My plan was to sleep a few hours on the flight, but it turned out to be too short. By the time they finished dinner, we were less than three hours from Frankfurt. One of the drawbacks, I guess, to flying from Boston. By the time we landed in Germany, I was really tired. Waiting over twenty minutes for a coffee from the stand by the gate didn't improve my mood. I chatted with my colleagues and finally they called us to the flight.
When I sat down in the middle seat, my row was empty, but the row in front of me was full. Suddenly, the man on the aisle in front of me stood up. He looked as if he was in his late 60s, with silver, somewhat scraggly hair, and I was surprised that he was staring at me.
"Hello," I said.
"Hello, I'm Albert," he replied.
"I'm Jeff," I responded.
"When you were in the terminal," he began, "you were talking very loudly. The whole terminal could hear you. Could you lower your voice?"
As you can imagine, I was very taken aback, particularly since I hadn't said a word since boarding the plane. I tried to make a joke of it, noting that many people have told me that I "don't have an indoor voice."
"Well, as you can see," he replied, "I'm whispering," which he was.
I then told him, truthfully, that I simply can't tell how loud I'm speaking. He reiterated his request that I not talk loud and sat back down.
I was just stunned and my colleague across the aisle rolled her eyes at me in disbelief. My my row mates joined me, one asked for the middle seat, so I took the window in the hope that I might fall asleep. In fact, I did sleep for about an hour on the flight.
During the flight my colleague across the aisle decided to be somewhat provocative by starting a rather loud conversation about "homonationalism" and "pink washing" with the exuberant colleague sitting next to me in the middle seat. A vigorous discussion ensued about the rise of anti-Israel and anti-gay and lesbian discourse in academia. I simply listened (happily) as the two talked loudly and extensively about this subject.
Now you might think that he or his wife intended to sleep on the four hour flight to Tel-Aviv, but no, he didn't. It wasn't an accident that my colleague brought up the topic of how extreme anti-Israel politics are permeating the social sciences to the point that any criticism of how LGBT people are treated in the Arab world is now presented as a form of western imperialism and "homonationalism." [She also was reading a collection of essays that made that point and it was infuriating her]. Both she and were convinced that his complaints to me were driven by homophobia.
Our theory was confirmed by his final comment to my colleagues. He didn't criticize her for the level of her voice, asking instead if we were with some Birthright group, when we are all 20-30 years older than anyone on Birthright (a program for college students). The assumption is that anyone discussing LGBT issues couldn't be an adult, let along a professor.
After we landed, they escorted us through passport control and customs. We still had to be checked, but it was the fastest I've ever had arriving in Israel. The air conditioned bus picked us up and took us to our hotel just above the Jerusalem Cinemateque. Formerly an ophthalmic hospital built in 1882, it was converted to a hotel decades ago. The rooms are quite nice:
In addition to finally being able to sleep in a real bed with a real mattress (though it really is two twin beds pushed together), there's a nice view and small little courtyards overlooking Gai ben Hinnom and Mt. Zion.
We had a welcome talk (which I struggled to keep my eyes open through) and then dinner in the hotel. Israeli watermelon is the best.
I managed to sleep 'til 6:30 and then I headed down to the buffet breakfasts. The hotel has a very nice breakfast spread.
After that we grabbed our passports and headed out to the Israeli Knesset, where we were scheduled to meet with three members of the Israeli Knesset. We met our guide Tal
and he took us to see the Chagall tapestries
and the Chagall mosaics
before we headed down to our meeting. I took extensive notes of the threetalks, so here's what we heard:
I. Benny Begin
Begin gave us a brief biography, emphasizing that he is a geologist. He has served in the cabinet, the “inner” cabinet, and as a simple member of Knesset. Currently he serves on three committees:
1. The Advancement of Women’s Status
2. The Interior Committee
3. The Judicial Committee
Rather than give us an organized talk he responded to questions.
Q: What do you think of the proposed Turkey-Israel agreement?
A: In the past, when I served in the cabinet, I was briefed on issues. Now, I’m not privy to inside information.
He spoke about the Turkish ship and how they never intended to kill nine passengers. At the same time he emphasized that they were “ill meant” and “not innocent.” The deaths, he said, resulted from lack of information at the time.
