Saturday, July 18, 2009
Notes from Israel - I
The Rasta and the Haredi
The Ticho House is where Jerusalem’s artists, writers, musicians and anybody else who qualifies as an intellectual and is appropriately dressed in gloomy black representing the sandal-clad hip crowd’s existential dilemma gather every evening to while away the lazy hours of mid-summer stupor. Nava Bibi, in a billowing flower-printed dress, is a charming hostess. On the lush lawns a huge screen has been set up for the ongoing art film festival and the movie being screened, Seven Easy Pieces by Marina Abramovic, directed by Babette Mangolte, is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme Mariée. Godard’s chosen medium was black and white; Mangolte’s use of bleak colours is equally brooding. Young Israelis watch the film intently; later, they dissect it frame by frame over wine and fish at Little Jerusalem, the Ticho House restaurant where it’s tough to find an empty table.
At a short distance, in noisy, raucous Ben Yehuda teenagers and twenty-somethings party late into the night. There’s live music (a woman belts out Jai Ho!) spilling into the street; most pubs throb with Goa Trance. In the din, a singer’s voice soars over the cacophony of club music: Idan Raichel, the Rasta Man with matted hair, is a rage in Israel. His music is unique and defies existing categories. He brings together musicians from Israel’s various immigrant communities — all of them are Jewish yet each of them is different. Raichel says it is his attempt to help new immigrants remain rooted in their cultural traditions while blending with mainstream Israeli society.
Meanwhile, the Haredim, who occupy the ultra-orthodox quarters of Jerusalem and collectively represent the anti-thesis of everything that secular Jews stand for, including their lofty disdain for the haredi way of life which is sustained by generous financial assistance provided by the Government and Jewish charities, fight it out with riot police over a perceived violation of Sabbath rules. A month ago, the Government decided to keep a newly-built parking lot across the walled city’s Jaffa Gate open on Sabbath when everything in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, comes to a halt and an eerie silence descends on the city.
The Haredim, appalled by this callous disregard of established tradition that prohibits people from, among other things, driving their cars on Sabbath, have decided to force the Government into withdrawing the order. So, for the past three Sabbaths, the Haredim, including young and old religious Jews, have been gathering in large numbers to confront the police. It’s a fierce battle that follows each Saturday afternoon, but neither side is showing signs of relenting.
In the West Bank settlements, redolent with the fragrance of flowers and ripening fruit, the resident Jews are in a fury. They see themselves as not just settlers grabbing Palestinian land, as they are made out to be by the Arabs and the international media, but as the true and legitimate inheritors of the ‘promised land’ of Judea and Samaria. All construction activity in the settlements has been halted; even building a new room now requires the approval of the Prime Minister of Israel.
The settlers don’t blame Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (admiringly and loathingly referred to as ‘BB’) for the freeze on settlement construction activity. Their anger is directed at US President Barack Hussein Obama — the middle name is emphatically stressed in Judea and Samaria where settlers have miraculously converted the sterile desert into fertile farms and pine-scented woodlands.
Mr Obama is accused of appeasing Arab sentiments and addressing imagined grievances by forcing the Right-wing Government led by Mr Netanyahu to give in to his demand of halting all settlement-building activity. Israelis of American origin (many of whom still retain their US citizenship) despise Mr Obama with unguarded hostility. For them, the good news is that American gunboat diplomacy has frozen the peace process and restoring the Green Line as a step towards a full and final settlement of the Palestinian issue continues to remain a distant chimera. Abu Mazen is not complaining.
Israeli Arabs, full citizens of the Jewish state, are not complaining either. Any change in the status quo would cause them needless stress. In any event, most of them take a disparaging view of the situation in Gaza Strip and West Bank. Not surprisingly, they would rather live in Israel where law and order prevails than in the anarchy across the Wall.
Between faith and democracy, the choice is clear — at least for those who have benefited from Israel’s economic boom, which has remained largely untouched by the global financial crisis. Young Israeli Arabs may be less hesitant than their parents about speaking up for Palestinian rights, but that does not necessarily reflect split loyalties or subversive tendencies. On the contrary, they are eager to fully assimilate with Israeli society as that would afford them the freedom which Fatah and Hamas deny to Palestinians under their charge.
The certitudes in which the Israeli identity — overwhelmingly Jewish, largely exclusivist and dominated by the cultural preferences, if not biases, of the post-Holocaust generation that came from Europe — has been anchored for the past six decades are still there. But they have begun to yield space to other defining features. The Jewish narrative is witnessing subtle changes and the shift in the Jewish worldview is apparent; victimhood is no longer the main characteristic of the Jewish identity, nor is it cloaked in aggressive religiosity or political Zionism.
The new generation of Israelis is far more confident and aspirational than the previous generation. At the same time, young Israelis have begun to open their doors and windows to the world, absorbing and adopting ideas and accommodating those who were on the margins of a society whose social rules till recently were written by an European elite and religious rites were dictated by the Haredim. Modernity and tradition have found a new equilibrium without disturbing social harmony.
In this Israel, Idan Raichel is as much an inspirational force in reclaiming Jewish cultural identities as the Haredim are in enforcing orthodox Jewish traditions; the Israeli Arabs are not ashamed to flaunt their Israeli identity and the Jewish settlers remain defiant; and, in the heart of Jerusalem, Israelis of various faith and cultural denomination jive to the tune of Jai Ho! and Goa Trance. This Israel cannot but alarm Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.