BY ROI ANKORI-KARLINSKY
In 2016, an Israeli citizen can’t say anything against military occupation without incurring the wrath of his or her neighbors. This sometimes leads to violence, or in the case of one of my friends – public homophobic shaming. Organizations of former soldiers telling truth are branded as traitors, organizations of diplomacy and reconciliation are banned or defunded, and their members are often threatened with death.
Right now, in 2016, to suggest that a child, born and raised to Palestinian parents, is not inherently bloodthirsty is blasphemous. Right now, suggesting problem-solving could involve tools other than American-sold arms is libel. In 2016 Israel, books about Arab and Israeli lovers are banned from schools. It’s not hard to see where this goes.
Israeli society has always struggled to process complex identities, from discrimination against Sephardic Jews, to the ghettos in which we place Ethiopian Jews, to the East-African refugees we hold in desert prisons. Now this pattern of denial involves any criticism, even one coming from within the hegemonic classes. Difference of opinion is rationalized away by branding people as infiltrators, back-stabbers, foreigners. Our country has turned into a toddler covering her ears screaming over any noise that isn’t shrill.
This isn’t unique to Israel. My adopted country of America, though it is a country founded on common ideals rather than ethnicity, still fails to allow and celebrate the intricate identities that make up its people. Everywhere in the world people scratch their heads trying to place the immigrant or refugee where he or she truly belongs, knowing full-well that every single person on the planet is a product of some diaspora.
As a person straddling two national identities at a time when both of my countries are fighting to erase the idea of multinational or multicultural people, I feel compelled to capture my own experience of that erasure. In my case, being a white Ashkenazi Jew, this is usually subtle and mostly harmless. Sure, it can chip away at my sense of stability, but it isn’t violent, unless I happen to voice an anti-occupation opinion with the wrong crowd. But in the case of some, Eritreans or Mizrahim, Palestinians, it can lead to a lynching. And on the streets of America, this dynamic is drawn in the form of white chalk, outlining the body of Michael brown rotting in the August asphalt.
The points here are personal, not political. I’m trying to use my own experiences to convey the sense of deadlock with which I wake up every day. In the States, this manifests as struggle, as trying to stay true to a sense of self that can’t comfortably exist in any one camp; in the States I live trying be an ally, trying to work on my own misconceptions and racisms. It’s a struggle but it’s manageable.
Back home, this is existential. Again, I’m not making a political point, this is not intended to be a soapbox of some kind. This is selfish. This is a means to preserve the moment when Israel’s long path towards self-destruction began to accelerate. Like I said, we’ve never been good at incorporating people who resist our Ashkenazi European narrative. We’ve been on the path to ethnic cleansing for a long time. This moment of pre-civil-war is nothing new: it’s simply that narrative starting to unravel. And like any unravelling, it involves destruction. I have no hope. I only hope to be alive to tell my grandchildren that I belonged to a state that no longer exists.
* * *
When I was seven Jerusalem exploded. That’s not very surprising. After all, Jerusalem has been burned down, blown up, and handed over from one pillaging army to the next for millennia. You could say it’s a city meant for murder. But still, there are stops and starts to the killings, ebbs and flows. Massacre, like everything else, is seasonal in the Middle East.
So it goes with the Second Intifada. Jerusalem exploded. Buses burned around my neighborhood, rocks and Molotov cocktails shattered flesh and glass. Acquaintances and family friends died. Older kids I looked up to left the city in their IDF greens. After five years, the guns and tanks didn’t work, so we built a big gray wall, burned olive trees, siphoned off water, kidnapped more people, broke up families. That seemed to do the trick, though I don’t think it’s ever quite going to work – demoralizing millions of people.
This is selfish: I’m giving reasons for things that boil down to chance, trying to pick at why I’m here, where I’m going, why go in the first place. Anything goes back to the fact that I’m a man born and mostly raised in Israel, who has lived in the U.S. for a long time now, and I’m always going back and forth. This reality has created an inner rift, a widening cliff between one self and the other, and in the balancing act I’ve become a tightrope walker.
