Tel Aviv Diary December 12, 2002 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

It has been particularly difficult to discuss current events and what it feels like to be an Israeli in the past few days - My mother-in-law Sara is dying of a thousand good reasons and each day brings a new decision for the family to make concerning the prolonging of her life and her well being. We sit at her bedside, in awe of her nobility, honored to be able to help her, and destroyed by her suffering. I apologize for this personal note - but it clouds all my political and social observations.

Sometimes I want to write about typical events in the hospital that reveal the kind of strange mix of civilizations characterizing Israel, but i don't have the emotional energy for the details right now. Please bear with me. Just one outlined sketch. The overcrowded ward has people sleeping in the halls as well as the overstuffed rooms. And who are these people in such close quarters? A young Arab man, ambulatory except for the IV, lies near the nurses station, and smirks at the young visitors. Next to him an Alzheimers' patient who has reverted to her native Russian has forgotten the word for blood but watches it drip into her with wonder. A large Muslim grandmother, about 45, moans in her bed as her daughter keeps covering her head in modesty. And as we stand over her bed in intensive care, a delicate looking man expires quietly next to her -

more of this soon.

Sitting in the intensive care unit, Oren managed to convince me - the most logical vote is for Meretz. His logical analysis of Arik Sharon's centrality in every major event that has brought us to this debacle was so convincing I was convinced that he is someone who knows what he's talking about. In short, i was brought over the fence i've been sitting on. The only reason I want to vote Labor is the possibility of choosing a prime minister - but if that is truly lost, why vote for a party that has proven in the primaries that it is not behind the candidate they chose? a straw candidate, Oren says - he's the sacrificial lamb. Well, there's still time - i may change my mind again - and something may happen to change the situation.

Another thing he convinced me of was getting out the vote in Israel - I have been thinking more and more about all the Israeli leftists who have escaped to safer pastures. he's more interested in the people who live here and don't vote. it's easier and more logical to concentrate on them. I would love to see Oren in politics - but i'm not objective. I'm a mother.

December 13, 2002

Nur remains lost and hundreds search for her - including numerous Jews - and Hodaya's murderer was revealed through an Arab witness. At least in matters like these we help each other out.

There are so many items on the news i've neglected, including the Yossi Genossar cover-up, the murder last night of 2 soldiers, the numerous foiled terrorist attacks, but what has been troubling me most because it's so close to my daily life is the strange, unintellectual and even stupid behavior of the world academic community. Before 2 years ago numerous scholars wrote to me asking if i could arrange a lecture for them at Tel Aviv University. Suddenly they disappeared and now we are scrounging around for speakers. More troubling than that is the rejection for consideration of academic papers in journals in england and elsewhere.

Nur Abu Tur's body has been found. in a sewage dump near her house. It's pretty apparent that someone from the village must have done it - because any stranger would have been noticed. so the biggest crimes are committed by the people closest to you.

Academic prejudice seems so irrelevant in the face of that.

So petty, and antiacademic.

December 14, 2002

I found myself last night in a room with two young rightist activists. At first I thought that since we were in a social situation we could speak in a civilized way about the situation - they could tell me why the Oslo accords were a terrible mistake from the beginning and i could perhaps learn something. But very soon their language began to bother me - it was not only the idea of transfer but the language of violence, of power they were using. The manner in which they demeaned and disparaged 'leftist' leaders, the anger against an inhuman enemy, and the feeling that i myself would soon become the object of this kind of language if i continued the conversation. i decided to take a break and try to come back to it later in a different day. Later I brought up the subject of the concept of dialogue and how it was a problem for us to engage in dialogue on any level. I was at first thinking about a couple i know who can't seem to listen to each other, but it was understood and i came to agree that politics was also an issue and dialogue is impossible between parties as well as between peoples. Someone said, dialogue is two people trying to make themselves heard. No, said the other. It's shouting louder than the other. After all, another said, one is right and one is wrong. And I turned to a friend my age and said - don't you miss the sixties, when we believed we could make a difference through dialogue. Wait, he answered. I hated people who believed in the war. Oh, my. He's right. We've never had dialogue or compromise.

Linda points out to me two major points about my last observations. One is that as long as we're talking we're not fighting. A good point. Yet sometimes it is better not to talk and avoid the chance of fighting. Some people I have spoken with lately have made me consider violence. But then I'm in a state of advanced stress watching Sara get weaker and weaker, her skin dissolving as her bones have dissolved... So I'm not a good candidate for dialogue.

She also notes that force and violence are not the same thing: "Force is controlled by law, which means there is at least the serious and constant attempt to apply force only with justice and restraint. Violence is force without the restraint of consideration for the other that justice implies. If we do not uphold law, we become those against whom we fight." But I must add: I am not sure i would understand the difference if i was the victim. In fact some of the disputes here are based on different definitions of certain acts...

