Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The whiskey debate

Only in Tel Aviv do I find myself in a debate with the Arab affairs reporter of a popular English daily on what best constitutes citizenship in Israel. Six months in this country and I think I can have an opinion on such things? I’m from small-town Long Island.

But in that moment it didn’t matter. The most fun part was the show we put on and a jab I took at the reporters’ 93-year-old grandmother who had just made Aliyah - low blow Laura, low blow. In my own closing argument I mumbled something like "we have to build the Jewish dream" and sheepishly drank my whiskey.

Thankfully, due to much alcohol, the panel of judges wasn’t at their most sharp to disqualify my argument entirely.

But let‘s back up for a minute. How did I find myself in an informal setting at a formal debate, suddenly a loud and proud Zionist? Let’s start with a few hours earlier…

It was the last day of my internship. The only job I ever had that gave me purpose and really excited me. But it had to end and sadly, it was pretty anti-climactic. Despite my fantasies of being viewed as a journalistic messiah, I was slowly coming to acceptance with the reality that I was free labor. Sure people were sad to see me go, but they were more upset with the fact that the time consuming and menial tasks now had to be done by actual people. It was on to the next for them. It’s ok, that was the deal. I was just sad.

But earlier in the week my editor had given me an invite to a curiously conspicuous “whiskey debate.” At this point it was the only thing keeping me going. The email invitation gave the impression of exclusivity and prestige. I didn’t know what I was getting into so, with what felt like my life in shambles, I put on a nice dress and flat-ironed my hair.

I stood outside the apartment door which had a piece of paper, ripped from a notebook, that said “Whiskey Debate” in English cursive. It was myself, the newly appointed economics reporter for the JPost, and a random woman who assured us this was the right place.

And then there I was, sipping whiskey in someone’s living room watching two people face off in a timed and organized debate about the pro’s and cons of democratically electing the Rabbanut. I was definitely not in Long Island anymore.

And that’s what made me realize I can’t leave Tel Aviv. This place constantly amazes me. Maybe things like this happen other places too, but in America I can only imagine hipster liberals facing off against yuppie conservatives. They would throw out words like “debt ceiling” because they heard it on The Newsroom or “fiscal cliff” because the media made a big deal about it.  

It’s different in Israel. Being an American I’m constantly confronted with how my upbringing has colored my views and opinions. If you bring up the death penalty, the first thing that comes to my mind is punishment for reprehensible crimes or innocents on death row. Here, it’s a question of how it fits within the Jewish religion, the Adolf Eichmann case and then reconciling what it means to have targeted assassinations of terrorists.

The debate was organized so that two people would volunteer, they would have a few minutes to prepare and then they would face off. After they finished the room would comment on arguments made, style of arguing and then vote on which person they thought won. 

It was unbelievable to me. To have people, for fun, put them selves on a chopping block to be judged for their views and style of arguing. But that’s Israel and that’s Tel Aviv. If you’re not ready to argue, you’re not ready to live here.

The event was billed as a post mortem to the elections and it was apt timing. For weeks we had been hearing Israeli politicians tout their party’s platforms, ad-nauseam, to what seemed an increasingly apathetic and jaded Israeli public. But then a debate like this inspired me that these are living issues that we can participate in. This is a young country and its constantly changing and figuring itself out. It’s also an immigrant country. When people went to the US for a better life to make their dreams come true, they participated and found ways to add or improve to their new home. That’s the sentiment here. People definitely don’t come here because its easier, they come here for the adventure, to be part of something they believe in. Life here is ever changing and it’s always up for debate. An emphasis on liquor is just a bonus.

I’ve started a new job. I work nights in order to call young American Jews to tell them they too can come to Israel. I have a new apartment, a sub-let with an older Belgium gentlemen and an Italian woman. It’s yet to be seen how I plan to participate in this morphing country, if I can, or even if I’ll stay much longer. But for certain, I can’t leave yet.

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