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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The New Buzz in Israel


If you want to know the populist sentiment in Israelis about the country’s politics, talk to cab drivers. Since the mid 1990s, when I traveled in Israel with a Fulbright scholarship working on my post doctorate, my conversations with taxi drivers have been a useful tool in determining the prevailing attitude about the “situation,” a key term Israelis use to refer to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

I have just returned from a two-week stay in Israel. I had arrived there only hours before two Palestinian terrorists murdered four Israelis in a popular Tel Aviv café. I learned about the vicious attack while sitting in an outdoor beach restaurant, enjoying a crisp, sweet watermelon when concerned relatives called to ask where I was. Naturally, there was sadness and anger in the city that never sleeps, but not fear. Life went on and cab drivers continued to echo the country’s mood.

So when a day or two later, one of the drivers expressed to me his dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership, I wondered whether he preferred a far-right government, more extreme than the one currently headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is the most right wing government Israel has ever had in its history, reflecting the radicalization the country has been undergoing. But when the driver told me that the recent designating of Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister was a too dangerous threshold, and that he did not want his son in the army under the leadership of the new defense minister, I sensed that the political atmosphere of the State may be shifting. Incrementally perhaps, but a change may be possible.

Soon after, when I entered a taxi in which the radio was tuned to a talk show about the danger Israel’s democracy is facing when the freedom of the State’s civil society is curbed and the Supreme Court is unreasonably under attack, I smiled with satisfaction. No because I knew the driver agreed with what he heard, but because he was listening intensely.

Yet again, when another driver told me that the time for a two state solution with the Palestinians is now, I felt a sliver of hope, even though I didn’t get into a discussion with him about what kind of a Palestinian state he had in mind. Was it a state with a meaningful sovereign status, or a mini dependent state that can hardly exist on its own, the one PM Netanyahu has had in mind since his first round in office in 1996.

Then, on June 17, Ehud Barak, former prime minster and defense minster, and Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister who Netanyahu had just replaced with Libernman, attacked the sitting prime minster in a way no other politicians has had. And the buzz began.
“There’s change in the air,” you hear people saying wherever you go. Most sound hopeful.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Open Mic

Last night, New York City Women’s National Book Association (WNBA-NYC) held its annual Open Mic at the charming Cornelia Street Café. Talented writers read from their novels, non-fiction creative writing, essays, and poetry. Each had seven minutes to present her writing. Lucky to be among them, I read excerpts from Chapter Fifteen of my upcoming memoir NO LAUGHYER IN WINTER, which got its name from my mother’s seasonal depressions, but it tells a great deal more. This is what I read:

