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Birthright, Part II

As the Birthright trip to Israel rolls on, it becomes apparent that our days and nights are not days and nights at all. Time is marked by a series of repetitions, little rituals embedded in bus rides and conversations that … Read More

By / February 23, 2009

As the Birthright trip to Israel rolls on, it becomes apparent that our days and nights are not days and nights at all. Time is marked by a series of repetitions, little rituals embedded in bus rides and conversations that churn out a rhythm underneath the relentless drive through speakers and sights, a counterweight to the unfathomable oldness of the place. Traditional divisions of hours and minutes fall by the wayside. We are the unconscionably modern led by the hand to find the source of our modernity and our connection to the ancient. The procession of millenia is yet another rhythm, a macro-rhythm, that finds resonance in the daily putterings of ugly Americans pushing sleeplessly through history.

We get daily updates about Gaza as the death toll mounts. Some soldiers join us. Their friends are getting sent into Gaza – they may be going soon too. At a bar off of Ben Yehuda Street, I talk to one of them and she explains that "everyone wants peace, but …" This is the standard syntax for every "Israel wants peace" explanation that I hear on our trip. Coming from a soldier, this "but" is understandable, built into the uniform. When we’re corralled into a conference room at the Hyatt Regency in Jerusalem we get an extension of this syntax from a reptilian "spokesperson" – it’s not quite clear whether or not he actually works for the Israeli government or just does this for kicks. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate how cold-blooded terrorists are treated humanely by the IDF, how they’re fed and cared for, and sometimes even released in exchange for captured Israeli soldiers. He attempts to describe the hopeless deadlock of Gaza and the West Bank.

Yet all of his rationalizations of Israel’s retaliatory policies explicitly refuse to account for the increasingly disparate body counts. On this point, every single speaker, every single guide remains obstinate. Again, for those of us who will have no truck with the messianic undergirdings of Taglit’s mission, hundreds upon hundreds of dead Palestinian civilians are not collateral damage; they are the moral clot that prevents would-be recruits from considering Israel as a true homeland. Taglit’s inability to address the devastation of Gaza, its unwillingness to engage the concerns of skeptics in a way that respects the seriousness of those concerns, represents the trip’s most profound and frustrating failure. I cannot help but feel that the root of this failure lays in the trip’s infantilization of its participants, as though the need to physically orient us in a foreign country required a concomitant breakdown of our ethical faculties.

* * *

The relentless alternation of sub rosa political arguments, stunning vistas, and extended bus rides begins to wear on you. Some of us are showing our age, often by demonstrating the ways in which they are really and truly in college. For one of my cohorts, college means drinking too much and vomiting on the ruins of a 1,500-year-old synagogue the next morning. This is a kind of vomit that you can’t perform in the ‘States. In an atmosphere where we’re encouraged to contemplate the nexus of the past and the present embodied by Jewish religion and tradition, where we’re constantly presented with parallels between the ancient and the modern, the secular and the mystical, vomiting on the remains of a Jewish settlement is a profane communion with the long-dead whose practices, borne of necessity and subsequently ritualized and passed down, bring us tourists to the temporal and cultural moment where such a vomit is not only possible, but may even be pre-ordained, teleologically necessary.

* * *

In the course of the rest of the trip, I learn that I am old, utterly expendable flotsam. I spend time floating between loosely formed groups, never quite settling down, even among the few people that I genuinely like. Someone comments that in the photos I look like I just wandered into the frame, a stranger drifting through the group. I’m an oddly spectral presence: bald, I look older than my age, which is already about as old as it can be before you’re no longer allowed to cash in your birthright. I wear only two or three shirts over the course of the trip, and in the photographs their timeless regularity makes me appear as a ghost, a glitch.

