06 February 2012


We spent the morning at Trumpeldor Cemetery, a favorite among Tel Aviv locals (especially the night-time tours with music and poetry), visiting the graves of Bialik, Nordau, Ahad Ha'am, Tschernikovsky, Dizengoff, Brenner, Sharret, Gutman, Rubin, Damari and many more.  Truly one of the most beautiful spots in the whole country, now set inside a bank of apartments in the center of town but a reminder of what was once the sand-duned outskirts of Old Jaffa where that ancient city's Jews came to bury their dead in the early 20th century, a decade before Tel Aviv was founded.
Without a doubt, the dead founders, thinkers, poets and artists of this remarkably complicated and beautiful city continue to debate the debates underground that they had aboveground and are, as well, the inherited conflicting narrative about motivations, dilemmas and ways forward for those attempting to guide the state's destiny in the present time.  From Ahad Ha'am's vision for a renascence of Hebrew culture to drive the re-birth of the Jewish people to Max Nordau's scathing critique of Jewish corporeal weakness; from Brenner's impassioned writing and tragic death to Arlozoroff's controversial attempts to save Jews' lives and his being the victim of Israel's first political murder (still unsolved); Bialik's "City of Slaughter" alongside Rubin and Gutman's romantic Mediterranean visions--you'd never know the people buried here are dead.

We made our way over to Jaffa, first for an overview of the city in the last 3500 years of history, then lunch, and then a tour from two young activists--one Israeli native of Jaffa and one Palestinian--whose walking tour was designed to highlight some of the complex socio-economic realities that drive the current wave of Jaffa's gentrification, an issue that a number of people pointed out is as relevant in Brooklyn as it is in Jaffa.  "Basically, it stinks to be poor," said one member of our group.

But additionally, we waded into the conflicting narratives of Jewish and Palestinian homeland, throwing around statistics of when Jews were a minority in Jaffa and when they became a majority; the struggle for power amidst riots and pogroms at the beginning of the twentieth century (Brenner and 46 others killed in anti-Jewish riots in 1921) and the onset of modern Zionism as well as attempting to determine what exactly happened between the U.N. Partition Plan of November 1947 and the Declaration of Israeli Independence of May 15, 1948:  amidst strollers pushed by Jaffa Palestinians and Jews--both secular and religious--as school let out, the health clinic hummed with activity, new cafes and old Bulgarian restaurants filled with customers--we stood underneath knotted ficus trees trying to understand.

Our speakers disagreed with civility and respect about certain narratives related to 1948 and it seemed to me that burning just beneath the surface is the haunting reality that we are seeing an increasing articulation of the bi-national versus the two-state solution.  The intransigence of coming to peace, compounded by the increased nationalism and religious messianism of the conflict, has turned many in the younger generation toward the utopian ideal of a "liberal democracy where everyone has equal rights."  Idealized and admirable from one perspective--and certainly understandable given a certain erosion of civil rights and a seeming endlessness to war; but for sure the ultimate demographic end of a Jewish majority.
Without a doubt we left with more questions than answers.  Our late afternoon program was with Hagai El-Ad, the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.  Since our trip is heavily loaded with lawyers, the conversation with Hagai was at a very high level of sophistication about civil rights issues facing Israelis and Palestinians today, making clear yet again that the lack of a constitution in this country continues to create great challenges for the the development of a clear civil rights mandate and structure for Israeli citizens.  This struggle is all the more admirable given the juggernaut of political opposition it has faced from several members of the current government's cabinet, who have sought to legally undermine the work of several NGOs in Israel (including the recent, widely published attacks on the New Israel Fund) who are doing civil rights work.  One member declared Hagai to be "doing God's work."  Shoring up civil rights has always been an admirable struggle.  We hope to invite El-Ad to Brooklyn soon.

After a long day, everyone broke for dinner.  I took a long walk through town, down Rothschild, the scene of this past summer's tent protests about economic and housing inequalities in the country.  The markets were closing and television news screened the latest disturbing news of what seems an impending and inevitable attack upon Iran's nuclear ambitions.  I have yet to encounter an Israeli who doesn't think this will happen.  Nevertheless, most remain obviously troubled by the specter of what may come as a result.  More than one hundred years after the founding of this city, a retaliatory strike at the heart of Tel Aviv will do far more damage than the riots of 1921 but one thing will remain consistent:  that the will for survival transcends the specific dimensions of this particular time, calling to mind a greater trope of Jewish history that remains indescribably triumphant despite others' errant visions of our eradication.

As I walked down Rothschild, bikers whizzed past on paths that were laid by founders who landed on shore to build a White City, a Mediterranean idyll in the revitalized language of ancient Israel.  Graffiti about an "uprising of love" spoke from walls; families shlepped kids home; dogs meandered, doing their business; kids kicked soccer balls in the public space now surrounding the newly renovated Bima theater complex; cars sped on by the darkened warning of Rabin's assassination site.

And the voices, above it all, called forth from Trumpeldor Cemetery, pointing toward the countless, though not yet certain directions this may all take.

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