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 na├»ve, 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.