…Our farewell was swift and painful. Yigal got in the Jeep that came to pick him up and quickly drove away. I blamed the nausea that came over me on my pregnancy rather than fear. A few hours later the phone rang.
“Hi Zivonet,” Yigal said cheerfully, adding a note of affection to my name, as if to let me know that he was well. “What’s up?”
“All is well, Yigal,” I said.
“And the young one?”
I put my hand on my stomach, as if I could touch the life that was sprouting within me. “We’ll wait for you. What’s going on with you?”
He laughed, trying to turn a blunder into something amusing. “You won’t believe it,” he said. “I forgot my Uzi at home.”
“You’re joking!”
“It’s a fact. I know it sounds silly…”
He asked me to deliver the weapon to a nearby intersection, where his unit would be passing through on its way south.
“I’ll be there,” I promised, sincerely happy to have another chance to see him before he left for the front.
*
What a sight I must have been: a young, pregnant woman (all-be-it not yet showing), climbing out of a white Studebaker to wait for a military vehicle full of soldiers, holding an Uzi in my hands.
Yigal looked composed and attractive as he jumped out of the military truck wearing his field uniform. Once again we said our good-byes, this time more intensely. While the truck was waiting, we hugged and kissed, glued to one another for a long time, unwilling to separate. He put his hand on my stomach and held it there as if he wanted to protect his unborn child. I was stirred.
“Don’t worry, girl,” he said to me, with his reassuring smile. “Everything will be OK.”
Was he as anxious and frightened as I was, in spite of his calm appearance? Did he feel, as I did, the looming sensation that perhaps his soft touch on my belly would be sealed in our memory as the last sane moment before the earth started to tremble beneath us? I felt that it was not my heart alone that beat louder and faster when he whispered in my ear, “You’ll always be my one and only.”
No one on the truck complained or rushed us, but it was time for him to go.
I stood motionless for a long time, watching the truck become smaller and smaller and finally disappearing in the distance. I felt as if I were shrinking rather than the departing truck, that I was withering while the distance between us was widening. I thought I heard an animal howling in the distance. It was a frightening sound in the middle of a bright sunny day. I still wonder whether what I felt was a premonition or ordinary fear under extraordinary circumstances.
*
… In the early morning of June 5, 1967, what would come to be called the Six Day War broke out, with an Israeli preemptive air attack that instantly changed the balance of forces that Israel’s Arab neighbors had sought. Suddenly, the siege on Israel ended; the army now focused on its enemies’ ground forces. As soldiers fought soldiers and steel battled steel, the rest of us, worried about our loved ones at the frontlines, fretfully followed every scrap of news from the bloody battlefields.
*
… As the country rejoiced I waited to hear from Yigal. Like other civilians who were left in the rear, out of contact with their loved ones, I was terrified about his situation. But I was also hopeful: that a Herculean man like Yigal could not be hurt; that our life would resume the way we had planned it; that my pregnancy would develop without complications; that we would raise our child together. For that, Yigal had to return home, whole or wounded. I pictured him missing a limb, or two. But I did not care, as long as he was alive.
When on Friday, the fifth day of the war, I still had not heard from him, I called his brigade headquarters. If I was anxious before the call, the hesitation I detected in the voice of the secretary after she heard my name alarmed me even more.
“Please hold,” she said. “I’ll check where he is.”
I could hardly breathe. Think about the baby, I reminded myself. Breathe, breathe.
“According to the information we have, Captain Yigal Goren is fine,” she said when she returned, after what seemed to me an eternity. But she barely convinced me.
“Are you sure?” I asked her, over and over. The nagging feeling I had had ever since Yigal and I said our second good-bye crept over me again, beginning with the thought that there had to be a reason we had been given that chance to see each other once more. I sensed that even if the war were to end triumphantly, not everyone would rejoice. That one of those excluded would be me. That I would never see Yigal again.
The secretary tried to ease my mind. “You know, it’s not unusual in wartime to be unable to communicate. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll hear from him soon.”
She was right. A few hours after that conversation my Aunt Esther called me. Her husband, Yaakov, my father’s youngest brother, had bumped into Yigal a day earlier in the Sinai Desert. Each promised to call home if they could and send the other’s regards.
My aunt transmitted his message. “Yigal wants you to know that he’s doing well and that you needn’t worry about him. Just take care of yourself. He thinks of you and the baby.”
“You know, Esther,” I said, a bit calmer than I had been before her call. “Till now I had no idea where Yigal’s brigade was situated.”
“Yaki said Yigal looks well,” my aunt continued.
Her call lifted my mood. But by the time I had received it, unbeknownst to my aunt or me, Yigal no longer looked well.

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Friday, April 1, 2016

On Books and Fear

The subject of how should America treat its Muslim population has been manipulated not only by the bigoted Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, but also by the media. Either way, in that discussion it is easy to forget that that particular segment of the rich multicultural mix that makes the American population – Muslims, whether American born or naturalized citizens – is composed mostly of ordinary human beings. They leave home for work to support the families they raise and return at the end of the day to live their ordinary lives and dream their ordinary dreams about their children’s education, their health, and their success if life.

Surely, among them there are those few, overtaken by an extremist ideology and posing a threat to other Americans, including members of their own religious and ethnic groups. Surely, most terrorist acts in many parts of the world originate in the Islamic Middle East. Surely, the U.S. and the world have to deal with the scourge of Islamic terrorism and fascism.

But we also have to look into the eyes of ordinary Muslims and tell them that we recognize their fear living in a society that stereotypes them and often blames them for the loud, cruel and unacceptable deeds of the few amongst them.

In my classes at college I have numerous Muslim students, some of whom are too shy or too uneasy to share their anxiety with their fellow students. Others are willing to engage in an open discussion on what bothers them about being singled out in the election campaign.