The immigrant and her child are always fighting to find this balance. We all buy into the idea of belonging to some place or another, so we trick ourselves into thinking authenticity is somewhere on that rope, hanging over the internal abyss. I’m far from being unique in any of these symptoms. Yeah, the whole world is a massive web of bodies moving there and back again. Refugees, deserters, and colonizers are the names of the game. Upheaval is a constant, older than my masochistic Jerusalem.
Maybe in my silly attempt to put my experiences to words – and squeeze some sense out of them in the process – I’ll be sharing something other fractured people can recognize and use. Probably not. In any case, that’s not my intent, just a side dish. My main focus is myself. Selfish.
* * *
There was a party a few months ago in Boston. I was there. My friends were there. I was sitting on a red couch with a girl named Molly. She asked me where I’m from. I answered. She straightened up a little and twirled a curl of her brown hair. “How did you end up here?” I told her I flew on an airplane. She giggled. “You know what I mean. What was it like?”
My dad’s best friend died trapped inside a combat plane. My mom’s cousin burned alive in his tank. His last words were yelps and coughs. My uncle shot a thirteen-year-old in Southern Lebanon and my best friend used a girl as a human shield in Gaza.
She looked down and touched my knee with a painted nail. “That’s so interesting.” She said. She smiled. “Amazing.” She said. Then she grew serious the way American girls grow serious to show empathy. “Do you miss it?”
I thought about my friend Omri dismantling bombs outside malls, about my cousin aiming an M-16 at a woman and taking away her husband. I thought about the melted remains of the number 18 bus outside my house, and Monopoly in bomb shelters. Yes, I miss it.
* * *
Jerusalem is damp in the winter. The pink-white stones grow dank and their chiseled protrusions radiate cold from the sidewalks. The bars, hidden in nooks and cobblestoned alleys, cool and cave-like in the summers, turn into true caves in the winter. People sit in circles huddled around electric radiators, hands to the middle wanting a fire. The radiators hum and harmonize with the normal hubbub of the bars, so the places vibrate like an out of tune church organ.
Some bar names are straightforward, “The Barrel” or “The Soup.” Others cater to the self-proclaimed artists of the city, “The Record” and “The Video.” Some are punny, like “The Slow Moishe,” and others are named after their mobster-like owners. Point is, you know what you’re getting into.
Michal, Maya, Asif and I sat at a bar. Asif had recently gotten a discharge for medical problems. Maya and Michal were still in their greens. I had a beer.
Asif flicked the table. “So, asshole, you gonna stay or ditch?”
“You just gotta decide what you are.” Maya said. “You do the Army or you betray, simple as that.”
Michal flipped her black hair out of her brown eyes. “I don’t think so, Maya. Nothing is simple with this guy.” She meant me. “He’s stuck in a cycle of self-pity and indecision.”
I smiled and blew her a kiss. Michal is my best friend.
“Look, man.” Asif said, all nasal dismissal. “We all put some fluids into being here, you can’t just hop in and out like the American you are. Make a decision.”
“That’s what my grandma said, word for word.”
“She’s right then.” Maya said. “But I don’t think it’s so hard, Roiki. You’re not a real Israeli anyway. You don’t know anything about this place and you’re too much of a woman to change that. Go back to your bleached-asshole American friends.”
I felt like disagreeing but I finished my beer instead. Michal blew me a kiss. We leaned forward, putting our hands to the radiator.
* * *
I used to play bar shows in Jerusalem with a violinist. It lasted a few months. We never got money for it but the drinks were free. The violinist was named Moon and she was a tightrope walker who bookmarked her Bible with tabs of acid. She was beautiful. I never grew the nerves to tell her that, so we played bar shows in Jerusalem. She didn’t do the Army. She worked with Holocaust survivors, helping them put on theatre productions. She wrote poetry with them and talked to them when nobody else would. My other friends called her a deserter.
