My World: A Tour

Welcome to my world, the space wherein I reside. It is a profoundly lonely place, although neighbouring it are many other worlds, as access is limited to me alone. In my world there is only one thing that matters and that is my own interests. However, surprisingly often those coincide with the needs of other worlds.

My world is a stormy and tumultuous place. Here battles, revolutions and natural disasters are common occurrences. There are no constitutions, base values, or core beliefs, although there are underlying persistent currents of zeitgeist which seem to evolve more slowly.

So let me take you on a tour around the perimeters of my world. I cannot let you in, but you may get a glimpse from the outside.

If you asked me what my prime goal and motivation in life is I would tell you that it is to discover as much of the general and universal truths as I can. This does seem somewhat consistent with what I have been doing over most of my mature life, however I do not know to what extent it is a fundamental driver, rather than a rationalisation of some deeper subconscious need.

This is especially a problem given that I do not even believe in the search for truth as a worthy ultimate goal. I do not believe that anything other than the pursuit after positive subjective experiences is worthy of being a primary motivation, although I do think that the most efficient way to achieve this primary objective is to focus on secondary ones. Thus, if I want to be happy and discovery makes me happy, I will get to my primary goal by focusing on a secondary objective, namely on discovery.

But what if I have gone astray and am worshiping a secondary goal like an idol instead of my true God, the primary goal? What if by my stubborn adherence to a specific secondary goal I am being blinded to more obvious and efficient ways to achieve happiness from which I am prejudicially closing myself off? Perhaps if I was not so insistent that it is discovery that needs to make me happy I would find happiness and fulfillment through some other easier route?

Mill commits this fallacy when he proves the superiority of man over beast or of the clever over the simple by appealing to the former’s refusal to turn into the latter even on reward of achieving greater happiness. The oversight here is that this refusal is irrational and stems from secondary-goal-worship. If achieving happiness is the ultimate goal, then being human is only advantageous insofar as it can form a secondary objective leading to the primary one. But choosing that over a direct route to the primary goal is confusing the means for the end.

Admitting that our ultimate goal in life is our own happiness may not be socially admirable, nor productive towards that very end, but as far back as in Plato compelling arguments are put forward arguing that no other ultimate goal is rational. The most that can be done whilst maintaining some sort of rationality is to extend that ultimate goal to other sentient beings too. Instead of one’s own happiness, one can strive for the impartial maximization of utility. This maxim may not be provable, but I think that it is defensible.

Besides for the discovery of general truths, forming relationships also makes me feel happy and content. They give meaning to my life. However, unlike the former, it happens through passive as well as active participation, which is why intellectual growth is my major explicit focus even though forming relationships is no less important.

In my world intellectualisation is prominent, but oftentimes I wonder how much my life choices are actually due to rational considerations, rather than to primal, psychological drives. I claim to be rational and I try to be rational, but I do not know to what extent I am successful. At least I am open to self-criticism and introspection, as I am aware that deeply ingrained beliefs must also be justifiable.

Sometimes when it comes to my very fundamental beliefs and core values it can be very painful to have them critically examined, as it feels like the rest of my epistemological edifice will crumble should they be shaken, but I never use that as a conscious excuse not to question them, although I suspect that there may be subconscious layers of defense surrounding them as a means of survival.

Talking of epistemological edifices, Hume discusses two kinds of philosophies. He talks about the common-sense philosopher who never ventures out too far in her arguments, maintaining close proximity to common-sense reality. She will address issues piecemeal and expand on them individually, so that all of her ideas are both self-contained and not too far from accepted reality. The second kind of philosopher, the one he calls ‘profound’, is the analytic one, who attempts to bring all knowledge into one coherent system of truths, each member of the system being consistent with the rest.

In order to achieve this the analytic philosopher must divert from common sense and give new meanings and interpretations to everyday objects of language and experience. But this comes with an inherent danger. Not only can one false assumption or premise lead the whole endeavor astray, but when that happens the philosopher has lost touch with common sense altogether, so that he is left wrong in a much more profound way than the common-sense philosopher can ever be. So whilst the common-sense philosopher does not come up with any profound revolutionary changes in thought, she also has less chance of going astray.

When I say this I think of Peter Singer. His profound analytical approach to ethics led to two famous positions, one which he is applauded for and the other which brought him much hate. His very utilitarian ethics that caused him to be a champion for animal rights is also what led him to do away with the idea of the sanctity of human life and to see infant euthanasia as the right course of action in certain circumstances.

The common-sense moralist would not come up with either of these principles, as they are not rooted in our evolutionarily inspired values. Singer however discovers profound principles, which if right are revolutionary and progressive, but if wrong have profound negative implications.

In my personal life I have followed Singer’s approach, basing far reaching and irreversible life choices on the basis of introducing consistency to my beliefs, even at the expense of deviating from common sense. As I know that my personal epistemology is nowhere near consistent and that the significant holes in it may lead to an overturning of my current beliefs, I am not sure what justified my moves. I guess that I have been moving up over gradations of coherence and that the state of my current belief system is so much more coherent than what it was that – even though it is not perfected yet – a move away from my old epistemology in favour of the new one was justified. Perhaps it is analogous to moving from an Aristotelian mechanics to a Newtonian one even if ultimately it is the Einsteinian mechanics that is true.

This leads me to an interesting thought that perhaps a Popperian approach should be taken to epistemology as well as to science. Perhaps the perfect epistemology is unobtainable and instead it is discarding the more mistaken one in favour of the less mistaken one that is how epistemology progresses.

