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An open letter to a would-be soldier

Congratulations. You are 18 today. We don’t know each other but your birthday is especially important for me. Let me explain. When you were born I joined the IDF. I shouldn’t have.

Don’t get me wrong – it was a truly life changing experience. I have met some of my best friends during my army service and have gone through some positive experiences. Damn, I even learned how to cook in some godforsaken outpost on the border with Jordan. And, ultimately, this crucial period of my life has undoubtedly influenced the person I am today, the person who now would have preferred not to be there.

I was told I was helping to protect my country. And I believed it. But it would be a lie to say that my participation in the occupation – or my service as a combatant in an MLRS unit, a weapon whose cluster munition has been banned by an international treaty since August 2010 – have made anyone safer.

I still would like to think I have made a difference, that someone else in my place would have done a much worse job; that as a ‘big head’ I positively influenced my friends, maybe even my commanders, and helped prevent even worse; that I made it easier for some Palestinians. From the perspective of those days, it is possible. But all of this is completely insignificant in the broader picture, not only the army’s, but of my own service.

Yes, I lied to myself. Changing from within in the sense of helping end the occupation, at least in the army, is not possible even if you are the chief of staff. After all, the IDF is an executive arm, intended to carry out government policies (and in practice also perpetuate itself), and the system is designed to co-opt each and every member.

So, yes, I would like to think that I have done some positive things as a soldier, but retrospectively focusing on them would be nothing more than cleansing my conscience. In fact, these little justices, if there were any, were not just dwarfed by my overall role, they have practically camouflaged the other injustices I partook in. Because being an IDF soldier, even if an ethical one, has at the very least made me a witness, and in practice complicit in repressing another people.

I was in a base overlooking Ramallah when the second intifadah broke. And back at the time I vowed to myself never to put a human being on my rifle’s crosshairs. Today I am proud I had stuck to this vow, or at least glad I wasn’t in many situations that forced me to test it.

It might be a cliché, but when you were born, when I joined the army, I believe your mother also wished you would never have to, just like my own mother, just like many other Israeli mothers.

Yet, 18 years later Israeli parents‘ wishes are not the only thing that remained the same – the Israeli occupation is still here, since 50 years, and publishing these words was, and still is today, seen as nothing short of treason by many Israelis.

But the thing is there are alternatives. There are a number of excellent organisations that support the choice of young people at the point in life where you now are to consider a different course from the one we’ve all been told is the one to take. I have met some of them, and I know that the people involved in these organisation care about the Israeli society – and its moral character, not just its image – no less than any other Israeli. I dare say that their commitment to a better future for Israelis, and Palestinians, tramples that of many others.

If you are reading this, I honestly believe you want the best for this country. And if you care about the Israeli society, there are other ways to make a difference. At this point, joining the IDF would only help perpetuate the status quo, one that is bad for Israel and much worse for Palestinians.

It doesn’t mean there is no price to pay – I know this is far from being an easy decision – and given the consequences I wish people never have to face such a choice. But in the current state of affairs, for an individual who wishes to participate in creating a better future for the Israeli society, opting to refuse carries a vastly larger potential to actually make a difference. At the very least, choosing to go against the flow, not to conform, would necessarily make the people around you, those who appreciate and care about you, to think honestly with themselves about this dilemma.

Frankly, I don’t remember considering refusing when I was about to join the army. I wasn’t just a scared, obedient youngster, but I probably did not want to be different from my peers. A conformist. Maybe I did not have the guts to claim I’m a pacifist, which I wasn’t, or go to the mental health officer simply because I did not want to serve in the army. I know others who did. I just was not aware of what serving in the IDF actually means.

On the day you were born I joined the IDF. I had no doubt that I was doing the right thing, and I genuinely believed that the challenges to come are the way for me, for every caring citizen, to somehow contribute to my country. I was wrong.

Today you are 18 and likely about to join the army. But try to think about it again. Try to think about the baby who was just born today – will you be able to say that by joining the IDF you helped improve Israel for her or him?


גרסה עברית של הפוסט פורסמה בשיחה מקומית

White noise

On Google Maps’ satellite mode, just north of Caesarea, Israel, there’s a dark green curving stripe, somewhat resembling a snake that has just emerged from the sea barely 500 meters away.

