Jill Cartwright is a 31 year-old non-Jewish woman from England who lives in Tel Aviv, where she works as a sub-editor at Haaretz newspaper and lives with her boyfriend, the Israeli singer/songwriter Saar Badishi. The following is the first part of a mini-memoir that recounts how and why she moved to Israel in the winter of 2001, at the height of the second intifada, and what it’s like to be a non-Jew in Israel.
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One day after purchasing my open-return ticket to Tel Aviv, in the winter of 2001, I was sitting in the spacious living room of my parent’s North Yorkshire home watching the news. Images of panicked Israelis queuing up for gas masks filled the screen. A few days previously, a Palestinian bus driver had driven into a line of people waiting at a bus stop, killing eight, and just a couple of months before that, Ariel Sharon had made his infamous visit to the Temple Mount and kicked off the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
My Dad slowly turned his gaze towards me, lifted his eyebrows and gave me a “What the hell are you doing?” look. It was the first such look – but definitely not the last. From then on it was normally directed at me by one of those guys who stroll Tel Aviv beaches looking for unsuspecting single girls reading a book in a foreign language. They know foreign girls will be more polite to them than any self-respecting Israeli girl who would tell them exactly where to go (but more of that later):
Guy: “Where are you from?”
Guy: “What is your name?”
Guy: “Are you Jewish?”
Then the eyes squint into an involuntary spasm of perplexity, the forehead wrinkles, the jaw drops loose, the shoulders shrug and the palms turn out, the head starts to shake from side to side and they just can’t help themselves: “Then what the hell are you doing here?”
And it’s not just them – taxi drivers, grocery store owners, doctors, shop assistants, employers, colleagues, guys in bars, friends of friends, parents of friends and just plain old random people you meet – when Israelis want to know something they have no fear of asking (once, a woman sitting next to me on a bus even asked how much I earned and how much rent I was paying). They all want to know what a non-Jewish girl is doing in Israel.
I don’t think I was ever asked my religion until I came to Israel. In England I never really thought about it; when I answer “Christian,” the word rings strange in my ears and when they ask “Presbyterian or Methodist?” I kind of mumble “Church of England” although to be honest I’m not really sure what the difference is. It never really seemed to matter in England, but in Israel it is always the second question out of everyone’s mouth.
Which is strange, because from what I can tell of most Israelis – at least in Tel Aviv – seem very confident in their Jewish identity. It seems to be one less thing to worry about in the age of ceaseless wondering and wandering – and yet only a handful of my Israeli friends fast on Yom Kippur. Last year, on this holiest of holy days in the Jewish calendar, a friend from work even invited me to a barbecue – with pork no less. When I asked how she could even think of such a thing and told her I would be fasting, her incomprehension throbbed down the phone line.
Yes, I fast on Yom Kippur. I eat doughnuts at Hanukkah and dried fruit at Tu B’Shvat. I eat Bamba and sunflower seeds all year round; I even sometimes complain about the service in cafes or push to the front of the queue. My friends say I’m becoming more Israeli than Israelis. Who’d have thought? Certainly not I – five years ago, when I first moved to Israel.
Back then I hardly knew anything about Israel, despite a slight nagging guilt that as a well-rounded and educated person I really ought to know more about “the situation in the Middle East.” But one never seems to find the time to read up, and my only real “contact” with Israel was via friends who had spent a summer volunteering on a kibbutz. I thought that Israel was one large socialist desert-like village – with camels, of course.
But then I went to South America, and there my contact with Israel went up to a whole new level. As anyone who has ever travelled knows, Israelis travel a lot – and they travel big and they travel loud. At first, I hated them. I hated their harsh, guttural sounds, their attitudes, the way they travelled in packs, the way they argued, the way they took over hostels. But after a while, I realized they weren’t so bad. Later still I started to quite like them. And by the end of the trip, I was following one of them back to Israel – a very cute one with dark brown eyes and curly black hair by the name of Boaz.
I didn’t make the move easily. It took months of frozen indecision, long-distance break-up, fear, panic, dread, resolution and long-distance make-up before I finally bought that open-ended ticket and found myself watching the citizens of my soon-to-be home stocking up on their bomb-shelter supplies.
