Chapter 3. Intersections

 

I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.
Martin Buber, I and Thou

We should ask G-d
To help us toward manners. Inner gifts
Do not find their way
To creatures without just respect

Rumi, “Praising manners”

 

Spending Jewish holidays with Palestinians

I have heard of two left wing Israeli Jews who spend Jewish holidays with Palestinians. One is a man who spends religious holidays including the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) at a meal with Palestinians. Another is the daughter of a fellow student at my ulpan who spends every Sabbath and every Jewish holiday doing volunteer work in the West Bank. As an observant Jew, the thought that someone would not prefer to observe a Jewish holiday as it is meant to and within one’s own community is prima facie a strange idea. On the other hand, I can imagine the Jews who make these choices arguing they do not feel comfortable with the nationalistic, right-wing atmosphere which imbues much of Judaism in Israel. I can imagine them quoting Isaiah: “These are not the fasts that I desire, but rather that you free the bound and feed the hungry….” But I also remember a sentence from a book by a black woman on the relationship between African Americans and whites in the United States. The book stated that whites who oppose racism in America often end up spending a lot of time with blacks. The reaction of the book’s author was that white anti-racist activists should not spend so much time with blacks –since they are not the problem–, but rather with whites who are.

Masks

I had been in Israel for barely a couple of months when I attended a weekend meeting between Israelis and Palestinians. It was the first time I met Palestinians in Palestine. I liked them. I liked their warmth and openness. I also liked how they combined sharing their thoughts in a quite straight-forward manner while remaining open to dialogue. I was impressed by the fact that the immense majority of them, despite what they have to endure, were able to be friendly and that, even those whose attitude was more guarded, seemed more hurt than hostile. I was perhaps most surprised by the fact that I only saw hatred in someone’s eyes on one occasion.

At the end of the weekend, we gathered in groups of about ten people to share our views about the meeting. In our group was a young Israeli Jewish woman whom I had spoken to on a few occasions over the weekend and who had struck me as particularly diffident. When her turn came to speak, she said with a hard look in her eyes: “I do not believe people have been themselves or said what they really think over this weekend. I believe we have all been wearing masks.” I felt this was probably true for her. Her anger was barely contained. She spoke carefully and one felt she would have liked to say much more than she did or very different things. It was probably true as well of the one Palestinian man with the harsh look in his eyes and for whom I sensed we were the incarnation of everything he despised –whether we had done it personally or not. But I also felt that it was not true of the other people in the group. I may be wrong, of course. But I felt that our dialogue was real, that the grievances, hopes and dreams we were asked to express were real, that the diffidence of some and the openness and warmth of others despite everything, were real as well. I believed that was the best one could possibly hope for in the context of the occupation.

Non-western shoes

I was driving in Jerusalem with Mohammed, a Palestinian Jerusalemite friend, as we went by a middle-aged man.  The man had a moustache and olive skin and looked identifiably Palestinian. “He must not have an easy time at the checkpoints,” I commented, remembering Mohammed had told me that men with a moustache were more likely to be pulled over by Israeli soldiers. “It is not just the moustache,” Mohammed said. “It is also his clothes, that he is not cleanly dressed and, especially, the shoes.” “The shoes?” I asked dumbfounded, “What is wrong with his shoes?” “Yes…the shoes… they are not western!,” he answered shaking his head in a mixture of disapproval and sadness. Since then, I have been trying to compare the footwear of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, I admit without much success. Not fully content with the response, I continued to enquire, “He is not cleanly dressed because he is a worker. Aren’t Jewish workers also sometimes not cleanly dressed?” “It is the combination of everything” my friend concluded with conviction.

Paying for what we have done to Arabs

Just before moving to Israel, I attended a conference in London on the situation of Palestinian Israelis. I hope many Jews attend similar events because that conference was a turning point for me. I am embarrassed to say that, beforehand, I had given very little thought to the issue. During that conference, I listened to a set of facts and, more importantly, to a group of speakers, who completely shook the way I looked at Israel. Before that, to me, the Palestinian issue was one that lay outside of Israel’s internationally-recognized borders, namely, in the West Bank and Gaza and in East Jerusalem. I had not thought of the –many and serious—shortcomings of Israel itself. This is doubtless because I was not well-read on Israeli history and politics as well as because not much is said about it in the western press. Perhaps, my ignorance was also due to the fact that it is not a subject of conversation among Jews. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is discussed, Israel as it currently stands is typically viewed as untouchable.

After I arrived in Israel following that conference, I wrote a one-page note about all the reasons I saw for normalizing the situation of Israel’s Palestinian citizens within the context of what should be a fully democratic state. One day, I was discussing these issues with Ari, an Israeli friend I had met in Washington. I asked him if I could read him what I had written. He told me to go ahead. Once I finished, he told me that he agreed with me and that, among all the reasons I had cited for righting the wrongs of Palestinians in Israel, the key one was none of the self-interested arguments, but rather the first reason I had quoted –simply that “it was the right thing to do.” He thought for a few seconds and then concluded: “One day we will pay for what we have done to the Arabs.”

First they take our land and now they take our lunch!

Rami is a youth leader in Arrub camp. Last year, he was one of the organizers of a summer camp for French, German, Israeli and Palestinian youth that took place in France. He was recounting the experience to me when we came to the issue of food. The French organizers had asked all groups to prepare some food that was typical of their country. Rami explained how the Israelis prepared hummus, falafel, a tomato and cucumber salad dressed in olive oil and lemon which they call “Israeli salad” and a yoghourt-type product called lavneh. All these dishes are typically Palestinian and Palestinians have been eating them for centuries.  Rami could not believe it. In his surprise, he said he thought, “These guys! First they take our land and now they take our lunch!” He went on to explain how the Palestinian students were left with providing Palestinian sweets for dessert, as their most emblematic dishes had been appropriated and presented as typically Israeli by the Israeli students.

An Israeli father and a Palestinian grandmother

I once attended a meeting of an organization that brings together relatives of victims of the conflict on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides in order to foster peace. I listened to two moving testimonies –one was delivered by the father of a young Israeli woman who had been killed by a suicide bomber as she rode on a bus. The other was delivered by the grandmother of a young Palestinian man who had been killed by an “incursion” of the Israeli army into a refugee camp in the West Bank. It was a chilling experience which reminded one of the enormous costs of this conflict in terms of sheer human suffering. The commonalities between both bereaved relatives were clear –the utter pain which would never leave them as long as they lived, the wish to communicate that pain to others so we can have an inkling of what they have been through, and the determination to use their suffering to foster the cause of ending the conflict.

The differences, however, were also clear. The Israeli father was a middle class man. He lives in Israel –an independent, free, and rich country. His is an environment where the economy is thriving, the government is independent and people travel freely within their country and abroad. The Palestinian grandmother was a poor woman. She lives in a refugee camp –away from her original, now destroyed village, in an occupied and poor Palestine. Her people have no jobs, no independent country and not even freedom to move from one West Bank town to another without going through checkpoints and having to endure every whim of the Israeli army. I felt the differences between that Israeli father and that Palestinian grandmother were as striking as the similarities between them.

 They haven’t been here very long!

One of the most astounding arguments I have heard from Israeli Jews against Palestinian rights –whether in Israel or Palestine—is that the Palestinian people haven’t been there very long. One day, I was having Shabbat dinner at the home of Daniel, an American-Israeli friend. At one point in the evening, the Palestinian issue came up and one of the dinner guests said: “You know, Palestinians haven’t been here very long. Most of them came over during the Ottoman empire about three hundred years ago.” Before I had time to think through what to answer, my friend Daniel spoke up: “Even if that were true, it would be much longer ago than most of us!” he said to my relief. That is exactly right. I am not sure how much truth there is to the claim that a significant number of Palestinians came from other parts of the Middle East. But I do know that the answer is not relevant in determining their rights. The Middle East was a cultural, linguistic and political unity for centuries and, naturally, people migrated from some parts of it to others. Moreover, it is particularly striking that someone who was born outside Israel (as was the case with the young man who had made the comment) would argue that Palestinians had only been there for three hundred years. As Daniel intimated, this is much longer than ninety percent of Israeli Jews. If we don’t want the rights of Israeli Jews to be questioned based on how long they have been in the country, it seems logical that we should not question the same right regarding Palestinians.

Tzippi Livni and Coca-Cola

Since Tzippi Livni arrived to the top of the political echelons in Israel, her picture has been on posters plastered all over the country. Parts of the Jewish ultra-orthodox community are outraged about it as they feel that the likeness of a woman being placed in public for all to see goes against the laws of tzniut or modesty, according to which a man should not look at women other than his wife lest he be tempted by her and his thoughts stray. This is one of the –many—issues in which Jewish and Muslim extremists agree. Just a few days after I became aware of this opposition to Livni’s posters –and saw several of them torn up and others defaced–, I heard of a similar incident in the Muslim world. A Palestinian Christian friend told me, half appalled and half amused, that the Arabic-lettered cans of Coke that are staple in the Arab world had started to carry the picture of a well-known Lebanese female singer. I assume her –presumably attractive—likeness was expected to encourage consumers to buy more Coke cans. Some imams, however, were up in arms at the image of a –worst of all—Muslim woman being put on a Coke can and had decided to place a ban on the consumption of Coke.

My first reaction to such episodes is that such extremists should be forced to live together and endure each other instead of the moderate people of their societies having to endure them and their attempts to impose their unreasonably restrictive interpretations of their respective religions on other people. My second reaction is disappointment at the extremely low expectations such extremists place on the ability of people –including religious people– to live within society, interact with other human beings and remain civilized and modest in our behavior. To put it shortly, if you get thrown off by a woman politician on a poster or a singer on a can of Coke, you have bigger problems than the poster or the Coke and you should probably focus on addressing those.

Starting to see

I once read an article in an Israeli newspaper that interviewed a woman who used to be a settler in the West Bank. She explained how she used to not think about Palestinians as she carried on her life. At one point, however, something snapped within her. She recounted how she would near the check points and she “started to see them.” I found her choice of words very telling. I had remarked that settlers –and many others in Israeli society—behaved around Palestinians as if they were literally invisible. This woman settler explained that she started to see the Palestinians, to see the long lines of people by barbed wires and cement walls, the old, the women, the children, the workers, lining up, waiting in the sun, in the cold, in the rain. And that she started to feel for them. At that point, she could not continue to do what she did –live in the West Bank causing the misery of those people she was now aware of. She moved back into Israel. I understood exactly what she meant. You cannot continue to live a life that has such consequences for other people once you “start to see them.”

To hate or not to hate

During my two years in Israel and Palestine, I thought a lot about the origins of hatred. My experience leads me to believe that hatred has little to do with an individual’s history and a lot to do with his or her personal attitude. I have met many Palestinians with tragic histories who simply did not hate. In fact, some of the best friends I made in Palestine were poor people from refugee camps with heart-rending histories of loss, destruction, poverty, humiliation and lack of freedom. Despite that experience, they chose not to hate and some of them are among the warmest, kindest people I have ever met. I also have met many Palestinian students from middle and upper class backgrounds who similarly chose to focus their minds on educating themselves, trying their best to build a good life for themselves, their families and their country rather than dwelling on the myriad injustices they are subject to. On the other hand, I have met a few Palestinians of particularly privileged educational and economic backgrounds who seemed full of hatred for any Jew.

On the Jewish side, the picture is similar. The holocaust survivors I have met seem to have no hatred in them. They are deep, kind people, with an unbelievable gentleness and strength in them. I have also met and read about people who suffered a terrorist attack and, since then, have worked to re-build their lives without a trace of hatred in them. On the other hand, I have met some Israeli Jews who, having suffered no personal tragedy, spoke with frightening hatred and anger about Arabs. I have concluded that hatred is a personal choice (possibly influenced by education and family influences). It is a choice that has to do not only with ethics, but with the quality of one’s life. The Palestinians and Jews I met who chose not to hate were not only much better people than those who chose to hate, but also much happier people, regardless of their objective circumstances.

