Refusing to be ‘locked in our cages’

In his 2019 song “Wikipedia”, Israeli artist, Hanan Ben Ari, opposes the stereotyping that dominates much of the discourse around the various sectors and groupings in Israeli society. In a rapid stream of lyrics, Ben Ari raises long-held reductive stereotypes such as “all of Tel Aviv is vegan”, “that every Mizrachi is discriminated against“ and “that the secular are dirty blasphemers”. He then rejects these with these poetic lines ”A day will come when you won’t lock me in any cage. You won’t summarise me on Wikipedia. I am everything, I am nothing at all. I came naked and thus I will return. So don’t lock me in any cage. You will not lock me in any cage.“

Much of what we read about Israel relates to the segmentation of the population and the conflicts that can arise between these groupings. During my sabbatical time in Israel I came across myriad encounters that prove that the opposite can also be true. There is so much genuine cooperation and activities that centre on co-existence and I believe that these are too frequently overshadowed by the tensions and the fear that are also present.

When I first arrived in Israel, both sides of this were illustrated immediately in my taxi ride from the airport. I arrived around Purim and after booking a taxi on an app, I immediately received a call from the driver who said that I can find him because he was still wearing his Superman costume from the festival. It filled me with warmth to be immediately reminded that in Israel, such public displays of cultural and religious practices are normalised. We then drove towards Tel Aviv where one of the tallest buildings had been adorned with a giant lit up sign that opposed the tensions that are taking place in Israeli society. The sign read “We are all one people”. I was moved by the public and prominent display of this sentiment, however, this was immediately quashed when Superman looked up at the sign and said “do you see what these stupid leftists are saying – they want to give the whole country away!”

This was emblematic of my experience in Israel. I saw beautiful optimistic moments and also felt the waves of anger, violence and terrorism.

I think that the most moving encounter of my sabbatical trip occurred on a visit to the Progressive community school in Haifa, The Leo Baeck Education Centre. Leo Baeck is the centre of the Progressive community in Haifa. It holds a synagogue, a kindergarten through Year 12 school and facilities that are made available to the local community. Our Yesh students visit there and have loved meeting students from the school.

Haifa has a profound reputation as a site of genuine co-existence. It has sizable populations of Orthodox, progressive and secular Jews, flourishing Christian and Muslim Arab communities, a substantial Druze population, and pockets of immigrants from across the former Soviet Union and refugees from Eritrea. While the city is not immune to conflict, the predominant culture is said to be one of interactivity and collaboration.

My visit was during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. During this time Muslims fast from dawn until dusk and break the fast with a celebratory dinner each evening, Iftar in Arabic. I was privileged to visit an Iftar that Leo Baeck puts on for the local community.

The dinner was set up in an open foyer in the school. There was a head table that sat religious leaders from across the community. There were female and male progressive rabbis, an Orthodox rabbi, a local christian priest, two muslim Imams, a Druze community leader and the head of the Haifa Bahai centre. They all spoke warmly about their mutual admiration and commitment to unity.

There was then a performance by a choir from the school who sang the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” with verses in Hebrew, Arabic and English. I felt the most moving moment was when a young Muslim boy chanted the traditional Maghrib prayer which marks the end of fasting. It struck me that in a society that is so often full of tensions, we can find such beautiful models of mutual respect and celebration of others that allow a Muslim call to prayer to be hosted in a Progressive Jewish school while an Orthodox rabbi looks on admiringly. The tables that were mixed with members of all of Haifa’s communities then ate the celebratory meal together.

This Iftar meal felt like an antidote to the tension and the hostility that can so often dominate our understanding of Israel and rather felt like an alternative space that can exist if we refuse to be “locked in our cages.”

It is a firm reminder that when we are open to learning from and with those who are different from us, we create harmony and mutual respect.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light