Israel, December 2014

My trip to Israel coincided with the eight days of Chanukah. In a secular neighborhood at 6 pm the traditional melodies floated from three and four story apartment buildings in what seemed like an only slightly disorganized round, in voices that sounded like mine; waiters in restaurants gathered before dinner opening, and, with their backs to the window, said the prayers, lit the menorah, sang the songs; waiters in restaurants that had already opened invited customers to come up and join the lighting (most did), with napkins serving as yalmukas. We ate in a Vietnamese restaurant where the juxtaposition provided the usual chuckle.

The mid-week restaurants filled up, and the coffee shops continued to overflow as they had since morning. Though the Israelis complained about the chilly weather and wore sweaters, even parkas, outdoor tables were full. And the spirit throughout was buoyant, occasionally raucous, full of energy. This was true in middle/upper-middle class North Tel Aviv, and in working class Holon. Were the high spirits reflecting confidence, a successful if uneven economy, a sense of ease? Or was there a hint of hysteria in the joy, a commitment to enjoy before it’s gone? Or do I project?

“The bubble” is the Israeli term for the self-sealing of the bulk of Israelis from what the Israeli government, taxpayer, soldier, and settler are doing to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, perhaps a 40 minute drive from Tel Aviv. The Israelis do know what they are doing: the press covers it, and one of the major dailies, Haaretz, details Palestinian life and Israeli outrages.  But of course there is knowing and knowing.  In the face of the upcoming  (mid March) election, how does such knowing work inside the bubble?

One way is illustrated in the superb David Grossman novel, To the End of the Land.  The central character is a mother of two sons. In her eyes they grew up with sweetness, innocence, and joy; in her eyes, they became in their late teens battle-hard soldiers. In one outburst she screams: “The government has nationalized my sons.” Variations on this scene are told in many homes.

“Knowing” is playing out in two quite different spheres. Among the politicians maneuvering for electoral advantage, the name calling, the blaming, the rash of corruption charges, and the promises focus on peace with the Palestinians and on the economy. If the politicians are hollering on TV panels, the newspapers are amplifying (Israel has at least five daily newspapers). So far as I know (what a huge qualifier that is) the social media are not yet onto the election. Netanyahu is widely despised, though there are many clues that he nonetheless represents what many Israelis, left-center-right, want. (The most common rap on him is that he has done nothing but alienate the (always anti-Semitic) world, and this may be, perversely, what many Israelis like about him.) To his right there is a bellowing of calls, mainly from the wealthy, young, self-made, high tech entrepreneur, Naftali Bennet, for more force in Gaza, more force in the West Bank, and to never trust an Arab. To Netanyahu’s left there is Tzipi Livni – around quite a while, never a success, never a failure, and, running as a team with THE new name, Isaac Herzog. If they win, they will rotate in the prime ministership. In Israel, one votes for parties, and the person(s) at the head of the winning party list try to form a coalition government; Livni won the last election but failed in forming a coalition. Together they are making promises to the left of Netanyahu, while still sounding tough and savvy. (“We don’t trust anyone either.”) This is the square-circle conundrum of every left government no matter how centrist its substantive positions. In early polls they are in first place by a tiny margin.

Avigdor Lieberman is working hard to be the most interesting, or at least most unpredictable, of those running. He has a long, very public history of bullying and racism, most recently as foreign minister, saying things that would 10 years ago have gotten him thrown out of the government. He claims to be the only “pragmatic’ candidate, though his record as FM has been one major gaff after another. He promises, without specificity, a “regional solution” to the Palestinian state issue, and has advocated redrawing the state boundaries so that Arabs living in Israel would suddenly be living in Palestine and Jewish settlers now in the West Bank would suddenly be inside “traditional” Israel.

