Across the Aisle, Beyond the Green Line

“The discrimination of refugees by Palestinian society is terrible,” said Muhammad, who lives in a UN refugee camp in Nablus. “If you think about it, the source of all the problems and all the devils in the world is…”

I honestly thought he was going to say “discrimination”, or “inequality”, or something along those lines.


I held my breath and my tongue as I tried to digest the bigoted non sequitur I had just heard. It’s one thing to read such incendiary statements in an academic article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it’s an entirely different experience to hear it from the horse’s mouth. I felt a flush of anger, but how could I respond? I was sitting with a tour group in a public park in Nablus, just minutes before entering a refugee camp – not the most conducive environment for a debate.


Public park in Nablus

Our tour guide, also named Muhammad, quickly interrupted his friend from the Nablus refugee camp. “He’s not referring to the people. He’s talking about the system of oppression,” he said. But I wasn’t convinced. What’s worse is that “Nablus Muhammad” is an English teacher to 11th and 12th grade students. Is he repeating such statements to his students?

As I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, two thoughts entered my mind. First, my discomfort paled in comparison to the discomfort of the Palestinian refugees in the camp that I was about to walk through. As erroneous and dangerous as Nablus Muhammad’s remarks were, they are the product of socialisation within a crowded and dirty urban pressure cooker. Second, I must learn to deal with this dissonance rather than run away from it.

After listening to Nablus Muhammad for a few more minutes, we walked to the refugee camp. Actually, the word “camp” gives a false impression. When the camps were created after the war of 1948-9, Palestinian refugees lived in tents, hoping for the conflict to end soon so that they could return to their homes. But over the decades, as it became clear that a resolution was nowhere in sight, the tents were replaced by shabby concrete buildings sponsored by the UN and other states like Japan. In many “camps”, the buildings were built in extremely close proximity, creating a dense and suffocating environment.

As we approached the refugee compound, a young boy called out to us, “Ma shlomchem (how are you)?” I was surprised to hear Hebrew, but fortunately for me (as I would learn later), I replied with a weak “Hello”. We entered the maze of narrow alleys, each of which was the width of two people. As we walked in single file, I tried to decipher the graffiti on the walls of the four-storey apartment buildings that we were walking between. I noticed a hastily drawn swastika and shuddered at the thought of such a symbol amongst a population that hates the Jewish state.


Narrow alleys in refugee camp

Privacy is non-existent in this densely populated concrete labyrinth. As we weaved in and out of the alleyways, I unintentionally peeked into several homes. The atmosphere was eerily quiet, save for the few children playing in the alleys and several men carrying out repair work. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but I did feel a lot of tension in the air. I imagine that many residents scornfully regarded us as intrusive foreigners trying to “understand” the situation in a brief 10-minute tour. I don’t blame them for thinking that.


Refugee camp in Nablus

There are very different opinions about Palestinian refugees. Some blame only Israel for creating the most protracted refugee crisis in the world, and others blame the Palestinian and Arab governments for abusing the refugees as pawns in their assault on Israel’s legitimacy. But regardless of political opinion, it is an undeniably miserable situation that I wish more Israelis would at least acknowledge. When I visited the Arafat Museum in Ramallah and saw pictures of Palestinians fleeing their homes and living in tents, I recalled the words of a right-wing Israeli who told me that the Palestinians are a “cancer in Judea and Samaria”. How could such a vile pejorative be hurled at refugees?


Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah


Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah

As we walked away, a man on a wheelchair came speeding towards us shouting, “T’azor li (help me)!” He was begging for alms in Hebrew! Confused, I asked Tour Guide Muhammad why I had heard Hebrew in a Palestinian refugee compound. He replied that many refugees suspect that there are Israeli Mossad or Shin Bet agents embedded within tour groups like ours, especially since many of them are wanted by the Israeli authorities. Interestingly, he seemed quite apologetic for this attitude, claiming that it was the fault of the Palestinian media. He also recounted the story of another tour group that he had taken to a refugee camp, where a German girl accidentally said “Beseder (OK)” to a refugee. He had to explain to the refugees in Arabic that she was just a student in Israel, and her Hebrew reply was just a habit she had picked up.