During the rest of our trip we see botanical gardens. We visit Mount Herzl, see a documentary on the Valley of Tears, ride jeeps up a mountain and stand on a cliff with a literally awesome view of the Sea of Galilee. I float in the Dead Sea, the first natural body of water I’ve touched in over a decade. We go to Masada and I try to explain the connection between Ezekiel 37 and Paul Celan’s "Todesfuge" to a guide (I don’t do a very good job). I express reservations about the dehistorization and political misuse of Masada. We go to a horrible dance club in Tel Aviv (I get into the spirit of things by drinking a Red Bull and vodka and doing several shots of tequila), and my brother and a friend and I bounce from the hotel to wander around the desolate streets at 4 a.m. We get drunk in the desert on New Year’s Eve and ride camels the next morning. I stumble upon an ideal breakfast, which I now recreate (minus the pickled herring) nearly every morning. This is what you tell your family when you get back from Birthright: a litany of the high points.

* * *

The spectacle, considered as the reigning society’s method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a false consciousness of time. – Guy Debord, 1967

But the heights of the high points are always determined by the depths of the low points. Our trip hits bottom on our first night in Jerusalem, where we are compelled to attend the Taglit Mega Event. We’re told this event is a big deal, that many important people will be there, that much coordination, planning, and money has gone into it. We’re told it’s going to be quite a scene.

We arrive at the Mega Event and it is indeed quite a scene. People who-knows-how-many different Birthright trips, thousands of them, are milling about the place. There are plenty of food vendors and booths to sign up to become an organ donor. As we walk up the stairs leading to the food concourse, a drum circle sucks up the dreadlocked and Jewfro’d contingent. It beats out a tattoo ushering us into the heart of darkness.

I join up with my brother and a few friends, buy some food and wander around. More and more people are pouring in all the time. After a couple of hours we’re wondering what it is we’re supposed to do. We sign up to become organ donors. As we slouch and people watch, sucking on sodas and eating gummi worms out of a cellophane bag, it dawns on us that the particular form of ennui we’re experiencing is familiar. We’re surrounded by things to buy but we have no interest in purchasing anything. We’re surrounded by throngs of people and we justify our resentment by inventing despicable personalities for them. There are tiles and a kind of diffused parody of natural light. We are effectively stranded inside of an ad hoc mall.

Eventually the doors to the auditorium open and the crowd floods into it. We’re told to find our group, and we locate them near the front of the stage. Music is pulsing through the PA and people are dancing feverishly in the aisles, waving Israeli flags, singing, and simply yelling. The place is packed, and while some of our group halfheartedly sways to the music, most look confused. For over an hour we sit surrounded by sweating masses screaming for no discernible reason. They’re just trying to build energy before the show. Our group leaders try to get us on our feet, but a combination of exhaustion and bewilderment prevents any real enthusiasm from building in our section.

The lights go down and a group of dancers appears on the stage. Fire spews from the apron and we’re treated to a miniature Vegas-style spectacle. We’re told that our trip marks the passage of the 200,000th Taglit participant through Israel. During the course of the evening there are appearances from Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt (the founders of Taglit), Shimon Peres (current President of Israel), Rami Kleinstein (apparently an enormous Israeli pop star), a group of pseudo-rappers performing a God-awful cover of "One Love," and many, many shout-outs to the many, many countries represented by the writhing hordes behind me. One of our group leaders has a handful of tiny Israeli flags sticking out of his beard and, despite the overwhelming noise from the crowd and the stage, people in our group keep falling asleep.

There’s an element of hysterical black humor to the event. The deeply disturbing irony of Jewish-Israeli political spectacle, of the ratcheting-up of nationalist sentiment via dazzling displays of charisma and physical prowess, and of the vein-popping enthusiasm of our guides at first elicits laughter and then a kind of dull acceptance. Against the backdrop of the Gaza invasion, the Mega Event shifts from ironic and misguided to grotesque and frightening. While Rami is blandly covering Maroon 5’s already bland "This Love," a guide asks me if I’m excited about seeing Israel’s biggest pop star. I tell him it’s interesting, but I’d rather see more of the country. He asks me why I won’t stand up. I try to mumble out something about political spectacle, about deep historical ironies, and so on. But I am exhausted. I can’t articulate a thing. I slump down and wait for it to be over.

