Monday, July 18, 2011

People


They say when you go on these programs abroad you “find yourself.” You learn about your strengths and weaknesses, and become a stronger person because of it all. While I’m sure I’ll understand the impact the past nine months had on my personal growth eventually, right now I can’t say this is true for me.

Rather then leaving the LIFE Program having learned about myself, I will leave having learned about people. I have met a whole host of characters, some of whom have made me laugh, some of whom have challenged my character to the very core, and all of whom I hope to always remember. So here’s to the individuals who showed me a new way of seeing things, taught me, or just made plain made me smile:

To Ralphi, the always-smiling Mumbai Jew, who welcomed us with open arms to India with his contagious laugh.

To Lakshmi and Renuka, our curious and lovable underage workers, who despite waking me up most mornings to clean the room, were easily forgivable.

To Mr. Bakshi, our eccentric Siek landlord in Hyderabad, who never seemed to master the art of knocking.

To my Hyderabad friends—Kib, Gopes, Varun, Sashi, Rajesh, and the IDEX team, who took Hyderabad by storm with me. Thanks for teaching me Settlers of Cattan and showing me the ropes of the city that can feel quite daunting.

To Manish, my boss at SKS, who challenged my way of thinking and working every single day I worked with him.

To the staff at SKS, especially Neha, Sivani, and Sakshi, who acted as my lens into everyday Indian society, and who looked out for me as if I were family.

To Swapna, Rajeshwari, Sudaker, Annand, Rajkumar, and Prakash, the staff of Naraynkhed school, whose warmth and hospitality while I spent time at their school, will always make me think fondly of rural Andhra Pradesh—despite finding a snake in my room.

To Venkat, our soft spoken country director who welcomed us into his home, despite being questionable at his actual job.

To Mark Zober, the most compassionate and kooky person I have ever met, who, in one conversation alone helped me decide my future.

To the friends I met in Jordan-- Hassan, the Egyptian protester, Madian, the out-and-proud restaurant owner, and Mohanned, our tour guide; who by the very fact of our talking seemed to break down barriers.

To Nir, Guy, Eyal, and Tomer, founders of the Puzzle Project, whose country-boy attitude and laid-back style showed me a taste of real Israel.

To Michelle, my new Brazilian friend, who knows how to be adorable, impassioned, and an emerging social entrepreneur all in one.

To Matan, my hilarious, IDF-veteran, socialist friend, who isn’t afraid to be a little different.

To Anna, my long-time childhood friend, who I was able to see in a whole new way, as a dedicated advocacy coordinator and ultimate Tel Aviv hostess.

To the gay Palestinians at the drag show, who challenged social norms by just being themselves.

To Kate and Florentine, the founders of Tov Lada’at, who showed me the meaning of true dedication, because having a full-time job and running a non-profit in your free time is certainly not easy.

To all of the asylum-seekers and refugees I had the pleasure of working with, whose resilience, strength, and intelligence is inspirational.

And to the people who count the most:

To Abby who showed me what it means to really listen and how to be supportive. Thank you for all of the good times and the laughs. You are a true friend.

 To Alex whose drive, focus, and dedication are characteristics I admire. You will change the world one day.

To Amy who showed me generosity and what it really means to have a passion for a cause.  You are a true activist.

To Gabe whose compassion and talent I wish I had more of. Thank you for teaching me that its ok to be sentimental sometimes.

To Phil who always knew how to make me laugh. Thank you for being your unique boxer-dog-loving Snoop-Dogg-rapping self.

To Nurit who lives life with confidence and grace. I know you will be a great success at anything you put your mind to.

To all of the aforementioned people, thank you. I said from the beginning that the next 9 months would be one wild ride, and that it was. Thank you guys for opening my eyes to new experiences and new perspectives. Thank you for making it all worthwhile.

And maybe I had it wrong in the beginning. I’ve met people from all sorts of places with all sorts of backgrounds. Maybe “finding myself” is just about finding my reflection in these people.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Soldiers


I’ve been avoiding writing about “the conflict” because the topic is so highly politicized and heated, that conversations rarely end well. I also have this constant fear of never knowing enough to talk, argue, or write about it intelligently.  So then, I will do what writers do best, and write about what I know.

The most interesting and iconic Israeli institution that represents the conflict to me is the Israeli Defense Force: the IDF. By the nature of my friendships with young people post-army, and by just walking the street and looking around, I have learned a lot about the intricacies of the institution.

For those who need a recap: at age 18 all Israelis are enlisted into the army. Some people are exempt, like certain religious communities and those who get a low health rating, but mostly everyone goes. It is so deeply engrained in Israeli culture as a rite of passage that most people never consider not doing it. Girls serve two years and boys three, in all sorts of different units. There are the infantry soldiers that dress in the classic olive green, the highly esteemed air force pilots in cream, and the border control who wear my favorite color of the bunch, a dark gray. They fulfill a variety of jobs beyond what we typically think of as the role of a soldier. I’ve met people who served as teachers, accountants, administrative assistants, air traffic controllers, musicians, and social workers.

