An Illuminating Gesture

This year's torch-lighting ceremony conferred official legitimacy on the Israeli expatriate community in America.

In the early 1940s and in the years just before the state's founding, Tel Aviv children licked ice cream made by the Kortov Company. The manufacturer, Abraham Milliken, came from Vienna. His wife came from America. They named their daughter Metuka ("Sweet") after her grandmother Zissel. She enjoyed a pleasant childhood growing up in Little Tel Aviv; her cousin, Mati Milo (brother of former Tel Aviv mayor and MK Roni Milo), married Menachem Begin's daughter, Hassia. A Tel Aviv family with a pedigree and roots.

But not long after the founding of the state, Metuka's parents decided to leave the country, as did thousands of other Israelis. It was the time of the tzena, the austerity period; the Miliken family wanted a better life and New York beckoned. They enrolled their daughter in a prestigious high school and afterward she studied at Columbia University and earned a master's degree in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She speaks Hebrew without a foreign accent and, to this day, defines herself as an Israeli who lives in America.

This week, Metuka Benjamin made history: In lighting one of the Independence Day torches, she became the first Israeli-American to represent the state's formal recognition of Israelis in America.

No one knows just how many Israelis have settled in America since Israel's founding, but the number almost certainly exceeds the number of Jews who have moved from America to Israel. There's no more stinging affront to the Zionist ego than people's decision to leave Israel and live abroad. These "yordim," as they used to be called (from the Hebrew word for descending, or going down), have often been portrayed as deserters and traitors.

But not long after Yitzhak Rabin excoriated them and called them "wimps" and "dreck" in the late 1970s, he came to visit one of the four Reform movement-affiliated schools run by Metuka Benjamin in Los Angeles. The children greeted him waving little Israeli flags and Rabin was very moved. "You know what," he said to Benjamin. "Don't come home. Stay here. You're doing important work here."

Rabin isn't around to deny this story, but nothing exemplifies the change that has taken place in the state's relation to the expatriate Israelis around the world more than the fact that Metuka Benjamin was invited to light a torch "for the glory of the State of Israel": It was a striking post-Zionist gesture.

Benjamin is active in the Atidim program which gives grants to Israeli students; it assists the Shevah Mofet school that lost several students in the Dolphinarium bombing and also provides assistance to Asaf Harofeh hospital. It also enables Israeli students to spend a few weeks in America, to foster closer ties with American Jews.

Benjamin is also active in bringing Israelis who live in America closer to the Jewish communities there. There are Israelis who tend to keep separate from the Jews; accordingly, a new identity group has emerged - "Israeli Americans." They find it hard to integrate among the Jews and one reason this happens is that they haven't yet learned that they are expected to contribute from their own pocket to the Jewish community, says Benjamin. There is plenty she could say about this but she's not about to disparage anyone; after all, she has to go back to Los Angeles and live with these people.

"The next time you say `post-Zionism,' I'll say, `Metuka Benjamin,'" I said to Danny Naveh, chair of the ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies, which selected the people to light the torches. That same day, Naveh had voted in the cabinet against the amendment permitting a very small number of Arabs from the territories who are married to Israeli citizens to enter Israel. He says his outlook as a Zionist prevented him from supporting even this partial allowance.

He encourages every Israeli living abroad to return home, he said. This year, they decided to add people who live abroad and help Israel to the group of torch-lighters, and Mrs. Benjamin certainly fit the criteria. She is deserving of this honor because of her activities, he says, but this isn't meant to be seen as a legitimation of Israelis making their lives abroad. He is opposed to a proposal to extend voting rights to Israelis abroad. Benjamin is also opposed.

Peace is on the air - How to say `We are both from the same village' in Arabic

On the eve of Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars, the Kol Hashalom radio station (known as "All for Peace" in English) interrupted its broadcasts for a minute of silence, but did not broadcast the siren; afterward, it played Naomi Shemer's song, "We are both from the same village." The next day, it again interrupted its broadcasts for the duration of the siren, but did not broadcast the siren. On Israel's Independence Day, the radio joined in the national celebration, again with Naomi Shemer's help: "Yesh li yom yom hag, yesh li hag yom yom" ("Every day I have a holiday/I have a holiday every day").

Shemer is allowed on the station, but she more or less demarcates the outermost right-wing limit: Ariel Zilber's music will not be played, says one of the station's two managers, Shimon Malka. On Independence Day, they also played another nice Zionist song about Yoel Moshe Solomon, the founder of Petah Tikva as well as Arik Einstein's song, "Ho Shomer Ma Malil" - about a soldier sitting in the Golan Heights, waiting in "silent ambush" and thinking "how much I love you, Eretz Israel." They choose the songs very carefully, says Malka. Their music is pleasant to listen to and between songs there is less chatter than on Army Radio.

A few days later, the station marked Nakba Day; this is the second year that a siren for a minute of silence has been used throughout the Palestinian Authority. Sawt as-Salam, as the station is called in Arabic, broadcast the siren. That same morning, as a sign of mourning, they played "Eli, Eli" by Hannah Senesh; the singer was Shlomo Bar.

