Posted by Simone Wilson
Thousands of Israelis, foreigners and stoked-as-hell Birthright kids swarmed Rothschild Boulevard last night for the 10th anniversary of Tel Aviv's "White Night," a non-religious holiday that celebrates UNESCO's designation of Tel Aviv as a world-heritage site — though the masses couldn't have given less of a crap about their official reason for stumbling around the city until dawn.
"What is White Night?" I asked one dude with dreadlocks who was trying to mount a historical statue along Rothschild's teaming ramblas. His answer was similar to dozens of others I got through the night: "We just want every fun!" he yelled into the treetops.
The crowd was thick and alive — full of seasoned ravers, more casual clubbers, Israeli dudes looking for chicks and tourists looking for drugs.
But the guest of honor, without a doubt, was Israel's most notorious group of Hasidic party Jews: The "Na Nach," or the crazed and confusing followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
They're famous for driving their big white creeper van around Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Tsfat (otherwise known as Jerusalem on psychedelics), braking it inconveniently in the middle of an intersection and jumping out to dance on the roof and blast electro remixes of traditional Jewish songs. Their philosophy, from what I've gathered, is that happiness is the ultimate salvation and that singing, dancing and otherwise going completely nuts can bring them closer to God. I had first encountered a mob of them on Purim, Israel's version of Halloween, when we engaged in a sweaty dance-off at a small club along Rothschild. Like most foreigners after their initial run-in with the Na Nach — who look just like the Hasids of storybooks, with woven skullcaps and two long ringlets sticking out — I assumed I was having my first Holy Land hallucination and dismissed it the next morning as some poor kid's bar mitzvah gone cray.
The people of White Night, their eyes shining with booze and uppers, looked similarly incredulous. They climbed onto street signs and each other's shoulders to get a better view of the writhing Na Nach, led by a Hasid blowing into a shofar (a sheep's horn traditionally used on Rash HaShanah) and calling himself "DJ Give Tzedakah" (the Hebrew word for charity). One drunkard even tried to climb up onto the van to dance with DJ Give Tzedakah, but a few Na Nach on the ground quickly cut in, like bouncers at a Rihanna concert.
"They don't know what they are doing," said a Na Nach member of the street revelers. "But we pull them to us."
Another standerby told me he was sure the Na Nach, like many others on Rothschild that night, were all on LSD. "Their way of life is to be happy," he said. "And to be happy you do drugs."
Back in summer 2011, the Jewish Daily Forward called this new generation of religious sinners "Israel’s hottest new Hasidic sect":
They are known as the Na Nach — a recently emerged subgroup of the 200-year-old Breslover Hasidic sect. Like other Breslover Hasidim, they follow the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a kabbalist mystic who lived 200 years ago in what is today Ukraine. More established Breslov groups were once seen as an eccentric, vaguely countercultural element in the Orthodox world. But members of the Na Nach sect now stand out as the new radicals, as the older tradition of Nachman study assumes a newfound respectability within the ultra-Orthodox world.
“[Na Nach] are seen as sort of an embarrassment in Israeli society, and held up as a circus sideshow,” said Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University and an expert on Hasidism.
But they're also becoming somewhat of a beloved local party trick in Tel Aviv — because in the end, it's hard to hate a bunch of bouncy, smiley Jews on acid.
12.4.13 at 2:20 pm | An upcoming role alongside Ben Affleck and Henry. . .
12.1.13 at 4:30 am | Gadot, a former Miss Israel, joined the "Fast and. . .
12.1.13 at 3:00 am | By accident, I walked passed Einstein's very. . .
11.27.13 at 10:00 am | "Open facility," in this case, seems to be a. . .
11.13.13 at 10:05 am | The IDF just loaded about 150 soldiers and 100. . .
11.12.13 at 8:30 am | A small child swishes down the same red plastic. . .
