Posted by Simone Wilson
Those cursed "Erythraean alien nomadic jellyfish" who have been planting their tentacles upon Israel's summer masses all month — tourists and locals just trying to enjoy the warm Mediterranean waters off Tel Aviv's kilometers of party beach, and coming up stung — have finally tired of welting our sunburns and continued north to die their grand August deaths, say scientists.
An advisory posted to the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR) website in early July, warning beachgoers that the annual swarm was upon us, was replaced with a farewell note yesterday:
An end to the jelly swarm, summer 2013
Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research reports that the annual swarm of the nomadic jellyfish, Rhoplema nomadica, has drifted away from the Israeli coast.
A few stragglers are reported off the northern beaches causing some stings.
Although the shared taxis and coffeehouses of Tel Aviv have been abuzz all month with jelly panic on the part of the foreigners — horror stories of welts the size of pinky fingers and pain worse than a bee sting, and underlying fears that this might just end up being The Worst Summer Ever — it turns out that a nearly identical swarm of Erythraean jellyfish has passed through Tel Aviv once a year, at the same time of year, for the last 15 years (at least).
Dr. Hadas Lubinevsky, a researcher at the IOLR, said that this year's swarm was actually a bit smaller than usual, and cut its typical month-long stay a bit short: The jellies arrived about a week late on July 7, she said, and have taken off after just two-and-a-half weeks of terror.
"They are going with the current, and will continue north," said Lubinevsky. "In a few weeks or so, they will die inside the sea and become organic matter. The jellyfish live only a few months. The current will take them north — probably to Lebanon, Syria or Turkey — where they will die."
So we should be honored, then, to have hosted them for their last hurrah!
"I was stung by a jellyfish on my penis today while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv," Tweeted minor Internet celebrity Casey Neistat on July 11. "That's not how the jellyfish tells it," replied Guardian reporter Stuart Miller.
There are a few other types of jelly who like to hang around off the Israeli coast, as illustrated in the IOLR's lovely "Jellyfish Watch Poster 2013" — but overall, said Lubinevsky, we can swim easy, as there is nothing like the annual coming of the Erythraeans.
"For this year, I think it's over," she said. "Now we have all the summer in front of us."
The minor jellyfish problem of Tel Aviv is not unlike the minor stingray problem of San Diego: You're not going to die if you step on one, and you feel like a total wuss if you actually avoid the ocean for fear of one, but just the idea of one, and all that pain anticipation, can sometimes be enough to sorta ruin the whole wet part of your beach day. And the worst thing is, you often can't even see them coming: "Sometimes the hair of the jellyfish comes off because of heavy waves or something like that, and it can still sting for a few hours after it comes off the jellyfish," Lubinevsky explained. "So it comes very fast to the shore, and it stings the people, but you don't see the jellyfish."
Which makes it all the more entertaining for the poker-faced Israelis, who are about as nonchalant about underwater stingy things as they are about homemade rockets from Gaza, to watch unsuspecting tourists do the jelly dance back to their beach towels all July. 'Til next year, wussies!
12.4.13 at 2:20 pm | An upcoming role alongside Ben Affleck and Henry. . .
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July 22, 2013 | 9:30 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
Tel Aviv police couldn't have driven home the message of Israeli refugee play "One Strong Black" any harder if they'd been in the cast themselves.
On Thursday evening, according to various refugee aid organizations in Israel, 30-year-old Darfuri asylum seeker Babaker "Babi" Ibrahim — who plays a wayward Tel Aviv cop in "One Strong Black," and arrests asylum seekers on suspicion of possessing of stolen property — was arrested on suspicion of possessing stolen property.
Aka, he wasn't able to show police a receipt for a bicycle parked outside the barbershop where he works.
Eyal Feder, district director of the Garden Library, the group behind the play, said that before cops pinned the bicycle theft on Ibrahim, they first tried to nab him for possessing a stolen phone (he had the receipt) and an expired visa (he showed them his valid one). And when they finally landed on the bicycle charges, said Feder, police used his new status as a suspected criminal to then strip him of his visa at the Ministry of Interior and lock him up under Israel's infamous, year-old Anti-Infiltration Law, which can be used to instantly convict any migrant without a trial.