When we’re finally let out, there’s a dance party waiting for us, replete with smoke and strobe lights. I wander anesthetized through the crowd, find the front steps, and sit on them, waiting for the bus to show up. As more people arrive to sit and wait, members of the group speak to each other in the same terms. Almost without exception, we agree that the Mega Event is, at best, a waste of time. At worst, it feels like the perverse expression of a terror buried deep at the heart of Israel’s politics. We climb off the bus and walk back to the hotel. Tomorrow is the Sabbath.

Wail

"Jewish religion allows no word that would alleviate the despair of all that is mortal. It associates hope only with the prohibition against calling on what is false as God, against invoking the finite as the infinite. The guarantee of salvation lies in the rejection of any belief that would replace it: it is knowledge obtained in the denunciation of illusion." – Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, 1944

On Friday in the late afternoon we get back on the bus and go to the Kotel. The driver drops us off; this is the last we will see of him until the next day. We walk through the narrow alleys of the old city and climb up to a rooftop. We’re told that we will have a brief Shabbat service. We look towards the Western Wall as the sun goes down and the women light candles. We’re all silently entranced by the glare on the Dome of the Rock. Through the lighthearted and (on my part) rote recitation, a genuine feeling of ease infiltrates the rituals. Prayers punctuated by jokes, moments of unburdened silence, speculations concerning the quirks of the architecture drift through a vague atmosphere, a feeling that we’re seeing something we’re supposed to see. A concatenation of myth and blood seems to radiate from the city itself. We linger on the rooftop after the service and a few people ask guide NP some historical questions. The answers oscillate from the recitation of historical fact to quiet semi-rants about the day when "we" finally tear down the Dome and put "those totalitarian bastards" in their place. The first person plural makes me shift in my shoes.

Eventually we climb back down the staircase and make our way towards the wall itself. Men go to the left and and women to the right. On Shabbat, the Wall is packed. People stand shoulder to shoulder. Some pray, some simply stand and chat. Many are standing with their noses against the wall, eyes clenched, and screaming. Others daven furiously, their bodies shaking, fists clenched or gripping their prayerbooks. A couple of us fall behind the group. "I don’t even know where we’re going!" "Look for the guy with the beard and the hat." Eventually we find them. Our group meets up with another Taglit group and NP, yelling over the prayers, tells us that we’re about to cause a scene, something that our particular trip is known for. We get in a circle (yes!) and the service begins. I mumble along, but mostly exchange glances with a friend. Then something begins to build in the group and the clapping begins. The circle begins to rotate, arms link or grip shoulders, and the group picks up speed. My friend and I edge our way out of the circle where we see a few scattered outliers.

The dancing continues and the group condenses from a circle into a spinning mass of people. Arms waggle, whip, and grab at the outliers, incorporating them into the mass, which seems to hover over the ground, shaking and rocking and screaming. To our right there is a young boy asleep, laying across two chairs, his sidelocks drooping over his face. His father and brother stand nearby, staring at the hovering cluster. As I’m contemplating the boy’s stillness in the midst of holy chaos, a hand grabs my shoulder and pulls me in. I expect a gentle introduction into the mass, but I’m really yanked into it immediately find my arms interlocked with other arms. There’s no tactful way to extricate myself, so I circle, hover, expand, contract, mouth the words. The cluster metastasizes the group’s bro-ish energy, fusing the experience of the wall with a particular form of masculinity that is anything but holy. Suddenly my religious scruples drop away, and I’m horrified to find myself at a frat party without the consolation of keg beer. Under normal circumstances, so the theory goes, a woman mediates the homosocial bond between men. Here there is only God.

