Header Photo Credit

*The stunning photo in the header of my blog is all thanks to Ron Shoshani. Visit his facebook page for more of his amazing photographs of Tel Aviv!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Be Good this Holiday Season and Support "Advocates for Asylum"

*sponsored post*

I figure that the Israeli Holiday Season is a great time to clear my conscience and use my blog to improve my standing in the eyes of the big guy in the sky. I know I still got time since everyone here in Israel is still using the salutation "Hag Sameach" (חג שמח) meaning "Happy Holiday", and the valediction "G'mar Chatimah Tova" (גמר חתימה טובה) literally meaning "good final inscribing", but idiomatically meaning "May you be inscribed in the book of life forever".  These sayings are directly related to the first three holidays of the holdiay season: Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

According to learnhebrew.org,

"The days of repentance are divided into two parts: The first the inscribing begins on Rosh Hashana and finishes Yom Kippur when the final "sealing" (chatima) of our fate takes place. Many sages give us a second chance - an extra 12 days until a really final sealing on Hoshana Rabba (the 7th day of Sukkot)."

All right! I guess I can wipe the sweat of my brow since there are still a few more days left of Sukkot.  I can still use these extra 12 days to do as much good as possible and earn me some "mensch points".  So here goes. Let's cross our fingers that I make it into the "good book".

Considering that for the past three years I've lived in areas of Tel Aviv which are highly concentrated with African immigrants, its surprising that I haven't heard of "Advocates for Asylum" (AOA)until recently.
 Advocates of Asylum, or in Hebrew, פעילים למען פליטים (P'ilim L'ma'an P'litim), is an organization that is dedicated to promoting a just Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process in Israel.

According to AOA, the current Israeli policies toward asylum seekers are not simply inadequate, they are also grossly unfair and surprisingly out of line with Jewish  Halacha  (Jewish Law) and the 1951 Geneva Convention for the Protection of Refugees.  The '51 convention was actually initiated by Ben Gurion and other world leaders to prevent the deportation of Holocaust refugees in the wake of World War II.

Photo courtesy of the Sudan Tribune
AOA reports that "...today, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of asylum seekers have been forcibly deported by Israel back to Egypt, where many refugees are killed, raped, abused, and/or deported to their country of origin, including Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)."

These individuals endure extreme hardship in their journey from their homeland to Israel. Egyptian soldiers do not hesitate to open fire at any asylum seeker attempting to cross the border from Egypt to Israel, employing an official "shoot to stop" policy .  When they reach Israel, many are immediately deported back to Egypt or Sudan where they typically disappear.

In April, NY based "Human Rights Watch" quoted Joe Stark in their article on the issue:
"By definition, a refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "To send that person back to a place where his life or freedom would be threatened is illegal and inhumane."
Photo courtesy of jewcy.com

To be more specific, "Asylum seekers" are defined as any individual appealing to be recognized as a "refugee". Article I of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a "Refugee" as:

"A person who owning to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country."

Despite the declaration of the Geneva Convention, asylum seekers that attempt and succeed in crossing the Egyptian border into Israel are not recognized as asylum seekers, but are refereed to as "migrant workers" or infiltrators".  This makes it nearly impossible for them to even apply for political asylum from the very get-go.

Photo courtesy of jssnews
The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) refers to the Infiltration Prevention Bill of 1954 when dealing with asylum seekers who cross the border from Egypt to Israel. This bill allows deportations, ignoring the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Refugees from 1951. According to Stephen Lendman, blogger, journalist and political activist, “Israel’s 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law was enacted to criminalize fedayeen freedom fighters, deny Palestinians their right of return, and deport them if they came.”