In my world there are many beliefs. They are of two kinds: empirical and logical. For my empirical beliefs I try to rely on others, usually experts, to inform me about them. This is a difficult task, as whom to regard as an expert is in itself an empirical question. I therefore have very little certainty in many empirical questions, especially those around which there is lots of controversy amongst experts themselves. This reality leaves me with lots of room for skepticism, which can be very annoying when everyone around you seems certain and passionate about certain issues.

For the logical issues I usually form my own opinions, although they are always informed and influenced by the thinkers that inspire me. The meta-epistemology of how I can be reliant on my own opinions continually haunts me. Even to rely on others is to rely on your own judgment of their reliability, meaning that it is ultimately you who determines what kids of beliefs you will have. I do not know how we are justified in forming any beliefs in matters of controversy, unless we have the arrogance to consider our own conclusions superior. As with the empirical beliefs, this conundrum leaves me with much room for skepticism and caution. It can be very annoying, but I think that overall it results in much tranquility and moderation. The Pyrrhonians already claimed that this was the case.

In terms of  conviction my beliefs lie on two axes: the passion axes and certainty axes. Although there is some correlation between passion and certainty, the axes largely retain independence from each other. Thus some of my beliefs with high levels of certainty have very low levels of passion and vice versa.

The factors that determine the certainty are mainly epistemological, whereas passion is impacted by psychological as well as sociological factors. If a certain belief has become the hallmark of a group with whom I have fundamental disagreements I often find it hard to join them in passion, even though I agree with them on that issue. For example, I share many of the core beliefs of the social justice movement, and yet I find it hard to express passion regarding those, since I abhor the philosophy and methods of this movement, specifically in their dogmatism and intolerance. This kind of sentiment is what is meant by identity politics. I play it even though I do not like it.

In my world it is the method of arrival at a certain belief that matters far more than the belief itself. I will often side with those who disagree with me against those who share my beliefs if I think that the former’s methods are purer. As an example, on utilitarian grounds I do not regard abortion as morally problematic, and yet I think that the argument against abortion made from seeing the fetus as a potential being is stronger than the fallacious claim sloganised as ‘my body my choice’. One may argue that the reason for why I feel more passionate about the theoretical, rather than the practical, aspects of this argument is because I do not have a stake in the matter. This is a reasonable argument. I am describing here how I do feel, not how I ought to feel.

This uneven distribution of passion often results in people misunderstanding my position, as they take my passion as proportionately representative of my beliefs, when in reality this is not the case, as I have just described. Another source of misunderstanding is when I defend someone’s right to an opinion and it is mistaken for an endorsement of that opinion. I can without contradiction fight for someone’s right to talk and when that right is granted them personally protest their position, believing that it is wrong. I would protest outside a holocaust-denying conference after campaigning to have them be allowed to hold it.

In my world there is always something going on. At any given moment there is some questions that preoccupy my mind and that I – perhaps unhealthily – obsess over. I want to share these newsbits as they occur and I intend to do so in the form of occasional blog posts. In this tour I have described some of my core beliefs and  my general thought structures. They may change, but for now a lot about how I think and see things is given here. My world is one amongst many, but it is unique – as unique as your world is. There may be similarities between our worlds, but that does not diminish from their uniqueness, as my world is exclusively mine and yours is exclusively yours. I like my world. I hope you like yours.

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עשתונות ירושלמיות, מדינת ישראל – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Israel

עשתונות ירושלמיות, מדינת ישראל – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Israel

Practical matters have always been a weak point for me and I have always tried to stick with the theoretical side of things. However, when it comes to talking about an issue as current and real as the Israel situation, the boundaries between theory and application blur, as every philosophy translates into another possible reality on the ground. Notwithstanding, I have nothing to offer in terms of practical solutions, just thoughts and musings.

I have touched in my previous post on the various streams of Zionist thought and their respective goals. Depending on what your Zionist agenda is, your vision of a State of Israel will be very different. If you are a Religious Zionist (i.e. your Zionism is motivated by religious reasons – not to be confused with the religious Zionist, who is a Zionist who just happens to be religious), then your Jewish state is most likely to be a theocratic state governed by traditional Jewish law. If you are a Political Zionist then you might be happy with a democratic, multi-cultural state, so long as it is governed by Jews, or by Jews as well, who can ensure that it remains a safe haven for the persecuted Jewish population – i.e. a state for the Jews.

However, for a Cultural Zionist like myself, a state for the Jews is not enough. The revival of the Jewish national consciousness must result in an ethno-national Jewish State, a place where Judaism and Jewishness flourishes, not as a matter of individual preference and freedom, but as the national cultural identity. If the modern State of Israel is the Jewish state, then its citizens are not ‘Israelis’, but Jews, and likewise, diaspora Jews are almost automatically citizens of this state who happen to be living abroad.

Having said that, you might think that I would be a believer in Israel’s “right” to exist, whether for natural, historical, or legal reasons. That is not the case. From an objective, outsider’s view, I do not think that either side is more right in the argument between Jews and Palestinians over the ownership of the land. This is a matter of dual narratives in which both sides have legitimate claims. (See what I have written about dual narratives in an article for the Jewish News/Times of Israel here.) All that I am doing is presenting my Zionist narrative, not claiming that it is the only one.

In spite of this, I may not think that Jews necessarily have a right to the land, but I do think that we have a claim to it. That is, alongside the Palestinian natives, we too have claims that cannot be dismissed. It is historical fact that the geographical area of modern day Israel/Palestine is the birthplace of the Jewish people and it is historical fact that the Jews, or proto-Jews had a sovereign kingdom in Judea and Samaria with its capital in Jerusalem until it was conquered and they were forcibly exiled. It is also true that Jerusalem and the land of Israel have remained in the Jewish national and religious consciousness ever since.

