Enough of a Syrian what if…

19 Sep

by Ilan Bloch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the most inane comments I have heard made in relation to the Syrian conflict goes somewhat along the lines of: thank God we didn’t trade the Golan Heights for peace with Syria because then we would now have ISIS or al-Qaida on the banks of the Kinneret. Even seasoned commentators like Ari Shavit and Shmuel Rosner have made such claims.

But history obviously doesn’t work like that. Yes, if we had traded the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, under Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak or Sharon, and every single thing which has actually happened since 1992-5, 1996-1999, 1999-2001, or 2001-2006, would have still actually taken place, then yes, ISIS or al-Qaida would be on the banks of the Kinneret. But to suggest that a comprehensive peace deal with Syria would have triggered the exact same set of events which no comprehensive peace deal with Syria triggered is folly. Who knows what might have happened if we had agreed to a full withdrawal from the Heights?

This post is not written to suggest that Israel should have agreed to such a peace deal but simply to stress that to disparage those who supported, or were even willing to entertain, such an idea as naïve based on what has happened since not agreeing to such a deal is illogical.

Of course, nobody today proposes that Israel should trade the Golan Heights for peace with ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra or Assad. But, students/tourists should certainly be made aware of the fact that Israel’s unilateral application of Israeli law to the area in 1981 was a move still not recognized by the international community. Moreover, they should understand that if and when Syria stabilizes in the future, the issue may well once again become relevant.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed tour guide and the director of Teaching Israel.

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Guiding and politics

12 Sep

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Education Minister Naftali Bennett            Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over Shabbat meals with other educators this weekend, discussion naturally focused on the new school year – and politics (it was Shabbat and we are in Israel, after all!). We discussed Herzl Schubert, a teacher, who was “caught” on camera at a recent Nabi Saleh protest against the encroachment of residents/settlers of Halamish on privately owned village lands, including the al-Qus spring. Yisrael Zinger, the mayor of Ramat Gan, where Schubert is employed, Deputy Mayor Aviyahu Ben Moshe, and many parents, called for his dismissal. The issue hit national headlines with Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich chiming in and supporting firing Schubert. Discussion also covered Avital Benshalom, the newly appointed principal of an Ashkelon school, who had to justify her 2002 signing of a petition supporting the right of soldiers to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank in order to keep her job, against the objection of parents and Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni.

Interestingly, one of the tour guides at the meal – an olah from the West Coast of the US – said that she wasn’t surprised at all, and that she herself has personally encountered such attacks in her own professional life as a result of her apparent “extreme leftist activism.” Perhaps her activism might be more rightly considered to be “slacktivism,” as my friend has been to maybe two handfuls of rallies and protests during her time in Israel – perhaps one or two a year on average. Taken aback, I asked what had happened to her. She said she was interrogated in a job interview about her political views, even when she continued to answer questions by explaining that she would teach about all political viewpoints and allow students/tourists to come to their own informed conclusions – whether they be right, center or left.

What is so strange is that my friend is on the public record – in writing and at public appearances – as stating that the aim of her Israel education is to help students/tourists develop independent, critical and analytical thinking skills which will allow them to reach their own educated viewpoints – whatever they might be.

I paused and then asked my friend whether she should have asked her potential employer the following question:

“I understand that you don’t want to employ a leftist as an educator because you view her as too political (even though it is clear that her politics do not enter her classroom; indeed her students/tourists move from their previously held views toward greater complexity and nuance, which often includes moving away from the left).

“Do you also have a problem in employing tour guides who say “I’m not a political person; I just want my students/tourists to love Israel, support the government and do Israel advocacy on campus” (perhaps the most politically loaded sentence one could imagine)?

“What about avowedly right-wing guides who explicitly aim to instill right-wing views in their students/tourists?”

No, I didn’t think so.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide and the Director of Teaching Israel.

On dual narratives

25 Aug

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

I have been involved in Israel programs for more than a decade here, and also for many years in Australia, where I was raised. I see this as such an important enterprise because it offers participants the opportunity to undergo a transformative experience, whether in the realm of spiritual-, national- or self-identity development. Spending time in Israel is truly life-changing. Facilitating such an experience can also change the tour guide himself. I certainly feel tremendously affected by my experiences dual-narrative guiding — both from my interactions with Palestinian tour guide colleagues, as well as with Palestinian guest speakers.