(Side note: Lendman's May article in the "Palestinian Chronicle" is actually pretty interesting, and very thorough. For anyone that has the time to take a look at his take on the refugee issue in Israel, I recommend a quick read. )

What's more, the government has expressed their intention to amend the current Infiltration Prevention Bill from 1954 to legalize the immediate deportations of asylum seekers.
Photo courtesy of globalvoicesonline.com. Credit: Oren Ziv, Activestills.org

In their effort to raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers in Israel and promote a fair RSD system in Israel, Advocates for Asylum has begun compiling and circulating refugee testimonials to policy makers, the public and the media.

Below you'll find an animated testimonial of "Gabriel", a Sudanese asylum seeker living in Israel created by AOA.

In the spirit of the Jewish Holiday Season, go check out AOA's website. There are a number of ways you can volunteer or help contribute to the cause.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yom Kippur 2010

Yom Kippur in Israel is almost magical.  Nearly everything stops.  Everything is quiet. No cars, trucks or scooters pollute the roads; no construction noises pollute the air and no radios blare with music.  Everything is still. That is, except for the bicycles.  If you an Israeli kid under the age of 18 and you don't have a bicycle to ride on Yom Kippur, your parents are abusing you.  This is a day where the streets are filled with people, dressed in white as a symbol of purity, coming and going from the synagogue; children speeding through the roads with skateboards, bicycles and roller skates; and mothers sitting in plastic lawn chairs int he middle of the street.

My boyfriend, Yotam, my friend Eyal and I took this opportunity to visit our friend who lives in Rishon L'Tsion, a suburb which is about 20 minutes drive south of Tel Aviv. It took us about 40 minutes by bicycle as we stopped in towns like Bat Yam along the way.

Here's a short video I put together of Yom Kippur Evening and Yom Kippur Day so that you all can get an idea of what it's like.

*NOTE*: blog address at the end of the video is INCORRECT!
Correction: http://therayve.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shannah Tovah From Petra

I know it's been a while since my last blog post. You'll have to forgive me.  I spent my New Years vacation with my friend Annie in the beautiful country of Jordan visiting one of the worlds wonders: Petra.

I whole heartedly recommend a Petra  visit to everyone willing to take the time and wander around for at least two days. The site is massive - once the capital city of an entire people, the Nabateans - and it is filled with beautiful rock carvings in so many places, most tourists don't even know where to look. I've learned that the best way to see a site is to trust the locals who live there, and this is exactly what Annie and I did.

Surprisingly, Petra is not only a massive ruin with unbelievably well preserved remnants of exquisite buildings carved out of colorful rock. It's even more than that. Petra is a site surrounded by two major towns/villages: one Arab village and one Bedoin village.  These locals wander in and out of Petra at their leisure as they know the back roads and are familiar with the dirt paths that wind up and around the many ancient caves and beautiful arid mountains. We befriended a number of these smiling faces within the city walls who were simply looking for a way to spend their time with excited travelers, and possibly make a tip or two on the side.  Us being poor, we kept the few dinars we had in our wallets, but were careful to offer plenty of thanks. And of course, we were willing to follow them wherever they took us.

Our first guide, whose name I can't recall, was a young Arab outfitted in a green army uniform. How did we meet him? Well, he offered to take our photograph. Then he simply continued to set up shots in different areas nearby until we found ourselves following him as he hopped from rock to rock, stone to stone and cliff to cliff. If we'd had more time, which I wish we had, I would have followed him up, up, up to the "high point" he was telling us about from where we'd have an unobstructed view of the Treasury from above. The pictures he took  really came out great.

Here he is waving to us as we approach

Here he is showing us how to make blush out of red rock powder

Close up of my - now beautiful- complexion

He was gracious enough to help us along, pointing out in broken English the sites of note and the crevices here and there that made for great photo ops.  Here are some of his exclusive shots:

I don't know how we decided on this pose, but it looks freakin cool

The Charlie's Angels thing was his idea. Really.
Me in a hole. You can't say he doesn't have a natural eye.

