Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Parking Lot

So last night I finally went downtown on a Friday evening. Took the car, went into the city at 10:30 pm, (when I was told by my passenger that "10:30 pm is early" I realized I was no longer in Hartford). I found a barely filled parking lot, and then went with a family friend (and her friend) to a one-step-up-from seedy bar. Met some more people, had a few drinks (finally did not have a gin & tonic miscommunication), and at 1 am decided it was time to get the car and go home. Walked back to the parking lot (now full, as to be expected), located at the corner of Allenby & Ben Yehuda, got in the car and fired her up, backed out of my tight space, followed the one-way arrows directing to the exit, and then came up behind an empty car parked smack in the middle of the exit lane. Which was standing behind an occupied car, which was sitting behind yet another empty parked car.

So of course you get the idea...the owner of the lot is trying to maximize revenue out of every single square meter of his asphalt money tree. And he is not a foolish lot owner -- not this Israeli entrepreneur -- for inside his exit booth he has the keys for every car that is blocking any other car. Except for one thing: no one knows which keys hanging on the board work with which car. By the time I join the exit line, the lot owner and his assistants have been running back and forth from the office to the first parked car in the line up with different sets of keys for 15 minutes, none of which seem to work. Meanwhile, about 30 meters ahead of our self-inflicted jam, another group of staff workers are moving cars as if trying to solve a rubik's cube.

I counted at least 6 workers on this lot, trying to juggle cars in a lot designed for 80. But Mr. Parking Lot has a Friday night crowd to fleece at 25NIS per car, so if he can manage to squeeze in 15 more cars -- oooowah! -- caviar tonight for Mr. Parking Lot's Russian mistress (but only after he pays the salaries of the 4 workers he uses to juggle cars).

OK, so now here is the moment of truth. My upper Midwest politeness and patience vs. their Mideast stupidity and machismo. So what is the first thing I do? I patiently wait in the car, talking to my passenger. Obviously there are workers running to and fro, someone is attending to our dilemma, and certainly they will all have it sorted out in a matter of minutes. So 5 minutes pass; 10 minutes. Alright, now I admit I get out of my car and use my body language to indicate "what is going on here"? Behind me is a Russian man on a date, ahead of us is a local driver (remember, he too is stuck), who when I ask him in Hebrew "What is going on?" answers me in broken English "I don't speak Hebrew." Even a local caught in the same Kafkaesque parking lot hell as I am in will not admit we are sharing a similar fate.

For the fifth time, a simpleton boy comes running back from the office with a set of keys, which of course don't work. We are now 20 minutes into the adventure. My passenger goes over to the entrance (her street Hebrew is better than mine) and she lambastes the owner, who assures her that it will all be straightened out in a minute. You see, there are 2 ways that Israelis answer back to the rising anger of an unsatisfied customer/consumer. Most people think that Israelis yell back at an even higher volume until someone pulls a gun. That certainly is one way to go. But there is another way, even more confounding and enraging -- the stupid grin, the "just a minute more", the "why are you yelling so much? -- it will all be settled in a second". You become the screaming hothead, and they just smile back, in the ultimate expression of passive-aggresiveness: "calm down, it will all work out...we'll fix the problem slowly and methodically, at the same pace we used to put the car in the middle of the lane in the first place." When the simpleton boy had not even acknowledged my screaming in Hebrew, I finally gave up and looked him in the face and yelled in English: "What the fuck is wrong with you people?" At which point I realized that the parking lot people had won: game, set & match. In a matter of 25 minutes, I had been turned from an Anglo-Saxon model of patience -- how we wish all these crazy Middle Easterners, Jews and Arabs alike, should some day behave -- into a screaming maniac, cursing the country and its people, wondering if these idiots will ever have a normal society. In vain I lamely threatened to call the police, and the guy who spoke Hebrew but said he didn't looked at me with a smile on his face which read: "Do you really think they give a shit?"

35 minutes into the ordeal the waters parted, the spatial puzzle was solved, and with 2 inches of margin on either side of my rental car, I finally got out of the parking lot.

Mussar heskel (the moral of the story): Don't go to Tel Aviv with a car on Friday night. And if you do decide to take a car, avoid the parking lot at the corner of Allenby and Ben Yehuda.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

One blog isn't enough

My colleague at Trinity College Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life, kindly requested a post from here, a "Letter from Israel," for the Center's blog entitled Spiritual Politics, which is always interesting. Take a look at my letter, and put Spiritual Politics on your RSS feed.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Does anybody drink here?