"It couldn't have been written better in a Kafka novel," said Feder.
In the play "One Strong Black," which debuted one month ago at migrant hangout Levinsky Park and has been touring Israel ever since, a troupe of six Darfuri asylum seekers critique the Israeli government and police for their harsh handling of African refugees. They also poke fun at incompetent government employees — who are, even outside the refugee community, notorious for turning simple clerical procedures into day-long migraines.
According to a review of the play in the Jerusalem Post, Ibrahim also played a second role as a visa agent at the Ministry of Interior (and the irony grows):
In one of the opening scenes of the play, [actress Musa Salkoya], along with several others, waits patiently to apply for a visa at the Ministry of Interior. The visa agent, portrayed brilliantly by 29-year-old Babi Ibrahim, is more interested in having an obnoxious cell phone conversation with a friend than helping anyone waiting in line.
Just like that, the gap between the Israeli experience, and the Sudanese experience was suddenly bridged. Who among us hasn’t dealt with some frustrating form of Israeli bureaucracy, or a grocer who wouldn’t hang up the phone to assist us? Sudanese, Eritreans and Israelis found themselves laughing side by side—every member of the audience was decidedly in on the inside joke.
The play was conducted in Hebrew to reach a wider audience. And because Ibrahim "has such great Hebrew, he played all the roles in Israeli bureacracy," said Feder.
"We really hope this has nothing to do with the show," he said of Thursday's arrest. However, Feder and other activists are highly suspicious that police were aware of Ibrahim's role in the play, given the absurdly ironic, life-imitating art circumstances of the arrest — and the fact that, according to Feder, the policeman who arrested Ibrahim "called him by a nickname that we only use in the theater group."
The suspect, though his bicycle charges have reportedly been dropped, now faces indefinite imprisonment in that hellhole of a desert prison in Southern Israel, where the government is slowly sending the thousands of African asylum seekers who populate South Tel Aviv. Although the infamous detention center was once reserved for those caught hopping the border or involved in more serious crimes, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein updated the Anti-Infiltration Law this month to include all suspects of "low-level" crimes as well, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Tel Aviv Police Department didn't answer calls for comment, but did release this statement to Haaretz on Saturday:
The suspect was arrested in connection with a bicycle theft. The police have enough evidence to tie him to the incident.
Ibrahim's supporters aren't buying it. They rallied outside Attorney General Weinstein's mansion in Herzliya over the weekend, enraged that the recently expanded Anti-Infiltration Law had so soon been used to put away one of the most peace-loving, solution-oriented asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. "He's such a great person, with a will to start a dialogue," said Feder.
A blazing Facebook campaign called "Free Babi," created just this afternoon, has already inspired dozens of messages and videos of support from Israelis sympathetic to the refugees' cause. Unfortunately, though, an initial request to the Supreme Court by representatives from Hotline for Migrant Workers to free Ibrahim — on the grounds that his arrest was illegal — was thrown out yesterday. Activists are soldiering on, and plan to file another request at the district-court level.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim is being held at the Givon prison near Ramla, awaiting his fate at the migrant detention facility in the desert. More on the asylum seeker's backstory, via Hotline for Migrant Workers:
Babi has been living in Israel for seven years. He arrived to Israel after being persecuted by the Sudanese regime for over two years. During his B.A. studies in the city of Khartoum, alongside his work in high-tech, Babi got involved with social and political activism. Babi and his friends led gatherings in the courtyards at the university (since this was the only place where it was possible to hold them), and talk to the young masses about freedom, equality, liberalization and the need to revolt and bring down the dictatorial regime in Khartoum. One day, regime forces raided his mother's house and brought him for questioning. In the hostile interrogation, the regime offered him – since he was a leader- to join them and become a regime agent in opposition gatherings. Babi agreed to do so to secure his freedom, but returned to his dissident activity once released. Starting that moment, Babi was targeted by the regime and had to often change his hideout in Sudan. The regime did not stop persecuting him and Babi had to flee to Ethiopia, then Kenya and finally to Egypt, where he planned on settling. However, following the Mustafa Mahmoud Massacre, in which 27 refugees were shot in cold blood while holding a peaceful sit-in in front of the UNHCR offices in Cairo, Babi, along with many other refugees, felt unsafe in Egypt and decided to try to reach Israel.
