Chaotic Order (or Ordered Chaos?)

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The Passover Seder Plate

The word balagan has the dual benefit of being both a useful description of Israeli culture and a very fun word to say. Read the word a few times, and notice how smoothly it rolls off your tongue! Say it to Israeli taxi drivers, and they’ll flash you an appreciative smile that says, “Now you understand life here – welcome to Israel.”

Today, balagan is used in Israel to describe a messy and chaotic thing, person or state of affairs. As I learned in this Haaretz article, the word has its roots not in Hebrew but in Farsi. The Farsi word balakhaana means “balcony” or “external room”, and this word was modified and incorporated into Turkish and then Russian, in which the word balagan refers to an attic where comedic performances took place in the 18th century. Over time, the word was used to refer to the type of performance itself – joyful, lively, and disorderly. That theatrical description is applied to the drama of life in Israel.

Balagan can be seen on Israeli roads, which are full of reckless and impatient drivers. It’s there in the supermarkets, where queues are cut, items are misplaced, and old grandmothers hold up the line. I see it outside my apartment, where there is almost always a car parked on the sidewalk and construction work every Thursday night till 2 am. Parliament is fragmented, lessons are interrupted by (often irrelevant) questions and derailed by spontaneous discussions, and everyone has a different idea of what it means to be Jewish.

And yet, systems work, decisions are made, businesses function, and life goes on. Many times, the world’s greatest ideas and solutions emerge from this balagan, as seen in the latest $15.3 billion acquisition of Mobileye by Intel. As someone in my university recently explained to me, life in Israel is “ordered chaos”.

That got me thinking –  could it be called “chaotic order” instead? Is there a difference? I think there is. The first word – “ordered” or “chaotic” – is merely a descriptor of the essence captured by the second word – “chaos” or “order”.  So the term you choose depends on your perception of the essence of Israeli society – chaos or order.

Thus, I resort to the typical university answer: “It depends.”

In any case, there is one setting in which the term “chaotic order” is definitely more appropriate – the Israeli Passover Seder. The Seder is a Jewish ceremonial meal that marks the beginning of Pesach, or Passover. The meal follows the haggadah, which is an established set of narratives, rituals, prayers and songs centred on the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The word seder itself means “order”. But the Israeli seder that I was fortunate to attend was anything but.

My professor was very generous to invite me to join her family for the Passover seder. I dressed nicely and prepared myself for polite conversation at the family dinner table. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a ballroom with nearly 200 people. It was actually a joint seder with many participating families, dozens of waiters, a pianist and a rabbi.

Kirk smart

All I’m missing are pe’ot, a shtreimel and a thick beard

As I sat at the table reserved for my professor’s family, I heard Hebrew, English and Russian in Israeli, American, British and Russian accents. I was fascinated by the diversity in just one family! Then I looked around the room and realised that I was overdressed as usual. In fact, there was no dress code at all. Some were wearing T-shirts and jeans, some were in dresses, some had mini-skirts, and some were in shorts. But at least one person was dressed as nicely as me – the rabbi.

The rabbi began recounting the story of the Exodus and exhorting others to participate in the night’s prayers, songs and rituals. There was some degree of compliance for about ten minutes, after which things naturally slipped into a state of balagan. People were walking around and chatting, kids were crying, the family patriarchs were dozing off, the matzah was uncovered early, and some started eating the gefilte fish. The noise level was kept in check by the occasional shush, and the rabbi soldiered on.

At the table, someone whipped out his phone and started chatting with a friend. The artist of the family worked on a pencil sketch of his relative. Someone else complained about the rabbi using the word “goy” in the haggadah, calling it offensive and outdated. Another man pointed out that the rabbi had thrown in the towel and skipped a few pages in the haggadah. “The same thing happens every year!” he chuckled.

The noise eventually died down as dinner was served. During my dinner conversation, I learned that I was seated at the same table as a top Google executive, a commander in the IDF’s elite intelligence unit (8200), and the son of a famous Russian poet who was part of the intelligentsia rounded up by Stalin. (This doesn’t really have anything to do with balagan, but it was too awesome to leave out of the story.)

Halfway through the meal, the singing started. The pianist played traditional Jewish Passover songs and the dinner guests sang heartily between bites. Some even decided to add percussion with their cutlery. The family closest to the stage obviously thought it was a music competition, and they belted out the songs with great gusto. At some point, the overenthusiastic family stole the microphone and changed both the song and the key. The pianist tried frantically to follow along but eventually gave up and stared angrily at them. Eventually, the singing died down, dessert was consumed, and families started shuffling out of the ballroom.