The walk through the refugee camp was the final and most memorable part of the Nablus tour which was organised by Area D hostel in Ramallah. I had stayed in that hostel for one night as part of a short weekend in the West Bank. Before this trip, I had only visited Bethlehem and Jericho, and I had never slept overnight in the West Bank.




Mural in Nablus

Tour Guide Muhammad was a friendly, easy-going guide who spoke in a frank but mostly measured manner. Before taking us to the refugee camp, he showed us the main souk of Nablus, took us to a Turkish hammam, and treated us to delicious knafeh – a syrupy symphony of sugar and cheese that tantalises the taste buds and elevates the soul. He also took us to an olive oil soap workshop, where we were introduced to the complex process of purifying olive oil and turning it into high-quality bars of soap for export.


Spices, olive oil soap, nuts, etc.


Making knafeh

Throughout the tour, he shared his personal stories of the Second Intifada, his experiences working for several years in the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, and his thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian society.

He said a lot that I had expected – that the unjust Zionists were brutal and violent, that they had killed many innocent women and children during the Second Intifada, and that the Palestinians are cooped up in two giant jails (the West Bank and Gaza). He also said that he was unsure of his own future and the future of the Palestinian people, and that there may be no more land left to claim if Israelis continue to build settlements and place restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.

But some of his opinions were quite surprising. For example, he shared his displeasure with the Palestinian refugees who remained in the camps instead of moving to the cities like Nablus and Ramallah. “They don’t need to live like our fellow Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria,” he said. “They are the ones who are really suffering – they are not accepted by the societies they live in.”

He also said that there are many problems in Palestinian society, such as inequality, corruption, infighting and lack of meritocracy. “People get jobs based on connections and not only on qualifications,” he said. In fact, he had never heard of “internships” until he travelled to India as part of an official exchange between the PA and the Indian government.

“It isn’t right to blame everything on the Israelis,” he said. “The Palestinian people have two enemies – occupation and ignorance.”

When referring to Israel, he often placed the word “state” in inverted commas, claiming that he recognises Israel because of its power, not because it had the right to take the land in 1948. In other words, he accepts the reality of Israel’s existence but not its legitimacy, just like many other Palestinians. Since this looks unlikely to change, it seems that a future peace deal (if there ever is one) will only be possible on the basis of hard power politics and unpalatable realities.

Interestingly, he claimed that Israel is highly individualistic because it is a migrant society of Jews from many different nations and cultures. This stands in contrast to the high solidarity of Palestinian society, which he claims has one unifying culture based on time-honoured traditions spanning many generations of indigenous Palestinians. I disagree with his assessment – there is a high level of solidarity within Israeli society even though there is tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as the Haredim and secular Jews. Also, Muhammad himself decried the inequality and fault-lines that exist within Palestinian society. But it is nonetheless an interesting perspective to hear from a Palestinian.

I share these experiences and observations primarily to educate and not to try to influence. I’ve tried to recount the most memorable parts of my tour as accurately as possible. I’ve spoken to a lot of Israelis over the past year. Over the next six months, I will make an effort to speak to more Palestinians across the Green Line.


Immediate Post-Brexit Thoughts

Previously shared on my Facebook:

“In this post-Brexit atmosphere of doom and gloom, I’d like to offer an alternative depiction of the situation as it stands. 

Although I was not as personally invested in this debate as many of my British friends were, I believed from the very beginning that Britain should remain in the EU. I am shocked at the outcome of the referendum, and I feel anxious about the consequences of this decision for the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. 

