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How the social protests in Israel broke down national borders

While trying to plan a new life abroad following the failure of the 2011 social protests, Regev Contes uncovers a family secret that radically alters his Israeli Jewish identity.

Israelis protesting in Tel Aviv in demand social justice, summer 2011. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Israelis protesting in Tel Aviv in demand social justice, summer 2011. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Regev Contes’ new documentary film, “Goodbye Adolf,” which recently aired on Israel’s Channel 1, is full of courage and honesty. (Warning: this article includes spoilers.

Contes, one of the leaders of the 2011 social protests, brings to the screen what we social activists felt after the failure of the protest: how it divided us, how we gave up and surrendered, how we scattered and dispersed to all corners of the globe in search of a suitable home. The film revolves around Contes, who cannot contend with the soaring housing prices in Israel and, contrary to his friends, whose parents are in no position to offer him financial assistance. In other words, Contes is part of the Ashkenazi disadvantaged class. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film.)

In a moment of bitter disillusionment, Contes is resigned to using his last remaining savings from his pension fund. Contes and his wife, Shir Nosatzki, are thus forced to migrate, finding Berlin to be a convenient and suitable location. The only thing that bothers them seems to be Berlin’s Nazi past, and the fear of being a Jewish minority in Germany.

Contes’ film deconstructs the Israeli national imagination — one based on national identity, which views itself as an imagined family meant to provide citizens with food and security. The disintegration of national identity makes clear how class functions in Israel, with the rising cost of living leading to fear and anxiety. But in 2011 we did not fall into the trap of blaming each other for this situation. Instead we refused to believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told us that we should unite in fear against the Iranian nuclear threat or Hamas. In the internet age, we no longer believe the lies of the ruling class as and its right-wing neoliberal government. The 2011 protests changed our collective ethos. The Israeli public learned that the government lies, using spin and media campaigns to mask its corruption and plunder.

Solidarity from the ultimate nemesis

Contes wakes up and realizes that the country is not actually providing him with the answers he is looking for. He opens up his laptop and starts to read about options for immigration.

Tel Aviv protest for social justice, June 30, 2011 (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Tel Aviv protest for social justice, June 30, 2011 (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

One interesting moment in the film takes place toward the end, when Contes tries to find out why he was given his middle name, Michael. Growing up, his father had told him that he had an “uncle” named Michael. It is while digging through the family archives — in order to put together the paperwork needed for a Polish or Slovak passport — that the course of Contes’ life changes. Suddenly he is re-writing his roots: he discovers that not a single person in the previous five generations before him, on both sides of his family (dating back to the first half of the 19th century) was called Michael. Only then does Contes discover the origin of the name: a Hungarian SS guard named Michael Gombkoto, who stole potatoes and gave them to his grandmother, an act that saved her life while she was in the concentration camp.

Decades later, as Contes deconstructs his national identity, he understands that his Israeli Jewish identity is not fixed and static — that it is fluid and can change. Contes is able to see how a Nazi guard, his ultimate nemesis, could also be someone with whom he could build solidarity.

“Goodbye Adolf” ends with the desire to travel and emigrate, but not with the move itself. We grew up in the national imagination that outlined the beginning of our life. We didn’t have the opportunity to see the humanity in the Other. Jewish nationalism brought us up to believe that Israel can rely only on itself. But in the summer of 2011, we learned that we couldn’t rely solely on our government for real social change. Five years after the failure of the social protests, with social inequality only deepening, we are still looking for a new direction. We must forget about national borders, and instead aim to find humanity and solidarity beyond the scope of our exclusivist national family.

What would happen if our education system taught us that Israel is not the only safe refuge for Jews? That nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are not an insurance policy for us? What would happen to students who began to view their parents’ immigration to Israel as just one of several options? Do anti-Semitism and fascism pose a similar threat today as they did before World War II? Maybe this way Israel would not need to endlessly victimize itself and unite against an imagined enemy.

A real cosmopolitan model for Jewish life

Contes’ film reveals to us how German identity is far more complex than the worn out binary of friend or enemy, Nazi or Jew. Instead we see how nationalism is reconstructed around other values. In a rare moment, the SS officer’s name becomes part of the Jewish story, lodging itself into the most intimate memories of Jewish traditions. Although the parents claimed to have “forgotten” Michael’s story, Contes’s determination sheds light on the truth.

Israel is tied to the German regime. The Jewish people suffered near-extinction in countries under Germany’s control. But Israel also adopted the old model of German nationalism: one nation, one language, one land. That is why Israel seeks to get rid of the Palestinians and do away with the bi-national reality in Israel-Palestine. The fleeing of more than a million Syrian refugees and asylum seekers to Germany has created a cosmopolitan reality. Israel, on the other hand, cannot even imagine the return of millions of Palestinian refugees, who were expelled when the state was founded in 1948. Despite the ugly reality, Contes, who represents the Ashkenazi lower-middle class, is able to dig deep and find the most profound sense of humanity.

