Note: This piece and its companion, to be published next week, were written from notes taken while on a Birthright trip that spanned the end of December, 2008 and the beginning of January, 2009. Though written in the present tense, they are not, strictly speaking, journals or diaries. They were all written with the benefit of hindsight.
"If it is now asked, ‘Do we presently live in an enlightened age?’ the answer is, ‘No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.’ As matters now stand, a great deal is still lacking in order for men as a whole to be, or even to put themselves into a position to be able without external guidance to apply understanding confidently to religious issues. But we do have clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction and that the obstacles to general enlightenment–to their release from their self-imposed immaturity–are gradually diminishing. In this regard, this age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick." – Immanuel Kant, 1784
My brother and I wake up to the news that 155 Palestinians are dead in Gaza, killed by Israeli missiles after a barrage of Hamas rockets had fallen on Israeli cities. We finish packing anyway and head to JFK with the assumption that the trip will be canceled, that Israel is only days away from another war. We show up four hours early, as instructed. There are a number of groups milling about, and it takes a few minutes to find ours. I have left most of the planning to my brother and haven’t even bothered checking on the details once the trip was set. As we approach, the group leader NP’s hat and flowing beard rise monolithic above the group of early-twenties-ish heads. Their faces shaved and cheerful, bordering on euphoric, they grab name tags from him as he describes a record-producer friend of his (a real catch) to a tall, eminently marriageable blond. I panic.
What do I know about the people who were to shepherd me through Israel? You hear horror stories. Interminable red-faced Zionist harangues, thinly-veiled meat-markets and marriage-orgies, cult-like protein deprivation, and so on. I’m a casual atheist raised Jewish and I have visions of an extremely awkward 10 days of Masada re-enactments, forced bar mitzvahs, and the great M.D./J.D. hunt. Looking at the name tags, I see Goldstein, Wasserman, and so on, and then I remember that Hebrew school was yet another circle of middle school’s Inferno, not to mention the last time I had to be social with this many Jews.
The flashbacks catch me off guard. Even though I’m in my mid-twenties, working on a doctorate in American literature, teaching at a very respectable college, I suddenly feel withdrawn, cynical, beleaguered, stand-offish, ugly, ignorant. I have reverted to being the under-developed skeletal soul that I spent a decade outgrowing. Still, I give my name, take my tag, and drag my ugly duffel bag to ticketing.
* * *
Birthright (Taglit in Hebrew) is a no-brainer. A (more or less) free trip to Israel offered to every Jew between the ages of 18 and 26, courtesy of a few rich American Zionists and the Israeli Government, it’s designed to connect young Jews to Israel. Who wouldn’t take a free trip, replete with free hotels and meals, to another country? This temptation is the founding assumption: even non-believers, even those who lack sympathy with Israel, will find it hard to turn down the offer. Birthright itself is actually an umbrella encompassing several varieties of trip run by several varieties of facilitators. All of them take Zionism as their central tenet, but some are more religious than others. As I stand next to my brother in the ticketing line, I finally wonder about the precise mechanics that led him, a more religious Jew than I, to choose this trip out of the many offered. Could this be a discreet ploy on his part to stir up whatever cooling embers of belief I have left? It’s a long line and I’m looking at him sideways the whole way.
We pass through security and head to the gate. I drift in to the comforts and rituals of pre-flight: listlessly half-reading a novel, compulsively buying and eating overpriced snacks, chewing half a pack of gum. I glance around and it’s easy to see that, at 25 years, I must be one of the oldest on the trip. There’s a kind of giddiness that permeates these kids – they’re social, wandering up to each other, making introductions, exchanging the names of colleges, ages, and so on. Some of them are holding beers, and a couple are double-fisting, pre-gaming for what they assume will be a barely-remembered pub-crawl through the Holy Land. Nobody talks about the New York Times headlines staring out from the gift shops.
