Portrait from the project
© Judith Hertog
Portrait from the project
Last updated: May 6, 2016

Responding to polarization: voices from Israel (PHOTOS)

Banner Icon Through her project 'Views from a Real Place', Israeli/Dutch photographer Judith Hertog documents people in Israel to learn about their life, their history, and their hopes and fears for the future. Here's a smaller selection of the people she met, published exclusively for Your Middle East.

Zacharia Abu al-Hija

Location: Ein Hawd

Residence: Ein Hawd

Age: 40

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The encounter: I met Zacharia when I hiked from Ein Hod, where I was visiting my family, to the neighboring village of Ein Hawd, which is located on a hilltop just a short distance up the valley. Ein Hod and Ein Hawd have an awkward connection: the people of Ein Hawd are refugees from Ein Hod who squatted a few kilometers away when they fled their village during war in 1948. In 1953, their empty village was turned into an Israeli artist colony. The village of Ein Hawd was not officially recognized and not connected to the grid until 2005.

What are you doing here right now? 
I’m just relaxing and enjoying the weekend with my family.

What is your occupation?
Two years ago, when we finally had electricity here, I opened a little grocery store. But it isn’t going well. I’m losing money. Whenever I have a chance, I try to find additional jobs: gardening, house-painting... But there hasn’t been much work lately. We barely get by. Life is very difficult.

How do you describe your religious or national identity? 
I’m a Muslim and an Arab, and I live in this country. That’s what I say.

Can you tell me a bit about your family? 
My wife is one year older than me. She’s from this village as well. We have two sons, ages twelve and fifteen. My oldest son is called Salam (peace). When he was born, we still thought there would soon be peace.

Where is your family from? 
My father came from Ein Hod. He used to have a grocery store there. In the war of 1948, others from the village fled to Jenin and Jordan – they are now spread out all over the world. But my father and his cousin did not want to give up their land and their orchards, so they hid with their families in the mountains. My father is the father of this whole village. He had fifteen children. He remarried after his first wife died. I was a child from his second marriage, when he was almost seventy years old. We are now about four hundred people in the village. During the first fifty years that we lived here, we used generators for electricity and we got our water from Nir Etzion (the neighboring community). Our neighbors helped us, and we’d help them. Anyone who promised us things, we’d promise to vote for them, no matter which party they belonged to: Likud, Meretz, the National Religious Party – we’d all vote for them.  That’s how we got what we needed. Abraham Melamed (a politician from Nir Etzion who served in the Knesset for the National Religious party between 1969-1984) and my father were good friends. They... they helped each other.

In 2005, we were officially recognized, and three years ago we finally got a paved road.  
Our relationship with the neighboring communities is fine: they visit here, we visit there, they help us, we work there...  But nobody forgets.

I don’t expect to return to my father’s village; I’m happy here. We just want to have our rights, like everyone else. But when you pass your family’s olive trees, and you see that others are harvesting and you can’t even take half a kilo of your own olives – I’m sorry to say it – but that’s hard to forgive! Especially those people who claim to be peace proponents and then are the first to pick the olives that aren’t theirs... how can they claim to support peace and then take olives that don’t belong to them? That’s difficult: passing by and seeing that every day!

My father’s old house in Ein Hod is cursed. Everybody who buys the house falls ill. The woman who owns it now... her daughter, poor thing, died one of or two years ago of cancer at age sixteen. The last four owners of the house have all fallen ill. It’s terrible! I don’t wish such troubles on anyone! Someone from Ein Hod told me she wanted to buy that house – I didn’t tell her it was my father’s – I just said ‘there’s something about that house, don’t buy it!’ She didn’t. She told me later that she bought land and built her own house because she didn’t want to live in someone else’s house.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land? 
Most importantly, we need peace. There have been enough wars, enough problems, enough bloodshed...
In a war, we all lose. Many die on one side, and many die on the other side, and everybody suffers. Why can’t we just all live together in an equal society?

If we didn’t have all these wars, we would have a better economy and life would be easier. I’m forty, and during my lifetime there has always been war. People are fed up!

