31 October 2008

סוף-סוף סוף לבלגן

Two days ago, I got an email from LRS, asking when she might be able to come visit. (!!) I answered:
Can I get back to you on that one?

The semester was scheduled to start on Sunday, but the university has informed the students that the semester will be delayed "until further notice."

Two years ago the whole school year was delayed by a student strike over raised tuition; last year the already-delayed school year was pushed back even further by a faculty strike over low wages. This year, the institution of higher education itself announced that it's striking for a bigger cut of the national budget, but...

Well, a few weeks ago the old Israeli prime minister (Ehud Olmert) stepped down because he was mired in a huge financial scandal, and the governing party elected a temporary prime minister (Tzipi Livni) to replace him. But she only gets to stay prime minister if she can put together a new parliamentary coalition before a certain deadline. The deadline was two days ago, and she couldn't do it, so now Olmert is back in power, leading a transitional "care-taker" government until the ad-hoc elections, which I think are scheduled to be in February (to give everyone lots of time to campaign).
[Here's the relevant Wikipedia article, with a much better explanation than mine.]

I'm pretty sure that the care-taker government does not have the authority to authorize budgetary changes. If so, the university had better not strike, since no one will have the power to meet their demands anyway! Hopefully they'll step down in the next few days, and start the semester on schedule, and then I'll know — at least tentatively!! — what this year's academic schedule is.

It turns out I was wrong about the legislative power of the care-taker government. Yesterday morning, as I got on the bus to the market, I heard the news on the bus driver's radio: "Emergency budgetary changes approved, academic semester to begin on Sunday." Sure enough, on his third day back in office, Olmert called an emergency budgetary session and approved the budgetary changes that the universities were asking for.

That's the actual budget meeting! Not my photography, haha.

Sure enough, this appeared in my email inbox yesterday night:

No explanations or apologies. Just one line:
"On Sunday, 11/2/2008, the 5769 school year will commence on schedule."

Which means my academic semester will officially begin at 4:30 on Sunday, with "Between Law and Moral and Political Philosophy." Or for short ... ?במלאפ"ף Bamla'apaf? Come to think of it, what in the world are the students going to call this class?

30 October 2008


(continued from this post.)

As you know, Bob, culture shock is a central component of the study-abroad-experience. Still, my own personal culture shock is shaped by the fact that I spent the last four years living in one of these:

The 1500 students at my liberal arts college were far from univocal when it came to identity politics, but we all had a sense of common ground to push off of in our disagreement, including a mostly-shared conception of tolerance and more-or-less similar ways of conveying respectful disagreement. Predictably enough, now that I'm out of the bubble (and outside my national bubble, and lately outside of the academic bubble) I've been finding myself frustrated with the rift between the assumptions I make and those that some of my Israeli partners in conversation make when we talk about identity politics.

What to do? I went to the HUJI library and checked out this book that my college thesis advisor wrote, called Tolerance: Between Forbearance and Acceptance.

Did you need any confirmation that I'm a philosophy dork? Now you have it.

When people find out that I study philosophy, they'll often ask what I plan to do with my education. I have a few canned responses to those kinds of questions — most of which are just cheerful concessions — but the most honest response is that philosophy clarifies my understanding of my circumstances in a way that is very important to me. The experience of reading this book here in Israel has offered me a great reminder of how important a role philosophy plays in my personal life.

A few encounters with rough edges of Israeli culture — especially in conversations about identity-politics — have left me struggling to find a balance between respect and resistance. It's sort of like learning personal-space boundaries in a new culture (how far to stand from someone when you're having a conversation, or how long to hold a handshake). Except in this case, I'm learning how far to stand from my own heart, and how much to thicken my skin, cool my blood and respond indifferently to (what-strikes-me-as) prejudice or intolerance. [Ruth blogs a similar struggle in Syria.]

The frustration and disappointment that I feel after these sorts of encounters has been hugely compounded by the fact that I don't know what kind of behavior I expect from myself in a situation like that. It's one thing to make judgments and keep them to myself. But the whole mutual-understanding-between-cultures thing seems to demand that I refrain from imposing my culture's value judgments on others. How can I refrain from making judgments without betraying my moral commitments?

And that's where this book comes in. I'm just going to be self-indulgent and quote it at length, because this particular section helped me so much to understand where my frustration was coming from, and where I hope to go from here.
To be fully tolerant does not entail that we cannot have critical reactions to the content of the attitudes, thoughts or conduct of those tolerated. All forms of tolerance necessitate having critical reaction to that which we tolerate. Otherwise, we would be either totally indifferent, complacent, world-weary, or fully accepting. Nor should "critical reactions" be limited to private, unexpressed responses. The fully tolerant do not — as do the barely and merely tolerant — deny themselves the opportunity, even the responsibility, of critically engaging those whom they tolerate, for the fully tolerant value more than that one lives one's own life. [...] It is enormously important that one's life has value, not merely that it is one's own.

