Sunday, April 27, 2008

Racism and Israel

A Jewish woman in the United States has sent a question to the Zionism and Israel Information Center. She is planning a visit to Israel and asks: "How would I be treated if I decided to make Israel my home?" She describes herself as an African-American convert to Judaism, active in her local synagogue.

She expressed concern about discrimination and asked what the Israel government is doing to combat racism.

Here is a response.

Dear ____:

How would you be treated as an immigrant to Israel? No one can answer with certainty, but I'll tell you two things I have learned in 25 years of life here.

1) Israel is not the United States. The two societies are very different from each other. U.S. terms and concepts often do not apply to Israel. If you want to use them, you need to append lots of footnotes and clarifications to explain why they don't really mean the same thing.

Discrimination exists in Israel, but it is not what Barack Obama was talking about in his celebrated speech about race in the United States. He spoke of "the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."

The concept that people belong to different races is foreign to Israel. The Israel government doesn't issue forms asking us to identify ourselves by race according to six official racial classifications, as is done in the states. Israel has no background of segregation based on race, nor of laws forbidding miscegenation, nor, above all, of chattel slavery.

2) Israel's population comprises scores of different ethnic and national groups jostling one another to attain their place in a society that still hasn't developed a unitary Israeli culture.

Prejudice and discrimination in Israel express themselves in Israeli terms. These reflect the society. The biases are mainly ethnic, cultural, religious, economic and political. Ethnic humor is acceptable, and ethnic slurs often go unpunished. To the extent that a person's skin color matters in Israel, its only significance is that it may point to their ethnic or cultural affiliation. It does not signify that anyone is racially inferior or superior.

My guess, from what you have related about yourself, is that people in Israel will not readily know how to apply the standard Israeli categories to you, and this could give you a good shot at defining yourself.

Israelis often don't know what to make of Americans. Popular stereotypes see Americans as naive, unduly square or easily manipulated. Quite a few Israelis can quote "ask not what your country can do for you" from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address but seem never to have heard the part where JFK said "civility is not a sign of weakness." Our media know about U.S. identity politics but insist on using the discarded term "Afro-American."

What is the government doing about racism? As noted, Israel has many internal problems but they don't involve race. The solutions to social welfare problems generally depend on which political parties are in power.

Unfortunately, anti-Israel racism is a problem, and the government does have to deal with it internationally.


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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sounds of music in a city more crowded than Gaza

Some people will tell you that Gaza is the most crowded place on earth. Actually, Tel Aviv (aerial view at right) is much more densely populated than Gaza.

The first modern Hebrew city, not quite 100 years old, has already managed to cram almost 400,000 residents into its 51.8 square kilometers. This makes Tel Aviv more densely populated than Hong Kong or Singapore, which in turn are much more crowded than Gaza. (A note on comparative crowding appears below, at the end of this post.)

The other night at the seder, we sang loudly and made other noise. Some 20 of us, representing three generations, sat around a ping-pong table covered with white tablecloths in a central Tel Aviv backyard and sang Passover songs. No neighbors complained about the noise. From time to time, we could hear singing from other buildings.

A guest at the table remarked that nowhere but Israel would you hear voices from house after house, all singing the same traditional songs. Whether or not this is the case, it is true that sounds from apartments can be heard around the neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, especially in the mild months when windows are open. In a one-block stroll, you may hear my neighbors playing piano, various woodwinds, drums or electric guitar.

A trumpet player in the neighborhood used to walk down to the Mediterranean at night to find an empty place on the beach where he could play without an audience. One afternoon he was playing at home, fooling around with some improvised passages, and another trumpet answered from elsewhere in the neighborhood. The windows were open, and a fellow trumpeter had overheard his experimentation. He never found out who the other, unseen musician was.

The beach no longer offers much solitude at night. Tourists and local people in growing numbers visit the beachfront after dark. A cafe on a northern stretch of beach now stays open around the clock.

Even the rooftops of Tel Aviv don't provide much privacy. One recent day, a musician stood alone on a roof in the next block, playing jazz on a saxophone. Attracted by the sound, I listened from the rooftop where I live, 75 meters away.

It was a special event. I have heard this saxophonist perform with groups in concert halls, festivals, night spots and other venues. In years of living in the neighborhood, I had never seen him up on the roof before. If he had gone up there in search of privacy, he picked the wrong place.

A telephone rang and I went inside to answer it. When I got back outside moments later, the music had stopped and the other roof was empty. I don't know if the saxophonist had noticed that he had an audience, or whether he simply had finished what he wanted to play. I wonder if others in our crowded city got to enjoy his rooftop solo, too.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv


A note on crowded places

The canard that Gaza is the most crowded place on earth continues to circulate.

