Searching for Hope: Haifa University, Hatikvah and Makom

The first I realised something was going on was when I returned to university after being  away for a few weeks. Stuck on one of the many university noticeboards – the sort on which everyone competes to have their flyer at the top – was a letter. The letter, if I remember correctly, was to the leadership of the University of Haifa protesting the fact that the national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope), was not sung (or perhaps going to be sung) at the School of Law graduation. With family soon arriving on flights, I didn’t give it too much of a second thought. Then, today, I saw the story (ht: YachadUK) breaking across the national media. Blogs were alive with activity and Haifa University was embroiled in a rather unpleasant situation.

The issue itself is complex and came to light on the same day as a member of the Makom team wrote a interesting op-ed in the Jerusalem Post about the potential use of the last lines of Hatikvah as a way of repositioning or perhaps reassessing the discourse about who can and cannot be a part of the conversation about Israel and how we cope with ideas and opinions that do not concur with our own. Ironically, where the debate about Hatikvah at Haifa University centres largely on how particularistic it is, in Robbie Gringras’ article, he focuses on the universalism of the penultimate line, “To be a free people in our land.”

Actually, the signs and symbols of the State of Israel are occasionally contested in the public sphere. That, however, is not what bothers me about this latest story – though I have some mixed views about the situation that Haifa University now finds itself in, but perhaps that’s for another time (I should point out that I think the way some have reported the story, implying Hatikvah is banned at the university is ridiculous, especially as the University has now apparently changed its policy and requires it rather than implicitly expects it).

What bothers me is the language with which we choose to speak to and of one another. The accusations in the comments pages of articles quickly shifts  to the language which we associate with Nazism (something that I find utterly disgusting). Gradually, I see all aspects of society here and in the Jewish community becoming steadily more polarized or, at least, imagined to be polarized into a situation in which you’re either with us or against us (whoever the ‘us’ is): If you’re in support of the Jewish people having the right to self-determination then you’re a right wing zionist, a racist and supporter of apartheid; if you’re critical of the State of Israel then you’re a liberal anti-zionist and finishing the work that Hitler started. (So I’m in a bit of a quandary because that makes me a zionist, anti-zionist, right wing, left winger.) How can someone like me, who is engaged with the issues but recognises their complexity  and the problematic aspects of the debates, ever have the confidence to stand up and say anything? Believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of someone telling me (well shouting at me) that I’m an enemy of the Jewish people – it’s not pleasant and I’ve got a thick enough skin to shrug it off. But if I felt under attack, I wondered how other people feel – as Robbie Gringras argues, it is miseducative, it puts people off. And, for the record, there are plenty of really vile people who we should actually be worried about.

So where do things go from here? Is there always going to be a steady decline in the public discourse in Israel and the rest of the world in which everyone is identified as either ‘the good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’? How many times do we need to go over the same ground? – There must be countless articles in which people call for holding off on immediately labelling one another in such terms. Yet, I still know that people are reticent to speak out because of fear for their jobs or personal safety, because the culture persists.

I, for one, am seeking a new form of public discourse which looks towards articulating a vision of the future, one filled with real Hope. A future unafraid of recrimination for stating one’s opinions because there is open, healthy, thoughtful and adult debate in which we don’t just fall into the trap of telling one another that we’re enemies. I wonder, what is that vision and how do we begin to articulate it?

P.S. One final request while mulling over what I’ve written: If you’re a significant donor to Haifa University (having stumbled across my blog), please do not stop your funding (as if this story would sway you anyway). Things aren’t always straightforward here in Israel and the university refracts all of that complexity. And there are some brilliant minds working here in research who are worth a lot more than they already get!

Arriving in Israel – a slightly belated post

I wrote this post some months ago and, at the time, certain issues were at the fore of my mind. I am aware that now international politics and the lack of peace process with the Palestinians are in my thoughts more than the religious issues that are central to this post. Nonetheless, I wanted to post it because the issues are still relevant and significant.