I am against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, especially as a precondition for negotiations. This is because I cannot fathom a world where PA rais Mahmoud Abbas will give Israel a kosher certificate for policies which privilege Jewish Israeli citizens over Palestinian Israeli citizens. Moreover, Israel does not need Palestinian approval to define itself one way or another. To suggest as much represents galuti (Exilic) Jewish servility – something which Zionism and the establishment of the State were, amongst other things, meant to redress. And, of course, to make such a demand a precondition for the resumption of negotiations appeared to be a delaying tactic.

But, after recent experiences dual-narrative guiding, together with Palestinian tour guide colleagues, I have changed. I have seen significant disagreements develop between myself, a moderate Israeli Jew, and moderate Palestinian tour guides, as well as Palestinian guest speakers. I see that some Israeli Jews can and do accept Palestinian narratives as legitimate and valid (whether we agree with them or not) but that many Palestinians refuse to accept the fundamental basis of the Israeli narrative as legitimate and valid. They seem to only truly accept Israelis who disavow Zionism. I refuse to disavow Zionism just as I would never demand that Palestinians disavow their most basic truths.

I do not need Palestinians to become Zionists, nor even to accept that the State of Israel should have been established. However, I do need them to appreciate the religious and national ongoing connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. My existence here in Jerusalem is qualitatively different to the existence of the French in Algeria. My roots here are deep and historic. This land is the cradle of Jewish civilization. I do not need Palestinians to agree with my claims (just as I do not believe that the Palestinians are descendants of the Jebusites – a major claim about Palestinian pedigree which I have heard uttered again and again as a basic truth) but I need them to understand that in the Jewish national consciousness I am not a European colonialist usurper who is a stranger to this land. Without this understanding, peace will not arrive.

We do not need to accept the other’s narrative as true but we need to understand it and accept that the other certainly believes it to be true. From there, with competing and clashing narratives, understood and accepted by both sides, we can have the strength to move forward to a better future, in which both peoples can enjoy peace, security and human rights.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide and the Director of Teaching Israel.

It’s not about politics but rather simple human decency

9 Aug

by Ilan Bloch

Things have got out of hand; I don’t think it is a matter of left or right (I don’t think that Menachem Begin z”l or Ze’ev Jabotinsky z”l would have disagreed with anything I wrote below).

Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

1) If you find the comment of Moti Yogev, an MK who is part of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, that the Supreme Court acting as the High Court of Justice should be demolished (“the shovel of a D9 [armored] bulldozer should be sent to the High Court”) problematic in the light of democratic norms and mores, and/or

2) If you find that the murder of Shira Banki z”l perhaps did not happen in a vacuum and that Bezalel Smotrich MK, who organized an anti-gay Beast Parade in Jerusalem in 2006, a year after Yishai Schlissel (yimach shemo – may his name be erased) stabbed three people at the 2005 Pride Parade, saying the Pride Parade was “worse than the acts of animals,” sitting in the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, might give some sort of imprimatur for homophobia in Israeli society, and/or

3) If you find that settlers violently rioting against Israeli forces enforcing demolition orders against homes built on privately-owned Palestinian land in Beit El, which had been stolen, and that rewarding this land theft and violence against Israeli forces by authorizing the building of 300 housing units in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank invites further aggression, and/or

4) If you find that Jewish terrorism against Palestinians also does not happen in a vacuum and when, say, Prime Minister Netanyahu – just months ago – called on the (Jewish) electorate to turn up to the polls because “Arab voters [citizens of Israel, with the full right to vote in Israeli elections!] are heading to the polling stations in droves,” that this racist statement may well have contributed to an atmosphere of dehumanization, which allowed Jews – 70 years after we were burned in the crematoria – to burn a toddler alive in Duma last week, and/or

5) If you consider Benzi Gopstein, head of Lehava, saying that it is a mitzvah to burn churches (“Did the Rambam [Maimonides] rule to destroy [idol worship] or not? Idol worship must be destroyed. It’s simply yes – what’s the question?”) as a chilul hashem (desecration of God’s Name)