*****

"Alumah L." (not her real name)

Location: Bus 480 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv

Residence: Jerusalem

Age: 24

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The encounter: I sat next to Alumah in the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. She talked to me all the way, for more than an hour. In the end she apologized for being unable to come up with succinct answers. “Everything is always so complicated,” she explained, “When you try to simplify, you lose all the nuance, and your words become meaningless!” I had to shorten her words a bit for this write-up. I hope I didn’t lose too much nuance!

What are you doing here right now? 
I’m on my way home to spend the Sabbath with my parents in Hadera.

What is your occupation?
I’m writing a doctoral thesis on Jewish medicine in the Middle Ages. I'm a student at Bar Ilan University, but for my current research I’m reading texts in the National Library in Jerusalem. My undergraduate degree was in archeology of the first-temple period. Initially, I had considered doing my graduate degree in archeology, but I discovered I like texts much more than objects. When you read an ancient text, it actually talks to you: you sit for a year with a text and you conduct a dialogue with the writer. You try to understand what he wanted to express. It’s not a dead object. It lives and breathes. It represents a real person with thought and opinions who was influenced by his surroundings and who wanted to transmit a certain worldview.

I’m reading texts by Assaf the Physician, a Jewish doctor who apparently lived in 8th or 9th century in the land of Israel. It’s fascinating to learn about medieval medicine. We don’t often think about it, but a big part of our experience is how we interpret the working of our own body: knowing the function of our body parts, what I need to do and eat to keep my body healthy, the significance of the beating of my heart...  Medieval people, who had a very different interpretation of human physiology, had a completely different experience of the world.

My dream is to go to Cambridge and read the ancient Jewish documents that are being held in the Cambridge library. Eventually, I would love to return to Israel with a doctorate from Cambridge and find a position in academia here.

Where is your family from? 
My father is Yemenite, but he grew up very Ashkenazi (European Jewish). His parents came to Israel before the establishment of the State, in 1940, before the big immigration from Yemen. They came on their own, as a young couple. They settled in Haifa, where there was no Yemenite community, and they integrated into the Ashkenazi community. My father eventually became a hazzan (prayer leader) in the classical Ashkenazi tradition! He ended up working in the Jewish community in Copenhagen, which is where he met my mother. My mom’s family had been in Denmark for several generations, but they may have come from Spain many generations ago. My mom looks the least Danish you can imagine: she has dark eyes and dark hair.

I was born in Denmark, but when I was nine, we moved to Australia for my father’s work. After that, we moved to South Africa, and eventually we returned to Israel.

How do you describe your religious or national identity? 
There are some terms that can be applied to me: Religious Nationalist, Religious Zionist... But I question those terms now because I don’t want to be associated with values I don’t endorse. If Naftali Bennett (of The Jewish Home party) represents Religious Zionist society, then I don’t want to be part of it. I grew up with the values that he claims to stand for – the religious nationalism of Rabbi Kook and the love for the land of Israel – but Bennett's election slogan scares me: “We must stop apologizing!” That’s  dangerous! When you stop apologizing, you silence your conscience!  

But I do observe the mitzvoth, and I believe in God, and, for me, the people, the land, and the religion are connected. As a Jew, wherever I am in the world, my focus will always be the Land of Israel. That’s the essence of my identity. But I no longer want to define myself as a Religious Zionist because that doesn’t fit me. On the other hand,  I don’t like to say that I’m not part of a community because the whole concept of individualism – of claiming to stand alone, of not being part of anything – that doesn’t speak to me either. I think there are many others like me. We just haven’t come up with a name for ourselves yet.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land? 
That’s a very complicated question! There’s an economical future, a political future, a religious future... and it’s all very complex! Lately, because I’ve been learning new things, I feel I’m at a stage of inquiry and can’t really commit to absolute opinions.

Until this year, I wasn’t interested in politics. For the last elections, I read up in the two days before the elections, made my choice, and didn’t think about it any more. I didn’t like dealing with politics; it gave me a bad feeling.