When I asked them in a class on the Middle East whether they mind to share their feelings about Ted Cruz’s idea to monitor Muslim neighborhoods, some were eager to talk.

“My mother threw this book in the garbage, the minute she saw it,” one student told us, referring to a book on ISIS, “she was scramming and howling.”
 “Mom, I need it for class,” the student told us she had told her mother when she retrieved the book from the garbage can.

“I don’t care. I don’t want it here. Get read of it.”

The mother was too scared to have the book at home, lest her family will be “caught” and blamed for being sympathetic to ISIS, or worse.  

Once what concerned me when I chose books for my courses was their high cost. Never did it enter my mind that a student may be fearful to own one.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

On Rape

International Women's Day 2016 is not over yet. This post, which is my rape story from my upcoming memoir NO LAUGHTER IN WINTER, is dedicated to women around the world who suffered sexual harassment in any shape or form.  Feel no shame. Speak up. 

... It was time to mend my life and move on, meet a serious single man, and build a family. My father’s words—“Go, it might be the chance of your life”—echoed in my mind with both encouragement and hope. Just then, when a new vitality shot through me with invigorating strength, I was numbed by another blow.

Aaron had been Yigal’s best friend, and he and his wife, Rachel, became my trusted friends. Aside from the relationship between our husbands, Rachel and I became dear to one another, and I saw in our closeness the stuff that makes everlasting friendships.
Aaron and Rachel were the first couple to whom Yigal had proudly introduced me: “Meet Ziva, the woman I chose.” Throughout our courtship and marriage, we saw them at least once every week. After Aaron had been relocated and with his family had left Tel Aviv, we spent nearly all our weekends together, alternately staying in each other’s homes.
I remember with both pain and melancholy a particular Friday evening the four of us spent at the ballroom of the Dan Hotel in the mountainous area that overlooked Haifa’s glittering bay. I sat at our table with Aaron, watching Rachel and Yigal dance. When the singer started in on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” Yigal stopped dancing with Rachel and fetched me to the dance floor. After Yigal’s death, Rachel reminded me often of that night in Haifa. With tears in her eyes, she used to repeat Yigal’s words to her: “Forgive me Rachel, but this dance is Ziva’s. This is her song.” The song still moves me, in spite of its shallowness.
Soon Aaron was promoted, and he and his family moved back to the suburbs of Tel Aviv, and we saw each other even more. Loyal friends that they were, Aaron and Rachel were distraught over Yigal’s death. Before I left for the United States, I spent countless evenings in their home, and we mourned Yigal together. Short my sister and brother in law, they were the couple closest to me. Aaron treated me the way a brother would and was consistently kind and respectful. Once I accepted the offer from the Defense Ministry to move to New York, he was instrumental in helping me secure the terms I desired.
***
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan came to New York for a visit in October 1970, and Aaron, who by then had a high position in the defense establishment, joined Dayan’s team. We arranged that after dinner with Dayan’s group, I would sleep in a spare room in Aaron’s spacious suite at the Carlyle Hotel, for the following morning we were to be picked up very early for a trip arranged for him by the United Jewish Appeal. I was to be his interpreter.
I felt it was natural for Bundy, the head of the Defense Ministry mission in New York, to invite me to be part of the small group that joined Dayan for dinner, especially after he had asked me to rush to a nearby store to buy ties for Dayan, who had no proper attire, informal man that he was. It seemed to me just as natural for Bundy, who was aware of our familial relationship, to ask me to be Aaron’s translator.
The evening with Dayan was extraordinary and memorable. Following dinner, Bundy had arranged for the group to see the new Broadway musical The Rothschilds. For security reasons, we arrived at the theater a bit late, when the musical was already in motion. As we quickly took our seats, a whisper passed through the theater like a wave. When the word had spread that Moshe Dayan, the legendary general with the eye patch, was among the latecomers, the entire audience stood up and together with the actors on stage began to sing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva.”
Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War three years earlier was still a source of great pride for world Jewry in general and American Jews in particular, for it was the United States that had become the Jewish State’s main ally after that war. Never before had so many mainstream Diaspora Jews identified so deeply with the State of Israel, which was still caught in the midst of the War of Attrition waged against it by Egypt and Syria. Dayan, the admired hero, was at the peak of his glory.