And now that Ibrahim is attempting to grow a dialogue on the refugee issue in his temporary home country, he's gotten himself caught in what looks to be a sick game on the part of the Tel Aviv Police Department. Either that, or some divine director had a very meta plan to show Israel that the human-rights abuses rampant in "One Strong Black" are anything but fiction.
July 17, 2013 | 6:30 pm
Posted by Simone Wilson
You haven't really done Israel if you haven't raged for 24-plus hours at one of the country's famous "nature parties," or giant trance festivals held out in the deserts of the south and forests of the north. They're kind of like mini Burning Mans, with less art and more beat. And, as this type of event goes, the majority of the nature-party crowd is widely understood to be on hard drugs — but they'll tell you they're more just high off the energy of the people, the music and the land.
Whatever the source of the vibe, it's quite a spiritual experience, and only adds to the lure and mysticism of the Holy Land for the under-30 Diaspora.
However, Israeli psy-trance DJ U-Recken (real name Yaniv Ben-Ari) says that although Israel is "considered one of the cornerstones of trance in the world," the scene has become so over-saturated, and the cost of throwing an event so high, that he has looked to neighboring Turkey as the ideal place to start a new festival line from scratch.
Just call him a rave entrepreneur.
Ben-Ari's weeklong "Tree of Life Festival," which turned two years old this year, grew from a crowd of 2,700 in its first year to 3,500 in its second. And according to Turkish friends that attended the event, it's already one of the most well-oiled, well-vibed events in the country.
So I sat down with Ben-Ari at a cafe in northern Tel Aviv — just a few weeks after this year's "Tree of Life" — to talk to him about the international trance scene, its ability to unite people from different cultures and how that led to his own decision to set up camp in Turkey.
SW: Can you start by telling me a little bit about your career so far, and how you got started with the "Tree of Life" festival?
YBA: Around 19 years old, I started to get into the world of psychedelic music, trance. In 2006, I released my first album — and after that, this is all I do. I travel around the world, I play festivals, I pretty much know everybody everywhere in this scene. Three years ago, I started to work on my own festival in Turkey. Actually I did it because I have an Internet project I work on, and I thought to myself, 'How can I attract people?' In all the aspects of the scene — not only music, but also stage artists, graphic designers, clothing designers, photographers. I understood that as only an artist, even as a famous artist, I cannot attract all these people to me. So I was thinking the best way to do it is to make a festival.
And then a week after, I went to play in Turkey — I have a friend that invites me every year for five years, his name is Tim. He's my partner. And we looked at the pictures, and we saw the place. He knew this area — he did like small local parties there, 200 to 300 people. He's also an amazing artist: He's a painter, and he did the decorations this year. I run the festival, he's working with me, and we have a lot of good people working with us from all over the world. People from Australia, from South Africa, local people from Turkey, Israeli people.
SW: Do you think there's something about Turkey that makes the festival so successful?
YBA: First of all, it's much more easy to access from pretty much everywhere — it's the gateway to Europe. Even from South Africa — it's really the gateway to everywhere. The weather is good; the food is great and cheap. They are very welcoming — the hospitality is very good. If you show them tourist money, they will love you forever. And pretty much everywhere else is too difficult. They go against you. Five years ago in Israel, it was really hard [to get the permits] — and today it's very expensive. I know the organizers here, I work with them, and I know the cost is simply not worth the effort.
SW: Is Israel at the forefront of this kind of festival scene, or not?
YBA: Israel is huge. Small country, but it's considered one of the cornerstones of trance in the world. But what's special about this community is that because there are no lyrics in the music, it brings together people from all over the world. And the great thing about our festival that is special — that you don't see in other festivals — is we bring people from Iran, from Lebanon, from Jordan. They can go to Turkey without any problems with visas. This is what's also special about Turkey. In our festival, you can see Israeli people working together with Lebanese people, Iranian people, and they are happy together. It's great. It's something that I enjoy watching. It's like the overtone of what we do.
