Now and then I look at the trending topics that Twitter presents me with. They usually have some variety based on current affairs in our region but two trending topics seem to be constant fixtures: #Jews and #Israelis.
Sure, Israel and Israelis are in the news a lot and have been for a few decades. We are a convenient target for a variety of organisations that are allied with Palestinians or just looking for ways to target Jews without actually referring to Jews.
The #Jews trending topic amazes me, though. Clearly some cultural fixations don’t wane. Despite numbering in the tens of millions (I believe there are less than 20 million Jews in the world), we remain a popular topic of discussion after more than 2,000 years.
That being the case, is it still appropriate to have #Jews as a trending topic on Twitter? If we are a constant subject of discussion and debate, surely we should be elevated to something along the lines of “Constant Source of Consternation” or “Given Topic of Conversation”?
If we have been trending for so long, surely we have transcended merely “trending”?
In the meantime, here is the latest news about “Jews” on Twitter. I’ve filtered out what Twitter regards as not being “Top tweets” in the hope of achieving some measure of quality control:
Tanya shared her experiences of being humiliated by the rabbis who granted her a Jewish divorce years ago and her return to a sense of belonging as a member of the Jewish community in her blog post titled “On losing my religion… and finding it“.
It was one of the worst days of my life, and the process of being granted a Jewish divorce by three rabbis caused humiliation and hurt, and I can’t cite many more instances in my life that have made me feel as small and insignificant as that one.
They took a very harmonious divorce proceeding (yes, they do exist), and caused tears and humiliation, and from then, I lost my place in Judaism, mainly because I couldn’t see that I even had a place there. I mean, how could I even feel a belonging when I had been made to feel small, insignificant, and disrespected. And I couldn’t shake it off, or really feel a belonging.
Her story is inspiring, heartwarming. At the same time, it is tragic that she was went through an ordeal that left her feeling as if she didn’t belong.
How many Jews effectively leave the community, never to return, because of experiences like Tanya’s (or worse). There aren’t that many of us left in this world. We shouldn’t alienate each other because of some dogmatic insistence on some “proper” level of adherence or morals.
Sometimes it seems that there is more that divides us than unites us. History has shown us that we are quickly defeated and cast out when we are divided.
I don’t particularly want to wade into this debate even though I align more with Amler than I do with Tuttle-Singer (who, by the way, I think is wonderful even if I don’t share her politics).
If anything, this debate highlights very different perspectives on Israel expressed by Israelis and Jews across the political spectrum. No surprises there. One of the traits that tend to stand out for new immigrants is how Israelis have a tendency to have what seem to be full-blown arguments with each other, almost routinely. It’s practically a national sport and they are rarely meant to be taken particularly personally.
What we share is a passion for this land. Our land.
Becoming an Israeli citizen was easy. Becoming Israeli is the hard part.
I feel like I am going through a rough patch in my relationship with Israel and my Israeli friends, neighbours, colleagues and fellow inhabitants of this little strip of hotly contested land. It has been almost a year and a half since we left Ben Gurion Airport as newly minted Olim Hadashim (“fresh meat” as my former Ulpan put it, with a smile).
When I wake up in the mornings and head out the door, I’m usually thinking about whether I’ll make the bus rather than the fact that I have woken up in our new home in Israel. It’s not to say I don’t have that thrill anymore. It’s just that it doesn’t happen as often in my typical day. The daily routine has a tendency to take over and sideline the sense of wonder that seemed like it would never subside when we first arrived.
We could communicate better
I also feel like we don’t talk much, Israel and me. More specifically, it feels like I just don’t know what to say. I literally don’t have the words and that leaves me feeling like an outsider. Sure, people still try help me (most of them anyway) but the last month or so have definitely been Very Bad Hebrew Months for me.
On top of this communication issue, routine stuff seems to take up a lot of mental and emotional bandwidth. Consider your day-to-day pressures and stresses and add a factor of partial knowledge of the language it is all expressed and handled in. It can be more than a little intimidating at times.
Thankfully, my recent staycation with my mother gave me a break from my daily routine and much needed perspective on what living in Israel means to me.