12.1.13 at 4:30 am | Gadot, a former Miss Israel, joined the "Fast and. . . (32854)
12.4.13 at 2:20 pm | An upcoming role alongside Ben Affleck and Henry. . . (1438)
12.1.13 at 3:00 am | By accident, I walked passed Einstein's very. . . (546)
June 26, 2013 | 10:45 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
As you best know by now, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt the LGBT community — and the civil-rights movement in general — two super-solids in a row this morning. First, our good justices struck down the hideous Defense of Marriage Act nationwide, and, five minutes later, they trashed Prop. 8, clearing the way for gay marriages to resume in California.
So, in a fit of WeHo celebration envy, I've been running from gay bar to gay beach to gay bar in Tel Aviv, trying to find someone with whom to scream bloody murder and jump up and down. (If only because now I never, ever have to write another news story on some miniscule step forward or backward in Prop. 8 court proceedings. Bitch is DEAD!)
No such luck. Closest thing I got was a coffee shop playing Britney Spears and this press statement from the Aguda, Israel's premiere gay-rights group (terribly translated by Google, in collaboration with yours truly):
This is a day of celebration for the LGBT community in the U.S., and we welcome the U.S. Supreme Court move to state the obvious: that a couple does not have to be a man and a woman for their marriage to be recognized by state. Although until recently, the State of Israel was among the advanced countries with regard to equal rights for the LGBT community, more and more Western countries recognize LGBT marriage while Israel remains behind. Today as in the past, the Aguda will continue to act on behalf of the LGBT community so that the State of Israel will recognize LGBT marriage. It is important to understand the demand for recognition of civil marriage for all citizens, including LGBT people and Israelis, by the state, which is sovereign and which imposed an end to discrimination and the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on the institution of marriage. We want to believe that the current government, which is not bound to Orthodox religious coercion by ultra-Orthodox parties, will join the Western countries in promoting and voting for legislation that allows civil marriage for all Israeli citizens, including same-sex couples."
The organization's spokesman, Gil Kol, explained to me over the phone that "until now, Israel was considered to be one of the more advanced countries concerning LGBT rights. True, marriage was not recognized by the state, but the courts in Israel allowed, in most cases, equality between LGBT and the rest of the population. But in the last few months, there were several countries that approved LGBT marriage — and now the U.S., the most important country in the Western world, has approved it as well."
He added: "Israel was pretty much ahead of the rest of the Western world — but now we are somewhat behind."
Although Israel's Ministry of Tourism has tossed many a shekel toward branding Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East, and even the world — and hey, American Airlines pollsters agree! — the religious aspects of Israeli society, inherent to the country's foundation, are a constant obstacle.
"Because marriage and family values are such big issues for religious parties, those particular subjects — marriage, adoption and so on — are still lacking in LGBT equality here," said Kol.
Still, a victory for gay rights in the U.S. is obviously a victory for humanity, and these historic rulings are much bigger than a country-by-country competition. Kol said his organization is currently fighting to push same-sex marriage — under the umbrella of all civil marriage, which is actually illegal here — through Israel's parliament, the Knesset, during the current session. There's an exciting possibility that it will actually get somewhere this time, as there are currently no ultra-Orthodox members of the Israeli government.
And the U.S. rulings, said Kol, will no doubt "help us prove a point."
June 26, 2013 | 10:10 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
Whisper the word "biometrics" in America, and you will set a White House petition churning and a Reddit thread frothing. For the new generation of Americans, unburdened with an immediate foreign enemy or fight for survival ("Our Great War's a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives," wrote Chuck Palahniuk), privacy rights trump all. All a beloved U.S. president has to do is roundaboutly endorse wiretapping/cyberspying, and his approval rating among the 30-and-unders will automatically plummet 17 points.
So when the Israel Ministry of Interior announced yesterday that in just two weeks, the government plans to begin building a biometric database of all Israeli residents — by upgrading citizen ID cards and other non-citizen identification documents to include fingerprints and facial-recognition data — this righteous young American waited expectantly for the collective rally cry.
Should have known that in Israel, great paranoid Jewish haven surrounded by haters, security trumps all.
"I think we know that all our phones/computers are already (and for a while) are being monitored for security reasons," one Israeli friend told me over Facebook chat. Another explained that for Jewish citizens, the "Israeli government is just perceived as less frightening in those issues. People are not afraid here of the secret services like they are in the U.S." (Not least of all because during mandatory army service, "you get to work with people from Mossad and Shabak a lot. And you can also be drafted to those." Although one can imagine that Israeli-Arabs, most of whom do not serve in the army and don't exactly maintain a chummy relationship with Israel's secret services, aren't feeling so secure.)