The Galilee

I have a Palestinian Christian friend who is originally from the Galilee, but has now lived for years in Jerusalem. When we discuss relations between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, she will often bring up how different things are in the Galilee. When she lived there, she used to have Jewish neighbors and their relationship was cordial. They would invite each other to their respective homes and visit. For Sukkot, her Jewish neighbors would borrow some of her Christmas decorations for their Sukkah. From them, she learned how to kasher meat, which she still does regularly, because she thinks “it is healthy” and to bake the best hamentaschen (Purim cookies) I have ever tasted. When I talked to her, I got the sense that, as opposed to Jerusalem, which is a hotbed of tension and enmity between Arab and Jew, the Galilee, in her remembrance at least, was close to an ideal place. This ideal place was one in which different people lived next to each other, respected each other, spoke to and learned from one another. It sounded to me like the kind of place Israel should be one day.

The misuse of religion

It was early morning and I was sitting in the beautiful rotunda of Ben Gurion airport enjoying a cappuccino and a croissant when an Israeli man in his thirties asked me if he could join me at my table. I told him he was welcome to. After a bit, he started a conversation with me and we ended up discussing a wide range of topics from Israel to Judaism and life in the Diaspora. He told me he had married an English woman who, like me, had converted to Judaism. The two of them had lived in Berkeley, California for a number of years. There, he told me, they were members of a –non-orthodox—synagogue and were quite involved in the Jewish community. When they came to live in Israel, though, it all fell by the wayside. “On the one hand,” he said, “we felt we were already living in a Jewish country, so we had no need to look for a Jewish community.” This is something I have heard from so many Jews that I am familiar with the argument and I understand it at an intellectual level though I still cannot relate to it at an emotional level. I realize that, for many Jews, the people-hood element of Judaism is at the core of their identity while the religious element is secondary or worse. For me, the idea of purpose –embodied in the values of Judaism—is so central to being a Jew that I cannot emotionally understand why one would just focus on a purposeless self-standing ethnic/cultural dimension of Jewishness, comforting as it may be. The second point he made was just as disturbing. He and his wife became estranged from Judaism in Israel “because of the misuse of religion in the country.” That I can unfortunately understand very well.

It is tragic indeed that the Holy Land should be so pervaded with people misusing religion. Looking at the behavior of so many Jews and Muslims who call themselves religious in Israel and Palestine can only make any Jew or Muslim who holds by the central values of Judaism and Islam cringe. On the Jewish side, religion has become thoroughly polluted with extremist nationalism, land-grabbing, self-righteousness, a misunderstood sense of “chosenness,” selfishness and disregard for the other. On the Muslim side, there is a parallel closed-minded obsession with the Islamic and Arab world, an unwillingness to consider true and permanent territorial compromise and a cult of vengeance, violence and death. No wonder so many people across the world feel religion in the Holy Land is being misused. Sadly, it is driving people like Jon and his wife –as well as their Palestinian equivalents– away from all the good that their religion and tradition can bring them when properly understood while leaving those religions in the hands of extremists. Such a situation is self-perpetuating as it is such extremists who de facto define what “tradition” and “religion” are.

A Jewish Home

Ashraf is a thirty-year old Palestinian Israeli. His mother was from Haifa, so he is an Israeli citizen. Despite this, he has spent most of his life living in the West Bank. “We feel more comfortable in the West Bank” he says. Though he rarely lived in Israel, he goes there a lot and has had plenty of contact with Jews, especially since he was active in Peace Now and some other Israeli-Palestinian peace and dialogue groups. I met Ashraf at my Hebrew ulpan. We became friends, took a number of trips together in the West Bank and Jerusalem and had some interesting conversations. One day as we were driving, he told me that he would like to come to a Shabbat dinner at my home. I told him I would be delighted for him to come. So, I carefully organized a group of people with whom I felt he would be comfortable. I failed at having another Palestinian invitee as some of our common Palestinian friends were busy that day (it was the peak of the Palestinian summer wedding season). However, I was able to invite our Hebrew teacher (whom he knew previously from various peace initiatives), a fellow Hebrew student –a Christian from Germany—, another German Christian friend of hers who was also working with an NGO in the West Bank as well as some liberal Jewish friends of mine. The dinner was lovely and people seemed to enjoy each other’s company and conversation.

Two days later, Ashraf called me to tell me he had very much enjoyed the experience and that it was the first time he had ever been in a Jewish home. I could not believe it. Given the separateness of life between Arabs and Jews in Israel, this would not have surprised me coming from other Palestinians. However, the fact that even an Israeli Palestinian who had been involved with Jews throughout the years on peace activities had never been to a Jewish home shocked me and confirmed just how much work there is to do to build a normal society in Israel.

Asymmetry

Something many Israelis, many Jews, and probably some outsiders do not realize is the utter asymmetry of both sides in the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” It is something I myself was not fully aware of until I lived in Jerusalem. This view of the conflict as having two (roughly) equal sides at war is reflected in many perceptions and related observations. An example is the view volunteered by Jon, a Jewish colleague of mine in the US. Jon told me that he could not see why there were plenty of Jews who were critical of Israel’s position, but no equivalent Palestinians. I told him that, first off, there are plenty of Palestinians who are very critical of their government. There are also many who disagree with the means chosen by parts of the Palestinian liberation movement –terrorism against civilians. They believe it is wrong and counterproductive for the Palestinian cause. It is true, however, that while there are some Jews who identify with many of the claims and views of Palestinians, not many Palestinians identify with the claims and views of Israelis. Some Palestinians understand the wish of Israelis to live in peace and security (a wish they themselves share). Most, however, do not believe in that wish and see it as a ruse for Israel to continue to take over their country and eventually fully expel them from it. What I should have told Jon is that, in the current context of Palestinian weakness, occupation, utter vulnerability and subjection to violence, expecting Palestinians to identify with Israelis would be like expecting the Jews of nineteenth century Russia to identify with the Cossacks.

They hate us

Mohammed is a young Palestinian from a refugee camp in the West Bank. Among other jobs, he held one working for a couple of months in a slaughterhouse in Beer Sheva. This was the time before the onset of the second intifada, when young Palestinian men could still go freely into Israel for work. They were not, however, legally allowed to stay overnight. So, their employers would “house” them in precarious quarters just across the border in the West Bank. This meant they had to rise at three thirty in the morning to be back at work in Israel by seven. The work was hard and the pay meager –though better than what they could earn in the West Bank. Mohammed explained how Arab Israelis were in charge of “managing” the West Bank workers. I asked him how they were treated by them. He explained that the Arab Israelis took a substantial part of the salary that was owed to the West Bank workers for themselves and that they treated them “like animals.” His usually serene features were sad as he explained: “They think that they are like Israelis and that we create problems for them” He took a deep breath and summarized: “they hate us.”

The images from Sayed Kashua’s “Let it be Morning” came to my mind. “Kashua is an Israeli Arab writer and his novel portrays the siege of an Israeli Arab village by the Israeli army and how its increasingly distraught inhabitants react to it. As days go by without electricity and water, garbage piles up and food and water run short, the Israeli Arabs turn against the West Bank workers in the village, whom they wrongly suspect as the cause of the siege. They eventually round them up and offer them to the Israeli army surrounding the town in some of the most painful passages I have read in a long time. When people are treated in an inhumane manner, they tend to turn on others and repeat that treatment to them. This applies to the treatment Jews in Israel afford to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. It also applies to the treatment some Israeli Arabs afford their Palestinian brothers across the border.

The non-drivers’ club

I don’t drive. I got my driver’s license many years ago, but have never owned a car and have barely driven in my life. I take public transportation. I do this mainly out of convenience and, to a lesser extent, out of environmental concerns. Taking public transportation is also a good window into any society. This is particularly true in Israel/Palestine. Here, my not driving has also unexpectedly created a connection between myself and other groups of women. In a search for common bonds in otherwise very different lifestyles, some ultra-orthodox and Palestinian women have said with a look and a smile of complicity to me “I don’t drive either!” At the other end of the spectrum, a staff member of the school of environmental studies at the Israeli university where I used to work asked me how I commuted from Jerusalem. When I answered that I took the bus or the train, she said admiringly “That is wonderful!” It took me a couple of minutes to realize why that was so from her point of view, one of energy conservation, environmental preservation and, possibly, community-building. In our highly individualized and mechanized “modern” world, not driving is indeed a statement –conscious or unconscious—and, in a sense, it is also a  virtual community, linking from environmentalists, to some ultra-orthodox and Palestinian women and I am proud to be part of it.

Birthday Party by the Security Wall

My first year in Jerusalem, I wanted to celebrate my birthday as if I lived in a normal country. I wanted to celebrate it with all my friends –Palestinian and Israeli. This is not a simple matter in Israel/Palestine since Palestinians are basically barred from Israel and Israelis can go to very few places in Palestine. An Israeli friend suggested a solution –celebrating at a Hotel located right after the checkpoint from Jerusalem into the West Bank. That small area is still allowed for both Israelis and Palestinians to visit. That hotel is also a good place to meet because, due to its location and the personality of its owner –a jovial and welcoming Palestinian Christian man–, it is a usual gathering place for “peace” meetings between both peoples and, hence, many of my friends had been there. As it turned out, only three Israeli friends attended and over 20 Palestinians did. Israelis are afraid and simply do not cross the border while many also feel uncomfortable with Palestinians.

Arriving at the hotel was shocking. The wall was running just a few meters from the door. It was not there the last time I had visited and it made for a surreal background for future peace meetings. Although it was impossible to ignore the wall, for my birthday, I tried to enjoy the openness and warmth of my newfound Palestinian friends, who despite their harrowing everyday life, had opened their lives and homes to me, and the willingness of my few Israeli friends who attended to humor my eccentricities in doing things which, as a friend pointed out, “are just not done.”

Are these burgers kosher le Mehadrin?

I was with a group of students from my Hebrew class making a barbeque outside Jerusalem. I had brought my own kosher burgers. As we were sitting by the fire and chatting, Ishmael, our driver and a friend of one of the Palestinian students in the class, approached me and asked me in perfect Hebrew: “Are these burgers Kosher le Mehadrin?” I was stunned. Knowledge of one group by the other in Israel/Palestine is so meager that I would not even assume a Palestinian would know what Kosher meant. ‘Kosher le Mehadrin” is the highest standard of Kashrut and it is used by the ultra-orthodox in Israel. I turned to face Ishmael and asked him the obvious question: “How do you know about Kosher le Mehadrin?” “I used to have a Haredi girlfriend” he said nonplussed though aware of the impact that statement would have. “No way!” I exclaimed. “How did that happen?” “Ah, that is a long story” he said, again in Hebrew. I told him I wanted to know that story. He told me: “I will tell you, but later on” as he deflected the curious looks of our other friends. I was, of course, terribly intrigued and pursued Ishmael at various points of the barbeque until he agreed to sit down and tell me his story.

“Nu? How did you even meet her?” I asked him “Jews and Arabs don’t even have common spaces of interaction here.” “At the hospital” Ishmael answered. “I was working there and she was sick. She was French. She had just arrived in the country and she had nobody. She was very lonely.” He spoke lovingly about her. I thought that the fact that she had been born abroad helped explain her ability to connect, as anyone born and raised in the culture of contemporary Israel and its extreme anti-Arab feeling, is much less likely to look at a Palestinian like a normal human being, let alone a potential partner. Ishmael explained how they dated for three years after she got out of the hospital. “We wanted to get married,” he said, “and she wanted me to convert. I spoke to a rabbi several times. She wanted to shave her head after we married.” He shook his head. “It was all too much for me. I just could not do it. We broke up, got back together again and finally broke up again.” “Are you married now?” I asked him. “Yes, I am,” Ishmael answered, “and I have three kids. But she never married.” I felt so sad for them. What an unlikely Romeo and Juliet story. I tried to think of where they could even meet while they were dating. In a kosher le mehadrin restaurant with her Palestinian boyfriend? Unlikely. What must their families have said? What kind of social life could they possibly have led in a social environment that completely and utterly rejects the other?

