Yoni Leviatan
How to be Jewish: Be good. The end.

Why do I care so much about Lebanon? It’s personal.

Something pretty rare happened this week in Israel. Amidst a sinking economy, lockdown-level covid infections and political infighting leading to our fourth elections in less than two years – everyone stopped talking and focused on Lebanon.

The initial shock and grief felt by an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews and Arabs is best expressed by these images from Israel’s main evening news broadcast less than two hours after Beirut was shattered to pieces.

Photo by Yoni Leviatan
Photo by Yoni Leviatan

The offers of aid from the Israeli government were no less swift, no less genuine – and very wisely put forth by Israel’s Foreign and Defense Ministers – without even clearing it with the politically (and criminally) charged Prime Minister Netanyahu (three indictments and counting).

Written in English, Hebrew and Arabic, sent through public and private backchannels, every effort has been made by both the hospitals and the government to put politics aside and show the Lebanese people that their Israeli cousins care.

When the offers were quite understandably rejected, the hospitals found a workaround and are now setting up treatment centers in 3rd-party countries without any desire to receive public credit.

They only want to help.

Still, the debate rages on – why are Israelis trying so hard to help a country they’re technically at war with? This is what countries like Iran do when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. Exploiting humanitarian tragedies for a bit of PR.

In the cynical Middle East, is it any wonder that the Lebanese people are suspicious of Israeli attempts to reach out in this moment? While I can’t speak for anyone else, I would wager with near-certainty that 9 out of 10 Israelis are genuine in their grief.

I can also assure you that some are the spawn of the devil. (Feiglin, not Bibi – no incitement, we know how it ends – even though he doesn’t deserve it.)

We also know how it feels to have your home blown to pieces.

My first Israeli war

I experienced my first war in Israel in Miami, Florida. It was a Friday, July 14, 2006, still three years before I would realize it was time to move up and away to Tel Aviv. My sister was getting married, the first one in the family from my generation. Relatives were arriving from all over the US, England and Israel, many of which we hadn’t seen in years.

The day before such an event is bound to be hectic. As the brother of the bride, I took on the usual tasks of driving them to the courthouse, picking up the tuxes and anything else I can’t remember on the way to the Miami Beach Resort and Spa. My parents went all out and booked the legendary 18th-floor Starlight ballroom where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jackie Gleason once played.

It was an amazingly beautiful event that lived up to the hype, but having it on the 18th floor didn’t bring us much luck when it came to my relatives. They had just flown in that morning, gone straight to the hotel and had enough time to enjoy a typical Florida torrential rainstorm that soon gave way to an equally typical afternoon at the pool.

Two days earlier, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah had used their chokehold on Lebanon to fire rockets at Israeli border towns, thus beginning the dreaded 2006 war with Israel. It wasn’t clear yet that it would be a 34-day war of such magnitude that it would leave southern Lebanon looking not all that different from how Beirut looks today. The biggest difference was the current hell that befell the Lebanese people on August 4th, 2020, took 34 seconds to do the same scale of damage, if not more.

The reason it wasn’t clear that war had broken out is because fighting on Israel’s borders is not that uncommon on any given day. Just last week, the following exchange took place when I messaged my cousin after seeing reports of an attempted terrorist infiltration somewhere on the border where they live in a small farming community so close to Lebanon I see it every time I visit, and not in a Sarah Palin-SNL skit kind of way.

Screenshot by Yoni Leviatan

Translation:

Me: What’s going on in your neighborhood? You hear bombs? Did they also tell [redacted] residents to stay at home?

Cousin: I’m at work, but yeah, the mess began, they sent us to the shelters. We’re used to it 🙂

Me: F**k. If it continues come here.

Me replying to previous message about them being used to it: I’d assume lol

Cousin: Thanks

This is life in Israel, especially on the northern border. Most of the time it’s gallows humor.

Until it’s not. Like when they discovered Hezbollah had built tunnels running under the same area with the intention to pop out one day from under people’s homes with a few hundred terrorists ready to do their thing.