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When we arrived in Israel, we participated in a special ceremony to receive our identity documents. This ceremony captured nearly everything about the State of Israel that is complex, enthralling and challenging. On our way up to the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), our bus drove by the edge of an area known as Silwan. Our tour guide explained we were going past a mixed neighbourhood of Jerusalem, symbolic of the whole of Israel. ‘Mixed’ is a delightful euphemism to describe a neighbourhood in which Jews and, in this case, Palestinians live. Moreover, our guide neglected to mention that Silwan had been the subject of an ongoing dispute and was just that week in the news as a result of a violent incident.

Things got even more complicated when we arrived at the Kotel. Michelle and I decided not to go on the guided tour, since we needed to feed our daughter, and instead I ran up the steps at the back of the plaza to buy a couple of things for our journey to Haifa that evening. There is something very odd about being in Jerusalem in the 21st Century and hearing the busking fiddler play melodies from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. The nostalgic world of Jewish life in the Shtetl is almost the antithesis of what the new capital of the State of Israel was ‘supposed’ to represent, but here in the Old City the worlds collide. On my return to the Kotel Plaza, I was accosted by the obligatory number of beggars and couldn’t help eavesdrop on a conversation between a member of a group of Israelis visiting as part of their art club and a charedi beggar. The beggar shouted at her when she gave money to an Arab, ‘Don’t give money to him, he’s an Arab!’ To which she promptly replied, ‘What, he doesn’t need to eat too?’. I briefly went down to the wall itself and was asked by someone if I would make a minyan (quorum of 10 required in some communities for certain prayers) for afternoon prayers. Time did not permit me to help, but I was struck by the almost total absence of anyone other than Charedim (Ultra-Orthodox) praying by the wall. I don’t know if he ever got together enough people for his service.

Our ceremony itself took place at the back of the plaza in the site of an archaeological excavation of Roman period Jerusalem. The organiser told us that we were walking on paving slabs that it was quite possible Jews also walked upon and that should send a shiver up our spine. He then handed over to various other speakers, including a Christian Zionist who donates significant amounts of money to the State of Israel to support the absorption of new Jewish immigrants. Leaving aside the issue of whether it is right to accept the money, I found it rather strange having him speak to us. His ideology was contra to a Zionist narrative proclaiming independence from non-Jews determining the Jewish people’s future (whether malevolent or benevolent) and his theology was so categorically opposed to mine we would be hard pushed to agree on anything and certainly not our expectations for the end-of-days. When the ceremony finally finished we were told we were going to stand beneath the Israeli flag in the centre of the plaza and sing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem). Just as we began climbing the steps our leader called us back – he had been told we weren’t permitted to sing Hatikvah beneath the flag because we were a mixed group. There’s that euphemism again, only mixed in this context means men and women. So Hatikvah was sung out of sight and sound of the easily offended charedim who control the Kotel area. That did not stop the Western Wall Foundation (the charedi non-governmental organisation which administers the kotel area) providing us with a copy of Rabbi Judah Halevi’s poem ‘My heart is in the East‘ – which some claim to represent a sort of medieval proto-zionism. How strange – the charedim who, whilst shifting in their stance on Zionism, have historically been anti-zionist, control the plaza at the heart of the capital city of the State of Israel. This control is to such an extent that the national anthem of the State cannot be sung by a mixed group in a location under their control. I rather think that instead of handing out Judah Halevi’s poem, the organisers might better have distributed ‘The City of Slaughter‘ by Bialik, in which he lambasts the fervently Orthodox for their concern with the minutiae of Jewish law over saving their family and themselves from a pogrom. But perhaps that would have been just a little too counter cultural.

Israel is a complex place to live. There are competing claims to land, religion, history, identity and authority. It is far from perfect. It is also a work in progress and that’s what makes it exciting – where nearly 6 million Jews are living and trying to understand alongside their fellow citizens what it means to live in a Jewish and democratic State. If an hour at the Kotel can refract so much of current issues in Israel, think what day to day life is like?