There are at least 100 people wearing Birthright name tags at the terminal. Those that haven’t congealed into groups of fours and fives sit paired-off around the terminal. My eyes occasionally meet those of a few of the scattered fellow restless. We look away quickly, but they’re not reading their novels either. A pair of very young-looking girls wearing University of Virginia sweatshirts talk to each other quietly as their heads swivel, and I imagine they see what I see: the first hour of a frat party about to go airborne. I don’t approach them because I value reticence and skepticism in these situations – if we congeal, blend in and eventually begin the irregular orbits of these other groups, we risk falling into nondifferentiation. We risk the slipstream of sociability that smooths over rankles, lowers hackles: we risk acquiescence. This is surely what they want from us, and I imagine we sit silent and separate knowing that our near-total ignorance of each other is an ace-in-the-hole that we can play, but only if and when we want to.
Eventually they ask us to gather into the groups designated by the number on our name tag. I haven’t put mine on. I dig it out of my carry-on, find my group, and my brother and I sit down with about 35 others in group 18. We look around at the faces that we’re to spend the next 10 days with. A name game commences, the first of two we’ll experience on our trip. We’re to go around the group, say our name, where we’re from, and our "favorite piece of furniture." Where I’m "from" is a tricky question and I answer it according to my mood. I tell them I live in New York and elicit audible admiration by choosing "hammock" (full disclosure: not actually my preferred furniture). After the name game ends we’re handed The Rules. There aren’t that many and only three strike me as having any consequences, but their implications are manifold:
1. No drinking alcohol anywhere other than the two bars and the winery we will visit as a group. You may not purchase alcohol anywhere outside the hotels. You may not get "drunk." "Drunk" is defined as any degree of consumption that results in vomiting, inappropriate behavior, or that prevents you from participating fully in group activities. Anybody who violates these conditions will be sent home immediately at their own expense.
2. You must stay with the group at all times. Anybody who intentionally wanders from the group or goes off on their own at any time will be sent home immediately at their own expense.
3. You must wear your name tag at all times.
As the bearded NP and fellow guide CM flesh out the implications of these rules and the reasoning behind them, the contours of the coming week begin to emerge. I’m nervous at this point: dreams of meandering walks through Tel Aviv have been replaced by disconcerting visions of field-trip protocols, buddy checks, and the reawakening of teen rebellion. Not that I’m pro-vomit, but we are, after all, adults, and the return of the impulse to sneer in the face of a camp counselor is a reminder of the essential pettiness of that gesture. And while the logistics of leading a group of foreigners through a country on the brink of war certainly demands vigilance, at the least, the name tag is a bit humiliating.
I half-heartedly introduce myself to a few people in the vicinity, and totter around the airport until we board the plane. After a ten-hour flight, another orientation (the first of innumerable times we’re encouraged to stand in a circle, jump up and down, and hug people who are, at that point, total enigmas, save for their preferred furniture), and then a long bus ride from Tel Aviv to a hotel in the Golan Heights where we will stay for several days.
We’re reminded about the name tags. I stuff mine deeper into my bag, and I have to remind myself that I am in Israel because it looks like the Arizona desert where I grew up. I am in Israel and I am going to see some shit. I hated being a child. I couldn’t wait to grow up. I spend my first night in Israel staring at the ceiling.
"There is absolutely no difference between a hard thing and a soft thing so long as they are not brought to the test." – Charles Sanders Peirce, 1878
After a night spent staring at the ceiling, we get up early and head to breakfast. Some circle the food suspiciously – most of it is clearly identifiable: hard-boiled eggs, bell peppers, cottage cheese, salad, French Toast, etc. A few bowls of yogurtish-looking material turn out not to be yogurt at all, but something else entirely. A few people, like myself, linger around the food because we dread having to find somewhere to sit. It’s the first day of school, after all, and one defines oneself by the company one keeps. The best strategy is to get an empty spot and wait for people to congregate around you either by choice or necessity, but that’s no longer an option. I take a chance and sit next to a few nice-looking people who turn out to be from New York. We talk about a lot of New Yorky things.
We’re about ready to head to the bus and embark for Tzefat, one of Israel’s holy cities, but, again, we’re corralled into a circle in the hotel lobby and told by one of our well-meaning Israeli guides to play a name game. This one is "I Never," which is usually a kind of sexual party game, but here it’s shorn of its titillating overtones (I volunteer that I’ve never been to Hawaii). Eventually it’s over.