It's all coming back to me -- I am having an awful time ordering gin & tonics here in Israel. First, no one has any idea what a lime is. They simply do not exist here. I don't even think there is a word for "lime." Second, Israel, despite the influx of vodka-drinking Russians, has no real alcohol culture. When I ordered Bombay Sapphire last night (clearly listed on the menu as available) the waitress has no idea what I was talking about, and that wasn't because of my horrible American accent (so I was told I possessed by an 8 year-old). Third, you always have to remember to specifically request ice, and even when you do they never give you enough, because Israelis despise ice – I think because they believe that ice will reduce the volume of the paid-for drink, which means you are being cheated out of something, God forbid. I was amazed while watching the "bartender" (at a fully stocked and modern-looking bar set-up, mind you) pour my gin – I saw him actually stick his nose at the top of the opened bottle to take a sniff, because he had no idea what gin (or maybe this gin) was. Then try ordering a Mojito or a Margarita – they haven’t a clue how to mix anything complicated, even though they claim it on their menus. Now I admit I haven't gone on a serious search for bars, which I know exist, but so far I am really deeply unimpressed with the mixology here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pausing for Condi?

She's been here before; she'll probably be here again, but you can't deny that the government of Israel certainly puts out the welcome mat for Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Just to make her visit all that less unpleasant, Israel withdrew its forces from the northern Gaza Strip, unable to have dealt a blow to the Hamas missilers. That's all she needed -- another visit to the region while guns and missiles are blazing. She can certainly say: "Been there; done that." Back at the end of July, 2006, when Israel was trying to stop a more formidable missile menace from Lebanon, Condi was conferring with Olmert et al. just as word of the air strike at Qana arrived. Boy, was that ever embarassing! So none of that this time, no matter what the downside might be.

Truth is, the Israeli pullout from Gaza comes after a measurable downturn in Hamas missile launches. Whether the limited supply of Grad rockets (range about 13 miles; warhead about 15 lbs) has been expended, or Hamas has sufficiently made its point for now, there is a palpable sense that the threatening posturing of both sides has receded in the last 24 hours, as Gazans and Israelis celebrate their respective pyrrhic victories.

Condi will be gone soon enough, with no real resolution, and the only "progress" she can possibly hope to achieve is a resumption of the now-suspended "consultations" between the West Bank Palestinian regime and the Israelis. In other words, for Condi the only measure of success will be returning to the deadlock of a week ago, before the rockets fell on Ashqelon. So much for an agreement between Israel and Palestine by year's end (as promised by lame duck Dubya when he visited the region in January). Two months into this supposedly fateful year, and the region is in worse shape now than when empty promises were thrown into the air just 4 months ago in Annapolis. Anyone who expected otherwise -- well, that is the true meaning of the audacity of hope.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

No Country for Young Men

I haven't been here in Israel even a day, and have been asleep for most of the time. My eyes hurt from jetlag and I'll soon be off to sleep some more. But I've got to write something about what I've arrived to, because it seems so hauntingly familiar to the summer of 2006. It's hard not to turn to breathless dramatic tones when you walk into a house at 5 am after a day of air travelling and look on the kitchen table to see a local newspaper with a headline stating "WAR". While I've been sleeping through my jetlag today, more than 60 Palestinians and two Israelis died about 35 miles south of here in what many are calling exactly that. This is not a part of the world where young men can expect to live a long life.

I haven't watched a TV show or listened to a radio broadcast, and there are no papers printed on Saturday, so I know virtually nothing of what is going on. The immediate cause for all this mayhem is the serious and persistent escalation of long-range Katyusha-style rockets into the daily barrage shooting forth out of Gaza, and the use by Israel of air assets to counter the missile volleys. The missiles from Gaza are now landing in Ashqelon, a town of 120,000 people, and are landing on shopping malls and housing projects. The Israeli air attacks certainly have the requisite collateral damage consequences that are part of doing business with stand-off airborne arsenal.

It is hard to get any clear sense whether the actions of today (coming at the end of a very deadly week) mark the beginning of a descent into a spring war against Gazastan. Certainly the language of the lower echelon Israeli ministers suggests that a decision has been made to deal once-and-for-all with the growing missile threat from Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned from a weeklong visit overseas to a country on the edge from a major security crisis, and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is due in on Monday for a visit to supposedly check up on how the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are going. Yeah, right. Tonight the "good" Palestinian leadership on the West Bank could no longer ignore the carnage from Gaza and suspended the talks, and as I go to sleep tonight, it looks like Rice's visit will be the last chance to stem the inevitable march to what will be an ugly, violent, and messy -- I struggle to write it -- "war".

Why is Hamas in Gaza provoking the Israelis and inviting down this assymetrical response from the Israeli sky? It really is very simple: Hamas wants to be at the center of attention, it wants to assert its primacy in Palestinian affairs, and it wants to provoke a crisis which will force Western diplomats, the Fatah government on the West Bank, and Israel to engage it in dialogue. Added to all that, the recent breach of the Egypt-Gaza border probably served as a catalyst, insofar as new and better Iranian (so the Israelis charge) equipment made its way into Gaza.

I hope I am clouded by foggy jetlag-induced thinking, but it sure seems like something bad is in the offing. This could cool off just as quickly as it started, but for the moment, it looks like a tough spring ahead.