The UK politician George Galloway wrote in The Glasgow Record last month that the Gaza Strip is "the most densely populated piece of earth on the planet." Galloway wrote that 1.5 million Palestinians live there.

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist currently teaching at Princeton, wrote March 26 that Gaza is "one of the most densely populated places on earth, with 3,823 people per square kilometre." Kuttab's figure is in line with recent Gaza population estimates of 1.4 million.

If Galloway's estimate of 1.5 million Gaza population is correct, this is almost 4,200 people per square kilometer. The Central Intelligence Agency projects that the Gaza population will reach 1,537,269 in July. This would bring the density to 4,270 people per square kilometer.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong have more than 6,000 people per square kilometer. Tel Aviv has more than 7,000 people per square kilometer. If you count the suburbs of Tel Aviv, the metropolitan area with its population of 2.3 million has a density of more than 5,000 people per square kilometer, which is considerably more crowded than the Gaza Strip as reckoned by Galloway or Kuttab or the CIA.

Selected estimates of population density:

27,209 people/sq km

24,000 people/sq km

Tel Aviv
7,445 people/sq km
(385,000 people, 51.8 sq km)

Hong Kong
6,352 people/sq km

6,252 people/sq km

5,100 people/sq km

Tel Aviv metro area including suburbs
5,050 people/sq km
(2.3 million people, 453 sq km)

4,900 people/sq km

4,750 people/sq km

4,300 people/sq km

Gaza Strip per CIA projection
4,270 people/sq km
(1,537,269 population July 2008, 360 sq km)

Gaza Strip per George Galloway
4,167 people/sq km
(1.5 million people, 360 sq km)

Gaza Strip per Daoud Kuttab
3,822 people/sq km

The numbers for London, Tel Aviv metro area, Moscow, Tokyo/Yokohama and Warsaw are from the City Mayors site.


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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Proofreader's Guide to Israel

The sign in the photo, captured at the Central Bus Station in Afula some time ago, offers you a hamburger in two languages---in Hebrew, and in mangled English as a "humborger."

Israel is rich in misspelled foreign words. A bakery sign in Tel Aviv advertised a "corazon" (a heart in Spanish). This is a blue-and-white improvised spelling of "croissant." It roughly approximates how the French word sounds when pronounced with a Hebrew accent.

The country's nonchalance about misusing foreign languages goes beyond spelling. The other day I was talking with someone in a Tel Aviv cafe. A cheerful server heard us speaking English, so she offered to bring us an English menu. We told her the Hebrew menu was fine. We addressed her in Hebrew, which both of us spoke better than she could speak English. Nonetheless, she persisted in speaking English to us, and she replaced the Hebrew specials-of-the-day card with an English card.

If you are a tourist, this treatment might be both helpful and charming. If you are a long-term speaker of Hebrew, it is something else. A widely accepted explanation for this behavior is that Israelis like to practice their English. Darker factors may also be at work.

A neighbor in Tel Aviv used to shout to me in English on the sidewalk. At times when she did address me in Hebrew, she would speak loudly and slowly, mouthing each word separately as if to suggest that I would not otherwise understand. Her attempts at linguistic one-upmanship stopped only when she moved away.

Last year this former neighbor and her family showed up in the Sinai at the same beach where I was staying. For the rest of her stay, this woman spoke to me loudly in clumsy English, even when I replied to her in Hebrew and even when she could see I was reading a Hebrew novel. Her lack of English skills never seemed to deter her.

A local blogger has complained about this phenomenon in treatment of new immigrants: "Scenario #2: An oleh chadash is hanging out with a bunch of Israelis. He is speaking in his best Hebrew and keeping up with the crew. Yet, despite this, the Israelis insist on speaking in stupid, broken English."

Back to misspellings. Last weekend, a newspaper printed a story about a couple of misspellings of French that appeared in a leaflet which the city government distributed in tourist hotels. Our officials misspelled "ce soir" as "se soir," and "Jeudi" as "Jedi."

The weekly Tel Aviv Time quoted Deputy Mayor Per Visner, head of the local Greens party, as brushing off the official display of ignorance with a couple of jokes and a non-apologetic comment. According to the newspaper, he commented that the errors weren't intentional, that mistakes always happen, and that they didn't cause great embarrassment.

A separate statement from City Hall disavowed responsibility for the spelling gaffes. It stressed that an advertising agency prepared and distributed the leaflets, that the misspellings were the fault of a French-speaking volunteer, and that the bottom-line result was that most of the hotel guests complied with the leaflet's request that they turn off their lights for one hour in observance of Earth Hour on March 27.

Many Israelis would second City Hall's suggestion that results count and spelling doesn't. In this country, which has accomplished so much in only 60 years, it is a national article of faith that results speak louder than words.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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