The drive to Tzefat is heartening. As the bus winds its way up into the city (the highest in the region), we’re told that it is the center for the study of Kabbalah, and that this will be one of the focuses of our visit there. The city is built almost uniformly of the same off-white stone, and besides the striking visual effect, it makes wandering through the city a disorienting experience. Because Tzefat is basically built on the side of a mountain, it’s easy to get a basic orientation, but once you try to retrace your steps, the winding alleyways and streets have a habit of leading you back to your starting point.
Tzefat is also home to an artist community of sorts. The relationship between Kabbalah and the artists seems pretty close, and we get a glimpse of it while visiting Avraham, who is basically an American hippie from Michigan who found Kabbalah through the writings of Aryeh Kaplan while in college. We’re taken to Avraham, it seems, because, whether or not he actually gets high, he’s a stoner. Instantly recognizable as the type who will wander into a house party and extemporize on the virtues of yoga or Reiki or Rumi or Phish to anyone willing to listen, Avraham is there to pitch Kabbalah to us. Most of this pitch consists of repeating how "amazingly, totally awesomely awesome" (verbatim, by the way) Kabbalah is, and of how it will totally change our perceptions about everything. The evidence is right before our eyes, apparently.
Just hours after our guides were warning us of the shallowness of the recent celebrity Kabbalah craze, we’ve been confronted with somebody who pushes Kabbalah like hits of ecstasy. No doubt Avraham means well, but I can’t help but feel that what’s on display here is a familiar blip in an extremely unfamiliar place. His Americanness and his particular genre of personality is on display for us, a vexed mirror that shows us traces of our culture in an ancient city thousands of miles away. Avraham’s speech patterns, his broad smile and his way of ending every other sentence with "man," signal his alignment with some of our most cherished mass-cultural forms. Kabbalah does not come to us through Madonna’s plastic spiritualism; rather it comes by way of Arlo Guthrie and Cheech and Chong.
We depart from Avraham’s studio and visit a series of cramped, ornately decorated synagogues, their art and pillars completely alien and terrifying. By the time we leave, it’s raining. Tzefat is a spectacular place to be rained on, and so I’m a bit dismayed when we’re pulled into a Chabad-run hostel in order to play another name game. This one lasts for well over an hour and takes the well-known form of "My name is [name] and I’m bringing [name of item that begins with the first letter of your name] to the picnic." I bring marmalade and, again, minds are blown. But really it’s like hell, and I say so. After which I’m reminded that Jews don’t believe in hell. And yet I feel I must be in hell. The Kabbalah has much to say about this.
We’re eventually released back into the rain to eat. I have some amazing falafel and an even more amazing cigarette. We’re supposed to be back on the bus in about a half hour to head up to a kibbutz on the Lebanon border. Someone forgets something back at the hostel and a few of us volunteer to go back and get it. This is when I get somewhat profoundly lost. Lacking all sense of direction in even the most familiar places, the mise en abyme of Tzefat’s alleys sends me into a tailspin. We’re able to get someone to show us where the hostel is, but finding the bus is problematic. In these circumstances, though, I begin to realize that getting lost is the only avenue to independence. Eventually, some kindly strangers point us sort of in the right direction and we clomp down a massive stone staircase to the bus. A guide meets us halfway and reminds us not to run, presumably because water makes things slippery.
We head up to the kibbutz and we’re shown the series of barbed-wire fences that mark the border with Lebanon. The kibbutz occupies an important tactical position – it has the high ground that looks down over Lebanon, which allowed IDF troops to repel Hezbollah soldiers as they attempted to breach the border during the 2006 war. Apparently not a single one made it across. The dining hall of the kibbutz bears the scars of this tactical position – the building’s facade is covered in divets made by shrapnel from the rockets that fell during the war. There is a hole in one of the front doors.