The following screenshot is from an audio message where my cousin mentions that even though the IDF got rid of all the tunnels along the border, home prices have dropped significantly in their area. The interest in living there has understandably waned as people still have doubts that they found all the tunnels.

Screenshot by Yoni Leviatan

Translation of my reply: Psshh that’s sad and interesting – maybe I’ll find something there cheap? Lol thanks!

It’s really hard to prevent a Jew from making light of their own fate. The gallows humor never stops.

Until it does. Like that day before my sister’s wedding when all the family who’d arrived from Israel returned from their afternoon outing at the pool. We were upstairs in the bridal suite reminiscing and gearing up for an epic weekend ahead when a hush fell over the room as we paid more attention to the pictures being broadcast on the news that day.

“Look, it’s Haifa. The missiles are falling on Haifa!”

Haifa, Israel is not the northern border. My relatives sat there stunned as they watched their hometown being showered with the type of missiles that don’t destroy a room like those silly rockets coming from Gaza.

These types of missiles destroy the whole apartment – if not the whole building.

I know this for sure because it happened to them.

My relatives were only supposed to stay a week. They ended up staying a month. There was no point in going back when the northern half of Israel had already fled to the south. While my Israeli family were resigned to enjoy a few weeks in the Florida sun – a Hezbollah missile fell on my great-aunt and uncle’s apartment near Haifa.

There was nothing else to do but pick up the pieces when they went back.

My first Lebanese employers

My maternal grandfather was an Egyptian Jew until 1948 when he was forced out of his home and fled to Israel with his family. Needless to say, he didn’t leave me with the best impression of the Arab people.

Yet at the same time, his mother tongue was Arabic and I still have his beads that belonged to my Moroccan great-grandfather.

Photo by Yoni Leviatan

He taught me how to win at sheshbesh (backgammon), mahbusa (prisoner) and how to cheat at poker (that one he learned in Europe) all before I had my bar-mitzvah.

He married a Slovakian, whose only saving grace from the Holocaust was that she learned how to cook from her Tunisian mother-in-law (she didn’t really have a choice – the Nazis killed her own before she was 15). I grew up eating the world’s greatest bourekas (puff pastry with cheese, hold the meat) and all my food tasted awesome because it was made with Osem (it’s a brand, no translation).

I also have quite a few stories from my father’s side – and when I tell them you’ll be shocked – but somehow this writer who is ¾ Ashkenazi and ¼ Sephardi ended up 100% Mizrachi when it comes to Jewish culture. (PS, you Jews in the Diaspora – stop fighting about this, it’s so half a century ago – you already lost the battle and our food will always win. We’re all Jews. Let’s leave it at that.)

Growing up in South Florida I never met any Arabs. I only grew up with Arab-Jewish culture and Arab-Jewish enmity. Needless to say, I was one confused teenager.

Then I got a call one day from this guy telling me to call Gloria Estefan.

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Friends who know me well know 3 things about me: ???? 1. I taught guitar for many years (15) ???? 2. I grew up in Coral Springs/Parkland ???? 3. Dan Warner @dw6string meant the world to me ???? What most people don’t know is during all those years of teaching, one of my students was @emily_estefan. I loved all my students (and still do!) but Emily was a little different as the Estefans are Miami’s royal family and I was given the honor of teaching their most prized possession. All the rumors you’ve heard are true. They are the nicest, most gracious, down-to-earth superstars I’ve ever met, and I’ve met quite a few. Every week I pulled up to their house with ???? just like before you go on stage. But the moment the door opened and I was engulfed by their warmth – it all went away and we had a blast! I can’t take credit for the incredible musician Emily became. She was born with the gift of music (shocker) and I only taught her at the beginning. From there she flew on her own. My job was to not mess it up. Now who do you think got me that job? See #3 above. ???? Now see this: https://guitarsoverguns.networkforgood.com/projects/80863-dan-warner-memorial-scholarship-fund ???? School shootings make my heart ache. I know Dan felt exactly the same. Guitars Over Guns set up a Dan Warner Memorial Scholarship Fund to honor his memory and spread peace through music. Please consider donating whatever you can in his name, or share the link if you’re not in a position to do so. Dan and I grew up going to the same music school. I can tell you firsthand how many kids would’ve been in gangs if they weren’t playing guitar. I know guns are controversial. I’m not asking you to give them up. I’m asking you to help a child pick up a guitar instead. #grooveiseverything ???? #repost @gloriaestefan ➖ One of my favorite guitarists & good friend, Dan Warner, has, very suddenly & unexpectedly, gone on to his new reality. He left us an amazing body of work spread across many artists and genres of which I feel fortunate to have been one. He recently played with us at the Gershwin Awards and has been lending his incredible musical talents to us through the years. My sincerest condolences to his wife and family…