6) If you think (especially if you are a doctor), along with Dr. Leonid Eidelman, head of the Israeli Medical Association, that force-feeding hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners is wrong (“We will not agree to such a law that places physicians at the front where they don’t belong, both as a group and as individuals, in complete contravention to their professional and ethical responsibilities.”) and/or

7) If you think that Miki Zohar, a Likud MK, comparing Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem to ideological murderers from the right (“There are rotten apples [used to refer to rightist ideological murderers, and left-wing NGO’s] in all kinds of segments of the population, including the left, and I will explain to you why.”) may actually be considered vilification and demonization of, and incitement against, the left

then write to PM Netanyahu (bnetanyahu@knesset.gov.il) and tell him that you, as a person with a strong connection to Israel, are concerned/worried/shocked/dismayed, etc. at the state of the nation.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

Six (or seven) essential tips for Israel tour guiding this summer

17 Jun

As we enter the peak of the guiding season and consider our educational goals for the summer, licensed guide and Teaching Israel director Ilan Bloch takes a (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek look at this summer’s real goals…

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The six (or 7) ש’s/Sh’s

a) שתייה/Shtiya/Drinking – Without water and stops to refill or buy more water, your summer has ended before it starts. The blank look on the face of the chanich staring past you isn’t just because he doesn’t care about the Second Temple period; it’s because he’s also suffering from dehydration.

b) Shade/צל/Tzel– Even if you can literally make King David come alive and speak to the group, if it’s not happening in the shade, it’s not worth it. However much chanichim may love to sunbathe at the beach, for some reason they don’t want to do so while listening to even King David himself speak with them.

c) ש”ח/New Israel Shekel – Ensure that your group has access to ATMs and change places, otherwise d), e) and f) can’t happen.

d) שווארמה/Shawarma– Along with the delicious and nutritious packed lunches from the hostel, make sure your group has the opportunity to buy fast food during break times, otherwise you might see them suffering from schnitzel (or, worse yet, Tivol corn schnitzel) overdose.

e) Shopping/shoes – The northern border might heat up, but in terms of interest, such an event might pale in comparison to hot summer sales — especially relevant to the Naot factory outlet.

f) שירותים/restrooms – When they really need to go, they really, really need to go. Anticipate restroom stops before emergency situations develop. And, no matter what the bus driver says, two stops on “long-haul” journeys (e.g. Safed to Jerusalem) are an absolute necessity.

And, if they are not a youth group, then

g) שתוי/Shatui/Tipsy – As opposed to שיכור/Shikor/Drunk, which is not allowed. Without their opportunity (legally, for the 18-20 y.o., in this country, as opposed to in the US) to imbibe (according to the rules), some chanichim may feel they were robbed of a transformative experience in the Land of Goldstar and Arak.

Meatballs, Blood and Torah

3 Mar

by Yael Brygel

Photo courtesy of Sharon Goldschlager

Photo courtesy of Sharon Goldschlager

Where in the world can you attend a Hassidic-inspired tea house followed by a Buddhist mindfulness workshop? “Eh… Brooklyn,” I hear you say. Yep, I won’t argue with that. I haven’t been to Brooklyn but from my vast academic exploration of the city (The Cosby Show, Sex and the City, Girls, my friend Elissa and a girl I met at a lunch last week) I would have to concur. These events, however, take place in Jerusalem, a Brooklyn in the Middle East minus the brownstones, mung beans, lemongrass, counter-culture, progressive politics, dog funerals and peace with our neighbors – the ones in the apartment above us and the ones across the “border.” (But who needs peace anyway?) Like Brooklyn though, we have the most special characters that the world has to offer. And, fortunately for me, I have acquired a unique knack for drawing the wackiest people in Jerusalem into my personal (but seemingly malfunctioning) “ring of fire.” These magical individuals traverse all sorts of boundaries, both physical and emotional; who indeed needs a therapist, a hug from a loved one or advice from a good friend when a stranger on the bus can breathe down your neck and offer unsolicited advice on how to live you life while standing on one leg and reading Masechet Niddah (Jewish laws pertaining to menstruation)?

