Posted by: laffingeyes | June 18, 2017

Segregation in the Promised Land

Today, as I was leaving, I wished the pharmacist Shabbat shalom. She looked at me funnily. I wasn’t sure why, but she might have meant, “I’m Arab, that’s not my holiday.” I am indiscriminate in my Shabbat Shalom wishes. I knew perfectly well that she was Arab, but I also knew she would not be working tomorrow like everyone else. It was only after I had left the building that I remembered that today is Ramadan, and it would have been nicer and more appropriate to wish her a Ramadan Kareem.

One of the aspects I’ve often liked in Israel is the ubiquity of well-wishes on holidays. It’s good and pleasant to hear hag sameach, happy holiday, out of the mouths of store keepers and customers as holidays approach, or a simple Shabbat shalom on leaving work on Thursdays. It’s damn comfy – as if everyone around you belongs to an extended family.

I teach soldiers now and, because we are all Jewish, there is easy banter about keeping kosher or discussions of aliyah – there is a common assumption that despite our political or ethnic differences, we are all citizens in the same place – our feet are, as it were, rooted in the same soil. We belong together.

I also teach English to three Hasidim who live in the Wischnitz (pronounded Vishnitz) neighborhood in Bnei Brak. They are a father and his two sons, and they own a hotel in that crowded, religious city. One day after talking with the older son, I realized from the tone in his voice how reassuring it was to live in a closed community that ran its affairs exactly as you did. It was as if there was a happy concordance between his pulse and the pulses of those around him. Moreover, he could regard the hotel as a form of service to the community.

It was only on leaving my local clinic today that I fully realized that I, too, live in a similarly segregated society or, to be more exact, that I, too, live in a sequestered community.

It’s important to make clear that Israel is not segregated in the manner of the American South. There are no separate drinking places, public bathrooms, or bus seats. In public places, Jews and Arabs mingle; and, as an article in Haaretz this week pointed out, Israeli Arabs are one of the significant successes of the country. They are educated: they are doctors, lawyers, judges, parliamentarians, and even ministers. But still, a specific type of segregation characterizes Israeli daily life. Jews and Arabs live in separate communities, go to separate schools (until university), read separate newspapers, and ever since cable TV, watch different stations. There are several Arabic Jewish schools under the same auspices but these are private, and the Israeli government has refused to subsidize them.

The proof of the pudding, as it were, can be found in one of Sayed Kashua’s recent columns in Haaretz, for it is only the minority that feels the oppression of segregation. He writes:

Being a Palestinian Arab in Jerusalem was an inseparable part of my consciousness. I had to be aware that I was an Arab when I drove my children to school, when I drove to work, when I chose my words in writing, and every time I walked in the street. The politics in Israel determined the degree of caution to take in certain circumstances, the place of residence, the children’s educational system, the safe places for going out, the use of the language, and the careful way in which you greeted your neighbors. (“Musaf Haaretz,” 10 March 2017)

What I especially felt that morning was not the segregation in Israeli society or my lack of consideration toward the Arab pharmacist, whose holiday I had ignored, but my similarity with Southerners who had been raised in the balmy haven of segregation. I felt I could understand their fright at Obama’s vision of America. It was not just Obama’s color that was so outrageous but his constant emphasis on the marvelous diversity of the new America. What he thought as a golden promise, which he physically represented, was also a threat to the feeling of security of many. That their sense of invulnerability had rested on the false premises of bigotry, prejudice, and an unacknowledged violence was what I had, in my liberal mind, always understood – what I realized now was how comforting, how damned “nice” it was to live in a sheltered cove – how it gave someone a feeling of belonging to a greater whole, even if that sense of security was based on a falsehood and, often, on an out-and-out lie.

Posted by: laffingeyes | May 26, 2017

The Daily Lie

The newspaper has a headline – Baryshnikov shelanuOur Baryshnikov. It is impossible in English to convey the familial intimacy of shelanu in Hebrew because Hebrew unlike English is the language of a specific people, tribe, or nation. But it is these very qualities of intimacy and of belonging that are duplicitous. If the dancer belongs to anyone, it can only be to his parents or, perhaps, on good days, to his spouse. No one, however, belongs to a nation. A newspaper is not a rabbi praising a 13 year-old on the occasion of his Bar-Mitzvah. His success is his alone. In addition, Israel is not a nation only of Jews, and that shelanu reinforces the illusion that it is. There is an implicit segregation in newspaper coverage in Israel, a segregation that might have made sense 50 years ago but today only helps to reinforce national insularity: the Jews talk to the Jews; the Arabs talk to whomever, since most Jews cannot read Arabic and therefore, have no idea what secrets lie inside – for obviously, that segregation in news also leads to mutual distrust and misunderstanding.