Such moments of grave uncertainty, confusion and disbelief are undesirable. But they are also opportunities for great leaders to emerge, pick up the pieces, and inspire people to keep moving forward. Now is the time for enterprising visionaries to offer solutions – solutions that may pale in comparison to remaining in the EU, but are necessary nonetheless.

I say this not because I’ve defected to the Leave camp. Neither is this an endorsement of any of the prospective leaders – BoJo, Gove or Farage – or their policies. I write this to encourage many of my friends who feel tempted to throw their hands up in despair. I’m trying to teach myself to always focus on solutions and not on problems – policies above politics. I often fail in this regard, but I hope that many of my friends – regardless of which camp they’re in – will have the tenacity and stoicism to forge a new path forward and bash on regardless.”

The Thirst for Knowledge

(I initially titled this post “The Pursuit of Knowledge”, but on second thought, that sounds a bit weird. It sounds as if Knowledge is running away from us like a thief runs away from the police :P)

Now that I’ve officially completed my first year of university (got my exam results back a while ago), it’s time to share a very important lesson that I learned this year. I think this might be helpful to my juniors who are in the midst of preparing their university applications.

As you deliberate over different university degree options, I strongly urge you to consider these few questions. What captivates you to the extent of voracious reading and incessant discussion? What captures your attention for hours and hours on end? Is there any academic field/subject that you long to explore and eventually master (even if you don’t feel confident that you can)?

If you have identified an academic discipline or subject area that fits this description, how willing are you to pursue it? How badly do you want what you want?

These questions have nothing to do with your current knowledge, or even your perception of your future competence. They are about passion, love for learning and the inner satisfaction of acquiring new knowledge and skills. What I’m trying to say is this – if you have a passion for a subject that you have little or no competence in, go for it.

Don’t worry about what your exam results or test scores will be. Your passion will drive you towards success. Of course, passion alone will not guarantee academic excellence, and even with many hours of hard work, you may still not achieve the stellar results that you want. But one thing’s for sure – no matter what grades you get, nothing can replace the joy of accomplishment that you attain by choosing a new path and sticking to it till the end. Think of Rocky Balboa jumping up and down at the top of the stairs after completing his training regime (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this video:

Back in secondary school and junior college (a.k.a. Years 1 to 6 in RI), I stayed within my comfort zone – the Science stream. My A-level subjects were Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Geography (which really includes a lot of Science even though it’s considered a Humanities subject). And yet today, I am studying in LSE, which is an arts and social science university. I jumped ship – from the Sciences to the Humanities.

But why the sudden change? I developed a slight interest in political studies in my final year of education in Singapore. The operative word here is “slight”, because compared to a lot of my friends, I don’t think I had any right at that point in time to count myself amongst the “current affairs enthusiasts” in my batch. But nonetheless, a spark of curiosity was kindled within me, and I found greater joy in reading the biographies of great historical figures than learning about hydrocarbons, bacterial conjugation, and geological landforms and phenomena that I could never hope to see in Singapore.

When I prepared my university applications, I had to decide if I was willing to go through a drastic change of course – from chemical equations to lots and lots of essay-writing. Eventually, I decided to take a leap of faith. I don’t mean to over-dramatise this, but my first 3 months in university were really quite a challenging adjustment period for me. I wasn’t used to writing long essays. I wasn’t used to reading social science journal articles. I was the only one in my History class who had never taken History as a subject, so I spent quite some time catching up on world history. I often felt inadequate, ignorant and naïve.

But learning is not supposed to be a comfortable process. Stretching the mind is like stretching your leg muscles – it hurts, but it’s highly beneficial. To add to my frustration, I realised that the more I know, the more I don’t; I became aware of how much I don’t know and probably never will know (hence, the name of my blog). But I soon learned to appreciate the confusion of my education. Even when revision was tough, I took pride in the fact that I had learned so much about the world that I didn’t know before. Shedding ignorance is like shedding weight – you feel enlightened 😛

I didn’t get amazing results for my exams – like I said, hard work will not guarantee stellar results – but I did well. More importantly, I feel satisfied with my results. I feel content. I feel like I’ve achieved success – one that cannot be quantified in an exam score. And now, I can share my story in the hope that I can encourage others who are contemplating a significant change in their studies.