Because those with a liberal temperament value individuals trying to live out their own conceptions of a good life, we might sometimes help individuals and groups pursue their good even when we find it deficient in various ways. [...] Full tolerance, therefore, involves a deep respect for the individuals and communities whose life projects are different from on's own, even where one disapproves of elements in it, even thinks that it is a generally inferior way to live. Full tolerance is not acceptance. The fully tolerant recognize, however, that it is usually difficult to remove objectionable elements from a system without destroying the whole. They will be acutely aware of what I call the "Sweater Principle": We sometimes pull on an offending bit of thread marring our sweater only to find a shapeless heap of yarn at our feet.

The fully tolerant, finally, recognize that there can be much good — though a diferent good — in attitudes, beliefs, and ways of life that we ourselves do not find congenial. It is not htat we do not see what is regrettable, say, about an Amish way of life. We see that all too clearly.What we may overlook are the incredible strengths in that way of life, the values — again, perhaps markedly different from our own, maybe even in competition with them — that it instills. Their way of life is not ours, but we see that it enables Amish to live rich, constructive live. This does not mean that the Amish themselves are imbued with a liberal temperament. Having a liberal temperament is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for living a worthwhile life. Having a liberal temperament, however, can help one see the value in ways of life and systems of belief that are not, themselves, liberal in any respect.
(Hans Oberdiek, Tolerance)

18 October 2008

B'Culture Shock [...o-b'sakit]

My last post (so long ago!) drew worried comments from some Americans who like me and worry that I might never come back. Aww! Let me assuage your fears with a blurry graph:

That's from the tail end of the ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ orientation in DC. The graph's titled "Pattern of Adjustment," and it plots Satisfaction against Time. (What are the units on the y-axis?!) As you can see, we visitors of foreign cultures predictably become infatuated with our host country, and then our moods come crashing down into the Valley of Great Dissatisfaction, from which we eventually emerge... only to plunge into the Even Deeper Valley of Horrible Sadness when we experience reverse-culture-shock back at home.

Fellow-fellowshipper Mitch-in-Egypt puts it this way — "Being in Cairo like being in a relationship with another person.... You might find it fascinating in the beginning, and then not so much later on."

It's not just Cairo, of course. I find myself marking little benchmarks-of-culture-shock.
  • Random feral cats all over the place? No longer the Cutest Infestation Ever. The more dead/starving/diseased street cats you see, the less you want to snuggle up with the healthy-looking ones.
    I was walking around Jerusalem yesterday and saw part of a cat lying in the middle of an intersection. There was nothing cute about it.

  • The thrill of public transportation? Basically gone. I think that I lost my appetite for bus travel after I spent 50 minutes shivering in the windy Jerusalem dusk while I waited for line 17, which (it turns out) takes the longest possible route between Beit Hakerem and Rechavia. I could have walked it and gotten there almost twice as fast.

    And the classic Israeli game of shoving your way onto the bus becomes much less fun after you lose, and get stuck waiting another twenty minutes for the next bus.

  • Gefilte fish. I do not have very much to say about it, except that I really hope I stop being sick of it in time for Passover.

    That's my grandma, making gefilte fish by grinding up fish into little shivering worm-like things. Honestly, my grandmother's gefilte fish are amazing, but we ate them for breakfast lunch and dinner throughout the עשרת ימי תשובה period.

  • Aggressive flirting from random dudes, especially dudes who are trying to sell you something? Not even mildly amusing anymore.

    Except, okay, there was one time when I got on a train and I really wanted to be left alone, so I sat across from an oldish guy who was wearing a white shirt and a black velvet kippah, which normally signals a strong predisposition against chatting up girls in tanktops. As I sit down, the dude announces a heavy Russian accent that his name is Moshe and he "needs to get married very urgently," and gives me his card, which is actually just a piece of cut-out printer paper advertising his services as a "therapeutic masseuse for men only." That... was pretty amusing. But still: random dudes, cut it out!

    If you don't know why I chose a photo from Machane Yehuda for this one, you have probably never been a 20-something-year-old woman at Machane Yehuda. For every obnoxious remark from a sales-dude, I think a customer-lady should be entitled to a date. (The fruit kind, not the other thing.)

But most of all I am getting worn down by a bunch of conversations I keep having, which generate a lot of friction and never seem to get anywhere. Chief among these are:
  • Arabs / Muslims / Palestineans: their dispositions, their cultural contributions, etc.
  • Feminism.
  • התבוללות (intermarriage between Jews and gentiles).
I don't want to avoid these conversations — and anyway, I can't — but I need to find a way to have them more productively.
(To be continued!)