Archive | March, 2012

Iowa Primaries in Galilee – Yair Lapid

30 Mar

It’s a cold March night in Kfar Tavor, Israel.  Okay, it’s not as cold as Des Moines but the two to three hundred people that assembled for the scheduled lecture welcome the heat inside the auditorium.   There’s no apple pie and fried chicken and corn bread to go around.  Here the self-hosted bar offers tea with lemon and mint leaves, turkish coffee, pretzels and rugelach pastry.  By nine the crowd stops milling about and take their seats.  I’m nursing a cough so I sit in the rear.  A spokeswoman introduces the speaker: Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid

Yair, age 49, steps onto the stage and under the lights.  He’s dressed in his signature black clothes: black slacks, black shirt, black jacket.  It has a slimming effect on this former amateur boxer.  He’ not terribly tall but he commands attention.  His good looks, solid jaw line, could sell Old Spice aftershave or a hedge fund.  In his youth he sported a tank top, wavy black hair and a dangling cigarette from his lips, an Israeli enfante terrible.  A microphone in hand he tells us briefly about the political journey that brought him to where he is – a contender in the upcoming Israel elections a year from now.  If there’s a name to his future party, he’s not sharing it with us.

Earlier this year he resigned from his post as a much-watched TV anchor to pursue a political career.  He’s still a columnist for Yediot, Israel’s most widely read paper.  He wants change and he wants it now.  He’s following in his late father’s footsteps, a former editor for Israel’s second largest daily newspaper and a later a parliament member.

Lapid is not a friend of slackers, of people getting a free ride.  He says, “This school year 50% of all first graders will be Orthodox Jews and Arabs.  What does that mean?”  A brief silence.  “In 18 years from now only 1 in 2 will serve in the Israeli military.  What does it bode for our national security, for the fabric of our nation?”

Mr. Lapid in Kfar Tavor

Lapid moves smoothly from one subject to the next.  If it’s rehearsed, it’s not noticeable.  He speaks of the housing crisis and the recent Social Protest last summer, a camp made of tents and thousands of youngsters in Tel Aviv’s Rothchild Boulevard, a protest that gave rise to similar protests in Europe and in the U.S.  “In Sweden it takes 40 salaries to buy a 3 bedroom home, in England 70.  In Israel 138.  What, is it twice as good here than it is in England?”  He begins to question whether true market forces are at play in dictating prices.  “Most of the land in Israel is government-owned.”  He makes mention of the Arabs by way of a question.  “How many new Arab settlements were established since 1948?  The answer: none.  They too are bursting at the seams.”

Mr. Atias, Israel’s Minister of Housing sees it differently.  He’s the head of Jewish Home party.  Because Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and head of his party, Likud, needs Atias and his votes to run the country, he submitted to Atia’s excercise in “Fuzzy Math.”  A young Israeli couple wanting to qualify for subsidized housing is awarded points for military service, national service.  Atias upended the apple cart by introducing another criteria: “years of marriage.”   To the unsuspecting, you’d think he wants to reward those who are stable and committed.  To secular Israelis it smacks of insanity.  Orthodox men and women don’t go the army, marry at 18.  By age 28 they acquired 10 points.  The secular Israeli who’d served in the military (awarded some points), finished at 21, went abroad for a year or two, completed his studies and shows up before the housing committee.  Points earned: 4 to 8.  Guess who gets into an apartment first?

“This irresponsible conduct has to stop,” Lapid says and scans the room.  “In Brooklyn Orthodox Jews work.  Why not here?”  He’s preaching to the choir here, mostly secular, men and women of middle class, in their early 50s who remember Israel differently, not necessarily better, but different.

During the last election 12 parties received votes.  Try and form a government with so many dancers. He’s pushing for constitutional reform.  Presently voters vote for their favorite party, not the likely to win, knowing their chosen party will partner with another.  Lapid wants the prime minister to come from the block with the most votes, to kick out the smaller guys, to do away with blackmail and horse-trading.  To date, 2% of the vote gets a party into Kenesset (parliament).  In the past Israel had parties for cab drivers, senior citizens.  He wants to raise the bar to 6%, to create larger parties.  And he doesn’t want the ruling party to constantly look over its back, to worry about a “no-confidence” vote that will bring down the government.  Italy has had 60 governments since World War II.  Lapid proposes a minimum of 2/3 vote to topple the government.  “Let the government do its work.”

Lapid hates big government.  I’m not sure if I’m coining a term here, but can he be called a “Jerusalem-outsider?”  He surrounds himself with experts from education, business, science and defense.  “Why does Germany get by with 16 ministers, France with 12, Switzerland with 7, and Israel with…36?”

I’m thinking: 35 to give instructions to the one guy changing a light bulb in the Kenesset?

He’s a social issues guy but he does veer into security matters and the future of Israel.  “If we are to remain a majority Jewish state, we must support a two-state solution with the Palestinians.  The present government doesn’t want to take responsibility.  It’s too tough.  It’s too boring.  Let’s continue to kick the can down the stairs.”  He’s not the first to sound the alarm, and he’s not the last to be labeled an alarmist.