To this day I can hardly describe the rush of emotions that overtook everyone in our group. I was completely captivated during those enchanting moments at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and did not even bother to wipe the tears off my face. Somehow able to compartmentalize that experience from what followed that night, I still marvel at that embracing audience and cast.
We left the theater early, once more for security reasons. On the way out, Aaron whispered to me that Dayan had asked him who I was, and that my story had moved the general. Aaron then told me that he did not know what time he and Dayan would be back at the hotel, emphasizing Dayan’s unpredictability, and suggested that I go to sleep, for we had a long day ahead of us.
My friend Michael walked me to the hotel. “This plan doesn’t sound good to me,” he said. “It’s a foolish decision that could end badly.” Because I had reason to believe Michael was jealous, I did not listen to him. With a key to Aaron’s suite in my possession, I entered one of the bedrooms at half past eleven, locked its door, and got ready to go to sleep.
At two in the morning, I was awakened by Aaron’s banging on the suite door. Apparently he had not collected the extra key at the reception desk. When I finally opened the door he was angered by the long time it had taken me to do so. Sleepy, I went back to my room, but Aaron followed close behind me and stopped the door with his foot. There was a strange smile on his face, of a sort I had never seen before.
This cannot happen, I thought, Michael’s warning hitting me with full force. I decided to act decisively and demonstrate complete self-control.
“Aaron, what are you doing?” I asked, pretending to be calm, though my heart was pounding with fear.
“You know,” he said, blocking the door with his tall body.
“Please let go of the door,” I said, “and let me close it. I’m tired. I want to go to sleep. We have a long day tomorrow.”
My appeal to his common sense did not work.
“I’m coming to your bed to sleep with you,” he said.
Stay cool, I told myself, terrified. Perhaps he is drunk, unaware of what he is doing. I will order some coffee for him. But he pushed me into the room and then onto the bed and started to kiss me.
“Stop it!” I screamed. I struggled to get away, but he kept at it.
“I want you,” he moaned, in a voice I had never heard him use before.
Please, God, I pleaded. Answer my prayers now. Do not let this happen. But God had nothing to do with what followed.
“Get off me,” I shrieked. “You’re hurting me.”
He did not heed my cries. I tried to push him off with all the strength I had, but he fought back like a vicious animal.
“I must have you,” he panted, in his eerie voice. With the sound of my heartbeat thrashing in my ears, I screamed, hoping that my shrieks would penetrate his head before he did something he would regret for the rest of his life. But he continued, and so did I, hitting him with my fists and kicking as hard as I could. He was a tall, strong man who weighed twice as much as I, and my violent struggle seemed only to arouse him more. He managed to pull his pants down with one hand while holding me down with the other. Cruel and terrifying, he was a rapist like all other rapists, whether in hotel rooms or in dark alleys.
“No,” I screamed, repeatedly, at the top of my lungs, hoping someone would hear me and call for help. Perhaps he would finally hear. But he was brutal.
Change strategy, I thought. Plead with him; maybe he will come to his senses.
“Rachel—what about Rachel?” I cried frantically.
“She said that with you it was all right.”
“Yigal, remember Yigal. He was your best friend!” I pleaded, as if Yigal were in the next room. As if I were calling him to save me from his friend, who had turned into a beast.
“He’s dead,” I heard the devil say.
At that moment the reality of Yigal’s death became crueler than ever before. It was as if he died all over again, and his death had left me dangerously vulnerable. He was dead, and I was a piece of meat, no longer his widow but merchandise that exchanged hands. Beastly hands. Inhuman hands.
I could hardly breathe, but I continued to fight until he suddenly let go of me. He had climaxed, only partially penetrated inside of me. I managed to push him off and ran to the bathroom. More than anything I felt dirty. I washed frantically, sobbing.
When I came out of the bathroom fully dressed I saw my rapist sleeping peacefully, as if nothing had happened, while I was shattered into pieces. All I wanted was to leave the room, to get away from the place I would never forget. New York City taxis were on strike, and I walked home in a daze, caring very little whether anything happened to me. My world had crumbled.
I arrived at my apartment at dawn, mentally and physically exhausted, my body aching from my fight with the villain. In the entranceway to my tiny apartment, Yigal’s framed photograph glanced at me, and I hated him with all my heart. A scary hatred. One I had not felt before. I hated him for leaving me alone and for having the friends that he did. I smashed his picture into the wall with as much force as I had used fighting Aaron a short while earlier. The glass on the frame shattered into as many pieces as my broken heart, but that was insufficient. I also tore the photo into small pieces, as many as I could. I then fell on my bed and began to cry.