Boaz was a student at Ben-Gurion University, which is in Be’er Sheva, which is in the Negev, which is a desert. The Lonely Planet guide for Israel describes Be’er Sheva as “unattractive and with little to see or do … best seen from the rear window of your departing bus.” This was to be my new home, and this time was to be one the most frustrating of my life.
I understood nothing, I was totally and utterly dependent on someone else, I had no job, no friends, no family and there really was absolutely nothing to do or see in Be’er Sheva. It was hot, dusty, backward, dull and I was chronically dehydrated. And while it is true that the younger generation of Israelis speak English very well, they are unlikely to do so when hanging out in groups. So our social outings would be with student friends laughing and chatting in Hebrew with the occasional guilty chit-chat with me in English, and I would sit through the whole thing quietly festering, angry, frustrated, feeling stupid and pointless, tired of smiling politely, tired of being introduced, tired of not understanding and not being understood. So I started Hebrew school – where I learned to stop feeling sorry for myself.
Most of my classmates at Ulpan Hagesher were from Russia and Ukraine. Amongst them were highly qualified medical professionals, engineers, pharmacists and musicians. But they were working part-time in supermarkets or as cleaners, in order to support their families. They had given up everything to come to Israel, but had ended up in Be’er Sheva doing menial labour. Quite a few of them seemed to be questioning their decision to immigrate.
We adored our teacher as if he had the golden key to some new life. Now I understand why little children have such an obsession with their kindergarten teachers – because they make an incomprehensible world make sense. They speak slowly and clearly and know to use words you have learned already. Like little kids, we clung to his every word, we played his silly games and sang his silly songs and we bought him gifts at the end of the course. Even now, when the language barrier frustrates me, I remember him saying “Savlanoot, savlanoot, hacol yihye b’seder” (Patience, patience, everything will be alright).
But compared to the Russians and Ukrainians I felt spoiled. I was English and young and I had no responsibilities. I could fly back to Europe anytime. They couldn’t just fly home. One of my friends was a Russian doctor who had married an Israeli Arab and was living with him and his entire extended family in Arad – which I had heard was even duller than Be’er Sheva, if such a thing were possible. Her husband was having enormous difficulty finding a job – things weren’t looking good for the Arabs of Israel. In fact, things weren’t looking good in general. One of the first words we learned at ulpan was hefetz hashood (suspicious object). Then we went on to “words we hear in the news” – pigua (terror attack), mekhabel (terrorist), khayal (soldier). Things were getting a little scary.
Fear has been one of the overriding emotions of my life in Israel. I admit it openly. I would love to be a cool, nonchalant and fatalistic young Tel Avivi (“if it’s your time then it’s your time”) but there have been times –long extended periods of time – when I have been terrified.
By the summer of 2002, I was living and working in Tel Aviv and there were bombs going off every other day. Each day we anticipated a bombing somewhere in the country; I never expected to watch a television programme all the way through without it being interrupted by a news flash about a terror attack. Every time I heard an ambulance in the street I would turn on the radio or TV to see whether it was an attack.
I used to run past bus stops and walk for hours rather than travel on a bus. When sitting in a café or bar with friends, I would always try to choose a position that gave me a full view of the door, kidding myself that this gave me control over something so arbitrary as death. I would watch the entrance, trying to spot suspicious characters; and each time I went to the bathroom, I wondered if it would happen now and I would be miraculously saved – those were the stories that filled the papers.
Emotions swayed radically during these times. A charge of invincibility surrounded me – it would never happen to me, this wasn’t meant for me, why me? – and at the same time a heart-stopping panic – why not me? Why not right now? This was a constant inner chatter that held my body in never-ending fight-or-flight mode, it was never relaxed because nowhere felt safe. Danger and panic screamed from every newspaper and TV screen; rumours abounded – they were going to start bombing funerals and hospitals, they were putting bombs in the lobbies of apartment buildings, they were going to spray bullets along the beach. There was one time I even took my beach chair and faced it toward the street rather than the sea so I could see those Islamic Jihad guys coming.
And my new job didn’t do much toward calming me down, either. I’d finished my Hebrew course at the ulpan and began searching for a job as an English teacher. But there just weren’t any jobs, so I decided to move to Tel Aviv to find decent work.