He also noted that a year later international law “cleared us from an international point of view” and the attack was “an act of self defense.” At other points he described them as “hoodlums” and “pro-terrorists.”
He claimed that if Israel allowed the ship through the blockade, it would be severely weakened and undermined. Turkey has agreed to this, he argued, as the new agreement specifies that any aid or material sent to Gaza, must first be screened in the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Q. What are your views on the disengagement with Gaza? What do you think Israel’s policy towards Gaza should be?
He began by saying “it was an irresponsible relinquishing of our historic land to a bunch of terrorists.” There were some 200 “security experts” who had published an ad saying that a unilateral withdrawal will improve Israel’s security. He likes to remind people of these claims. In fact, as a result, nearly a million Israelis were living in shelters two years ago. He likes to remind the public of these earlier claims.
This reflects the failure of peace negotiations under Barak and Arafat. “They are not ready to talk peace with the one and only Jewish state.”
“Abu Mazen, from a Palestinian point of view, is not considered a legitimate leader.”
“There is no peace agreement that can be negotiated with Hamas or the PLO.”
Q: What are the greatest challenges to the democratic process in Israel?
A: “I don't think they are greater than those in other democracies, including the US of A and including Europe.”
“The greatest internal challenge is the advancement of the Arab minority in this country.” He then highlighted Netanyahu’s recent initiative including transportation funding.
Q: What do you think will happen first: Israel will destroy its nuclear weapons or Israel will use its nuclear weapons?
A: He repeatedly claimed not to understand the question and instead argued that “no government can tolerate nuclear weapons in Iran.” He described the recen P5 + 1 agreement with Iran as “disgusting and dangerous,” and claimed that it “actually legitimizes the pursuit of nuclear weapons in Iran after 11 or 12 years.” He argued that the agreement “allows Iran to develop long-range nuclear missiles.”
“We cannot and do not live on borrowed time.”
Q: What would he like the next U.S. president to do?
A: Since the 1960s, when Kennedy (or Johnson) began to provide defensive military aid to Israel, “with some bumps under Reagan,” the military and security relationship between Israel and the US has “deepened and widened, including under Obama.” It’s not just material, but also intelligence.
Q: What do you think about the two-state solution?
A: “This is our country, it includes Judea and Samaria and Gaza. Jews must be allowed to settle and live as a community in every part of our historic homeland. It should be considered inconceivable to allow a Jewish community in Shilo, Ohio, and not in the original, historic Shilo, 30 miles from Jerusalem!”
He then discussed the limits, he feels, on the ability of the PLO to make and implement a peace agreement.
II. Michal Biran
A young (38) member of the Knesset and on the Zionist Union list, Biran had an unsusual path to parliament. Until she was 27, she lived in a commune focusing on informal education. In the end, though, she decided that it was too socialist for her and she wanted to find a way to influence society without being so poor.
She looked for another way and tried working for an NGO that focused on exploited laborers, but then found that the same NGO exploited its laborers. After that she worked as an assistant to a parliamentarian. Each member of Knesset gets two positions for assistants, but she found that some were subdividing those positions to three or four, with each only getting a portion of a salary. She lobbied the Knesset to eliminate the practice and she won (though existing partial assistants were grandfathered in so as not to lose their jobs.
In the election of 2000 (or 2002 – it’s hard to read my notes), labor won 11 seats (down from a height of 44). The joke was that “every time you heard an ambulance another Labor voter just died.” The party was looking to revive itself as Zionist, social democrat, and pragmatic. Biran was elected chairperson of Young Labor, the first woman to serve in that position. There, she began the process of first rebuilding Young Labor and then the party as a whole. She was elected to the Knesset, where her focus has been on pension and health policies.
Q: What challenges does she see facing Israel?
A: Biran identified three major challenges:
1) the social and economic challenge
Israel was built very differently that the US – with social solidarity. It is a universal welfare state. Right wing governments have eroded that state, leading some to seek private alternatives. The result is that if you are middle class, it is more expensive to live in Israel than elsewhere; but if you are poor, sick, or elderly, it is far less expensive to live here than elsewhere.
2) The resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians
“I’m a Zionist,” she said. “I’m proud to be a part of the movement to build the State of Israel and a just society.
