckoned that he hadn’t finished school yet. A bit of relief there then, but still no final confirmation.
About 15 minutes later he checked in. He hadn’t left school yet, but when he did he passed the scene of the attack and later was to tell us excitedly that he had seen the damaged bus.
I am sure that whilst all this was going on, I must have uttered a silent prayer requesting that my kids be safe. When thinking about this afterwards, I realised that this might constitute an ethical problem. When I asked for my kids to be okay, knowing that there had been casualties, was there in fact a hidden text to my prayer which requested that the loved ones of others be hurt instead? One man’s relief is another man’s grief, I suppose. (If you use that last ditty, please give me some credit as I just made it up.)
I am sure that most people would advise me not to give this too much thought and just be thankful that nothing terrible had happened to anyone dear to me.  But I can’t help feeling nostalgic towards an earlier period in my life when I actually cared about everything.
When I was a teenager, the state of humanity was my foremost concern. Every time that I would an article or see a TV documentary about yet another downtrodden minority group in the world, I would begin to sympathise with its plight.  From blacks in South Africa to Bolivian tin miners, I could not ignore the suffering of any human being. I think I asked my mum once why people didn’t care more. We all did, she answered, it’s just that when you get older you have to worry about your family. Now I see that she was right. For better and for worse, my own world has shrunk. From being once globally aware, I am now merely tribal.
Okay, so it’s a natural process. It happens to all of us, but I sometimes think that if the world were run by naïve, caring teenagers, it may not be in the state it is today. ( Though, on the other hand, when I think of some of the little fascists-in-training that I come across daily in my line of work, it may not be such a good idea.)   

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The (un)making of History

There is this photo that I used to come across from time to time that was taken on the first day of the school year when my youngest son, Na’or was starting the second grade almost eight years ago. In the photo, Na’or, dressed in a white shirt and holding a little flag is waiting patiently in line with other classmates of his as none other than the President of the State of Israel, the symbolic leader of the Jewish state that came into being after 2000 years of exile, comes to bestow his blessings on them. Under normal circumstances, a photograph such as this should occupy a place far more honourable in one’s house than at the bottom of a kitchen drawer. But in this case, the President in question was Moshe Katzav, who has just been convicted of several cases of rape and sexual harassment and whose sentence – 7 years in prison, has just been pronounced.
Watching the events unfold on television reminded me of the photo, that we will, no doubt, come across again whilst cleaning for Pesach. During the past few years while the trial was going on, we often joked about the photo. Now I am seriously wondering what ought to be done with it.  Should I put it in an album with other pictures of Na’or growing up with the ironic caption “Na’or waiting to be greeted by a sex offender”?
Truth be told, this is no flippant matter. How should we relate to the seven years of Katzav’s presidential term? What will they do in the presidential residency or the Knesset? I imagine that there must be walls in those buildings adorned with framed photos of each of the presidents of Israel since 1948. Will Katzav’s photo remain there or will that of Shimon Peres, president number nine immediately follow that of Ezer Weizman, president number seven? If so, there will be more than a little poetic justice in this as Peres should have served as Israel’s eighth president if it hadn’t been for political wheeling and dealing on the part of the Shas party which led to Katzav’s surprise election.
But what will future generations being taken down the Corridors of Power think when they ponder over the photographs of Israel’s Heads of State? Will they wonder why there was no president during the years 2000-2007?
And anyway, how will this sorry episode be taught at schools? I remember seeing a Bible that was brought out for use in schools with a linear translation into English. As I flicked through it, I noticed that the story in the book of Genesis of Judah and Tamar, in which Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law dresses up as a prostitute to entice him into procreation after her husband died without leaving an issue and his brother Onan (whose name gave rise to the term onanism, a charge that has been laid at every football referee) failed to fulfill his brotherly duty of ensuring the continuation of the family line, was left untranslated.  The story, it seems, was deemed unsuitable to be taught to school kids. Will this be the fate of the Katzav saga? Will his name simply be omitted from history text books?
Around 12 years ago, a scandal erupted at the Yeshiva high school in which I teach. It turned out that the head of the Yeshiva, a man for whom hitherto, I had had only the greatest respect as an educator, had been sexually harassing pupils (this, of course is a boys-only school.) At first I and other teachers refused to believe the allegations which had found their way in to the press, but eventually it became apparent that people knew about them and after talking to former pupils of mine who confirmed that the allegations were indeed true, I realised that I had placed my trust and respect in a monster, albeit one with rabbinic ordination.
Fortunately, he did the one decent thing in his life; he took a plea bargain and confessed to the crimes. This prevented the holding of a trial which would have necessitated calling his victims, young men who were now students, army officers or newly-weds to the witness stand. Their identities would have been revealed and who knows what damage would have been done to their lives. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Where he is today I neither know nor care.
The point is that several years after this took place I noticed something interesting at school. Many schools in Israel hang photos of each year’s 12th grade on the walls of their corridors. I have been into schools in which these photos, which include the faces not only of the pupils but of the teachers who taught them as well, stretch back over 30 years or more. They are an integral part of the school’s history and tradition. My school is no exception, except that one day I saw that the pictures of the years in which the sexually deviant head of the Yeshiva had been in charge had vanished from the walls.
This was an particularly Orwellian moment for me. I suddenly felt like Winston Smith in 1984, working in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, whose job it was to go through the archives of newspapers and cut out the photos of those former heroes of the state who had been discredited. His job, basically, was to change history.
The trouble is, in the case of Katzav and of the former Yeshiva head of my school, that when they are deleted from history, they take the memories of others with them. Meeting the president of one’s country should be an unforgettable moment of one’s life, one that should be treasured, recorded and related time after time. How many people in Israel will now try to put behind them the fact that they once shook hands with a sex offender in the guise of their Head of State? Will they too hide the evidence of that meeting in a kitchen drawer? And in removing the pictures from the walls of my school, not only was the existence of the former Yeshiva head denied but so too was that of the hundreds of boys who happened to be there at the same time and whose photos appeared alongside his.
Rape is one of the most terrible of crimes. Katzav abused his power and the women who worked for him. Yet the fall-out from his actions will last far longer than the seven years during which he will sit in jail and all of us who lived through his term of office should feel sullied by him.      