What a night! It was one of the most enjoyable dinners I’ve ever attended, even though I often had no idea what was going on. There was no pretence, even in such an illustrious family. There was never a dull moment. And ironically, there was very little order. But I cherished the laughter, the spontaneity, and the balagan.

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Real Steel: Usumain Baraka

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I first heard the incredible story of Usumain’s perilous journey from Sudan to Israel on the same day that he tried to treat me to dinner.

I was almost moved to tears when I witnessed his warmth and generosity. A young man who came to Israel with nothing but the shirt on his back now wanted to pay for my meal.

Usumain’s graciousness is equalled by his drive and determination. He is a BA student in Government in IDC Herzliya, one of the top colleges in Israel. He aspires to work either in an international NGO or in a foreign embassy in Israel. But his big dream is to return to Sudan and help build relations between Israelis and Sudanese. To say that this is a tall order is an understatement. Sudan is ruled by an Islamist dictator and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. From Usumain’s report, anti-Semitism runs deep in the population – as a young boy, he was told by his uncle that Jews have devil’s horns on their head.

But Usumain is an optimist fuelled by aspiration. When he saw the name “Canada-Israel” prominently displayed on an office building in Herzliya Pituach, he turned to me and said, “One day, I will open an office with a big sign that says “Darfur-Israel”.


“Darfur” usually conjures bloodcurdling images of massacres and mayhem, but it is home for Usumain. He fled from the Darfur genocide in 2003 when his village was attacked by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. His father and older brother were killed by the militants, and the entire village was razed to the ground. He was only nine.

He miraculously escaped to a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad, where he spent the next four years of his life with his mother and siblings. As he interacted with the UN workers, he picked up English and was inspired to leave the refugee camp to further his education. With childlike innocence and wisdom beyond his years, he promised his mother that he would “learn to be a leader without spilling any blood” and went off to Libya to study at the age of 13.

Although he benefited from the English lessons in the international school he attended in Libya, Usumain struggled tremendously since he was not granted refugee status. He eventually left for Egypt because he had heard that school fees were cheaper there. He travelled across the border with his friend who was barely a year older than him.

While in Cairo, the two boys went into hiding when they heard that there were Egyptian and Sudanese agents collaborating to arrest and deport Darfurians. While watching TV one day, they chanced upon a documentary about Israel on Al-Jazeera. For the first time in his life, Usumain learned about the Holocaust and the waves of Jewish refugees to Israel. It dawned on him that of all the countries he had passed through, none of them had ever experienced the horrors of genocide. Chad, Libya and Egypt have certainly been ravaged by internecine fighting and violent oppression, but not ethnic cleansing like in Darfur. Usumain thought that Israel would truly understand his plight. He decided to make his own Exodus from Egypt.

Usumain convinced his friend that brighter prospects awaited them in Israel. They managed to contact a Bedouin smuggler, who grouped the duo together with ten other refugees. The twelve refugees hid in the smuggler’s delivery truck, with nylon draped over them and boxes of fruit and vegetables on their heads. The smuggler drove them through the Sinai and was stopped twice by the police. In one inspection, the policeman took an apple from the box atop Usumain’s head! He sat like a statue, and was not discovered.

After several nights of travelling under the cloak of darkness, the smuggler stopped a distance from the border and told the group that they were on their own. They approached the border with caution, crawling as they got closer. They were like the 12 spies of Israel, scouting out the Promised Land. But instead of the giants of Canaan, they faced armed Egyptian soldiers.

Every nerve-wracking step towards the border was possible only because fear was suppressed by desperation. But the mental strain was too much to bear for one member of the crew, who had a panic attack and started screaming uncontrollably. He was immediately shot by the Egyptian border guard.

All caution was abandoned. The remaining eleven ran to the border with all their might. In the frenzy, another refugee was shot and wounded, and his loyal friend refused to leave his side. Both were tragically killed by the Egyptians.

On the other side of the fence, Israeli soldiers prepared to receive the survivors, but could not fire back at the Egyptians. The soldiers instructed the refugees in Arabic to run towards them for safety. But they didn’t heed their call, because they hadn’t expected Israeli soldiers to speak Arabic and thought that they were still in Egypt. Ironically, the language that should have inspired trust in the soldiers served instead to arouse suspicion. At last, the refugees realised that the soldiers’ uniforms were different from the Egyptians, and they turned to them for help.