And now a word on the current situation in Israel. I am by no means a supporter of the current government and there are many things that it does that I think are wrong, and yet there is a difference between disagreeing and demonising. Israel currently illegally occupies Palestinian territories and I do not think that it should, but I still understand that it is not doing so out of malicious intent. There is a delicate security issue at stake and criticism through understanding and empathy is more effective and truthful than blind demonisation.

As for the claim of Israel being an “apartheid state”, that is an outright lie. All Israeli citizens, be they Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Arabs, Bedouin, Druze, etc, are treated with absolute equality under the law with full rights and protection. During my visit to Israel I have spoken with Israeli Arabs and Muslims in East Jerusalem, Arad and Jaffa – none of them had a bad word to say about Israel. Of course for non Israeli citizens under occupation things are not great, but how do you expect them to be treated by a regime that they actively and oftentimes violently oppose? Do you expect them to have free movement in and out of a country that they self-profess to want to destroy?

By all means criticise Israel! Question its actions and question its right to exist, especially as an ethnically Jewish country, but stay away from two things: denying history and invalidating narrative, and blind demonisation – usually based on lies or a refusal to acknowledge complexity and nuance. You may think that it is wrong for Israel to exist on Palestinian land, but do not deny historical Jewish presence in the land and do not block your ears from hearing the Jewish narrative. You may think that the Israeli government is doing wrongs, but do not oversimplify a complex situation and do not buy into any report just because it validates your side of the argument. As ever, with nuance and acknowledgment of dual narratives, our discourse can become much kinder, more compassionate and much more productive.

And thus I conclude this series of Jerusalemite Thoughts. I have shared thoughts on nationalism, on Zionism and on the modern State of Israel – many of which were formulated during, or inspired by, my recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I enjoyed writing this and I hope that you enjoyed reading it!

עשתונות ירושלמיות, ציונות – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Zionism

עשתונות ירושלמיות, ציונות – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Zionism

Amongst my many and multi-faceted identities, Zionism probably ranks highest on the list of misunderstood and/or misconstrued. For many, to be a Zionist is to be racist, colonialist, a Jewish supremacist and many similarly unpleasant things. Off course I am none of these and I go to great lengths to boycott anything that smacks of these ideas, to the point of refusing to recite certain liturgical prayers that have in them traces of traditional Jewish supremacy. Neither were any of the great Zionist idealogues and founders racist or anything of the like, an accusation of which would make them shudder.

Zionism is best understood as a historically contextual phenomenon, which was born as a response to the Jewish situation in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. As I am not a historian, the retrospective dissection of the complexity of historical stimulus for the development of Zionism is of minor importance to me. Rather, I am interested in the historical aspects that shape my identity today. (I allow myself to do this because I see Zionism as a narrative belonging to the realm of myth, rather than history and the significance of myth is in its meaning, not in its historical accuracy.)

The Jewish Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left most European Jews secular and yet seen as Jews in the eyes of their non Jewish neighbours. The question that these Jews asked themselves was what it means to be a Jew without the Jewish religion. Zionism was to provide an answer to this question. Judaism was no longer to be seen as a religion, but as a national identity, one going back to its sovereign days in its national homeland Judah (in the geographical location of modern day Israel/Palestine).

(Of course for the political Zionist, Zionism was much more about solving the “Jewish Question” and about providing Jews with a safe haven from anti-semitism, rather than coming to solve a Jewish identity crisis. Likewise, for the religious Zionist Zionism was all about bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Holy Land to His Chosen People and about heralding in the Messianic age. The Zionism that I am describing here though is the Cultural Zionism of Achad HaAm, a secular ex-Chassid like myself, which – probably due to our shared backgrounds – speaks to me the most.)

Zionism is thus Jewish Nationalism, but not nationalism to be compared to, say, American Nationalism, or German Nationalism, for unlike those nationalisms which are by nationals already living in their national country amongst their national people, the Jewish nationalism of the nineteenth century was for a people that needed to be reminded of their peoplehood and that needed that nationalism if they were ever to achieve land-based nationality, i.e. statehood.

The culmination of the zionist quest came on the fourteenth of May 1948 with Israel’s declaration of independence as a country for the Jewish people. More on this in my next and final post of the series: Jerusalemite Thoughts – Israel.

(Image is of Achad HaAm, father of Cultural Zionism)

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Nationalism – עשתונות ירושלמיות, לאומיות

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Nationalism – עשתונות ירושלמיות, לאומיות

When I come to describe my Jerusalemite thoughts, the most basic emotion experienced and all prevalent in Israel was nationalism. I used the term emotion for a reason and this is what this post will be focussing on.

I will be talking about Zionism – i.e. Jewish nationalism – specifically in my next post, but here I want to talk about nationalism in general – all nationalisms.

Nationalism has become somewhat of a dirty word in liberal circles and for good reason. So much evil has been done in its name in the last century and its particularistic message seems to be in direct contrast to the humanistic-universalistic approach.

But even universalists group themselves in particularistic groups of fellow universalists! How do you think a humanist feels towards her fellow humanist in contrast to how she feels towards a non-humanist? The humanistic-universalist also has an in-group and an out-group – an in-group based on the idea of abolishing in-groupness!

Does that make out universalists to be hypocrites? No, for here is the important distinction: universalism is an intellectual idea, whereas emotionally people will always group themselves with likeminded people with whom they share a common goal or vision.

As an intellectual humanistic-universalist myself, who believes that the feelings of all sentient beings are equally valid, I would still consider myself an emotional nationalist. The transcendent feeling of nationalism that I felt in Israel and how I fell in love with it made me realise that belonging to an in-group is simply an emotional necessity for me. It is the same feeling that I felt when attending the Humanist conference this spring and it is the same feeling that I feel everytime I attend a synagogue service.

