Sunday, March 25, 2007

The whole world wasn't watching

It is Sunday morning in Tel Aviv, and the Union Jack is still flying at Banana Beach to welcome British soccer fans. The visitors are not in sight. For the past few nights they have been out drinking, and no doubt they are sleeping it off.

Several thousand British soccer fans are in town. They came here to watch the England and Israel national football teams compete Saturday night at the national stadium in Ramat Gan. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.

Before, during, and after the game, the country's television channels broadcast scenes of jovial visitors drinking and singing. The fans praised the local Goldstar beer, the friendliness of Israelis and the beauty of the women. They said "shalom" and learned some other Hebrew words.

One post-game interview had a scripted quality. A British fan told the camera he thought one of the Israeli players was named Ben Zonah, because he heard the Hebrew fans behind him shouting "ben-zonah" throughout the game. Ben-zonah is a Hebrew curse term, literally "son of a whore." People in Israel use it the way English-speakers say "son-of-a-bitch," sometimes as an epithet and other times to say that something is ineffably good.

The game dominated the conversations and consciousness of many Israelis for days, like some monster giant trampling everything in its path. If you weren't a security person or foreign-policy wonk, you may not have known that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was arriving on the day of the game. It was his first visit to Israel.

Many Israelis saw the 0-0 tie as cause for rejoicing. Never mind that the England team was having its worst season in 26 years. Holding a superior European team to a tie is a national victory of sorts. It appeals to a simple, childlike pride which the Israel public displays sometimes when we see ourselves as part of a bigger world. This is what causes Israelis to get excited when the country wins an Olympic gold medal for windsurfing, or when our tennis players make it almost to the finals in foreign tournaments, or when a movie star visits here, or when Israeli performers appear at Eurovision. These events put us on the map, which is something that not all Middle Eastern mapmakers are prepared to do.

In the post-tie glow, a television presenter said Sunday morning that it was too bad that the two teams hadn't put the competition aside for a moment. The whole world was watching, she said, and this presented a special chance to focus on what unites us and what we share in common. Her co-presenter changed the subject.

Actually, the whole world wasn't watching.

Had the world been watching, it probably wouldn't have known that last week's good-natured invasion by the British soccer fans is in striking contrast to what once went on here. At the height of the British presence, 60 years ago, some 100,000 of King George VI's soldiers were stationed here---one for every three Jewish males. They didn't call it an occupation. It was part of the British Mandate, granted by the League of Nations after World War I. Enough blood was shed in 1947 to persuade the British to leave. They turned the problem over to the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations. The rest is history---or rather two histories, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs.

The only times when the whole world watches now are when something horrendous happens. Most of the time, the whole world can't see what's going on here.

---Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Friday, March 23, 2007

More flowers: Anemones, with helicopter

A friend sent me this photo, made from a second helicopter. The pilots were flying over southern Israel, between Lahav and Amatsia, during the first week in March.

The wildflowers are anemones, and it's illegal to pick them.

The Hebrew name for anemone is calanit. The plural is calaniot, and this is the title of a song that became an unofficial Israeli anthem.

Shoshana Damari, who was referred to as the queen of Israeli song and compared to Edith Piaf, started performing "Calaniot" in 1954. Damari died last year at 83, and now the song is played mainly to evoke nostalgia.

If YouTube doesn't disable this link, you can hear Damari singing "Calaniot" and see some Jerusalem calaniot.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Of course it is OK to criticize Israel

A poll shows Israeli Jews think it is OK for Diaspora Jews to criticize Israel. Well of course, they are going to do it anyhow, and Israeli Jews criticize Israel too. The poll did not ask if anyone in Israel is obligated to pay attention to this criticism, or which criticism we should listen to. Norman Finkelstein and the Satmar Hassidim want us to disband and go home and the Jewish Voice for Peace think it's OK for us to stay here as long as we are ruled by Arabs. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Mort Klein want us to conquer Jordan and Western Iraq. The Progressive Jews want to allow women to pray at the Wailing Wall, and the Orthodox US Jews want us to prohibit women from travelling on buses with men.
Which Jews should we listen to?

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

An old woman who lived alone is buried at a kibbutz

Above: Towing a glider to takeoff at the Hill of Moreh. (Megiddo Gliding Club archive)

We are visiting at a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley, and a friend says he has to go up to the cemetery for a funeral at 2 p.m. He wonders if other people will show up.

The person they are burying is an old woman who lived alone for many years, and Friday at 2 p.m. is not prime time for any event at the kibbutz except maybe a nap.

