In my ESL class I study with people from all over the world, not only learning English but simultaneously experiencing the beauty of other cultures. I have made new friends who are Hindus, Sikhs and Christians; and in the area where I live there temples, mosques and churches.
No country is perfect. But overall, I have been pleasantly surprised to see real examples of people living out tolerance, harmony and acceptance in my new home — and I hope that both Americans and Pakistanis can grow to better understand each other’s cultures.
Wing Young Huie Photographs Remind Us That the American Experiment Lives On
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
On this Fourth of July, photographer Wing Young Huie reminds us of what it means to be an American, taking time to remember the greatness of this dynamic cultural and social mix of strangers in a strange land.
"Growing up in Minnesota, ya know, people would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I would say, ‘I’m from Duluth.’ People would say, ‘No, no, where are you really from?’ And I’d say, ‘Really, I’m from Duluth.’
It’s an innocent question, but implies a lot. It’s assumed that I must be a foreigner. I think there are times where my family, or myself, we felt that I wasn’t a true American, wasn’t a true Minnesotan, growing up in the land of Lake Woebegone. But, the realities of what I am and how I’m perceived bumps up into the perceptions of what Minnesotans are, on a regular basis.
So, for hyphenated people like me, there are hundreds of thousands of people who bump into this, the myths of the state. So, in a way, what I’m trying to do is create a new iconography. One that fills a gap between the perception of who we are and the reality.”
The child of Lake Superior’s shores spent more than four years taking thousands of photographs of a dynamic range of people who inhabit a stretch of six miles of road in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Titled the University Avenue Project, hundreds of Huie’s images became an urban street installation being displayed in storefronts, on the sides of buildings, in windows of houses. If you ever question whether the great American experiment lives on, Huie’s work will challenge your assumptions and most likely give you a sobering bit of hope.
Former African-American IDF Soldier Wrestles with Distinguishing Between God and Israel
by Rosalina Nieves, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Moshe Hillel Eytan, born Marcus Hardie, is a Long Beach, California native who converted to Judaism at the age of 22. Marcus, who was raised Baptist and belonged to one of Southern California’s most notorious gangs, the Eight Ball Crips, says he found what he had searched for all his life. He found refuge in a religion that offered him a home and an identity that, he says, connected him to God.
“I experienced Yiddishkeit (Jewish Identity) at my own pace. Judaism taught me that race is of no significance and that you are judged by your actions,” says Marcus, the name he prefers to be called now.
In 2000, Moshe Hillel Eytan, as he was known at that time, thought making Aliyah to Israel had completed his conversion to Judaism. After all, he had converted to Judaism three times, twice in the U.S. and once in the Orthodox branch of Judaism in Israel. But it wasn’t enough for Moshe, who, at the age of 28, decided to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). By doing so, he felt he was securing his allegiance to Judaism and to the state of Israel.
“It wasn’t enough to make Aliyah to Israel, I needed to protect Israel. I couldn’t just come [to Israel] and integrate, and become a rabbi … or have a wife or have a child. I needed to give back,” says Marcus. “My Jewish identity, or my interest in Jewish affairs, took over my life. It felt like I was possessed.”
His way of giving back was by defending his new-found homeland from terrorists. He equated it to the violence he had once escaped from as a teenager. Except this time, he thought he would be fighting on the right side, the good side. So a year after having made Aliyah to Israel, Marcus joined the IDF.
Americans in IDF
“Jewish People and Jewish students in particular feel a tremendous allegiance to the state of Israel. Historically, we need a country of our own. (And) a few young men and women chose to do a condensed version of serving in the Israel army,” says Rabbi Aron Hier.
Hier, who is the current director of the campus outreach program for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was born and raised in Canada by Jewish parents. And, like Marcus, he too volunteered to serve in the IDF.
“I finished college and I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do and so I said I’ll give them a year and half. It’s that brutal, you can train as much as you want and you can’t get used to the heat, you can’t get used to the lack of privacy and living in the same clothes for a week at a time. Its not about pumping weights, it tests you in many ways. It was very hard and very rewarding.”
It’s not uncommon for foreigners, including Americans, to serve in the IDF. Some Americans are the children of Israelis who emigrated years ago; others, like Rabbi Hier and Marcus, have no family connection whatsoever.
A 2010 Ha’aretz article profiling foreigners serving in the IDF reported that about 3,000 lone immigrant soldiers were serving in the IDF and, in 2010, more than 500 soldiers were from United States.
