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Stress and Anxiety in Israel. Part Two of Two
The God of Israel has inflicted stress
and anxiety upon His people
I can recall some of the inter-views and inquiry sessions over the past two decades and more with Israelis on retreats and elsewhere in the country. Some of the themes mentioned below have arisen several times in various ways. Similar issues rarely get mentioned on retreats in other countries where I teach.
While sitting in meditation on the retreat, a recently retired Israeli army general told me he heard the imam, using his loudspeaker, calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret in the nearby Muslim village. The imam started with the words Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest) – the same final words used by Palestinians when launching rockets into Israel or by suicide bombers. The General said he felt in his meditation an incredible amount of rage towards all Arabs. With tears in his eyes, he said to me: “What has happened to me? How can I have allowed myself to become so conditioned? How can I have so much hate inside of myself towards others? The imam is simply calling people to prayer.”
I asked one young woman if she was a religious Jew. She replied “sort of.” She kindly acted as a translator from Hebrew to English for me for a solitary Palestinian, resident in Israel, on the retreat. At the end of the translation, I gently thanked her and briefly put my hand on top of her hand in a thank you gesture. She shot back to two or three metres holding the chair. You might have thought she had just been stung by a scorpion. Orthodox Jewish women do not permit a man to touch them outside of marriage I flashbacked to the time I was a Buddhist monk. After speaking to a couple of Australian women about meditation, one of the women reached out and placed her hand on top of my hand as a thank you gesture. My hand shot back. Religious rules can get in the way of our capacity to receive simple acts of kindness.
The daughter of one of the participants had fallen in love with a non-Jew. Just before the retreat, the participant decided to consult her rabbi to get some advice. The rabbi told her that she should not give permission, under any circumstances, to her daughter to marry a non-Jew. The mother found herself experiencing much anxiety over the wishes of her daughter to marry a non-Jew and the demands of the rabbi. Religious doctrine can get in the way of love, kindness and the rights of people to make their own minds up about who they wish to marry.
A 40-year-old Palestinian had married a Jewish Israeli. She had such love for this man that she left her family in the Arab village in Israel to marry the man and adopted Judaism as her religion. The family of three lived with this secret year after year. Her son, 17, was very proud that his mother was a Palestinian and his father was an Israeli. The teenager always worried his school friends might find out that he had a Palestinian mother and then they would start to bully him or worse. His mother experienced anxiety knowing that Israel would call him up into the army. It could well mean he would be sent to Gaza or the West Bank to fight and kill Palestinians.
A Palestinian had shot several Israelis in Jerusalem, some of whom had died. One of the Jewish retreatants had been shot in the back as he tried to escape. The retreatant said to me he would also probably shoot Israelis if he was a Palestinian living under persecution and the Occupation.
The mother of one of the participants decided to board a bus in Jerusalem for the first time rather than go to work by car. She was always afraid that a suicide bomber would board the bus. On her first day on a bus, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb. She survived. Interviewed on television in her hospital bed, she refused to call for the IDF to take revenge for the suicide attack. She received threats from Israelis for taking such a position.
A wealthy Israeli employed an Arab Israeli as a housecleaner. Some valuable items disappeared from the house. If the Israeli reported the crime to the police, she was afraid of what would happen to her cleaner and her cleaner’s family if the police investigated.
A settler on the retreat would only refer to the Occupied Territories as Judea and Samaria. She got very upset with me when I said that love and connection with people from every background today matter far more than religious or Zionist claims about the distant past of rights over land. She told me she was so angry with me that she could not sleep at night.
Every Friday evening on retreat, Tovana offer Kabbalat Shabbat, a short ritual to welcome the Sabbath. Israelis stand together for the reciting of certain psalms and the sharing of bread and wine. For many retreatants, it is the first time they have attended this ritual. Those who attend tell me that the ritual reminds them of some of the beautiful dimensions of their Jewish tradition.
A prominent and senior banker told me that during a previous retreat he realised the importance of ethics. He made reference to ethics while attending board meetings of his bank in Tel Aviv. His said his fellow bankers thought he lost his mind and refused to speak to him. He said he eventually resigned from the bank and took early retirement.
A Palestinian woman participated regularly in the retreats but declined to mention it to her family and friends in case it brought about suspicion of her motives behind spending such time with Jewish Israelis. She stayed true to her love of the teachings and practices. She is now teaching mindfulness in Arab schools in Israel.
A Jewish Israeli woman told me she had become close friends with an Arab Israeli woman. Her friend invited her to spend the weekend with her at her home in her village. The Israeli told me she was frightened to go; she thought she might be putting her life at risk. On the retreat, she got through her fears. She emailed to let me know she had a lovely weekend with her Arab friend, as well as cementing their friendship.