Not trusting myself to be alone, I called my friend Nira, but I could not utter a word. Only strange sounds, those of a wounded animal, came out of my throat. Nira, thinking there was a pervert on the other side of the line, kept hanging up her telephone each time I called, until I managed to whisper, in a voice that did not belong to me, “He raped me.”
“Ziva, is that you?” she screamed, not recognizing my voice. It did not take long for her to get to my apartment. We stood together for a long time, silent except for the sound of my sobs.
Before seven my telephone rang. “Where are you? Why aren’t you here?” Aaron asked, as if nothing had happened. I hung up, and he did not call again.
For the following two weeks, I isolated myself at home. Apparently Bundy was looking for me on that Monday. When I returned to work he did not ask questions, but he never asked me again to usher visitors around the city.
I considered charging Aaron with rape but refrained from doing so. My first concern was that the publicity of the case would crush my parents, and that they would not survive the knowledge of what had happened to me. And the whole idea frightened me. Like other rape survivors, I feared that I would be accused of provoking my own rape. No one would believe me, I thought in panic. What was I doing in his hotel room to begin with, they would ask.
I was also certain that Aaron, holding a high position in the military and defense establishments, would abuse his power even further. Nothing was beneath him, I assumed, my mind running wild imagining an army of false witnesses he would be able to recruit, who would assassinate my character. I feared he might know about my past relationship with Mano and would use it against me in a trial. If I had had an affair with one married man, people would suppose I had slept with him, too.
My fears were not irrational. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that so-called rape shield laws were adopted by various jurisdictions in the United States, appropriately limiting the ability of defense attorneys to cross-examine rape complainants about their past sexual behavior.
I was also thinking of Rachel and her children. Tormented, I would look at the latest photos of the children she had sent me, asking myself not how their father could do what he had done to me, but what my pressing charges would do to them.
Four months after the rape, after a visit to Israel, I received a letter from Aaron in which he reprimanded me for the pain I had caused Rachel by avoiding her during my stay. She had learned about my visit from a mutual friend.
The cynicism notwithstanding, I felt awkward about hurting Rachel and wrote her a letter, explaining that I had come to Israel at the spur of the moment to be with my sister while my brother-in-law had undergone an operation. Rachel understood. We met a year later, but I could pretend no more and stopped all contact with her. Another year passed, and on a visit to New York she reached out to me. I could bear my silence no longer. In the privacy of her hotel room, I explained to her why I had severed our relations. It mattered little to me that she did not believe me. It mattered even less a few weeks later when, calling me from Israel, she related to me his version of events: I was waiting for him, naked, in his bed, seducing him.
I refused to lower myself to that level of discussion or dignify his accusation with an answer. It made no difference to me whose version Rachel believed, and I did not expect to hear from her again. But a few weeks later she called.
“Ziva,” she said, “I know you told me the truth.” My wounds remained so deep that I cared little about how she had discovered that truth. It was the last time we spoke, though I think of her often.
Nearly thirty years later, when attitudes toward sexual harassment and rape had changed, I was able at last to talk openly and publicly about that experience within the framework of my lectures on women and war. I looked into whether I could still press criminal charges against Aaron, but he soon died a dreadful death from cancer.

Changes in sexual harassment laws and attitudes have transformed the lives of American women, and to my satisfaction Israel’s Knesset too passed a law making sexual harassment a criminal offense. For decades, rumors had been circulating in the country about the commonality of sex offenses carried out by high-level officials and military officers, but the truth had always been swept under the rug, and none of the offenders were openly accused. That changed in 1999, when the new law passed. Since then numerous officials have been sent to jail for rape and sexual harassment, including high officers in the military and the police force, cabinet ministers, and a president. Support for victimized women grew considerably. The changes in this area have been made to a large extent because of brave women who did not hesitate to openly declare, “We have been victimized and we will be wronged no more.”

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