Posts Tagged ‘israel’

An article in the New York Times a few days ago, humorously and appropriately titled “The Elephant in the Map Room,” described the history of the borders of Jewish states in the Holy Land (or the Levant, or whatever politically correct term one wishes to use). Written much more from a cartography point of view than from a political one, I thought it a refreshing view, and a fun read. Very interesting.

In it, he cites Shlomo Sand’s book “The Invention of the Jewish People.” To be honest, growing up Jewish, I never once questioned that Jewish identity was genetic, a true ethnicity. That I, and most Jews around the world, possessed some percentage of our ethnic background tracing back to antiquity, to the ancient Israel of Biblical times. Now, I’ll admit I haven’t read Sand’s book, but, skimming the inside cover excerpt and such, I found the core of his argument quite eye-opening, or should I say shocking. As described in today’s NY Times article, Sand argues

that Judaism used to be a proselytizing religion like Christianity or Islam, and that consequently many of today’s Jewish Israelis are descendants of converts, without an ancestral link to Eretz-Israel. Inversely, many of the Palestinians may just be the descendants of the large Jewish community who remained to toil the land, even after the destruction of the Temple and the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in the first and second centuries, respectively — and who gradually converted to Islam in the centuries after the Arab conquest.

Well, yeah, I suppose that could be a possibility. It hadn’t really ever occurred to me. I’d never doubted my identity as ethnically Jewish. Just as Jewish as you, dear reader, might be Irish or Italian. If we are indeed descended overwhelmingly from converts, and not in fact genetically/ethnically related to the Hebrews of the Exodus, the Israelites of Biblical Judea and Samaria, then, that would have dramatic ramifications for our conceptions, or understandings, of our personal, individual, self-identity, and that of our people as a whole. Furthermore, if many Palestinians are indeed descended from the Hebrews or Israelites, who later converted to Islam, rather than, as I’d always assumed, descended from Arab invaders, or from Canaanites and other non-Hebrew peoples, that too would be a dramatic thing with great ramifications, in terms of political questions of legitimacy and heritage, among others.

An image from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, ostensibly depicting “French Jews,” but really symbolizing, for my purposes, the great diversity of Jews in the world. And yet, we are all Jews. We all share genetic/ethnic links to a single “Jewish people.” Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sand’s assertion, on the surface, even without reading his whole argument, is quite compelling and thought-provoking. But, then, on the other hand, we have studies such as this one, which have revealed via genetics testing that there are in fact genetic elements that the vast majority of Jews share, regardless of the color of their skin. The study described at this link, led by Harry Ostrer of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is not the only one I have heard about which has indicated that “the genomes of Jewish North African groups are distinct from one another, but that they show linkages to each other absent from their non-Jewish North African neighbors.” Ostrer is, in fact, quoted in the article as saying that

Virtually all the Jewish groups we’ve studied tend to be quite closely related to one another. It would seem for most Jewish groups, there is a biological basis for their Jewishness which is based on their sharing of DNA segments.

Groups such as the Abayudaya of Uganda, who trace their Jewishness to a single leader in the 1910s who declared himself and his followers Jewish, may be a different story, but groups as distant (racially/ethnically and geographically), removed and remote as the Lemba people of Zimbabwe have been confirmed by DNA tests to possess the Kohen gene in roughly the same demographic percentages as Ashkenazi (Eastern European), Sephardic (Mediterranean), and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. Kohens (or Kohanim) are the Jewish priestly class, supposedly descended in a direct line from Moses’ brother Aaron; one generally knows to consider oneself a Kohen as a result of being told that their father is a Kohen. I guess we’d call that oral tradition. Many Kohanim also have the surname Cohen, or something similar – also passed down from father to son – further securing the suspicion, or traditional belief, that one belongs to that class or tribe. But, getting to the point, though I imagine there is extremely little historical evidence to prove that Moses or his brother Aaron actually existed, or that those who consider themselves Kohanim (members of the Jewish priestly class) are in fact descended directly from Aaron, tests have determined that the vast majority of Kohanim possess a given gene which other Jews (and the vast majority of non-Jews?) lack – a gene marking them as Kohanim and seemingly confirming the idea that Kohen identity is something genuinely inherited.

