The encounter: Yonatan was our guide when I took my kids on an alternative tour of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. The station is a monstrously grandiose project that took almost thirty years to complete and that was already outdated and unusable by the time of its opening in 1993. Yonatan took us to abandoned floors, secret passages, and disused ramps for bus lines that no longer operate. It felt as if we had stumbled on a lost civilization. We shone our flashlights into abandoned stores and saw bat colonies that had made their home in the underground garage. I talked to Yonatan at the end of our tour outside the bus station.
What is your occupation?
I try not to “work” in the traditional sense of the word – I don’t have a “day job” – but I teach photography at a high school in the Palestinian Israeli town of Jisr az-Zarqa, and I direct an art school, called TLVArts.com, in Tel Aviv. It’s an urban school, which means it is not located in one central building. I also publish as an art journalist, and I give tours of Tel Aviv. From all this together I manage to make a living. I’ve decided that I'd rather do the things I love than make money. I used to work in high-tech. It’s just as you’d expect: good money but so boooooring!
Can you tell me a bit about your family?
After my parents got married, they lived for thirteen years in the US, in Chicago. When my brother and I were born, they made a very Zionist decision and returned to Israel to settle in the Galilee, which is where I grew up.
Where is your family from?
I have an interesting family. My father is a Mizrahi [Oriental] Jew of Iraqi origin and my mother is an Ashkenazi [European] Jew. One of the stories my mother often tells is that when she first brought home my father, my grandmother let in my mother and then looked at my father and closed the door on him.
My parents were both born in Israel in 1948. My father’s father escaped from Iraq with false papers. He was an ardent Zionist. That must have been in the 1930s. He arrived here as a young man. He wanted to become a doctor, but because he was Iraqi, they didn’t accept him. In the end he became a nurse.
My mother’s father escaped from Germany just before the war, in 1939. My grandmother on mother’s side is the daughter of Ber Borochov, the father of Socialist Zionism. As a leader of the Socialist Zionist movement, he felt obliged to come to Israel. So, he first sent his wife and my grandmother here. But he died in Russia before he could join them.
The interesting story of my grandmother is that, as the daughter of a Zionist visionary, she went out – God forbid! – with a British officer! For twelve years, they were a couple, until Yitzhak Shamir assassinated my grandmother’s boyfriend in one of the Etzel attacks against the British Mandate. A year later, my grandmother married my grandfather. When Yitzhak Shamir later entered politics and had to learn English, my grandmother became his teacher. She spoke perfect English because of her British boyfriend. “Those were different times,” she said, when I asked her how could she teach the man who had murdered her lover.
How do you describe your religious or national identity?
I am secular. But I do feel very connected to my Jewish identity because Jews are part of this world and always have been. Judaism is a very open religion; very open to its environment. I wouldn’t say I’m truly Israeli. I’m partially American and partially Israeli. But that may be exactly what makes me a true Israeli because there are very few Israelis who don’t feel that they also belong somewhere else! We are all immigrants.
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land?
I would like this land to be open to the whole Middle East. This should be a place for people who speak Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, and other languages to coexist alongside each other. That’s the way it used to be and the way it should be! We can still see some remnants of that period, when it was possible to take a train from the center of Tel Aviv to Lebanon, to Syria, to Jordan, to Egypt... That’s how I would like it to be again!
But I’m afraid this won’t happen; I’m afraid all the opposing visions of the future here will create a situation in which there simply won’t be anything. I’m also afraid that the conflicts between different visions will become so intense that it’s dangerous to say what you think. Last summer, during the war in Gaza, people got fired from their jobs because they dared to think differently. I have friends who were threatened because they were critical of Israel's actions in Gaza. I’m afraid that if this continues, we will no longer be a democratic society. People will be oppressed! It will be bad! It scares me, because I love this place very much!
I do consider leaving; of course I do! I lived in New York for a while. Life is much easier there, and I do feel very connected to American culture. But still I prefer the mess here to the comfort there. I like balagan! I like the edges!