Three weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a seminar to an audience that seemed to have been lifted from an Israeli sitcom in the era of identity politics. In the audience were Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and Druze. The Ethiopians and Circassians must have been sick that day.
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The organizers told me the participants represented the “tribes of Israel” as they were categorized by President Reuven Rivlin in his famous “four tribes” speech in June 2015. Rivlin maintained there is “increasing hostility” between the country’scitizens, who have split, amoeba-like, into groups and subgroups, and are fighting for dominance in this single body, about which one can wonder whether it’s alive, dying or dead.
In the current state of affairs, if you don’t choose a side and don’t identify with a specific group – you don’t exist. You’re not part of the national struggle (aka, the killing field). It’s like coming to the set of “Game of Thrones” without being armed with a sword or riding a red dragon. I ride a bike with no gears.
I was at the seminar in the capacity of “secular Tel Aviv guy,” who is supposed to describe his exotic way of life. As soon as I entered the room, the person in charge offered me Turkish coffee, and a choice between a piece of bone-dry cake or Bissli snack. I asked for a glass of water. The participants sat around me in a circle, on plastic chairs. I examined them one by one. The only place you ever encounter a group as heterogeneous as this is a shared taxi on the way to Jerusalem. Good thing the air-conditioning was working.
They gave me bored looks, as though I were a poster child for a stand-up gig. A chalk-white guy, thin, bespectacled. Is there anything more a clichéd than that?
I didn’t take offense. We’re all clichés, and you can’t escape the probing, judgmental gaze of others. We are not private individuals. Individualists are doomed to extinction in this part of the world. Like it or not, we represent particles of the Israeli story. That’s the brutal punishment inflicted on us by Zionism. And anyone who doesn’t like it can drink from the sea at Gaza or head for Berlin.
I started to talk about myself. Where I live, what I do, what I believe in, what I like to eat. Here’s an Israeli common denominator: Everyone likes shawarma and everyone believes in God – except for me. I believe in myself. When I said I had one child, I heard a woman giggle. She was wearing a veil; she was joined in her giggling by a Haredi woman.
This is how unexpected alliances are forged. Some Israelis have one child, some have 10 children. That’s an unbridgeable gap. The one group can’t understand the other. Not their motivations, not their desires, not their needs. Which is perfectly fine. Life together is based on vested interests, not necessarily on an intimate acquaintance with others. In most cases, mutual respect is a real estate issue, anyway. And in any event, the conclusion was that, demographically, I’m irrelevant. I agreed. My son is not a pawn in the chess game of the childbearing customs of Jews and Muslims.
A bearded man with a kippa asked whether I’d served in the army. That was a provocative question, intended to find out whether I even had the right to speak. In Israel, as you know, army service accords you civic legitimacy. I said yes, I’d served. He asked where. I told him I was a jobnik [someone with a desk job]. He snorted contemptuously. I ignored him. He asked whether I do reserve duty. His tone was aggressive. I asked what that had to do with the conversation. He said he wanted to understand who I was. I told him I’m not a soldier and turned my back on him.
A woman asked which biblical verse represents me. I said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” She asked, “If you were a school principal, what would you teach?” I told her, “Science, culture and the three religions.” The veiled woman was outraged: “We don’t want to learn Judaism! It’s not our religion. It has nothing to do with us.” The others agreed with her. They don’t want to learn about Islam or Christianity, either. Another common denominator, then: Religion is a divisive element. Not unifying.
I told them I’m in favor of a state all of whose citizens are equal to one another. Everyone should have sex with everyone else, irrespective of religion, race or sex, intermingle and dispense with the ethnic divisions that have been foisted on us. A woman said, “You’re living in a fantasyland – that won’t happen.” I told her, “It’s our only chance to survive in this place.”
Another woman shouted at me, “Are you proud of your country at all?” I replied, “What do I have to be proud of?” She said, “This is the best country in the world, and the Jews are the most amazing, smartest and most talented people in the world.” I told her the Nazis also thought they were better than everyone. She got upset, and rightly so. I shouldn’t have compared Jews to Nazis. I should have compared them to other racists in history.
She repeated, insistently, “So are you proud or not proud?” I told her, “I’m proud when the sun shines, when the weather is nice, when I go to the beach and there are no waves, when I eat tasty hummus. A state is a bureaucratic entity. It’s not meant to cause me personal pride.” To which she asked, “Then why do you live here?”
Me: “Because I live here. I was born here and I’ll die here. I’m Israeli, because I have an ID card issued by the State of Israel – and that’s more than enough. I don’t have a foreign passport. I’m not going anywhere, don’t worry, and you won’t succeed in throwing me out.”
The Haredi woman put her hand up. “You’re like a secular pet,” she informed me. I agreed with her.
“You represent a hallucinatory handful. You live in a bubble,” someone else told me. “You have no influence on reality.”
To him I said, “I am a citizen. I wield influence in the polling station. Beyond that, a person is meant to live his life and not the national ideology. I get up in the morning and don’t think about God or about land.” He made a gesture with his finger as though I were crazy.
A Muslim man informed me that the conversation was over. He thanked me and said, “Salvation will not come from the bubble in Tel Aviv or from the bubble in Ramallah.”
I told him, “If aspiring to justice, equality and human rights for all people, whether Jews or Palestinians, is living in a bubble, then I’m a proud bubble dweller – together with my Palestinian brethren who share my views and values.”
He handed me a gift: a set of perfumed bars of soap and a bath towel.
I came away feeling optimistic.