Thursday, 18 August 2016

Notes from a Small Country*

It is the custom of this blog to file in a report after each visit to Israel in order to document changes. Changes in Israel, changes in my perceptions of Israel, and through the analysis of the above changes in yours truly. With that in mind, allow me to summarise this particular latest visit of mine to Israel with the words of my mother: "Go back to where you are comfortable". Because if my mother can finally acknowledge I no longer belong in Israel...
You might already guess the following review will not compliment Israel much. There are several reasons for that, with me visiting at the peak of a boiling summer probably being the most crucial. However, what I would like you to bear in mind is that the purpose of this post is not to pass derogatory comments towards Israel but rather to cite the differences between the Australian (or rather Melbourne) standards I am used to and those of what I was used to until I left Israel. That, and pointing out how much Israel has changed since I left it (a lot!).

[Photo: Kosher certificate, "photography forbidden"]

With utmost certainty, I can attest the reason for the bulk of my lack of Israeli comfort lies in the heat. Tel Aviv summers are bad, and it is my impression is that they are getting hotter/worse. Not because of global warming, not because I came in from Melbourne winter, but because of the congestion. I could literally feel the heat trapped in between buildings and by the the vast slabs of concrete and pavement that cover everything.
Don't know why they need weather forecasts during Israeli summer. I can tell you what it would be like tomorrow: hot.

To this visitor, Tel Aviv seems like a one big construction site. Major roads have been dug up to cater for a future underground train (hear that, Melbourne?). Empty patches of ground have largely gone extinct, replaced by towers (as opposed to mere buildings). And existing building have been patched with additional floors added on top. The view from my mother's kitchen, once overlooking significant patches of Tel Aviv with one single tower to come between kitchen and sea, is now dominated by the next door building's extra floors and a lineup of towers that greatly diminish any appreciation of the sea beyond.
The trouble is that all these buildings carry people. And these people tend to carry cars.
Where once one might have had to drive around a couple of streets to find parking, I have now experienced (on multiple occasions) how people are forced to wait in a waiting list queue next to a pay car park and hope for parked cars to leave and make some space. I would call that insane if it wasn't the natural evolution of growing populations and growing resources.
Tel Aviv of today seems a place where one is stuck in a traffic jam the minute one gets out of one's garage. With the bulk of cars sporting scratches and bumps, one does wonder how badly this congestion shows itself in road fatalities.

I could see the look on my Israeli friends' faces when I complained about the noise. It said "what the hell is this weirdo on about?"
But I could feel it.
By six AM each morning I would no longer be able to sleep due to the constant hum from the outside world. When listening carefully, that hum would break down to traffic noise, the sound of people going about, as well as construction site noise. Regardless, the noise contamination represents a huge contrast to Melbourne, where the predawn silence can strike as horror movie creepy and where birdsong is often my wake up call.
I could feel it through music, too. At first I thought my speaker was broken; music simply did not sound half as good as it did before. Gone were the finer details, butchered was the dynamic range. But then it occurred to me: the speaker is just the same as it was before, it's just that the ambient noise level is so much higher.
To file under "a side effect of congestion".
[Note to self: you idiot, you have a phone app that measures sound levels and you forgot to use it.]
[Disclaimer: heat is responsible for worse sounding music, too: the hotter air is thinner and thus not as good at sound conduction.]