On the ground it is much less remarkable. Covered with vegetation this elongated mound looks almost natural. One could even mistake it for a relic of the wild nature that escaped the urban development. And this misleading look is perhaps the most troubling thing about it.

In fact, the strip of land sandwiched between Caesarea and Jisr az-Zarqa was originally earmarked for a nature reserve called Caesarea Carobs, or at least an offshoot connecting the main part of the reserve to the beach. “This dyke got a zoning approval retroactively, but in practice it has rendered the northern part of the nature reserve meaningless,” notes iNature, an Israeli protected areas website.

And indeed, this fully human-made embankment is anything but natural.

Image by Flavio~ (CC-BY-2.0) via Flickr

In a recent visit to the Arab village of Jisr az-Zarqa on Israel’s Mediterranean coast my wife and I wanted to see for ourselves the barrier we had heard of. But less than ten minutes walk from the village center, we weren’t sure this tall sandy mound was indeed what we were looking for.

A few dozen meters before the dyke a man was sitting in a plastic chair, overseeing the work in a construction site on the southernmost outskirts of Jisr. He confirmed we are in the right place.

The only people crossing the dyke into Caesarea are thieves and drug addicts, he told us, and security guards are patrolling the Jewish side of the barrier.

Other than that, how do the two communities get along, I asked. “The relationship is fantastic,” he replied. “We have no contact with them.”

So why did they actually build the dyke? “They didn’t want to hear the muezzin (the mosque’s call for prayer),” he said, echoing the justification Caesareans cited at the time.

Erected in 2003, at the time the Separation Barrier was being built in the West Bank, the kilometer-long embankment was Caesarea’s unilateral response to “acoustic hazards” from its religious Muslim neighbor, according to a news report citing correspondence between the Jisr a-Zarqa town council and the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Corporation that governs the secular Jewish town. The neighbours in Jisr vehemently objected the construction, but as evident today, it didn’t help much. In fact, 14 years later, some in Caesarea wish to see the divide expanded.

To a large degree this barrier also embodies the socioeconomic gap between the two neighboring towns, likely the widest in Israel. On one hand, Jisr az-Zarqa, the only Arab coastal village in Israel, is one of the country’s most impoverished communities. As of 2013, the village is ranked 13 from the bottom of the socioeconomic index [XLS] of the Central Bureau of Statistics out of 255 communities.

Caesarea, on the other hand, is among Israel’s most affluent towns, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose villa was said to be worth 16 million shekel (around US$4 million) in 2013, is but one of several members of the Israeli elite who have made Caesarea their home.

Frankly, I knew very little about Jisr az-Zarqa, Arabic for ‘bridge over the blue’, before coming there in October. The main motivation was Juha’s Guesthouse, a charming little hostel I had heard about in the past, mostly when its Arab and Jewish founders were crowdfunding for its establishment about three years earlier. But I have also heard about the barrier separating the Arab village from its Jewish neighbor to the south.

“[In Casearea] you have former army generals, an ex-president – it’s a different league,” the Jisr man we met told us. “Here, the most you can find is a lawyer who cannot spell his own name.”

Yes, they’re all very good people in Jisr, he explained, but it’s just that people here don’t study. And he’s right. According to state statistics, only 2.5 percent of the village residents up to the age of 54 have an academic degree.

But things are not that black and white, I was later told. Jisr’s Jewish neighbors have made generous donations, helping build the village’s sports hall, for example. Jisr gets the same budget from the central government as any other community, but the neglect in civil services is to a large degree a result of corruption, I was told.

Surely, Jisr’s leaders can do better. But with all good intentions, there is something particularly upsetting in wealthy Caesareans building this barrier to preserve their quality of life in the face of a community that is light years behind in terms of development.

Actually, I suspect the mosque’s loudspeakers were not the only, or even the main reason behind Caesarea Corporation’s decision to erect the soil dyke between the two communities. Since it has been built, representatives of the two communities have met as part of a mediation process and reached agreements, also about the Jisr mosques’ call for prayer. In 2011, the village’s public address system was replaced, the muezzin call was unified across the three mosques, and the volume has been lowered.

And yet, the dyke that was supposedly intended to curb the voice of the muezzin is still standing tall.