I am a feeble little man in a massive world and feeling a part of something much bigger feels like receiving a massive, reassuring hug from the universe. That must be the power of identity: belonging. Us liberals are very good at validating and respecting identity, but it must not stop at nationalism – nationalism, not as an exclusionary, intellectual ideology, but as an emotional identity of belonging.

It is a shame that I had to fly to Israel in order to feel love for a country and a sense of belonging to it. My country is the United Kingdom and I should be able to feel part of it. Our country is so great and we have so much to be proud of it, we just do not stress it enough. How can I express my patriotism towards my country if displaying a union jack on my window would automatically brand me a racist?

We need to reclaim nationalism and patriotism from the haters as a sentiment that goes hand in hand with universalistic compassion and empathy and not as something that is in conflict with it. Perhaps a good start would be to introduce a year of mandatory community service for school leavers, so that young people feel like they have a part in building our great country, which will cause them to care more for it later in life after having invested in it.

Having destigmatised nationalism I will be talking in my next post about a specific nationalism: Jewish Nationalism, also known as Zionism. I will see you then.

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Introduction – עשתונות ירושלמיות, הקדמה

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Introduction – עשתונות ירושלמיות, הקדמה
In the following three-post series I will be expressing some of my thoughts on Israel. Some of these are ideas that I have had before my trip to Israel this month, but which have been consolidated and expanded on during my visit, and others are ideas that have developed in response to what I have seen and learnt on my visit.
 
The three parts of עשתונות ירושלמיות – Jerusalemite Thoughts will be as follows:
  • Part 1: לאומיות – Nationalism
  • Part 2: ציונות – Zionism
  • Part 3: מדינת ישראל – Israel
 
The philosophical justification for the modern State of Israel as a Jewish state is the ideology of Zionism, which is Jewish nationalism. Working my way backwards I will first give some thoughts on nationalism, then moving on to Zionism and finally talking about the State of Israel Itself.

Israeli Logs – רשימות ישראליות

Israeli Logs – רשימות ישראליות

Starting from the 20th of August, I spent seventeen days in Israel exploring the land, its culture and its people. For the first 10 days I was with Birthright-Taglit – a Zionist discovery programme, but I stayed on to visit the Palestinian territories and to see friends.

Over the course of my visit I uploaded 13 logs to my Facebook page, chronicling my trip with some analysis. In this blog I have collected all of them and I am publishing them as a complete creation. I have not changed them at all, just added dates and titles. Enjoy!


ISRAEL LOG 1: Monday, 21st August

Pre-Dawn Musings – הרהורי טרום שחר

Tel Aviv 5:45am: The beer that I drank last night at 2:30am turns out to have been a stupid mistake, as I’m now rolling sleepless in my bed, listening to the rythmic breaths of my two sleeping roommates. They were wiser than I and will not be as fucked as I will be today with only 3 hours sleep.

In fairness though, the totally inappropriate mattress that is meant to serve as my bed is probably as much to blame for my insomnia as the cheeky midnight beer: if its physical discomfort is not enough to keep one awake, the threat of falling off its narrow sides with the slightest turn or roll keeps one constantly alert.

The Talmudic sages say, “The Land of Israel is acquired through suffering” (Babylonian Talmud: Brachot 5;1), which makes me wonder if they would have been referring to my slow-charging phone, the uncomfortable mattress in my air-conditioned room, or the stomach upheaval I am about to experience just thinking of the copious amounts of hummus I will be downing over the next few days.


ISRAEL LOG 2: Monday, 21st August

Meeting the Land – פגישת הארץ

Mount Tabor, 22:10
I’m leaning on the swinging bench in our hotel’s courtyard, beer in hand. I know, I told you that yesterday’s night-beer was a mistake, but yesterday was yesterday and today is today, and today I want to have a beer.

Many things happened today and it would be nice to recount them all, but as you may recall, my phone’s charging habits have been questionable, so some selective highlights will have to do instead.

The Mediterranean sun greeted us this morning standing on our room’s balcony. The interplay of sunlight with the misty, Tel-Avivian air was a breathtaking sight to behold and on the balcony next door the swaying of our religious instructor in his morning prayer interfered with our attempts at capturing panoramic photos.

After a breakfast that puts many a restaurant’s to shame, we left to do some volunteer work in an Israeli food bank. It’s not as if I was given a choice, so the involuntary volunteer work began. The rhythmic and monotonous separating of onions – rotten from really rotten, the former of which will be fed to the poor – turned out to be really therapeutic and the physical movements involved made for a really good morning workout.

From there we left for Ceasaria, the place where the really good, but simultaneously really bad, Judean king Herod built impressive structures in honour of his Roman overlords. An intense discussion on the journey resulted in my rethinking of important aspects of Zionist history, to not so favourable conclusions. Jesu… I mean, Hertzl! Was that intense!

In the evening we arrived at our new living courters, just in time as my body was about to run out of its chemical fuel. After dinner, seconds and thirds we had some Jewish songs contests, which I won for my team by performing a rendition of an old Chassidic song in Yiddish which encourages the listener to keep on drinking vodka, lest they die and forfeit the ability to do so.

Thus ends the story of how I came to be anti-socially blogging on my phone at this very moment, whilst my newly-made friends seem to be carrying on with their social life. I better return to them before they find out that they don’t need me. Yalla, bye!