Connecting with Israeli life
On the third day of our mini-break during Chol Hamoed Pesach, we all took a trip to Jaffa and walked around the market. It was my first time there and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pretty pleasantly surprised. The market stretched across a few streets and felt so typically Israeli. In one section people sold just about anything that wasn’t biological and breathing. Some sold old cameras, coins and other antiques. Others, usually next door, sold old fax machines and other junk that probably hadn’t served a useful function for about a decade.
This seems to be some sort of car shade/display area exchange between the carpet merchants and the car owners.
An opportunity to go very retro.
Pretty eclectic vinyl collection.
There is also a lot of random stuff no-one else wants.
One of the many street markets.
There is some fascinating stuff on display.
We had terrific Shakshuka in a little Greek restaurant across from stores selling old fashioned film lighting equipment and an eclectic collection of vinyl LPs, only some of which I recognised.
We decided to head for the Jaffa/Yafo port and were given directions from a shop owner in typical Israeli fashion. He dismissively told us not to bother with “this Waze” and to just walk straight ahead over a couple roads. It was the sort of direct, helpful and somewhat no-time-for-nonsense advice I have come to identify as typically Israeli: direct, somewhat arrogant but motivated by a desire to help. That short conversation was a highlight of the day for me because it seemed to epitomise what it is to be Israeli for me.
A busy market street scene in Jaffa.
I can only imagine what their history is.
Going back to where it all began
From Yafo, we took a bus to the Palmach Museum for a tour. If you haven’t been to the Palmach Museum and you’re interested in the early years of what became the IDF, you can’t miss it.
The museum is experiential and follows the journey of a group of immigrants to Israel as they join the forerunner of what became the IDF; battle the British and, later, Arab armies to secure Israel’s independence. The exhibits are a combination of themed rooms, video footage and reimagined conversations between the group as the conflict progresses.
Unlike most Israelis who have lived here for some time, I haven’t had the experience of fighting in a conflict or losing people I care about to a war. Just the same, following the story in the museum affected me profoundly. I could never compare what I felt going through the museum to what millions of Israelis have and continue to experience but, at its essence, I felt a connection of some kind to the tragedy that unfolded before us.
Watching the group’s story progress and remembering what I have learned about the conflicts leading up to the War of Independence left me with the strong sense that this is also a part of my history even though much of it predates me and my family has no direct connection to it.
I left the museum feeling a stronger connection to Israel’s history than I ever did to South Africa’s history. Israel’s history is the latest chapter of my people’s history.
Part of our reality
Now that we are here and living here, we face the same threats that our neighbours and friends do. Israel’s enemies don’t draw distinctions between new immigrants and born Israelis. We’re all Jews, we’re all Israelis.
We watched one of the memorial services for Yom HaZikaron one night this last week and one of the speakers mentioned how military service and speaking Hebrew are integral to Israeli life.
Our children may well serve in the IDF when they are old enough. I hope it won’t be necessary for them to serve but if the history of our people is any indication; one day they will be drafted and we will add the experience of seeing our children step into the harm’s way. I don’t look forward to that at all. I don’t think any parent does. At the same time, were it not for the young men and women who have done that, and continue to do it, we wouldn’t live in the only Jewish state.
For now, our kids’ biggest challenges are improving their Hebrew, doing their homework and finding time for all their friends.
When I think about them, Israelis feel a lot like an extended family, most of whom I don’t know and may never meet (some, I probably don’t want to meet). You have all sorts here. Many, like our friends, are hard-working, family-oriented people who continuously help us out and smile on the rare occasion I break out some Hebrew in my very Anglo accent.
I have also come across the Sabras with their tough exterior (mostly when dealing with me) and that sensitive, inner warmth (mostly when interacting with our kids). There are the Haredi who look like they have trundled out of the 18th century and who most other Israelis tend to leave pretty much to themselves. When I think about the personalities I have encountered, it’s a lot like taking your extended family of mixed nuts and expanding it into a population of millions with multi-faceted cultural and linguistic quirks to keep things interesting.
I sometimes think about how few Jews there are in the world and how much energy other groups spend trying to keep us down and push us around. It probably explains a lot of why Israelis tend to be so, well, Israeli. When you are a nation that waited thousands of years to be re-established and has had to fight every day since then not just to survive, but to thrive, you can understand why Israelis can be a little challenging at times. Becoming Israeli is also a lot to do with internalising that history at a visceral level.