Mixed couples are an extremely rare occurrence in Israel/Palestine. I never met a single one. The only cases I know of mixed couples required one of the two people to completely leave their environment and reject their world to move to the other’s. Friends from a refugee camp told me that a Jewish woman had married a man from the camp, moved into the camp, had children with her husband and lived there to that day. A young Jewish woman told me she had a girlfriend who had married a Palestinian man and moved with him to the West Bank (as he had not received papers to move into Israel). Her family refused to talk to her anymore, but they were happy. I also heard of a third Jewish woman who had married a Palestinian man and they lived in a horse farm near Jericho with their children, also disowned by both families. These personal stories seemed like quixotic feats to me. I could not help but see the fact that two people could fall in love and decide to spend their lives together against such terrible odds as a hopeful glimpse of normality in the midst of so much abnormality, as a triumph of sheer humanity over so much prejudice, of love over hatred and of unity over separation.

Kosher meat and Arab soap operas

I was spending a weekend at the home of some Arab Christian friends in Nazareth. I had met them when the father of the family was the tour guide for my family when we visited the town. They invited me to tea at their home and we struck up a friendship. They warmly invited me to come back to Nazareth and stay with them and I agreed. When I arrived, the family had prepared a lovely meal including meat. I was very embarrassed because I could not eat it as the meat was not kosher. I tried to explain why I could not eat the meat, but they could not understand it. “It is meat of chicken. Can you not eat chicken?” I first just tried to say that I only ate kosher meat, but quickly realized that they did not understand the word kosher. I then tried to explain the concept only to realize that they were not familiar with the concept either. I was amazed. This family lives in a country with 80 percent of Jews and right next to Nazareth Illit, a Jewish town, and yet they had never heard of the concept of kashrut. My kind hosts had never learned about kashrut in school because they attended separate Arab schools, watched Arab TV channels and had no Jewish friends who would have exposed them to the concept. To me, this was yet one more proof of the absolute and utter lack of interaction between Jews and Arabs in Israel. People do not study in school together and do not socialize together at all. Therefore, they have no understanding of each other whatsoever.

This same utter separateness of societies is reflected in ignorance of what each community does in their free time. Over the month of Ramadan, a Syrian soap opera (Bab El Hara), was aired by the Arab cable channel MBC. Every single Palestinian family I knew –whether in Nazareth, Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, or in refugee camps in the West Bank—watched it every single evening with a passion. It was a major popular culture event and Arab TV stations ran all sorts of programs related to it, the streets were noticeably empty when it aired and imams would even cut short their Ramadan sermons so people could make it home in time to see it. In Israel —with the exception of some Jews from Arab countries and the Haaretz newspaper, which ran an excellent article on it–, no one knew about it. If you mentioned it to Israeli Jews, you would get a blank stare. This is also because Israeli Jews spend no time with Israeli Arabs and, aside from a small minority, speak no Arabic.

This absolute lack of communication between both groups was also patent in the “Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Show” I went to see with some of my friends in Jerusalem. Although the show was a laudable attempt to bridge our gaps, the way it worked underscored just how large these gaps really are. The jokes made by Israeli comedians were not understood by Palestinians and the jokes made by Palestinian comedians were not understood by Israelis. Your average American understands more Yiddish expressions than your average Israeli Arab and Israelis have no understanding of Arabic. Neither knows hardly anything about the religion, the culture or the history of the other. Hence, Jews laughed at Jewish jokes and Arabs at Arab jokes. In one of his articles in Haaretz, the Arab Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua complained that despite having lived surrounded by Muslims for sixty years, Israeli Jews still have not realized that Ramadan is not a “chag” (holiday). This absolute and self-enforced separation cannot lead to enough of a basis for a sustainable society and state. Until joint education, joint social service and true bilinguism are effectively implemented, Israel will be composed of two disjointed and increasingly alienated sets of unequal citizens who literally cannot even speak to each other.

Separate lives

During my time in Israel/Palestine, I spent a lot of time with ultra-orthodox Jews and Palestinians. Both societies have a high degree of gender segregation, a characteristic to which I was not accustomed. This lack of awareness of the separateness of gender circles led me to put myself into some uncomfortable situations. One time, I was watching a soccer match in the West Bank with some Palestinian friends. After a while, I realized that I was the only woman in the whole soccer stadium (aside from a little girl). During half-time, I asked one of my friends if he could indicate to me where the bathroom was. He gentlemanly walked me to it and told me to close the main door behind me. I did so and took my time to also pamper up and do some touch ups to my make-up. After I was done and I opened the door, I saw with embarrassment that the whole soccer team was lining up outside the door waiting to enter. It had not occurred to me that there would be no women’s bathroom and, therefore, that what I was taking up was the whole men’s bathroom area. I muttered an apology and hurried back to my seat in the stadium with my friends.

The ultra-orthodox world is not very different in this regard. I am now aware of the need to pay attention to which places are only for one gender, but I did not have that awareness from the beginning. For example, during my first Sukkot in Israel, I decided to go to Mea Shearim  –an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem—to buy one of the four species which we put in our lulavim for the holiday and which I was still missing. The streets were wonderfully buzzing with activity and preparation for the upcoming holiday. I was giddy with excitement at the wonderful holiday atmosphere and decided to go into a lulav market which I saw down a flight of stairs. As I started to go around the market and look at the lulavim, I felt an awkwardness whose reason I could not pinpoint. After a minute, I realized I was the only woman in the whole market. Among ultra-orthodox Jews, only men do the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, and hence, there are no women in the markets where they are sold. I asked if that was a market only for men, which someone gently confirmed to me. I scurried up the stairs and bought my missing specie outside the market, from a street stand nearby.

One degree of separation from insanity

A friend of mine was visiting from the United States and she invited me to Shabbat lunch at the home of a British friend of hers whom I had met briefly in the US. The lunch went well and I was characteristically cautious in skirting political issues –a skill I developed in Jerusalem so as to avoid continuous conflict. After lunch, we went for a walk and I could no longer avoid politics. My friend’s friend –a researcher at a respected conservative Israeli think tank–started a political conversation with me. Through the course of the discussion, it became clear that he held extreme right-wing views. As I do when I am faced with such positions, I asked him how he envisaged dealing with Palestinians. He told me that Palestinians already had a state –Jordan—and that they should all be deported there. He said so in beautiful Oxford English and hurried to add that one should make sure that they were properly cared for in Jordan and that the transfer should be carried out in a “humane” manner. I told him that what he was advocating was called ethnic cleansing and was contrary to international law and basic ethics in addition to impracticable. He was undeterred by my response and even tried to argue that Judaism supported such a measure (which is utterly wrong). Another one of his friends, a convert to Judaism from New Zealand, sent a Facebook invitation to my visiting American friend that evening in which he appeared in full settler outfit aiming a machine gun over his shoulder.

I was deeply disturbed from that Shabbat and spent the next one alone at home–something I got used to doing in Israel after traumatic Shabbat experiences. I thought there was one degree of separation from insanity in both Israel and Palestine. My friend is overly conservative in my view, but still sane. Her friends supported ethnic cleansing. A couple of months earlier, I had met a friend of a Palestinian friend who excitedly argued for the complete destruction of the state of Israel. I felt there was only a thin line, one degree of separation from sane to completely unacceptable views on both sides and that one never knew who one’s friends’ friends were. “My friends’ friends are my friends” definitely did not automatically apply in this part of the world.

We wait for matzah every Pesach

Mohammed is a Palestinian Jerusalemite who spent a number of years in the United States. He told me how, during his first year there, as Passover was approaching, he realized he had no matzah and did not know where to get it. He asked an American Jewish friend where he could obtain some and he bought it. I thought that was funny. “You eat matzah too?” I asked him. “Sure,” he told me, “we wait for matzah every Pesach.” Jewish and Arab societies in Israel are such separate worlds that, whenever I find one of the rare intersections or spillovers from one world to the other, I am always delighted and grip to it as a precious tiny token of normality.

That Pesach, after this conversation with Mohammed, I read an article in Haaretz entitled: “Matzah’s secret lovers: the Palestinians.” The article was devoted to the taste some Palestinian Israelis seem to have developed for matzah. The picture on top of the article featured a body-length-clad Palestinian lady with a hejab pushing a cart full of matzah packages. The taste for matzah among Palestinians, however, does not seem to be universal. I asked Ibrahim, one of the Palestinian Jerusalemite students in my Hebrew class whether he liked matzah. He gave me a blank look back: “No. It has no taste.” I wanted to tell him what my American Jewish friend Avi says about matzah: that it tastes like freedom. But I didn’t. Given our cultural-religious gap and the current political situation, the statement would have made no sense to him.

Ghettoes

I was talking to Ahmad, a charming Palestinian man in his mid-thirties who is a professional and a member of Fatah. We were discussing the settlements. “Have you seen these places close up?” he asked me. “Not really,” I answered, since as a matter of principle I do not travel to the settlements. “They are horrible places, completely surrounded by barbed wire, totally isolated from their surroundings” Ahmad described. “I don’t know how anybody would want to live there.” I told him I agreed, as they have always struck me as hostile bunkers with their backs to a pre-existing human and natural surrounding. Like Ahmad, I never understood why anyone would want to live there, even from a selfish point of view. “I think Jews want to re-create the ghettoes in which they lived in Europe” Ahmad continued. I thought that was an interesting observation and wondered what settlers would say about it and what a social psychologist’s opinion would be. My guess is that settlers would say that they would much rather live in peace and without barbed wires, but that they need to defend themselves from a hostile Palestinian population. I still wondered whether a social psychologist might not agree with Ahmad.

Falafel and Rain

It was early 2009 and the last month of my stay in Israel/Palestine. During that winter –which was barely a winter—we mostly had gorgeous sunny days and hardly any rain. It was then that I realized that, in a world of almost complete separation, there was one thing that seemed to unite Israelis and Palestinians. Whenever I would comment on how beautiful the weather was to either an Israeli or a Palestinian, they would retort that yes, the weather was beautiful, but what we needed was rain. That acute awareness of the need for water in a land that sorely lacks it was one of the very few commonalities between both societies. As one day in that winter I had falafel for breakfast with Palestinians and for dinner with Israeli Jews, I thought that was the other commonality –falafel. Hopefully, the list would grow in the future, but for the moment, it seemed to be reduced to falafel and rain.

 Baq’a’s Arab Family

A student of mine at Bethlehem University told me she had written a paper for one of her classes on a Palestinian family in Baq’a –the neighborhood where I was living. Baq’a is a neighborhood which was Palestinian until 1948 and was taken over by Israel during the war. The Palestinian inhabitants had fled as they heard of the expulsion of other Palestinians in neighboring Katamon. They hoped to come back after the war but, like other Palestinian refugees, they were never allowed to. Baq’a was re-populated after the war with Jews and it is a Jewish neighborhood to this day. According to my student, though, there is an exception. There is one Palestinian family who did not leave in 1948 and who, to this day, continues to live in Baq’a. I thought that must be surreal, even for the already surreal world of Israel/Palestine and of our holy city of Jerusalem. I wondered what life must be like for that one family, the only one left of a whole world that was pushed out and replaced by a new one, with a new people, a new language and a new culture on the same land, in the same buildings, in the very same neighborhood. I tried to imagine what that must be like for them, but I failed.

Abnormal normality

Joint socializing between Jews and Arabs in Israel is almost non-existent. Therefore, the few times I saw it happen have stood out in my mind. One such occasion was a beautiful summer evening of music on the rooftop of an American-Israeli friend in Jerusalem. The group was mostly Jewish, but it also included a Turkish woman, a Christian Arab from Nazareth and another young Israeli Arab man.  As we sat around over drinks and talked, I realized how unusual that social situation was. I also thought about what made that mix of people possible in the Israeli context. I came up with a couple of answers. One was that many of the people in the group were musicians and part of a small community that was forged at a Jerusalem Conservatory –that explained the Turkish lady (a talented singer who had been studying in Israel for some time) and the Christian Arab from Nazareth (a gifted oud player) as well as many of the Jews in the group. The other factor was sexual orientation. The other Israeli Arab young man in the group was gay and living in Tel Aviv. He had clearly become part of the gay community of that town, which seems to be bound more by its own internal glue than by the prejudices of other parts of Israeli society. I had read about other similar cases, including one in which a Palestinian gay man had received a –hard-to-get—permit to live with his Jewish partner in Tel Aviv. As I looked around me, I thought that something which should be run-of-the-mill –the mixing of peoples and religions– was just extraordinary in Israel and how only groups that themselves stood out from mainstream Israeli society seemed to be able to jump the social barriers keeping Arabs and Jews apart.