An Israeli father had lost his son, a soldier fighting in the Israeli war in southern Lebanon. Rather than become bitter towards Arabs, he said he needed to make contact with Arabs. He told me he was learning Arabic in evening classes, written and spoken, as a step towards bridging the divide.
An Israeli woman told me she hated all Palestinians. She said she woke up every morning full of hate. She felt such rage towards Palestinians that she wanted to kill all Palestinians as the final solution. She said then Israel could live in peace. She seemed completely unaware of the parallel of her views with those in Nazi Germany.
An Israeli woman, who lived in Paris for several years, told me that she and her Jewish friends agreed that Palestinian men were better lovers than Israeli men. She said the three years in the army damaged the tender heart of many Israeli men.
A pregnant Jewish woman on retreat was a few weeks away from the birth of her first son. The husband and wife and did not want their son to be circumcised. They regarded circumcision as a form of mutilation of the male penis, as well as unnecessary pain for the boy, and a possible trauma. They were worried about the reaction of other boys to seeing their uncircumcised son, such as in the school shower after sports.
A woman devoted much of her life to the protection of farm, domestic and wild animal. She began to doubt her work. She said perhaps she should work for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
A woman soldier in the IDF told me in September, 2014, she was helping to despatch rockets in the attack on Gaza in August 2014. Around 2500 Palestinians men, women and children died in the attack on Gaza and thousands were maimed. Another participant on the same retreat told me he operated a computer to send rockets to specific targets in the city of Gaza. A mother on the retreat told me her son was carrying out assassinations of suspected members of Hamas while she sat the retreat.
An Israeli military officer translated the public speeches and secretly recorded private conversations of leading Palestinian political figures from Arabic into Hebrew. After a year of translation, the officer became completely convinced of the moral authority of the Palestinian cause. After serving in the army, he went to live in Jaffa, the main Arab city in Israel.
A Jewish Israeli participant said he would rather have a German passport than an Israeli passport. He said the Germans treat non Germans in Germany far better than Jews treat non-Jews in Israel. Israelis joke that young Israelis are swimming around in the Mediterranean looking for the passport of their German grandparents The grandparents threw their passports into the sea when they arrived in Israel after the end of the World War 2. These young Israelis want to find the passports so they can claim a German passport and go and live in Germany.
After a retreat, an Israeli collected household items in Israel and loaded them onto a hired truck and drove through the checkpoints to offer support for poor Palestinian families. He said several of his friends also wanted to do something for the Palestinians. Another retreatant started organising coachloads of Israelis to see for themselves the minimal conditions that Palestinians in villages have to live under owing to the Occupation. Israelis can hear first-hand about the regular harassment and violence of Palestinians upon them, their properties, animals and olive groves by soldiers and settlers. A father, whose daughter was killed by a Palestinian, contacted a Palestinian father whose daughter was killed by an Israeli settler. The two fathers formed groups of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families to share together their experiences and support similar groups wanting to bridge the divide.
Freedom of Speech
I have noticed over the years that one can address in the Dharma hall various sensitive issues, such as the Holocaust, the Occupation, the actions of the IDF, the ‘victim’ concept and the common Israeli tendency towards blaming others. The meditators may not always agree with a certain Dharma perspective but there has never been any attempt to stifle my voice.
Israelis claim that the trauma of the Holocaust continues to pass through the generations. I hear this regularly. It sounds more and more like an excuse for stress and anxiety. Heavens, the war ended 75 years ago. I remember on a Tovana retreat in the early 1990s an elderly woman met with me for an interview. I noticed a number tattooed on her arm. I looked up to her eyes and raised my eyebrows.
She said “Auschwitz.”
She added: “It is not easy living in the present moment when you have this (number) tattooed on your arm:”
Today, there are few survivors left from the Holocaust.
As one Israeli politician, Avram Berg wrote in his book. “It is time for Israel to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust.”
Israel does not seem to have a problem supporting freedom of speech. One only wishes that this freedom of speech could be directed in skilful ways to change the policies of major and smaller parties. There needs to be also a widespread programme, creative and healthy, to resolve the stress and anxiety of Israelis with any ethnic background. One also wishes that the Israeli government would sit up and take notice of the growing poverty in Israel of Jews and Muslims.