Today (Sunday), Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation has approved, again, the controversial “muezzin bill” – this time in a new version that would ban the use of loudspeakers between 23.00 and 07.00. Formally, it is meant to apply to prayer houses of all religions, and the new version has been amended to allow the use of the Jewish Shabbat siren, but it is obvious the law is specifically targeting mosques.

“Here, loudspeakers are the acoustic continuation of an ancient bloody dispute. It is not sleep, but control that is at stake. Not the call but the land. Not the noise but the meanings attributed to it,” wrote journalist Mordehai Haimovich after visiting Jisr az-Zarqa in the last autumn. “Unlike the sounds emanating from a concrete factory, the muezzin call expresses the presence of another culture that is perceived as threatening, hostile, competing over the public space and trying to make it its own. The struggle is over life’s tones, over the sounds of this country.”

And perhaps the call of the muezzin is exactly the wake up call that is so needed here. The legal fastidiousness and the political haggling that have been rewriting this bill and its various drafts since almost six years are probably a sign this is not merely an issue of quality of life but a truly controversial matter.

In Jisr az-Zarqa and other places, in Israel and around the world, where an arrangement has been found to keep the Muslim call for prayer while considering the neighbours who do not attend the mosque service, the “muezzin bill” was redundant before it had even been tabled.

“It can be resolved through agreement rather than regulation, we can be an example,” head of the Caesaria resident committee Edna Rudrig told local news site Mynet.

Perhaps more than anyone else in the Israeli parliament, Netanyahu, Caesarea resident himself, who has supported this bill from its very beginning, should have been aware of this. On the other hand, it appears he is hardly aware of what is going on in his own home.

In reality, with or without the “muezzin bill,” even the separation dyke between Caesarea and Jisr az-Zarqa was not really meant to curtail the mosque’s loudspeakers. But it seems in Caesarea there is no intention to remove this barrier. In fact, when residents filed objections to a development plan of a new neighbourhood in southwest Jisr az-Zarqa, Rudrig, head of the residents committee, wrote “the strip needs to be significantly thickened…to secure a reasonable quality of life for the objectors.”

In the dark era we are now entering, I find some comfort that walls, fences and other means of segregation and exclusion are still controversial. That there are still enough people who refuse to accept them to sustain a public debate, even if it is gradually pushed to the sidelines of the consensus of seclusion and beleaguerment. The danger is in such barriers becoming a seemingly integral part of the landscape – and people’s mentality. The separation embankment between Jisr az-Zarqa and Caesarea – that on the ground looks like an innocent sandy mound and in the Israeli public consciousness it is completely invisible – is one such case.


A Hebrew version of this post was published in Local Call

Warsaw for first timers

Palace of Culture and Science

The 60 year old Palace of Culture and Science at Warsaw’s navel is also its most recognizable (but divisive) monument

Surely you cannot wait to arrive in Warsaw so by now you’ve browsed through a guidebook or google (how else would you land here?). And so you’re probably already aware of the major attractions: the ‘old’ town and the royal palace, the Palace of Culture and Science, the Jewish history museum, the Warsaw uprising museum, maybe the Copernicus Science Centre (if you’re with kids or teenagers). They’re all worth checking out. Really.

But if you wish to explore Warsaw on your own here are a few other, slightly less obvious options, beginning with food.

Wandering through the Old Town or walking down Nowy Świat, or its offshoots, you might come across some restaurants offering so-called traditional Polish cuisine. But like in other touristic spots around Europe these are often pricey tourist traps.

Instead, your better lunch option would be one of Warsaw’s many milk bars (Bar mleczny). Despite the name they are neither pubs nor dairy-only. These are basically dining rooms, a remnant of Poland’s communist era, that have become a cultural institution. Most of them look like they haven’t changed since the 1980s or earlier, but it’s probably one of your best shots at some authentic, unpretentious Polish cooking. Plus, they are seriously cheap – you can easily fix yourself a hearty meal for less than 15 zloty. Just bear in mind, there are no waiters – queue up to choose and pay for your dishes from a long menu (in Polish…), pick up your order from the ladies in the window, and don’t forget to clear your table when you’re done.

Two of my favourites are Bar Prasowy (Marszalkowska 10/16, Mon-Fri 9.00-20.00, Sat-Sun 11.00-19.00), and Bar Mleczny Wilanowski (Belwederska 2, Mon-Fri 8.00-20.00, Sat-Sun 9.00-18.00). But if you’re already on Nowy Świat you can also try Familijny (Nowy Świat 39, Mon-Fri 7.00-20.00, Sat-Sun 9.00-17.00).