Defending Israel

I was spending a lazy summer afternoon with Mohannad, an Israeli Arab from the Galilee. Mohannad is in his mid-thirties and spent almost ten years living in Europe. We were discussing his experience there when I asked him: “Where did you tell people you were from when they asked you?” “That is the worst question!” Mohannad replied tiredly and added: “There is no good answer to it. If I said I was Israeli, Europeans didn’t like it. But, if I said I was Palestinian, they thought I was a terrorist!” He threw up his hands in exasperation. Being European, I unfortunately know very well what he was referring to. Mohannad went on to explain that some Europeans were so vehemently critical of Israel that they went too far even for him. “I had to defend Israel!”He said implying: “Go figure!”

Ramadan Karim!

Tamar is an American-Israeli friend I had originally met in Washington and who had immigrated to Israel some time ago. She was badly injured in a suicide bombing and continues to suffer from health problems as a result of the bombing to this day. Despite this, she continues to be the optimistic lively person she was before the bombing. During my time in Jerusalem, she lived in Tel Aviv. One time, when she was visiting Jerusalem, we were talking about the help she was getting to cope with the financial, health and psychological consequences of the bombing. She told me she had refused large amounts of financial aid that she could have had access to because “she did not need it.” She had also decided not to join a class action suit some Israeli victims of suicide bombings had put up against the Palestinian Authority in the US because she wanted to put the incident behind her and not dwell on it. As we discussed other aspects of her life in Tel Aviv, she mentioned she wished she knew more Arabic and that she was happy that, at least, now that it was Ramadan, she was able to wish Arab shopkeepers a Ramadan Karim. I told her that wish from her was worth more than a thousand words from other people.

A Member of Knesset

I was spending a weekend with some American friends in Sfat –a beautiful town in the Galilee. On Saturday morning, I noticed that the hotel we were staying at had an Arab security guard. This is very unusual, as Arabs are not normally trusted with such tasks in Israel. I decided to speak to the guard and find out more about him. I started speaking to him in Arabic. He was pleasantly surprised a Jewish woman would speak Arabic to him. We began a conversation and I told him that I was from Spain, lived in Jerusalem and taught at Bethlehem University. That is always the beginning of a conversation with a Palestinian.

The guard’s name was Rushdie. He told me he was a Bedouin from a nearby town and that he was studying at the university in Sfat. At one point, we switched to speaking Hebrew, as my Arabic was weak and his Hebrew was excellent. It turned out that he was studying Hebrew literature at the university, a rather unusual choice for a Palestinian. Rushdie also told me that he had done army service –something some Bedouins and Druze, but no other Palestinian Israelis, do. We discussed that issue and, as we did, it seemed to me that I had greater interaction with West Bank Palestinians than Rushdie did and that he was–or chose to be— rather unaware of the human rights abuses that are staple as part of the occupation.

I asked Rushdie how he felt about the country as a Palestinian Israeli. He told me that, granted that there were problems, but that “it would be OK.” This is something Israelis tend to say when they don’t know the answer to a question, don’t want to think about it, or don’t want to share their real views. Therefore, I was unsure whether Rushdie really thought things would be OK or whether it was just a way of saying: “I have no idea whether it will get better for us, but I am doing my best to fit in and make the most of the country.” I asked him what he would like to do after graduation. He told me that, eventually, he wanted to become a member of Knesset (or the Israeli Parliament). I thought he was following the right strategy to be able to become a member of Knesset in a mainstream Zionist party. I also wondered whether even someone like him, who had gone out of his way to prove his loyalty to Israel–serving in the army, specializing in Hebrew literature, being a guard at a Jewish-owned hotel,—would be welcome into the Israeli mainstream. I hoped so while wondering whether that would help him further the cause of Israel’s Arabs or whether, by the time he became a member of the Knesset, he would have forgotten about his people, their views and their interests. I truly had no answer to my quandary.

Building a Sukkah in Jerusalem

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot or Tabernacles was approaching. Sukkot is originally a fall harvest festival. However, it also commemorates that, when the Israelites left Egypt, we lived in booths in the desert. During eight days, we are to spend as much time as possible in booths we build. These temporary structures are also meant to remind us of the precariousness of life and of how it is all, in the end, in the hands of G-d. I am very bad at building anything construction-wise. So, I had asked for a company that advertised itself in the newspaper to bring the materials and build the booth for you. “Jewish workers” it advertised. Fine, I thought, this way they will know better what the requirements for building the booth are according to Jewish law. These Jewish workers, however, were not coming. They failed to show up at the agreed time twice and I only had one day left before the holiday started. So, as I often did when in a bind, I called my Palestinian friend Mohammed, who lived in East Jerusalem. I told him of my situation and asked him if he could possibly take me shopping for a sukkah the day after and help me build it. In one of those “only in Jerusalem” situations, Mohammed told me that he would be very happy to help me in the afternoon. In the morning, however, he had to go to the offices of the civil administration in his town in the West Bank to follow up on a complaint that some settlers were occupying his family’s land. “Maybe you will find it interesting” he said “why don’t you come along?” “Sure” I told him.

So, we left in the morning and drove to the Israeli civil administration in the settlement next to his land. It was the first time I was in a settlement (except for the one where Hebrew University is located). Things went quite smoothly for what one could expect. After checking his identification, one of the soldiers in charge of the compound recognized Mohammed and asked the soldiers at the gate to let us in. We sat and waited for a while and, eventually, the Israeli officer in charge arrived. Mohammed produced the deed on his land (which not many Palestinians have) and he and the officer engaged in a conversation. The officer left and we waited further. When he came back, Mohammed told him: “I hope it will not take much longer officer. We have a sukkah to build today.” He knew his statement would make an impact on the Israeli officer and it did. The officer looked at me enquiringly and Mohammed told him I was a Jewish friend and that I needed him to help me buy and build my sukkah. The procedure did not take much longer and we left.

We ended up buying my sukkah at a market in Talpiot in West Jerusalem from a street vendor. As we were engaged in the transaction, Mohammed started a conversation with the vendor and it turned out that he was a settler. “Great” I thought. That is about the last thing we need in this surreal day. Mohammed, though, in his patience, decided to amuse himself and discuss with the settler how beautiful the West Bank was and how clean and pure the air was there. I could not believe it. I would certainly not have the sang-froid to do this if I were Mohammed. The settler seemed confused as he realized my friend was Palestinian, was with a Jewish woman and buying a sukkah. “Where do you live?” asked the settler somewhat puzzled “We live in Baq’a (a Jewish neighborhood of West Jerusalem)” answered Mohammed as he gave me a knowing look. I smiled inside me. The settler seemed dumbfounded, but just said “Be seder! (literally “fine!” though spoken more in the tone of “whatever!”).” Mohammed and I paid and left. Two hours later, my sukkah was ready, thanks to Mohammed. He was proud he had built his first sukkah and two days later, I had him, his wife, and three other Palestinian friends over for dinner in it.

Our cousins on Aunt Sara’s side

Ibrahim was one of my students at Bethlehem University. He is a Palestinian Christian medical doctor who has chosen to study a master’s degree in international development for his own enlightenment. He is a broad-minded intellectual and reads widely. He has also published in a number of issue areas, including Palestinian politics and the Israeli occupation. Perhaps it is because of this that the Israeli government does not allow him to leave the country. He is invited to international conferences, but has to turn down the invitations. The last time he attempted to leave, he failed. He thought things were all set and was on his way to the airport. His friend Mussa (also my student), had already bid him farewell and was expecting him back in two weeks. A few hours after leaving Bethlehem, however, Ibrahim called Mussa. “Are you at the airport?” Mussa asked. “No” Ibrahim answered “I am back in Bethlehem.” “What happened?” Mussa asked him. “Our cousins on Aunt Sara’s side decided not to let me through” he retorted. Mussa, despite his sadness, could not stop laughing at his friend’s irony. This was fifteen years ago and Ibrahim is still unable to obtain a permit from his “cousins” to leave the West Bank.

I try to distance myself

Fadi is a middle-aged Arab Israeli from Haifa. He was in Jerusalem for the day and we were sitting at a cafe speaking about the situation in the West Bank. He told me that he had not been there for a long time (though he has family in Ramallah). We discussed how hard things were for Palestinians there –something which a middle-class Arab Israeli professional is not necessarily intimately familiar with. He looked affected by our conversation. “I guess it is too hard to think about it and I try to distance myself” he said. I told him that I understood what he was saying and that there was also a lot of work to be done in Jerusalem itself. He agreed and mused that perhaps he would try to see how he could support Palestinian youth in Jerusalem.

It is a sad reality that the occupation and the wall have de facto divided the West Bank from Palestinians in Israel. Many Israeli Arabs simply never travel to Palestine and some, like Fadi, find it too painful to even think about it. Moreover, I felt that because Fadi works with Israeli Jews, if he travelled to the West Bank and let that reality enter his mind and his heart, it would make it close to impossible for him to go on living his life as he was. It seems that the occupation has not only built a physical wall, but also walls in the minds and hearts of some Palestinian Israelis that keep “the other Palestinians” away and prevent their pain from intruding into their lives. It is an understandable survival strategy for Palestinian Israelis, but one with a large cost for the Palestinian people as a whole.

Arabs and Sephardim

When I first got to Israel, it was not at all easy for me to tell who was an Arab and who was a Jew, especially for Sephardim (or Jews of Spanish origin who lived for centuries in the Arab/Muslim world). To an outsider, they do not look very different from each other. One could argue that is because they are not very different from each other. Jews in the Arab and Muslim world were quite integrated into the cultures of their host countries and shared their language, culture, cuisine and –through the inevitable degree of inter-marriage—looks. In most of these countries, moreover, they were typically treated much better than in Europe. There was neither an equivalent to the periodic hate killings and expulsions that took place in Europe nor a Muslim equivalent to Christian anti-Semitism. This situation, unfortunately, changed with the establishment of the State of Israel. Since then, hostility against Jews in most Arab and Muslim countries increased dramatically, discrimination rose and, in many countries, Jews were attacked and in some cases even effectively forced out.

Sephardic Jews who arrived in Israel without these late experiences often retained fond feelings toward the culture and the country they had left (some even regretting it). Others (especially those who left later) were distrustful of the Arab and Muslim world, which they felt had so suddenly turned their back on them. When they arrived in Israel, moreover, Sephardim faced a dominant Ashkenazi Israeli culture which emphasized acculturation and frowned upon keeping one’s previous roots, especially if they were Arab and hence “backward” and politically threatening. Sephardim were caught in this dilemma. Many of them went with mainstream Israeli society in abandoning their Arab culture and becoming hostile to things Arab. Others, however, retained an attachment to Arab culture and to Arabic. I remember one British Israeli son of Iraqi parents telling me: “I feel Arab. I am most comfortable sitting down on pillows on the floor and smoking a water-pipe.” One can debate how much this image reflects Arab culture, but his message was clear. Palestinians will often mention how they feel quite close to such Jews and it is a pity that there are fewer and fewer of them left in Israel.

A mobile phone, a comb and an ID

Sephardic Jews in Israel are sometimes taken for Arabs by other Israelis. This creates problems for them. I remember hearing of a Sephardic man who would never leave the house without three key items in his shirt pocket –a comb, his mobile phone and his ID. The latter is absolutely essential to anyone who looks Arab in Israel and hence is bound to be stopped by the police or the army at any time, but not for any Ashkenazi-looking Jew. An incident that occurred to me in Jerusalem also drove this point home. I was waiting for my bus to go to Hebrew class. Because the bus was not coming and it was getting late, I decided to hail a cab which was approaching the bus stop. Just as the cab slowed down toward me, though, I saw the bus turn the corner. I decided I did not need the cab after all and waved it away. The cab driver stuck his head out the window and yelled in anger: “I am not an Arab! I am not an Arab!” At first, I did not even understand what was going on. It took me a few seconds to realize that the cab driver thought I did not want to ride in his taxi because I took him for an Arab –a probably not uncommon occurrence in Jerusalem and something that Sephardic cab driver probably had to deal with often. Once again, I thought how complex and how distorted the world I was living in was.

