Saturday, July 14, 2007

We Didn't Call You Behemoths

As promised in this post, here is the translated version of the article I wrote for Nana last week. I've tried to maintain the structure and links used in the Hebrew version, and I've made only one change to the content, in order to include a mention of Lisa Goldman's recent trips to Beirut, which could not be included at the time when the original article was published (who says I can't keep a secret?!).


A rather interesting article was published on Nana's Computers portal recently, whose title was "We are all Behemoths". The article purported to provide an overview of the English-language blogosphere in Israel, with one of the more salient points being that as English-language blogs, the bloggers who write them are, in essence offering a skewed view of Israelis and of life in Israel, given that these bloggers, by virtue of the fact that they are native English speakers, are not at all representative of the average Israeli.

The article's author, Dana Peer, (whose mother, incidentally, is American), opts to focus on the blogs of relatively new immigrants, including "What War Zone?", "Zabaj", and "Ari Lives in Israel". The highlighted posts all have one thing in common – experiences mostly revolving around encounters with native Israelis. Peer then goes on to belittle the bloggers of the Anglo-Israeli blogosphere for choosing to focus on these experiences, and claims that,

"the Israeli image in the global blogosphere is proffered almost solely from the viewpoint of immigrants and tourists - and it's possible to say a great deal about them, except for one thing - that they faithfully represent the image of the average Israeli. Forget representing - most of them don't understand it at all."
One of the issues that Peer addresses is the way that some of these new immigrants poke fun at the way that Israelis have incorporated various English words into the Hebrew language. Peer points out in an ongoing email exchange (which began after the article was published) that it is a "natural phenomenon that words from one language are assimilated into another language, and then adapted to meet the relevant rules of grammar." I am inclined to agree with that statement, though as one whose native language is the one from which these words often originate, I must admit that it does sound amusing at times to hear native Hebrew speakers use words in "English" while speaking Hebrew.

The amusement is not necessarily directed at the speaker, but rather at the concept. For the record, I am similarly amused when I hear Americans in the US say the word "chutzpah" with a totally American accent (or any other random word that has entered the English lexicon from another language) in their daily lives, lest you think it is limited to Americans making fun of Israelis.

The Internet Changes the Rules

One of the suggestions that Peer brought up in her email is that perhaps she should have included a disclaimer at the beginning of her article, noting that it was not intended to be a serious look at the Anglo-Israeli blogosphere, but rather a humorous take on a very specific aspect of this virtual society. Indeed, one of the greatest "pitfalls" facing writers today is that the internet has created a situation where one's words have the potential to go farther than ever before.

As such, the writer essentially loses all control over their own creation. Writers can no longer get by with excuses about intended audiences, and it is something that we as bloggers and journalists must take into consideration, accepting that our words may reach unintended audiences who can twist our thoughts to suit their own needs.

A prime example of this would be an incident that occurred last summer, when Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder published an article about Israel and the Jews in a Norwegian newspaper. The article was intended for Norwegian audiences only, and Garder was reportedly completely shocked by the worldwide condemnation he received after his article was translated into other languages and seen to be rather anti-Semitic, even though Garder claimed that this was not his intention, and that his words were taken out of context.

I also think, perhaps, that Peer did not take into account that there might be immigrants reading her article who would not see it as being a funny, cynical piece at all, but rather a personal attack on "those immigrants". In her email, Peer explains that she has taken care to focus on both sides of the issue – that of the immigrant and that of the native-born Israeli, and has tried to maintain a balance in her criticism of both groups. However, in the same way that comedians can openly mock their own group without anyone raising an eyebrow, but will often be criticized for mocking another group, it should come as no surprise that immigrants would have issues with being criticized by someone who is not "one of their own". An indication of this can be seen in the responses to Peer's original article, which, while obviously quite amusing for the native Hebrew speakers (whose comments reflected a rather alarming trend to bash immigrants who had chosen to make Israel their home, which makes me wonder whether some of them had taken the article as seriously as I had), seemed to lose something when the article crossed cultures.

On the one hand, Peer is accurate in her assessment that the new immigrant bloggers among us often focus on their unique immigrant experiences and encounters, which is certainly not an unusual phenomenon, and indeed, is entirely legitimate. Of course, perhaps we, as immigrant bloggers, must also take into account that just we have chosen to make Israel our home, we must be more accepting and open to the nuances of Israeli culture and the local lexicon. Peer mentions an incident in her email of an immigrant blogger poking fun at native Israelis for not being able to say "Massachusetts". Frankly though, until you can master any Hebrew word or name with the letter "resh" in it, you're really not in a position to make fun of "the natives" (unless, of course, you are trying to emulate MK Michael Eitan).