Such expansion of consciousness matters to any society intensely identified with Western consumerism, political objectives of the nation state, orthodox religion or all three. This expansion beyond such imprisoning boundaries has a particular significance in Israel. The major institutions in Israel seem to have a stranglehold over its citizens to a much greater degree than we experience in Europe. Israeli citizens engage in intense disagreement between themselves at home, on the streets and at work but seem to remain incredibly compliant and submissive when it comes to their institutions.
More and more Israelis want to steer away from larger issues and confine their concerns to their personal self in daily life. I have to mention on retreats the unresolved problems of Israel’s institutions to trigger the inquiry that can contribute to clarity, insight and empowerment. Empowerment to act wisely contributes to the reduction of stress, anxiety and negates seeing oneself as a victim, as a fearful and angry person.
Five Major Institutions in Israel
Five major institutions in Israel exert domination over public opinion that seems to squeeze far too much of the human spirit out of its citizens. The five institutions consist of:
Political parties in the Knesset (Parliament)
IDF – Israeli Defence Force (Army)
Corporate oligarchy that controls much of the media.
Yes, of course, notable exceptions exist among politicians, military personnel, thoughtful citizens, rabbis and journalists. Nevertheless, powerful public figures regularly make racist statements about non-Jews that would result in a public outcry or even prosecution in many European countries.
If those public figures, who express Islamophobia, changed the word from ‘Muslims’ to ‘Jews’, they would understand that Islamophobia, is exactly the same as a crude generalised negative projection and stereotype as anti-Semitism dumped on Jews. I have also heard Jews in Israel make ugly anti-Semitic comments in their anger against Israel.
It has been the sheer volume of painful information from the five influential institutions in Israel that leaves people helpless, numb and exhibiting indifference, not a wilful indifference but an exhaustion of creative approaches to change the current tensions. The barrage of argumentative views, political, religious and secular tensions, carry an addiction for some or complete turnoff for others. These tensions rarely release the capacity of the human spirit for meaningful and compassionate change.
Citizens of Israel appear to experience collective exhaustion over major issues while the belligerent people dominate any debate. Ferocious arguments take place on political chat shows on television. Nobody is listening to each other. It is no wonder that so many people withdraw into a shell of self-preoccupation. Young and old Israelis want to get on with their lives but the argumentative voices give Israeli citizens no peace. Without reflection, some meditative insights and a depth of inner calm, it is hard to see where a cooperative vision will come from to shift the people of Israel out of their conflicts. There is a wealth of skilful approaches in Israel to resolve conflict at any level but they seem underused or incredibly neglected.
It is not that such caring people have made a deliberate choice to avoid addressing the suffering and the conflict within Israel and with the geographical neighbours. There is a pervasive sense of helplessness, a paralysis of the human spirit. I have observed a slow and insidious descent over the years into a kind of collective amnesia. There is often a refusal to talk about political issues from an ethical or spiritual standpoint, even among those who share a similar vision for change.
I witness an immediate negative reaction to words such as ‘conflict,’ ‘peace’, ‘settlements’, the ‘left’ and the ‘right.’ Israelis appear exhausted, if not depressed, over the fragmentations within Israel and in the Middle East. Israelis tell me they live in a bad dream and cannot see a way to wake up from it. One’s heart reaches out to Israelis living in such a plight.
I recall I had a public debate in Tel Aviv in 2012 with Stav Shaffir, a founded of the Occupy movement in Tel Aviv involving more than 500,000 Israelis protesting about their daily hardships due to insufficient social welfare for the poor owing to expensive rent, low wages, lack of equality between genders and high cost of living. Rents have increased by 50% in the last eight years in Israel. Aged 27, Stav became the youngest ever member in the Knesset (Parliament). I appreciated her independent voice, her compassionate concerns for the poor and her willingness to challenge authority, especially political authority.
I recall in our debate I made comments on the link between Israel’s expenditure on the army and on social services. Israel spends 20% of its total income on the military for its nuclear weapons, army and armaments. (UK spends 2.8% of its income on the military). I made the simple point that the government could make a large cut of public money for the military and direct it to the welfare of the one million plus poor people in Israel, both Jews and Arabs.
The direction of billions of shekels to social welfare, poverty, housing, schools and hospitals would go a long way to answering her deep concerns. Stav declined to address this. Israeli friends told me later that the IDF takes priority over everything else. A person who calls for a reduction in expenditure on the military will find themselves marginalised from public debate. Stav continues her campaigning work in the Knesset to stop corruption.
Roles and Identity
Like much of the rest of the West, most Israelis believe that all their stress and anxiety is self-created. This enables powerful institutions to carry on their persuasive pressure on people without being held accountable. Citizens fail to reflect on the influence of these institutions on their inner life. They have adopted the commonly held view that their suffering has nothing whatsoever to do with social demands, including education, corporate, political and religious ideology.