That was not Shabbat

My friend Rami, a Palestinian Israeli who lives in Ramallah, participated in a joint Palestinian-Israeli meal on a Friday evening. The meal took place in one of the very few places that both Palestinians and Israelis are allowed to accede to and the meal was supposed to be simultaneously a Ramadan break-the-fast and a Shabbat dinner. I was not able to attend because it took place in the West Bank during Shabbat and this would have required driving, which I do not do during the holiday. So, after the event, I asked Rami how it was. “Interesting,” he said “the idea was to have Muslims explain Ramadan to Jews and Jews explain Shabbat to Muslims.” “Nice” I said. “Yes,” he continued, “but the kinds of Muslims who attended –like me—are not religious, know very little about Ramadan and were not even fasting and the Jews who were there were not observing Shabbat.” Rami had been to my home for a Shabbat meal and was familiar with what one does and does not do on that day. “I have been to your house for Shabbat” he said “I know what Shabbat is like. That was not Shabbat.” I thought that was an interesting comment coming from my Palestinian friend. It also got to a core problem of inter-religious relations between Jews and Muslims –especially in Israel. The problem is that those interested in the dialogue are typically non-observant Jews and Muslims. In this guise, neither group of well-meaning liberal Jews or Muslims is able to truly convey to the other what their religion is about nor are those most in need of the exchange exposed to it.

Learning from each other

I was talking to Ashraf, a Palestinian friend from the West Bank who had moved to Canada. We were discussing some of the things we liked about the United States and Canada. Ashraf commented that things were reliable in these countries. I told him that I agreed and that I particularly liked the fact that one could count on people’s word and, in business deals, when people said something would be done, you knew it would be done. “Yes! Not like Arabs!” he chimed in “Or Israelis!” I retorted. “See, Rosa” Ashraf added with his fine humor: “we have things in common, we learn from each other.” What a sad irony, I thought, and a very real one as well.

The strange school

There are a wonderful group of private schools in Israel called “Hand in Hand.” These are joint Arab Jewish schools. In these schools, Jewish and Arab kids go to school together, each class has an Arab and a Jewish teacher and instruction is bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic. I went to visit the “Hand in Hand” school in Jerusalem one day early during my stay in the country. Kids were sitting together, studying, talking, and playing together. These schools –which would be the norm in any other country I know—are an absolute oddity in Israel where Arabs go to Arab schools and Jews to Jewish schools. These schools are also playing an essential role which public schools should be playing, but are not. They are developing a joint curriculum for Arab and Jewish Israelis. They try to develop commonly agreed historical narratives of events and, in areas in which no agreement can be reached, they present the two different narratives side by side. The children also learn about all three monotheistic religions and grow up fully bilingual.

The impact of this education –together with the accompanying family environment– on kids is palpable. They raise completely different children from the ones emerging from mainstream Israeli education. They are children who look at the other community as they do their own and are free of the stereotypes, the ignorance, the diffidence and the hostility which pervades the rest of Israeli society. I had watched a CD about the school prior to visiting it. In it, a Jewish boy of about four was asked what he thought of Arabs before joining the school: “That they were weird” he said honestly. “What do you think now?” the teacher asked him. “That they are nice!” he said enthusiastically “They help each other. They are like Jews. Just a little different.” One of the school directors told me that this kid, who is now a teenager and whom I saw when I visited the school, is perfectly fluent in Arabic. The CD also featured Arab kids speaking flawless Hebrew and it showed the families of the children socializing at the school and learning about each other’s holidays and cultural traditions. This, I hoped, would one day be the norm rather than the exception in the Israeli public educational system. Whenever I felt depressed about the situation in the country during my stay in Israel/Palestine, I thought back to that “strange” school and its wonderful children.

I don’t feel like arguing

Jona is an American Jew who spent some time in Israel while I was living there. I met him because he was one of the students in my Hebrew class. I had talked to him a few times and, at the prompting of a Palestinian friend from our class, I invited him to join us to go visit the site of Emwas (the Biblical Emaus). Emwas is one of the villages which Israel destroyed after expelling its population in the 1967 war. The families of my friend Mohammed–and of his cousin Ahmed, a student at the Hebrew class next door to us—are from Emwas and I had asked them to take me there. Jona was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of going to the site of a destroyed Palestinian village. From the beginning, he told me that “there must be a reason why the village was destroyed.”

He did not join us for the trip, but sent me a number of email messages about Emwas with websites which explained that the inhabitants of the village had to be expelled because it was on a strategic point of the Latrun route from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. From Jonas’s point of view and that of those writing the materials he sent me, military expediency justified ethnic cleansing. It did not matter that what was done was against international law, let alone basic ethics. Given his political views, I was surprised when a couple of weeks later he told me he was considering participating in a dialogue meeting between Israelis and Palestinians. When, after the event, I asked him whether he had gone, he said he had not: “I did not feel like arguing” he sentenced. He proved for me what I had felt at one of these meetings I had attended: that some Jews went, not in order to listen to Palestinians, but to argue with them, not to gain a new perspective on the conflict, but solely to expose theirs.

You are either with us or against us

In any situation of conflict, it is natural for each side to want to assess which party any outsider is taking. It is no different in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this regard, I was in an awkward position. Palestinians rightly feel that anyone who does not live with them does not really know what they are going through. I realize that. Living in a beautiful apartment in West Jerusalem, no matter how often I go to the West Bank and how many people I speak to, I will not be able to experience what it is like to live on the other side of the border. Some Jews also feel that working not just with but for Palestinians (even if it is at a university) in the current context, you have chosen sides (needless to say, the wrong side). Therefore, I would sometimes feel a certain pressure to choose –from the Jewish side, a pressure to work at an Israeli university (at the end of the day, how can an observant Jew work at a Palestinian university?) and from the Palestinian side, to move to the West Bank to “live with us.” A friend from Gaza told me of a Palestinian saying that goes: “if you live with us for forty days, you are one of us.” All that being said, my overall feeling was that both sides were remarkably open to me. I would like to think that it is because, deep inside, most people on both sides know that, despite all appearances, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a positive sum gain in which we will either all gain or we will all lose and that bridging gaps is important to bring that win-win outcome about.

Out of place

Society is so neatly segregated in Israel that the presence of one side in the territory of “the other” jumps out to one’s eyes. A few incidents highlighted this to me. One day, I was walking to my Arabic teacher’s home in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem near a Jewish settlement. As I started to go down the street where she lives, I heard a car honking and turned around. It was an Israeli police car. The police officer had rolled down his car window and asked me in Hebrew: “Is everything OK?” “Yes,” I answered “Everything is fine, thank you” and continued on my way. I realized that the sight of a Jewish woman in that neighborhood was very uncommon and that it was more statistically likely that I had been looking for the settlement and had gotten lost into the Arab neighborhood next to it, something which would throw the large majority of Jews into a panic.

Another time, the situation was reversed. I was looking for the home of my Shabbat lunch host in a Jewish neighborhood of West Jerusalem when I ran into a young Arab man. I did not realize he was Arab at first and just asked him in Hebrew for the street I was looking for. He was nervous and apologetic. “I work here” he said to me. “I am here because I work here” he said in Hebrew and, before I had time to think what to answer to what he was saying, he told me how to get to the street I was looking for. I thanked him and went on my way. How sad, I thought, that this young man felt he had to justify his presence in a Jewish neighborhood by telling me that he worked there. Some Arabs can be seen in residential Jewish neighborhoods, but almost exclusively for work purposes and during the week day. They are indeed an extremely rare sight on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. In Israel-Palestine, people’s lives are so divided and expectations about each group’s role so set that, when people are not “in their place,” someone is bound to notice.

Alone

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict features prominently in the globe. It is widely covered in news across the world. Even internal news of one side or the other takes up an amount of space completely out of proportion to the world population located in these countries. As a Catalan friend of mine once remarked, there is no other country in the world aside from the United States that is covered so extensively in the European press as Israel. The name of the Israeli Prime Minister is more familiar to most Europeans than that of many European Prime Ministers and internal developments in Israeli politics and society are covered in depth. Similarly, Yasser Arafat was one of the best-known leaders in the world and the doings of the Palestinian Authority and internecine Palestinian fighting are covered prominently in the world press. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict also takes up an enormous amount of international diplomatic effort compared to the people it directly involves and both countries are some of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid. Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid and Palestinians are among the top recipients of world aid per capita in history.

Despite that amount of support, world attention and news coverage, both sides feel completely alone. They have a nagging feeling that, if they were to suddenly fall into a deep black hole and be wiped out from the map, at best nobody would care and, at worst, the world would exhale a sigh of relief or even feast their demise. In the case of Israel, this consciousness of being alone is deeply rooted in Jewish history. It dates back four thousand years to the time of the Torah, where it is written that “Israel is a people that dwell alone, not to be reckoned among the nations.” It is also written in the Book of Exodus that the people of Israel multiplied and did well in Egypt and the Egyptians started to resent and fear their power, including dreading that they would ally with their enemies. In reality, this picture has repeated itself throughout Jewish history. In the Diaspora, no matter where Jews were living and how small their relative numbers, they always contributed prominently to the host country’s economy, politics, society and culture. And yet, nobody seemed to really care about us. In the best of cases, civil populations would ignore government efforts at persecution and, at worst, they actively promoted and abetted them. Forty years of Israeli history have not helped to make this angst a fading memory. Jews and Israelis feel it is so to this day with Israel. The unbending American support of their country is the only obvious evidence against this theory and Jews always fear that, in a repeat performance of Jewish history, it will eventually disappear just when it is most needed.

Palestinians have a less long and well-documented history in this regard, but the intensity of the imprint that the past sixty years has left on their national consciousness can palpably be felt. Palestinians feel abandoned by the world. First, they were betrayed by the British; then, they were abandoned by their Arab and Muslim brothers. Later, they were abandoned by Egypt and Jordan which did not hesitate to annex the land of the former British Mandate of Palestine after the 1948 war into their own territory rather than declaring a sovereign Palestinian state in it. Both countries were also happy to sign peace treaties and establish diplomatic relations with Israel despite the fact that the West Bank and Gaza continued under Israeli occupation. Other countries, like Lebanon, are even worse, keeping Palestinians in destitution and without citizenship in dismal refugee camps.

Despite the enormous amount of international diplomatic activity around the conflict, Palestinians feel their case is not understood, especially in the West, and definitely in the United States and that they cannot count on anybody to defend them. They know that the sympathy for them in Arab and Muslim populations across the world is genuine, but they also know that the use most governments have made of their cause is self-serving. They are afraid that the peace treaties between Israel, Egypt and Jordan may be followed by progressive agreements across the Arab world eventually leaving them alone and isolated. They know Europeans are hamstrung by the guilt they –rightly- feel about the treatment they afforded their Jewish populations culminating in the holocaust and that the United States is unshakably allied to Israel. They also know that the enormous amounts of foreign resources poured into their country are a paltry substitute for the failure of the international community to do what needs to be done to end the Israeli occupation of their land and, often, an attempt at controlling their politics and society.

Palestinians and Israelis, at the end of the day, feel alone. But not alone in the way African countries do –aware of the lack of attention of the world to their troubles–, but alone in the midst of attention, alone in the middle of the living room of half the world, half the time. This is perhaps the worst kind of loneliness and one that leads to a deep distrust and cynicism toward the rest of the world.