There will be plenty more photos to come, but I think I'll continue the adventure in the next post. So... Stay tuned!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Are Israelis Rude? Learning Not To Be Polite In Israel

It wasn't long after I started living in Israel that I picked up on the general Israeli impoliteness. It's everywhere - it saturates the entire country. The moment you step foot on the holy land, your circle of personal space shrinks quickly.  In this land, tact is nonessential, conversations are direct and queues have a culture of their own. Strangers make comments to you about things that, in America, you'd only hear from the mouths of close kin.

Now, many Western foreigners get hit hard. The atmosphere in Israel is something new.  The country is developed, modern and civilized.  They see the Americanization at work and wonder how Israelis still aren't behaving American!  They seem so direct and, well, unrefined! In fact, I found a really hilarious post by an Israeli communications company on how to do business with Israelis.  Cheap design aside, they actually get their shit pretty right and try to lay out how and why Israelis conduct business the way they do.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that  most Western tourists make the following assumption: Israeli's are rude and inconsiderate.

But I wouldn't go that far.  They might be impolite, but that doesn't necessarily make them rude. Since this is my blog - I ain't no non-biased journalist- I'm just gonna go ahead and say that there are definitely some annoying things about Israelis and their so-called rudeness.  But, once you embrace it, this lack of etiquitte and politeness can be extremely liberating and refreshing. Sometimes Israelis remind me of the way New Yorkers used to be, before the city got all cleaned up.

In fact, Israel taught me how to stick to my guns and be pushy when the occasion calls for it.  I don't sugar-coat things the way I used to, no matter who I'm talking to and I don't feel like I need to smile and be friendly to stragers if I don't want to. I know how to speak up for myself, and I definitely know how to find the right people to help me get my foot in the right door. 

So, what exactly has contributed this Israeli phenomenon of impoliteness?  Well, here are what I believe are the top 5 reasons Israelis seem so impolite:

1) Most Israelis are Jews.

Take your quintessential Jewish mother, or father- or grandparent, for that matter.  Imagine your Mel Brooks ar Billy Crystal character - a Brooklyn Jew with a strong Eastern European background.

"Francie," she might say with a thick accent, "wat's with your hair today?Eh? It always looks so nice- but today you have this gnarly look, eh?

"Joshua," he might say, "I'm an old man, I've lived through so much...I deserve some extra desert. Go ask the waitress if she'll send over an extra dish."

The presumptuous Eastern European Jew lives on in Israel, a state founded by those same nagging and tactless parents who know the best way to embarrass their children in public. Everything is everyone's business.

2) Much of Israel is Still kinda Third World.

Yes, Israel is a modern country.  Israel has some of the most advanced scientific research facilities in the world. Tel Avivians are style conscious metropolitans and most Israelis are extremely well-traveled global citizens.  However, so many things in Israel still don't work the way they should.

Take for example, the buses.  It's rare to find a bus station with adequate route maps.  The buses themselves have no maps on the walls inside, nor are there bus maps regularly distributed to the public.  When you get on a bus that you've never ridden before to a place you've never been before, the only way to know where you need to get off is to ask the driver or a fellow passenger.  No one announces each stop.  In fact, the bus driver will not even stop at all of the stations.  If he sees no one waiting at the stop, and none of the passengers have pressed the "stop" button, the driver will zoom by a station without a second thought.

The bus schedule is also only a loose timetable.  Never rely on the bus schedules to be accurate.  Buses can arrive 20 minutes late and leave 5 minutes early. If you're waiting for a bus, give yourself some wiggle room.
The buses are only one example of many state-run systems that simply seem to have no real order.  With no order, no sign postings, no public information, the systems become what Israeli's call "Schunah" or "neighborhood".  The people who have been through it know. The newcomers have no clue.  They are forced to communicate with strangers and ask for advice. There is no other way to get by.

3) Israelis are Like one big Family/Neighborhood

"Israelis are a family-orientated people. Blood ties run very thick here and is part of their collective strength. The extended family becomes a network of support and connections meaning that everything in Israel comes down to who you know. This phenomenon they call the combina."
-2006 RoadJunky.com post on Israel 

This couldn't be more true. Israel is a small country, and everyone seems to know everyone somehow. In fact, nearly every time a friend of mine is introduced to someone new, they usually spend the first 5-10 minutes or so trying to figure out how they might know eachother.