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Parental Paradox (I like a bit of alliteration in a title)

As an English teacher, I like to point out to my pupils that technology tends to develop at a quicker pace than language leaving us with words and expressions that refer to devices and practices that no longer exist. Take telephones for instance. We still “dial” numbers rather than press them even though phones haven’t had dials for at least 20 years now. Also when we finish a conversation we “hang up” the phone, harking back to the time when people would literally hang the receiver up on the telephone stand.
In Israel, an example of this is the “Manila”, the letter that prospective recruits get telling them of their choices of units to serve in the army. Although manila envelopes went out of use in the army years ago, the name lingers on. 
The army obviously differs in the way it treats its female and its male recruits. The girls after their preliminary interview get a “manila” containing the various options that the army offers them personally. The higher the girl is rated by the army, the more varied and interesting her choices will be. Our eldest, Hadas , who is currently doing her military service made us proud by being sent what was considered to be a “good manila” which contained interesting and challenging options (many girls simply spend two years as office clerks not doing too much.) She had to rank them in order of preference.
One of the positions that was suggested to her was to serve in a unit that does liaison with foreign forces. She put this first and was asked to go to Tel Aviv for a day of interviews. She came back looking rather disappointed. Although she hadn’t yet been rejected she knew that her chances of being accepted were slim as all the other candidates knew at least one other foreign language apart from English.
Her second choice was to serve in the Medical Corps. She had her heart set on some job which was liaising between the families of injured soldiers and the army, but when she was asked by the army if she wanted to train to be a medic, I advised her to go for it. I told her that firstly it was a position which would give her skills that would be useful in civilian life and that everyone who hears that she is a medic would be impressed by this. Reluctantly, she agreed. Even today a year into her military service after she has proven herself in her job, she still gets annoyed when I give her the knowing paternal smile that says “I told you so” when anyone she tells about her being a medic makes approving noises.
For boys, though, the situation is different. Amichai, our number 2, who will be joining up at the end of this year also got a “manila” after going through preliminary medical check-ups and interviews. His, however, was a standard form sent to all those who are found to be combat-fit in which he had to choose and rank in order of preference the fighting units in which he wished to serve. After filling out the form, the army either decides where the boy will serve or sends the prospective recruit to a pre-army training course for a few days to see whether he is suited to an elite unit.
The first question was the most important. Its purpose was to gauge his level of motivation to serve in a combat unit. Like most of his friends, most probably, Amichai chose the number that signified the highest level of motivation and proceeded to tick off all the toughest infantry units as the ones in which he would prefer to serve. And like many of his friends, he has been sent a letter informing him that he has been chosen to participate in a pre-army training course. The fact that the army even considers you for an elite unit is considered to be prestigious.
It is at this point that a paradox becomes evident. If I take a step back and try to think "normally", there should be no way that this situation should cause anything but anguish for me as a father. My son wants to go to the army and is prepared to serve in a unit which will, no doubt, place him in life-threatening circumstances. And I am happy about this. Am I out of my tiny mind? My normal parental instincts should be to protect my children from all dangers, yet here I am telling people proudly that he could be joining an elite military unit.
Anyone reading this who does not live in Israel or who has not experienced life here will find it hard to understand why a parent should not object to their son’s being prepared to put his life in danger. To describe this merely as patriotism would be facile.
Israeli society has a very ambivalent attitude to the army. For a country under threat that relies on military strength for its survival, its citizens are very non-militaristic. Those who join combat units, both elite or regular, are not necessarily fire-breathing hard-line right-wingers who see every inch of the Land of Israel as holy and non-negotiable and would like to see it rid of all non-Jews by any means.
