Ideally I would like all people to live together freely, without nations and borders, without armies and corporations in one unending vegan cooperative. Ideally we would be bound together by universal values like a love of freedom and art. In my ideal world there would be no nationalism, no statehood, no razor wire, no war, no splitting off into oppositions and tribes, instead a celebration of difference.
Realistically though, these things exist. I am currently writing these thoughts down in a hotel room in Jerusalem with a balcony that overlooks the controversial and iconic 'Harp-string Bridge' while the wind howls through the cracks in the badly fitted windows and several hundred Sephardi Jews dance around downstairs in dizzying circles celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of an obnoxious kid that just called me a faggot when I asked him to stop pounding on my bedroom door.
Realistically it doesn't get more Jewish than that. And the truth is part of me kinda likes it and part of me really really hates it.
The last four days my heart has existed in two parts. There is the part that loves Israel the place, the sunshine, the history, the screaming motorists pounding their car horns, the Dead Sea, the desert, the kibbutzniks, the markets, the inability of the local population to queue or understand manners, the Hebrew, the fact that I can eat anywhere and no one laughs at me for being kosher, the fact that I don't have to be afraid to cover my head, the cheap beer and cigarettes and the really really terrible music videos that come from this place.
Then there is the part of my heart that hates Israel the country, the separation walls, the segregated schools, the different highways for Arabs and Jews, the buses that don't stop in Arab villages, the strange cult of Zionism that leads people to tell me that privately owned Arab land is really mine and all I have to do is take it, the citizens who don't have the vote, the ID cards that list people's racial grouping, the treatment of women, and the constant religious extremism of Orthodox Jews that threaten my very existence.
I came to Israel, expecting it to be challenging, but I didn't think that the challenge would be so.... Overwhelming. This is not my first time here, I was here exactly one year ago for my 26th birthday and I had the time of my life. This time unfortunately my experience is less wonderful. When I came last time I came with a close friend who is similar to me in that they are also Queer, religiously engaged and politically liberal so I guess instinctively we sought out (as much as possible) experiences that were comfortable for us. Yes we saw the separation wall, we knew about the occupation, we struggled with the oppressions of orthodoxy and we still came home with a love for this place.
This time I have come with a group on an itinerary that has been planned by someone else. Instead of just seeing the separation wall, intellectualising it, discussing it and condemning it I have had to listen to people being actively racist and saying 'we don't want Arabs here'. Instead of knowing about the occupation, I have seen real illegal settlements built on the lands of refugees referred to as 'very nice cities'. Instead of just understanding the racism of this country I had a lovely Arab man show me the star on his ID card that identifies him as a second class citizen.
I feel like I have been pummelled from every direction. Last night we had an Arab-Christian Scholar come and talk to us about the status of Israeli-Arabs (so these are the Arabs and descendants of Arabs who didn't flee during the War of Independence and ended up being reluctantly included in the State of Israel) and for the first time since I arrived and had been subjected to hours and hours of racist zionism I felt a little bit of hope. I started to think that maybe there was a place for someone like me who was neither a racist Zionist nor an Orthodox Jew. Unfortunately that hope was rather dismally extinguished today. We were taken on a walking tour, in the pouring rain, of an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood and a guide had been arranged for us from the local population. He described the tour he was going to give us as 'The story of his love affair with his neighbourhood' so that pretty much precluded any possibility of objective discussion.
Luckily (or unluckily) for me because the rain was so heavy, eventually the guide took the class into the synagogue but not before we were all completely soaked through. I knew straight away that I wouldn't be entering since it was ultra-orthodox, and unsurprisingly the class was split up into men and women. I happily sat outside in the freezing cold and read my book. Then for a real treat we were all taken, and I have to say that this experience was genuinely more bizarre that the Head Quarters of the World Zionist Organisation that I told you about the other day, to see a real woman. We were led up some dingy steps and through a door into a very small and dingy room. There are 26 students in my class, plus our teacher, our official guide, our armed guard, the local guide and his chaperone (so that he can't be accidentally secluded with a woman) and we were crushed into a small room about the size of four toilet cubicles. I wanted to leave but i couldn't even move my arms because they were crushed to my sides. Then a small woman in baggy clothes and a headscarf comes in and started telling us all about her life as an ultra-orthodox woman.
I admit, it started off okay, I mean the whole 'I'm a woman, I belong in the home' spiel we have all heard before and it wasn't so shocking but she warmed to her topic and by the time she was telling us that she was 'a principal' in a new school they had set up for girls in their neighbourhood that only taught cooking, gardening and 'self-awareness' I started to get that feeling inside, you know the one that I get when people are being racist or homophobic and I'm expected to keep quiet!?!?
When she was finished talking it was our chance to ask questions, I worked really hard to formulate my question in as respectful and decent way as possible-this is what I asked; it sounds to me like you have quite a wonderful life, you seem very happy and content and get to do things that make you really happy which is more than what a lots of us can say for ourselves. My question is that is seems very gendered and very narrow- what happens when one of your daughters grows up and wants to be a physicist? Or a lesbian physicist? Or one of your sons wants to be a ballerina or a pastry chef?
To give her credit she wasn't phased by my question one little bit. She said; well there are two parts to your question, if my daughter wanted to grow up and be a physicist then I would tolerate that, as for the other thing I wouldn't tolerate that because at the end of the day you have to stay within what God wants. When I asked her to clarify what 'not tolerate' means she looked away and took a different question.
As I was traipsing down the stairs (with no small amount of relief and a nasty crick in my back from standing so awkwardly) the guide thanked me for my interesting question and then went on a highly enthused and cheerful explanation of Gods will for my benefit. He emphasised the importance of only doing what God wants, I asked him how can one person say they know what God wants? And what if what you say God wants for me makes me really sad, sad to the point of suicide? His response was a creepy smile, the kind of smile you get from happy-clappy's when they tell you 'Jesus loves you but you're going to sizzle in hell he he he', and then he says "well life is complicated and I guess you can't always have what you want". I said "I don't think it is that complicated, I know God wants me to be happy" and that was the end of the conversation.
But why am I telling you this? I know I usually have some kind of smart 'lesson' or something for the end of my blog posts, something that sums up how I am feeling or something but this time I really don't. I just feel tired and sad and harassed.
I realised I came to Israel hoping to engage with the liberal, the radical, and the intellectual. I came wanting to find Israelis who are like me because I know they are there. I know that on top of my sadness at being confronted with all this horrid racism and sexism is also my disappointment at so far not really finding what I was expecting to find.
Anyway, its shabbat now. I don't have to go on any more tours or listen to anymore lies and bigotry for at least 25hours.
Some good things that have happened since I have been here because despite my constant moaning it hasn't been completely miserable!
We have had a series of lectures from a guy called Professor Yair Lipschitz on contemporary Israeli culture and art which I have really enjoyed and have given me a glimpse of the liberal and radical people I am desperate to know more about. I especially enjoyed his lecture on Israeli sculptures which critiqued the Israeli conceptions of masculinity and hero culture.
We also had a short lesson from one of the worlds top talmudic scholars Prof. Moshe Halbertal who taught us a page of Talmud on the theme of forgiveness, his teaching skills and analysis were mind-blowing and he even made it relevant to the current conflict it was really special. He also looked like John Lennon and was very calming.
And, I've managed to communicate in Hebrew several times with success including 'the toilet is occupied' and 'can you help me close the window in my room please?'!!
Here's a picture of me being sad at the Zionist Headquarters the other day that my friends took.