ISRAEL LOG 3: Tuesday, 22nd August

Social Anxieties – חרדות חברתיות

Mount Tabor 22:50:
With my phone thematically dying, I had to give up my blogging spot on the hotel’s outdoor swinging bench. Instead I am cooped up in a corner indoors, attached to the wall through my dodgy charging cable who refuses to be milked of charge unless violently prodded and pulled into submission.

Today social anxiety finally kicked in. Through my experiences the point at which that happens to me is the point after which the initial introductions have been made, names and occupations exchanged and now real relationships will need to form. Unlike many others, I find initial encounters quite straightforward and easy. What I struggle is taking the next step in the befriending process.

As ever, I spend too much time thinking about myself, so I have had the chance to come up with a couple of theories as to the reasons for this phenomenon. The hypothesis that the evidence seems to be supporting at the moment is that it is the fear of rejection and judgment that is at the heart of my inhibitions. During first encounters people are unlikely to be rejecting, as they make an effort at first impressions, and it doesn’t take more than a simple defence system for me to hide behind in order to be comfortable that I come across well enough to someone who doesn’t know me. From then on however, people start letting down their initial politeness, rejection becoming an ever looming threat, and, likewise, my defences get gradually eroded as people get to know me better and the obsession with how I am being judged starts taking roots.

Of course, as a straight, single male in a pool of available girls, sexual tensions and anxieties run high too, but I feel less comfortable discussing it or expressing it due to societal and psychological reasons that are forever beyond my reach.

In a corner of an adjoining room, strategically situated in a location with maximal Wi-Fi exposure, two co-travellers are watching the latest season of Game of Thrones on the Chromebook that I have lent them. The mix of High Vallerian and Dothraki emanating from my device’s loud-speakers are – quite ungratefully – distracting me in my writing attempt, but I am yet to tell you how and where we spent the day.

Brutally and prematurally awakened from a crucially replenishing, and – according to my roommate – a snoring-filled, night’s sleep, we headed to the Golan Hights, where – the background sound of shell and mortar explosions notwithstanding – we enjoyed a spectacular mountain hike, during which I could almost watch my tan darkening. My wrist-watch, besides for faithfully keeping me up to date with the time, also serves as a living testimony for this, as when removed it exposes some pale, Ashkenazi skin.

At lunchtime we got to taste wine and make cheese. Both were awful, but at least for the wine we could blame others.

In the afternoon our hot and sweaty bodies had their first taste of water. Rafting in the Jordan was fun, although my belly almost burst open when I tried jumping in from a tree swing, just to hit the water flat on. You don’t need to know much physics to understand that that was painful and embarrassing.

Back in our hotel, after a talk on the regional geo-politics that I found to be unexpectedly impartial, I am about to sign off for the night to get some sleep, or, should I get a beer? A beer it is! See you again tomorrow.


ISRAEL LOG 4: Wednesday, 23rd August

Holy Shit – חרא קדוש

Tell Aviv 12:05am:
Like animals released from their encagement, we descended on the streets of Tell Aviv to make the most of the two hours of freedom that we have been given. These were and will be our only hours of (semi) free leisure throughout the trip and we weren’t going to miss a second of it. Too bad that I bumped into my housemate (Francesca) and into my North London friend (Fabianne); a quick selfie just had to do and onwards we ran to the nearest club that we never found.

Of course this was only the culmination of a long day; its start was rather different. The hilly town of Tzefat greeted us in the morning with its white and dusty streets. The theme of the day was Jewish mysticism – Kaballah – and Tzefat was going to tell us its story.

Bullshit, unlike the common misconception, is not a category of homogenous entities of crap. There is bullshit and there is bullshit, and Kaballah is amongst the latter. The Chabbad rabbi who lectured us on it didn’t see it that way though and I did eventually apologise to him for ridiculing his superstition. Some people are superstitious and some people are rude.

From Tzefat to Tell Aviv was a long drive, which we spent in mounting anticipation for the encounter with the hub of Israeli civilisation and culture. If my phone would have worked I would have taken spectacular images of the landscape as we were arriving, but unfortunately it had run out of power before it could utilise its full potential: only the good die young.

In a restaurant on Alanby, Tel Aviv, which we settled on after chasing our imaginary club, I got to meet up with fellow Brit Nathan Sharp who bought me a beer, thus completing my day on an appropriate note and diet.

I may have not learnt much in terms of mysticism from the rabbi in Tzefat and my legs are still itching over a missed dancing opportunity, but the rabbi’s calmness and friendliness in responding to my harsh criticism impressed me just as much as the patience of the Tel-Avivian bar-tender. They have both shown exemplary levels of patience in the face of unexpected challenges. I am grateful to them both.


ISRAEL LOG 5: Saturday, 26th August

From Religion to Independence – מדת לעצמאות

Jerusalem 20:00:
It’s been a while since I checked in with my log, which means that some of you must have been driven to depression. As I don’t want blood on my hands, here I am back to give meaning to your life.

With boundaries breached and barriers broken, my social situation has improved beyond compare. Of course this means that I have less time to write, being busy jumping on beds and in beds, but it also means that my anxieties have ceased: bad for you; good for me.

As for my sickly phone, well, I had less time to be on it – of course other than during our multi-houred karaoke session last night when it sadly passed away whilst I was looking up the lyrics for Elsa’s Let It Go. At that point beer no longer did it for me, but – no worries – some of his stronger relatives were there to the rescue.

It was back on Thursday morning in Tell Aviv and we went to see Independence Hall. The setting of the place where Israel declared independence on the 5th of Iyar 1948 has been preserved and the experience of singing there Hatikva was immensely powerful.

Something about the Jewish story of the last two-three centuries is immensely inspiring to me as a formerly religious, secular Jew. I see my journey from religious fanaticism to secular enlightenment as a micro-history of the modern Ashkenazi Jew.

