Sunday, March 23, 2008

Threatening to leave the country

Complaining about Israel and threatening to leave the country are favorite local pastimes. People threaten to leave Israel for reasons ranging from wars or election results all the way down to real or imagined insults from shopkeepers or government clerks. Some actually leave, but mainly they stay here and complain. For example:

At the corner of Gordon and Ben-Yehuda streets, a man asks me how to get to Tel Aviv.

"We are in Tel Aviv," I tell him. "Where do you need to go?"

The Central Bus Station, he says. I point to the #4 bus stop and tell him he could also take a sherut, a 10-seat taxi which costs less and stops anywhere you want along the #4 line. He thanks me and heads across the street.

A moment later, he is back, apologizing for his confusion. "I spend all my time in Tel Aviv, but always only passing through," he says.

He has been in Israel since 1951, he says, and would leave in a minute, if he could. His Hebrew bears an accent which I don't recognize. I had taken him for a tourist or recent immigrant.

"Give me a passport that doesn't say 'Israel,' doesn't say 'Jew,' and I'll be gone," he says. "Okay, it could say 'Jew,' but not 'Israel.' But how could I ever get such a passport? It will not happen. But if it could happen, I would leave today."

"I could move to Australia," he continues. "They have interesting animals."

I tell him he can find desert animals here in Israel, too. And many grains of sand.

"Only scorpions and ants," he replies. "And crime and corruption and bribery."

I ask what work he does. He says he is a technician for textile machinery, but it turns out that this is not exactly the case. Israel's textile industry has been in decline for years, and the factory where he worked no longer exists. He now works as a security guard.

We introduce ourselves. Abraham (not his real name) tells me he is 63 years old and has just been to a job interview. In his line of work, employers force him to change jobs every 10 months or so, before he can acquire employment security and rights to benefits. He is making 19.90 shekels an hour (less than $6 at the current exchange of the falling U.S. dollar).

Abraham came to Israel at age 5. He fought in three wars and has three adult children. His mother, age 80, receives 1,120 shekels a month (about $325) in national insurance, Israel's counterpart of Social Security. When she still owned her apartment, she was ineligible for this aid. She sold the apartment, and her geriatric-care expenses ate up the proceeds. Abraham's father died at 87. Abraham had a grandfather who lived to be almost 100 here. He smoked, drank alcohol, ate spicy foods and met his end when an Israeli driver struck him down.

Abraham's family is from Shiraz, in Iran. After coming to Israel, they lived in an immigrant camp. Later the authorities sent them to become farmers. "We had no agricultural experience since the grandfather of my grandfather," Abraham says. In Iran, they owned a textile factory.

Abraham says his dream is to return to Shiraz. He still has family there.

"Look at it on the internet," he says. "You'll see beautiful gardens."

We do not discuss the recent student demonstrations in Shiraz, nor the arrests of Jews there in recent years, nor the blood-libel pogrom of 1910.

Life is good for Jews in Iran, Abraham says. To get along in Iran, he says, a Jew needs to observe three rules. He enumerates:

1) "Your shirt," he says. "You could not go on the street in something like this." I am wearing a short-sleeved black t-shirt imprinted with a big, flamboyant cartoon of a rapper. It was a birthday present from my family. Short sleeves and immodest dress aren't acceptable in Iran, Abraham says.

2) No talking about Zionism in Iran.

3) No talking politics of any kind.

Having said this, Abraham returns to complaining about Israel. He delivers a diatribe against the government, the Prime Minister, the police, the people who give traffic tickets, the city government, and especially the politicians. It does not seem to embarrass him to be expressing threats and dreams which we both know he won't fulfill.

If our conversation were taking place in Iran, Abraham would of course be in serious violation of his rule #3, the warning against talking politics. But we are in Israel, and Abraham shows no fear of proclaiming his political views to a stranger on a Tel Aviv street corner.

---Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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