Israel: Diversity and Divisions

Singapore likes to celebrate its racial and religious diversity. Diversity adds flavour to life on our tiny island, and fosters an environment of mutual understanding. Chinese, Malays, Indians, and people of “other” races live harmoniously on 700 sq km of land because the pioneers and leaders of the nation have managed cultural differences with great astuteness. That is the national narrative that we are familiar with. But if you think Singapore is diverse, Israel is in a league of its own. Managing differences in this country is a gargantuan task.

The existence of the State of Israel is astounding not just because of its precarious security situation and volatile history, but also because of its tremendous diversity. There are Jews of many different nationalities in Israel (over 100) as a result of the Diaspora, including German Jews, Russian Jews, British Jews, American Jews, Canadian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Yemeni Jews, Algerian Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Polish Jews, Bulgarian Jews… the list goes on. Each group has its own history in the Diaspora, its own traditions, its own cuisine and costumes and, of course, its own language. It’s quite common to find Jews speaking Russian, French, German, etc., in addition to Hebrew and English. This picture doesn’t even include those who are not/do not consider themselves Jewish – Arabs, Armenians, Asians (I’ve seen Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians in Tel Aviv and Herzliya), Sudanese refugees, etc.

Nationality/Ethnicity is just one way to dissect Israeli society. There is extraordinary religious diversity too. Amongst the Jews, there are Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews (which sounds like an oxymoron but essentially refers to religious orthodox Jews who embrace modern education, mass media, etc.) and Haredi Jews (the ultra-Orthodox who reject modernity and devote their lives studying the holy texts of Judaism). Even within the Haredim, there is the Hasedim, the Mituagdim and the Shas (different ethnic groups, different interpretations of the holy texts, different doctrines, different Rabbis, different dress-style, etc.) The Christians include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church, the Armenian Church, the Lutheran Church, Catholics, Protestants. There are Sunni and Shia Muslims. There people of the Baha’i faith, mostly concentrated in Haifa and Akko. And there are people of the Druze religion, which is a sub-sect of Islam that adopted many Hellenistic beliefs because of the influence of the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, which stretched out to the Middle East and beyond. In this belief system, the Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, etc.) are regarded as prophets. There are still the agnostics, the anti-religious, the atheists, the New Age believers, the Kabbalists…

How about political preferences? There are 12 political parties represented in Parliament today. Some of the parties represent specific groups – there are Arab parties, a party for Sephardic Jews (Jews from Asia and North Africa), a party for Ashkenazi Jews (Jews from Europe) – and each party differs on matters such as the religious/secular nature of the state, economic policy and peace and security. There has never been a single-party government since the inception of the state in 1948. Such immense political diversity necessitates a strong culture of consensus and compromise.

Once you consider the intersections of all these different social groups, the sheer complexity of Jewish society becomes even more confounding. Imagine labels like ‘secular socialist British Jew’ and ‘Druze Arab Israeli’. Even then, labels can obscure nuanced differences between individuals, so these labels actually mask the true heterogeneity of this country to a certain extent (but then again, this is true of every society, not just in Israel).

And once you consider the friction that exists between secular and Haredi Jews, Zionists and Haredi Jews, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Arabs, young and old, hawks and doves, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, etc., it is evident that the functioning of this society is an astonishing feat. (Just as a side note, notice that each time the word ‘Jew’ is mentioned in the previous sentence, it takes on a different meaning. It could mean ‘Jew’ in the religious sense or in the national/cultural sense.)