I’m learning that while I lived in California, politics were equally explosive: abortion, gay rights, gun laws, separation of church and state, but to my mind, no matter how the country voted, it remained intact.

Can I say the same for Israel if 300,000 settlers in the Judea and Samaria (West Bank) are forced out in order to reach peace with the Arabs?  What kind of peace will it be?

The lecture is over, many questions are taken from the audience.  Applause.  It’s now time for fundraising and enlistment to the cause.  His spokeswoman at the podium says Lapid has 7000 volunteers.  Boots on the ground?  He wants more, to spread the word.  He’s crisscrossing the country with his own car, pays for his own gas.

Yair Lapid is not stepping into the Iowa snow, but he’s getting ready for the next round without his boxing gloves.  Lapid means “torch” in Hebrew.  Will he succeed in chasing away shadows?

Pink Floyd in Galilee (“Us and Them”)

19 Mar

Do you remember these lyrics from Pink Floyd?  “Us and Them – And after all we’re only ordinary men – Me, and you – God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.”

It’s obvious that given a choice, Jews (us) and Arabs (them) would opt to live apart.  The Galilee is 50% Jewish, 50% Arab.  Somehow the fractions do not make a whole.  The towns and villages here are segregated.  There are no Arabs in Kfar Tavor, where we live.  There are no Jews in Shibli or Daburiyyah, the neighboring Arab villages.  Yet, not a day goes by without “us” bumping into “them.”  The Arabs talk about us.  We talk about them.  When we’re in mixed company –  at the local store, a restaurant, construction site – we each speak our own secret language.  It’s mostly gestures, raised eyebrows, a whisper, a snicker, a jab of the elbow to call someone’s attention.  Below are a few snippets of how we communicate in our neck of the woods:

Undressing you without words:

Pnina, my twin daughters and I are sitting at the best falafel and hummus joint in Nein, an Arab village some fifteen minutes away.  Army generals, day laborers, farmers, Jews and Arabs come from far and wide to eat here.  The place is small, a handful of tables and an outdoor patio under sun umbrellas.  It’s anything but fancy; it shares space with a gas station.  The noise level is high.  Arab waiters carry plates of chicken skewers and eggplant dip.  Across from us are two Arab women, young and old.  Their faces are pleasant even though black hijabs (headscarves) veil their hair.  They’re undressing us with their eyes.  They eavesdrop on our every word, yet they pick up nothing since we’re speaking English to our daughters.  At every opportunity they smile, nod.  They must have said and thought a million things about us, the “Yahudi,” Jews in Arabic, but they share nothing.  We pay for our meal and leave.  They head us off by our car.  “Your daughters are so pretty, so well-mannered,” the younger woman says in perfect Hebrew.  It turns out they live in Daburiyyah.  The conversation quickly veers to food, cooking.  Pnina asks them about fresh goat cheese and where to get it.  Minutes later they exchange phone numbers and hugs.  “I’ll deliver the shepherd’s cheese to your house,” the older woman promises.  We get in the car and drive off.  They do the same.  We each return to our separate ways, to Arabic, to Hebrew, to our secluded communities.

Steimatzsky Bookstore - Tiberias

Name-Dropping is Optional:

A couple of weeks later Pnina and I drive to Tiberias to shop for winter clothes, boots.  The Sea of Galilee is gray, as is the sky.  It’s a great day to go into a Steimatzky bookstore.  I decide to check out the latest Hebrew publications, for a a change.  An eager young saleslady offers assistance.  She escorts me to the bestseller section.  While I browse she asks me where I’m from.  It’s a loaded question.  Am I from Los Angeles or Kfar Tavor?  I choose the latter.  “Wow,” she says, “we’re neighbors.  I live in Shadmot Devorah.”  Shadmot is a village just five minutes away, known for its vineyards.  It also has a well-maintained swimming pool and green lawns.  I tell her, “I brought my daughters to swim in your beautiful pool.”  She leans over the counter and whispers, “Were there many of them?”  “Them” is code word for Arabs.  Without missing a beat, and never having being coached in this secret language, I say, “Yes, there were quire a few of ‘them.'”

The Shadmot pool is public, open to all with the price of admission.  Arabs come in droves during the summer to dip in the water, to escape the scorching heat.  But not in 2011.  Why?  In 2011 the Moslem holy month of Ramadan fell during the month of August, peak summer season.  “It was wonderful, not one of ‘them’ in sight,” she said.

This year, 2012, we’re expecting another “good” year.  The Moslem lunar calendar lags 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar.  This July the Arabs will not Eat, Pray, Love. They will not splash in the water nor toss beach balls.  They will fast and sweat in their traditional suffocating garb.  “Was it that bad?” I ask the bookstore saleslady.  She frowns.  “The entire tribe comes to the pool, they set up camp for the day, the women wade in the water with their black clothes, loud screams and trash everywhere.”  She hands me the latest prize-winning novel.  “At least in Kfar Tavor you don’t have to deal with ‘them.'”

