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Please exit the water

The loudspeaker’s announcement warning swimmers out of the winter sea gives me pause: the recording is in 5 languages, yet they are seemingly out of order
Israelis at the beach in Tel Aviv on May 8, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)
Israelis at the beach in Tel Aviv on May 8, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

“There are no lifeguard services. Bathing without lifeguards is prohibited and dangerous. Please exit the water.”

Exit the Water 1 – Early  January 2020

On a bright winter’s day, I like to sit in the sun after a swim at Tel Aviv beach. I sit under the perfect winter-blue sky with its diaphanous broad brushstroke clouds. I like to watch the soft lapping of water on the shore and admire the flotillas of seagulls that perch on the surface. Even on sunny days the winter beach is sparsely populated and there’s a feeling of beauty and peace to the scene.

There are no lifeguard services in the winter and punctually, every half-hour, a recorded message is broadcast from the loudspeakers of the redundant lifeguard’s huts. It is delivered in five languages, which would transcribe to four alphabets. (I wonder whether there is any other beach in the world in which a public announcement is made in more than one or maybe two languages at most.) I do feel it is commendable that a public announcement is made in different languages to cater to different language or ethnic groups, however I find the order questionable.  It is as follows: first Hebrew, then English, French, Russian and finally Arabic.

I try to make sense of this stratified sequencing.

Obviously, Hebrew is first, it is the official language of Israel since the establishment of the state, in 1948.

One could possibly make a case for English as the second language on the announcement hierarchy. There are many English-speakers who come to the beach. Many non-Hebrew speakers who come to the beach from abroad will have at least a smattering of English, English being the global lingua franca nowadays.

The third language of the announcement is French. The reasoning behind French occupying this position in the audial parade is less clear to me. Certainly there is a strong French presence on the beach in the summer and during the Jewish holy days. And since the recent re-emergence of anti-Semitism in France, many French people have bought property in Israel and have adopted the state as a first or second home. Certainly, the French have been consumers of high-end real estate and are considered to make a favorable contribution to the economy. Is it in fact their economic clout that has won French third place on the lifeguards announcement scale?

Coming in at fourth place is Russian. It isn’t the last on the list, but it’s close. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian speakers emigrated to Israel. They far outnumber the French speakers, but apart from the odd oligarch, they are not admired for their wealth. So could it be that money scores higher than demographics?  It’s a question. Practically speaking, most of the enthusiastic winter swimmers are in fact Russian-speakers, who, just like me, pay little heed to the fact that swimming in the absence of lifeguards is “prohibited and dangerous.”

So that just leaves Arabic, last. To me it does seem last and least. Relegated to the bottom of the pile. Again. In 2018 the nation-state law ascribed Arabic to a “special status.” No longer an official language by Hebrew’s side, but actually degraded. Not only is it offensive to the Arab residents of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, but placing Arabic at the bottom of the announcement ladder, gives a message to all within earshot.

I resolve to contact the Tel Aviv-Jaffa authorities about the implications of this order, but predictably I delay.

Exit the water – 2 – Mid May 2020

We are just emerging from the strict lockdown of March-April 2020, a crisis that crept up on us from mid-January and gained momentum, so that at the height of the emergency, we citizens were restricted to 100 meters from our homes.

I conceded to the closure of our local cafes and shops, I even accepted the fact that I would have to stop working, which completely forfeited my income for that time, but the understanding that I would not be able to at least see the sea, less enter the water, was abhorrent to me. But apart from a couple of very early morning forays in which I was able to catch a fleeting glimpse of the sea, I kept my distance. In honesty, less due to a sense of civic duty, more a fear of a heavy fine.

In late April, the restrictions were lifted from 100 meters to 500, and finally, this week, it was announced that visits to the beach were once again permitted, just no gathering.

The recorded message still blasts out every half hour, but miraculously the order has changed; Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, and, finally French. The lifeguards’ announcement recovered from COVID-19 renewed, reformed, and re-ordered. I don’t know why or who altered it, and I certainly can’t take credit for the change, but it sits more comfortably with me. A fine trickle of fairness in such rough waters…

About the Author
Gabriela Cohen is a British-trained osteopath. She lives in Tel Aviv and works from her private practice in the city and also volunteers with PHR (physicians for human rights) in Palestinian villages on the weekends. She is a writer of fiction and non-fiction and has a blog, livingamovinglife.org.
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