I met a lot of people in Hawaii who are “Jews by choice,” or “sons & daughters of Abraham & Sarah” – that is to say, they are converts, with no reason to believe they should possess genetically or ethnically Jewish identity. Perhaps in future this will become more common, at least in certain communities. But, while I think Sand’s assertions about the “invention” of the Jewish people are important in that they are thought-provoking and challenge the dominant discourse on the subject, it would seem there are some reassuring scientific, genetic facts which present problems for his theory.

All nations, all ethnic identities, are to one extent or another, modern inventions. Even the Japanese, who on the surface seem (and claim to be) pretty ethnically homogenous, are in fact not, for one thing, given the incorporation of Okinawans, Ainu, and some small number of Chinese, Koreans, Dutch, and others in the early modern & modern periods, not to mention the ethnically mixed origins of the Jômon/Yayoi/Yamato people back in the early centuries of the Common Era; and, perhaps more to the point, the concept of being “Japanese,” of belonging to a single ethnic identity shared by people all across the archipelago, is arguably a concept that didn’t quite exist as such prior to the 19th century. Yet, all of that said, there are, nevertheless, genuine underlying genetic truths to ethnic identity, in most cases.

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After granting membership to the State of Palestine last year, UNESCO has now declared the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site belonging not to Israel, but to Palestine.

It’s wonderful, of course, to see the Church of the Nativity named a World Heritage Site, as it deserves, for its incredible, incomparable, historical and cultural (and religious) importance. But, there are some problems with this development.
Firstly, the Palestinian bid for UNESCO membership after being repeatedly denied “normal” membership as a UN member state was an obvious political ploy to gain power and influence against Israel, and the acceptance of that bid likewise was a decidedly political move for an organization that is supposedly to be apolitical and devoted to cultural concerns of importance to all humanity. Palestine should be working with Israel to achieve a peace solution, rather than going around. All of this just continues to show the decidedly anti-Israeli leanings of the United Nations.

The very fact that the inscription of the Church of the Nativity was “a move that was celebrated by Palestinians who hailed it as a significant political and diplomatic achievement” indicates the politicized nature of the Palestinians’ bids and efforts in these matters. As the New York Times reports, and I agree,

Israel has said that it is not opposed to the church’s listing as a world heritage site, but that it objects to what it calls the Palestinians’ using Unesco as a political tool against Israel.

“This is proof that Unesco is motivated by political considerations and not cultural ones,” the Israeli prime minister’s office said in a statement after the vote. “Instead of taking steps to advance peace,” it added, “the Palestinians are acting unilaterally in ways that only distance it.”

The head of the PLO’s Department of Culture and Information has praised the listing as “a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land,” again showing the political, and not altruistic or purely cultural, motives of the Palestinian administration. The idea is utter and complete nonsense, furthermore, since at the time of Jesus’ birth there were no Muslims, no organized/unified conception of “Arab” identity, and certainly no Palestinians in the modern, 20th century sense of the term.

The Palestinians’ bid blames the Israeli Occupation for damage and threats to the Church, and for the Palestinians’ inability to undertake conservation efforts. No one can deny that these are factors. For nearly 65 years, Israeli efforts to combat Palestinian terrorism have restricted the free movement of people and goods, and have damaged and destroyed much of the West Bank. However, given that all of this has been done in response to Palestinian terrorism, the blame rests squarely on the Palestinians, whose continued support of terrorism has made such Israeli actions necessary.

The Palestinian bid would have us believe that the Palestinians have always worked to protect and conserve the church, and that it is Israel which represents the threat. However, as an Israeli official statement correctly points out, “the world should remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christians, was desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists,” an event completely ignored by Palestinian official statements. In 2002, Palestinian terrorists took hostages and hid from Israeli forces in the Church of the Nativity, as part of a pre-meditated scheme inviting the Israeli troops to violate the sanctity of the Church, by attacking them in that holy space, or damaging the building. Such a thing would have been a PR nightmare for Israel, which is, of course, precisely what the Palestinians would have wanted. For them, this sacred, holy, historical spot was merely a political tool, something to risk, and to even let get destroyed, if it meant causing trouble for the State of Israel.