 Did they go to school together? Did they grow up in the same neighborhood? Could it be that they went to the same summer camp or served in the same area during the army? 

The thing is, they are almost always connected somehow -whether it be through a relative, a friend, or directly. And that's Israel.  Everyone seems to know everyone and everyone knows how important it is to rely on a little help from their friends.It's this small-town feel that makes who you know so valuable.  People let things slide when they know you.

And this is where the word "Schunah" (שכונה) comes from.  Schunah literally means "neighborhood" but it's most frequently used to refer to the casual, neighborhoody way people go about doing things here.  This is one of the reasons why the police here aren't nearly as scary as American police- it's "schuna".  It's not unlikely that the guy who pulls you over for speeding sat next to you in middle school and wrote you love letters or that his dad was your dentist.

4) Nearly all Israelis Serve in the Army

You certainly learn how to be direct and pushy after you spend 3 years in the Israeli army.  And when I say army, put that clean crew-cut out startched stainless suit of your mind.  This is a draft army.  Fery few actually have the luxury of choosing to enlist: all Israeli citizens are is drafted at 18.  Men serve for three years and women for two.

The Israeli Army is probably the best example of poorly directed Israeli bureaucracy.  I wish I had more first hand info to give you here, but I can tell you that much of the army is serious "schunah" just from hearing my friends's many stories.

5) Hebrew Just Doesn't Traslate Easily to English

Things just sound wrong when they're literally translated from Hebrew to English.  No?

 English is an extraordinarily rich language compared to Hebrew.  By rich, I mean wordy. There are far more words in English, meaning that English is a bit more subtle and a bit more nuanced.  Descriptions can be more specific and niceties are more common.

Hebrew, on the other hand, has relatively few words, many of which are used to describe or refer to more than one concept.  The language is complex, yes, but less wordy and far less subtle.

So when Israelis translate literally to English - everything comes out sounding sharp, blunt, and extremely straight forward.  Fewer words are used in Hebrew to say something in English. Any paper,book, or literary work is simply longer in English.

Plain and simple, Hebrew translated directly to English can easily sounds rude or curt, even if, in Hebrew, it sounds completely normal.

Israelis who have lived in Israel for generations are refereed to in Hebrew as "Saabras".  Saabras are desert fruit that grow on cacti.  You can find them all over Israel.  The fruit's meat is sweet and juicy, and peachy orange to deep red like a beet, or a heart, but the meat is covered in a thick, prickly skin. And to get to the fruit, one has to carefully pick it from the thorny cactus.  The real land-grown Israeli is well known as being hard and prickly on the outside, maybe hard to get through to, but sort, sweet and full of heart on the inside.  Maybe the rudeness is really just that thick prickly skin...because it's true - inside, Israelis have big bleeding hearts.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Israel & Peace: Is Democracy Really the Question Here?

The question is posed time and time again, "Is Israel really a democracy?"  Nearly every Middle East political scientist has wondered about Israel's democratic status since the country's establishment.

The answer to this question, of course, depends on your definition of democracy. Princeton's WordNet defines democracy as:


  • S: (n) democracy (the political orientation of those who favor government by the people or by their elected representatives)
  • S: (n) democracyrepubliccommonwealth (a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them)
  • S: (n) majority ruledemocracy (the doctrine that the numerical majority of an organized group can make decisions binding on the whole group)

If this is the definition we go with, then Israel is certainly a democracy, albeit a dysfunctional one.

Take a look at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs webpage that outlines the representative structure of Israel's government. Israel has an elected Parliament, called the Knesset, which is "proportionally representational".   Israel's government is elected by the people to represent the people.