Still, becoming Israeli doesn’t come naturally for me. I enjoy how Israelis tend to be pretty frank with each other. On the other hand, my limited Hebrew remains a stumbling block for me. I understand more than I did before but not knowing pretty basic words can be extremely frustrating, depressing even. I feel like I am missing some vital “Israeliness” ingredient. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.
There is so much to love about Israel and, like any family, it can drive you absolutely crazy more often than you may like. On the other hand, I have had so many experiences that leave me amazed that we live amongst such compassionate and engaged people.
I have so much to learn about being Israeli. A lot of that will come as my Hebrew improves (לאט לאט). As for the rest of it, becoming Israeli, maybe it comes more naturally the longer we live here and experience more of what it means to be part of this feisty nation.
Postscript: A few words from my wife
My wife recently published a related post on her blog simply titled “Home” that is worth reading too:
This Thursday is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and is a difficult day for most Jews for obvious reasons. It is another day that is going to have new significance for me because one of the consequences of the Holocaust is all around me now, our new home. What worries me are predictions that future generations will forget what happened to Jews during the Second World War and in the many attacks on our ancestors in the past.
One of the admonishments that has been passed down to each new generation since the Holocaust is that we must never forget what occurred during that terrible time. If we forget, we become complacent and we could allow another, similar tragedy to occur again. As controversial as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech in the US Congress was, this extract isn’t:
… Standing up to dark and murderous regimes never is. With us today is Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Elie, your life and work inspires to give meaning to the words, “Never Again.” And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Not to sacrifice the future for the present; not to ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.
But I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over. We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.
Some 46% of [Holocaust] survivors also say that future generations will not remember the Holocaust after they are gone, a spike of nine percentage points from last year’s study. A lower 31% of the general public has the same worry, while half of Israelis under 30, the study found, never knowingly met a Holocaust survivor.
We will teach our children about this dark part of our history when they are ready for it. It is an important part of their identity and a little part of our collective defense such a tragedy ever happening again. As PM Netanyahu said, “we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”.
The assailants allegedly hurled antisemitic insults at the youths and physically assaulted two of the three youngsters.
“[The Jewish boys] were wearing kippah [yarmulke],” said Kahn, who stated that the attack was motivated by antisemitism, as the boys were clearly identified, and the statements directed at them included references to religious and political tension in the Middle East.
These attacks are shameful and, as much as they seem to represent an escalation in anti-Semitism in South Africa, they also seem to point to a relatively new trend in South Africa that I noticed last year during Operation Protective Edge in Israel. Before then, anti-Israel sentiment popped up whenever Israel took action against Palestinians but it largely remained anti-Israel sentiment.
Last year that changed and anti-Israel sentiment became thinly veiled anti-Semitism and then not so thinly veiled. What it signified to me was that South Africa was losing its relatively sheltered status compared to much of Europe which has witnessed violent attacks like this for some time now.
On one hand it seems like South Africa is just following the same regressive trend that has gripped Europe, the United States and other developed countries: it has become more acceptable in some sectors to lash out at Jews if the rage is prefaced by some sort of objective to Israel’s actions regarding the Palestinians (regardless of there being any justification for the rage). I’d say that is just progress except it isn’t. It is, however, not unusual lately.
On the other hand, South Africa following this trend means the culture of tolerance and its embrace for diversity which South Africans began to cultivate after 1994 has withered. Surely South Africa, of all countries, should lead the world with a values-based tolerance for diversity of legitimate opinions and beliefs? Instead politics and sensationalism have done away with any real semblance of an enlightened approach based on Constitutional values and a respect for human rights.
What remains, both in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, is the latest version of a seething and ancient hatred for Jews. Objections to Israel’s approach to the Palestinians by the likes of the BDS Movement is just a cover for a deeper hatred and a much bigger threat that faces not just Israel and the world’s Jews but much of the world’s population.
I don’t think this is the last time people who are visibly Jewish will be attacked in South Africa’s malls and on the streets. Tragically, I suspect this will only get worse in time and the sooner more people realize this and do more to prevent it, the better. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a politically popular option anymore.