Now I realize that understanding politics is a learning process, like any other. Politics become much more interesting when you really try to understand things objectively, and not just try to confirm your ideological views.

A few months ago I met a journalist who writes about Arab affairs. Because of him, I began reading about the Middle East and decided to start learning Arabic. I understood for the first time that we are part of the Middles East and can’t ignore the reality around us. We can’t just stay on our little island here. We must look outside and take an interest in our surroundings. How is it that most of us don’t know Arabic? It’s ridiculous! And what we do learn about the Arab world is almost always negative! I now regret I didn't learn Arabic when I was younger. I went to a religious school and they chose not to teach us Arabic. 
But I still don’t know how I see the future. I can imagine several scenarios: Let’s say that a left-wing government comes into power. They divide the land and let the Palestinians establish a state... Or a right-wing government comes into power and dismantles the Palestinian authority and takes control of the all the land and takes in the Palestinians as Israeli citizens.... I’m not sure of the advantages and disadvantages of each scenario, so I find it difficult to decide how to vote. Sometimes, a person can have views that sound reasonable, but eventually end up hurting many people.

If there needs to be a Palestinian State, to establish it now may be dangerous because it’s not done with empathy and goodwill. On the other hand, not to do it, means we’re continuing in a worsening state of animosity.

Only recently, I started to discover the various political movements in Israel. I think there is some truth in all of them. I just need to discover what it is. I like Maimonides’s maxim: “Accept the truth from whichever source it comes,” which, by the way, is an idea that Maimonides took from an Arab philosopher!

*****

Yonatan Mishal

Location: Outside the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station

Residence: Tel Aviv

Age: 37

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The encounter: Yonatan was our guide when I took my kids on an alternative tour of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. The station is a monstrously grandiose project that took almost thirty years to complete and that was already outdated and unusable by the time of its opening in 1993. Yonatan took us to abandoned floors, secret passages, and disused ramps for bus lines that no longer operate. It felt as if we had stumbled on a lost civilization.  We shone our flashlights into abandoned stores and saw bat colonies that had made their home in the underground garage. I talked to Yonatan at the end of our tour outside the bus station.

What is your occupation? 
I try not to “work” in the traditional sense of the word – I don’t have a “day job” – but I teach photography at a high school in the Palestinian Israeli town of Jisr az-Zarqa, and I direct an art school, called TLVArts.com, in Tel Aviv. It’s an urban school, which means it is not located in one central building. I also publish as an art journalist, and I give tours of Tel Aviv. From all this together I manage to make a living. I’ve decided that I'd rather do the things I love than make money. I used to work in high-tech. It’s just as you’d expect: good money but so boooooring!

Can you tell me a bit about your family? 
After my parents got married, they lived for thirteen years in the US, in Chicago. When my brother and I were born, they made a very Zionist decision and returned to Israel to settle in the Galilee, which is where I grew up.

Where is your family from? 
I have an interesting family. My father is a Mizrahi (Oriental) Jew of Iraqi origin and my mother is an Ashkenazi (European) Jew. One of the stories my mother often tells is that when she first brought home my father, my grandmother let in my mother and then looked at my father and closed the door on him.

My parents were both born in Israel in 1948. My father’s father escaped from Iraq with false papers. He was an ardent Zionist. That must have been in the 1930s. He arrived here as a young man. He wanted to become a doctor, but because he was Iraqi, they didn’t accept him. In the end he became a nurse.  
My mother’s father escaped from Germany just before the war, in 1939. My grandmother on mother’s side is the daughter of Ber Borochov, the father of Socialist Zionism. As a leader of the Socialist Zionist movement, he felt obliged to come to Israel. So, he first sent his wife and my grandmother here. But he died in Russia before he could join them.