Maybe Palestinians can leave

It was a beautiful early fall afternoon in Jerusalem and I was sitting down with Sarah, an American Jewish friend in her sixties. We were discussing Israeli Palestinian relations and possible solutions to the conflict. I did not know Sarah’s views prior to our conversation and, if asked, she would probably have described herself as a rather a-political person. At one point in the conversation, however, she changed tracks and calmly said: “Maybe the Palestinians can leave” and, after a few seconds, she continued to explain her thought: “We Jews have left so many countries so many times. Maybe this time they can leave.” The argument seemed cogent to her. There was some amorphous mass of people in the world who were non-Jews. These people, without any break in continuity throughout time and space (from the Romans to the Babylonians, the Spanish and the Germans), had constantly expelled or otherwise chased away Jews from their countries. Now that we finally got a country, they should leave. No matter that the year was 2008 and that we were talking about a people –the Palestinians—who had never expelled Jews from their country, but on the contrary, had only been expelled by us from theirs. I tried to explain –politely but firmly– that it was delirious to think of all non-Jews across time and space as a continuum and that one could not –with any rationale whether in Judaism, basic ethics or international law—support her argument. I do not think she expected to truly be able to apply her thinking while at the same time it made perfect sense in her mind –up to now, they made us leave; now, it was time for them to leave.

 We have a lot to learn from them

I was shopping at my corner store in Jerusalem and the shopkeeper, a Moroccan Israeli and I, struck up a conversation. He asked me how I found the Arabs in the West Bank. I said I liked them a lot. That I felt people were warm, polite, respectful and hospitable. I was not sure what his reaction would be because I had found Jews from Arab countries to be either closer or more hostile to Arabs than the Ashkenazi norm and I did not know in which category my interlocutor fell. To my relief, he said: “We have a lot to learn from them.” It made me very happy to hear that at least someone in the country realized that.

Isn’t it all in your mind?

I was talking to my friend Yakub, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, as we were driving through the city. I told him that, despite all my disagreements with Israelis and Israeli policy, I loved living in Jerusalem. I explained that there was a very deep and very special feeling about living in Jerusalem that I could not fully explain rationally. Yakub looked at me skeptically and asked: “Isn’t it all in your mind?” It was an interesting question and I can understand where it comes from. As a Palestinian who has suffered greatly at the hands of Israeli policies, I did not expect him to be sympathetic to Jewish feelings of attachment to Jerusalem.  Neither was I using the feeling I was describing to justify any policies, though many Jews do. I was simply trying to explain that the feeling is very real and very pervasive, including among those Jews who, like myself, may thoroughly disagree with Israeli policies. That being said, Yakub’s question remains –is the Jewish attachment to Jerusalem all in our minds? One could say that it is, as all attachments are. What many non-Jews do not realize, however, is that this is an attachment that goes well beyond politics and Zionism. For millennia before Zionism was born, the city of Jerusalem was at the core of Judaism. In fact, the longing to return to Jerusalem pervades the Jewish Bible, Talmud and liturgy and, hence, Jewish consciousness. This longing was present in the Judaism of the exile almost two-millennia before it was thought to be either religiously desirable or politically feasible to return. Questioning the attachment is fruitless. What is not fruitless is questioning the political conclusions some draw from that attachment.

Can we go to the beach?

I was having a tea with Chanah, a Jewish friend from the US who had come to spend a year in Israel. She had been living in Tel Aviv working at a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian NGO focused on environmental issues. Since the environment is, by definition, a regional issue, the NGO was designed to tackle environmental concerns in a cooperative fashion between its three partner countries. The environment is one of the few areas in which fruitful cooperation has continued even after the onset of the second intifada and, with ups and downs, until this day. Because the issues it deals with are so real and largely technical, many of them can be tackled even in the current context of occupation and tense relations among the parties.

Chanah was pleased. She and her partners had just finished a joint workshop in Jerusalem. I asked her how the workshop had gone. She told me it had gone very well. She explained that things were a bit tense at the beginning (especially on the side of Palestinians who were not used to working with Israeli counterparts). However, the substance of the work was such that it helped bring down barriers of mistrust to a level at which it was possible to work together, listen to each other, and think through joint policy proposals. Despite that, it was impossible to do away with the political context of the conflict and the occupation. At one point in the conference, it came out in a bittersweet and personal way. Chanah explained how many of the Palestinian conference participants had not been to Israel or to Jerusalem for a very long time and what a treat it had been for them to be able to be in the city. She said that what most touched her was that, when they went on their field visit to a location not far away from the coast, some of the Palestinian conference participants had asked excitedly: “Can we go to the beach? We have not been there for twenty years.” They made time to go and, as they got off the bus, the Palestinian participants removed their shoes, rolled up their pants, and even in the chilly weather of the late fall season, dipped their feet in the sea.

Weaving voices rather than drowning them

I read an interesting interview in Haaretz one Saturday. It featured Yossi, a young Israeli musician and composer who had recently put together an orchestra and a group of singers from Israel’s various cultural traditions –from Russians to Ethiopians, Sephardim and Arabs. The music he composed and played with this group was based on their various musical traditions. The interviewer asked Yossi whether his music drew from the “new Hebrew song” of the beginning of the State of Israel. He said it did not and that, contrary to that music, his tried to weave together Israel’s different voices rather than drowning them. I knew exactly what he meant. Israel, like the United States and some other new countries, emphasizes so much the new identity of those arriving on its shores, that it does not leave much room for the preservation of their roots. In both cases, social pressure to conform to the new country’s culture is such that the new generation invariably forgets where its parents came from, their culture and their traditions.

This young Israeli, on the other hand, felt that there was a beautiful richness to Israel’s different cultural traditions. In his view, it is a richness to explore and weave together, like a tapestry, rather than sweep it under the carpet of the new country’s seamless –and rather artificial– culture. I felt that this was needed more broadly in Israel –recognizing the validity and value of the various cultural traditions that make it the fascinating place that it is—and allowing them to flourish side by side, growing richer from the dialogue with one another, and building a beautiful whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Chapter 4.  Travelling in the Holy Land

 

On the day you kill me
You’ll find in my pocket
Travel tickets
To peace,
To the fields and the rain,
To people’s conscience.
Don’t waste the tickets.

Sami Al-Qasim, “Travel tickets”
In: Victims of a map. A bilingual anthology of Arabic poetry

 

I was just trying to get home
Rosa Parks


We will be OK, we are blondies!

Mufid and I were returning from what was my first trip to Bethlehem, where I had bought some furniture for my new apartment. As we were approaching the checkpoint of entry into Israel, I became a bit apprehensive. I asked him: “What will happen now?” “Don’t worry” Mufid said gingerly, “We will be OK. We are blondies!” He then proceeded to explain that his fair looks, undistinguishable from those of an Ashkenazi Jew, helped him a lot. “On the other hand,” he said, “if you are a woman with a headscarf, or you are dark, or you have a mustache, you are very likely to get pulled to the side.” Mufid’s observation reminded me once again of the privilege of whiteness. In particular, I remembered a comment a Peruvian friend had made to me about her country: “Being white is like driving a Mercedes. All doors open up!”

Jews are aggressive and Arabs think like donkeys

Baha and I were driving in Bethlehem when a driver absentmindedly drove across the road as we were coming from the other direction. “This is the problem with Arabs, Baha blurted out, “they think like donkeys!” He went on to say how driving in Israel was very aggressive, but people were more aware of what was going on around them in the road.  “Jews are aggressive,” he concluded, “but Arabs think like donkeys!”

The boy from bus number 21

I take bus number 21 to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. In addition to being convenient and cheap for someone like myself who does not drive, I thought it would give me some exposure to how Palestinians travel and how they are treated at checkpoints. It turns out, however, that West Bank Palestinians cannot travel through the checkpoint that bus 21 goes through and, hence, those on the bus are Palestinian Jerusalemites (and the seldom international like myself). Despite the very “light” checkpoints we cross compared to what Palestinians have to go through, it does provide a “flavor” of the experience. We are asked to get off the bus and line up and our identity documents are checked by soldiers. Only after they are produced and examined to their satisfaction and the bus itself has been examined can we go on. In addition to the established checkpoints, Israeli soldiers can stop the bus at any point and do so with regularity. On a hot July afternoon, we were going down a main Jerusalem road on the way to the West Bank as two soldiers stopped the bus. They got on and shouted “Identity cards!” We all pulled them out quickly and uncomfortably. I understand security concerns. And yet. There is something unsettling in being stopped at any point, yelled at to produce a document and not be allowed to continue on until a soldier decides that one can. There is a sense of powerlessness and arbitrariness and lack of control over one’s life –even in the very limited sense of being able to make it on time to a meeting–.  It is also a humiliating experience, especially if one is singled out in front of others.

This is what happened to the boy sitting in front of me that July afternoon. He could not have been more than 14 years old. He had forgotten his identity card or parent’s travel permit document. Since his destination was not the West Bank, but Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, he probably thought he did not need it. The soldier kept on raising her voice as she spoke to him. “Identity card/permit!!!” When it became clear that he did not have it, she ordered him to get off the bus: “Stand up and get off!” She yelled repeatedly. The boy was clearly mortified and for some time did not budge from his seat. He kept on looking down to the ground nervously chewing on his bus ticket. It was as if he had frozen in panic and confusion. By the time he stood up to get off the bus, his ticket had almost been entirely crumpled up in his mouth. I felt so embarrassed about the behavior of the soldier and so sad for the boy. I looked at the Palestinian lady sitting across the aisle from me. She must have seen my distressed look and said: “Our lives are not easy.” “I can only imagine” I replied. The experience reminded me of Sayed Kashua’s description of how he was singled out to get off an Egged (Jewish) bus –together with the only other Arab traveler—on his first trip outside his Israeli Arab town as a teenager. He felt completely humiliated. It was a defining experience for him as an Israeli Arab and he never forgot it. The shy boy travelling to Beit Safafa on bus number 21 that July afternoon may not forget his humiliation either. I know I won’t.

This is not a bus

It was a pleasant late summer morning and I was waiting for a bus to take me from West to East Jerusalem.  As I waved it down, the Jewish woman standing next to me said with some urgency in her voice: “This is not a bus!” “What do you mean this is not a bus?” I asked her dumbfounded. “This is just for Arabs. You should take an Egged bus (the buses that cover the Jewish routes)” she replied. I asked her whether it was forbidden for me to take “an Arab bus” and also explained that I did not think there were any Egged buses going to East Jerusalem. She did not respond to my question and just said: “I just wanted you to know.” I am sure she was trying to be helpful, so a Jewish woman (myself) would not mistakenly find herself on an “Arab bus.” I do know that most Israeli Jews (and probably Diaspora Jews as well) are afraid to be in Arab areas (and Palestinians are uncomfortable in Jewish areas). They feel uneasy and fear for their security, which is as much a commentary on the status of the relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel as it is on portrayal of Arabs in the Israeli education and media. What shocked me most, though, was the semantics. How could that not be a bus? Is only what Jews take a bus? What do you call a public means of transportation that covers mostly Palestinian areas if not a bus? I did not have a chance to ask the helpful lady at the bus stop those questions, but I am afraid there are no satisfactory answers to them.

Sfat

It will sound strange, but when I am in Sfat, I feel I have been there before. It may be that the architecture is so reminiscent of Spain. It may be that I know Sfat reached its peak in the sixteenth century after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, a time after which it became the new center for Spanish mystics. It may be that its winding streets upon a hill remind me of Girona, a city in Catalonia that was home to the Jewish sage Nachmanides and to a whole school of Kabbalah. Perhaps it is because of all of this that, when I am in Sfat, I feel that I belong there and, at the same time, that the place itself belongs inside me. If I believed in reincarnation, I would say I have lived there in a previous life.

Sfat is one of the four holy cities of Judaism (jointly with Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hebron). Anyone with a spiritual sensitivity can feel it powerfully. Sfat consists of a group of white-washed houses perched atop a hill in the Galilee. It is not architecturally impressive in any traditional sense. Its power is far more ethereal than that. It comes from the land, the air, the light and how the three combine. As in Jerusalem, one can feel its holiness at any time of the day during any day of the week. Also as in Jerusalem, however, the feeling is particularly strong as the Sabbath approaches. As the sun starts to go down behind the mountains, the men hurry from the ritual baths back home for the Sabbath, and quiet starts to take over the winding streets. Shortly thereafter, the synagogues in Sfat come powerfully alive during the Friday night service of welcoming the Sabbath –a service which was the creation of the mystics of this town. One Thursday afternoon in Sfat, I was praying in the oldest continuously-used synagogue in the world. As the men were praying with Sephardic melodies and the sun was setting outside the window throwing light into that ancient synagogue, I felt I had been there five hundred years ago and that, in a way, I had never left during those five hundred years. I felt, that, somehow, inexplicably, I had always been there and I would always be.