I stared at Usumain in disbelief as he recounted his harrowing brush with death. He was animated in his narration but seemed surprisingly calm. He paused for a while, allowing me to digest everything I had just heard.

“I’ve met good and bad people here in Israel,” he said, “just like in every other country.”

He recalled the moment when one of the Israeli soldiers at the border took off his own socks to help a barefooted refugee. That auspicious beginning was then overshadowed by the deceit of another soldier who collected the refugees’ money and valuables for “safekeeping”. They never saw their money or belongings again.

Usumain was transported with the other refugees to Saharonim Prison in the Negev, a detention centre for African asylum seekers. He spent 6 weeks there, during which he was referred to by number and not by name. When he was released at Be’er Sheva Central Bus Station, he was left completely alone as an unaccompanied minor who knew no Hebrew. The only Arabic he saw was the sign for the taxi stand, so he approached a driver, handed him the US dollars that he had hidden under his collar, and was on the road to Eilat.

Standing in the central bus station of Eilat, he saw an African man in the distance and ran headlong towards him. As it turned out, the man was Ghanaian but knew other Sudanese refugees that he could put Usumain in touch with. Through a series of miraculous connections, Usumain was enrolled in Yemin Orde, a boarding school on Mount Carmel for at-risk and immigrant youth. Not only did he study Hebrew in Ulpan, he had to study every subject in Hebrew too!

Grateful for the opportunity to study, Usumain believed that he needed to make an effort to integrate with the school population. In an impressive display of leadership and influence, he convinced his five other Sudanese friends that they should participate in religious services, even though they were not required to do so. He dressed like an Orthodox Jew with a kippah, white shirt and black trousers, read the Tanakh (Bible), and ate only kosher food.

Through grit and perseverance, Usumain excelled in his studies and qualified for university. But motivated by his desire to integrate, he volunteered to serve in the IDF. To his disappointment, he was rejected because he was not a citizen. He decided to further his education in university, and was accepted to the BA Government programme in IDC Herzliya.


Usumain came to Israel eight years ago believing that the country would identify with his experience and show him compassion as a refugee. Was he right?

Despite his harsh and terrifying stint in the detention centre, he was welcomed by an Israeli boarding school and his education was sponsored by the Israeli government. He developed strong friendships with Israelis and was assisted by NGOs and volunteers. He is now studying in a top-notch Israeli university with the support of Jewish philanthropists and netizens who donated to his Indiegogo campaign.

However, life is not all smooth-sailing for him. He has no passport or refugee status in Israel. All he has is a visa that has to be renewed every two months in Bnei Brak – a process which requires waiting in line for hours. He is also not permitted to work on his visa. Apparently, enforcement of this rule is ambiguous, but he has been rejected at multiple job interviews.

Worst of all, asylum seekers like Usumain are subject to interminable haranguing from right-wing politicians and religious leaders who tell them they do not belong to the Jewish nation. Miri Regev, for example, called African migrants a “cancer” to Israeli society. According to current policy, African asylum seekers who enter Israel illegally can be detained for a year without trial. As for refugee status, of the 3,165 asylum applications received between 2009 and 2015, only 5 were granted temporary residency. These policies are designed to encourage asylum seekers to accept government-assisted repatriation to Uganda or Rwanda.

Usumain knows all this. And yet, he keeps his chin up and smiles. He has been tested severely through his life, and has shown the famously resilient Israelis that he too is made of real steel.

Do you remember, the 17th night of September?

After months of stagnation, a rapid series of high-level political statements and diplomatic exchanges appears to have breathed some life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process once again. But of course, looks can be deceiving, and even if the peace train really is building up steam, no one knows which way the train is heading.

In April, the French government announced that they would host an international meeting of foreign ministers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of May, to which neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were invited – presumably to allow the participating countries to formulate a solution that the rest of the world could throw its weight behind so as to place greater pressure on the two sides to accept it. This ministerial meeting is meant to lay the groundwork for an international peace summit that will be held later in the summer, this time with the participation of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The idea of a French initiative was first mooted by the former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in January this year. Since then, President Abbas has shown consistent support for the initiative, while PM Netanyahu has remained sceptical about the effectiveness of an international peace conference and argued that such a conference would hinder the only path to peace, which is bilateral negotiations between Israel and the PA.

This past week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met Netanyahu and Abbas to discuss the French peace initiative. Netanyahu expressed his objection once again, while Abbas warned that the failure of another peace initiative would spur more acts of terrorism. In an apparent setback, the French government postponed the international ministerial meeting, allegedly to allow the US to participate.