The interesting story of my grandmother is that, as the daughter of a Zionist visionary, she went out – God forbid! – with a British officer! For twelve years, they were a couple, until Yitzhak Shamir assassinated my grandmother’s boyfriend in one of the Etzel attacks against the British Mandate. A year later, my grandmother married my grandfather. When Yitzhak Shamir later entered politics and had to learn English, my grandmother became his teacher. She spoke perfect English because of her British boyfriend. “Those were different times,” she said, when I asked her how could she teach the man who had murdered her lover.

How do you describe your religious or national identity? 
I am secular. But I do feel very connected to my Jewish identity because Jews are part of this world and always have been. Judaism is a very open religion; very open to its environment. I wouldn’t say I’m truly Israeli. I’m partially American and partially Israeli. But that may be exactly what makes me a true Israeli because there are very few Israelis who don’t feel that they also belong somewhere else! We are all immigrants.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land? 
I would like this land to be open to the whole Middle East. This should be a place for people who speak Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, and other languages to coexist alongside each other. That’s the way it used to be and the way it should be! We can still see some remnants of that period, when it was possible to take a train from the center of Tel Aviv to Lebanon, to Syria, to Jordan, to Egypt... That’s how I would like it to be again! 

But I’m afraid this won’t happen; I’m afraid all the opposing visions of the future here will create a situation in which there simply won’t be anything.I’m also afraid that the conflicts between different visions will become so intense that it’s dangerous to say what you think. Last summer, during the war in Gaza, people got fired from their jobs because they dared to think differently. I have friends who were threatened because they were critical of Israel's actions in Gaza. I’m afraid that if this continues, we will no longer be a democratic society. People will be oppressed! It will be bad!  It scares me, because I love this place very much! 

I do consider leaving; of course I do! I lived in New York for a while. Life is much easier there, and I do feel very connected to American culture. But still I prefer the mess here to the comfort there. I like balagan! I like the edges!

*****

Rinat Avraham

Location: Barbie Fashion Store, King George Street, Tel Aviv

Residence: Tel Aviv

Age: 30

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The encounter: I met Rinat in a clothing store in central Tel Aviv. Just one week earlier, Ethiopian Jews from all over Israel had gather in Tel Aviv to protest police brutality and racism. The international media had compared these protests to the ones that were taking place in Baltimore at the same time. Rinat told me she had joined the protests in support of her community, even though she feels her family is privileged and hasn’t suffered much discrimination. But she did remember the time when her uncles had been arrested for a robbery they had not committed, and she also remembered being called a “kushi” (“nigger”) when she was a little girl. Still, she insisted she hasn’t been affected by racism.

What are you doing here right now? 
This store belongs to a friend of my fiancé. It’s is a temporary job. Usually I work in real estate: selling houses, buying houses... but I’m taking a break from that now. In the future, I see myself working in education. I’ve promised myself to try to be the principal of a school by the time I’m forty. This year, I’m starting my studies. But I’ll keep working in real estate to support myself.

How do you describe your religious or national identity? 
I am an Ethiopian Jew, born in Israel. But we are a very mixed family: my aunts are all married to Ashkenazim  and Moroccans. My fiancé is Yemenite.

Can you tell me a bit about your family? 
I have five siblings: one older brother and four younger brothers. I’m the only girl. My older brother was born in Ethiopia, but my younger brothers and I were born in Israel. My big brother has two kids.
I have been together with my fiancé for almost five years. We’re planning to get married sometime next year.

Where is your family from? 
My parents came here with the first major emigration of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. Some family members had already immigrated to Israel earlier. I’ve never been to Ethiopia. It’s a trip I plan for the future. We have no family left there.

Of course it was hard for my parents to integrate into Israeli society. But it’s the same for all new immigrants. And of course there is racism. There always has been and there always will be. We have a lot of problems in this country, and for people to feel good about themselves and their lives, what do they do? – They look down upon someone else who’s even worse off than they are. First it was the Moroccans who were looked down upon, and now, sixty years later, the Moroccans are doing fine. In the end we’ll be fine as well. They’ll find someone else to look down upon...

My fiancé says that the protests have brought the problem of racism to people’s consciousness here. But I don’t think it makes much difference. They still need to internalize it. With time, the situation will improve, but it won’t change from today to tomorrow.