Posted by: laffingeyes | May 10, 2017

Nationalism and Colonialism

Often when I read about Israel, I feel as if I have fallen between two rather loud demonstrators shouting at each other and neither actually hearing the other; or if they do listen, it is with utter lack of comprehension. On one side are those who accuse Israel of being a colonization denying natives their right of self-determination and on the other those who often complain about tolerance toward Palestinian violence and hatred. One can tell the story of Israel as that of a colonizer, and one can narrate it as the realization of a people’s right to nationhood, and often the two narrations only meet in battle and then they separate as if two different countries are being discussed. Israel has the peculiar and perhaps unique position of being both a colonizer and a fulfillment of nationalist aspirations.

It is, as it were, a double-edged or triple-edged sword, for in two or three aspects, the Jewish settlers were always colonizers – the very word “settlers” hints as such – but in one important aspect and in the way in which they perceived themselves, they were not and could not be regarded as colonizers. It’s important to understand this contradiction in terms.

Although from the middle of the 19th century, numbers of Jews settled in Palestine for religious reasons, historically, Zionism officially began in 1897 as a political movement to achieve a national homeland for the Jews. The Jews are not only members of a religion but a people. In the West, especially in the United States, this is often forgotten because it contradicts both national assumptions of assimilation and Christian perspectives on the Jews. The Jews regarded their right to a nation-state like that of any other people who had been banished from their homeland. The right was further based on a hope that a nation-state would end their 2000 years of persecution. So, in its raison d’être, Zionism can be regarded as not having been and never aspiring to colonialism.

It is often claimed that Israel is a creation of the West; that is, without the Balfour Declaration and the West’s support in the UN, the state of Israel would not have been created. Again, although this seems to be a truism since Israel was the first nation established by the UN, it is not. The Balfour declaration legitimized what had already begun, and the UN vote legitimized what was already a fait accompli. Rather, if the state of Palestine had been created in 1948, it could truly have been said to have been created by the West. The Palestinians had neither a government infrastructure nor any national identification other than that among intellectuals – and certain politicians. The Jews, on the other hand, had both a nascent government and a strong national identity. If they hadn’t won the state in 1948, they might well have won it afterward.

But, of course, to the natives, the settlers were colonizers. There was no way they could not be. They came from abroad, they proudly regarded themselves as a Western Hebrew avant-garde, and very few spoke Arabic. Those who did generally belonged to the most nationalistic working class. Furthermore, throughout most of the years of the British mandate, the Jewish enclave was favored, since it was, in many respects, self-governing. For many years, it had a close relationship with the government  in London.

The state of Israel was founded primarily by socialists, and even though they had the biases of all colonialists before them, they also regarded their right to eretz Yisrael as built through hard, physical labor. The Jew, returning to his homeland would be renewed, reborn, and remade as a tiller of soil, not exploiting any of the natives. The leader of the Revisionist party, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, however, was an avowed colonialist and firm admirer of the British Empire. It is no wonder that his party did not build any agricultural settlements nor that the Likud party currently ruling Israel follows in his footsteps in its expansionist plans in the West Bank.

Today, however, Israel is also regarded as colonialist because, like a Western beacon in a sea of Arab culture or like a sore on the Arab body depending on one’s view, it is an integral partner of the West. From its beginning, for both strategic and economic reasons,  Israel always aspired toward this status. It is utterly wrong and an historical falsehood to claim as some have done that Israel was founded by the West for this reason; that is, for both military and real-politik reasons, the West wished to plunk its bastard child in the Middle East. The truth is otherwise. When Israel was founded, the American State Department was against and like the British, it vainly sought to woo the Arabs, and for many years, Israel’s existence was quite perilous. Today, every time Israel’s Prime Minister arrogantly proclaims in his excellent English that we are the only democracy in the Middle East, he fuels that lie. But again, he is a child of a colonialist anti-Arab creed. And I am not — yet — describing Israel as it is today.