Another good restaurant to consider – with good Polish food, nice atmosphere and decent prices – is Kameralna (Foksal 11, Mon-Thu 11.00-00.00, Fri-Sat 12.00-2.00, Sun 12.00-23.00). It’s also close to Nowy Świat, but beware that strangely enough, there’s another restaurant with the same name just around the corner.

If you’re already there, do check out Piwpaw (Foksal 16) across the street. This pub has more beer taps than you can count, and it’s open 24 hours a day.

Bigos at Podwale 25

The touristic version of Bigos, a sauerkraut and sausage stew, in Podwale 25 is a pretty good value for money

The Polish capital has museums of all kinds, but in my view, beyond the main attractions few are actually recommendable. Nevertheless, those into contemporary art actually have three places they really shouldn’t miss: the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Małachowskiego 3, Tue-Sun 12.00-20.00, 15 zloty, free entrance on Thursdays), the Modern Art Center at Ujazdowski Castle (Jazdów 2, Tue-Sun 12.00-19.00, Thu until 21.00, 12 zl, free entrance on Thursdays), and the Museum of Modern Art (Pańska 3, Tue-Sun 12.00-20.00, free).

Warsaw also has quite a number of markets if you’re looking for bargains — or a good photo shoot. Hala Mirowska (Plac Mirowski 1, usually closes around 15.00), an indoor shopping complex with fruits and veggie stalls outside, is arguably the most famous one, and surely the one closest to the city centre.

You’d need to travel a bit to reach Bazar na Kole (on the corner of Obozowa and E. Ciołka, Sat-Sun 6.00-15.00), but this antique market with all sort of bric-a-brac is well worth the hassle and it’s likely you find there some treasures.

For an old-fashion but lovely farmers market, head to Bazar na Dołku (on the corner of Komisji Edukacji Narodowej and Filipiny Płaskowickiej, Sat-Sun 8.00-15.00), and if you’re looking for a more hip, trendy version visit the BioBazar (Żelazna 51/53, Wed 10.00-18.00, Fri 16.00-20.00, Sat 8.00-16.00), which is at least worth checking out for the atmospheric industrial hangars housing it.

If you’re more into shopping, there are also a number of western-style malls but I’m afraid that’s not really my department.

Nowy Swiat

On spring and summer weekends, Warsaw’s most iconic streets, Nowy Świat and its northern leg Krakowskie Przedmieście, turn into a pedestrian mall connecting the city centre and the Old Town.

At this point you might be in need for some time off the busy streets and a bit of fresh(er) air. Warsaw is unfortunately notorious for air pollution but it does have several large parks. The Royal Łazienki Gardens (main entrance on Ujazdowskie Ave., daily dawn-19.00, check the website for the opening hours of the different museum buildings, free entrance on Thursdays) are an excellent place for a lazy stroll or a picnic. If you happen to be there sometime between mid-May and end of September you can check out the Sunday piano recitals (12.00-16.00, free) by the Chopin monument.

Another, lesser known oasis in the city is the wonderful rooftop garden of the Warsaw University’s library (Dobra 56/66, May 1 – Sep 30 daily, 8.00-20.00; Nov 1 – March 31 daily, 8.00-15.00; Apr & Oct daily, 8.00-18.00).

On summer weekends you could try a relaxing sail on board the water tram on the Vistula river for a different perspective on the city (departs from a pier north of the Poniatowski Bridge at 11.00, 13.00, 15.00, 17.00, 18 zloty). Or you can just go for a drink in one of the many pubs along the river’s western bank.

Another summer attraction, to the foot of the old town by the river, is the multimedia park fountain. Between May and September, every Friday and Saturday evening (21.30-22.00) hordes of people congregate by this elaborate fountain complex for a rather kitsch light and sound show. Far from a must-see it can be amusing to watch.

All these should keep you entertained for a few days, but if you’re short on time and looking for nothing more than a concise introduction to Warsaw, or at least one of its aspects, you can join one of the tip-based guided tours.

Otherwise, if you’re staying longer, or it’s not your first time to the city, there are plenty of quirkier, alternative spots – ask me.

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