Saturday, January 22, 2011

Made it! Now we really start up...

I was nervous off the plane, expecting an interrogation. In that vein I had locked down my phone, erased all my emails, replacing all my incriminating files on my computer with vague titles, hid my extra SD cards, combined my tripods to make them look like there were fewer of them, and moved my bookmark to the beginning of my slightly incriminating book. And of course I prepared a goose-chase of stories justifying my need for a 3 month visa without getting an Israeli stamp in my passport. I had even kept my notebook reflections vague, in order to match with my innocuous front.

So imagine my disappointment and surprise when subverting the vaunted Israeli airport security consisted of babbling to two (very cute!) women about my love of bicycles and fresh dates. No search, no hard questions, just skepticism at my ability to pedal 200 miles. I still have to get through the West Bank checkpoints, but I probably could have gotten away with bringing all 5 cameras. They're apparently harder on you on your way out.

There are no trains on Saturday, so I accosted strangers to share a taxi into city center. Got a ride with Claudio, an Italian robotics professor who works in Artificial Intelligence. His destination was a nice residential neighborhood, lots of people ambling around, cute young couples mostly. He paid the fare (business expense!), and told me to take Sderot Rothschild vaguely toward my hostel's neighborhood. I had no maps, just street-to-street directions I'd scribbled from the web the night before, so I was worried. But the street was pleasant, a walking boulevard filled with perambulating people, bikes zigging around.

The whole world working at about 1/3 capacity on the Sabbath. Tel Aviv is a flat, fairly ugly city with a a lot of little shops and good vibes, cool and breezy but t-shirt weather in January. It reminds me of Athens, dirty and un-neutered cats all around, scooters and motorcycles, beautiful people. I just walked over an hour and eventually found my cross street.

The sketchiest street encountered so far is the one the hostel's on. It's in a little pocket of wasteland! That's it there:

But upstairs is a proper hostel scene, free Internet and tea, hammocks on the rooftop, a sweet pink-haired Argentinian to check us in, dates and lovely dirty kitchens and lots of conversation.

Hit the ground running talking with Matt, working with Anarchists against the wall, a solidarity movement that goes around protesting wherever locals are protesting in the west bank. Here's footage of similar stuff from 2 weeks ago in the town he's been going to. Says there's lots of tear gas fired directly at protesters, use of live rounds, and that the stone-throwing is usually in response to IDF aggression. I don't know how I feel about it. It seems presumptuous to go somewhere far away to engage in protests of other people's struggles, I don't feel personally well-informed enough half the time for protests in my own country. They also seem pretty ineffective and formulaic. But perhaps the internationals have done their research and this is the best way to further their goals. And surely effectiveness is a lot to ask for your average Palestinian.

In any case, he's a cool guy and had some good information. He also holds the dubious distinction of having his bone structure carefully delineated in a tattoo on top of his left hand by someone while at the hostel. He's also responsible for this turn sandwich:

Oh bike co-op travelers, how you represent.

He told me about Ragotka, a vegan coop that has all sorts of interesting radical connections, I'll go check it out tomorrow.

Also talked with Ginendy, a New Yorker who came over with a moderate pro-Israel group that trains college ambassadors for the country. And Bram, a Dutch journalist here to do stories on Dutch Holocaust survivors and their generational relationship to the trauma. Bram and my current (very informative) book, The Lemon Tree, remark on how Holocaust survivors are seen in an oddly unfavorable light considering their weight in their country's history. They have been construed as weak and cowardly, carrying the burden of brutalization by the Nazis, as if they only half-survived, a people of dust. They suffer especially in comparison to the myth/stereotype of the sabra (prickly pear) or the stubborn, macho new generation of Israel which was able to cultivate a modern empire out of the fertile void of the desert and fight against persecution ruthlessly and more effectively than their forebears.

Skepticism at the stereotype aside, the origin story of Israel really is amazing. Disdain for capitalism falls away in the face of what early Israelis did with the benefit of that system. Immigrants from Europe arrived in the thousands in 1948 and in a few short months they created a skill-based import/export economy from the ruins of the previous Arab society. They ran everyone out as war refugees and declared the new Jewish settlers custodians of abandoned property.

As such they had the basic infrastructure and resources of existing Palestine to work from, but still the prospect of turning an ancient, empty land into a 21st century cosmopolitan civilization in the space of 60 years is audaciously mind-boggling. A good reason to dislike capitalism in general is that it does not put the welfare of people as a first priority, it becomes an end in and of itself (more power) rather than a means (providing stability to people so they can follow their priorities, like living their lives). The more correct role of capitalism gets made very clear when you're dropped off in a blank land and made to fend for yourself, and in 7 months there are municipal offices and enterprising businesses. But when comparing early Israel to the parallel struggle of the Palestinians you start to see the huge advantages created by having stable international connections and a multitude of socialized programs in place to kick things off on the right foot. Israeli immigrants were given a house, a lantern, a bed, and rations for flour, sugar, oil, eggs, and milk. They, like the Palestinian refugees, were largely dependent of foreign aid shipped in at first, but unlike the Palestinians they desired to build upon their situation and dug in, whereas the Palestinians wanted to return to their homes. Palestinian refugees were dependent on UNRWA aid in 1948, and many still are.The Batala camp in Nablus is the largest one currently in existence. In the meantime Jews have created places like Tel Aviv.

I have to continue this train of thought a bit further, annoyingly enough, for it's beginning to sound like I believe Israel sprung from ruin into a completely autonomous moneyed super-state thanks to a champion cottage industry. It's not quite that simple. Because apparently soon after this industrious time of can-do-working-the-earth mentality Israel started down the same road of imported labor and exploitation those of us in more developed countries know so well. They took the let's-use-the-less-auspiciously-colored-in-the-skin-department people from around the region route, mainly Mid-East Jews known as the mizrahi. Further, we can't forget that the US aid to this commercial giant in the defense game alone makes the dependence of the Palestinians on foreign aid seem like a crumb pile: A conservative estimate puts total US military aid at 114 billion.

Aaannd we're back to capitalism fail. That was quick.

Jeeze. I started with a cool bohemian hostel and got here, huh? I guess that's telling. A clue of things to come, perhaps. The rest of the night was just fine, dinner in an actual expensive restaurant (Honest!) with wine, ambling through graffiti-ed streets surrounded by what seemed to be squads of dark-haired transplants from east cost finishing schools headed to food and parties.

Now the snoring of hostellers. Just fine. It's good to be here, my brain's workin, we'll see what we see.


Cate said...

Davey, I enjoyed reading this so much! Honest impressions, inspiring thoughts, cool photos - I will definately keep on following your posts. Good luck for the project and take care!

Alex H Johnstone said...

Hell yea!

shaunita said...

Sounds like a great experience. I can't wait to read more.

max5480 said...

alright dude, i'm stoked