SW: At most of the festivals here, is it mostly all Israelis? Or do people come from elsewhere?
YBA: All festivals in Israel are made by Israelis, and mostly it's an Israeli crowd. I'd say not even 5 percent is international.
SW: What are the big differences you see between the Israeli crowd and the more international crowd?
YBA: The Israelis are very enthusiastic. They jump, and they scream, and they're really getting into it — it's nice to have some Israeli crowd, because they really put everybody in excitement. The Europeans are more, like, holding themselves together. But also they are quiet, they are clean, they will not scream in the camping area and make a mess. But the ideal thing is to have small groups from every country, and this is what we get. This way everybody feels they have to show themselves, to prove themselves. So everybody shows their best qualities. When you have a big majority of one group, they're just taking over. They talk in their own language — they don't care about other things. So it's very important to keep the balance.
SW: Did the riots in Istanbul affect the festival?
YBA: This year, we had a little bit of bad luck because of the riots. The riots started June 1 and our festival was on June 12. So 20 percent of people who bought tickets didn't show up, and still we had like 3,500. And the festival was completely isolated from the riots. Only the local people, the local Turkish crowd, didn't approve — they said, 'Why don't you postpone it?' But I couldn't change it. I had booked like 100 international flights, a sound system, paid advances.
SW: Did you feel the spirit of rebellion at the festival at all?
YBA: You felt it, but in a good way. Because they tried to suppress the Turkish people not to drink alcohol outside, and that's what we do, you know? We pretty much used it — we promised all these people that we will show the world that this is the Turkey that they want. And we did.
SW: So you would never consider setting up a festival in Israel?
YBA: It's just not business-worthy. It's not profitable. There's too much competition here as well. It's saturated. The biggest companies today are Moksha, Groove Attack and TFN (Transformations). Every holiday there is a festival — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Easter, Shavuot. Doof Festival is the oldest one. And as an attendee, I have a problem that [the crowd is] not aware of the environment. They don't clean — it's always dirty in the dance floor. And I don't like that. I'm looking from the stage, and it always looks dirty to me. Our festival is clean, always. It's important.
SW: What are the biggest countries right now where you think the most exciting stuff is going on in this genre?
YBA: It's changing all the time. Before it was Hungary — there is still a very good festival called Ozora. And in Portugal, there is Boom Festival. That is one festival that I'm very inspired from. Their system, how they work, how they clean, the stage artists, the decorations they do, the vibe of the people — is by far the best. Boom Festival is the one I go to and learn. We're also in good touch with them — they're a very good group.
SW: What was your initial vision for the festival — visually, and the vibe?
YBA: The location is amazing. It's very isolated, but very close to the city — one hour out, and 40 minutes into that hour, you drive up the mountain, and it's completely isolated. The structure of the venue is perfect for a small festival of 5,000 people. You get there, and the first 15 minutes you don't realize what's going on — you are like shocked — and then you just let go of everything. Because you just came from the city, from the airport, from whatever. But then you just let go. Your cellphone doesn't work there — nothing works there — so it's just you, and the music and nature.
SW: So no one could follow the protests on Twitter.
YBA: No. They're just trapped there. And they love it. There are a lot of connections being made in this festival. Twenty people from Tree of Life came to Israel after. People from Canada, from Australia. Because Turkey is close to Israel and they met Israeli people there. Bonds are made between people. When I'm doing the festival, I don't enjoy it, because I'm busy making it work. But when I saw the pictures yesterday and I saw the small things that happened in the festival, it's like I'm watching it for the first time. I was really happy, because you only see happy people. Happy colorful people from all over the world. This is what I wanted, and I'm very happy I got it.
SW: Is it more difficult to throw this kind of event in Israel?