Family on a Bus

Israeli buses in 2007-08 were basically like buses anywhere else in the western world. They ran smoothly and impersonally. If you were not at a bus stop, they would not open the door for you and, if you missed the bus, you missed the bus. The interactions among people on the bus were also like in Europe and America –basically non-existent.

Palestinian buses were different. People were polite. Men would get up to let older people or women sit down. Passengers would often talk to each other. Bus drivers would wait for people if they saw them coming toward the bus stop down the road or from the other side of the street –often waiting for a few minutes till the passengers got on. People would even know the name of the bus driver: “Yallah Abu Khaled!”” let’s get going Abu Khaled”, people would say to a driver who was felt to be waiting too long to fill up the bus before leaving the bus station in East Jerusalem. My personal favorite “Arab bus” story is that some of the drivers of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem buses seem to have gotten to know me –as one of the very few regular western passengers on their bus– and would wait for me if they saw me coming toward the bus. One day, as I was leaving Arabic class along the Bethlehem to Jerusalem road, the bus to Jerusalem was coming up behind me and hence I did not see it. But the bus driver saw me. He slowed down, honked and stopped so I could get in. I felt we were “family on a bus.”

Arabs breed like rats

I was on a bus returning from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A woman around my age sat next to me and engaged me in conversation. It started off well. She told me she was working on her PhD dissertation. I asked her what it was about and she told me that it was about values and, in particular, about how to serve the country and how to be a good Jew, including how to treat those who are different from us. As I think back about the rest of our conversation, this first answer seems surreal. As we continued to speak, she asked me whether I had family in Israel. I responded that I did not because I had converted to Judaism. She told me that I seemed nice and asked me whether I would mind if she and her twin brother introduced me to men who they thought could be a good match for me (a typically Jewish thing to do).  I responded that that would be fine (I am never enthusiastic about matchmaking, but I also do not turn it down from the beginning). She asked me whether non-religious men would be acceptable to me (I had told her I was a practicing Jew). I answered that, although I would prefer an observant Jewish man, I could consider a non-observant man, but that what I could not consider was a non-open-minded man (of whom I had met a non-inconsiderable amount among the observant) since I was politically on the left.

She asked me whether I was also left-wing in Israel. I told her that of course I was, since I felt our values should be the same in Israel as in the Diaspora. “Why should they be any different here just because we are the majority?” I told her. Our conversation took a turning point. She started to tell me what a threat Arabs in Israel were. She prefaced her remarks by saying she was always “nice to Arabs,” but that Israel was first a Jewish country and, only after that, a democratic country. She explained that she thought Arabs should not have the right to vote. They should have other, civil, rights, but no right to vote. “They will destroy the country,” she said and continued: “they breed like rats.”

At that point, if there had been an escape, a single empty seat in the bus, I think I would have fled, but the bus was completely full and I felt I needed to just argue back to her. I told her I found it hard to believe she could “be nice” to people she thought of as “rats.” She answered she was being provocative. I wonder if she would feel that it was acceptable for people to speak of Jews in such terms in order to be provocative. She seemed to be overtaken by a frenzy of panic and hatred that I was to encounter in other extreme right-wingers. She asked whether I knew what was happening with Arabs in Israel and how they were becoming increasingly nationalistic. I answered that I knew and that I thought it was because they did not feel included in the definition of the country and were not treated equally to Jews and, hence, had become disenchanted with mainstream Zionist and traditional Arab parties. She said that, at the University of Haifa, they were “terrorizing” the Jewish students. “I would shoot them!” she screeched. I told her that was not very democratic and also that I felt the country was at a turning point and, if attitudes toward and treatment of Arabs did not change, Israel could truly have serious internal problems. On the contrary, if the country, its policies and institutions were defined in a more inclusive manner, Israeli Jews’ attitudes changed and Israeli Arabs had equal access to services and employment not only would stability increase, but the dreaded high birth rates of Arabs would come down as well. “We disagree about everything,” she said impatiently. Without an obvious transition, she started to speak about other groups which in her view should not be in Israel, such as haredim (ultra-orthodox groups, especially non-Zionist ones) and left-wing Jews, including feminist groups that were calling for a boycott to the army. I asked her what the “Jewish state” she envisaged without Arabs, haredim, left-wing Jews and feminists would stand for. She mumbled that she did not quite know and that that was “a philosophical question.”

This distressing and unpleasant conversation continued throughout the full hour of the trip to Jerusalem. As we were pulling into the bus station she spurted to me with a look of disgust on her face: “Interesting views you have! Perhaps you could be a spokesman for the Arabs. A convert to Judaism becoming a spokesman for the Arabs, hah, that would make a good newspaper story!,” after a couple of seconds’ rest and looking intently into my eyes she added “But, if they come after us, don’t expect your end to be any different from mine.”

Welcome to my bus!

Bus number seven goes right by my house and travels to the Jerusalem city center as well as the shuk and the central bus station. Therefore, I take it a lot. Unfortunately, one of the buses that comes by most often is driven by a driver who is seemingly a great fan of Beitar Yerushalaym.  Beitar Yerushalaym is a Jerusalem soccer team that is notorious for refusing to include Arabs among its players despite the fact that the city is half-Arab. The new owner of the team tried to break this rule by recruiting an Arab player only to backtrack under enormous pressure from the team’s supporters. The driver of bus number seven, though, loves this team. The bus has a huge yellow Beitar sticker across its front window. As you go into the bus, you can’t miss the ubiquitous team paraphernalia. It is on his steering wheel, a flag is on the board, there are two banners inside the bus itself and even stickers on the money collector. The driver invariably wears a yellow tie, matching the paraphernalia. Every single one of the Arabs I have spoken to feels uncomfortable enough taking “Jewish” Egged buses. So I wonder how they must feel stepping into an Egged bus that, in addition, has paraphernalia from a racist anti-Arab soccer team all over it. The only way I can read it is “Arabs keep off my bus.” It grates me to take that bus. Every time I step on it I feel I am in apartheid South Africa.

Necessity makes for odd travel companions

It was Thursday afternoon at four o’clock and I was waiting for a bus to go to the West Bank to visit some friends. I had not counted on the fact that it was the beginning of the weekend in Israel and Palestine and, hence, that it would be a busy time. The bus stop where I was standing is shared by “Arab” buses going to Arab areas and Jewish Egged buses going to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. There were many more people than usual waiting for the “Arab” buses as well as a small group of settlers. All the “Arab” buses going by were packed full and did not take any more people at our bus stop. This happened for a total of about six buses over a period of a half hour. People started to get restless. I called the person I was meeting in the West Bank to tell him I would be late and it turned out he himself was delayed at some checkpoint. At least I was not making him wait, I thought.

At one point, a “Jewish” Egged bus appeared in the distance approaching our bus stop. One of the Arab men looked at his friends and said “Egged” with an implied question mark. One of his friends asked “Where to?” And a third one answered “Har Gilo” (a settlement). They looked at each other for a couple of seconds and one of them finally said “yallah!” “Let’s go.” As the bus approached, they hopped onto the bus with the settlers. Many Arabs will not take Egged buses even within Israeli cities. Taking such a bus going to a settlement is an extreme oddity. I assume that the combination of the approaching weekend, the absence of available “Arab” buses, and the fact that “Har Gilo” is just outside Jerusalem and considered as one of the more “liberal” settlements accounts for the odd mix of travelers that hopped onto the bus.

Your soldiers! Your checkpoint!

I was on my way to visiting Rami and his family for the weekend. I had met Rami at a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians and he had invited me to go visit him and his family in their village in the West Bank. Rami had suggested that I travel from Bethlehem to his village with Ahmed, a friend of his who was also going to visit him at the same time. When I met Ahmed in Bethlehem, I realized with regret that I had met him briefly at the same meeting where I had met Rami. At that time, he had struck me as very angry and perhaps even somewhat emotionally disturbed.  So I had tried to be polite when he spoke to me, but not to invite much conversation.

Now I was in a van travelling with him to spend the weekend at Rami’s. It was around seven o’clock in the evening and already dark out, there were ten Palestinian men and myself in the van and we were approaching Hebron, perhaps the most tense of Palestinian cities. Ahmed’s English is very basic and, at that time, my Arabic was almost non-existent. So, communication between us was expressed in very simple sentences. As we were travelling through the West Bank, he wanted to make sure that I noticed all the signs of the occupation. My other Palestinian friends are much more subtle, more sophisticated and less angry. They just take me places, they let me see things for myself and ask questions (they know I do look and I do ask). They will also volunteer information, but always in a gentle and non-accusing tone towards me personally. They are also careful not to indict the Israelis overmuch to the point that I will sometimes even find myself arguing for the Palestinian side of things with them. This is one of the things that has impressed me the most about my Palestinian friends (in contrast to the large majority of the Israeli Jews I meet) –their ability to put themselves in the position of the Israelis and evaluate how the other side may see things and what their needs as a society and as a state are (a critical ability if one is ever to reach a common understanding and, eventually, peace). They also make allowances for the fact that I am Jewish, but not Israeli. This is the type of relationship I had gotten used to.

That was not the dynamic at play in the van with Ahmed. Ahmed would not only systematically point to everything, but he did so in an angry and accusing tone squarely putting the responsibility at my doorstep. “Your soldiers!” he would point out, “Your checkpoint!” I believe he also went on to say–though I am not completely sure—that he wanted everything back: “Tel Aviv, Rishon Le Tzion” he said forcefully. I told him I did not understand what he was saying about those cities. “Yes understand, yes understand!” he repeated while failing to elaborate. I felt very uncomfortable. I was in a van with ten Palestinian men, it was dark out, and my travel companion kept on pointing out “my” occupation forces and their actions and telling me that he wanted all of Israel back. I could go nowhere. I felt trapped. I also felt less willing to enquire further than I normally am –in part because of our language barrier, in part because I was not sure how much I wanted to hear of Ahmed’s views and in part because I just wished he would stop talking given where we were.

As unpleasant as the trip was, Ahmed’s comments had an important effect on me. I realized that, whether I wanted to or not, as a Jew, I did have responsibility for what the Jewish state was doing. Up to then, I had wanted to hide behind the fact that I was not an Israeli. But Ahmed was right on that point. As a Jew, I do have responsibility for what our state is doing. It is us who insist that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. If it is our state, it is so for good and for bad. It is the place Jews are allowed to emigrate to, but it is also a place we have an obligation to make into as good and moral a place as we possibly can and we are responsible when it falls short of those standards. It was a very unwelcome realization. Now I know I am not free to disengage. As it is written in the Talmud: “You do not have to finish the work; yet you are not free to disengage from it.”

The trip and the journey

I was talking to some Palestinian friends in the West Bank. We were planning to take a trip together from their refugee camp near Hebron to Ramallah and Jericho. For the full duration of my stay in Israel/Palestine, the West Bank was as disjointed in my head as it was in reality. Because one cannot go through Jerusalem or through Israel and a number of roads are closed –if one is Palestinian that is–, trips that should constitute a pretty straight line and last a short time end up being long and convoluted. I still remember my trip from Jerusalem to Jenin, which went through the separation wall, winding roads to circumvent Nablus and no less than five check points. By the time I got to Jenin, the day was over and I was nauseous and exhausted. As we were planning our trip, I was trying to use my Arabic and asked my friend Sami –a charming Palestinian man in his early twenties– whether for the trip we were taking the more appropriate word would be mishwar (trip) or rihle (journey). He smiled at me and answered without missing a beat: “In principle, it should be a mishwar (trip), but because of the checkpoints and the roads we will need to take, it will be more of a rihle (journey).”