There are, however, some Israeli rights groups and activists who have been fighting the biometric database — screaming about it to anyone who will listen, really — since it was first proposed in 2007.
Avner Pinchuk, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said yesterday that the database would be "catastrophic" in its reach — the only one of its kind in a democratic country. (He said that the Netherlands previously planned to store all residents' information in a central database, but that the plan was shut down in court.)
"The police could use this information in all kinds of ways to avoid their constitutional responsibilities of due process," said Marc Grey, spokesman for the ACRI. "And then you have all the issues of security [breaches] by external entities."
Israel's new ID program may not seem like such a big deal on its own, but combined with other technologies such as surveillance and GPS tracking, the nation's privacy settings could soon propel it clear out of the Western sphere. And all this talk of Israel being "the first digital state" isn't very reassuring. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explores the possibilities of biometrics (can you imagine if Waze got involved?):
Biometrics’ biggest risk to privacy comes from the government’s ability to use it for surveillance. As face recognition technologies become more effective and cameras are capable of recording greater and greater detail, surreptitious identification and tracking could become the norm.
The problems are multiplied when biometrics databases are “multimodal,” allowing the collection and storage of several different biometrics in one database and combining them with traditional data points like name, address, social security number, gender, race, and date of birth. Further, geolocation tracking technologies built on top of large biometrics collections could enable constant surveillance. And if the government gets its way, all of this data could be obtained without a warrant and without notice or warning.
Large standardized collections of biometrics also increase the risk of data compromise from which it could be almost impossible to recover. In the near future, biometrics could stand in for your driver license or social security number, and you could be asked for a thumbprint or an iris scan just to rent an apartment or see a doctor. This could lead to many vulnerable copies of that linked data that could wind up in the hands of identity thieves. And any data compromises would be catastrophic; unlike a credit card or even a social security number, your biometric data can’t be revoked or re-issued.
ACRI spokesman Grey said that in Israel in particular, "the fear that the government will abuse the system might be greater because the Israeli government tends to pull the security card often. ... Whatever the security apparatus wants, it gets." Popular Israeli journalist and TV host Dan Margalit showed us why that's possible in a recent op-ed on the biometric database for Israel Hayom: "I'm going to go ahead and give a credit line to democratic regimes," he wrote. "I prefer security over individual freedom."
To sidestep what detractors the program does have, the Ministry of Interior will launch the database as a voluntary two-year "pilot program." But considering that Israelis' current ID cards are flimsy pieces of paper with ghetto graphics that any terrorist could reproduce with his cave press, the government is basically forcing anyone who wants to graduate from the Stone Ages to enroll in the database.
Anyway, the real pilot has been in place for years now: Israel currently gathers biometric data from all Palestinians who cross between Israel and the territories, as well as any migrants who apply for visas. (Not unlike the FBI's own collection of biometric data through "Secure Communities," its premiere immigrant deportation program, in order to build the groundwork for its nationwide "Next Generation Identification" plan. Yes, it's as creepy as it sounds.)
One last tie-in for the the conspiracy theorists back at home: Israeli companies Verint and Narus were reportedly supplying technology and doing dirty work for the NSA as it wiretapped and data-mined millions of Americans. Considering these companies were born from elite units of the Israel Defense Forces, they're likely willing to go even further for their home country.
But again — wiretapping and other breaches of privacy around here are largely accepted as the cost of making a secure home in Jihad country. A prominent German journalist in Israel once told me that while working on a story about Iran, Israeli government officials (who he knew personally) pulled him aside at an event to ask why he was making so many calls to Iran. We laughed it off, as foreigners in Israel who fancy themselves rebellious and untouchable often do.