Her parents spoke English at home so her Hebrew was dotted with words like “dude” and “for fuck’s sake.” She could weave between the two languages, selves, whatever, with more ease than most people feel around their families. She laughed when she farted and talked about both Bialik and the Velvet Underground when she smoked. She was a textbook Hippie but she believed in the Scriptures and could play a fiddle like an Irish festival performer. Being with her was like reading a good book: I was breathless and absorbed, and when she left I had to blink myself back into the world, unsure of where I had just been and where I was now.
We lost touch. I’m not sure how, but at some point, after a few more years of my back and forth, her number got lost and we never met up again. I think she was in India recently, I remember somebody said. I’m not sure. With her it felt easy. Nothing feels easy but with her it was. I guess it makes sense. She was a professional tightrope walker.
* * *
Last summer, three Jews were killed in the West Bank. The Israeli government lied and said they were kidnapped. The IDF embarked on a three-week pillage-and-burn campaign in the West Bank, intended to eradicate Hamas operatives in the Bank. The operation was called, “Brothers, Return.”
Hamas sent rockets into Israel. They careened into cities and open fields, mostly missing their marks but still maiming and killing those who couldn’t make it to shelters. Israelis were glued to TV screens, muttering “dirty Arabs” under their breath, frustrated that CNN wasn’t wholly on their side.
The IDF blew up Gaza. Two thousand gone. Children buried under rubble, torn to bits by shell fragments. People felt bad, but the rockets kept coming, what else could we do? Most people praised Bibi for his restraint and “proportional response.” Some called for less restraint, some wanted to “flatten Gaza.” Some voices on the Left said retaliation wasn’t necessary. Those voices were bloodied on the streets of Tel-Aviv.
I was in Vermont. The people around me were Americans and Europeans. White. They didn’t care. When they did they sounded like Molly. My dad Skyped with stories of a third Intifada in Jerusalem. My uncle never left the shelter. My friend Tamir was sleeping in the mud on the border. My friend Baha’s family was burning in Gaza, his friends were kidnapped in Nablus. I was in Vermont.
Like other Israelis, I was glued to a screen. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I remembered being seven. I wondered if I should buy a plane ticket back. Leave school, leave the U.S. Finally grow those balls Maya and others said I lacked. Conversations around me were about courses and kisses. My friends gurgled in their throats trying to pronounce “hummus.” They laughed. They got high. I smiled but thought of the bodies.
* * *
Sometimes I think about what I hear from people back home (“let’s carpet bomb Gaza”, “a good Arab is a dead Arab”) and it reminds me of Donald Trump and the swaths of angry white people at his coattails. To hear the Trump crowd talk, you’d think the Second Coming was a coming, it was right around the bend, we only have to be willing to bleed for it. Those evangelists sound like the settlers back home: if enough olive trees are painted with guts we’ll finally reach salvation. The humanist friends with whom I tend to surround myself are always pretentiously amused with this rhetoric: Jesus was a pacifist, how can those rabid, vile people use his name like this?
Jesus said, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” In one sense, he was just repeating what others have said since people could speak and attempt to resolve cave-fights. In a stronger sense, he was being a Jew: “This is the meaning of the Law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.”
Jesus was a Jewish Messiah. The title means blood. His sayings, his actions, his Judaism, all led to a revolt he planned against the Temple elite and the Roman rule of Palestine. He wanted a return to certain aspects of Judaism, a return to a “purer” Judaism. He called for upheaval. Jerusalem draws those upheaval types to her like flies to syrup, like racists to Trump. So, of course, Jesus went to Jerusalem. He went to Jerusalem – like so many others before and since – armed with swords and a following of fanatics at his robe-tail.