This seed that grows and connects humans to one another, one that sprouts as Contes faces his deepest crisis, shows that even the failure of the 2011 protests can teach us something that goes beyond our secure national borders. This seed leads me to recall Berlin before World War II, which served as a real cosmopolitan model for Jewish life. Perhaps today we can see a new model being built among Israelis, Palestinians and others from the Middle East, along with other immigrants, living together in Berlin.

Mati Shemoelof is a poet, editor and author who lives in Berlin. Join him on his FB page, website. And Twitter. First published on 972MAGAZINE

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Israelis, Iranians pay the same price for nuclear ambitions

The discussion surrounding Netanyahu’s Congress speech presumes that Iran does not have a right to nuclear weapons but that Israel does. Another way of looking at things is a nuclear-free Middle East, and an alliance between the oppressed citizens of Iran and Israel.

IAF fighter jet during an exercise (photo: IDF Spokesperson)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the United States, which was ostensibly meant to address the danger of Iran’s nuclear program, has a hidden angle that goes unspoken in the Israeli media

The discussion surrounding Iran deals mainly with whether the Islamic Republic has nuclear capabilities. This angle does not deal with Israel itself, or with nuclear proliferation of the entire Middle East. In light of the upcoming elections, it is especially important to note the exorbitant price that Israeli citizens pay (a quarter of whom live below the poverty line) for Israel’s choice to be a nuclear power, according to foreign sources. Those same sources claim Israel has Jericho missiles, tactical delivery systems, ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-armed fighter jets, as well as hundreds of nuclear bombs that continue to be developed

Do nuclear weapons protect Israel? Is the investment worth it? These issues are never spoken about. Preventing the enemy from obtaining similar weapons is practically axiomatic in this country. According to the West, the Jews are allowed to have an unsupervised, unlimited nuclear arsenal with no environmental regulations. Think about the danger such an old nuclear reactor poses to the nearby city of Dimona. Is the reactor carcinogenic for its workers and the people who live in the area? Where does Israel bury its nuclear waste

According to the West, Israel can have nuclear weapons because of the Holocaust, but the Iranians are dangerous because their previous leaders have called for the elimination of Israel. And here? Both the Right and the Left adopt this premise

The West encourages Israel to arm itself with nuclear weapons; Germany sells us nuclear submarines; the United States sells us fighter jets. But are the Germans and the Americans aware that Israel’s arms industry, and the generals who control Israeli politics, are actually starving their citizens while they become rich? Are they even concerned by the sale such a dangerous weapon to a third world country such as Israel? Why is there no parity between Israel and Iran’s potential nuclear arsenal

The Iranian people also suffer due to their leaders’ desire for the doomsday weapon, despite the societal costs that it brings about. Two years before the Arab Spring, the Iranian people tried, unsuccessfully, to revolt against the regime. Here is what Israeli social activist Barak Cohen told the Iranian people on Facebook, with the help of a Jewish-Iranian

 

Netanyahu is heading to the United States in order to frighten the world over a nuclear Iran. We want to tell the Iranian people that as opposed to a prime minister who does not represent us, the people here are not in conflict with the Iranian people. We have terrible rulers who use war in order to harm our freedoms, equality and ability to live a decent life. We know that your regime is also terrible, and uses the same tools to harm your ability to live a decent life.

This is not a conflict between the Jewish people and the Iranian people. This is simply two forms of dictatorship that abuse you and us in order to continue ruling. The Jewish holiday of Purim is upon us, and there are Jews in Iran, and we want to say that with the help of God, who is one, just as in Purim our luck changed, we will defeat the dictatorship here, and you will defeat the dictatorship there. With the help of God, we will be able to visit Iran and you will be able to visit us here, and the walls will crumble!

Cohen’s message to the Iranians does not differentiate between Jews and Persians (unlike in Purim, there is no need to kill Haman). This is the same Jewish-Arab message that we sent in 2011 with our letter to the young people of the Arab World who were fighting for freedom. This message is the exact opposite of what the government is doing through its nuclear arsenal, its weapons and its societal abuse. This is the message we need to send to Washington, Iran and the Arab world. A message of social democracy that worries about its citizens, and does not invest everything it has in a doomsday weapon, which only weakens and endangers its own citizens

Mati Shemoelof is a writer. His first storybook was published by Zmora Bitan PublishersThis article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here

Eli Petel: Re-identity, Social Process and Inter-generational Vista

Issue No. 4 – The Ides of April 

"A Bridge", Eli Petel, 2005

“A Bridge”, Eli Petel, 2005

Eli Petel: Re-identity, Social Process and Inter-generational Vista.