* * *

We reconvene outside of the pit area. The women come back. I ask what it looked like on their side of the wall. "Just people praying." There is really no gender divide as far as the bulk of the trip goes. CM, one of our guides, repeatedly incurs the wrath of the women on the trip by attempting to explain why women "aren’t" (read: "are") dirty, why women should try to find a husband as quickly as possible, and why the production of babies is your duty. Most of this is simply ignored, but there is a growing resentment. After we return from the Kotel, she tells us that she was engaged to her husband after only three dates, and then invites members of the group to a seminar about Judaism and dating. I’m told that attendance is sparse.

We’re informed that, since our bus driver observes the Sabbath, we’re going to have to walk back to the hotel. Under normal circumstances this would only take about an hour, but since the IDF has barricaded various parts of the city, it’s now closer to two. We walk directly from the wall to a strip mall and sit down on some stairs. We pray over wine and one of the most delicious pastries I’ve ever tasted, and then begin the trip to the hotel. After about thirty minutes, the group stops. We’re about to pass through one of the most religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and we’re told that, for our safety, the women must walk behind the men. There’s some grumbling, but less than I expect. We’re told that its customary to say "Shabbat Shalom" as we pass by the neighborhood’s residents, but that if anybody yells at us, we shouldn’t respond. If anybody throws anything, we should follow the guide’s lead. They don’t like noise, they don’t like large groups of people, and they don’t like Americans. We enter the neighborhood, and it’s instantly familiar. Though the graffiti is in Hebrew rather than English, this neighborhood looks more like my neighborhood in New York City than anywhere we visit. The broken windows, overflowing dumpsters, and half-stolen bicycles that line the street make me perversely homesick. The form of quiet that we pass through is the quiet of uncertainty. A few people walk by us. We nod and greet them. Nobody throws rocks.

After the trip, an old friend who went on the trip years ago tells me that his group was actually chased out of the same neighborhood when the men and women merged before officially exiting the area. We experience no such thing. The admixture of deep religiosity and death saturates Jerusalem’s narrative no less for us than it does for history. If only by way of rumor and intimation, it’s easy to tell that we’re on violent ground. When the guides give us a geography lesson every day on the bus, we’re told of our physical relation to Gaza. In the Bedouin camp where we spend New Year’s Eve, with the sound of military exercises echoing in the background, we’re told exactly how many kilometers separate us and Hamas’s rockets. These sorts of updates have a paradoxical feel. They remind us that we are safe. But being reminded that we are safe reminds also us that there are reasons for the reminders.

* * *

By the time we head for the airport many of us have entered a totally unique state of exhaustion. My speech is completely incoherent. I can utter only the bare facts: "I am tired," "I have an iPod," "The plane will take off in a few minutes," "This line is long." Any interpretive faculty is long-gone. As soon as I take my seat on the airplane, I am unconscious. A primal instinct for food awakens me as the dinner and breakfast carts roll by, but as soon as I am done I fall back into catatonia. About nine hours into the flight I wake up for good. I am sitting in the middle of the center section of the airplane. A friend is sitting in the aisle seat to my right. I look over groggily in time to see the woman sitting across from him vomit directly into the aisle. A bit splatters onto his pants. Nobody says anything. Nobody cleans it up. He wakes a few minutes later and looks at me. "Did someone just vomit on me?" "No."

The next few weeks are spent recounting the trip to friends and relatives. The story varies depending on whom I’m speaking to. Articulating what could make a Birthright trip (or at least my Birthright trip) so vexing and strange involves gaining distance from your place at the center of what is an essentially rhetorical experience. You are there as a potential recruit, and in that sense you’re not quite a "tourist." The trip’s conspicuous attempts to keep us away from any non-Taglit-affiliated Israelis marks the fact that (putting aside any obviously untenable notions of an "authentic," singular "Israel") what we see is a kind of immersive slide show, with the tensions and violence of the real lingering on the periphery. These tensions peek through at key moments, assuming the form of a dream-like pleasure, an awareness of the frame itself. The pleasure of the frame is not the only form of pleasure available, but it encompasses all of the others.

Click here to read the first part of this article.

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