The Kfar Tavor pool is old and cracked.  A new one, slated for summer 2013, is being built up the road next to a planned shopping and dining center.  Unlike the pool in Shadmot, this one will be “members only.”  Residents of the Kfar will be given a magnetic card along with membership.  The locals pay property tax, therefore it’s owned by the village to the exclusion of others, Jews and Arabs alike.

Invisible in Plain Sight:

Several months ago we went on an organized bus tour to Nazareth in the footsteps of Jesus.  Our homemade sandwiches long gone, Pnina volunteers to get falafel for the hungry travelers from a famous Arab eatery.  Fifteen minutes later and no falafel balls in sight, I go to check on her at the bottom of the hill.  The restaurant that doubles as a hummus bar to foreign tourists and Arab locals is packed.  Pnina has made it to the front of the line.  I stand ten yards out and observe.  She’s talking to the Arab vendor, putting in her to-go order.  The vendor behind the counter talks to his Arab brethren and takes their order first, instead.  Pnina nudges forward, holds out her Shekel notes.  Arab patrons speak above her head, pick up their lunch, give her as much attention as a house plant.  Pnina insists.  Soon she realizes she’s outmaneuvered on two fronts: she’s a woman, and she’s a woman in Arab territory.  No need for Strike Three here.  She’s out.  The crowd thins finally.  The vendor takes her money, fills her order.  No words spoken, it’s how it is.

Outsider looking in:

Arab-only school in Shfar'am

I recently taught English to Arab young adults in Shfar’am, a densely-populated Arab town on the way to Haifa.  The decision to teach “them” created ire and heated opinions among my extended family and friends.  “Why don’t you teach Israelis instead?” they insist.  Some Jews here don’t make the distinction that Arabs living here are also Israelis but I leave this topic to future writings.  “I will teach ‘Israelis’ the moment I’m offered a job,” I say.  In the meantime I take the part-time job and trek to Shfar’am, a forty minute drive.  If the road to heaven is paved with good intentions, the road to Shfar’am is paved with 39 (!) giant speed bumps – I counted them.  After my car suspension is ruined, after my nerves are shot, after my teeth fillings stopped rattling, I arrive at the school.  It’s a vocational college that offers young Arabs a trade.  They learn automotive electronics, mechanics, alarm systems.  To better prepare the youth to the 21st century labor market, the students are offered “Spoken English” courses.  This is where I come in.  To the students I’m a novelty on two levels:  I’m an “Israeli” – no Jewish teacher has set foot in the school to teach English.  Secondly, I’m an Israeli from America.

Apparently these two criteria set me apart, grant me an air of respectability in their Arab eyes.  By the third or fourth meeting this respectability fizzles.  Barriers fall.  And if familiarity doesn’t quite breed contempt, it breeds a language only they know.  It’s not long that they start to gossip about me.  They are Arabs; they are the majority in class.  I’m on their turf.  They signal each other with gestures, a wink here and there.  They begin to crack jokes.  Only they don’t know I understand some of what’s being said.  I don’t speak Arabic well, but I’m blown away by how much I understand.  I owe this to my days working as a bricklayer assistant with my father some 40 years ago, when I was in high school.  During summer vacations I worked with my father in building construction sites near Tel Aviv.  In the early 70s Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza were welcomed to work in Israel.  It was during those years that I picked up much of my Arabic, much of which stayed with me to this day.  During class, turning to face the blackboard, I can hear them talking about me, about Jews.  I feel like a spy in their midst, but I don’t let on.  I realize under different circumstances I’d be talking about them.  It’s a game we play.

Is that rain or spit?

SuperSal Grocery Store in Kfar TAvor

One afternoon Pnina gets in her car and drives three minutes to SuperSal, our local supermarket.  The parking lot is congested.  She spots a car backing out and waits.  A truck passes her quickly and occupies the vacated spot.  She honks.  The driver and his family spill out of the truck and head to the supermarket entrance, oblivious to the car horn.  Pnina’s upset.  She slams the door and chases after him.  “Didn’t you see me waiting?  Why did you take my space?”  The moment he opens his mouth she realizes he’s Arab.  He says in Hebrew,”What’s the big deal.  Get over it.”  He then rejoins his teenage daughter and wife inside the store.  Between the food aisles Pnina confronts him.  “You Arabs have no respect for women.  Had I been a man you wouldn’t dare cut me off.  Your conduct is disgusting.”  The Arab is insulted but he’s on “Israeli” turf.  Yet unlike Jews who feel apprehensive in Arab settings, Arabs feel right at home in Jewish areas.  It’s not long before the man’s teenage daughter appears with her mother.  As if on cue from the father, the daughter spits in Pnina’s direction.  In their eyes, the father’s honor has been restored.  Once home, Pnina is advised to phone the store manager and file a complaint.  The manager, an Arab, washes his hands clean of the whole thing.  “We can’t control what goes on in the parking lot,” he says.  Pnina says, “Your security guard saw it all.  You should not let that man in the store.”  The manager doesn’t want trouble but promises nothing.  We’re tribal; we’ll each go home and tell “our” story.

It’s a case of “Us and Them.”  Take a listen: