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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wooden shoes and windmills

Last night I had the privilege of speaking to a group of about 25-30 elite Dutch university students who came to Israel under the auspices of the prestigious BKB Academy.  As part of their program these students travel to various countries to observe the elections and study the various processes and issues. 

During their short stay here in Israel they had meetings around the clock with government officials, business people and private individuals.  A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a charming young woman (who is originally from Holland, but now calls Tel Aviv home) asking if I would like to speak to the group.  She told me that they had an opening in their schedule right after meeting with Shimon Peres' foreign adverser... would I be interested?

Hold on, I need to check my ego, um, I mean schedule... yeah, I'm free! 

I don't know quite what I was expecting, and I was really a bit conflicted about what I could possibly tell these students that would be worth their time.  But I decided that while I could only realistically represent myself, they probably didn't have many religious settlers on their agenda... so let them at least meet one, right?

When I arrived at the venue it was late in the evening (I was to be the last speaker of a very long day), I was warmly met by one of the organizers of the group. He explained that the previous speaker had finished a bit early so the students were spread around the place having refreshments, updating their blogs and generally just decompressing. 

I was initially worried that it would be impossible to get them back together and focused... but within seconds of our entering the room, every seat was occupied and I had the undivided attention of a group of the most handsome people I think I have ever seen gathered in one place.  Seriously, I felt like I was in looking at a catalog for some high end outdoor-wear company.

As I began to speak, all worries that their long day might have rendered them too tired to focus were swept away.  I looked around the room and saw nothing but rapt attention and furious note-taking. 

I figured they had probably heard enough about the nuts and bolts of the Israeli electoral system and the basic issues at stake; topics with which I'm just coming to terms.  So I decided to tell them a few things about Israel and Israelis that they weren't likely to read in any position paper.  I shared some anecdotes about myself and the community to which I nominally belong.  But I also tried to emphasize the complex geography of the Israeli human landscape, as well as where the various fault lines seemed (at least to me) to exist. 

Where possible I tried to dispel some myths about Israel in general... and Israelis in particular.   To this end I pointed out that one couldn't reasonably complete the sentences "Israel is..." or "Israelis are..." with any degree of accuracy any more than one could do the same for their own country and culture. 

For emphasis, I pointed out that they would probably be annoyed (or even outraged) at the ignorance of someone who would ask, "Oh, you're from Holland... do you wear wooden shoes and have a windmill in your back yard?"  So to pigeon-hole Israel via the stereotypes found in the press and in the preconceived good or bad prejudices of foreigners was unfair, to say the least. 

One student made the observation that many supporters of Israel living abroad seem to hold more extreme views than even the people they are supporting.  I agreed, but added that the same could be said of Israel's detractors.  It is always easier to have extreme views about someone who is 'over there' rather than someone you know intimately.  I pointed out that this problem of distance was also at the root of both the internal Israeli cultural struggles (left/right... secular/religious) as well as the exaggerated suspicion/antagonism between Israelis and their Arab 'neighbors'. 

I tried to be fair and balanced in my remarks, and I went out of my way to indicate where I was crossing the line from objective to subjective (which happened frequently).  But I also wanted them to know that my reality was likely to be very different from that of a secular Israeli living in Tel Aviv, an Israeli Arab living in Haifa or a Palestinian Arab living in Ramallah.  The point being that my experiences and perceptions are no less accurate or 'true' for the fact that they differ substantially from the experiences and perceptions of those other individuals.

When it came time for questions, I was again impressed by the active and insightful nature of the minds in the room.  And even after the session was officially concluded (with embarrassingly loud applause), many of the students came up to ask follow-up questions or to express thanks for my having come to speak to them. 

As I was saying my final good-nights and thank-yous to the small group of students who saw me to the door, I looked around and saw several others sprawled out on chairs and couches with open laptops... cleaning up their notes and updating their blogs.  Several students have promised to send me links to their sites, but I am afraid that Google Translator probably won't do justice to the work of such agile minds.   Just another opportunity to regret not having grown up with a European facility with languages.