“I say ‘conflict’ and not ‘occupation,’ because this is not an occupation, but a conflict between two nations. Either you think the conflict is temporary, and then you don’t have to give them citizenship because you intend to divorce, or you think the conflict is permanent,” and you either make them citizens and lose the Jewish state, or give up democracy. “Time is against us.”
3) The democratic challenge
Biran noted the rise of Trump, Victor Orban, and Brexit and concluded that “people are tired of living responsibly.” “People are scared and when they are scared they are easy to incite.”
Q: What were the long-term consequences of the Occupy Tel-Aviv movement? Have any of their goals been achieved?
A: Biran described how she was working as a TA at Tel Aviv University during the campaign. Before the campaign, she was the only social democrat TA that she knew. After Occupy Tel-Aviv, the students changed; they became much more supportive of social democracy.
She then discussed Kahalon’s election campaign before Occupy Tel-Aviv and how his housing policy was to emphasize free market solutions. Now, he is looking to regulate the supply. Since the government provides almost all land for developers, it can require them to commit that a portion of the units built will be sold at affordable prices. So the movement is influencing, but the periphery still feels cut off.
Q: What percentage of the Knesset is female? How has being a woman … [Biran’s answer cut off the rest of the question]
A: 26% of the Knesset is female. The Labor and Meretz, and other left or centrest parties require that a certain number of slots on their lists be reserved for women. Not true of the Likkud or the religious parties. Biran won her first appearance on the list due to this requirement. But, she emphasized, not her second appearance. This, she said, was the typical pattern.
Q: The Holocaust is an important reference point in relation to Germany. Are there others? What is the effect of the Syrian migrants?
A: The relationship between Israel and Germany shows that there can be a better future with the Palestinians. That’s why we need reality, not requiring the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Had in the 1950s, West Germany demanded that Israel accede to normal relations, it never would have happened. Instead, over time, generations changed. Now Germany is a model for human rights. They can also serve as facilitators for progress between Israelis and Palestinians.
Regarding the Syrian refugees, we have to distinguish between questions of pluralism and questions of immorality. She turned back to the problems of rebuilding labor. “We needed to bring in new partners,” but had to be careful not to compromise on fundamental ethical values.
“Everyone is a racist, but the difference between the left and right is shame.” “My rule of thumb: how do we treat people?” If it’s just a difference in names, or food, or customs, then we need to ignore it. But if it’s a difference in fundamental values (e.g. women’s equality) than we can’t compromise.
III. Ayoob Kara
Mr. Kara is a Druze member of the Likkud party and described himself as being more Zionist than many Jews. He works in the Ministry of Regional Cooperation, working with Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. He is also head of the campaign against ISIS and against terror in Lebanon.
He described the Muslim world as split between two kinds of fanaticism: the Shi’a part, led by Iran; and the Sunni part, led by the Saudis. The Shi’a part was religious fanaticism, while the Saudi part was civil fanaticism.
It was very dangerous, he said, for Israel to do any withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. ISIS was a big problem, and you don’t want them moving into these areas.
“We accept that we want to live in the Middle East as Jews and as two states in the Middle East, but Israel needs to be in control.”
He made it clear he was not in favor of the peace process. The Palestinians, he argued, were not partners in the process. An agreement would be a big mistake, like Gaza.
“The problem of the Middle East was not the Jews but extremism. If we give them a state, they will be extremists.” “The Muslims say one thing in English, and then a different thing in Arabic.”
Q: When you say that all Muslims say one thing in English, but another thing in Arabic then you are a racist.
A: I don’t say all Muslims. 90% 99% don’t do this. But the leadership, the Muslim leadership say different things.
Q: Since you made it clear that you oppose a two state solution, how do you envision a one-state solution?
A: Israel should read arrangements with its Arab neighbors. They can negotiate a solution for the Palestinians. Now, there is no leadership among the Palestinians who can negotiate a solution. “There are too many addresses; no one can control them.”
As I looked, an Israeli told me that they had all been on the ship, but I soon realized he was being sarcastic. I decided to pose with the founder of Revisionist Zionism and the inspiration for the Irgun: Vladimir Jabotinksy, but do so in a way to indicate I didn't like him:
Afterwards we headed down for lunch at a mall in Bet Shemesh (great schnitzel baguettes):
And then to meet with a modern Orthodox guy who lives in the city and who could tell us about the ongoing conflicts between the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox in the town. Due to overcrowding in Jerusalem and Bnai Brak, many haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews have settled in the town and now dominate city politics. Conflict has erupted between the groups as they try to expand and move the modern orthodox out. He guided us through the various haredi newspapers, and then drove us around the town, where we could see signs warning girls and women shopping in a local mall to dress modestly. Local residents won a court battle to have the signs taken down, but the deadline is next week and the signs are still up.