All hope is not lost for the French though. Two days ago, Egyptian President al-Sisi made an impromptu speech in which he expressed support for the French peace initiative and called upon Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seize this “realistic” and “great” opportunity to reach a solution. Interestingly, he claimed that the animosity between the Israelis and Palestinians is similar to that between Israelis and Egyptians just before they signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.

What a coincidence that al-Sisi compared the Israeli-Palestinian relationship to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship just two weeks after I finished reading “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright. There is a lot to learn from the Camp David process about the challenges and rewards of diplomacy and conflict resolution – lessons which are especially relevant in light of this renewed effort to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This book presents an account of the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt in 1978 in a captivating narrative that keeps the reader at the edge of his seat. But it’s more than just an account of the proceedings. Wright expertly presents the conference in its larger geopolitical context by weaving into the narrative key events in the history of the Middle East, extending all the way back to Biblical times.

What I found most intriguing, however, was the writer’s analysis of how the personal experiences of the key negotiators shaped their psychology, which influenced not only their negotiating positions but also their behaviour during the conference. I liked the description of the personal dynamics between the negotiators because it makes the entire episode more relatable to the reader. In the book, he links Begin’s personal hardship in Poland and Siberia to his stubborn distrust of Sadat, and his legal training to his meticulous attention to detail. Wright describes how Sadat’s penchant for audacious risk-taking was strengthened during WWII, especially when he sent a letter to Rommel in 1942 to conspire with the Germans to defeat the British in Egypt (as a 23-year old captain!). The writer also shows how Carter’s perseverance during the negotiations was the fruit of a long journey in politics, and how his strong desire for peace in the Middle East was rooted in his personal faith as a Christian.

Today, we see the famous picture of Begin, Sadat and Carter shaking hands on the lawn of the White House and we regard them as titans of the 20th Century. This book reminds us that they were mere mortals with their own personal flaws, biases, and eccentricities. They were impatient, fearful, rash, but also tenacious and imaginative at times. It’s quite unnerving to think that in the negotiating room, the fate of millions of lives – in this generation and the next – depends on the competence, cunning, and emotional make-up of a few people.

While reading the book, I kept drawing parallels between the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, just like President al-Sisi did. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian situation looks as bleak as ever – there haven’t been talks between the two sides since April 2014, the Gaza Strip is still dealing with the consequences of Operation Protective Edge, and the past few months have seen a wave of violence that has led to many deaths on both sides. But I imagine that the decades of hostility between Israel and Egypt seemed irresolvable at that time too. As hopeless as it seemed after 1967 when the Arab League issued its Three Noes to Israel, or after 1973 when Egypt sprung a deadly surprise on Israel and shattered its illusion of invincibility, the two states did sign a peace treaty that has lasted almost 40 years.

Of course, I realise it is naive to draw similarities without also identifying the many differences as well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has much deeper roots and has gone on for much longer than the conflict between Israel and Egypt. The negotiations between Israel and Egypt didn’t have to deal with the issue of millions of refugees or the question of sovereignty over holy places. Also, it’s difficult to compare the Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai desert to the idea of a future withdrawal from the Golan Heights – the Egyptian government argued that it could guarantee a secure border between the Sinai and Israel if a peace treaty was signed, but the idea of a Syrian guarantee of security along the Golan Heights is a non-starter. It’s not surprising that the Palestinian issue was practically ignored in the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – it was seen as an obstacle that could have scuppered the entire deal.

Nonetheless, it is not naive to keep hoping and praying for another opportunity for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or at the very least, de-escalation of the conflict. Past successes like Israel’s peace with Egypt keep the flame of hope alive. Even on Day 9 of the 13 days of Camp David, Begin still said, “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off, before I ever agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement (in the Sinai desert).” Yet, the settlements were dismantled because Carter and other Israeli negotiators convinced Begin to put the Sinai withdrawal decision to a vote in the Knesset, thus allowing the MKs to overrule Begin’s obstinacy.

Carter learned to use the negotiators’ personal strengths and group dynamics to his advantage. He capitalised on Sadat’s personal admiration for him and his desire for closer US-Egypt ties to persuade him to stay committed to the talks. After realising that Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman were more open to compromise with the Egyptians, he tried to use them to persuade Begin to change his mind. He also sat with Aharon Barak and Osama al-Baz, two brilliant lawyers on the Israeli and Egyptian negotiating teams, to fine-tune the final text so as to make it more palatable to both sides. Peacemaking requires ingenuity, which I am sure can be found amongst Israelis and Palestinians today.