There is an upside, of course, to this insanity: Sometimes I get to interact with really good people and hear interesting stories because the boundaries between individuals in this city – and perhaps in this country – tend to not be very absolute (that’s an understatement!) Recently I had the opportunity to exchange meatball recipes and hear divrei torah (words of Torah) from my local phlebotomist (medical term for vampire!) while a needle was entrenched in my arm and blood was oozing out of it during a routine blood test. I had recognized the woman from last time and remembered that she was a grandmother who gets up every morning at around 5am and listens to her favorite Torah program on the radio while making meatballs for her family. I asked her about it and she told me a nice parable she had heard that morning about how when God wanted to bring the Torah to the Jewish people, the angels above cried and begged him not to take it away from them. This woman comes to work enthusiastic and inspired each morning, and loves to share what she has learnt with the people she treats. Her own happiness raises the spirits of her patients (a real lesson in the power of giving and the contagiousness of attitude!) Ordinarily, the two of us would never cross paths or interact. She lives in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. But there was something so nice about this interaction, which transcended political and religious beliefs, and represents the often positive encounters I get to have with other Yerushalmim when I am willing, or when they find me.

This post is dedicated to my auntie Sonia who loved to meet new people and continues to inspire.

.Yael Brygel is a Jerusalem-based writer

Thoughts on the matzav

26 Nov

by Ilan Bloch

Marina Maxamilian opens the night

Marina Maximilian opens the night

Eleven years ago, I made Aliyah to Jerusalem – at the tail end of the Second Intifada. I can count the number of terror attacks in the city which occurred during my first year or two of Aliyah on the one hand.

Last week, I went to the International Exposure to Rock and Indie opening night at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine. It was a strange experience; on the one hand, it was only a day after the heinous terror attack in the Har Nof shule which claimed five lives and, on the other, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Culture Department spokesperson who talked at the event made clear – Jerusalemites are actually really glad when international visitors and tourists don’t cancel their plans because of terrible incidents such as this one. As a Jerusalemite, I was so happy to be at a musical showcase with performers from three continents at one of Jerusalem’s top night spots but I was also terribly troubled; my mind was racing with questions.

Could I enjoy myself during a night out in Jerusalem after what happened the morning before?

Is it really enough just to acknowledge the tragedy and then move on with the night as planned?

If I had changed my plans would I “be letting terror win?”

Is it sometimes appropriate to change plans in the face of mourning? If the answer is so clear on a personal level, why is it not on a national level?

Why hadn’t I felt this way in relation to the previous terror attacks? Did this one hit home because as much as I don’t see my reasons for being in Israel as relating to Jewish power and self-rule, there was something so Diasporic/Exilic about Jews dying al Kiddush hashem (as martyrs), butchered in the middle of tefilah? The proposal which I have heard discussed of guards being placed outside synagogues during services is so disturbing because at the end of the day perhaps one of the reasons I came here was to no longer be in such a security predicament. I didn’t “escape” from Australia yet still, the idea of Israel as a “safe haven” was/is so ingrained in me from my Zionist upbringing that it is difficult not to be shocked by the fact that this particular attack took place in Jerusalem under Israeli rule. (Of course, we shouldn’t lose perspective; the security forces who put a stop to the nefarious act were Israelis and they were defending Jews, not sponsoring the murder like in Tsarist Russia.)

I wonder if Jerusalemites who left the city for places like Modiin, or people born and raised in Tel Aviv, have these thoughts? If they don’t does that allow them to find more meaning in their lives because they don’t need to deal with all of this, or does the ideological self-reflection which perhaps takes place more easily and richly in Jerusalem bring meaning to its residents (or perhaps disrupt the ability of its residents to find meaning on a most basic level?)

And then I wonder, even though I am not at all scared in regard to my personal security, as a tour guide, who wants more tourists to come to Israel (including to Jerusalem), should I even be writing this post? Does talking about it facilitate necessary processing (for Jerusalemites, Israelis, Diaspora Jews and others) or by discussing it continuously does it not only pay due honor to the victims’ memory but also enhance the evil perpetrators’ aim of terrorizing?

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

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