My grandfather always taught us to hold our noses up high. That way people, can’t bring you down. In my family we’re all educated: we have lawyers, professors, engineers... The racism, it doesn’t hurt me if I don’t let it touch me. I won’t take it personally. If I don’t get hired for a job, I don’t assume it’s racism. They didn’t take me for the job.... so, ya’ala, I move on! It’s not fair. But what can you do? Of course racism exists. But my skin is so thick, like an elephant. I won’t let anyone hurt me! If someone else is messed-up, should I let myself be messed up as well?

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land? 
I’d like life to be less expensive here. The wars and all that... we can manage. It isn’t actually that bad. The media makes much more out of it than it actually is. In general, life is great here. We have beautiful weather! I travel a lot. I have a good life.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the US. I traveled in California, Arizona, Montana (it’s really boring there!), and I lived on and off for half a year in San Francisco. In the US, they have nutcases at a level I’ve never encountered in Israel! In the US, you can’t even visit people announced because they may shoot you at the door! In Israel, nobody goes to school with a gun to kill their classmates! And we don’t have ghettos that are so crime-ridden you’re afraid to walk around. We don’t have any of that here! This is a very safe country. We have some wars every once in while, but every place has its troubles.

*****

Amal Satel (right) with her friend Yainit (left).

Location: Bus 48, From Tel Aviv to Herzliya

Residence: Jaffa

Age: 49

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The encounter: In the bus, sat across from Amal and her friend, who were giggling and chatting in Hebrew. When Amal noticed I was looking at some pictures on my camera, she turned to me to ask if I am a photographer. She wanted me to take a picture of her and her friend and was eager to tell me about herself. It turned out they were on their way to Herzliya for a dentist appointment.

What are you doing here right now? 
We’re going to a dental clinic in Herzliya to get my teeth pulled. I’ve been suffering for a long time. I’m fed up. I want to pull all my teeth and get dentures. It'll be easier, and I won’t suffer anymore. There’s a good clinic in Herzliya, so that's why we're going there. My friend here comes along to hold my hand. We know each other from work. We always help each other.

What is your occupation? 
We both work at a mental health clinic. I work in the cafeteria.

How do you describe your religious and national identity?
I’m Palestinian. And I’m a Muslim. And I’m an Israeli citizen.

Can you tell me a bit about your family? 
I have a twenty-six-year-old son and a twenty-four-year-old daughter, and I have two grandchildren with another one on the way. All three grand kids are my daughter’s. My son is married, but he doesn’t have kids yet.
I told my daughter to continue her studies before getting married, but she didn’t want to wait. She had her first child when she was 18.

Where is your family from? 
My family is from here, from Jaffa. Everyone, my parents, my grandparents – they’re all from Jaffa.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land? 
I hope there will be peace and that all people will live together and love each other. We’re fed up with war. But I’m not sure if I’ll vote or not. I usually vote for an Arab party. But I’m undecided this time. I don’t see that it makes any difference if I vote. I hope someone will be elected who can fix everything, someone who can make peace. Enough! We’re fed up with the chaos and war!

*****

Judith Hertog about the project: 

This project occurred to me as I was preparing for our move to Israel last summer, at the height of the Gaza war. People who have never lived here and for whom Israel or Palestine are just words in the news felt the need to express harsh opinions about a conflict that doesn’t directly affect them.

A Facebook friend of mine posted Helen Thomas’s remark that “Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go home to Germany and Poland.” Someone else told me he hoped the Israeli army would flatten Gaza because “the Palestinians deserve it for voting Hamas.”

This project is my response to such polarized, extreme opinions. I want to offer a more nuanced view of Israeli society and offer a glimpse into the lives and visions of real people who live here, with all their complications and contradictions.

Judith Hertog
Judith teaches creative writing and works as a freelance journalist. She was born in Amsterdam and moved to Israel as a teenager. Judith has lived in China, Tibet, and Taiwan, but ended up settling in Vermont with her Israeli husband and children. Visit: judithhertog.com
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