Once inside the building, we’re introduced to Aryeh ("lion" in Hebrew), who helps run the kibbutz. Aryeh was born in America and decided to make Aliyah in the 60’s rather than "waste” his life in the States any longer. He’s been through four wars, and it shows. His face is deeply lined and never quite shifts into neutral. Either he speaks animatedly or stares with roving, wide-eyed intensity. He tells us that they plan to leave the façade unrepaired as a reminder of the war and what it cost to maintain the kibbutz. Aryeh’s a bit schizophrenic, swinging from full-throated, bright-eyed laughter to a contemptuous sneer in a matter of seconds. He is also possessed of an unparalleled Zionist fervor. Most of what he says amounts to invectives against the world media for what he – and many people we speak to on our trip – perceives as entrenched anti-Israeli bias. "Read your history" he tells us, and launches into a detailed explanation of why only Jews have the right to control Israel, of how the world is saturated with anti-Semitism, and, implicitly, why we ought to abandon our superficial, petty lives in the States and move to Israel. Any Arabs you meet, even in the states, he says, are not, will not ever really be, your friends. They have agendas and they are tricky people, he warns.
Aryeh’s arguments are impressive insofar as they trace continuities in ancient wars over the holy land up through the present day, insofar as they rationalize all of Israel’s action against the Palestinian people as a necessary and commensurate retaliation against outrageous acts of aggression, and insofar as they are able to reframe the broader political landscape of the Middle East within an essentially messianic teleology. But everything he says is contingent on an undergirding Zionism. If one is a Zionist, then Aryeh’s explanations provide a neat causal chain that leads to the present political situation. If one is not, then he has nothing worthwhile to say.
Aryeh is literally unable to think about the notion of moral complicity, of what the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian death tolls look like to someone who bears a certain skepticism towards the Zionist metanarrative. When someone asks him to try to think about the situation from a Palestinian’s perspective, he blurts out "Why should I?" He wields an aphasic’s resistance to abstraction in service of the motherland. It’s no surprise that this refusal to think hypothetically typifies a key tactic in many of the Zionist arguments we hear on our trip. And it’s no surprise that nothing I hear on my trip is helping me think past a Palestinian death toll that mounted steadily throughout our stay. Without belief, this mode of argument comes to nothing.
* * *
Wet and cold, we shuffle out of the dining hall and toward the bus. My brother takes a picture of one the kibbutz’s residents, who asks him to delete it: "Last time that happened, I ended up on YouTube and almost lost my Green Card." We head back to the hotel for a bit before our dinner and "night out" in nearby Tiberias.
At the restaurant we’re plunked down at a table and an incongruous series of dishes appears before us: spaghetti, hummus, fried fish, salad, orange juice, pizza, eggplant, and so on. Gradually people drift to the bar at the back of the restaurant and lines of people stream back wielding shots. Dinner lasts about a half hour and we’re walked over to Big Ben, the first bar we’ll visit on the trip. Big Ben is located in the middle of a strip mall. It’s a long, narrow affair modeled after the American version of an English pub.
It’s also incredibly loud. "In Da Club" is pumping and the guides try to get people to step onto the dance platform and sing karaoke. My brother and I wander to a side room that’s a bit quieter and settle down at a table with a handful of other people from the group. It turns out that many of these people will become friends of a sort as the trip goes on. I think of us as a small group of draft dodgers. The uncanniness of the setting seems to amp up the pints of Goldstar that I’m gulping, but I retain brief snippets of conversation. Gossip, Heidegger’s Nazism (a party favorite), Rate My Professor, Bushwick, Chicago, whether or not we’re being indoctrinated (too early to tell), the nonchalant way one of our guides dances while holding his gun.
Eventually we’re led back to the bus. We only have to pull over once for vomiting: not bad. So much for Rule #1. As we curl around the Sea of Galilee, I think about Aryeh again. If there is a time to contemplate the emptiness of American life it is now. We would carry that emptiness with us in a travel size tube, I suppose, if it weren’t available for purchase. Aryeh and Big Ben become part of Birthright’s dialectical logic: thesis (Aryeh), antithesis (Big Ben), synthesis (late-night half-drunken outlining of the Dialectics of Birthright). A half-coherent murmur drifts up from the back of the bus. Forced to find a position between the impending Gaza invasion’s moral aporia and a night at Big Ben, I choose the bulwark of a temporary, recalcitrant silence.