And I promised one friend, who is a nurse in Juneau, that I would tell her about the nurses in Ichilov Hospital. Years ago there was a grim secretary in our department at the university who quit one day because she said her work had to be more meaningful, to do some good. She went to study nursing and then became the head nurse in Emergency. I went to see her a few years ago and found her working very hard but smiling - smiling. She was saving lives.

Most of the nurses I have met this time around are Russian and/or Arab. Male or female, they are sensitive and devoted. The Israeli Jews seem less sympathetic, but they are all extremely competant. One doctor, visiting from Soroka hospital, told me she had been asked to look at the sprained knee of a serial rapist last week. "I ran away," she said, "I would have broken his other knee." It made me think of the political anger that must be overlooked daily by the many Arab doctors and nurses. I don't know if any Jewish patients are impolite, insulting, or afraid, but i suspect many many dramas.

Why do i think a hospital has political significance? I think that everything has political significance in this country. Even the murder of Hodaya - We have been very busy condemning the father as the antithesis of what a father should be. "He should be hanged in the square," a woman at a demonstration shouted. A personality disorder, the psychologists suggest. And he is indeed antithetical to the values of our and all society. And yet, there is something we need to learn from his terrifying act - that no one possesses another being, and that no life can be measured in terms of money. His motivations - linked to the fact that the child was his, could be used to hurt the mother if he took Hodaya from her, and that the value of her life was less than the value of his financial situation - are not totally foreign to us all.

December 15, 2002

I was sent a quotation that explains the logic of this diary:

"Sir, What is the secret of your success?" a reporter asked a bank president

"Two words"

"And, Sir, what are they?"

"Right decisions."

"And how do you make right decisions?"

"One word."

"And, What is that?"


"And how do you get Experience?"

"Two words"

"And, Sir, what are they?"

"Wrong decisions"

Since life seems to be going down the toilet around here I thought I might say a few words about one of my favorite subjects, public toilets. A few years ago, when we drove across the United States, I wrote a long poem about public toilets as a way of understanding the U.S., the self, and the interrelationship between public and private. In case you don't believe me this is the link: Poetry and Public Toilets . And today it seemed to me absurd that I have never told the whole truth about Israeli toilets, because their design and implementation are extremely significant for comprehending the degree of the westernization of Israel.

Of course I can only speak for the women.

In appearance, the Israeli public toilet resembles the western toilet. There is a booth, a toilet, and a wooden or plastic seat that can be raised or lowered, but is always lowered for women. There is a contraption for paper on the right side. There is a push button or dual-handle water-saving flush.

However, the Israeli woman does not actually sit on the seat. Instead she crouches a few inches above, in a similar position she would be in if she were in a Turkish toilet, for instance, where the floor is porcelain with a hole and ribbed places for the feet. The difference in her position, however, is that she can't crouch down totally on her haunches, but must suspend herself with knees not quite perpendicular in a very precarious stance.

The sanitized flush, of course, flushes away the urine. But it can't get at the white seat of the toilet which is usually beaded yellow because of the natural inaccuracy of the aim of a teetering woman.

Now all women need toilet paper afterward. But the toilet paper is positioned for a seated person, not a tottering one, and therefore an extreme right lean is called for. This is not always possible if one is not suitably attired, and the hem of a skirt might dip and brush against the beaded seat, or the trousers may slip down into the puddle on the floor left by a previous user.

The fastidious woman may then try to wipe the skirt, or even wring it out with her fingers before she pushes the flush button, and then the door handle.

Why is this regular procedure for women in an Israeli public toilet? Because one woman doesn't trust the system, doesn't sit down, and ruins it for the rest of us.

And now I am going to take a shower in my own bathroom.

(If you are wondering what has become of my high seriousness - have no fear - it will return in the morning. I took my first day off from sitting by Sara's bed and it has made me giddy.)

December 16

Sara died last night.

The poem of Yehuda Amichai keeps coming into my head:


She is freed, freed. Freed from the body

and freed from the soul and from the blood that is the soul,

freed from desires and freed from sudden fears

and from fear for me, freed from honor and freed from shame

freed from hope and despair and from fire and from water

freed from the color of her eyes and the color of her hair,

freed from furniture and freed from spoon knife and fork,

freed from the Jerusalem on High and from the lower Jerusalem

freed from identity and identity card,

freed from the round seals

and from the square seals

freed from copies and freed from staples.

She is freed, freed.

And all the letters and all the numbers

which ordered her life are also free

for new combinations, new fates and new games

of all the generations to come after her.

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