Cultural Complexities: A Short Journey Through Israel

Today’s participant photo blog post comes from Jens Jacobsen, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion for 9 months this year.

When you travel somewhere new, the first kinds of things that jump out are what you expect: the language, the monuments, the exotic foods, and then a few things jump out that maybe you didn’t expect: a different definition of hospitality and rudeness, or a new perception of being on time.These are the things you learn very quickly, and give you the impression you really know a place or people. In truth it is much, much more complicated than any of that to begin to start to understand another society, but it’s a great place to start.

I recently took a short break from my volunteer placements to travel the country with a friend from Germany, who had never been to Israel before. While we of course saw the sights, the best part of the trip were the fantastic people we met on the road, who provided an unexpectedly diverse cross-section of Israeli society. I’d like to share my conversations with three of them, which led me to understand so much more both about Israel and my Yahel experience.

Carmel Market in Tel Aviv
Carmel Market in Tel Aviv

We began our trip as many do in Tel Aviv, and after a brisk walking tour of Jaffa we stopped at the colourful, bustling Carmel Market. We found a craft beer bar and decided to have a pint, it is vacation after all! Suddenly as we sat there in the Carmel Market sipping our beers we heard a massive racket – down the hill came a man perched on a pallet jack loaded up to the max, absolutely flying at full speed. Even though it was getting dark, he had his shades on and a ridiculous smile, he knew he was killin’ it. After he somehow executed an impromptu stop, he came over to chat. He spoke no English but his Hebrew was fluent – he was a Bedouin worker from the south. With Yahel we had visited the Bedouins before and I was aware of their challenges. Sure enough it turned out that he drives over 2 hours to work to Tel Aviv, works a 12 hour day, and then drives home to his village which has no electricity or services of any kind (his village isn’t recognized by the government). Even while we were gaping at his story, he transitioned perfectly to showing us pictures of his friends goofing off, and his impossibly cool car. Talking with him was a blast, but it was very sobering. Even (or maybe especially) here at the centre of affluent tourist Tel Aviv is a guy trying to make a living, from a marginalized community within Israel. Without our Yahel classes on the Bedouin issue, and without our seminar during which we visited 4 Bedouin villages, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have known what to ask this guy; I would have understood him only as the funny guy on the pallet jack.

Train to Haifa
Train to Haifa

Our next interesting conversation was a couple of days later on the train to Haifa – we struck up a conversation with the guy sharing our 4-seat area. He was a student coming home for the weekend, and a veteran of the Iron Dome unit. Interestingly for us, he was also quite right-wing politically. We talked about Israel’s recent election, and he was strongly in favour of Bennet’s Jewish Home party, which favours greatly expanded settlement in the West Bank. He corrected me for the use of the word ‘occupation’ in relation to the West Bank, explaining that “you can’t occupy what is yours to begin with.” He and I are worlds apart when it comes to politics, yet I believe it is crucial to be able to speak with people who are radically different from yourself. If we are to see a better Israel, and a better humanity in general, it is absolutely crucial for us to understand each other, and work through our differences on the human and ideological level. With Yahel I’ve talked already to many people I do not agree with in the slightest, and through these discussions I’ve learned how to value opposing opinions, and as a result, I have learned to make my own opinions more complex and able to withstand greater criticism.

Wadi Nisnas in Haifa
Wadi Nisnas in Haifa

Last and not least was perhaps the most interesting of the whole trip. After the day in Haifa we wanted to grab a beer at a pub before calling it an early night, so we headed down a random street to see what we could find. We walked past a bar full of Arabic writing: perfect. Haifa is a mixed Arab/Jewish city which is famous for its peaceful coexistence, and I really wanted to see what that looked like on the ground. We discovered that the bar was a Palestinian art cooperative, which meant cheap food and drinks and very cool patrons. Palestinian Israelis make up approximately 20% of the total Israeli population, making them a hugely important minority in Israel. We made friends with the bartender (who spoke perfect English and German in addition to Arabic and Hebrew), and barraged him with questions. I could write a whole blog post about this one conversation. In Yahel we talk about acknowledging our biases and assumptioms, and then checking them with the community in question. I asked out of basic curiosity what percentage of the Haifa Arab community were Christian and how many Muslim, and our friend shut me down quickly – he told me that only the government splits the Arabs into so many groups in order to divide them, but they are one people whose religion is of secondary relevance. This fascinated me, as I wasn’t even aware of having this bias in the first place.

What my trip illuminated for me is that throughout my time in Israel, Yahel has engaged us on a deeper level with the complexities that define Israel. Compared to when I arrived, too shy to ask anything difficult and too ignorant to know what to ask, I feel that my time in Yahel has corrected both of these problems – I feel engaged in the complexities of Israel and constantly ready to learn more.

As a bit of a conclusion/epilogue, at the time of writing I am in Greece for Passover break, and again engaging as many random locals as I can in conversation and using some of my Yahel-skills even in this country to try to unravel complexities beneath the basic level.
That being said I’m also becoming very aware of how much of a difference our preparation learning sessions make – I’m ready to ask questions but I have no idea what sort of things to ask the Greeks! It really is all Greek to me.

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