Mati Shemoelof 

The topic of the article is the link between identity and memory in the art-exhibition of artist Eli Petel “Ha’Teva Ha’Mekory” (The Original Nature), and the new space the exhibition creates at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Tel-Aviv Museum of Art. The article examines the formation of a renewed identity, as expressed trough social process the artist experiences on the individual and collective level, from an inter-generational prism.

The art of Eli Petel can be interpreted as exposing social power-relations, or as struggling against its interpellation as a part of the historically-rooted Jewish chain of signals. The article reveals both the artist’s view on societal changes as well as his internal identification processes which, on the one hand, correspond with the same changes, but on the other refuse to form a coherent political stand.


 

History and Theory, Bezalel //   Issue No. 4 – The Ides of April, Spring 2007


The Violence in the Constitution of the Origin
Mati Shemoelof 

The topic of the article is the link between identity and memory in the art-exhibition of artist Eli Petel “Ha’Teva Ha’Mekory” (The Original Nature), and the new space the exhibition creates at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Tel-Aviv Museum of Art. The article examines the formation of a renewed identity, as expressed trough social process the artist experiences on the individual and collective level, from an inter-generational prism.
The art of Eli Petel can be interpreted as exposing social power-relations, or as struggling against its interpellation as a part of the historically-rooted Jewish chain of signals. The article reveals both the artist’s view on societal changes as well as his internal identification processes which, on the one hand, correspond with the same changes, but on the other refuse to form a coherent political stand.


See the full article in Hebrew

About the Author :

Acquired his B.A from Tel-Aviv University at the Theater Department, majoring in creative writing. Completed his master studies (M.A.) at the History Department of Haifa University. Wrote his thesis on the cultural meaning of Spike’s Lee’s film (1992) ‘Malcolm-X’. Currently doing a PhD at the Hebrew Literature Department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he conducts a research on the rise of intellectuals at the start of the twentieth century in the “Yeshuv” – The community of Zionist immigrants. Published two poetry books: “Megamed Ha’Zalakot”(2001), “Poetry between Hazaz and Shemoelof” (2006). Currently works as a co-editor of “Ha’Kivun Mizrach” journal.

Dividing the nation over time

Sundial

The recent campaign to extend daylight savings time offers an economic breakdown of how it would benefit the Israeli market. However, on more than one occasion, the report depicts an underlying hatred toward the ultra-Orthodox, and fuels the overall secular-religious divide.

Israel is grappling with a serious identity crisis that has yet to be resolved, and with daylight savings, the issue has come up once again and demands a solution. But people cannot be united by inciting the masses and exercising exclusivist doctrines. We need a new dialogue, one that will take us out of the realm in which the secular are depicted in a good light while the religious are seen in a bad one.

As is the case every year, the issue of turning the clocks back has arisen again. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis signed a petition drafted by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) to extend daylight savings time to late October, providing an extra month of light in the evenings. Horowitz’s proposition was passed with a significant majority at the first reading, following a recommendation by a panel of experts that supported the notion.

But, much to Horowitz’s surprise, his proposal was buried in the Interior Ministry’s committee, as part of the Shas party’s policy to delay any alteration to the status quo.

The daylight savings issue has lost perspective for both the religious and the secular communities in Israel. When examining the overwhelming support this proposal has garnered, one can see the deeper issues surface.

It is no surprise that Horowitz used the words of the Hanukkah song “We have come to drive out the darkness” when referring to the Shas party. Horowitz exhibits his party’s well-known, unfriendly attitude toward the religious population, suggesting that the forces of light are modern secular Israelis, pitted against the pre-modern religious forces of darkness.

“We came to drive out the darkness, but the real darkness is within the Interior Ministry and this gloomy government. We must drive them out so there will be light,” Horowitz said.

It is possible and even correct to criticize a government’s actions or ministers and their intentions, which occasionally go against the public’s wishes. But it is not necessary to turn one side into a superior group.

In the words of Mickey Gitzin, chairwoman of Free Israel, which advocates for the separation of religion and state: “The State of Israel once again is dragged down by the sinister intentions of Eli Yishai, instead of joining the civilized world and making use of the sunlight as best we can.”

Extending daylight savings time would not necessarily be a source of harm for the religious population. It would allow religious individuals to wake up one hour later for morning prayers and to hold evening prayers later. On Fridays, the religious community could have more time to prepare for the Sabbath, which would begin one hour later.

Yet, for some reason, we don’t hear the voices of religious constituents crying out against those who represent them.

On the other hand, is the secular public voting solely for the sake of efficiency, entertainment, and increased productivity? I think not. Horowitz’s secularism itself is a religious movement and is irrational, and its flaws should be pointed out. How can one join a campaign when its leaders utilize such methods?

I have no say in the decision as to whether daylight savings time should be extended.

But when it comes to the identity issue in Israel, I can say that we must stop referring to the religious public as something dark. The religious community has values, faces, tendencies and ideologies, just like the secular one. Secularists must be aware of the boundaries of what they can say in public discourse.

This article was first published on Israel Hayom

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