June 24, 2013 | 12:31 pm
Posted by Simone Wilson
The 40 or so African asylum seekers — majority Eritrean and Sudanese — who sang, danced and waved their flags at the World Refugee Day event in Tel Aviv last Thursday seemed full of pride and momentary joy. The event, sponsored by various aid organizations, including Amnesty International, Hotline for Migrant Workers and ASSAF, was an overall feel-good affair — though of course with grave undertones, as refugees and their supporters mourned those brethren who had died on the long, hard road to Israel and those 1,500-some migrants awaiting an uncertain fate in Israel's massive desert prison in the south.
Israeli lefties with warm smiles and flowy skirts urged their children, outfitted in Crocs and mullets (the kibbutz kids of the big city), to go dance with the Africans rallying at the center of Hasharon Garden. Dozens of amateur photographers — almost outnumbering the Africans — surrounded the group of bouncing migrants, frantic to capture their energy.
"Our goal was to share our culture," said Isayas Teklebrhan, a leader at the Tel Aviv branch of Eritrean Youth Solidarity for National Salvation, who became a prominent face of the refugee struggle in Tel Aviv after he starred in an Al Jazeera news short last year. "We sent the musicians to show people our community, and what our country looks like as a people."
But Teklebrhan said in an interview at his group's offices the next afternoon that the asylum seekers playing traditional African music onstage had a hidden message for the aid organizations who threw the event.
"The organizations were showing their tactics, and we were showing our tactics," he said. "We made an announcement with our own language. ... The organizations will hear the message because they have their own translators."
He said that the lyrics in the songs played at the event included: "We are a self-organized people; we are not a playing card of the organizations; the organizations here are not helping us, they are playing us."
Teklebrhan explained that many members of the Eritrean community in Tel Aviv are skeptical about how organizations who aid refugees in Israel — in particular, the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR — are using their millions of dollars in donations. "I believe that there are good volunteers," he said. "But the owners of the organizations, this is the trouble. They are getting their money, they are consuming our time — everything is done for the benefit of their organization, not for the benefit of the asylum seekers."
A representative from the UNHCR had not returned emails or calls by the time of posting.
But Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline for Migrant Workers (the oldest organization in Israel working for refugee rights), said that although she didn't catch the lyrics on Thursday night, she is very aware of a growing upset among the refugee community.
"The more the situation in Israel in general is deteriorating, the more and more people doubt our devotion to the cause," said Rozen. "It's frustrating because we work harder and harder, and achieve less and less. But I totally understand the criticism, because all they see is that there are no results."
Rozen added that refugees are particularly skeptical of the UNHCR, because the organization is having an increasingly tough time convincing the Israeli government that Eritreans deserve refugee status. There are even those at the desert prison who claim UNHCR representatives have tried to convince them to return to Sudan or Eritrea, just as the Israeli government has been criticized for doing.
"When a person is in such a distorted mental situation because of psychological pressure, he can no longer correctly understand what someone is telling him," said Rozen. She added: "It's such a tragic situation, and we don't see it ending soon."
Even if Teklebrhan and his supporters are wrong about corruption on the part of the aid organizations, it's easy to understand the frustration of seeing one's entire transplant population at the mercy of government and charity politics.
Of course, this "drama," as Teklebrhan called it, takes a backseat to the pressing refugee issue in South Tel Aviv.
World Refugee Day, observed around the globe, was filled with extra urgency this year in Israel's modern capital. As reported in a stunning new online spread by PBS Newshour, roughly 60,000 Africans have sought asylum in Israel since 2006. But even once they've made it through northern Africa and the harsh, hot Sinai desert — where kidnappers and Bedouin gangs reportedly inflict upon them unthinkable tortures, including beatings with electric cattle prods, rape, starvation, and "plastic bags melted onto flesh," while demanding ransom payments of $30,000+ — these thousands of downtrodden find a whole new world of hostility waiting in the Holy Land. Via PBS:
Many African migrants who work in Tel Aviv's restaurants, staff hotels, clean streets and work on construction crews are in Israel legally, but the visas they've been given are typically not work visas.
It's printed in plain Hebrew, right on the visa, says [Sara Robinson of Amnesty International], “This is not a work permit.”
So the migrants work under the table. This allows employers to take advantage of the migrants, underpaying them or violating handshake agreements. The work is hard, manual labor and the pay isn't much.