For a mindful visitor to Israel, the dynamics of tension between the outer and the inner seems obvious. The USA has persuaded a whole army of office workers that their high stress level arises because of the condition of their inner life rather than the work demands of the corporation. Israel often seems like a child with the USA as the abusive parent, who demands that the child remains obedient to the parent. Like other countries, Israel has imported from the USA an unhelpful psychological language around stress and anxiety, namely such concepts as self-created, self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-interest, self-realization, personal choice and being in the moment. The frequent use of such concepts excludes the outer dynamics, immediate and institutional, which contribute to stress and anxiety. How much stress and anxiety would reduce if there were no more wars between Israel and its neighbours?
Some retreatants go deeply into the exploration of roles and identity. This can result in the questioning of the ideological standpoints of the five powerful institutions.
Dharma teachings have immense flexibility about them. From one way of perceiving, the teachings uphold the duality of right and wrong. Putting it simply, right action expresses an ethic of nonviolence and non-exploitation. Wrong means those kind of actions which are harmful and exploitive. Yet, the same teachings can offer a non-dualistic perception as well. The grasping onto an identity feeds discrimination of ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Non-dual teachings contribute to the dissolution of this gap. This approach has a certain poignant significance in Israel for Jewish Israelis. The authorities have endlessly told Jews to put themselves first. We benefit if we regard ourselves as human beings first with a capacity for deep love and empathy for one and all, who are human beings first as well.
The ‘Jewish’ state of Israel gets in the way of a deep connection with non-Jews, the development of a non-dual wisdom. Dharma teachings enquire into any grasping and hold onto identity, and any process that feeds the construction of the self, the ego. The image or identity of who I am is not who I am. We are much more than who we think we are. We have the capacity to transcend the limited views about our identity and go beyond our definitions of ourselves.
The same principle once again applies worldwide. We can dedicate ourselves to apply lovingkindness (metta), engage in dialogue, share programmes, employ diplomacy, offer aid and campaign for political change. This dedication to the waking up process shows an evolution of consciousness that has the potential to contribute to the healing of divisions. The true sons and daughters of Israel dedicate themselves to resolving the conflicts within and beyond Israel.
Israel has an important voice when linked to wisdom rather than reaction. I recall that freedom of speech, for example, in California can become stifled. I would receive notes on the retreat at Spirit Rock demanding that I limit my range of Dharma topics to meditation. The retreatants would tell me they did not come to the retreat centre to hear Dharma perspectives on US wars, US violence within the country, blatant consumerism and expensive lifestyles. “I have only come here to learn about how to meditate” would summarise a common complaint. If enough people adopt such a view of confining Dharma to mindfulness and meditation, it becomes a form of censorship. We can then only speak the words pleasing to hear. Open-minded people and activists in California welcomed the exploration of Dharma with a wide variety of issues involving suffering and the way to its resolution. Plenty of people in California could learn much about freedom of speech from people in Israel.
The Politics of Perpetual Conflict
I remember talking with an Israeli television producer. He told me that Great Britain had not been war at since the end of World War 2. He said people in Britain did not know what it was like to be at war. I reminded him that more than 3000 British civilians and soldiers died during the 40 odd years of conflict in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland. I reminded him that more than 600 British soldiers died in the war on Afghanistan and Iraq and up to 75,000 wounded, traumatised or fell sick. I said that more than 255 British soldiers died in the war on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in 1982, as well as the London deaths from suicide bombers in 2007. More soldiers committed suicide in 2012 than died in battle. Countless numbers of men, women and children lost their lives as a consequence of the actions of the British armed forces.
We used to offer retreats in Ma’aleh Habeso kibbutz in the Negev desert, located some 10 kilometres from Gaza. Late one evening, the IDF launched 172 rockets into Gaza. The windows and walls of the meditation hall shook with the vibration as the rockets hit buildings in Gaza. One can hardly imagine what the sound and the terror must be like for the Palestinians in Gaza with no place to go and no underground shelters for refuge.
The Israeli government regularly orders the arrest, torture and imprisonment, as well as house demolition of Palestinians, for being members of a family of a suspected militant Palestinian or a violent or psychologically disturbed Palestinian who kill or maim Israelis. Such revenge on Palestinian families would generate a public outcry in another democratic country. It is not surprising that these numerous acts of IDF terror upon innocent Palestinians, along with the slaughter in Gaza and the Lebanon, have cost most of the sympathy of the world’s community towards Israel. There is no relationship between criticism of the policies of the nation state and the IDF and anti-Semitism. I know from experience.