It is intriguing to learn more about how these differences are managed (or not). From the little that I’ve observed and read, I’ve noticed a couple of methods employed in Israel to manage these differences. For example, physical separation and demarcation is evident in the Old City, with its Muslim Quarter, Armenian Quarter, Christian Quarter and Jewish Quarter (even within the Jewish Quarter, there is a specific section with a high concentration of Haredim). With regard to military service, Druze men and women are not drafted into the Israeli Defence Force (from what I understand, most of them used to be part of Syria in the Golan Heights, so most of them do not identify with Zionism), and the same is true of Arab men and women. Military deferments (which become de facto exemptions) are issued to male Haredim Jews if they present proof that they study in a yeshiva, so that they can devote their lives to studying the holy texts of Judaism.

As for managing ethnic differences, the founding leaders of the state envisioned a ‘melting pot’, where all Jews in Israel would eventually conform to one national narrative and culture, but this did not succeed because the divisions between Jews of different nationalities were too deep, and the Sephardim felt that they were being pressured to conform to the Ashkenazi Jewish culture (the founding fathers of the state were mostly Ashkenazi Jews). Israeli society has eventually come to adopt a ‘salad bowl’ model, where cultural differences are tolerated, but not necessarily embraced. Many sceptics (such as Sammy Smooha) believe that there is still ethnic hierarchy in Israel, with the Ashkenazim at the top, the Arabs at the bottom, and the Sephardim in the middle.

Indeed, there is much diversity and division in this country. It’s mind-boggling. And I don’t think many people appreciate this — I know I didn’t before coming here. People living outside Israel usually focus on Israel’s external threats and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not on its domestic problems, which are just as critical. It will certainly be interesting to see how the country copes with its immense diversity in the future.

Summer in Jerusalem

I’ve started my lessons on the Emergence of the Modern State of Israel, and I must declare to the world that I absolutely love this class. Over the past few days, we have been discussing the origins of Zionist thinking, and the differences within the Zionist ideology. What I find absolutely astounding is that Zionism encompasses many schools of thought, some divided by gaping schisms and some separated by minor nuances. While there was general consensus amongst the Zionists that the solution to the Jewish problem was the establishment of a Jewish homeland and for the Jews to attain power, there were disagreements over what exactly the Jewish problem was, where the Jewish homeland should be (Argentina? Uganda? Palestine?), what the Jewish homeland should look like, and what the new Jew should be like.

These were just the disagreements within the Zionist group. There were many Jews who disagreed completely with the Zionist idea from the very beginning. There were Integrationists, who strongly believed that the solution to anti-Semitism was to assimilate into the cultures that they were in, so that they would shed their Jewish identity and adopt the identity of the British, Germans, French, etc. And of course, these people disagreed vehemently with the Zionist idea because it stood diametrically opposite to assimilation by aiming towards a separate and distinct Jewish state. Then there were the ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) who opposed the secular and anthropocentric nature of Zionism. To them, the idea of establishing a Jewish state/homeland without the Messiah was akin to rebellion against God. This tension between religious orthodoxy and secularism is still ongoing today, even though there has been an attempt to foster tolerance of both lifestyles in Israel. Finally, there were the Socialist Jews who believed that Zionism was a distraction from the real problem at hand – the oppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie. These Jews were predominantly European (Ashkenazi) Jews. To them, Zionism focused on setting Jews apart, when they should be brought into the universal brotherhood of man.

Zionism is a very unique nationalist movement in that it is probably the only example of nationalism in history that developed outside the country of the nation. It also revived the ancient Hebrew language that had been preserved by Jews in the Diaspora for centuries. The revival of Hebrew was a critical element of Zionism – Yiddish was seen as a bastardised version of Hebrew, and so even though most Jews spoke that in the early 20th Century, many Zionists considered it unacceptable in the new Jewish homeland.