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She was looking for a guitar teacher. The stars had aligned. The following week I headed down to Star Island.

Now for anyone who doesn’t understand what it means to be teaching a progeny (and prodigy) of Gloria and Emilio Estefan – they are single-handedly responsible for bringing Latin music to the forefront of the American pop culture scene. They’re a pretty big deal anywhere you go.

In Miami? They’re the royal family.

Except the Estefans aren’t only Cuban.

They’re also Lebanese.

That never entered my mind. I’m not even sure I was aware at first. And if I was, it didn’t matter the first time I met Emilio. He put his arm around me like an old friend, full of joy at how fast his daughter had learned to jam on guitar. (Don’t look at me. Did I mention who her parents are?)

Then they started recommending me to a few of their friends. For almost two years I did the rounds on Star Island every week. The first friend they sent me to was one of their best.

And they were fully Lebanese.

That’s when I got my first lesson in why they used to call Beirut the Paris of the Middle East. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous the first time I met them. Not because they were famous – but because I was Israeli – which they obviously knew. (You can’t hide it when your first name is “Yoni”.)

I wasn’t the least bit surprised at the warmth of the Estefans. A bunch of my friends worked for them. I’d already heard all the rumors about how wonderfully nice they were.

Turns out, these kinds of people tend to stick together.

Their Lebanese friends went out of their way to make me feel comfortable (which I was, very much). I remember the mother giving me a tour. The father was very successful and had an office full of pictures with world leaders from every country.

There was one who’s not so popular with Israelis. As I was scanning the presidents and prime ministers hanging on the wall, before I could even think about it she pointed to it and said “oh, he doesn’t like him, he just collects the photographs”.

I really didn’t think about it. I was a bit overwhelmed just to be there. But her only concern was that I feel comfortable in their home. Then she went on to tell me how much they loved their honeymoon – in Tel Aviv.

Needless to say, I was comfortable in their home (very much so).

The debate rages on

Israel has technically been in a state of war with Lebanon for decades. Sometimes it’s an actual war. It’s not hard to understand why some Lebanese people don’t want our help or our money.

If you try to donate to the Lebanese Red Cross with an Israeli credit card – it won’t take it. Other people have tried and so did I. Luckily, I’m also American and have other options (sorry guys, you’re taking my money whether you want it or not).

 

There are also some Israelis who believe if they don’t want our help then we should forget about them and move on with our own problems.

I’m not one of them. Israeli doctors treated Lebanese patients throughout the 1980s and 1990s. More than any other country, Israelis yearn to visit Lebanon (it’s not far) and experience the magic that once existed in Beirut.

Like all things Middle Eastern – it’s complicated. Between the governments and the militaries and the endless fighting on the borders with terrorist militias – it’s complicated.

Between Tel Aviv and Beirut? It’s not complicated at all.

We deeply share in the sorrow of the Lebanese people.

This Tel Avivian more than anyone else.

 

About the Author
Yoni Leviatan is a British-born, American-raised, Israeli-blooded musician, producer, marketer, presenter and part-time political commentator who loves to think out loud. Especially about Israel. Originally from Coral Springs, Florida, Yoni has been living in Tel Aviv since 2009, returning to the land of his parents and grandparents and ancestors before them. Click to watch his videos. Click to hear his music.
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