I have noticed, for instance, that whenever the arrival of a foreign dignitary is shown on television and the army provides a guard of honour, the music that is played by the military orchestra whilst the VIP is inspecting the guard is Naomi Shemer’s famous song “Machar” (Tomorrow.) The chances are that the foreign dignitary has much more on his mind than to ask what the music is, which anyway sounds like a regular military march in the way it is played by the band. The words to the song, however, convey a utopian vision of the future, one in which naval destroyers will be used only to export oranges. This might seem a strange choice of song for a military band to play as it envisages a time when armies will be redundant. The IDF, it appears, regards itself as a necessary evil.
Yet the problem is that military service is still seen as an integral part of an Israeli’s CV. What one did in the army can have far-reaching implications in one’s civilian life.  Take, for instance, all those former army generals who attained top political positions. Both Ehud Barak and Benyamin Netanyahu were members of the elite “Matkal” commando unit. The late Yitzhak Rabin was able to make political capital from his long distinguished military service, especially from the fact that he had been Chief of Staff during the 6-Day War. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir had their military experience as members of the Jewish Underground during the British Mandate to help them to further their political careers. It is little surprise, therefore, that much of the criticism that has been thrown at Israel’s elder statesman, Shimon Peres, has included barbs at the fact that he never served in the army. 
When I first arrived in Israel as an 18 year old who had just finished school in a country where there hadn’t been National Service for around 20 years and one in which even policemen didn’t carry guns, the sight of so many armed soldiers mingling with the civilian population that was going about its daily life was strange to me. In time, it became an inseparable part of regular life and I realised that if I were to become an Israeli, I would have to go the army and a year later I found myself starting infantry basic training rather than university as most of my friends back in Blighty were doing.
I wouldn’t say that I had an illustrious military career, but I did serve in a combat unit and continued to do so for around 20 years as a reservist. When I got out of the regular army, I found that one’s military service formed a major part in the way people related to you. Those immigrants who had not yet gone to the army felt that they were being kept out of the loop. I could sit down with other Israelis of my age and join in conversations which inevitably centred on army experiences. Going off for a month’s reserve duty each year only served to remind people that in spite of the fact that I hadn’t been born in the country (Israelis can be an exclusive lot), I was, in fact, one of them.
No less important, it seems, is what your children are doing in the army. Few Israelis want to have a child who is a conscientious objector or whom the army doesn’t want for reasons of compatibility. Telling people that your child isn’t serving his country is tantamount to saying that you haven’t brought up your kids properly. One’s capability as a parent is judged on the basis of the elite status of the unit in which one’s child serves. The more danger that you are prepared to see your child placed in, the better parent you are.
Sometimes I wonder how I would feel if Amichai were to have come home and said that he didn’t want to serve in a combat unit or in the army altogether. We have never really spoken about these issues at home and none of my kids have expressed any extreme political opinions. If anything they always joke about us being “left-wing”.  His decision to serve in a combat unit was most probably influenced not only by his friends all of whom have their hearts set on elite units, but also by seeing his father leave home for a month’s reserve duty each year when he was younger. This taught him that the army is part of our routine here in Israel and everyone has to play his (and her) part.
This, therefore, is one of the biggest paradoxes of life here. On one hand, I want to keep my kids safe and bring them up to be peace-loving citizens. On the other, I do nothing to dissuade them from making decisions that will endanger their lives and am proud of them for doing so. Telling people that a son is serving in a particularly elite unit is akin to telling people in England that your child has passed his Oxbridge exam.
Like so many other things in Israel, this seems, in a strange way, to make sense here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

How to retain your humanity whilst all those around you are losing theirs.