Posted by: laffingeyes | January 8, 2016

Was Jesus Swarthy?

A confession:

When I came to Israel many years ago, having been raised on literary misconceptions of Jews, I searched among my fellow compatriots for swarthy types. They were mostly to be found among Yemenite Jews and Jews from northern Africa. To my dismay, I was to learn that Yemenites were most likely converted in the fifth century, and swarthiness among Jews from North Africa usually meant intermarriage with the local Arab population. So where were the swarthy Jews of literary complexion?

Swarthy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose when placed against the pallid yet rosy-cheeked Englishman whose skin challenges tomatoes when exposed too long to the Mediterranean sun, even I might seem swarthy. But I doubt most others would think as I passed by, “there goes a swarthy Jew.” They might think, “Nerd.” They might think, “Old,” but swarthy, hardly.

So I looked around some more and decided to concentrate on Ladinos, that is, the Jews who trace their ancestry to the expulsion from Spain, as the oldest, “purest” example I might find. Being of a phenomenological bent of mind, after taking a representative sample of about five, I concluded that the Ladino type had black, curly hair, black eyebrows, and ivory-colored skin with pink tinted cheeks. Not to my eyes swarthy, but perhaps northern Europeans, scandalized by the ebony of the hair, apostrophized these strangers as swarthy, for if the hair was so resolutely black what darker pigments might taint those bodies? Or perhaps this was merely another way of designating these people as strange and of vague Mediterranean origin?

I write this because an African-American friend commented in Facebook about the probability of a swarthy Jesus. Another friend replied that this was an old argument, and from his response it seemed that the die had been cast, at least among African-Americans, that Jesus had, indeed, been swarthy. Obviously, Jesus the Christ figure can be and often is any color one wishes, and I can understand the need for a copper-skinned Jesus among blacks when Jesus in the states is so often represented as the last of the Vikings, but as someone who trusts in history and who has suspected ever since discovering how white my swarthy Jews really were that part of the determination of Jews to persist was racial, I have to express my doubts.

So what shade of white or pink or copper was Jesus? The original Hebrews claimed their origin in Mesopotamia, in the area of present-day Iraq. To this day, although often hairy in relation to northern Europeans, the skin color of Iraqis is hardly any browner, despite the roughness of their beards. The Hebrews wandered west to the land of Canaan, and, afterward, some of them (but not, modern scholars agree, all) ventured farther west to Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. Egypt was the meeting place of black Africans and white natives of North Africa, and, as often happens among the lower strata in society, it is quite likely that a number of the Hebrew slaves married black Africans. It is clear that Moses’ wife was not a Hebrew, and it is quite possible as well that Moses was an Egyptian, as his name is derived from Egyptian and not from Hebrew. The Hebrew slaves escaped and joined their compatriots in Canaan, and the miracle of their escape became the myth establishing a national and not a tribal identity rooted in a specific geographic area.

But our understanding of any physical type ends here. The Assyrian kingdom of Babylon conquered the 10 tribes of Israel. The kingdom of Judea was conquered by Babylon and the residents went into exile. In the Babylonian tablets, the Hebrews appear with distinctively curly hair and beards, but this may well have been an artistic convention

Modern rabbinical Judaism begins with the return from exile under Cyrus the Persian. What did these people look like? We have no idea. What would they have looked like three centuries later? No one knows. The best clue, however, can be found in portraits on the Egyptian graves of early Christians. It is safe to assume that many of the followers of Jesus were originally Jews. Swarthy? Not in the least. But all have black hair, black eyebrows, and brown nearly black eyes. They are definitely not European, at least not northern European. So perhaps to northern European eyes, that was swarthy enough, for “swarthy” certainly defined what the Europeans were not.

But for a modern African American searching for the trace of a common tint, the search is most likely in vain.

Posted by: laffingeyes | May 11, 2013

My Dog Lady

My dog Lady cannot say, “Woof.”

She can bark, she can growl and whimper

But she cannot say, “Woof.”

She can leap, she can spin,

She can run and dart

And prance on two hind legs

Like a circus dog.


When an aroma moves her,

She will place two front paws on my thigh–

Her lovely mutt between–

And gaze at her master with rueful eyes.

But she cannot–for the life of her–

Say, “Woof.”