Books can be written about the Israeli driving experience. I will start by noting that, in my humble opinion and as a gross generalisation, I find the Israeli driver leagues better than their Aussie counterpart. Not because of superior genes or anything, but rather because the Israeli driver is like a crack commando soldier that is constantly practicing under extreme heavy fire and has to hone their skills to survive [and arrive at their destination], whereas the Aussie one can drive half way from Melbourne to Sydney on the wrong side of the road with little repercussion.
But this also means that the Israeli driver is a killer. If one intends to change lanes, one will receive an immediate beep! from one's side to inform one where one can stick one's intentions. If stops to allow pedestrians to cross at a crossing, one will receive an immediate beep! beep! from one's behind to suggest that, perhaps, these crossers are subhuman and one should consider running them over as a reward. If one starts to drive, one receives a beep! If one stops, whether to daydream or because one has arrived at one's destination, one receives a beep!.
It really is beep galore, Israel, and it seems contagious. Once someone decides to beep their car, others around will join in, as if trying to jointly compose a symphony. No one knows why cars beep anymore in Israel, they just do and constantly.
I sought a portable pedestrian horn just so I could join the orchestra, but alas they do not seem to sell one yet. Probably because Israelis do not like noise contamination.

George W is famous for saying "you're either with us or against us". Israelis seem to have taken W's words at heart and implement them in the way the speak.
I noticed two camps of Israelis: those that speak and those that shout. The first are nice to interact with; they feel human. The latter feel the need to ensure they bulldoze the person they are attempting conversation with. They are not particularly angry at you or anything, it's just that in the atmosphere of noise and beeping cars they have learnt that if they want to increase the probability of receiving attention they need to raise their volume. So they shout. By default.
I could not believe it, but my mother seems to spend the longer parts of the afternoon being shouted at. She doesn't go about seeking controversy or doing evil, she just lies on her comfy living room chair and switches the TV on to watch the afternoon's current affairs stuff. It's just that the bulk of the people on those shows belong to the default shouters.
I made sure I hide in the remote parts of the house during the afternoon. I have a problem with being shouted at.

It took one visit to the doctor, to get my mother's medicine prescriptions, to remind me of what the concept of "queuing" stands for in Israel.
I suspect that if I asked you to picture a queue in your mind, you would conjure an image of people waiting in line. Well, an Israeli queue is different; it's more like a rugby scrum. Only that this is no scrum between two opposing teams but rather a scrum where every person is their own team.
Instead of a line you have the queuing folk surrounding the service provider in a tight circular formation. Instead of order, along the lines of First In First Out, you have the scrum constantly studying one another to detect a weakness. Once such weakness is identified (no Israeli should fall for that old "I'm just here for a prescription" lie), the identifier shall strike to grab the attention of the service provider and win their personal match. And if you don't play rugby, well, good on ya, sucker!
Israelis have ways of making the service provider feel the pain of letting others wait. While waiting at a seeds/nuts shop (a popular form of snacks in Israel, although not as popular as it used to be) I noted how everyone waiting in the scrum around the guy currently being attended was busy picking seeds out of the trays and munching as they were impolitely waiting. Fuck hygiene, it's only thirty five degrees, what are the chances of spreading disease this way?