I have been on the receiving end of personal attacks in emails for being anti-Semitic when I criticised the politics of Israel. The powerful Israeli military retaliate on Palestinians and young Palestinians retaliate on Israelis. The Palestinians are the biggest losers every time suffering far more deaths, maiming and beatings. They have to find creative ways to express protest about the Occupation – instead of firing rockets, shooting Israelis, stabbing them and throwing stones.
Israelis can get called an ‘Arab lover’ or a ‘traitor’ or a ‘leftie’ if they consider equally the needs of all in a conflict. Such citizens can suffer violent verbal or physical abuse for speaking up for minorities, for human rights and social justice. It is no wonder Israelis feel fearful of expressing their thoughtful views.
There is a desperate shortage within Israel of Jewish voices to give support to the birth of a Palestinian state or a joint state to support all Jews and Arabs. I disagree with a regular view in the West that Israel operates a policy of apartheid. After all, Arab Israelis do have the vote in Israel though many Arabs see little point in exercising it, as long as they endure such discrimination. The current government explicitly states Israel is a Jewish state and this renders non-Jews as second class citizens. Jewish Israelis receive very different treatment in government offices from its Arab citizens. Arab citizens tell me they get sent to run down offices compared to the modern offices reserved for Jewish citizens.
Integration and active respect for cultural diversity seem far removed from the policies of the state of Israel. A small minority of people, Jews and Arabs, quietly make their own efforts together towards integration. They share and cooperate with each other in the need for change. Jews and Arabs mostly live apart from each other. Such separates, as well as with the people of Palestine, generates a breeding ground for fault-finding, blame and mistrust. Like it or not, Israel is a multi-cultural society with people living there from every corner of the world – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, secularists and a growing number of workers from Asia and Africa.
The people of Israel need to develop and celebrate this diversity. They need to change the idea of Israel as a Jewish state when 25% of the population are not Jews. 20% of Israeli citizens are Muslims. There are important pockets of sharing between the Jewish community and Arabs in education, the arts, culture, sport and politics but, sadly, these initiatives continue to remain small in number. A change of attitude from fear to trust in a multicultural society would contribute to the reduction of stress and anxiety in Israel. The Jewish residents of Israel have two priorities, namely to feel loved and understood – just like the rest of us.
Israeli Acts of Generosity
Israeli citizens dig deep into their pockets when offering donation to the Dharma teachers at the end of the retreat. There are numerous participants in their 20s and 30s, who live on a tight budget. Incomes are much lower than in prosperous European countries while the cost of food, household items and technology in Israel tends to be much higher. This leaves little left in terms of disposable income. Despite the limits of financial resources, Israeli meditators remain determined to offer real support to the daily lives of teachers and the running of the retreats. To take a parallel, the monthly income of citizens in California works out, roughly speaking, at twice the income of Israeli citizens while food, goods and software is much cheaper in California. Yet, Israeli meditators give almost as much on average per person as Californian meditators.
One can only applaud the dedication and commitment of the Israeli sangha. The Sangha benefits from the long-standing Jewish tradition of family and community. These historical values transfer effortlessly into the growth, development and expansion of the Sangha for the welfare of people, animals and the environment.
The acts of generosity including time, energy and money, along with the building of community and the importance of the value of freedom of speech lays the foundation stone for core values in Israeli society.
I am frequently encouraging people worldwide to go to Israel to experience for themselves the endless acts of hospitality and kindness to overseas visitors. Israel has much to offer the world but their insights and inspirations in many areas will continue to fall on deaf ears around the world until the country has resolved its painful relationship with neighbouring countries and listened to the needs and rights of the Palestinians. Major acts of kindness to Palestinians and to Arabs in Israel from the government and people of Israel will change the oppressive climate and provide security for the citizens of Israel. The Occupation will have gone on for 50 years in June 2017 since it started in June 1967. Israelis are still unhappy and insecure. Palestinians are still unhappy and insecure.
To their everlasting credit, there are Jewish Israelis, who maintain respect for their history, joyful and painful, along with equal respect for other cultural/religious traditions. Open-minded Israelis create space in their consciousness to support Palestinians, Arabs, Christians, Druze, foreign workers and refugees as truly equal partners. The wisdom of such priority is the way forward.
Stress and anxiety influence countless perceptions. Israel needs a revolution of the heart. Some Israelis of varying ethnicity have experienced this revolution. These Israelis are the most important minority within Israel.
May all beings live in peace
May all beings live in harmony
May all beings live in peace and harmony
In the weeks ahead, I will write an essay for the blog on my regular visits to Palestine since 1992.