The editor of the Hebrew current events program, Orly Noy, interviewed actor Mohammed Bakri. He said that he'd given up on the right of return for the refugees but did not feel at liberty to ask them to give up their dream. As an Israeli, he wants Israel to apologize for the injustices of 1948. Is it possible to do so without thereby also apologizing for Israel's very existence, Noy wanted to know, and Bakri said that it was. At the end of the interview, the station played a song whose chorus begins with the words "to return home," sung by Zehava Ben.

They have a small studio that they've rented in a private home in East Jerusalem. They are not a pirate station: Their transmitter is located inside the Palestinian Authority, from which they also purchased the license to broadcast on one of the radio frequencies that Israel transferred to the PA as part of the Oslo Accords.

They went on the air about a month ago (at 107.2 FM); before that, they were broadcasting via the Internet. The station is affiliated with the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace in Givat Haviva and with the Biladi organization run by Hana Siniora, the Palestinian publisher of the weekly Jerusalem Times. The Palestinian manager of the radio station, Maysa Baransi-Siniora, is his daughter-in-law. In the past two years, they have spent about 600,000 euros that they received from the government of Japan, the European Union and several foreign foundations. They are about to expand and are looking to hire editors, producers and technicians with experience and "commitment to the idea."

The idea isn't hard for them to put into words: "two states for two peoples." They broadcast in Hebrew and Arabic; the content of the broadcasts is not identical. Shimon Malka, 38, of Givat Haviva, is trying to reach the broadest possible Israeli audience; therefore, he tries to see to it that the programs don't deal solely with the horrors of the occupation, but also with Palestinian politics, for example. Baransi-Siniora also says that her listeners already know everything about the occupation. The programs in Arabic discuss the problems of civilian life. They try to tell their listeners about what is going on in Israel. They talk a lot about cooperation initiatives. Soon they'll begin broadcasting language lessons in Hebrew and Arabic.

The Israeli public is more open to self-criticism, and the PA, which issued the broadcasting license, can also take it away, but Baransi-Siniora says that they are also critical of Abu Mazen's administration. I asked if they would translate into Arabic the part of the Mohammed Bakri interview where he spoke of giving up on the right of return and Baransi-Siniora said that it wasn't necessary, since President Abbas himself had already said the same thing. As someone who feels the pain of the Nakba, she has no trouble understanding the pain of the settlers who are facing evacuation. She would be glad to see an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that would enable the Gaza settlers to remain in their homes, as citizens of the Palestinian state.

This Israeli-Palestinian radio station is about the closest thing there is today to coexistence. Day in and day out, its managers must define the boundaries of their togetherness; he is fluent in Arabic, she in Hebrew. So far, they haven't fought over the programming content. They broadcast a faith in goodness and in peace, which could lead them to prettify the reality. Malka and Baransi-Siniora are aware of this and are trying to ensure that it doesn't happen.

Bar-Ilan University fires back - But is the boycott really aimed at `the core of academic life'?

Bar-Ilan University has opened an Internet site whose aim is to fight against the boycott imposed on it and the University of Haifa by Britain's Association of University Teachers (AUT). Next week, the British organization is due to take up the matter again. Unlike the boycott of the University of Haifa, which is mainly based on all kinds of personal conflicts and intrigues, Bar-Ilan University is being boycotted because of its support for the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel (also known as Ariel College).

The new Internet site is garnering broad support against the boycott. The university's rector, physics professor Yosef Yeshurun, attributes the boycott to anti-Semitic motives in part. He maintains that this is about "the very core of academic life" and tries to play down the political significance of the connection between his university and the college in Ariel: "The issues involved go beyond the question of whether Bar-Ilan does or does not support the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel," he wrote.

This is the heart of the question: Does it or does it not support the college in Ariel? The rector's answer on the Internet is vague, as if it was subjected to the scrutiny of a team of lawyers, but if I correctly understood what Yeshurun explained to me over the phone, then the situation is as follows: The connection between Bar-Ilan and Ariel College has existed for about 15 years. Students who completed their studies at Ariel College could receive their degrees from Bar-Ilan. This arrangement has now been canceled; the last students still studying on the basis of this arrangement will receive their degrees from Bar-Ilan at the end of the summer semester. With that, the academic patronage that Bar-Ilan extended to Ariel College will come to an end.

Yeshurun wishes to stress that Bar-Ilan is not apologizing for its ties with the college in Ariel; everything was done in accordance with international law, he says. Bar-Ilan's arrangement with the college in Ariel wasn't a political gesture, but part of an effort to reach the periphery; Bar-Ilan has established extensions in different places in Israel. The boycott of Bar-Ilan hurts the entire State of Israel, says the rector.

But many Israelis believe that Ariel College, like the settlements in the territories, is hurting rather than promoting the national interest, and that the same is true as far as support for the college. Therefore the boycott of Bar-Ilan doesn't hurt the state as a whole but at most, those Israelis who support the perpetuation of the Israeli presence in the territories. Whatever the case, this is not about the very core of academia, as the rector wrote: This is about the political stance that Bar-Ilan chose to identify with. Its Internet site would have been more impressive had it acknowledged this.