Building Bridges

24 Jan

It’s been 10 months now since I started commuting to work by train here in Israel, and oh my – the stories I bring home with me. As a commuter, squashed up against your fellow travellers’ armpits, you bear witness on a daily basis to a vast array of human  shortcomings, peculiarities and – sometimes – kindnesses. More often than not, however, I find myself glowering at people and their awkward/rude/terrible behaviour.

In the winter months, it’s “COVER YOUR MOUTH!” that I yearn to shout most frequently, in summer it was “Let me introduce you to my lovely-smelling friend, deodorant”. I will readily admit that, a couple of times this winter, I have haughtily got up and moved up from my seat after being coughed at in the face by the person sitting opposite me.  You know, the one that is too lazy to reach up and just cover their mouth. I find it so abhorrent that I make sure to inform the perpetrator of his crime on both occasions,  with an outraged look of horror on my face and an “UGH, that was disgusting” thrown in for good measure.  Am quite sure that I look like a loon, or a stuck-up “she’s reading a book in English, that explains it” person, but I have a good reason for doing it.

It’s not the hygiene issues that have me concerned. Sure, it grosses me out. I have accepted that I’m not the train nurse, I can’t march up and down the aisles each morning handing out tissues to the obsessive sniffers (why why why don’t you buy yourself a packet of tissues? Too much bother?) and wet wipes to the sneezers, coughers and nose-pickers who then touch the seats, tables, handrails and ticket machines the rest of us have to use.  It’s not hygiene.  It’s manners. It’s basic human decency. Because, all of it, it starts small.

The ‘ugly Israeli’ flag flies embarassingly high on Israel Railways.  Was there ever a time here when people let passengers off the train before pushing themselves on?  Did the expression ‘ladies first’ pass this country by? Remember when people used to make way for soldiers, give them drinks & cake, and invite them over to their houses so they wouldn’t have to commute back to base? Remember when people were nicer? Last week I read a complaint on a community forum moaning about how the soldiers take up too much space with all their bags and guns on busy Sunday mornings! The result is that our soldiers are no longer allowed to travel by train on Sundays, and have to pay for their own buses back to base, which is absolutely absurd.

How about the man that elbowed me in the face in his hurry to get on the train the other morning? Forget any mention of an apology. There was also the guy who shoved in front of me, literally as I was putting my ticket into the machine, just so he could get in first; the woman in my office who fails to respond to my  ‘good morning’ when we pass in the corridor every single day.  There were the two young guys who shouted – shouted! – at an older woman twice their age who told them off after they pushed in front of her to get seats on the free bus. The free bus which is never full, which always has space. I turned round and told them to stop being disgusting, which only provoked laughter from two silly women at the front of the bus. Why didn’t they care that an older woman was being mocked in front of them? Why does nobody care anymore? What is happening here?

Our synagogue congregation didn’t care the other week, when an alter kakke got up to sing at the bimah and the guy next to him started rolling his eyes behind his back, causing everyone to laugh into their prayer books.  The diners  at a cafe at lunch today didnt care when they shouted – again, shouted! – at their waiter for not bringing the right juice, and then failed to thank him when he brought a replacement. That man in front of you might be serving you, but he’s not a machine. How did you forget this?

My hubbie, a born and bred Israeli,  notices different things and points them out to me. When ordering food in restaurants for instance,  I would probably begin with “Please can I have…” or “Is it possible to get….” .  But many (cue mass generalisation) Israelis march into shops and blurt out “I want….” without so much as a thought for the person they’re addressing. And it’s everywhere. Since he made me aware of this trope, I hear it more and more often. I want. I. Me. Me. Me.

What’s happening in Israeli society at the moment – the venom and maliciousness directed at anyone considered ‘other’ by the ultra-orthodox community, the disgust and contempt being thrown about by the secular community towards anyone resembling an orthodox Jew, the words, the terrible words, being spouted by all of our communities at the moment- in ym eyes, this is its’ seed.  It starts small. This lack of manners, the lack of basic decency and regard for each other as human beings – these are its cells. This is where hatred grows, where it gets its claws in.  It doesn’t help when sectors of the ultra-orthodox community embarass and ruin everything for their fellow charedim, nor am I attempting to trivialise or reduce the many, many things askew (to put it mildly) – especially for women – within the charedi community in modern-day Israel.  When you can barely relate to other people on a basic human level, when you see an 8 year-old girl as a sexual object, when you attempt to force women to be invisible, when you won’t give up your seat for somebody too different from you, something is horribly, terribly rotten.

Last week a female, fiercely secular attorney in my firm kicked up a fuss about having a male, charedi assistant moved to sit near her. As far as we are aware, he neither did nor said anything directly to her that could have elicited such a response – other than he is a male, charedi Jew, at a

time when there is not a lot of good feeling being extended towards the charedi community. Have we really come to this?

I don’t know when this culture of ‘me me me’ began here. How did we think Israel would be immune to a disease that is rampant the world over?

How deep our resentment is towards communities different from us, how overwhelming our ignorance, intolerance and contempt. When basic human respect is thrown over for a ‘principle’, worst of all a misguided attempt at claiming a ‘Torah principle’ we are so far removed from our mission to be ‘ohr l’goyim’ – a light unto the nations – that it’s not just laughable, it’s a disgrace.  I can’t even write it without wanting to scream/cry/hurl – who are we kidding? A light unto the nations?

I strive to understand how G-d could have ever tasked us with such a mission.  Do we have the potential to be more, to be better? How do we do it? Where is our leadership, where is our peoplehood?

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to attend an interfaith dialogue group at university. Sitting across the room from girls who at some point in their student careers may have attended on-campus, pro-Palestinian rallies shouting ‘death to the Jews’ was – unsurprisingly – difficult for me, a Jewish student constantly having to defend her love for and connection to Israel. We came ready to talk, they came ready for something else. While I had  hoped to discuss common ground – religious tradition, head coverings, common food restrictions, family issues- I remember that they jumped straight into the fire with comments like “I’ve been to a refugee camp in Jenin, you can’t sit there and say you want peace!”,  as if they were in a meeting with Shimon Peres, or “Let’s face it, the Passover story is made up – yes? Jews were never slaves in Egypt, you’ve invented this.”  It’s not easy tolerating, never mind having respect for, people whose views and way of life seem entirely contrary to yours. You either want to get up and walk away, or stay and fight your instincts, and learn a new way. I didn’t do well at that meeting, I fled. I stayed until the end – it was organised by my housemate, after all – but I didn’t want to stay and learn a new way, I wanted to get as far away from these girls, from the idea that there was something out there so opposite to me.

I have had to learn, over time, that you can’t walk away. There’s no hope for Israeli society if we all get up and walk away,  if we continue to tug and pull at the very, very thin fabric that binds us.  While knesset members throw water over each other during parliamentary meetings, the people on the ground are struggling to maintain equilibrium. How do we change the minds of those – secular and orthodox alike – who are teaching their children to look for divisions between us, instead of giving them the tools to build bridges?

It’s not all bad. I just read that the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, spent shabbat at a secular kibbutz, Ein Harod, a couple of weekends ago.  This simple act – people coming together, religious and secular, had never been done before by a Chief Rabbi.  If you read the article, you’ll feel a glimmer of hope.  This is called reaching out, this is called building bridges.


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One Response to “Building Bridges”

  1. tals February 2, 2012 at 13:55 #

    amen sister!
    i took my own version of that brilliant graffiti ( and have a big ol’ 8×10 framed print in my house. when we are millionaires we will print thousands and hand them out on the train!!

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