The transformation of Judaism in the Jewish enlightenment from a superstitious, Yahweh-worshipping religion, to a secular humanistic peoplehood culminates in the establishment of the secular Jewish state of Israel. Judaism hasn’t died out, but it has heen reformed, transformed and restored. I think that amongst the host of my fictitiously constructed identities, this myth would rank pretty high.

Gotta run now. More rambling later.


ISRAEL LOG 6: Sunday, 27th August

Dance of Joy – ריקוד של שמחה

Jerusalem 8:30am:
I’ve always loved dancing and the opportunity for free self expression that comes with it. Of course the Chassidic dance is very different to modern party dancing and they each have their advantages. In the circle dance there isn’t so much room for expression of individuality and creativity, but there is the kind of inclusion and embrace of everyone involved that is lacking in the clubs where one has got to work in order to be seen.

Last night, in a club in Ben Yehuda, feet really lifted. The friendship-acceleration process endemic to a trip like Birthright, ensured that dancing with people whom I hadn’t known a week ago felt like a neo-chassidic dance.

Going back to Thursday, we left the Independence Hall and arrived at the Taglit Innovation Centre. It was interesting learning about Israel’s technological and scientific achievements and the word ‘boastful’ took on a new meaning. As the Israeli entrepreneur lectured us about his achievements in the ‘start up nation’ I dosed off, the fact that I was sitting in the front row notwithstanding.

On Tel Aviv beach a little bit later in the day I undressed to discover that all my anxieties about my beach-imperfect body were unfounded, not because I have magically developed abs overnight, but because my idea of a perfect body came from a tiny, over-represented minority in society and it evaporated as soon as some regular skin was seen.

Now we’re on the way to Yad VaShem holocaust museum and to Mount Hertzl and as a matter of respect and reverence there’ll be no beer consumption today. But I swear that if my phone plays up I’ll bury it alongside its fellow Jewish fallen.


ISRAEL LOG 7: Monday, 28th August

Holocaust and Heroism – לשואה ולגבורה

Arad 4:50am:
Hey world, this is actually me, up and awake – who would have thought that I would ever be capable of breaking up with my bed so early on in our night’s relationship. We’re off to Masada and perhaps our tour guides are trying to get us into the suicidal mood that its occupiers were in. They’re not far from succeeding with me.

Yesterday was spent in Jerusalem on Mount Hertzl. We somberly walked through the Yad VaShem holocaust memorial and museum with our oldish guide who was inappropriately funny for the occasion. We then spent some time with the remains of the leaders and fighters of the modern Jewish people, Hertzl, Zabotinski, Channah Senesh and Rabin amongst them.

I had learnt about the holocaust a lot before, so the experience of reliving the tragedy wasn’t as traumatic for me as it was for others in our group, but at Hertzl’s gravesite and memorial my emotions were overflowing. I also connected a lot with the Jewish and human heroism shown by resistance fighters like Mordechai Anilevitch and his fellow Warsaw Ghetto brethren. This was a part of holocaust education that they didn’t teach me in my religious education, as it doesn’t fit the narrative of Jews as submissive sheep surrounded by aggressive wolves.

Of course my type of Jew now is the sheep-turned-lion, who stands up to the bullies and fights back for her dignity, even if to the death and that is one of the things that I find so inspiring about the Zionist narrative, whether real or fictitious.

Hertzl was my kind of Jew: proudly Jewish and yet passionately universalistic, faithful and committed but enlightened and secular. He didn’t see Jewish nationalism as conflicting with his liberal humanistic values and neither do I. He saw Jews not as better or special, but as unique in their own way – so do I.

It’s nice floating around in the realm of idealistic mythological identity – especially from my moderately comfortable coach seat, but I’ll soon be brutally brought back to reality with the burning salt of the dead sea on my numerous cuts and bruises. Not looking forward.


ISRAEL LOG 8: Tuesday, 29th August

Identity Narratives – סיפורי זהות

Negev, 15:00:
We’re on the way back to Jaffa for our final night on the trip, my hands constantly travelling to my back to scratch off the peeling skin from my sunburn on Tel Aviv beach. Earlier we have left S’deh Boker where Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Guryon lived towards the end of his life and where he is buried.

Identity narratives that we tell ourselves are fictitious reconstructions of historical events, where objective reality is used to forge subjective meaning. Reality is far too complicated to be given to precise characterisation and stories are too short and simplistic as to accurately reflect complex, non-linear events. And yet, we need these identity narratives and on a broad and holistic level they sometimes do give us a rough idea of overall historical trends and journeys.

An example of such an identity narrative for me is Zionism. By a retrospective and selective reading of historical events, a really moving narrative of human courage, resistance and hope unfolds. The narrative is based on historical events, but is largely an idealistic reconstruction. I don’t need, or want, the injustices and wrongs done in the name of the Zionist idea as part of my narrative. I don’t need complexity and accuracy as part of my narrative. All that I need is a simplified and purified version of events to aid my identity, as identity narratives belong in the realm of myth, not history.

It is in that sense that Ben-Guryon stands out as the lion fighting for his people. As an atheist in love with the Hebrew bible, he surely understood the power of mythological narrative. He didn’t need the Tanach to be perfect in order to love it and I don’t need Ben-Guryon to be perfect in order to love him. And besides, he might not be perfect in history class, but he’s perfect in my fictitious mythology.

One thing to be careful though when dealing with mythology is that they are recognised and identified as such. As fictions they can’t be used to support any claims about reality. They are there for the sole use of providing us with meaning, identity and a sense of belonging, but cannot guide us in matters of right and wrong, true and false. Many don’t follow this principle, abusing the purpose of mythology. Mythology is a dangerous weapon in the hands of literalists.