I’d completed a post-grad course in journalism shortly before leaving England. Granted, it had trained me more for a proofreading job on Parrots Weekly than a reporting post in the middle of a conflict zone, but I had a rookie’s confidence. I phoned the Tel Aviv offices of Haaretz and asked to speak to the editor in chief of the English edition, David Landau.
On my third call, and to my amazement, I was actually put through to the man himself.
“What the bloody hell do you want?!” he bellowed down the phone at me.
“A job,” I answered.
“Who the hell are you?” came the curt response.
I was shocked, but somewhat emboldened by his British accent. I thought to myself: you can handle this, be strong, keep it together:
“I’m a trained journalist from London,” I declared.
“Trained journalist? What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?”
Or maybe I couldn’t handle this at all.
“It means I’ve done a course…”
Oh God it was getting worse.
“Can you spell properly?” he cut me short. “Will you work for free?”
I told him that yes, I could spell and no, I wouldn’t work for free. After telling him I was soon to be moving to Tel Aviv from Be’er Sheva where, in his words “I was no fucking use to him,” I asked him to just give me a try and see what I could do. Suddenly, the gruff editor started to soften.
“What are you doing in Israel anyway?” he asked “Are you Jewish?”
And thus began my employment at Haaretz.
Many people I knew in Tel Aviv dealt with the situation by detaching as much as possible. They stopped watching the news and buying newspapers and tried to keep their lives as normal as they could around the constant fear and the constant media panic – because it was just all too frightening and depressing. But as a sub-editor at Haaretz, my job was to go through each story in the paper thoroughly from beginning to end. All the tragedies, the deaths, the body parts, the survivor statements, the eulogies, the pain; all the failed talks, the attacks and counterattacks, the useless statements and mutual accusations and worst of all – all those worse-case scenarios that journalists so love to terrify us with.
As if the reality weren’t bad enough, there was always an opinion piece by some expert on Iran, or from the Shin Bet, or on nuclear weapons or on mega-terror, that explained just how the situation could get much, much worse. And I believed them. Until after a while, I just couldn’t take it any more.
Suicide bombings became so common here that I became immune to them. Death was shrugged off. When whole families were killed in one go, I could only tut and shake my head and move on. Just how much pain could I express, what could I as one human being possibly do to remedy this big fat mess? How much was I prepared to give into my fear? I truly believed that living in fear was giving in to terrorism. So I decided to have fun – to show “them” that they would never win.
And it seemed the rest of Tel Aviv had taken the same decision. The whole city was kicking. Bars were packed from late night into the early hours of the morning. The vibe was defiant, alive; electricity surged through the streets. People drank more, laughed more, danced more. In the exuberance, any moral codes Tel Aviv had (although I doubt there were ever very many) were dropped and the city and its beach with its hot summer days and long loud nights became a vibrant, pulsating, highly charged and highly sexual scene.
It was addictive. Tel Aviv kept me in its clutches, at once terrifying me and luring me deeper. The fact that I’d split up with the cute, dark-eyed Boaz didn’t change that. I stayed, even without the justification of an Israeli boyfriend.
I would go back to England for visits every so often and the cold grey normalcy of it would hit me like a slab of concrete. I remember once walking through a Christmas market in a village in Yorkshire with my Mum and thinking to myself: “I bet I am the only one here thinking that this place would be so easy to attack, that there’s no security, that someone could easily blow themselves up here.”
I would look at crowds of people spilling out of bars, and know that what I was thinking was not on the minds of any of them. They were so innocent, so unafraid. I felt very different. I missed Tel Aviv.
And so I always came back, even though not one person I knew in England could comprehend what on earth I was doing here. My friends thought I was crazy. My family thought I’d lost the plot. In fact, most people in Israel couldn’t understand my reasoning. I questioned it many times myself, particularly one summer evening when the café at the end of my street blew up. Or when I had a part time job at a bar and before every shift, I would say a little prayer “not tonight” and dread working in the exposed front section outside.
These days, things are much, much better in Tel Aviv. Yes, I’m still here nearly five years on …
And there’s a lot more to tell. Stay tuned for part two.