Monday, September 22, 2008

By Amichai Lau Lavie


Hey World -

As many of you may know, I am spending most of this year in Israel, as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute. The program started on September 5th, and the past two weeks have been super intensive and an inspiring introduction to what will hopefully be a year of learning, reflection and growth – both professionally and personally. I plan to reflect and report on some of the highlights of this journey, and will be happy to share these snapshots with you. I’m hoping that these can serve as a way of staying in touch, and also, of providing information and conversation, on and offline, about some of the key issues and challenges that life in Israel and the modern Jewish experience present.

As an Israeli who has spent the past decade in New York, coming back to live in Jerusalem is giving me some interesting angles – coming from a place of inquiry with some (hopefully) healthy perspective. And as a cultural translator (isn’t that what Storahtelling is all about?), I am fascinated by the translation of ideologies, identities and practices between Israel and the US, in terms of socio-political values, and especially in terms of Jewish identity and activity. It’s interesting to explore the patterns and trends that indicate the way the wind blows and provides possible identification of key problems and their potential solutions – worldwide and locally. SO - Please consider these snapshots as openers for further dialogue – maybe this year of ‘espionage’ in the holy land will yield some useful data.

In addition to studying at the Mandel Institute’s fancy HQ in Jerusalem two days a week – with a stellar faculty – the program has several study tours to hotspots in Israel. Our first tour, held last week, was a three days trek to the Galilee – familiar and yet quite new, to me as well as to most Israelis who were on this journey. Here’s a note from Nazareth, a complex holy city, just in time for the High Holy days.

September 2008


Last Monday the market crashed on Wall St. but it was business as usual in Nazareth: dusty, drab and very hot. Busloads of Christian pilgrims from places like Warsaw and St. Louis flocked to the churches and to the colorful market, where shop owners, many of them Muslim, in the midst of Ramadan fast, were peddling souvenirs and fresh figs. Some of their neighbors, local Christian Arabs – the minority in town - ate lunch in restaurants but behind semi closed doors – a nod to Ramadan, and possibly to the intense heat. I was there among a group of 60, educators and community leaders, about 4/5 Jewish, and 98% Israeli, on a site visit with the Mandel Leadership Institute - investigating the city, learning the landscape and searching for patterns, for the ‘story’ of the city. We spent the afternoon in small groups, and when we gathered later that evening in a beautiful courtyard to share our respective experiences, many stories were told – weaving the sights of Nazareth with profound personal insights. One of the common themes to emerge was the remarkable and fragile cultural mix that makes up Nazareth’s population – an almost random micro specimen of Israeli society in particular, and global reality at large. Muslim, Christians and Jews - of all varieties, are the main players in this story, and the story is about a city in the midst of a split personality/identity crisis. The plot: attempts at co-existence, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness meet basic human aspirations, fear, and suspicion, mingled with a moody economy and three stubborn faiths. Big drama. Nazareth, somebody concluded that evening would be a great setting for a Bollywood movie.

(I arrived in Israel only a week earlier and my jetlag has been intense this time, so I was groggy when I got on our tour bus in Jerusalem early that morning - but I soon perked up – there were just too many interesting people to meet - Israeli and American leaders in educational, political and cultural arenas. the bus was buzzing with fascinating conversations and it became clear that the on-location study tour would also serve as background to our conversations and introductions to each other. By the end of the tour I’ve made some new friends, including K., an orthodox man who founded a network of vocational yeshiva high schools in Israel and was lamenting to me about his need to find a synagogue to really pray in; A., an energetic Druze artist and activist, award winning theater director from the Galilee who runs a successful cultural center in his hometown, the first of its kind, and Y. ,a secular Israeli educator and mother of 3, who, when not on the cell phone with either her colleagues at work or babysitters, discussed candidly the reasons for her recent shift to the political right and the social ramifications of that shift. But the official focus was the location – Nazareth, and her younger sister, Nazareth Illit - Upper Nazareth).

On the outskirts of Nazareth is a mountain called the Mount of the Leap – named for a dramatic moment in the life of Jesus, Nazareth’s homeboy. On the mount’s slope is a prehistoric cave, now a tourist attraction, pointing to the city’s ancient strategic location. Today, as for centuries, Nazareth and her economy are resting on the power of story – the mythic promise of a sex-free birth to a young woman who will one day become the Virgin Mother. Strip the Christian myth down to its basic essence and discover the primal human homage to the promise of birth and its miraculous dimensions. (Is it, possibly, an ancient indigenous shrine to the local Canaanite goddess of fertility, cleverly transformed and disguised?) Christian pilgrims and other tourists still come here, but not as many as before the intifada, and the demographics have been steadily changing as well. Even the Papal visit in 2000 didn’t help that much, and the city, once mostly Christian, is no longer so: the majority of the town’s population, totaling 65,000 is currently Muslim (67%). Most Christians, we were told by residents, have either emigrated overseas or left the city for smaller villages in the area. Migration is an important and painful topic of conversation in today’s Nazareth – a city now completely enmeshed with her younger sister up on the hill – Nazareth Illit (though the name “Nazareth” belongs to both cities – the pronunciation, though inconsistent, is distinctively different between the Arabic and Hebrew). Nazareth Illit was built In the early 1950’s, part of David Ben Gurion’s vision of ‘Making the Galilee more Jewish’. The city will grow over the years to include some 45,000 people, thanks to waves of immigration from Poland, Romania, Morocco, Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union. But the most recent wave of ‘immigrants’ to Nazareth Illit are wealthy Muslims from Nazareth –literally ‘moving on up’ the hill– and slowly changing the demographics and politics of the formerly sleepy Galilean city. Though this emigration is boosting the local economy - not everybody is happy here. As Israel celebrates its 60th year of existence and Palestinians are marking 60 years since the Nakba – ‘The Destruction’ - Nazareth and her newer sister on the hill have become yet another reality check, a vision of a multi-cultural democracy that attempts to contain minorities and conflicting cultures and religions with dignity, prosperity and peace. It’s not looking so good. Municipal elections are coming up in two months, and the streets of Nazareth Illit are filled with propaganda posters. One of the key issues is the ‘minorities’. We met Hava Bechar, deputy mayor of Nazareth Illit, who was quite candid in her views – fearing the Arab takeover of the city that will transform the Jewish majority into a minority. ‘President Shimon Peres visited here a few weeks ago’ she told our group inside a high school auditorium, ‘and told us – Nazareth Illit is becoming a mixed city, and you must accept that this is a democratic value – a state for all its citizens – but I refuse to accept that – what happened to Ben Gurion’s vision? This is a Jewish state and a Jewish city.’