It’s great that the Church of the Nativity has been named a World Heritage Site. It would have been nice, though, to see it identified as belonging to Israel, or at least shared between Israel & Palestine. While they’re at it, maybe UNESCO can name Israel (or Israel & Palestine) as the country controlling the Old City of Jerusalem, which was named a World Heritage Site in 1981 without any country named.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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I have just returned home to New York after completing my MA in Art History at the University of Hawaiʻi. I really cannot believe that chapter of my life has closed – it doesn’t feel like an ending, like it should, but only a break. The people and places and feel of Hawaiʻi are already starting to fade from my mind, as I so wish they wouldn’t. I eagerly look forward to a summer in New York, to enjoying the very different energy here, and of course spending quality time with family and friends. But I so wish I were going back to Hawaiʻi after that. I’m not ready for that to be done and over. But, on the positive side, I do expect to go back for conferences, research, and the like, to stay closely in contact with friends from there (I hope!), and to retain the valuable life lessons I learned there. I have become a very different person, in my outlook and attitudes, since first leaving for Hawaiʻi, and I hope that I do not fall backwards.

Photo taken myself, at an International Food Festival in Yokohama. What is “ethnic” food? What isn’t?

The first link in today’s post addresses precisely the sort of post-colonial and intercultural issues that I gained such a new, more nuanced, perspective of during my time in Hawaiʻi.

*A writer for Maori/Pacific Islander magazine SPacifik mag complains about the use of the term “ethnic,” and about the language and approach otherwise, in discussion of so-called “ethnic foods” or “ethnic restaurants.”

“Ethnic” here is used to mean exotic, Other, non-white. The obvious issue with this is that it involves an Othering, an exoticization. See “Orientalism theory.” But what is ironic is that in order to argue against the use of the word “ethnic” as applying only to non-white cultures, the blogger has to argue for the validity of European cultures as being distinct ethnicities and cultures, something that I feel few non-whites readily admit or acknowledge. In order to eliminate the white / non-white binary, and the colonialist Othering and exoticization it involves, we need to acknowledge Spanish, German, Irish, and Italian cultures (and their food) as being just as cultural, just as traditional, just as interesting and “ethnic” as Chinese, Maori, Kenyan, or Persian cultures – rather than seeing the one as a generic White, a generic colonizing, oppressing, majority culture lacking in heritage, tradition, or “ethnic” diversity and flavor.

This article touches upon a great many very complex, nuanced, problematic issues. I think it addresses them in perhaps too simplistic a way, speaking out for the minorities against the white voice, attacking colonialist discourses from within the duality rather than trying to break it down. But the points it makes are nevertheless very much valid and important. This is a discussion we need to be having more and more, in order to eventually work out a solution, or at least a sea change.

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, surrounded by Ginowan City. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
*The National Bureau of Asian Research has an interview with government/politics professor Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College about Okinawa and the Future of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance. In the interview, Dr. Lind provides an enlightening overview/summary of the basis of the US-Japan Security Alliance, why it exists, and how it functions. We talk so much about post-colonial legacies, or US neo-colonialism, that we forget there are very real political reasons that this situation came into place and remains in place. That the US bases are not in Japan simply because they are, but rather that there is a give-and-take, an exchange, of land (bases) in exchange for protection (i.e. US military protection of Japan). It is good to be reminded.

I don’t tend to read that much politics / economics / contemporary policy stuff. There’s just so much out there, it’d be impossible to keep up with; and, besides, I’m much more inclined towards cultural topics & affairs anyway. So, for me, reading about the Okinawa bases issue from a more upper-level political/military point of view, rather than from an Okinawan popular point of view, is both jarring, and new and interesting for me. What does the US presence really stem from? What is its purpose? How do Washington and Tokyo each benefit? Important aspects to understand.