The migrants’ families have paid so much ransom, selling houses, animals and even their gold, says Sister Azezet. “They want to repay, but here, they can't even work.”
Much like in Southern California, where there exists a widespread misunderstanding about why, exactly, so many Mexicans and Latin Americans are risking their lives to hop the fence into the U.S., many right-to-center Israeli citizens are under the impression that the majority of Africans in Tel Aviv have come to exploit the Israeli system and strike it rich in the Middle East's rare first-world oasis. Meanwhile, they argue, the migrants are turning South Tel Aviv into something of a little Eritrea, rife with petty crime. "All of a sudden you're walking inside your country and it looks like a different country with a different culture,” one rabbi told PBS.
Indeed — the shoddy streets and parks surrounding Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station bear almost no resemblence to the posh neighborhoods along the beach and to the north, where the city's African problem is largely out of sight, out of mind. Levinksy Park in particular has become a central camping ground for homeless migrants; volunteers can often be seen handing out soup to the park's inhabitants.
Although African immigration has ebbed recently due to the Israeli government's fancy new fence at the Egyptian border (worth over $400 million), the migrants who already fled to Israel are under constant threat of imprisonment and/or deportation.
Refugees can be sent to the desert prison for being involved or suspected in any crime, said Rozen of Hotline for Migrant Workers, including being the victim of a rape — all thanks to Israel's horrifying Anti-Infiltration Law, which essentially says that non-citizens can be held for over three years without trial, simply for not being a citizen.
There are currently a few thousand spots left in the prison for anyone who steps out of line. And Rozen said that over the last year, 2,000 Sudanese prisoners have been coerced into returning to Sudan under the threat that they will otherwise be jailed in Israel indefinitely.
Africans in Tel Aviv were delivered an extra jolt of panic earlier this month when news leaked that Israel was planning to send its huddled masses to one or more unnamed African countries. Haaretz reports:
"The characteristics of the [migrant] population and the pace of their arrival will be coordinated with the target countries," [an envoy appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] said, noting the migrants will be deported via commercail flights.
While the envoy has not said so outright, the confirmed deportation agreement applies mainly to Eritrean migrants. In the four other forthcoming deals, the states in question could serve as layovers for Sudanese nationals on their way to their home country.
According to the African Refugee Development Center, since Israel's establishment, "fewer than 200 individuals have been recognized as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention." Compare that to other countries around the world who also took part in the convention, where the UN reports that about 84 percent of Eritreans are granted refugee status.
Human Rights Watch painted a grim profile of the country in its 2012 World Report:
Eritrea marked 20 years of independence in 2011, but its citizens remain victimized by one of the world’s most repressive governments. They suffer arbitrary and indefinite detention; torture; inhumane conditions of confinement; restrictions on freedom of speech, movement, and belief; and indefinite conscription and forced labor in national service.
"Military service in Eritrea is like slavery," said Rozen. "Soldiers are living in conditions of slavery, and for women it means also being a sex slave. And there is no way out of it — you can't just stay for 10 years and that's it."
Activist organizer Teklebrhan said he used to work at an independent newspaper in Eritrea and write articles that challenged the dictatorship. This earned him seven hellish years in jail, where he said he was tortured on a regular basis. His newspaper's editor in chief committed suicide in the prison by strangling himself in protest, said Teklebrhan, and he would have done the same — but multiple attempts to kill himself failed, he said, because jail guards had dislocated his right shoulder during a torture session. Teklebrhan's shins are covered in scars from lashings with sticks and electric wires.
The racial slurs on the streets of Tel Aviv hurt him at first, said Teklebrhan, but he's deaf to them now. He and his organization, Eritrean Youth Solidarity for National Salvation, are more concerned with plotting the overthrow of the Eritrean government so they can one day make their way back home.
That's exactly why 200 Eritreans gathered for their own event in Levinsky Park on the night before World Refugee Day. They created a large circle, lighting candles for the "martyrs" in Eritrea's struggle for independence from dictator Isaias Afiwerki. "It's important to respect the memory of the people who fought so we can return to our homeland," asylum seeker Davit Damuz told Ynet.