Eventually, the Camp David Accords were signed on 17 September 1978, paving the way for long-lasting (albeit cold) peace between Israel and Egypt and heralding a new geopolitical configuration in the Middle East. Can such a monumental solution be forged once again? Perhaps it can, if Israeli and Palestinian leaders remember the relief and jubilation that Begin, Sadat and Carter felt on that 17th night of September.

לזכור ולא לשכוח (Remember, and never forget.)

“Lizkor ve lo lishkoakh.”

The Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Ceremony on campus started off with the solemn reminder, “Remember, and never forget.”

At 10 am, sirens wailed throughout the country, bringing the entire nation to a halt for two minutes of silence. From north to south, people paused to grieve the loss of millions of lives, to remember the hundreds of Holocaust survivors who live with the physical and psychological scars of the past, and to renew their commitment to ensure that such a tragedy never befalls the Jewish nation again. My head hung low as I silently contemplated the sombreness of the occasion.

After prayers were read from the Tanakh, we took our seats. Students delivered moving poems in Hebrew and English, honouring the lives of those who died and exhorting the listeners to cherish life and cling to hope even in overwhelming darkness. The theme of life triumphing over death was complemented by the majestic tree behind the stage, with the petals of its glorious flowers falling gently to the ground, never to grow again but giving life to young seedlings and fresh grass. I found it a poignant metaphor encapsulating the message of the ceremony – that the memory of the fallen should inspire us to live meaningful lives.

IDC Tree 3

A professor was invited to share his thoughts. His words were heavy-laden with sorrow as he described his childhood  as “one long Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony”. His family shared an apartment in Tel Aviv with Holocaust survivors, who often relived the horrors of the concentration camps whenever they saw the numbers tattooed on their arms. One of those survivors had been part of a community of Jews who had been herded together like animals, made to stand in front of a giant pit, and struck down by the axes of Nazi soldiers who wouldn’t even “waste their ammunition” on Jews. The survivor was knocked unconscious, and had to crawl out of a mass grave in the middle of the night when he came to.

Sorrow turned to indignation as the professor scoffed at the idea that the people of Europe were unaware of the daily atrocities perpetrated against Jews. His voice rose in fury as he lambasted the governments of several countries that had denied entry to Jewish refugees in the 1940s. But he also paid tribute to those who had saved the Jews, even at great risk to their own lives. I was amazed when one of my friends told me after the ceremony that her paternal grandparents had saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, and her maternal grandparents had sheltered a Jewish family on their farm throughout the entire duration of the war. As I have asked myself before, I asked myself again: “What would I do in such a situation?”

The passionate speech of the professor was followed by the tear-jerking reflections of a student who had visited one of the concentration camps in Poland. “Let no one say that some were heroes and some were martyrs,” he said. “Every hero was a martyr, and every martyr was a hero.” His voice quivered as he compared the simple actions of Jews in the concentration camps to the valiant exploits of heroes, whether it was the sharing of bread despite their excruciating hunger, or raising each others spirits with the words, “It’s Shabbat, my friend.” Imagine that – for many Israelis today, Shabbat is the time to hit the nightclubs and laze on the beach. In those days, it was a rare sliver of sunshine in the midst of immense darkness.

My soul was burdened throughout the ceremony, but my tears only flowed at the end as we rose to sing HaTikvah. This melancholic national anthem always sends shivers down my spine, but the song held much greater meaning today. After commemorating one of the worst tragedies in human history, we left the past behind us and looked forward to the Hope of a future where freedom, peace and justice reign.

Why Israel is EXTRAORDINARY

My article on gobeyond.sg!

GoBeyond.SG

Kirk D’Souza

In Jerusalem, Israel

After spending 4 weeks in Israel and returning to Singapore, many of my friends have asked me, “How was Israel?” Each time this has happened, I’ve been at a loss for words, not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have way too much to share! As such, I’ve chosen one word to describe Israel: extraordinary. The world may be deeply divided in its opinion on Israel’s borders and the question of Palestinian statehood, but I daresay that there’s consensus on one point – Israel is truly an exceptional country.

Geography

The best way to begin a description of the uniqueness of Israel is to start with a big-picture overview of the land. The geography of Israel is truly fascinating. Within this narrow strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there is a wide array of climatic conditions…

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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 deferrments (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.