Sunday, May 18, 2008

How some Israelis view the United States

[Here is some old material that remains pertinent. Three years ago my college alumni magazine produced a roundup of articles on how Americans are viewed in eight countries around the world. They asked me to write about Israel. -- J.M.H.]

“Don’t look at me like that,” a man’s voice rings out in American English. It resonates over the Hebrew buzz of a Tel Aviv shopping mall. “I’m not going to steal anything from you,” the American snaps at the manager of a newsstand that sells foreign magazines.

The newsstand manager replies in Israeli-accented English. “What’s the problem? Why must you talk this way? I didn’t say anything to you. We are brothers.” Brothers they may not be, but they are about the same age, in their late 20s or early 30s.

As people do in Israel, I butt in. I ask the American if he has been here long. He says he arrived only recently. He is on military duty. We talk for awhile. The American is black. I tell him he will find that people here don’t view skin color the way Americans do. He returns his attention to the magazine racks for a few minutes and then vanishes into the crowd.

“He thought you were staring at him,” I tell the shopkeeper, explaining that a white man staring at a black man in the United States might provoke some discomfort.

“In America, they’d think I’m white?” asks the magazine seller, whose olive skin marks him in Israel as of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern background — historically, a group that has suffered discrimination by fellow Jews of European origin. He tells me that he spent a couple of years in the States — in Seattle and California — and was not aware of racism. He was living there illegally and thought it best not to divulge his nationality. He told everyone he was Italian — which went over well with women, he adds. He loves America and would move there in a minute, he says, if he could get the immigration papers.

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, friends and neighbors express various views of the United States and its people. Moshe, who owns a stationery store, says Americans are “freiers” — an evocative Israeli term of disapproval that is variously rendered as “suckers” or “pushovers” or “gullible victims.” Moshe explains: “They go to places where they don’t belong — Iraq, Afghanistan. They try to be the police force of the whole world. They should stay home and attend to their own problems.”

Hannah, a school administrator, finds fault with U.S. family life. Adult children move away and see their parents only once or twice a year, she says, and even college students leave home to study. Accustomed to a society where the generations are reunited every Sabbath, she sees the way Americans live as cold and fragmented.

Mazal, a beauty-shop operator and mother of a combat pilot, is impressed with the U.S. work ethic. Even the richest Americans insist that their children find jobs, she believes.

Some years ago an Israeli journalist wrote about U.S. supermarkets. What struck him was the impersonal way in which store clerks told him to have a nice day. Later, a book by a pair of cross-cultural consultants found that Israelis often see Americans as insincere, naive, superficial, too formal, lacking spontaneity, insistent on going by the book rather than improvising, and easily taken advantage of.

Mordechai, a jewelry designer who has visited 11 U.S. states, thinks differently. The first word that comes to mind when he is asked about Americans is “kind.” He adds that the Americans who visit his shop in Tel Aviv are not stingy the way French tourists are.

I tell Mordechai he is generalizing. “I know that,” he says, smiling.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

(Cross-posted at ZioNation: Progressive Zionism and Israel Web Log)

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Arabic voices, and the faces of Ma'alot

It is memorial day, and we are waiting for the start of a ceremony for the war dead in Ma'alot, a small Israeli city near the Lebanon border. We already know more or less what the speakers will say. They talk every year about the heartrending loss of young soldiers' lives as the price of protecting the country.

While we wait, people sitting behind me are chatting in Arabic. Three of the four local people killed in the Second Lebanon War were young Arab civilians. They were Shanati Shanati, 18, Amir Naeem, 18, and Muhammed Fa'ur, 17. A direct hit by a Hezbollah katyusha rocket killed them Aug. 3, 2006. They had been riding together in a jeep and got out to take cover.

The fourth local victim was Sgt. Maj. Moti Abutbul, 28, a member of Flotilla 13, an elite unit that is sometimes likened to the U.S. Navy SEALS. A katyusha killed Abutbul and 11 other Israeli soldiers Aug. 7, 2006, near Kfar Giladi.