Rabbi Hier dismissed the potential pitfalls of an American swearing allegiance to Israel. Since the two are close allies, he doesn’t see a problem. Besides, by law, Americans are permitted to serve in a foreign military.
Rabbi Mayer May, the executive director of the Wiesenthal Center and the President of the Rabbinical Council of California, also supports the idea that American Jews can go serve in the IDF.
“I can understand a lot of the kids who grow up in America, and have strong feelings for the state of Israel. They watch it and feel it as the underdog, even though it sometimes is positioned as the occupier,” May said. “But it’s not the occupier when you think of all the ten million of Arabs that are surrounding it.”
“What happens in Israel affects us profoundly here, and not only in terms of our presence in America, but profoundly because we know of our profound connection to the land of Israel for 3, 000 years.”
A Faith Replaced by Nationalism and Anger
Marcus says his service in the military quickly changed his life and his views of Israel. Just as the Second Palestinian Intifida started in 2000, Israel became a more violent place. He had to suppress riots and police Palestinians. He was often the first on scene after a bomb went off.
“I would arrive and see all sorts of body parts, the ground saturated with blood. I saw people suffering. It was more than I bargained for,” says Marcus.
This is where Marcus claims his faith was replaced by nationalism and anger. He says he started placing the state of Israel in the position of God.
“Instead of saying God is powerful, I would say Israel is powerful,” says Marcus.
Marcus became less and less religious as he completed his two years in the IDF. The religious connection he once felt towards Israel began to fade. Although he had signed up to protect Israel, Marcus acknowledges that he knew very little about the Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel. He had only learned about the terrorists who targeted innocent Israelis. But after becoming an anti-terror fighter in the IDF, he learned the lines were often blurred.
“I didn’t really have much contact with Palestinians before then. That was a big blind spot that I had. And when I look back, in retrospect I always saw Israel as a Jewish state,” Marcus said. “For me, the Palestinian Arabs were invisible. They were invisible people. I don’t remember meeting even one Palestinian. I don’t remember having interest in meeting one.”
Marcus says his experience in the IDF did the opposite of what he expected. His service in the IDF did not complete his religious journey to Judaism. But it did changed Marcus’s life in ways he would have never imagined.
Soon after he completed his service in the military, Marcus returned to the United States and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Today, Marcus Hardie, resides in a modest group home in Whittier, California. He has published an autobiographical book, Black & Bulletproof, where he shares his life story and gives readers an inside look at the Israeli army and its operatives from the perspective of an African-American Jew.
Marcus still considers himself a man of faith and worships at Temple Beth Shalom in Whittier. He admits that he isn’t as religious as he once was, but says he continues to practice Judaism.
“I still think of Israel as my homeland, but the connection just isn’t as strong as it was before. No one can take away what I saw happen to innocent people, both Palestinians and Israelis.”
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Film about Tel Aviv School Educating Marginalized Children Wins Oscar
by Mary Slosson, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Amidst the glamor and glitz of the Oscars, a short film on the children of migrant workers and asylum seekers in Israel was awarded a golden statue for best documentary short.
The film Strangers No More highlights the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, which teaches 800 students from 48 countries. Some have fled violence in their home countries, while others migrated to Israel along with their parents, who were searching for work. All are united by a common language: Hebrew.
A screening of the film in Tel Aviv on Monday night brought a capacity crowd, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert. As The Jerusalem Post reports:
"Olmert said the school presents a model of how Israel can treat those who are different and those who come here seeking refuge. The former Prime Minister added ‘We must not allow these children to be deported.’"
Olmert was almost certainly just referring to the children of asylum seekers, and not those of migrant workers. The differences in treatment between the two groups — by society and by law — are among the issues we will be investigating in our coverage of the immigrant issue on the ground in Israel.
And you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll try to meet the students and teachers at Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv when we’re there in just under two weeks!
(photo: Karen Goodman)
An Israeli “Tribe” in Los Angeles
Israeli brothers fare well when it comes to immigration and employment
by Christin Davis, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
In a one-bedroom condo just off Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, friends and family of the four Zilberberg brothers — immigrants to Los Angeles from their home in Israel — began arriving around 9 p.m. on a Friday. The host, Jonathan Zilberberg, 34, scrambled for a wine opener to start the traditional blessings as the two braided loaves of challah, bread for the Jewish Sabbath, wait under the customary embroidered cover.
As someone turns down The Black Eyed Peas’ most recent single, kippah head coverings are distributed to the men in preparation for prayer. With more men than kippahs, paper towels turned up at the corners suffice.