YBA: It's possible, it just costs a lot of money. To rent the land, to get permits, the tax, the alcohol prices. Pretty much everything. Super expensive. No country in the world has 18 percent VAT. It's crazy. ... You always have to lower yourself to bring in more [money], but this is not how they see it.
SW: Do you think there's resistance because of any conservative feelings against this kind of party here?
YBA: No. Israel is one of the most open countries. Everybody here knows what trance is — you can hear it from every window. It's very popular. We've been through that phase that the media and the government are against us. They accept us now. Which is great. But for me as a businessman, when I look at the numbers, it just doesn't work for me.
SW: I heard that you also brought over Israeli food vendors to "Tree of Life."
YBA: [The food was] very international. You had pizza from Italy that's very famous pizza. It's a bunch of nomads, they live in the mountains in Italy, hippies, and they build their own oven and make like really proper pizza. And we had a lot of Turkish food, which is good. The Israelis cooked Indian food and chai. Basically it's a group of people that I work with in Israel — they attract the more hippie side. Jewish people with dreadlocks, and they live in a green community. ... I just blasted the place with food from everywhere I could get.
What makes the festival good is not the lineup, or the musical content, or the decor. The most important thing is to keep the people comfortable — to keep them happy. You become unhappy when you're missing something vital. When you need to go [to the bathroom] and you don't have a proper place to go, then you become unhappy. So that's the main thing we care about. Because what makes the festival good is the people. It's not you, it's not anybody else — it's the people you bring and how they react to the festival.
SW: Do you think that the festivals in Israel skimp on some of that quality?
The Israeli crowd is not very picky. They just want to come and dance. They care about the alcohol rates... but they are not picky. You can not do toilets at all, and they will go find a place in the woods, and that's it. That's Israeli. Europeans are more picky.
SW: Do you have any competitors trying to set up similar things in Turkey?
YBA: We did have a festival in Turkey, another one, that happened a week after us in a different location. We didn't compete with each other — we worked together. Because for me as I saw it, it's more economical for people to get one flight to Turkey and make two festivals out of one. ... So we made shuttles from us to them afterwards. They started right after us.
People do that the whole summer. People live for that. I don't know, it's fun. The same people are traveling everywhere — you see them in Goa. Goa is the mother base.
SW: Is it possible to do that without being on drugs the entire time?
YBA: Most of the people I know are vegan people, are healers, they work with crystals, they do therapies, they're artists. So they're serious people in my opinion. I don't think [they're all on drugs]. It's just a way of living. Just like you have your job, that's their job. There are people who create their own jewelry, their own fashion T-shirts, they make food stalls — very special ones. If we supply them with space and electricity and build them a gazebo and stuff like this, then we charge minimum rent for it, just for the cost. But we give the option also to make free market. So we have like a big road. Everyone puts their cloth on the table. Such nice things — handmade jewelry, letterwork — amazing, amazing. And this is free. I think it gives a really nice color to the festival. You always see the same people sitting [at their booths], and you can come and sit with them and talk with them, ask them where they're from. That's why I tell you that the people are making the festival. We just give them the space.
July 9, 2013 | 10:50 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
You can't be an out-of-the-closet journalist in a bar in Tel Aviv these days without all your panicked American friends gathering 'round and grilling you about when this catastrophic Ministry of Foreign Affairs strike will be over, so that they the entitled ex-pats can get back to reaping the perks of the Jewish homeland.
Although this "labor action," as the Foreign Ministry's union calls it, began back in March, the extreme decision to shut down all consular affairs (save a few emergency services) was enacted somewhat under-the-radar two weeks ago. And thus, one by one, as Israelis abroad tried to replace lost passports and members of the Diaspora tried to get their visa/citizenship on, they started to realize that the whole damn system was down.
Iris Pedowitz, a California 20something planning to travel to Israel through the popular "Masa" internship program this year, wrote on her Facebook wall: "Dear Israeli consulate, Please end your strike. I'd really like to get a visa. Best, Iris." And a spokeswoman for Masa who did not wish to be identified confirmed that indeed, the strike is "making it very difficult" for participants to receive their necessary work visas. Deadlines are right around the corner, she said, and the strike "is probably going to start causing a big problem."