Soon after his death other Jewish Messiahs came to Jerusalem. Thirty years later the pressure cooker popped the pot and the revolution finally came. But Palestina has always been a blip on the map, always at the mercy of the bigger, stronger neighbors to the East and West. We like to pretend otherwise, that this is a fight between Palestinians and Israelis, a family feud. We ignore the fact that America funds both sides, that Iran and Russia and the EU are involved, that this world can no longer contain the simple loyalties we wish it did. Anyway, the Romans retaliated, razing the country down to its pink-stone foundations. People were flayed, crucified, and beheaded in the streets; Jerusalem drank blood and grinned as babies burned to char. History shrugs at shit like that.
Seventy years later, the Jews did it again. Another Jewish Messiah by the name of Bar Kochva led another doomed revolt. Pregnant women were raped and drowned. The hills of Judea were crowned with the crucified. Flies got fat off the stuff.
Rabbi Akiva, the other famous Jew credited with formulating the Golden Rule, was flayed to the flesh by the Romans. He too was a soldier in Bar Kochva’s army. You could say he was the military’s chief rabbi.
People in Jerusalem are upset when I get like this. Fatalistic, nihilistic, they say. A bummer. Their stories of Scripture gloss over the gore and focus on the hope. Hope for what, I always wonder. Bar Kochva is a hero-figure in Israel. You’re a bummer, they repeat.
I get a kick out of seeing the repetitions in history. Every piece of music needs a good refrain, so why not the past? After all, we love that shit, need to know what to hum when we walk home. It just so happens that Jerusalem’s refrain is slaughter.
People in America are upset for other reasons. The Golden Rule is about love and fellowship, they say. How could Jews and Arabs break it, dismiss their own faiths, so easily? Their noses reach high enough that I see their snot-laden nostril hairs. Judging by their tone, you’d think Americans mistake foreigners for toddlers.
At this point I could remind them that the Golden Rule was never meant for gentiles, or that the people spouting it were religious fanatics that would make ISIS look like a hodgepodge of college student activists.
Instead I smile. The Golden Rule lacks a basic understanding of human beings. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” That is all nice and rainbows if everybody wants the same thing. It just so happens that we live in a world of S&M, a world where what some people want done unto them makes others gag, a world where some people get off on gagging. A world where Jerusalem is one of the hottest dungeons around.
* * *
A few weeks ago the IDF’s chief rabbi married my cousin in front of a cave in the Judea Mountains. Before the glass was broken and the kiss was kissed, the rabbi prayed for the building of the Third Temple and the salvation of the Jewish Nation. I thought of Akiva and the flies growing fat in Bab-el-Wad.
The week before the wedding Jewish fanatics burned a baby alive in Nablus. The week before they burned the Church of Fish and Loaves on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. For years they had been practicing on mosques and Palestinian olive groves. This year they reached the big leagues, human flesh. Their goal is simple: restore the Third Temple; eradicate the impurities in the land; bring back the Messiah. It’s a familiar tune.
The politicians condemned their acts, promised justice. The next day millions of shekels flowed to the settlements and the IDF shot down three Palestinian teenagers. The next day Bibi got on the podium to oppose international diplomacy. He said the Jewish Nation was finally home and our sovereignty could not be questioned. It’s a familiar tune.
When people evoke the Golden Rule, let them remember we live in a land where soldiers are memorialized for a suicide known as self-sacrifice. A land where shaheedim are celebrated for their strap-on bombs. A land where every street corner is corner-stoned with plaques of martyrdom and murder. This isn’t a breaking of faith, it’s fulfillment. This isn’t terror, it’s sexual slaughter. S&M. It’s what we hum when we walk home.
Roi Ankori-Karlinsky is an Israeli-American straddling two national identities with limited success. He studies and plays music, and is also working towards a degree in evolutionary biology at Bennington College. Like a lot of people, books and stories have always been there for him, which is why he tries to huff as many as he can. He loves avocados and is a hopeful pessimist.