Conversations in Hebrew converge with those in English, as Oz Zilberberg, 38, gathers everyone at the table. The oldest man in the room, in his mid-40s, leads the prayers before passing a glass of wine to the men, in order of age, and then the women.
The Zilberbergs are among some 17,000 Israeli immigrants reportedly living in Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey. The brothers immigrated and established careers before economic decline left 12.5 percent of Californian’s unemployed, as of December 2010, with virtually no variance between the native-born and foreign-born populations.
Each Friday night, the group of about 20 meets in Hollywood for a Shabbat dinner — the beginning of a 24-hour break from work.
“Shabbat dinners are like a small part of Israel,” Oz Zilberberg says. “It helps us remember where we come from and keeps us together as a tribe.”
The brothers’ father was the only surviving member of his family after the Holocaust; he fled to Israel as a refugee from Yugoslavia in 1947.
“Growing up, our father questioned if there was a God, and asked where he was during the Holocaust,” Oz Zilberberg says. “As adults, we divide religion from religious organizations, but we keep the basics.”
On this particular night, over a catered kosher dinner of fish, beef, rice, potatoes, and hummus, discussion centers on the recent unrest across the Middle East and what instigated much of the citizen uprisings — economics, specifically unemployment.
Recent news reports have covered the protests and promises for jobs and monetary assistance in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Iran. The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, even warned in January that the “Arab soul is broken by poverty, employment, and general recession,” according to the Associated Press.
Israel, as Shabbat dinner attendees note, is following the turbulence closely. It has been spared from the unrest, but has not escaped the pertinent issue of unemployment. In November 2010, the Central Bureau of Statistics reports, the unemployment rate in Israel stood at 6.8 percent, including roughly 216,000 Israelis. Haaretz calls unemployment “Israel’s other existential threat,” second only to its destruction by outside forces.
Oz Zilberberg arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 following 10 years serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, a recent divorce, and a year traveling in South America. One by one, his three brothers immigrated to L.A. as well. Jonathan Zilberberg arrived in late 2001, and the brothers opened a construction company together, California Construction Center, which specializes in home remodeling throughout Southern California.
“Israelis are great businessmen by nature,” says Lian Kimia, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Israel as a child and now works as a project manager for the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), a non-profit geared toward connecting Israeli Americans with their home culture. The ILC operates 13 programs spanning all ages, including one specifically for young professionals.
“Most have served in the army and come with the mentality that everything is life or death, and that you have to do everything to the best of your ability and bring new ideas and solutions to incorporate into your work ethic. Many Israelis here lead their professional lives the same way.”
Tatyana Kodner, director of Refugee and Immigrant Services at Jewish Vocational Services in L.A., a non-profit that works with agencies and individuals to ensure access to employment and assistance, says finding jobs for refugees and immigrants in a normal labor market is difficult due to competition with the native-born population, but “competing with locals over the past two years has become especially challenging.”
“We now have to try to sell personality and a different set of work ethics in helping people find employment.”
Kodner, an immigrant to California from Russia, fled to the U.S. to escape anti-Semitism in her home country. “The Jewish community has always had to work 10 times harder to earn a place under the sun,” Kodner says. “The history of the Jews is that they have always had to prove themselves.”
A large majority of immigrants from the Middle East start businesses in the U.S., according to Kodner. “Many of these individuals were entrepreneurs at home, and they work to be entrepreneurs here as well.”
With 30 employees, including 10 friends the brothers have “imported” from Israel, California Construction Center maintained a steady stream of customers in 2010 despite the recession, but did close a branch office in San Diego. The Zilberbergs say the economic downturn taught them about resiliency, though they have never shied away from prospects for success.
“In the U.S., people grow up without bad shaping their lives; In Israel, with the threat of attacks and with everyone having to serve in the army, you must live each day like it’s your last,” Oz Zilberberg says. “But [in the U.S.], there’s no reason not to run forward and go as high as you can. For me, it is actually the land of opportunities.”
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
War, want and concentration camps, exile from home and homeland, these have made me hate strife among men, but they have not made me lose faith in the future of mankind. … If man has been able to create the arts, the sciences and the material civilization we know in America, why should he be judged powerless to create justice, fraternity and peace?
—Ladis D. Kristof, as quoted in his son’s column titled "My Father’s Gift to Me."
You should read this plainspoken homage from yesterday’s New York Times. It’ll do you good.
Trent Gilliss, senior editor