Honour and Love

“Mmmm, this is some good meat!” Jasmine remarked as she returned her fork to her plate ready to dig in again as soon as her mouth makes some space.

Her lover, Chris, was sat across the small, round table, his knees enveloping hers. “He was a good man,” he said with a nostalgic look in his eyes, staring at the two flesh-covered ribs lying just in front of him.

“So lovable,” she responded after swallowing a particularly chewy piece of the smoked meal. “I miss him already. I don’t know how I’ll manage to cope once he’s completely gone!”

“Well, let’s not worry about that now. We have good memories and tasty meat. Let’s make the most of him while he’s still with us.”

He grabbed one of the ribs and broke off a chunky piece. Wrapped in lettuce he dipped it into the small bowl of BBQ sauce situated halfway between him and her.

“You know,” he said after several minutes of silent eating, “a friend of mine told me today something really shocking. Apparently in the West they leave their dead to rot in the ground. Eww!”

“God forbid! That’s so depraved!” She pushed away her plate and looked angrily towards Chris. “Did you have to tell me this whilst I’m eating? I lost my appetite now, thank you very much!”

He regretted bringing it up. She was right; that is a fairly revolting thought. All day it had been bothering him and he hasn’t been able to take it off his mind. The picture of placing someone to disintegrate in mud would have disturbed him at any time. But it especially sickened him now, given his own recent loss.

Chris’s dad, David, had just passed away a couple of weeks earlier. He and Jasmine found it very difficult to deal with it, but they found solace in the honour that they could give to his body. They tenderly cleaned him and decorated him and lovingly stored him away. Of course they miss his smile, his positivity, his energy. But at least they would still see him daily – at least for the near future. They calculated that he’d last for at least 5 months if they were sparing.

Jasmine was visibly shook by what she had just heard. “That’s disgusting!” she kept on repeating. “Why would anyone do this to a human being, let alone a loved one?”

“I always knew that they were morally depraved in the West. If that’s how they treat their dead, they probably don’t treat their living ones much better.” He had lost his appetite too. But he wouldn’t leave any meat uneaten – not his dad’s meat.

He finished and put the remainder of her portion back in the freezer, next to where the head, arms, one leg and some remaining ribs of the corpse were stored.

They retired to their room for the night.

After exchanging some anecdotes of their respective days at work, they managed to distract themselves from the thoughts that had so disgusted them earlier. she put her arm around him and lovingly kissed him on the lips. With soft, tender strokes his fingers fondled her left nipple, lightly stimulating them as he goes back and forth, up and down, round and round.

“You know what,” he said, groping her breast as he talked. “I am so lucky that we do not live in the West.”

She opened her eyes, as if emerging from a pleasant nap. “What do you mean?”

“I wouldn’t be as lucky to have you if we lived there.”

“Why not?”

“They disapprove of romantic father-daughter relationships there.”


Conversations with Malaysian Cabbies

I’m spending the weekend in Malaysia and, from speaking with locals, I’ve learnt very interesting things about the country.

Malaysia is constitutionally a democracy. But since the British have left, the ruling Malay racial group, who are all Muslim, have done whatever they could to make sure that Malaysia is officially a Muslim country.

Whilst its legal framework is based in the secular Common Law, Shariah courts run alongside it with full legal power. That is, if you are Muslim you are legally under Shariah law. You will be prosecuted if caught drinking, or having extra-marital sex. If you are a woman you cannt marry a non-Muslim.

On the political level, only Muslim parties can choose the PM. In education, only Muslim schools get governmental funding, only Muslims get educational grants and 85% of university places are reserved for the Muslim population who comprise around 60% of the total population. Likewise, housing projects, welfare, governmental positions and more are mostly reserved for the Muslim Malay.

In spite of these restrictions, the ethnic Chinese and Indians comprise most of the wealthy in the country. The Chinese are the business people and the Indians are the professionals and intellectuals. This is perhaps not surprising given that the Malay are devoting ever more educational time and resources on conservative religious activity, rather than on developing good secular education. However, this disparity in wealth is what the government uses as justification for their policies of discrimination – although the true reason is due to Islamic supremacism.

The ethnic minorities miss the British times and, according to my taxi driver, would choose to be a British colony again. The British with all their shortcomings, did not allow for racial and religious discrimination and kept church and state seperated. This is all gone now.

I just happen to be reading Howard Sachar’s excellent The Course of Modern Jewish History. I couldn’t help noticing parallels between the situation of the ethnic minorities in Malaysia to the situation of 18th and 19th century Jews in Europe and Russia. Being restricted in the kind of professions that they can enter, Jews entered niches which made them very successful. The disproportionate wealth of some Jews then further justified discriminatory measures against them to “even out” the inequalities. Likewise, Jews were being accused of disloyalty and unpatriotism which led to persecution. This in turn led to Jews not feeling comfortable in their country and looking elsewhere for refuge, which just proved how disloyal they were!

From the little that I’ve been here in Malaysia, it seems that the ruling Malay have created an exclusionary nationalism that causes some of the ethnic minorities to miss the British. This in turn reinforces the idea that the non-Malay are not nationalistic.

Malaysia comes across as a country which is deeply divided on racial and religious lines. Taxi drivers who are from minority groups are eager to rant against the ruling Malay, seeing them as a group that is becoming ever more conservative and islamically fundamentalist (this happened to me twice today alone. First a mixed race Portuguese Christian told me about the ethnic repression. Later, an ethnic Indian had a similarly unprovoked rant to me against the Malay). The government, far from doing anything to reassure the religious minorities, is actively engaging in thoroughly islamising the country. Even in the National Museum you can’t miss a full wall of dawah leaflets urging conversion to Islam, explaining the “beauty” of head covering and preaching Islamist exclusivism and superiority.

The British worked hard to ensure that Malaysia would be a democracy once they left. I’m not convinced that they succeeded.

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.

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


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!