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 30, 2013

Day 30 – Last Dance

This is the last dance.

Andrew might ask Natasha–

Or that scoundrel Anatole–

While his sister Helene, the beautiful Helene,

Whose neckline is eternally plunging

To the delight of her guests and Tolstoy’s dismay,

Looks on.

Pierre, befuddled and at loss, would not think to ask

As he is clumsy on the dance floor as everywhere else

And Natasha is a gay and graceful sprite,

A charm dropped exquisitely on the parquet floor

That grows before our wondering eyes

First into a bashful young girl

And then a darling, daring, perfect young lady.


This is the last dance–a mazurka for the night–a waltz.

I put down the book and turn out the light.

We kiss. I turn, reach down and hold you tight.

Shall we linger through the night

For this is the last dance

Of lips, of hands, of mouths and tongues.

Shall we ride out the night,

My love, shall we, until the moon wearies from watching us

And the breezes are abashed by the sun?

Shall we run?

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 30, 2013

Day 29 – Psalm 26

We were suggested to incorporate several languages in our poem; but I’ve done that already in several posts.  Instead, I’m translating Psalm 26, which is quite powerful in the original Hebrew, direct, and full of plays on words; in English translations, the directness and vitality are usually lost.  The King James Version remains truest to the original–but the effect is lugubrious.  I’ve tried to be as simple as possible.  The original is ascribed to David, but the content of the text makes this unlikely.

With thanks, to Jonathan.

Judge me, o God,

For I, with no intention of wrong, went

And trusted in God.

I will not stumble.

Examine me, God, and test me,

Try my heart and mind

For I see your mercy before me

And I walk about in your truth.

I did not sit with the worthless

Or come among deceivers;

I hated the bad

And would not sit with the wicked.

I will wash my hands clean

And circle around your altar, O God,

To voice aloud a thanks

And relate all your wonders.

O God, I love the house of your residence

And the place where your glory dwells.

Do not gather sinners about my soul

And about my life bloody men

Who have dealt in lewdness

And whose right hands are heavy with bribery.

And I, unblemished, will go.

Redeem and pardon me.

My foot stands on solid ground.

Among many, in song, I will bless my Lord.

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 29, 2013

Day 28 – White

We were suggested to pick a color.


White wedding dress we burned

And watched ash wavering in the air.

White walls

Aged here and there,


Like our lives.

White linens

Some no longer white

Pinked in wash. Blued

Stained–where we made love.

White sheet. White duvet

Where my lover lies.

He is black; and I am white.

Yet when I place a hand on the sheet

It is the color of ochre flesh.

What is white? What is black?

His skin is brown; his shadows dark;

His teeth are white like mine.

What is white? What is black?


Black crows against a white sky

Presage death, did you know?

White is everywhere.

White sky in midday, the sun a flame.

Coal crumbles, burns, and dies


White is the color of death

Of subjugation

Defeat at last.

Ice. Ice.

There is no snow to comfort me

No balming breezes.

Even the morning sky is pierced with white.

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 28, 2013

Day 27 – The Day After

Namu amita bul     Unter deinen weissen Sternen

The Lag BaOmer night is gone;

The fires are all out.

Flames have turned to coal

And coal to dust.

In a day’s burning sun,

Vanished are the high stars and white, big moon

Of a bright night sky.    

No. No Bodhisattva meets me at my door,

No charred potatoes remain,

Food for wandering dogs,

Ash to rise in the day’s hot breeze.


Du allein kennst meinem Schmerz.

Sieh das Feuer, das ich trage

Und es brennt in mir das Herz.

You alone know my pain

See the fire that I carry

That inflames my heart.

Namu amita bul my love.

So sit with me in the hot air

While dogs of war snap in the sky above,

And we, we alone, know each other’s pain.

Posted by: laffingeyes | April 27, 2013


Poems come in a flash at 5 a.m.

But on dry days, days when I am not awakened,

No spark strikes, my brain does not ignite

Can lists suffice?

Can poems capture the everyday?

Lady’s leap and spin when I grab the leash?

Oh the quandary of words–

3 masters in gray master robes genuflecting before the image of the deceased–

The boundary, slipshod confusion of my now native tongues.

What tongue to speak?

What tongue to keep silent?

What tongue to taste the chocolate in my mouth?

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