The whole ego thing aside, the evening was one of the truly positive, life-affirming experiences I've been fortunate enough to enjoy.  Not only do I have confidence that these students came to absorb as much information as possible about my country, but it was reassuring to think that the next generation of Dutch leaders will likely come from among this clear-eyed, intelligent bunch.

If any of these students happen to read this... thank you for the opportunity.

Posted by David Bogner on February 12, 2009 | Permalink

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If you do have some feedback, let us know. I have a few friends who are fluent in Dutch and might be willing to help.
Very interesting post anyway. I am glad theses students got an opportunity to listen to you and your point of view, even though I may sometimes disagree.
I like what you told them about Israelis not being one block of identical people with identical outlooks.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Feb 12, 2009 2:23:32 PM

Great post and a great opportunity you had to show things in Israel are not as simple as the general media out there like to make it. You can only hope that better information gets disseminated via their blogs and perhaps someone else reading their blogs might rethink their positions vis a vis Israel. Good stuff, David :)

Posted by: Joshua K | Feb 12, 2009 3:00:32 PM

Without even seeing the group I can picture what you mean about their looks. Tall, dashing, and mostly blond, I imagine - way to make the rest of us look and feel like trolls :)

Sounds like you managed to convey a great deal to the group albeit a strange and improptu juxtaposition. Kol Hakavod. It makes me glad to have had your representation. If you've got anything to translate, my husband can help you out, too.

Posted by: RaggedyMom | Feb 12, 2009 4:24:28 PM

Very cool, David.

Posted by: val | Feb 12, 2009 4:32:44 PM

Was it taped? I'd love to see it.

Posted by: mata hari | Feb 12, 2009 5:53:51 PM

Since you commented a few times about the people updating their blogs, did you talk with them about blogging and any influence (or lack thereof)?

Posted by: JDMDad | Feb 12, 2009 6:51:39 PM

Sounds like it went well.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 12, 2009 6:57:36 PM

And, speaking of the Dutch and translation programs, this is a good time to revisit what is perhaps quite simply the funniest thing I've ever read:

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1192380743991

Posted by: dfb1968 | Feb 12, 2009 8:57:35 PM

Errm, I speak Dutch (errm, Ik spreek Nederlands). And could so probably translate what they blogged (en zou dus kunnen vertalen wat zij geblogd hebben). It would, in fact, be a pleasure to read such things (het zou, in feite, een plezier zijn om zulke dingen te lezen).

But you already knew that (maar dat wist je al).

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Feb 12, 2009 11:35:19 PM

David

I worked for ING Bank a while ago. The Dutch guys were all 6'5" blonds.

Posted by: mochassid | Feb 13, 2009 4:51:24 AM

I'd like to know where that bank is and how I can open an account...

Posted by: Marsha, thawed at the moment | Feb 13, 2009 5:51:25 AM

I worked for ING Bank a while ago. The Dutch guys were all 6'5" blonds.

Sounds like they discriminate against Brabanders and Limburgers. Or recruit primarily among Frisians.

At five nine, I was considered tall in Valkenswaard. But back in the US, it seems as if I'm shorter than average.

Shan't even mention the paucity of blondies in my former neck of the woods. One counts one's blessings as one can.

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Feb 13, 2009 11:33:54 PM

Hi David,

It takes a great speaker to keep an audience awake and fascinated after they've heard eleven speakers earlier that day, and moreover slept only for a few hours. You did an amazing job!

Meeting you was truly one of the highlights of our trip.

Sander
(student at BKB Academy)

Posted by: Sander | Feb 15, 2009 12:19:17 PM

Sander... Oh, you're just saying that because I called you all handsome, right? :-) No really, the pleasure was all mine. Thank you again.

Posted by: David Bogner | Feb 15, 2009 12:38:23 PM

.............................."WHO SAW ME TO THE DOOR"
DUTCH ALLWAYS DO SEE PEOPLE TO THE DOOR, THE THOUGHT OF HAVING TO ASK THEM FOR A DRINK OR WORSE, A BITE, GIVES THEM THE THE SHIVERS.

TRUST ME, I AM 1,97 METRE AND BLONDE.

Posted by: Mongrel | Feb 16, 2009 10:22:13 PM

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