Because believe it or not, most Eritreans want to live in Israel just about as much as Israel wants them to live in it.
June 20, 2013 | 2:47 pm
Posted by Simone Wilson
Let's get this out of the way: I'm not Jewish. It doesn’t come up often. But it makes me part of a pretty slim minority in Tel Aviv: I can count on one hand the number of other non-Arab, non-refugee non-Jews who I've met working and living in this city. For me, Israel's favorite icebreaker — "Have you made aliyah yet?" — only ends in more awkwardness. My Hebrew skills are one bat mitzvah behind the rest of the arriving Americans. Whatever.
This is not to say that goys like myself are shunned here. On the contrary, I often feel V.I.P. — everyone seems tickled that an outsider would choose to make her life in Tel Aviv, further cementing the city's status as an international hotspot. There is a common tendency, then, to try to prove this place to me, to make sure I know that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not Israel's fault and to demonstrate that Israel can party as hard, eat as classy, invent as many gadgets, and live in as much comfort as any country in the Western world. (Which is about as effective as a dorky car salesman trying to convince me the Chevy Malibu he wants me to buy is uber-hip right now.)
Anyway, what impresses me about the free West, and what makes it worth defending, is not a sushi bar and tech startup on every block. It's independence of thought, and the high standard to which we hold the society we love.
I understand the urge around here to self-promote. The amount of veiled (and sometimes very not veiled) anti-Semitism radiating from the countries around Israel, and from Europe, has come as a bit of a shock to me. But that's not going to blow over the more Israel endorses itself. In fact, the tendency abroad to see Israel as a conniving group-thinking entity, and to lump its population in with its government, is given fuel every time an Israeli spokesperson refuses to differentiate the country's triumphs from its failures.
The backfiring of the Israeli government's "hasbara," or national PR campaign, has been showcased quite messily in the media. An attempt in 2010 to promote Tel Aviv as "one of the most intriguing and exciting new gay capitals of the world" was harshly criticized by a New York Times columnist as "pinkwashing" (a.k.a. covering up human-rights abuses against racial minorities by instead embracing the rights of the gay minority), and liberal Israeli magazine +972 recently ridiculed the country's overzealous "startup nation" campaign as a similar brand of "techwashing."
Living here, too, this desperation for approval has a strong stench.
During Israel's most recent conflict with Gaza in November, the government staffers and college students behind the "Israel Under Fire" Facebook page poured vast energies into identifying bogus photos of Palestinian casualties that had appeared in the mainstream media. But by not simultaneously mourning the hundreds of their neighbors who were in fact dying and injured under Israeli bomb strikes, their efforts to improve Israel's image in the eyes of the world were undermined by an "us versus them" platform and what looked to be a total lack of empathy.
Left-wing Israeli daily Ha'aretz (and columnist Gideon Levy) were among the first local institutions that really impressed me, upon my arrival to Israel, in regard to the national consciousness — not because I agreed with every word, but because of the paper's apparent self-awareness and will to hold Israel to a higher standard. Surprisingly, however, many Israeli peers and colleagues later expressed to me that they felt Ha'aretz, which reports a readership of over 2 million foreigners per month, was damaging the international perception of Israel.
I couldn't disagree more. The solution to Israel's PR problem, from where this shiksa is standing, is not through self-love or self-hate, but through self-evaluation. In my blog for the Jewish Journal, I hope to reflect the complex reality of Israel, and especially Tel Aviv — complex as any city of its size and influence, and beautiful for it. The one-eyed cats, the sweaty Haredis, the angry car horns, the playgrounds turned refugee camps — it all makes for a fascinating fabric.
Similarly, some of what drew me closest to Los Angeles in my years as a reporter there was the most depraved. Appreciating one's homeland in a present and relevant way means digging for its truths and poking at its flaws.
Over seven months of exploring Israel, I've come to believe that the most beneficial step my new country of residence can take for itself and its international stature, is to drop the constant defensiveness and engage in some honest observation and introspection. Not just from the apologetic Jewish left in America, but from within. For everything Israel has given me, this is how I hope to return the favor.