Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Recently I returned to the United States from a ten-day stint in Israel. It was called a Birthright trip, which I find a little obnoxious, but it was a free trip paid for by, I believe, the Israeli government and some wealthy American Jews, so I will accept their nomenclature. Since being back in the USA, most conversations I've had about the trip have involved responding to knee-jerk cynicism, informed by political readings. For my part I attempted to enter the whole thing without any kind of political agenda, my lens focused on consciousness, an awareness of the narratives people construct for themselves.

On a bus with 49 strangers, it is odd how quickly you begin to feel as if you've known them all your life. Staring at people's faces, trying to place them to college classes or summer camps, thinking they might be recognizable as someone you've completely forgotten and never really known. Until it dawns on you that you have, in face, known these people all your life, that there are archetypes that reoccur over and over again, filling up the background. These roles do not have names, I don't think, but if they did, I'm sure that, within this particular group, I could be labeled with the "weirdo" tag easily. A clear outlier. Partly this followed my decision to think the way I did, but that comes easily enough: Really, the idea behind my behavior was a conscious naming of the way I already act.

This is not to say I did not make friends. It probably would have become intolerable had I not done so. On my first evening, as the rules were being discussed, I thought about breaking them simply to be released from duty. We were told that anyone hungover in the morning would be placed on a plane, and even though being hungover is deeply unpleasant, and easily avoided, I considered it as an option. But I stuck it out, found some nice people to converse with, and had a pretty nice time, a welcome change of pace from the rhythms of everyday behavior. Time was structured fairly rigidly, which is annoying in a lot of ways, but this reduced me to my essence.

The goal of the project is to make young people love Israel. I am too double-minded to be an ideal target subject, but most of the conflict I felt was due to the corrupting influence of commerce, of tourism. Too much of what I saw for sale was tacky souvenirs, sold to tourists. This was most pronounced in the town of Tsfat/Svat, the supposed center of Jewish mysticism, a mountain town with a beautiful layout, narrow streets, and an artists' colony. It is only when you walk through the artist's colony and realize that you are looking at a "fine art gallery," of the kind that sells prints of paintings in suburbia, that takes up blocks and blocks, for an audience of sixty-year-olds. We were spoken to by a guy who'd really found an angle to work- existing in the artist's colony as "the mystic artist," drawing geometric patterns outlining the Qabalic tree of life. Speaking in vagueness but seeming really cool to those who had not had much experience with the genuinely strange, and successfully selling large quantities of work. It makes sense that there is a constant economic pressure leading to conservatism, in a country so old and beautiful, but that is exactly the same problem that makes me avoid large chunks of America. There are parts of Jerusalem where people are still plainly living, but I can only assume those areas have been family-owned for generations. Other parts of Jerusalem are incredibly expensive due to wealthy Americans having purchased properties that they then do not live in.

Cooler was a Drues (sic? sorry, only heard the word spoken aloud) village where, for tax purposes, everyone lives in unfinished homes, continually with chunks under construction. Or the Bedouins, a semi-nomadic group of desert dwellers. Much as it is in discussion of war: My sympathy is with those that are just trying to live their life. I understand that it is difficult.

As for other conflicts: It seems pretty likely to me that any American liberal that is more pissed off about Israel than they are about America is basically retarded. Partly, this is because America is much more distanced from what it's doing. This makes it easier to forget about, but is absolutely an actual fault, moreso than a strength. To me it seems likely that there will be peace in the middle east long before the United States ceases to exist in a state of perpetual conflict. Despite the fact that everywhere you go in Israel, you see people carrying machine guns, and it does not take much for casual racism to manifest itself. The mandatory military service makes everyone much more invested in peace, and there is not a massive military-industrial complex perpetuating itself.

The weird presence of religion, dictating the lives of even those who do not observe it, is more pronounced there, but in a way that makes it that much more open for discussion. The presence of religious sites, monotheisms overlapping with one another, only serves to remind that, in spite of it all, everything is holy. Cats overrun everything; like the guns, a common presence one becomes accustomed to despite the deep strangeness once you think about it.

Strip away the levels. In the hotel in Jerusalem, I saw Fox News coverage of a shooting of Congresswoman and felt like weeping. I can talk about my trip more, to those who want to know what I saw, what I witnessed. I have a journal detailing events and memories. This is an attempt at processing the whole thing, simply, as a response to the cynical that I do not want to talk to.

The response is that what I saw was contrived, a view of a country placed into an easy frame. There is an artifice to it, the same way there is around anything else.

What is artifice? What Israelity? Swimming nude in the Sea of Galilee in the middle of January, floating in the dead sea, peeing in the Mediterranean. A soldier next to me saying that, as a drill, first thing in the morning, everyone strips down to a bathing suit and swims in the ocean. Another soldier made the punchline that I was going to make, in other situation, during a moment where I hesitated. We should all be aware that every soldier is some mother's son, that every loss is a human tragedy. Too often I think that the greater tragedy is that war exists at all, as a result of economic factors: Even this abstraction is a result of my distance. I made some friends who I do not wish to die. They want peace for themselves and the people around them. Can my own feelings of living in a city where there are people just a few blocks away from me who might not want me to live here be projected onto them? I think they can. Everyone needs a space. Most spaces would be nice were it not for money corrupting everything. It is notable that America is the only country besides Israel where circumcision is the default practice for newborns. We are closer than we think, but maybe I know that closeness a little more intimately than the abstraction of it that we often think of.

I doubt I will ever return to Israel: There is much more to see in the world. I am grateful to have seen it, even if it was easily recognizable, if I anthropomorphicize it in the projection of my features. I am grateful for the bit of self-knowledge reflected back to me. I hope I keep in touch with the people who I met, even though I might not have much to say to them without a constant barrage of shared experiences to reflect on.

1 comment:

laura said...

"...any American liberal who is more pissed off about Israel than they are about America is basically retarded."
This is something I've been thinking for a long time, especially in Olympia where the #1 liberal cause is the Israel Palestine conflict. Meanwhile the country is broke, spending money we don't have on trillion dollar defense mechanisms, while one out of eight American children go to bed hungry each night. Something is very, very wrong with this picture.

But when we get down to brass tacks, it's interesting to me that this is not a republican or democrat phenomenon, but that really each party is incapable of looking inward and dealing with our very real, pressing problems, because, yes, we're distanced, and maybe the problems are just too big. What worries me is that the distance will only grow as technology advances, and so too the problems.