We saw the faces of the local dead last night. On every memorial eve Ma'alot shows the faces of its dozens of fallen soldiers and terror victims, displaying them one by one on a big outdoor projection screen. Brief narration accompanies each photograph, telling when and how the person died. As each face appears, a family representative mounts the stage and lights a memorial candle.

Arab family members showed up last night to light candles for the recent victims. They chose again today to take part in a program in memory of the Israel war dead. A Jewish high school put together the program today.

Whatever meaning you may read into this, it is something to set alongside current media reports which suggest that Arabs have nothing on their minds except the notion of the Nakba, the disaster which some say resulted from the birth of the state of Israel. In Ma'alot, life is much more complicated than that, and coexistence is a daily event.

---Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Monday, May 5, 2008

That's better. A 60th birthday logo that doesn't tear Israel apart

Without fanfare, a cleaned-up version of Israel's official 60th anniversary logo has started turning up.

The revised logo appeared in a government advertisement in the Haaretz newspaper's May 2 Hebrew weekend magazine. What's new about it is that the country's name --- ישראל --- no longer is torn apart. It now appears as one unbroken word.

The original logo, which won a prize from a committee that picked it, ripped Israel into two unequal pieces, leaving "el" floating by itself, separated from the rest of the country's name. This typographic atrocity appeared in both the English and the Hebrew versions. There was no apparent reason for it, unless perhaps the committee that chose this logo thought it looked more original than competing designs which spelled the country's name the same old way that everyone else spells it.

The revised logo already decorates the website of the official 60th Anniversary Administration. The old design continues to appear in many other places. At this writing, these include the websites of the Prime Minister's office and a public relations firm which is promoting the birthday events.

Thousands of visitors to this blog have seen our September 2007 article finding fault with the old logo. We kvetched, "At first glance, the winning logo seems to express the confusion that afflicts Israel in many ways today. Even the country's name is typographically ripped apart."

It would be nice to think that our criticism helped bring about the change, but we could not have been alone in complaining. You don't have to be a design genius to see that the old logo didn't look good. The new logo is a big improvement.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Myth, legend and fact in the 1947 Exodus episode

The word "mythological" is taking hold of the Hebrew media. Listen to a broadcast or read a newspaper and you will encounter this fad. People who should know better are lavishing the term "mythological" on various actual entities---an outstanding athlete, a sports team, a rock group, a local landmark, a record album that sold well.

It's not only newspeople who are representing our realities as myth. The distinguished author David Grossman referred in a British newspaper to David Ben-Gurion as "Israel's mythological first prime minister." A big-name business promoter recently described our military command center as "one of Israel's most mythological institutions."

This is misuse. "Legendary" is probably what they meant. Real-life subjects are not "mythological," a term that belongs to dragons, unicorns and the Tooth Fairy. Are we having a problem distinguishing between reality and fantasy?

Hold the question. Last week some 300 people including President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak gathered in Tel Aviv's London Park for a tribute to the late Yossi Harel, who commanded the refugee ship "Exodus 1947." Harel died April 26 at age 90.

The ceremony took place at the monument to Aliyah Bet in the little seaside park. Speaker after speaker took the trouble to say thanks to the departed Harel. This was a pointed reminder that the State of Israel never got around to awarding the Israel Prize to Harel in recognition of his contributions to the country.

Last week a Hebrew newspaper columnist found irony in Harel's words of acceptance when the Italian government conferred on him its Exodus prize in 2007. This prize, awarded for promoting peace and humanitarianism, is named for a refugee ship that Harel commanded. The Israeli hero thanked his Italian hosts "for teaching your children our history."

A headline on an Israeli obituary referred to Harel as "the real Ari Ben Canaan." This was a reference to the fictional refugee ship commander and hero of Leon Uris's 1957 novel "Exodus." Harel was widely said to be the inspiration if not the model for the dashing Ari, portrayed by Paul Newman in Otto Preminger's 1960 movie adaptation.