The website for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles is currently stamped with a bloody red stripe that reads:
Due to a strike at the ministry of foreign affairs there will be no consular services, excluding life saving urgent matters, until further notice.
No one can say exactly how many people have been impacted by the strike. But Yair Frommer, chairman of the Finance Ministry's workers union, told the Jewish Journal that he expects it has affected "thousands of Israeli citizens and many, many foreign citizens — because we do not at the moment grant visas, work visas, or Aliyah [the common method to attain Israeli citizenship]." Ministry staffers are also refusing to assist in all diplomatic visits at home and abroad, which Frommer said has prevented ministerial visits to Israel by top government officials from Japan, Hungary, Samoa and more.
Frommer explained that the main cause of the strike is the "deteriorating working conditions of our diplomats abroad." He said that one-in-three Foreign Ministry employees eventually resigns in disgust, and that after 15 years at the ministry, the average worker only earns 9,000 shekels (or about $2,500) per month.
Asked for a statement on the strike, Dalit Goodman, a 25-year-old from the Valley (and close friend of mine) who planned on making Aliyah this summer, wrote the following:
Learning about the news of the hold on Aliyah is not only an extreme disappointment, but frightening also. I was so ready to start a new life in this place I thought I could call home.
The most surprising part of the whole mess for many Americans in Israel, or those planning on making the trip, is its relative lack of hype. "I'm pretty sure if all the U.S. consulates just stopped doing services it'd be a big deal," Pedowitz told me over Facebook chat.
Additional casualties of the labor dispute may be the 45 in-limbo international athletes who had secured a spot in the fast-approaching Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, but who come from countries where a visa is required to enter Israel. Eyal Tiberger, CEO of the Maccabi World Union, told the Jewish Journal that "it will be very disappointing" if the athletes are blocked from entering Israel because of a labor dispute. "They've been training for the last few years, and we have invested money in hosting them and making all the arrangements. ... Now, they're just sitting on their suitcases and waiting."
Tiberger said the players' exclusion from the games "would be a major disappointment for us, for the Maccabi movement and for the State of Israel." (A rep for the Maccabiah Games said he was unsure how the tournament would be rearranged if the 45 players were denied entry.)
So when can we expect an end to the immigration nightmare? "From our side, this could be resolved tomorrow," said Frommer.
The union is waiting on a response from officials at the Ministry of Finance — but because Frommer said those officials often "have problems [passing] a policy without instructions from above," the union is really just waiting on a move from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.
Bibi better not take his time on this one. He's got 45 professional athletes, a panicking Diaspora and a Taglit-load of quarter-life-crisis Americans in his hands. And they're probably not going to be content with a comfort meal at the Chabad House.
July 4, 2013 | 9:25 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
In all my 26 years, this is the first 4th of July that I've spent in a country that loves America. Everyone keeps congratulating me. It's really weird.
I come from west-of-the-5 California, where we the guilty left have a very love-hate relationship with Independence Day. (Love for barbeque sauce; hate for whichever bad-government news item is getting our goat at the moment. This year, surely, curses on the NSA will be flowing quicker than the condiments.) Ever since I hit college, the 4th of July routine has been, more or less, to pick up some vintage red-white-and-blue number from the thrift (the good old days!), crash the town parade totally sloshed (sweet tea of rebellion!) and set off Mexican fireworks over the ocean to taunt the pigs onshore (F the po-lice!). I wouldn't call it hipster patriotism — there is nothing ironic for me about sparklers, cowboy boots and an illegal beach Budweiser, though I can't speak for the rest of my generation — but it's definitely a little dark and twisty.
However, my routine's got nothing on Gawker's bloody hate note to America this year. "Everyone celebrating the Fourth of July is an idiot," writes Ken Layne in his sprawling hacker-lib manifesto. "Never have so many ninnies and cretins rallied 'round the old flag." Even if it's ironic, it's depressing as hell.
Love of country, I've noticed, is much more clear-cut for young people in the Middle East. It's a matter of survival. How much simpler it is to pledge allegiance to your little flag-on-a-stick when you're under the constant threat of war; when it's the people vs. the occupier; when your entire national identity is at stake; when you collectively hate your president so much that you're willing to rush the palace and physically remove him from his throne.