Since we've discussed food hygiene, I should add that - generally speaking - I much prefer what passes for food in Israel to the Australian preferences. Spices are not to be frowned upon in Israel, as well as the concept of taste. Luckily, Australia has its immigrants to set things right from its stomach numbing English origins, but with the rise of the white fascist parties in Australia that can no longer be counted upon as a given.
Also, it seems like nowadays wholemeal pita bread is pretty much everywhere in Israel, making my most favourite foods - hummus & Co - much healthier to consume.
What puzzles me, though, is the matter of pricing. Generally speaking, supermarket foods cost the same as in Australia or slightly below (there is variance, of course; some things cost much more). However, all non food stuff seems to cost way more than it does in Australia. And, to add a particular twist to the equation, restaurant food is vastly cheaper than in Australia.
I thus found myself consuming hummus like there is no tomorrow and paying only $8 for the pleasure; some times I pay more just for the coffee in Melbourne.
As for the most important matter of coffee: aside of the fact it is not an enjoyable beverage when the outside world is as boiling as your cuppa, it seems as if what passes for coffee in Israel is way weaker than the Melbourne equivalent. I would also note more "flexibility" in the definition of what different types of coffee stand for, whereas in Melbourne serving a latte instead of a flat white is punishable by beheading.
Still, as much as I love coffee, I'd pick the rich hummus ecosystem over the best of coffees any day; one of the worst things about visiting Israel is that it really takes a while before I can bring myself to consume what passes for hummus in Australia.
Sadly, all the points Israel earns in the culinary department evaporate because of one factor: the Kosher factor. Most non Jews don't realise, but for food to pass as Kosher it needs more than pig avoidance. For example, one is not allowed to mix meat with milk (no cheeseburger for you) and one is not allowed to cook on a Saturday (though the religious have all sorts of creative ways to cheat their god on this one).
Back in the Tel Aviv I remember, non Kosher joints used to be the majority. Things are different now, perhaps due to the economics of changing demographics. The Kosher places hold the vast majority. Which is fine when dealing with hummus, and is fine given shutting places of commerce for one day of the week and giving employees a bit of a break is not a bad idea at all. But it is shit all the rest of the time!
The people of Israel simply do not know what they are missing. It is as if religion had color blinded their tongues.
When even the non Kosher restaurant try their best to still cater for the less zealous, the food is compromised. When getting to bacon in the first place is hard, then one can forget about experiencing the finer nuances of bacon. Yes, if one seeks to then one can get their hands on pretty much all types of food, even milky bacon on a Saturday; the problem is with the seeking. In Australia you don't need to seek; the food just comes at you, beckoning you to try. The chances of missing out on greatness are thus greatly compounded.

Now we're getting to the meat of it.
On a couple of occasions I had people, upon learning I'm visiting from Australia, issue me with a dire warning. According to these experts who have never been to Australia, there is a severe antisemitism problem Down Under. Even worse, give it thirty years or so, and the Muslims will take over Australia just like they already took over Europe.
Historical accuracy aside, I agreed with them that there is rampant racism in Australia. However, I continued, the racism expressed towards Jews is nothing compared to what Muslims have to go through [and I will note I had said this before Pauline Hanson got four senators elected].
When I was a kid, I remember that parents used to tell kids off for saying bad things about Arabs. "You don't talk this way" was a common way of dealing with such talk in the Tel Aviv I grew up in. Nowadays, it seems the most common expression in the Hebrew language is "...and still they complain about us discriminating them", said with regards to the treatment of Israeli Arabs and the grossly obvious - if you ask me - discrimination against them. As that common expression testifies, racism is deeply ingrained into Israeli society. It is taken for granted. The problem, according to the majority of Israelis I have encountered, is not the racism; it is that the Arabs are complaining against the racism. I'm sorry, but this stinks, badly.
The view that holds [Jewish] Israelis above the rest is dominant. For example, when news broke out that Theresa May is going to be the next British PM, the only angle in the news coverage was whether "good for Israel". The same applies to the Trump/Clinton USA elections; who gives a shit whether Trump is a fascist, the only thing that matters is the way he is going to regard Israel as Mr President. The contrast with Australian news coverage could not be more obvious [though I do need to add a disclaimer concerning the Murdoch news outlets: I refuse to acknowledge their existence].
The problem with the racism is that it is pumped at Israelis relentlessly through the news. It is hard for a person to disconnect themselves from the constant bombardment of news getting shouted at them in Israel, impossible to take a break and disconnect oneself from the world (which is pretty much the default state of being in Australia). And when all one hears is a one dimensional continuous chain of inputs on how the Arabs want to kill us all, the result is as expected. Yes, international news coverage often sins in its portrayal of Israel as a force of pure evil, but the Israeli media does not do Israelis much favour, either.
Israeli society is in a pretty toxic state.

And in contrast...
Arriving midway on my journey back from Israel to Australia, I made my way to the terminal from which I was to hop on my flight to Melbourne.
It was quiet. Queuing was a polite and orderly affair. Personal spaces were respected. People were smiling at one another.
I wasn't home yet but it already felt like home.

*I couldn't help it, I'm in the middle of reading the latest [delightful] book from Bill Bryson.

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