But, returning to the aspect that most interests me, the cultural/lifestyle impact on the ground in Okinawa, I think one of the keys to a viable solution, perhaps, is the idea that “we need excellent leadership at these facilities to ensure that every soldier, sailor, and Marine knows that his or her daily conduct with the Japanese has a big effect on the U.S.-Japan relationship.” And, taking that further, we need to ensure that every soldier, sailor, and Marine has a respect for the Okinawan people as people, as individuals, as equals, and that they know the impact their daily conduct has on life in Okinawa. The military, both as an organization, and on the individual level of individual military men & women, is I think fairly oblivious as to its impact. Either that, or it is too self-important or uncaring. Soldiers, sailors, and Marines need to relearn to think like civilians, and they need to consider what it would be like if the tables were turned. What would life be like in your hometown in Ohio if half the town were a Japanese military base? What would it mean to be from Ohio if 20% of the state’s land were taken up by foreign military bases? What would it mean for Ohio’s history, its culture, its identity? These are the things we need to remember.

Rapes and helicopter crashes are isolated incidents, but the overwhelming presence of the military in everyday Okinawan lifestyle and culture is not. It may not seem as heinous on the surface, but the US military presence has dramatically and irrevocably altered the image of Okinawa in the minds of its people, countless Japanese, and numerous Americans. The association of Okinawa with the US military – rather than associating it with its own “native” or “traditional” culture – is evident, for example, in the innumerable military-related T-shirt designs that can be found just about anywhere in Okinawa, and in websites like Remembering Okinawa, which focus not on “remembering” an Okinawa inhabited by Okinawans, or one defined by Okinawan culture, but rather on “remembering” Okinawa as “The Rock,” that is, as military base. I have a whole post dedicated to this website, and this concept, which I’ve been working on (or, rather, sitting on), which might get put up soon.

In short, we take it far too much for granted that these bases are our territory, our land – that we belong there, that we’re allowed to be there. We must remember that we are guests in a foreign country, invited not by the local people but by the geographically distant national government, and we need to start acting like it.

*Finally, for today, a 48-minute documentary about tens of thousands of books taken by Israelis from Palestinians in the course of the 1948 War, and never returned. Is this stealing? Looting? Cultural protection? From what little I see here, and not knowing much more about the situation, I cannot 100% defend or justify such relocation of materials, such “taking” or “appropriation,” however much I should like to. The more I learn about 1948, and the events leading up to it, the more embarrassing and regrettable episodes I discover. I will always be pro-Israel; I will not, cannot, ever see Israel as anything but the “good guys,” so to speak. But, boy have we done some seriously inappropriate and regrettable things.

Did we think we were “rescuing” books from destruction in the war? Were we right in believing that? Certainly, as an Okinawan Studies person, I mourn the loss of so much historical materials in the War of Okinawa, and wish we could have rescued more of it. Of course, even if we had, to then keep all those rescued materials in an American archive, and not in a Japanese or Okinawan one, would be terribly wrong. So, maybe we were “rescuing”, or maybe we were just “looting,” in 1948. It’s hard to say. I would rather not jump to conclusions, to praise or to condemn. What exactly was the intention? Would the books have been lost if we’d not done this? What were the Palestinians (the Arabs) doing to protect their own books during the conflict? When and why and by whom was the decision made to launch this systematic acquisition of Arab books?

And, perhaps most importantly, what are the details behind why the books were never returned? Certainly, it may have been far too logistically difficult to actually return these thousands of books to the individual homes and individual people from whom they were taken. But could we not have given the books to a Palestinian university or library or archive? Perhaps it is here where the key stumbling block lies. After all, the Palestinians are known to put far more energy and money into destruction than construction. I firmly believe that if they’d put the kind of energy into wiping out Arab terrorism that they do into wiping out Israel, we’d see a much more prosperous West Bank & Gaza today. But I fully admit that I don’t know the details of whether or not there are, or have been in the past, safe places in the West Bank, well-maintained libraries, to which these objects could have been returned.

Certain phrases in this documentary annoy me. One woman questions whether she should consider the Israeli occupant of a home in her town to be the “owner.” It would have been so simple to just call him the Israeli owner, and move on. “The current owner of the property won’t let me into the house.” Period. But this she refuses to say. Instead, she insists at poking a jab at the idea that any Israeli could be considered to legally or rightfully “own” property in this town (or at all), seizing any and every opportunity, it would seem, to remind us yet again of Palestinian suffering and Israeli wrongdoing – that is, of the pro-Palestinian narratives and discourses she and so many others wish us to believe.