More than just nationalism, Zionism is also about the identity of the Jewish people. After all, who exactly is a Jew? This question is deceptively simple, but actually very complex. Are the Jews an ethnic group? If that’s the case, then who can truly be considered Jewish after centuries of inter-ethnic marriages in the Diaspora? Could the Jews be defined by their religion, Judaism? If that is true, then anyone could become a Jew, and the need for a Jewish state would seem less legitimate in the eyes of the world because religious groups do not normally lay claim to territory. Yet, years of anti-Semitism have made it clear that there is a Jewish people, which has miraculously survived thousands of years of persecution – the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, etc. Zionism did not just focus on trying to determine what the Jewish identity is, but also on moulding the new Jew.

In a nutshell, Zionism is much more complex than I thought. I used to think that it was spurred by religious motivations, but now I understand that it is primarily a secular movement, even though it has many religious elements to it and many see the hand of God in it despite its secular nature. One only needs to visit Tel Aviv to understand the secular nature of Zionism. Tel Aviv is a world apart from Jerusalem; it is the epitome of the secularity of Zionism, a deliberate attempt to break away from traditions of the past. The sheer complexity of this ideology is what makes it (and other significant ideologies in history) so intriguing.

I’m so glad to be here in Israel… If I had stuck to my original plan, I would be in Cairo right now, where a coup d’etat has just taken place. In fact, I would be in Cairo University, where people have died in clashes. This is not good luck; this is God’s divine protection, and only He knows how relieved I am to be in Israel right now.

This land is really full of wonder – not just historically, but even geographically. I’m amazed at the variety of beautiful flowers I’ve seen around the country, and the number of small water bodies I’ve seen in the countryside is incredible. This is truly where the desert blooms.

I only have 3 weeks left here, so I’m going to make the most of it. But truth be told, I’m not going to be very sad when I leave Israel, because then I’ll finally be heading back to Singapore 🙂 Home sweet home.

Israel: Day One

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself studying in Jerusalem. But God is able to do abundantly more than we can ask or think. I do not know what (or who) will come my way in the next 4 weeks — and to be honest, this uncertainty is a bit unnerving — but I suppose that’s all the more reason to feel excited.

The excitement started even before I left London. The EL AL (Israeli airlines) security measures at Luton Airport was quite an experience. While queuing at the check-in counter, I was immediately singled out by an EL AL security officer for questioning. It seems that shaving my moustache and beard didn’t help. I shaved for nothing. 😦

The security officer asked a whole lot of questions, some of which were ludicrous, like ‘Why is your surname so strange?’ (I had to tell him that Goa used to be a Portuguese colony, and a lot of D’Souzas, De Silvas and D’Almeidas come from there). I also had to pull out multiple documents, remove the lock from my suitcase, and hand over my backpack to be searched thoroughly. In fact, I had to remove my bag and coat to use the toilet before boarding the plane. But I don’t really blame the EL AL crew. Even with my innocent and hairless face, I was still a young man travelling completely alone to Israel for the first time. I must have come across as a suspicious character.

Everything else from that point on was pretty uneventful. But I did meet some interesting people here at the Rothberg International School, including a few Jewish Americans, a Chinese American, an Ivorian, a Nigerian and an old Frenchman who must be at least 60 years old (that’s lifelong learning!). Also, the staff conducted a tour of the Hebrew University campus, which I found quite astounding, with its spectacular view of Jerusalem and well-equipped facilities.

After the general orientation, the staff took all the students to the only shopping mall in Jerusalem in the evening so that we could shop for some basic necessities. As we approached the entrance of the mall, I spotted an armed guard in front of a metal detector. As I sighed at the prospect of having to go through security checks every time I want to enter a building for the next month, I realised that I have no right to complain. Such security measures are part and parcel of day-to-day life in Israel. Tension is the norm, be it between Israelis and Arabs or the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. And yet, the people here carry on with their lives — undaunted, undeterred, undismayed.

As Day One comes to a close, the week has come to an end too. I think it will take me some time to get used to the idea of Thursday being the last day of the week.