And — in the case of Israel — loving America is easy when you get $3 billion in fighter jets gift-wrapped on your front doorstep each year, to help you through your great holy war. All my America ever gave me was a mountain of student loans and a privelege complex.
Growing up in the U.S., and wearing the American identity abroad, is a bit more confusing. A 15-year-old boy in Gaza asked me last December, as I awkwardly adjusted my malfastened yet well-meaning headscarf: "Why does Obama want to kill us?" How to explain in that moment, through a translator who could barely understand me, that I simultaneously adored my president and was disgusted by a thousand and one of his policies, both abroad and at home?
Americans who travel to the Middle East are endlessly fascinated by the IDF, the Arab Spring, the sense around here that something very immediate and historic is happening. My media peers back at home seem positively tickled that Egypt's most recent Independence Day has happened to fall on Fourth of July Eve. (Nevermind the fact that the protests were almost as anti-America as they were anti-Morsi). I can relate — I've never been on such a high as when running from tear gas in Turkey, even if the experience left me feeling like a bit of a soul-suck. And I can imagine that setting off Independence Day fireworks might be worlds more rewarding on two hours of sleep and a freshly won revolution under my belt.
I remember in November 2008, when young America felt a brief flicker of actual, earnest, cheesy patriotism — a rare sense of forward motion — upon electing our first black president, a figurehead for hope and change. But that quickly died, as we realized he was just a human built into a broken system. Occupy Wall Street in 2011 was even more exciting, for the noble couple months it lasted. But without the passion of 20 million Egyptians in pursuit of true democracy in a volatile Middle East, our vegitative state of security and comfort allowed police to sweep the parks clean. (Hey, even in a crap economy, an In 'N' Out burger never costs more than a five-spot.)
If only we could take ourselves seriously for longer than two seconds! To quote that infamous New York Times op-ed on the nation's growing hipster plague: "As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. ... Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?" And to quote the Jewish Journal's own Marty Kaplan: "I have outrage envy."
I'm not jealous of Israel's oft-distorted sense of self, but I long for their togetherness, and their fight. Same goes for that of the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Turks.
Isn't the gift of belonging to the world's most powerful nation — and having the freedom to move past survival mode to help solve the problems of the future — worth a little more passion than we're giving? We can even call it post-patriotism, if that'll make us feel better.
July 1, 2013 | 6:40 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
As the clocks throughout Tel Aviv's constellation of liquor stores struck 23:00 last night, and the townspeople lugged home their final bottles of 35-to-40-shekel Arak, a rare summertime sadness settled over the city.
"Arak is considered the cheap and good and everyone can afford it, and it's always available," said Itay Zecharia, a 20-year-old clerk closing down his nondescript corner store, a couple blocks off Rothschild Boulevard, for the night. "Now it's not going to be like that. It's just crazy."
The morning of Monday, July 1 marks the start of a bleak new era for Israel: Today is the day that the country's only cheap liquors, Arak and vodka, almost double in price to around 70 and 100 shekels per bottle, respectively. This, thanks to a new alcohol tax under former talk-show host and current Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a barrel-chested "most interesting man in the world" type with a strong brow and a taste for scotch and cigars. The trade-off? The Ministry of Finance has in turn decided to lower the tax on premium liquors — to a price, of course, that the rest of us still can't afford. (Although for the record, Lapid is backtracking a bit on his support for the law in the news today.)
There are very few cheap thrills left in Tel Aviv — among them a spot in the sand, a dip in the sea and a plastic cup full of Arak-grapefruit. In the blazing Mediterranean summer, locally brewed Arak runs in the veins of the Israelis; normal resting blood-alcohol content is approximately two cups of Arak.