An Arab man’s comment that the term “Israeli Arab” is “a repulsive concept,” that it means something like being owned by Israel, being “Israel’s Arab,” annoys me in a different way. This man obviously does not understand, or appreciate, the meaning of citizenship. Now, granted, if he were to go into detail about Israel using Arabs for discursive purposes, treating them in some way as “our” Arabs, that would be one thing. But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he denies, refuses, spits on the very concept of the modern international concept of citizenship, saying that to be “Israeli Arab” somehow is an attack on his identity as an Arab Arab.

Look, you don’t have to politically favor this or that Israeli policy. Plenty of citizens of plenty of countries around the world disagree vehemently with their governments’ stances on this or that issue. But to enjoy the benefits of citizenship in a first-world, advanced country while at the same time spitting on the idea of belonging to that country… that, to me, is a “repulsive concept.”

Everyone in the United States, and I am sure a great majority of the people all around the world, negotiate with multiple identities. I am myself both Jewish and American, while others are both British and Indian, both Okinawan and Japanese, or both Chinese and Christian. Thousands of Japanese Americans worked, spoke out, and fought on battlefields to prove their loyalty to the United States in the early 1940s, and people of all stripes continue to do so today, fighting with words and with actions to prove their identity as American, or as British, as members of Japanese society, for example, despite their lack of Japanese ethnic (racial/genetic) background, to fight for their right to be considered French, etc. I sincerely hope that not all Arabs think the way this man does. Imagine someone sitting there saying “Arab-American – it’s a repulsive concept. As if we are owned by America; as if we are America’s Arabs, rather than being Arab Arabs.” It would go against everything the Japanese-American community (and countless others) have fought for, and would only serve to solidify the idea that Arabs have no love for America, no loyalty to the place they live, the place they grew up, to their neighbors…

He claims that the severing of Palestine from connections to the wider Arab world has left him without a cultural space, without the connections that once existed to Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus. This, I can appreciate; I can sympathize. You used to feel connected to the cultural activity of these places, and now Arab Palestine has become Jewish Israel and it is no longer an Arab space, and it is no longer as easy as it once was to feel connected to these other places. As if New York had suddenly become a different country, and I found myself suddenly in a foreign place, no longer in the same country, the same cultural space as Boston and DC. Sure. But, if you miss the cultural scene in Beirut, go there. No one is stopping you. And, more importantly, you say that you cannot redefine your identity here in Israel, that you feel disconnected from the ability to have an Arab cultural space? Why? You’ve had 60 plus years to create or recreate Palestinian identity within Israel. This is no different from the formation of a Jewish-American identity (as distinct from Jewish or Israeli identity elsewhere in the world), or the formation of a distinctly Arab-American or British Arab identity. If it can be done by these other groups, why can it not be done for/by you? There is so much scholarship out there on diasporas and identity formation. I can appreciate the frustration with being in, in a sense, a diaspora, in a place that is no longer wholly or chiefly an Arab place when once it was, but that does not mean you cannot redefine, recreate, or relocate an identity. Jewish-Americans did it; Hawaiians under occupation have done it; peoples define and redefine their identities every day. If you have not found it, it is because you are not looking, or are unwilling to accept what you have.

Returning to the matter of the 1948 “looting” of Arab books by Jewish (Israeli) soldiers, at 20 minutes into this 48-minute documentary, these questions I have posed above remain entirely unanswered. These seem to me the most key questions about this situation, and yet, the documentary seems to have some other agenda – namely, to take it as a given that it’s a crime that these were taken, and that they ought to be given back. We finally begin to see in the last 10 minutes, some answers to some of these questions. We learn that many of the books were taken from empty homes, not stolen from owners who were present; we learn that there were Arab students working with the collections, and that there was never any intention to “hide” the books, nor in fact a belief that they had in fact been hidden – there were Arabs who knew quite well where they were, and how to access them. We learn as well that the goal was very explicitly to safeguard and protect these books from destruction, but also that there was a hope that many of the books would end up being kept by the Library and not returned.