Younger members may not have known the woman who died, although she had been active in kibbutz affairs.

Talking about her, we learn that her father was Max Beer. Our kibbutz friend mentions the family connection with the kind of esteem that others may attach to names of celebrities or rich people.

Beer was a prominent member of the Social Democratic movement in Europe. He wrote books.

Beer found it necessary to change countries a number of times. Born in Galicia in 1864, he emigrated in 1889 to Germany, where he was imprisoned in 1893-94 under the imperial press law. He moved to England, which 20 years later sent him back to Germany as a World War I enemy alien. He worked at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in 1927-29. In 1933, with the rise of the Nazis, he emigrated from Germany to England, this time for keeps. He died in London in 1943.

Beer wrote histories of socialism, and biographies of Jean Jaures and Karl Marx. He wrote a foreword to an edition of Rosa Luxemburg's letters from prison. You can still buy his works. At this writing in mid-March 2007, Amazon offers 10 of his titles for sale. Amazon lists five other titles as currently unavailable.

The friend who tells us the story of Beer's daughter does not know what first brought her to the kibbutz. By the early 1940s, her lifetime connection with the place was already sealed.

She became the lover of a kibbutz member. In 1942, during clandestine military training, he died in a glider accident on the nearby Hill of Moreh. His death left her with their seven-month-old son. The son grew up and eventually moved away from the kibbutz. The mother stayed until her death the other day at age 94.

The past can seem especially close in the Jezreel Valley. This area, also known as the Plain of Esdraelon, is where the biblical Gideon and his 300 warriors defeated an entire Midianite army, and where Orde Wingate taught Jews to emulate Gideon's tactics in the 1930s. The Hill of Moreh, where the fatal 1942 glider accident took place, is where the Philistines encamped before defeating King Saul. The Israel Gliding Club has long since stopped soaring from the Hill of Moreh. The club moved to Megiddo. This is where major battles have been fought over the centuries, and where some people believe the final battle of Armageddon will take place some day.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The voice of the Turtle Dove

A picture is worth a lot of words. Spring has sprung in Israel.
Israel: Spring on Mt. Tabor, 2007

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Under one Tel Aviv roof

Apartment-owners in the four-story Tel Aviv building where I live are trying to form a house committee.

A house committee is an Israeli institution, authorized by law. It is empowered to collect money from residents to pay for common needs, big and small. These can include washing the stairs once a week, or renovating an entire building.

We meet to talk about it.

Until recently, I was the only apartment-owner in the building. The 10 other apartments were rental properties, owned by heirs of the person who put up the building in the 1930s. Last year the landlords started selling their property, apartment by apartment. Now we have new residents.

We go around the table, each neighbor taking a few minutes to state what they want or don't want.

It turns out that English is the group's only common language. A couple from Paris don't understand Hebrew, and most of us don't speak French.

The Parisians are part of a wave of newcomers from France. Anti-Jewish violence has been on the rise in recent years in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity. In our Tel Aviv neighborhood, the signs in some real estate agencies are only in French---no Hebrew, no English, no Russian, only French. You hear people speaking French on the streets and in the supermarket.

Almost everyone at our meeting seems to want something different.

One neighbor brings up the possibility of installing an elevator, as a way to raise the values of the apartments.

The youngest apartment-owner, who is in his final university semester, notes that the building facade needs fixing up.

Another neighbor is concerned about the structure's vulnerability to earthquakes. He wonders if we can take advantage of government aid that is available for reinforcing older buildings such as ours. Israel's location along the Syrian-African rift virtually assures another Big One in the future, like the deadly quakes of 1759, 1837 and 1927.

The French couple want to make the building look better from the street. This comes first, she says. He agrees.

Another apartment-owner's principal concern is that the front door doesn't lock and the intercom system doesn't work. She worries about personal security.

It looks like Israel in a nutshell. Even under the same roof, people have divergent priorities---money, security, outward appearance---and nothing will be achieved unless someone volunteers.

In the end, we agree that studio apartments will pay 25 shekels a month (almost $6 at current exchange rates) and larger apartments will pay 60 shekels (almost $14.30). This will give us enough to pay for weekly cleaning of the stairs and entrance. It will buy electricity to light the staircase and entry. Bigger plans will wait until we know each other more.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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'Like this, as if' is a literal translation of Hebrew slang, 'kahzeh ke'ilu.' This Hebrew expression is a literal translation of 'so, like,' as in 'It was so, like, cool.' A weblog translating Israeli life into English.

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