The door to the lounge is heavy. Six students enter and sit on large bean bags and a small couch and two cots. They laugh as someone struggles to connect their computer to the television. Behind or between them is a plate with writing in Hebrew, directing attention to the metal door set into the floor. It leads to the common room on the floor below as I’ve been told. The television is turned on and the lights are turned off; but no, the room does not become a dark void with their focus turned to the screen. Eerie green light radiates from the corners, where glow-in-the-dark tape has been pasted. Here, the common room is a bomb shelter. The students who live here brush it off; but I, the visitor, cannot shake the idea of that heavy door slamming shut and the lights going out and the room filling with green and the cots being shared by the six of us.
The students at NYU Tel Aviv are caught in the middle. Fortunately they have not been in any danger—unlike many because of the conflict between Israel and Palestine—but in Tel Aviv they are stuck in the center of the rising tensions within their academic community. In May 2021, a letter was drafted calling for members of the New York University community to support academic non-cooperation with the campus in Tel Aviv until Israel is de-militarized and Palestinian students are offered equal opportunities for education. Over a hundred faculty signed the letter, and it’s safe to say that the sentiment is shared by a lot of students as well.
I knew about this before I made the journey from Paris to Tel Aviv to visit my boyfriend in this past month. He’s a student of NYU Tel Aviv. COVID blocked travel for the past few months, but Israel opened up to tourists in November, and I took the many bureaucratic steps necessary to visit him for a very short weekend. Read more »
Truth may be the first casualty of war or, nowadays, of politics, but few of us would have thought of using a map to look for lies. But thanks to Google Maps and other geographic meddlers, there may now be fewer lies in a Donald Trump speech than on the face of the good Earth. It’s not hard to find places Google doesn’t want you to see, but not all are as obvious as its satellite image of a part of southern Tibet. There, the entire village of Guwacun lies under an unsubtle grey rectangle. Such geographical censorship goes far beyond pandering to mandarins in some Chinese ministry of paranoia. Take democratic, advanced, high-tech Israel, for example. Only low-resolution images of the entire country and the surrounding Palestinian territories are available online. Google alone is not to blame for this — America is. In 1997, the US government passed a law called the Kyl–Bingaman Amendment. This law prohibited American authorities from granting a license for collecting or disseminating high-resolution satellite images of Israel. The US mandated censorship of commercial satellite images for no other country in the world except Israel.
The largest global sources of commercial satellite imagery include online resources, such as Google and Microsoft’s Bing. Since they are American, the US has used the “Israel images amendment” as a powerful tool for suppressing information. Hence, images of Israel on Google Earth are deliberately blurred. Strangely, anyone in the world can zoom in on crisp and detailed pictures of the Pentagon or GRU headquarters in Moscow, but all one can see of Tel Aviv’s public central square and gardens is a fuzzy grey blur. This odd restriction has frustrated archaeologists and other scientists who depend on satellite imagery to survey areas of interest to their disciplines. It does, however, enable Israel to conceal practices in the occupied Palestinian territories that attract international censure. These include expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and abuses of power by the military in clashes with Gaza. Read more »
I remain convinced, despite my anthropological training not to generalize, that every society has an aesthetic, a particular repetition of pattern, that informs its material manifestation. In contradiction to the anthropological view that you must delve under the surface to understand a place, I’m going to suggest that this aesthetic is most powerfully visible to the uninitiated. The observant tourist, for instance, who sees everything through a child’s indiscriminate and unfiltered gaze. Patterns pop out to the uninitiated. For locals, by contrast, patterns harbor familiarity, wholeness, comfort, rootedness. Patterns are woven into the everyday, felt, but no longer seen. On my first visit to Japan, I was struck by the layered rows of boxes I saw everywhere, in the arrangements of windows, proportions of houses, the way images were arrayed on fliers and ads, far beyond what I would expect by accident or convenience. I experienced the boxes as a powerful imprint on my surroundings wherever I went. Perhaps I was wrong. A friend who is a specialist on Japan doesn’t see it. Does the forest have a shape without its trees? Nonetheless, I will continue with my conceit, on the justification that I am also a writer and writers gleefully play with any patterns they see, even if an anthropologist would tell them that without context, there is no meaning. No writer believes that; her job is to create meaning, not analyze it.
I am now in Be’er Sheva in the Negev desert, teaching a three-week course at Ben Gurion University. A driver brought me from Tel Aviv airport to my residence in a ten-story building that towers over the neighborhood. The streets near the residence are little more than rows of cement rooms with walled-in tile forecourts. Behind them loom three- and four-story apartment buildings of unfinished cement without ornamentation or color. There is little attention to detail and the buildings are crumbling, festooned with wires and rusting grates. They remind me of bunkers with blank walls and slits for windows. That is the only pattern I see beyond the ubiquitous lack of ornament. But it is a pattern.