It would have been nice to see a documentary explaining, in more objective, historical detail, why this was done, what was the thinking at the time, what efforts were made to return the books over the years, and if not why not. But, so it goes. Some reports are better than others… at least, I think it valuable and interesting to have learned about this collection, to learn that it exists, and that this “acquisition,” “looting,” whatever we want to call it, happened. I’d had no idea.

I am glad to see that these objects are accessible to the public, and are not simply “locked away” in archives as the film states them to be. I hope that a solution can be reached – either that the collection be relocated to a Palestinian National Library, or that the Palestinians should (god forbid) start considering the Israeli National Library as their own as well.

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I’m no expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I’m still filing this one under “Really?” and “…What!?”

According to the Associated Foreign Press, Jordan has requested that Canada return the Dead Sea Scrolls to Jordan. Canada is currently in possession of some of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments on account of them having very recently been on exhibition there. Jordan claims that the Scrolls were illegally stolen from the Palestine Museum when Israel seized East Jerusalem in 1967.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, admittedly, have had a complicated history, and were not always in Jewish/Israeli hands. Discovered by Bedouins in 1946-7, in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, the Scrolls passed through a number of hands – including those of Syrian Christians, Israeli Jewish professors of Hebrew University, and the American Schools of Oriental Research – and were moved to Beirut temporarily during the chaos of 1948, then put up for sale in New York, where they were purchased by the Israeli professors in 1954. The Scrolls were at some point afterward donated to the Israel Museum, where they have been ever since. A complicated history to be sure in the 1940s-50s, but I really don’t see where any Palestine Museum or Jordanians are involved. If the Israelis already had them in 1954, when would the Scrolls have entered a Palestine Museum in East Jerusalem, to be recovered (or stolen) in 1967?

And why seek them returned now? Why now, more than 30 years after the alleged theft, after more than 10 years of peace between Jordan and Israel?

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Thanks to the News blog at Archaeology.org, a great site and a great magazine, a few quick links today:

*The Middle Mekong Archaeological Project, a joint effort between the Penn Museum and the Laotian Dept of Heritage, is an archaeological project investigating certain sites within Luang Prabang. They document their daily adventures and findings on a WordPress blog.

*Israeli archaeologists claim to have discovered the earliest yet discovered extant example of Hebrew writing. Discovered at the site where the Bible tells us David slew Goliath, the pottery shard has been carbon dated to the 10th century BCE.

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Two posts in a row consisting of nothing but links to Art Radar Asia posts. I feel bad. Like I’m just leeching off of their hard work and such. But I do plan on writing soon about the various art shows I’ve been to in the last week – the Asian Contemporary Art Fair was last week, and this weekend I went to a few galleries, saw shows by Siona Benjamin (a Bene Israel, that is, Indian Jewish, artist) and Zhang Xiaogang among others.

In the meantime, Art Radar Asia provides a peek – via a linked NY Times article – into the Tel Aviv art world. Israeli art is far from the cultures I normally study, but it is also in a way my homeland, though I know that Israelis tend to have pretty strong opinions about American Jews who claim a connection, an understanding, of life in Israel without actually living there.

From what little I’ve seen, Israeli art seems extremely Western and modern, infused very often with political meaning, but devoid of Jewish or Middle Eastern artistic style or subjects. Very often the works are indistinguishable from European or American works which ignore cultural, geographical, historical, artistic context entirely to be simply explorations of colors and light and shadow and imagery.

But I still feel a connection, and a curiosity, and a hope that one of these days I will discover Israeli artists whose modern, current, contemporary relevant works also are distinctly Israeli or Jewish; artists whose works fully reflect identity issues, cultural questions, …. Although I wonder if that really speaks to Israeli identity more generally – the degree to which Israeli life is different from that of a more generic or general Western (European/American style) lifestyle. Do Israelis feel a disconnect from Middle Eastern culture, from traditional Jewish culture, and just go about their BlackBerry, Coca-Cola, lives as culture-free and as generically cosmopolitan/global as many Americans and Europeans do?

Guide to art scene Tel Aviv, Israel – New York Times « Art Radar Asia

Is Tel Aviv Ready to Crash the Global Art Party? New York Times, 2 November 2008.

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