ISRAEL LOG 9: Wednesday, 30th August

Jerusalem the Beautiful! – ירושלים, היפה!

Jerusalem 21:15:
It’s been a long and exhausting day and I am resting my tired feet on the bus towards my accommodation in my mate Amir’s flat in Hebrew University’s halls.

The Israel Museum, located right next to the Knesset and Supreme Court, closes at nine, making my wish to stay there overnight to nourish my soul with its historical, cultural and artistic specularity impossible. My four hours there were enough to send me into a euphoric trance though.

Jerusalem has awe-struck me with its beauty. If God were to exist this would no doubt be the place on earth He would choose as His dwelling and if the term “holy” has any meaning, its meaning will have to be Jerusalem.

It’s been an emotional day for me on another level as well. Earlier this day I had to say goodbye to a few tens of people whom I have met only ten days ago but who have nevertheless made me feel as if I can’t live without them. I’m consoled by the hope that I have made some long-lasting and meaningful connections and that I’ll get to see some of them again shortly.

I am attaching some photos of our trip yesterday to the Ein Avdat Canyon, where hundreds of millions of years in the geological record unfolded in front of our eyes, as well as some beautiful scenic pictures of the old city of Jaffa, where we experienced beautiful and hope-infusing coexistence and baseless love between the Arab and Jewish populations of the city (photos not attached in blog edition – see Facebook).


(ISRAEL) [PALESTINE] LOG 10: Friday, 1st September

Blurring the Boundaries – טשטוש הגבולות

Jerusalem 9:15am:
I want to start writing about yesterday, but there are so many thoughts and feelings that I don’t know where to start. What a transformative day it was! What a contradictory day! What a confusing day!

I started off the day by ascending the Temple Mount, or – as the Muslim serviceman corrected me, denying any historical Jewish presence in the area – Haram esh-Sharif. The only other time in my life when I felt that my identity as an atheist would be safer than as Jewish was at the Humanist convention earlier this summer.

I then made my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where a priest ordered me to remove my hat before entry. At the Western Wall I was asked the opposite – to cover my head – but there I did not conform, as I don’t think of the Wall as a religious site, but as a national one. It was also in protest for the Orthodox monopoly on what should be a monument for the whole nation. Here at the church, however, I removed my hat and enjoyed the beautiful architecture and art that God absently inspired in partnership with His Son.

After being told by virtually every Israeli who we discussed it with that we will not return alive from Ramallah, my friend Flo and I nevertheless decided to go. One Israeli who mistook us for romantic partners told us that if we want to get married to each other we should value our lives and not go. When we corrected him that we are friends he said, “if you ever want to get married to ANYONE, don’t go!”

The local residents were exceptionally friendly – granted that we did not reveal our Jewish identity. We got invited in for tea and got taken around. With one exception of a young resident who refused to call murderous attacks against Israeli civilians terrorism, all other people we were talking to seemed to be balanced and non-violent peace seekers.

At the Yassir Arafat Museum we got to learn of the other side of the conflict. The narrative was obviously one sided, but not more so than the Zionist museums in Israel.

Back in Jerusalem, after a theological debate with an orthodox friend over some beers, my day was coming to a close. It is going to take me a long time to process what I have taken in on this day; for now I am not jumping to any conclusions, just learning, listening and taking in.


ISRAEL LOG 11: Saturday, 2nd September

Freedom from Religion – חופש מדת

Jerusalem 9:10am:
It’s shabbat in Israel, which means that there is no public transport. I’ll either have to walk places, or I’m stuck at home. It upsets me that religion is enforced here in this way; is Israel a theocracy or a democracy? But rather than wallowing in morbid thoughts, I want to catch up on a day in our trip that I haven’t covered yet.

Last Friday we started off by exploring the area around the ancient Jewish temple, where the Temple Mount and Western Wall are located. We saw the remains of Jewish life and ritual, evidence of a period of Jewish sovereignty in the land. Whether or not that justifies modern Jewish control there is a good question, but denying history – like so many anti-Zionists do – is simply wrong and unhelpful. Obviously, the same goes to denying historical Islamic and Palestinian presence in the area.

As we entered the Western Wall Plaza, the girls were asked to cover their shoulders and knees. Apparently God can’t handle a pair of sexy knees. As I always thought of my own knees as sexy in their own way, I decided to cover them and put on a skirt as well. The Modesty Patrol didn’t seem to like the idea though.

We then went to Mach’neh Yehuda market, where we bought our Shabbat needs and ate an overpriced lunch.

Later in the evening we returned to the Western Wall to welcome the Sabbath. We sang and danced euphorically and I got myself into trouble for using my device to capture the moment. Many of the worshippers – it seemed – had strong opinions about using electronics on shabbat. I generally believe in respecting others’ sensitivities, but I think that I get some lee-way when it comes to the ideology that physically and mentally abused me. I’d much sooner be respectful towards Mormonism and scientology than towards Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, not because the latter is crazier than the former, but because the latter abused me where the former have not.

After Friday night dinner back in our hotel, we drank and partied like crazy, but I have already written about it in a previous log (5).


ISRAEL LOG 12: Sunday, 3rd September

Sea, Mountains and Desert – ים, הרים ומדבר

ISRAEL LOG 12

Netanya 17:20:
I’m on the “public taxi” service on the way to Tel Aviv to meet up with my mate Eylon. Later in the evening we will be partying in Tel Aviv in what My Israeli buddies predict to be “lit”. My ass – or as they call it here, yashvan – is one big rash from today’s adventures, which I want to tell you all about, but first I must repay a debt that I owe from last week Monday.

