Sunday, September 28, 2008

Wishes for the New Year

As we celebrate the Jewish New Year this week, here are my wishes for the coming year:

1. I wish Israeli politicians and generals would stop making aggressive statements about the perceived intentions of Israel's enemies. This is only likely to provoke a war. The way to achieve peace is for everyone to focus on making peace, with all the compromises this involves. Any talk about war brings it closer.

2. I hope to see progress in various conservation efforts. We live in such a beautiful country, and it is such a shame to see it destroyed by more and more concrete and roads. In particular, I hope the plan to build a large, ugly Navy building in the Haifa port, opposite Haifa's main tourist attractions, is overturned (see photos of the area as it is now, and simulations of what it would look like after construction, based on the plans).

3. I would like to see greater efforts to show the world the positive sides of Israel. There is a real need for a positive public relations effort. There is so much ignorance overseas about what life in Israel is really like, the complexity of Israeli society and the reality of living under constant threat of attack. Let's get some real information out there and hope it helps. I'd like to think that blogs about Israel can make some contribution to this. I am trying to show reality as I see it, though of course I am as subjective as anyone else...

4. It is time for the Israeli public to take a stronger stand against the political corruption that is so common here. I would really like to see politicians accused of corruption actually resign from office rather than saying: "I'm innocent until proven guilty, and all these false accusations are a political plot to destroy me", and remaining in office until the trial (if the case ever reaches trial...).

And on a more personal level, after so many good things have happened to me this year, I only wish for this trend to continue.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thirty years in Israeli society

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of my aliya (immigration) to Israel. This was probably the most formative event of my life, since my whole sense of identity is tied up with being bilingual and bicultural. I have spent over 75% of my life in this country, and I seem to alternate between having a sense of belonging and still feeling like an outsider, observing society with some detachment. Obviously, I am Israeli, but then, being Israeli can mean so many things!

One of the things I like most about Israeli society is its diversity. There are people here descended from many generations who have lived in this country, and people who came here from other countries, or whose parents did. There are people of a wide range of religions, languages and cultures. While there is an attempt, in the education system and in the media, to forge (in both senses of this word) an Israeli identity, some consensus about what it means to be part of the Hebrew-speaking Jewish majority in this country, many people differ from this norm in various ways.

Another thing I like here is the openness about emotions and the sort of straight-forwardness of most Israelis. It seems healthy to me that people can, for example, cry in public, embrace their friends, and spend a whole week in mourning (the Jewish shiva). I think, or hope, that this attitude is preventing Israeli society from adopting the worst extremes of political correctness.

However, there are many things I dislike about this society. The other side of the open approach is that Israelis (vast generalization here...) tend to be less considerate. I'm not talking about lip-service politeness and fake smiles, but real concern for the needs of others. This lack of consideration is expressed in impatience, rudeness, selfishness and sometimes aggression. I encounter examples of these behaviours every day, and while there is some improvement in certain aspects, such as the politeness and efficiency of various companies' telephone support staff, Israeli society has a long way to go.

The other most obvious aspect of Israeli society that disturbs me and sometimes prevents me from identifying with the country, is its inherent and often unconscious racism. It is assumed that it is important to know if someone is Jewish or not. The non-Jewish citizens here are routinely, though often unconsciously discriminated against, and the ideas of coexistence and equality are not implemented in any systematic way, despite sporadic attempts. Mixed marriages are still generally considered a taboo.

Perhaps both of these aspects, the lack of consideration for others and the importance of racial identity, stem from the collective past of the Jews. After being victimized for generations, Jews are brought up to expect to be attacked or at least discriminated against, so they seem to have become self-centered as a defence mechanism. In the same way, the racism inherent in having a Jewish State is part of the struggle for survival. Assimilation into other societies didn't work, and many Jews believe it is vital to keep the race going by having a state where Jews can be safe, and also by preventing mixed marriages. As the child of such a mixed marriage, I am constantly conscious that some people here would prefer my parents never to have married, and for me never to have been born (or at least to have converted)... This keeps me aware of my outsider and observer status within Israeli society. Though, to be honest, this is probably not the only reason I feel like an outsider.

What I would like to see is Israeli society becoming confident enough to increase its tolerance and consideration for others. Statistics published this week show that about 76% of Israeli citizens are Jewish, and I think this is a strong enough majority to permit greater acceptance of minorities and an end to the feeling that being considerate implies letting everyone walk all over you.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Questions of Nationality

On Friday my purse was stolen from my bag. This is annoying enough in itself, but it is made even worse by the fact that the purse contained my Israeli ID card, which has to be replaced (along with the credit card I had to cancel, and my driving licence and various other cards that have to be replaced).