Putting a Human Face on "The Monster"

Humor aside, though, Peer does a disservice to her readers by limiting her article to these few blogs while ignoring the richness and variety of the Anglo-Israeli blogosphere as a whole, a heterogeneous group of writers whose blog postings cover an incredibly wide range of topics, whether it be politics, current events, local culture, family, and so on.

Our corner of the blogosphere includes both new and veteran immigrants, religious and secular bloggers. We have bloggers in the Territories and bloggers who live in Tel Aviv's trendy Sheinkin neighborhood. To say that we've had a few battles over Israeli political issues would be akin to calling last summer's war a minor border incident.

anglosaxy.jpgResidents of our virtual neighborhood include bloggers like Canadian-born Lisa Goldman, a journalist whose blog "On the Face" not only received worldwide attention during the war last summer (and whose clips that touch on her recent trips to Beirut can be found on Nana's news portal), but also won the Best Non-Muslim Blog award in a competition held in the Islamic blogosphere; British expatriate "Anglosaxy", a non-Jewish blogger who writes about his view of life in the Holy Land; Bert de Bruin, a Dutch-born blogger who posts at "Dutchblog Israel" in both English and Dutch, primarily about current events and political issues; "Chayyei Sarah", a blog written by an American freelance journalist and teacher living in Jerusalem; Australian expatriate artist Nominally Challenged writes over at "A Whiff of the Med". And these are only a few examples of what can be found out there.

defendingisrael.jpgThese Israel-based bloggers who write in languages other than Hebrew are the face of Israel for readers around the world. We are the writers who put a human face on the "monster" known as Israel, and do so on a daily basis. We are the writers who readers turned to during the Second Lebanon War last summer, when people the world over were anxious to dig up any shred of information they could find about the human side of the conflict.

It must be noted that the Hebrew-language blogosphere and the English-language blogosphere (not to mention the Russian and Arabic language blogospheres) serve very different purposes. While the Hebrew-language blogosphere is for domestic consumption, Israeli blogs written in English (or in other foreign languages) are often specifically targeted at the world outside of Israel. These bloggers see their natural role as being that of explaining Israel to the rest of the world.

Willingly and Not by Force

Judging by the article itself as well as the numerous talkbacks it received, Peer and her "Israeli" readers seem to think that these new immigrants, all of whom chose to live in Israel, are not allowed to be critical of their adopted country. A running theme throughout the comments was that if these Americans aren't happy in Israel, then they should just simply pack up and go home. If everyone who lived in Israel was asked to leave if they complained, chances are excellent that within a relatively short period of time, there'd be no one living here (except, perhaps for Ehud Olmert, who clearly lives in a world of his own where everything is good and everyone loves him...).

Western immigrants come to Israel because they want to, not because they have to. Israel is where they want to be, but that certainly doesn't mean that life is perfect here. I have been living here for sixteen years. My life is here, my family is here. Do I believe that daily life would be easier in the US? Yes. Do I believe there's a lot to complain about in Israel? Of course. Am I planning to leave? No.

Israel is my home, just as it is the home of all these new immigrants that people seem so keen to mock and send away.


lisoosh said...

Wow. You really put a lot of work into this.
I read the original Dana Peer article and did not pick up on her supposedly "humorous" take, but then again my Hebrew is disasterously rusty so I really was not qualified to comment much.

One thing that does strike me is that I can understand that Israelis (as in born there Israelis) may be concerned about immigrants providing the window to the outside world. My best suggestion in that case would be for Israeli bloggers to also write in English, no matter how sparsely. Unfortunately for them, Hebrew does not give them much of an audience. In fact I would love it if they did post in English too, it would provide an extra perspective.

noorster said...

Thank you thank you thank you.
(I still remember the bashing I got by a 'native' blogger after one of my posts last year - a post in which I dared to complain about Israeli customers and waiting tables in a tayelet establishment. It still hurts.)
Great article.

Booklover said...

Liza i just read Peer's article and your response. All the glory! I'm just beginning my "blogging career" - mostly been messing around with the design and links and not the content.I thought long and hard about whether to write in English or Hebrew. Ive lived here for 30 years but my native tongue is still English. Anyway for the time being I've opened a blog in Hebrew on Israblog and one in blogger in English