We got woken up at 3 and rushed to the dining hall where there was cake and coffee for us that we were all too tired to eat anyway. After reaching the bottom of Masada with the bus, we climbed the mountain in the dim light of pre dawn. The world truly looked like a purer place at that moment.

With trepidation we awaited the magnificent Mediterranean sunrise, the beauty of which exceeded all our expectations. We then toured the site of the last Jewish resistance against the mighty Roman army in the early years of the common era, discussing what moral value to ascribe to their desperate choices.

Still in the early hours of the morning we arrived at the dead sea where we got to float in what felt like a boiling, salty soup – my many rashes and wounds causing me to shout out in agony as the salt sucked on my blood.

In the afternoon we stopped in the Negev for what was going to be our “Bedouin Tent Experience”. After a cultural exchange with our Bedouin host, we all jumped onto the back of his camels who grudgingly – it seemed – took us on a ride around the encampment.

As night fell we went out to the hill for some meditative star-gazing, which was a powerful experience for many. Before laying our exhausted bodies on the tent floor for some sleep, we sang and told embarrassing stories about ourselves around the campfire, all the while chewing on half-roasted-half-burnt marshmallows.

By now I have arrived in Tel Aviv, so I’m going to sign off. See you in my next, and perhaps final, Israel Log.


ISRAEL LOG 13: Wednesday, 6th September

Difficult Farewell – פרידה קשה

London 18:40:
Big Busy London grimly welcomed me last night as I stepped out of Heathrow Airport. My 17 day adventure sadly came to an end, but I can’t say that I’ll miss living out of a stinky, mold-scented suitcase.

My last few days in israel were a blast and this is what this 13th and final log is about.

On Friday evening I attended a beautiful egalitarian kabbalat shabbat at Kehilat Zion with my newfound friend and radical Yael. Afterwords we had a heavy-discussion-filled dinner at her hilarious mom’s Nicky.

On Saturday afternoon I wondered around the Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, where – in keeping with ancient biblical law – I literally got stoned for using my phone to take some pictures. (Yea, you didn’t know this, but they had phones in biblical times.) I then joined a counter protest for religious freedom and secular democracy.

On Sunday at the crack of dawn my mate Amir and I headed out on a bikes from Netanya with the intention of cycling down the 25km trek to Tel Aviv. By he time we arrived in Hertzelliah it was past 9 and it was too hot to continue, so instead we stopped there and cooled off in the local beach.

Monday morning I woke up just to discover that my wallet with all my money and cards has gone missing. I was totally fucked, but the experience has taught me never to underestimate the tranquilising power of a good wank. After cancelling my cards and borrowing some money from a friend, I went to the Yitzchak Rabin Centre in Tel Aviv where I shed some tears on the peace that was murdered by religious fanaticism. At Yad VaShem I didn’t cry, on Mount Hertzl I didn’t cry, but here I cried for Rabin and for his heroic idealism.

Yesterday morning, hours before my flight, I visited the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. It’s an informative and content-rich museum, but also very run-down and neglected – the symbolism was unavoidable.

And thus my great Israeli adventure comes to an end. Now I am headed home from the Yachad Students Conference, where we discussed pro-Israel-pro-peace issues; what a way of returning to the diaspora!

Stay tuned for my next post in which I will be sharing some final thoughts and impressions about the issues that spoke to me during the trip. See you then!


The Cathedral

With breathtaking beauty the magnificent cathedral looks over the town from its center square, wowing passersby who would occasionally stop to marvel at the skilled craftsmanship that was evident from every inch of the structure.

As you stand at a slight distance and gaze across towards the cathedral, intricate architectural designs reveal themselves to your eyes in dazzling detail and precision. The saintly figures on the elongated stained glass windows stare at you from their position high above, reflecting off the sun’s rays as if radiating towards you love and warmth. The carefully crafted pillars, sky bound, culminate in majestic statues of mythical beasts. Fierce but simultaneously kind they stand there as if ready to protect the town’s people from whatever threat may be coming towards them.

Tradition has it that there is far more to the cathedral than what meets the eye. Apparently if you approach it and inspect it from close up a whole new dimension is revealed and it is not a pretty one. The people therefore avoid coming too close and instead choose to appreciate the structure from afar. The only ones who go up close are the team of architects constantly inspecting the finer details of the design and from the looks on their faces one can tell that they are not happy.

It is not very clear what they are doing there, as they have long been dismissed by the project manager, deeming their work complete. There have been numerous attempts to talk the architects out of their redundant labour, but communication with them has proven extremely difficult. It is no wonder that they all seem sad, as they are continually exposed to the ugly closeup dimension of the cathedral and never get to appreciate their wonderful creation.

It has not always been like this. The elderly amongst the town’s people still recall how not so long ago in place of the beautiful masterpiece stood the old cathedral, shabby and neglected. Its structure was so weak that people would be afraid to pass by it lest if collapses on them unexpectedly. At last the architects came and after decades of labour they transformed it into its irrecognizable new self that we see now.

Unfortunately, the building was so ragged that a complete repair at the very fine levels was impossible and under closeup inspection the remnants of imperfection could be seen. That in itself would not have been a problem, since as long as one does not come too close none of this can be seen. However, for the architects who have through their construction work become accustomed to looking at the building from really short distances, this has become a source of obsessive anguish. And it is not as if anything can be done about this either, as it is well known that beauty cannot be found under the magnifying glass.

And as I pass by the cathedral every morning and take a minute to appreciate its beauty, I see the architects touching its walls, deep frustration on their faces and I think to myself, if only they would back off a little and appreciate their own work the way that I do!