Upon observing tons of IDF soldiers in passing, I have developed an idea I like to call “Soldier Style.” I’ve noticed that lots of young Israelis like to take on the persona of being a soldier in various ways. Some girls manage to make the boxy uniforms look cute. They take their pants to get fitted and tuck them into their boots like skinny jeans. Sometimes it’s funny to see these small girls with cute hair and make-up in uniform, wielding a weapon. Other men seem to enjoy the “GI Joe” look, rocking the aviators and tough guy attitude with pride. Others wear their uniforms like any teenagers do—with their pants slung low, halfway down their butts.

A sight to get used to...
It is common to see groups of young soldiers in malls or bus stations chatting like teenagers all around the world do, except with big M-16’s strapped to their backs. It is a strange site to see for the first time, certainly a little jarring for tourists new to Israel. The strange part is when it becomes commonplace. Just the other day I was on a bus to Tel Aviv and a solider sat next to me. As he fell asleep the butt of his gun ended up inching onto my lap. He ended up sleeping in a hunched over position, spooning his gun like a baby. And then the other day I saw a little boy bump his head on a soldier’s gun. We were all standing in line to board a bus and the boy, who was holding his father’s hand, couldn’t have been older than three years old. He looked over to see what he had hit his head on and started playing with the barrel of the soldier’s M-16. Moments like these I just end up cocking my head and thinking how strange it all is. Yet the normalization of a sight like this is the most alarming part. Warfare should never be normalized. Guns should never be commonplace.

Soldiers gathering at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.
You can see the impact of the army in Israeli culture and society in ways I am only beginning to learn.  Young kids grow up knowing that if they leave their backpack somewhere public, it is very likely a bomb squad will blow it up later for fear of a suspicious package. People who grew up in the 90s tell stories of carrying their gas masks to school, and how they each decorated their gas mask box. Certain types of people are expected to get into certain units in the army, and there are stereotypes attached to each. Young Israelis post-army seem to be so much more adept at doing things like changing tires and traveling in remote places. Many don’t start studying until their mid-twenties and thus seem to get married later. The stereotype of the Israeli man is to be strong and emotion-less, like the good soldier they are supposed to be. Some say that Israel as a whole is a post-traumatic state. And these are just to name a few…

Security measures occur in everyday Israeli society without people thinking twice. For example, security guards and metal detectors are stationed at the entrance of any public place, whether it be a mall or bus station. Many private restaurants and cafes also have their own security. Before entering the public bus stands via bus, a security guard always hops on the bus to scan the inside. On a bus to Tel Aviv the other day the guard scanned the bus and stopped the only Arab man to ask for his ID. While I might be able to understand the security measures, Israel openly embraces their policy of racial profiling. The Arab man was with his family. To think of the daily harassment him and his family must undergo, and then to be singled out like that on the bus, I felt humiliated for him and ashamed of the institution. As for more security, checkpoints are scattered all throughout the country in any potentially volatile area and expansive walls sometimes surround settlements or border highways.

A small Israeli check point.
After visiting Israel three times, studying about the conflict in school, and now living in Jerusalem, all I know is that the situation is infinitely more complex and intricate than I will ever be able to understand. It includes issues of property, religious rites, ethnicity, and identity. There is always more information to be learned, always another expert to speak with, and always another bereaved family on either side to tell you their story. My friend Matan spent six months in Hebron (a mixed city in the West Bank) at a check-point. He is one of the most liberal people I have ever met and I think his story illustrates the complexity of it all. He said he went into his duty disliking Israeli settlers and thinking highly, benevolently of all Arabs. He tried to approach Arabs as “the best of the worst of them,” that is, a friendly Israeli soldier. Though as time went on and he was constantly faced with insults and uncomfortable situations, the lines became blurred. He could no longer label anyone as anything.

The conflict has taught me to analyze, question everything, and never rest assured that any one given point-of-view is the correct one. Although, the one thing I feel confident saying is that the way certain Israeli policies marginalize Palestinians is not only an abuse of human rights but also a way to incite more hate and violence.

My problem now with “Israel-Apartheid Week” or the Israeli settlement movement (movements representing both the far left and right) is not necessarily the ideology itself, it is the close-mindedness of it all. Because I imagine if activists on either side could open their minds to discussion and new ideas, we could all be a little closer to a peaceful resolution. I know that is incredibly na├»ve and simplistic to say, but maybe it is the fresh, naive attitude that can see more clearly about the subject than the people who live deep inside of it.

The iconic image-- soldiers praying at the Western Wall.