Filling in the online form for a new ID card, I encountered once again an aspect of life in Israel that has always bothered me. There is a section for "Nationality" - not citizenship, which is Israeli, but nationality, which is a completely different concept. The options in the drop-down menu (in a compulsory field) included a long list of countries of the world, plus the most common "nationalities" in Israel: Jewish, Arab and Druze. Note that there is no "Palestinian" nationality, even though that is how the majority of Arabs who are Israeli citizens would probably self-define themselves. This system does not differentiate between Muslim and Christian Arabs, although these are distinct social groups. Nor was there a Bedouin option (I guess they have to be Arabs too). More significantly, at least for me, there was also no "Israeli" nationality, as they seem to want all Israeli citizens to declare whether they are Jewish, Arab or Druze...

I have always had a problem with this concept of nationality. They cannot ask about citizens' religious beliefs, as we have freedom of worship here, but they force citizens to declare their nationality in very specific categories.

I see myself as belonging to the Jewish Hebrew-speaking majority of Israeli citizens, though according to the Halakhah (Jewish religious law) I am technically not Jewish at all. My father is a Jewish Israeli, but my mother is English and not Jewish. Judaism is matrilinial, meaning that one can only be considered Jewish if one's mother is Jewish. I did not choose to convert, for various reasons, and so the Jewish Orthodox establishment would not consider me Jewish. I know that there are thousands of other Israeli citizens with the same problem, especially among new immigrants. This situation, where Judaism is both a religion and a "nationality", creates problems for people wanting to join the "nationality" without adopting the religious practices associated with it.

On the other hand, I can't honestly say I have any other "nationality". I was born in England, but only lived there for seven out of the first nine years of my life before immigrating to Israel and getting Israeli citizenship. I have kept my British citizenship, and anyone hearing me speak would immediately identify my accent as British, but I don't feel that this is my "nationality", especially as I have never worked there, owned property there, voted there, and in fact, I only had 4 years of junior school there.

So, on the form I selected "Jewish", and when I went to the Population Registry to get my new card, I asked them not to fill in the Nationality field on my card, so they put in ****** instead. I feel better for not having to lie (technically) about this, but would prefer the whole Nationality question to be dropped. What matters from a legal point of view is citizenship, and that should be all they need to know about a person, especially if their options don't allow full freedom of self-definition.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Suspending beliefs

The phrase "to suspend disbelief" is used in relation to appreciating art and fiction. I often think it would be more useful for people to suspend their beliefs, those opinions they accept blindly and never question. I think it is best for people to embrace an attitude of healthy skepticism, to stay open-minded, to cultivate their curiosity, and to admit that all their knowledge may be purely provisional.

It is easiest to see the world in "black and white" terms. Finding the shades of grey requires more effort. Many people seem to adopt a certain attitude, and then blindly accept all the various positions associated with it. They seem to buy into a whole package of beliefs, without investigating each of them individually.

One obvious example is the public perception of the two-party system in the USA. It is very simplistically assumed that voters belong to one party or the other, and therefore have a fixed set of opinions. Thus, a Democratic Party voter would be assumed or expected to support the following policies: wider welfare provisions and the higher taxation levels required for this; use of diplomacy rather than military intervention, where possible, in international affairs; pro-choice; generally liberal; probably green. I can imagine that a Democratic Party voter deviating from this set of beliefs would encounter some incredulity, such as "But how can you believe that? You're a democrat!" (sic! - people often use the word "democrat" to refer to members and voters of the US Democratic Party, which is a mistake, as anyone supporting democracy as a system is a democrat).

It also bothers me that so many people around the world seem to have strong opinions about international affairs that are not based on any real knowledge. They seem to decide or accept that some states or groups are aggressors and others are underdogs or victims. This makes it easy for them to maintain real prejudices against certain states, while justifying and legitimizing the actions, propaganda and cultural differences of the perceived underdog groups. This thinking in groups of beliefs is also at the root of racism and other discriminatory prejudices. Racists treat individuals as representing their perceived groups, and thus as having all the attributes these groups are supposed to have, instead of getting to know the individual and being aware that all groups contain different individuals of many sorts.

I would like to see people making more of an effort to justify the beliefs they hold. If these beliefs were a portfolio of financial investments, sensible investors would keep examining reality and making the necessary changes. In the same way, sensible people should re-evaluate their opinions in light of new information, and should make the effort to locate this information, instead of blindly accepting "the line" of their supposed peer group, political party or current political correctness.