Okay, where do I start?
Perhaps there is something poignant about beginning a blog in a hospital. The wife, (as I lovingly refer to Minda who has put up with me for one and twenty years as from this week) has had an operation today. She is fine now, thanks for asking, but I have had to be with her all day, which was just as well as I did come in handy, looking after her glasses, fetching the nurses and being sent off to buy her coffee. In a couple of hours or so we should be on our way home, so till my computer battery runs out, I have decided to get this blog on the road.

Whilst the wife’s health has been my foremost worry, it has been impossible to escape the news of the day. As I walked into the hospital, I was handed one of these free newspapers that seemed to be shoved in one’s face at every opportunity as soon as one leaves one’s house. It was a picture on the front page that caught my eye. Last night, we heard of the brutal slaughter of 5 members of a family in a settlement in Israel. The mother, the father and 3 of their kids, aged 11, 3 and (I find this hard to type) 3 months were stabbed in their beds by terrorists who had infiltrated over the security fence. I had searched the foreign press for some report of the murder. The Japanese Tsunami had dominated all of the websites and TV news channels. Any references to the murder mentioned that the victims were settlers as if they were not unarmed civilians.

I wasn’t that shocked. After over 30 years in Israel, I have become accustomed to the not-so balanced news coverage that Israel gets in the world media. The underlying message of the reports is that it was a horrifying attack, but they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Now, anyone that knows me will tell you that my views, that will become apparent as this blog develops, are left-of-centre in a big way. I have my doubts as to the efficacy of the whole Settlement Movement in Israel (but more about that another time.) But, in the name of everything Great and Holy, how does living on a piece of disputed land justify getting your and your children’s throats slit?

Exactly 15 years ago, I had a piece published in the Jerusalem Post during the spate of terrorist attacks that took place around the same time of year, before Purim. These included buses blowing up in Jerusalem and the terrible attack at the Dizengoff Centre in Tel Aviv. I wrote it in the wake of the words “Death to Arabs” having been written on the blackboard of a class which I was teaching at the time. I was angry that this could be done in a school, but I understood that the pupils were looking for an avenue to let off steam. An interesting discussion ensued, in which we concluded that “Death to Arabs” was an unjustifiable sentiment, but “Death to terrorists” was a valid political statement which could be debated civilly. Several of the pupils had commented that “All Arabs wish to kill all Jews”. I painstakingly set out to demolish this point of view.

The thing is that as soon as I saw one of the photos in the paper I was taken aback. The father of the 3 murdered children looked extremely familiar to me. After making a phone call, I found out why. I had often seen him in shul (synagogue) even though I live nowhere near the settlement where his family lived. It transpired that his wife’s family lived in my neighbourhood and that I knew her father and brothers. As I passed a TV in the waiting room an hour ago, I saw live coverage of the funeral of the 5 family members and caught a glimpse of the wife’s father hugging his 3 sons all of whom I recognised as I have seen them almost every week in shul for the past 19 years or so. Although I do not know them personally, I have watched the boys grow up into fine young men. The separation between men and women in shul meant that till today, I never knew that they had a sister. I would rather have obtained this knowledge in any other way.

It is hard to contain one’s outrage. I suppose that the instinctive reaction would be to shout “Mavet LeAravim” –“Death to Arabs.” It is at times like this that one has to retain one’s humanity. accompanying the wife to hospital has helped me do this. On coming out of the operating room, she was dedicatedly tended to by two Arab nurses to remind me that we have to be careful not to tar a whole people with the same brush. I hope that the barbarians who perpetuated this heinous crime will be caught and dealt with properly I hope that my tax shekels will not go to financing their incarceration.

Post Scriptum
As if to accentuate the situation, as I was driving the wife back from the hospital after a gruelling, nerve-wracking day (the operation only took half an hour but the waiting around beforehand and afterwards was the worst part,) I drove close to the Yeshiva high school where I have been teaching for the last two decades. As I approached the junction on the main road I saw a bunch of pupils from the the school holding flags and signs that they had written. This was a common enough sight and an understanadable reaction to the weekend's events. However, as I drove past, noticed what was written on the signs; "death to Arabs". Had circumstances been different, I probably would have pulled over, got out of the car and stopped the rather embarrassing spectacle. I was concerned with getting Minda home and I didn't want to get too involved. I drove a little way, out of eyesight if the boys and phoned the principal. At first he didn't answer, but when he did it seems that he had already been out and ripped up the offensive signs.

So the day ended on a hopeful note. Minda was given the all-clear, more or less, and even the hard-line right-wingers running my school understand that there are some things that should not be declared. Even so, I wonder if on my return to school I should ask the boys holding the signs whether "death to Arabs" also includes the nurses who took good care of my wife today.

So ends my first blog and I haven't even started on football yet.