So naturally, the new alcohol tax has been widely mourned as an assault on the national identity. Wrote Liel Leibotvitz in his eulogy for Tablet Magazine:
True New Yorkers are the ones who know that a slice tastes best when folded in half. You belong in Paris if your idea of a sandwich is ham and butter, nothing else. And Tel Avivis drink Arak, the anise-flavored liquor that turns milky white with an ice cube and a splash of water. In part, we love it because of how seamlessly it blends in with our environment: that strong and sweet taste goes well with the strong light and the blue sea. But the real reason is far less poetic: Arak is Tel Aviv’s official drink because Arak costs 35 shekels a bottle.
Or, at least, it will until July 1st.
As it stands, ordering a vodka-anything at your average bar or club along Rothschild, the drunkest strip of Israel's sin city, will cut you back $10 to $15. And various bar managers and bartenders told me last night, the last night, that they'll have to bump those prices even higher under the new tax. (They weren't sure how much yet, and didn't want to scare anyone off, but their eyes were grim.)
Worse still, the new tax might mean a free-shot shortage. "Maybe we have to keep it a little more mellow about putting out chasers out for everyone," said Uvi, a bartender at Polly bar on Rothschild.
This is all part of an awkward power struggle in Tel Aviv — not unlike the one raging in Istanbul — between the hip young seculars and the religious forces emanating from the east. (See also: "Sabbath in sin city: Keep the shops open".) Although God's presence can still be felt over here, in the wicked thunderstorm sunrises and the breeze over a topless French girl on the beach, his touch is softer and more open to interpretation than on the cold synagogue stones of Jerusalem. Although this new alcohol tax isn't distinctly religious (just like the Turkish prime minister's tightening of alcohol sales in May wasn't distinctly Muslim), it makes Tel Aviv feel a little less like the Western party metropolis it claims to be and a little more like, well, the Middle East. The Israeli government's official reasons for raising taxes on cheap alcohol is 1) to help fill the deficit and 2) to make booze less accessible to minors, but in the end the decision gives this place the air of a sultan state.
"It sucks, because when we go out, we can't have fun without drinking. It's a stupid thing, but that's how it is," said Shir, an 18-year-old in a gold sequin tank top enjoying her last night of cheap(-ish) drinks along Rothschild. "The prices are already high — so now it will be really expensive."
"This sucks!" echoed her friend Nitzan, fake-sobbing into her purse.
The happy, casual religion of Tel Aviv is tied intrinsically to a slight buzz: Arak, like wine during Seder, has come to symbolize freedom and prosperity. In fact, explained liquor-store clerk Zecharia, cheap Arak is the only way he makes it through the Jewish holidays.
"On Pesach [Passover], the Jewish can't drink or eat chametz [food or drink made with fermented grains]," he said. "And it turns out that one of the single drinks that doesn't have chametz is Arak. So all Pesach, we always drink Arak."
Local band Shmemel drew the Middle East dictator comparison in a recent music video with over 85,000 views on YouTube.
Their harsh warnings for Lapid and his cronies, as translated by Haaretz:
“Hey fatsos, take it all, but if you want to survive, let us drink, god dammit. If you make us sober — we’ll make you like Mubarak. If you want to survive, don’t touch our arak.
"You don’t think things through, if we don’t get drunk, the designated driver won’t have any friends. We won’t be able to get through a family dinner with the parents. What’s the matter? Is this Iran? You couldn’t find anything else to demand?
"When we get to the bottom of the bottle, how will we calm our heads, when all we’ve got left is grape juice?
"You all don’t bat an eyelash – because it doesn’t affect your whiskey. Yes you’ve found a solution, you don’t need to be a genius — you get to drink and give us the bill.”
The song was dedicated to the country's most popular rebel blogger, Eishton, who called on his vast following — or "we the Arak people" — to shove the Finance Minister's cigar up his butt.
But will a pricier drunk be enough to send Tel Aviv's more-or-less comfortable middle class into the streets, a la Istanbul? Is our cheap summertime Arak worth the tear gas?
"I don't think people will drink less, I just think they'll be more bitter," said Itay Haza, the 28-year-old manager of Va'ad Habayit, one of the best dance bars along Rothschild. Asked how the tax will affect him on a personal level, he said ominously: "Ask me next week. But I hope it's not going to be what I think it's going to be."