If you shift focus from the TV and newspapers to casual discussions, things sound different. Talking to a florist, barber, or, of course, a cab driver, or to friends in general, some of whom are closer to knowing some of the key players, they share the view that Herzog/Livni are moderate and decent, though weak and indecisive. (Actually, in Israeli politics, “moderate and decent” are synonyms for “weak and indecisive.”) Herzog’s ancestry includes a chief rabbi and a national president, and this shpritzes some respect. They see Bennet as an out and out fascist (the term is used with depressing calm in op-ed pieces and over wine); and they see Netanyahu as scum. Cab drivers, though usually right wing, agreed on this epithet, except for an East Jerusalem Arab driver who was more circumspect. Lieberman is just nauseating/terrifying. (Imagine Nixon in the eyes of everyone you know.) Still, Netanyahu can win by being the only one able to form a government. In short, the circles I encountered are not happy. If they vote it will be Livni/Herzog. If they vote. Cynicism is, as always, the great natural gas that fills the bubble, and there is nothing visible now likely to dissipate it.

Hope? The most a secular can hope for in the realm of a supernatural miracle is a political meteor; the Middle East in recent years has been subjected to a rain of surprises from on high (or wherever). Why not one more for Israel-Palestine?

For those inclined to go deeper into the election, there is a very good piece of journalism at

Arabs I spoke to (6 of them) in Palestine took the election much more seriously, seeing Herzog/Livni as the last hope before an eruption of major Palestinian violence aimed mainly at Jewish settlers. If the violence does come, the political outcome will be unpredictable but the damage and pain will be huge both for Jews and Arabs. No one doubts that. But there is a logic that supports Palestinian violence as an act of “getting our shit together.” And there are Israelis who agree.

One Palestinian NGO is devoted to an independent judiciary and the rule of law. The staff favors Herzog/Livni for a different reason. Their election will produce hope in Palestine, and hope translates into support for state-building efforts like the work of this NGO, which translates into citizens willing to report government violations of the law because citizens will think the report might actually lead to change. (This organization, Musawa –Equality – is one in a network of 160 state-building NGO’s in Palestine.) Their most potent enforcement tool is shaming in the eyes of fellow professionals and in the wallets of major donors (e.g. the EU, the Dutch, the World Bank). It is possible that this network of 160 NGO’s may over time be more important for the future of Palestinians than the more public strategies used by Palestinians and their left wing supporters around the world: at present, in response to many an Israeli occupation offense, Palestinians (and the press) “take a dive” by exaggerating the facts and the pain, and thus direct attention away from the fact that many Palestinians, despite significant curtailment of freedoms and access to Israel, live lives of acceptance and modest personal aspiration. This acceptance, related to a Netanyahu strategy of give-them-something-to-lose, may explain, in part, the lack so far of a Palestinian uprising against the Occupation. It may also lead to a collision with the declining likelihood of an independent Palestinian state. The roll out of these intra-Palestinian dynamics, rather than who negotiates with whom on high, may be more significant over time for the welfare of Palestinians and their relationship with Israel.

Close with three snapshots.

At Heathrow, on the way to Israel, we took a bus from the terminal to the plane.  There were 15 or so people who couldn’t get on the bus, and a Heathrow employee was urging those on the bus to move in: “There is lots of space and even empty seats.” Two burly Israelis standing in the bus by the door didn’t move and the employee repeated her request, more urgently. The two Israelis replied with heat: “We’re ready to go. Let them take the next bus.” An Israeli woman next to me mumbled, to herself, to me, something about “so Israeli.” The doors closed.

 A friend works for an Israeli NGO that helps thousands of refugees/infiltrators (big fight over the label) from Africa. Thankless, very hard work. But there are successes in getting services, preventing deportation, despite government opposition. When you are in trouble in Eritrea, Israel looks like salvation.

Entering Israel at Ben Gurion Airport one descends a few hundred yards of moderately steep ramp, and on leaving one descends another ramp that crosses the first one. The room is made of large, imposing stone blocks, supporting a very high ceiling. The scale, the stone, and the slopes never fail to put me in mind of pyramids. Why does such a tiny country need a front door on such a scale? An aspiration? A statement of presence? An intimidation? An echo of ancient architecture? The country is certainly surrounded by millions who hate it, and settlements don’t explain all that hate. Is the “pyramid” a defiance?