It is not surprising that the word "mythological" appeared in what was written about Harel after his death. In real life, Harel commanded four Haganah vessels that transported 24,000 refugees from Europe in the clandestine maritime operations which Zionists called Aliyah Bet and which Britain called "illegal immigration." One of these vessels was the Exodus 1947, a dilapidated former excursion liner crewed by North American volunteers and captained by Isaac "Ike" Aronowitz, a 23-year-old Israeli who had served in the British merchant marines. Aronowitz, who regarded Harel as a political commissar and disputed some of his command decisions, has also been called the original Ari Ben Canaan.

Uris put a disclaimer on the first page of his book: "There may be persons alive who took part in events similar to those described in this book. It is possible, therefore, that some of them may be mistaken for characters in this book. Let me emphasize that all characters in Exodus are the complete creation of the author, and entirely fictional."

The story of the real-life Exodus is largely forgotten today. It includes fascinating behind-the-scenes elements which resulted in a public drama after a Royal Navy convoy captured the crowded Exodus at sea July 18, 1947. Built to carry only 400 passengers and a crew of 58, the ship had escaped from a French port on July 11 with more than 4,500 Jewish refugees aboard. In the July 18 battle, three Jews were killed and 28 others hospitalized. Harel, Captain Ike and other underground members evaded capture by a standard Haganah ruse. They went to hiding places aboard ship. After the Exodus docked at Haifa, a work detail of Jews came aboard at Haifa to clean the filthy vessel, and the fugitives walked off among them.

With the capture of the Exodus, the British government decided to "teach the Jews a lesson," as Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin put it. Until then, the British policy had been to intern captured Jews in camps on Cyprus. Under a new policy, the government ordered the Exodus passengers returned to their port of embarkation in France.

Except for some 60 infirm and elderly refugees who went ashore in France, the Jews staged a hunger strike off the French coast and refused to debark from the prison ships on which they were confined. After a standoff of more than three weeks, with political criticism and negative news coverage mounting, Britain sent the prison ships to Hamburg, Germany, and put the Jews ashore there by force on Sept. 8, 1947.

The bravery of the Exodus passengers and crew may well have hastened the end of British rule here, as a result of the international attention and anti-British feeling which this series of events generated.

A much different incident takes place in the fictional "Exodus." In the book, 300 Jewish orphans proclaim a hunger strike at Cyprus aboard an old salvage tug renamed the Exodus, and they win British agreement to sail for the promised land. Nothing like this ever happened.

A brief synopsis of the real Exodus story does appear in the novel "Exodus," in Chapter 27 of Book I. It is not an important element in the plot, and it does not convey the political impact of the actual Exodus voyage.

The impact of the fictional Exodus has been immeasurable in other ways. This has to do with the story's epic sweep, in which the Aliyah Bet sequences are only a small part. In their times, both the book and the movie offered compelling presentations of the story of Israel's founding.

Many things about Harel's life are not publicly known. After his major role in Aliyah Bet, he went on to other activities which included Israeli intelligence and private business. He was only 28 when he commanded the Exodus. As a teenaged Haganah member, he served under Orde Wingate, the legendary British Zionist exponent of Jewish self-defense.

Friends and admirers have been remembering Harel as a person of great leadership ability, bravery, personal charm, negotiating skills and modesty. The author Yoram Kaniuk reminisced about Harel's concern for Armenian victims of genocide. The radio personality Natan Zehavi wrote a column in Ma'ariv on May 2 recalling that Harel told him in 1988: "As someone who spent many years transporting refugees, I have special feelings on the subject. It doesn't matter to me if they are Jews, Vietnamese, Palestinians or Indians. It's necessary to help refugees and people who have been exiled from their country."

The Tel Aviv gathering in Harel's memory on April 28 ended with a musical conflation of myth wrapping itself around reality. The performer Haim Topol concluded the ceremony by singing an authentic song from Harel's youth. Then, as friends and family filed out of the Tel Aviv park for a busride up the coast to bury Harel at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, recorded music sounded on the speaker system. It was the theme song from the soundtrack of the movie "Exodus."

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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