Because of heavy traffic on the main highway, we took the back way to Jerusalem. This was fantastic as it meant we would be going by Moshav Bar Giora, a small backwater village I lived in for three months in the summer of 1984 when I was in a program called Sherut La'am. Normally the summer ulpan (language program) was held in Tiberias, but because large numbers of Ethiopian refugees were arriving they dumped us in a decrepit youth hostel in the middle of nowhere. The youth hostel owner embezzled the food money so my weight dropped from 156 to 138 over two months. In fact, my weight has never been stable since.
The hills around the moshav are still quite beautiful:
Sure enough we passed the sign to the moshav
and I could see the chicken coops:
Eventually, I think I made out the youth hostel, and thankfully, it looked closed.
But instead of turning left and heading down in the valley and then coming up to Jerusalem through Ein Kerem, we turned right onto the West Bank.
One one side was the Palestinian village of Husan, on the other was the haredi settlement of Betar Ilit.
Our guide said we could tell which was the Arab village by the black-colored water tanks on the roof. It seemed to me we could tell by the poorer economic infrastructure a lot easier.
We made our way through the countryside
and eventually cross back into Israel. We weren't done for the day, though. We met our guide around 5 pm for a walking tour of the Christian quarter.
As she was describing the various denominations that inhabit the quarter we could hear Gregorian chants in the distance. It turns out that a Franciscan monk had passed away and his funeral procession went past where we were standing.
All Christian processions are accompanied by fez-wearing guards who carry large sticks that pound the pavement.
After that we headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and then up to the roof over the meeting place of four quarters.
By then it was after 7 pm, so we made our way back to the Jaffa Gate to meet our bus.
This seems to have set the pace for the trip. Each day is broken into three parts, beginning around 8 or 8:30 am, and ending between 7 and 8 pm.
Today, we had to be in the lobby by 8:30 am to head to Yad Vashem. I've been there several times and I teach this subject so I really wasn't too interested in seeing it yet again. I spent most of my time in the museum of Holocaust art. I really like the artist Felix Nussbaum (murdered in 1944 after having been captured in hiding in Belgium), and they have several of his paintings:
They also have a very powerful drawing by Leo Haas depicting conditions in Theresienstadt (he was deported to Auschwitz with many of the other artists in 1944, but was lucky enough to survive):
Ballad of the Terezin Ghetto (1943)
After that, we headed to the Institute for Israeli Democracy where we heard presentations on their efforts to create a model constitution for Israel.
Most of the conversations focused on the position of Palestinians in a Jewish state, but I was interested in what they said about the role of religion in the state. In their model there would still be no separation of religion and state, but each religion, and denomination, would be recognized and supported by the state, including, by implication Reform and Conservative Judaism. In addition, they proposed the creation of a kind of civil marriage. Called "ברית זוּגוֹת" (literally "a covenant of partnership"), it would in effect be marriage without using the word, and thus not creating the need for a religious divorce.
We left around 5 pm and I was again starting to drift to sleep, but we still had one more stop: Ma'aleh, a film school in Jerusalem with religious values (no nudity or depictions of sex in the films). In addition to giving each of us a film on DVD that corresponds to our teaching or research interests, they screened three student films for us: Barriers, Willingly, and The Little Dictator. Each of the films were quite good, but I'm too tired right now to describe them in detail. Maybe tomorrow (though then again, we will have a very busy day).
After dinner, a group of us walked to Kikar Tzion. I broke away to go to the Tmol Shilshom coffee shop and bookstore to write all this up, while the rest went window shopping on Ben Yehuda.
While I was writing, the owner of the cafe was chatting with a Jewish American author (didn't recognize him). Afterwards I went to Babette's Feast, a hole-in-the-wall dessert place specializing in Belgian waffles:
I ordered a half and half: half warm chocolate sauce, half whipped cream.
I asked for a spoon, but the waitress said "one eats it like a pizza." After that I took the 20 minute walk back to the hotel.