But is it? The reason so many Arabs are moving into town is that so many of the younger population is moving out – seeking more dynamic urban centers or quieter suburban living. Meanwhile, residents of Nazareth are moving out and up the hill since they are not allowed to expand the city’s municipal zones - Nazareth remains virtually the same size it was in 1948, though its population grew from 10,000 (!)
Recent requests from Nazareth Illit’s newest residents for a mosque, church and cemetery have been so far declined by city hall – Mrs. Bechar considered the very idea to be an atrocity. Political pragmatism and ideological tensions are tearing these two towns apart – and the ugly demon of blatant racism is definitely out of the bottle. As the conversation with Mrs. Bechar got heated, one of the Mandel fellows tried to cool the room, suggesting that we are try to stay calm and at least make gestures of civility towards each other instead of hostile exchanges. Symbolic gestures, or the lack of them, are another important element in this painful reality: Basic gestures of goodwill and compassion that remind everybody of human-being, and shared destiny. Somehow, in the intense heat, these gestures of kindness are forgotten and are replaced by an angry fist – an image we will see all over town, as one of the political parties’ icon, splashed, violent, on huge posters.

Here’s one snapshot of a turf conflict, minor, but telling:

Inside Nazareth’s main attraction - The church of Annunciation, built on the spot where Mary heard the promise of her miraculous birth – a Polish group knelt to pray to the Virgin Mother, chanting, in Polish, as other groups, on line to reach the nave, filmed and yawned. I love churches as I do most places of worship, spying after a hint of the ‘authentic’ feeling of sacred hidden in a tassel or a hymn, no matter what deity is being invoked. The stained glass windows, the Polish hymns, the hushed tones – all familiar, but there was not great feeling of inspiration there. I’m not sure why. The church, built around an earlier one in the late 60’s felt cold and business like. Outside the church, an older Arabic man was selling Kaffiyes - Arabic headgear to tourists, and napping under an arch in the church’s outer wall, in between groups. As we sat on the curb outside the church, mid –day heat, tired from the walking, I watched him, some 50 feet away, and tried to take his picture as he slept. It was a colorful image. But as soon as I clicked the shutter he sat up and adjusted his Kaffie, glaring at me. He approaches me a few minutes earlier, yelling – why did I not ask his permission for a photo? I apologized and tried and explain that I thought he was asleep – a man in flowing white robes under an arch in front of the church, right on the public street – and didn’t think of waking him up to ask for permission. He was livid – accusing me (in English and Hebrew) that I should have asked him first – and should have paid him for the picture. ‘Learn a lesson!” he yelled at me and walked away.

Soon I forgot about the incident. But later, as we discussed the day, his anger returned. What was the lesson he wanted me to learn? What lesson do I want to take from this unpleasant interaction? I had no intention of harming him or damaging his dignity, but there I was, clearly ‘visiting’ his territory, his turf, another tourist in an endless sea of trampling feet, on a quick stop on a tour of a bigger reality. His frustration, indignation, anger, pain - at his situation, at what I represented – were sad. He became an object, a tourist attraction – and somehow, through that invasive act of being photographed, de-humanized. Was my lesson, perhaps, to be extra sensitive in general and have more consideration for other people? Maybe I should have offered to buy a kaffie – a gesture of goodwill. I regret not doing so. But from a bigger perspective - was there something about this scene that reflected on the bigger dialectics between Arab and Jew, as we negotiate public space, dignity, commerce, conflict? S., when I shared these thoughts with her later that night in the hotel lobby rolled her eyes – ‘get over it’, she said ‘and welcome to Israel’.

Nazareth and Nazareth Illit are now recognized markers for a growing rift between upper and lower – between lofty ideals and practical reality. How will Israel negotiate its Zionist ideology with the democratic vision? And how will the different sectors learn to honor the other’s pains and hopes? I left Nazareth on Wednesday afternoon and by the next day was back in New York, where Wall Street seemed to pick up and Sarah Palin covered the front page of several papers, a subject of similar conversations about discord and unity as were heard in Nazareth.
And now I’m starting to get ready for the High Holidays – reflection, assessment of what went wrong and what can I fix in my life. And I am thinking of gestures of kindness, and the need to be super sensitive, and the necessity of getting the facts straight and the data down – so that an informed conversation can take place of heated debates. Much to pray for as a new year comes on. And a lot to learn.
Wishing you all SHANA TOVA – a year of goodness – and healthy dialouges.


  1. Interesting story...
    I wander what is your background?

  2. Interesting story...
    I wander what is your background?