There are multitudes of political parties. Here's an official list (in Hebrew) of all of the Israeli political parties.  When an Israeli voter goes to cast their vote, they are faced with a list as long as this one with shortened names of every political party.  I counted 86, but I may have lost track along the way. Go ahead and take a stab yourself.

Anyway, the way the system works is like this:

The number of Parliamentary seats a party wins in an election are determined by popular vote.  Numerical majority rule within the Parliament is required after each election, but because there are so many freakin parties, no one party ever wins a majority of seats.  So to create a majority, parties must for coalitions.

Forming a majority coalition requires a series of negotiations between party officials which usually this involve massive concessions made all 'round.  Once a majority coalition is created, party officials are initiated and the new government begins its governing.  New legislation is then passed by Parliamentary voting.

This is, in a way, a democracy at its most democratic: parties are relatively easy to form, and voters vote directly for their parties. However, the high number of political parties also creates problems. It becomes difficult for those elected to negotiate coalitions, making it a messy democracy. This is exactly what happened in 2009 when the Kadima party won the highest number of popular votes: Tzipi Livni, the head of the Kadima party and the technically "elected" prime minister, was unwilling to make the necessary concessions required to create a majority coalition. She decided it was better to concede her position as Prime Minister than to take the position after forfeiting her party' principles and ideology.

However, it is important to mention that Tzipi Livni's Kadima party, while still centrist, is committed to keeping Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli control.  Also, despite the fact that it did win the highest percentage of votes in 2009 at 22.47%, most other voters cast their vote for right-leaning parties, wth Likud, Netanyahu's  "central-right" party that has a rather "hawkish" policy towards the Palestinians, coming in second at 21.2% and Yisrael Beiteinu coming in third.  You can get the idea of how right Yisrael Beiteinu really leans from their 2009 political slogan, "No loyalty, no citizenship."  Most of Israel is right wing and most Israeli leaders are respected Army veterans. This necessarily means less general sympathy towards the Palestinian cause.

The question of Israel's democratic status was addressed by New York Times Op Ed Contributor, Toni Judt on June 9, 2010 in the article "Israel Without Cliches." Jundt writes:

"[Cliche]No. 2: Israel is/is not a democracy
Perhaps the most common defense of Israel outside the country is that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” This is largely true: the country has an independent judiciary and free elections, though it also discriminates against non-Jews in ways that distinguish it from most other democracies today. The expression of strong dissent from official policy is increasingly discouraged.

But the point is irrelevant. “Democracy” is no guarantee of good behavior: most countries today are formally democratic — remember Eastern Europe’s “popular democracies.” Israel belies the comfortable American cliché that “democracies don’t make war.” It is a democracy dominated and often governed by former professional soldiers: this alone distinguishes it from other advanced countries. And we should not forget that Gaza is another “democracy” in the Middle East: it was precisely because Hamas won free elections there in 2005 that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel reacted with such vehemence."

It has become increasingly clear that the greatest obstacle to peace in Israel is its own extremist population. The Israeli people are moving farther and farther right. The religious, who are almost entirely far right wing, have far more children and are quickly multiplying in numbers. This is happening at the expense of young leftists who feel more and more isolated and more and more jaded. 

As Gadi Taub emphasized in his Aug 29th NYTimes Op-Ed article, "In Israel, Settling for Less", the settlers and settlements are the big, big problem.  There is a growing number of Israeli religious extremists who are intent on creating and maintaining a biblical Israel.  These are the religious settlers who are not willing to negotiate with Palestinians. They are not willing to consider a two-state solution. And this is not only an obstacle to peace, but as Taub says, if maintained, these settlements will "doom Zionism itself...all 'one-state solutions' lead to the same end: civil war."

I have to agree.  This means that international pressure is essential to Israel's survival and essential to the development of any possible peace accord.  It is international pressure- not Israeli citizens- that will convince Israeli leaders to stop the settlements and to begin thinking about a real two-state solution. Let's hope that the negotiations which began this week will end with an agreement from Netanyahu to put an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.