The VIP

It was a late autumn afternoon and I was going back from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. As usual, I was riding one of the “Arab buses” that connect these two cities. We stopped at the checkpoint. The driver opened the door and the Israeli soldiers motioned us to leave the bus so they could check it. We all got off the bus except for an elderly gentleman with a cane who stayed in his seat. Sometimes, soldiers will allow elderly people or women with babies to stay on the bus rather than having them get off, stand in line, have their IDs checked, wait till the bus has been checked and get on the bus again. This time, however, it was not to be so. The soldier examining the bus, a girl no older than 19, looked at the elderly gentleman with contempt and snapped at him in Hebrew “Who do you think you are? A VIP?” I am not sure whether he understood what she said, but he did understand her message and, I am sure, her tone. He slowly stood up and descended from the bus to line up and go through the procedure with the rest of us. The soldier was right. He was not a VIP. He was just an old man with a cane.

The Blind Man and the Checkpoint

I had some meetings at Al Quds University in Abu Dies, now on the “Palestinian” side of the wall scarring through the West Bank, not far from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The trip from East Jerusalem to Abu Dies used to take no more than 10 minutes. Now it takes a half hour since one needs to circumvent the surrounding wall which has been built to protect Maale Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements, as well as to isolate East Jerusalem from its natural hinterland in the West Bank. After my meetings were over, I boarded a bus to travel back to Jerusalem and we waited for the bus to fill up. A blind young man with a cane got on the bus and sat next to me in the front row. We started on our way and, after about 20 minutes, we began to approach the checkpoint to enter Jerusalem. We were still a couple of minutes away from the checkpoint, which I could see in the distance. Before I could feel any perceptible slowing down of the bus, the young man next to me put his hand in his pocket and took out his identity card. I wondered how he knew we were approaching the checkpoint. His identity card was green. Normally, Palestinians with a green identity card cannot go through that checkpoint, which is an “easier” one only for foreigners and Jerusalem resident blue ID holders. He must have a special permit to go this way because of his condition, I thought.

As we stopped, a soldier stepped onto the bus to take our IDs. As if he had done it a thousand times, the blind young man extended his hand with his ID. The soldier took it. After all the IDs had been checked, the soldier returned and handed them back to the passengers. I took the one belonging to the young man next to me (recognizable because of its color) and gave it to him. He nervously fingered it. He opened it and took out a paper which was folded into one of the compartments of his ID and which I assumed was his special permit. It was clearly a precious piece of paper to him. He unfolded it carefully and fingered it and the rest of the ID a number of times till he was convinced he had been given back all of his documents. After that, he folded the permit back neatly, put it back in its compartment and returned the ID to his pocket. A checkpoint experience in Palestine is, at its best, uncertain, surreal and stressful for anyone, especially for a Palestinian. I tried to imagine what it must be like for someone who, on top of everything, is travelling alone, cannot see what is happening around him and feels his freedom of movement –and, to a large extent, his whole life, are contingent on a little piece of paper he has no control over.

The “other” on the road

Interaction between two groups on the road is a microcosm of the state of relations between them. This is particularly true when one can easily tell one group apart from the other and the situation between them is tense. I noticed that in my trips to post-Apartheid South Africa. In that country, like in Israel, I acutely felt that every inter-action between the two groups was an opportunity, at a personal level, to heal wounds or to deepen them, to show respect or disrespect, endurance or rage. It is also an opportunity to wield power and aggression, to scare and to humiliate. This is true of any personal interaction in any context, but it is particularly true in environments with a long history of inter-ethnic conflict. Moreover, there are two important differences between exchanges on the road and most other personal interactions. One difference is that, in meeting someone on the road, the “other” is just a Jew or an Arab, a black or a white. In addition, the “other” is not an individual with whom one is likely to interact again, but simply a representative of a group. In this context, attitudes toward “the other” appear in a pristine form. The other difference is that, on the road, there is a spontaneity to how one reacts that filters out any attempts at political correctness and leads people to exhibit their deepest, sometimes hidden feelings and attitudes.

What I saw on the road in Israel and Palestine was deeply troubling. On a few occasions, our “Arab bus” was harassed by Jewish drivers. One time, a driver kept on driving away from and then towards our bus, as if he was going to drive into us and, later, started honking and motioning us to shift lanes though there was no reason for us to do so and no advantage to the harassing driver. It was just a power game. We were leaving Jerusalem for the West Bank and hence the harassing man was almost certainly a settler. Not content with his first maneuver, the driver sped up and placed himself in front of our bus and then significantly slowed down so our driver had to step on the brakes. I asked myself what this man had in mind in doing this. I wondered what kind of satisfaction he was getting from harassing a public bus with Palestinians in it and how he would rationalize this behavior to himself. On another occasion, a group of American Jewish teenagers on a tour approached our “Arab bus” at a traffic light and started making grimaces and obscene gestures at us. In their eyes, more than hard hatred, there was glee at their power to harass us. I looked at my fellow travelers to see their reaction. Most of them were unperturbed or decided to appear so. No one moved or said anything, except for some people exchanging knowing glances and a young man looking calmly back to the Jewish teenagers and giving them the finger. I could only imagine the reaction of the Jewish community if a Jewish bus was afforded that treatment in Europe.

The most disturbing incident I saw on the road took place as I was riding a “Jewish bus” in the center of Jerusalem. I had just stepped onto the bus and paid my fare. I had sat myself down in the front row and was busy opening my wallet to place the change inside it. This was hard to do because the bus was uncharacteristically speeding up. All of a sudden, and in the span of a few seconds, the bus stopped its racing speed with a screeching of the brakes. Both the speeding and the stopping were unusual for our location. I looked up in surprise. The bus had ground to a halt in front of an old Arab man holding the hands of two little children (the oldest no more than four years old). The old Arab man had a look of terror on his face. Not content with this, the driver opened the doors of the bus and started yelling at the old man, who, after recovering from his shock, had walked on to the other side of the road still holding the hand of the two little children.

What was most disturbing about this incident is that the acceleration of the bus took place between a bus stop and a red traffic light less than 20 meters away from it with a number of cars stopped in front of it. Hence, there was no reason to speed up, but on the contrary, to slow down. I cannot be one hundred percent sure, but my strong feeling was that the driver had intentionally wanted to scare this family. I wondered whether that was really possibly, even in the warped context of Israel. I wrote a complaint to the “Jewish” bus company about the incident I had witnessed including the time and place it occurred as well as the number of the bus. I never heard back from them. A few days later, I read a report from an Israeli Human Rights Organization that a settler bus in the West Bank had intentionally accelerated towards a Palestinian teenage shepherd tending to his sheep, changed lanes to be able to get to him, driven over him and killed him.

Shalom

I was on a Palestinian bus on the way from Bethlehem to a nearby refugee camp. The other passengers were seven or eight middle-aged Palestinian men in their work clothes seemingly coming home after a long day’s work in construction. It was a particularly tense time in the West Bank as Jewish settlers were attacking Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and creating confrontations all over the territory. As we were driving along, we went past a group of kippa-wearing young Jews walking along the road carrying signs written in Hebrew. We went by too fast for me to decipher what the signs said. I should have just shut up. But settlers just annoy me to such an extent that I simply could not hold back. “What do they want?” I asked in Arabic somewhat rhetorically looking to the man sitting next to me. The thoughts racing through my mind were: What could the settlers possibly want from these poor people? What are they demonstrating for? I was thinking to myself as I spoke: They are taking more and more land, more and more water, getting separate roads that make Palestinians have to travel for twice as long through back roads, while young Israelis are risking their lives as soldiers all over the West Bank to protect them and be submitted to their abuse. What else do these insane people want? The Palestinian worker looked at me in the eye and said in Hebrew with all the irony the situation, my question and his answer reflect: “Shalom” –peace.

Arabs ride on buses?

It was a spring afternoon and I was riding on a bus from my neighborhood to the center of West Jerusalem. I was sitting in the front row next to a Palestinian man. In Israel, there are “Arab buses” covering mainly Arab towns and neighborhoods and “Jewish buses” covering Jewish towns and Jewish neighborhoods. Even in the environment of separation of Israel, however, the lines of peoples’ lives sometimes intersect. That intersection, like all else in the country, is not symmetrical for both groups. Hardly any Jews would consider going to an Arab town or neighborhood or taking an Arab bus and they don’t need to. Palestinians, on the other hand, will sometimes need to go to Jewish neighborhoods for work, shopping or public services. Even if it is convenient, however, some Palestinians will avoid riding on “Jewish” buses. They feel uncomfortable on them because they are viewed by many Israeli Jews with suspicion, even now at a time when, thank G-d, terror attacks on buses have not happened for years.

That afternoon, a middle-aged Jewish lady came onto the bus and noticed the man sitting next to me. As she was paying for her fare, she gave the bus driver a look of reproof and asked rhetorically in Hebrew: “Arabs ride on buses?” and, without waiting for an answer, she went on indignantly: “That is not right!” The driver gave her a look of impotence and a shrug of the shoulders meaning, “I don’t like it either lady, but what can I do?” The lady stormed off to the back of the bus. I hoped the man sitting next to me had not understood what had happened, but I doubted it. Even if he had not understood the (very simple) Hebrew, the looks, the tone of voice and the body language of those involved were at least as telling as the words said in this brief exchange. Moreover, the attitude of hostility they belied was hard to miss, especially for a people as familiar to it as Palestinians unfortunately are. I am sure that, if one had asked this lady what the solution to her perceived problem was, she would have answered that “Arabs should have their own buses.” Just like they have their own schools, neighborhoods, political parties and, in the West Bank, roads. She was just extrapolating from the general character of the country –complete and utter separation.

 Road signs and death

I was travelling in Southern Spain with a group of friends including two Palestinians –Rami from the West Bank and Mohammed from Gaza. One day as we were driving, we were discussing the impact of the occupation on the landscape of the West Bank. Rami and I were commenting on how Israel is doing its utmost to wipe out any signs indicating Arab presence in the land. It is quite a surreal phenomenon. One will drive by one Arab population center after another without seeing any signs that indicate their existence (with the only exception of major towns). Instead, one will constantly see signs marking the –ever-expanding—Jewish presence through the settlements.

As Rami and I were engrossed in this conversation, Mohammed remained silent. After a while, he said something along the lines of: “You guys in the West Bank have it easy if no road signs is all you have to worry about. In Gaza, we just worry about staying alive to the next day.” It was early January 2009 and the Israeli attacks on Gaza were raging. Mohammed was worried sick about his family. It did indeed seem like a rather trivial and almost academic concern to be worrying about road signs when people in Gaza were struggling to survive.

I met Rami shortly after our return to Israel/Palestine. He told me how he and his aunt had tried to find the way off a main road and into an Arab town in the Galilee. However, because of the absence of proper road signs indicating the way to the town, the poor road lighting often afforded to Arab areas of Israel, and the fact that it was night time, they ended up entering a one-way road the wrong side in and almost had gotten into a car accident. “Even in Israel it can be a matter of life and death as far as Arab villages are concerned” Rami told me as if belatedly answering Mohammed’s comment during our trip in Spain.

The nervous bus traveler

It was a Sunday morning and I was travelling on a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Sundays are peak days for soldiers traveling on buses as they are returning from their homes to their military bases. That Sunday, in the seat in front of me, was a young soldier boy who did not look any older than eighteen. I would not normally have noticed him as their presence on buses is so pervasive. However, he kept on fidgeting in his seat, which made it move and, a picky traveler that I am, it was bothering me. I looked at him through the gap between the seat and the window. He seemed unusually nervous. He was biting on his fingernails which, by then, barely existed. And he kept on moving. At one point, he took out a Nintendo electronic game and turned it on. I saw through the seats that the game consisted in firing at moving objects –I could not tell from my seat what the moving objects were. He was now thoroughly focused and had stopped moving, concentrating all his attention on his screen and furiously shooting at the moving targets, which he seemed to be quite good at. Great, I thought to myself. This clearly disturbed boy is now going to his army base. I worried for the safety of those around him, especially Palestinians, and wondered how good the Israeli army was at weeding out unstable youth, especially from armed positions.

Parallel Worlds

Throughout the two years that I lived in Jerusalem, I did not exactly know where I was half the time. I never found a map that showed the 1967 line between Israel proper and the West Bank and I did not wish to buy the maps of “greater Israel” that were normally sold in the bookstores of Jerusalem. So, the world of West Jerusalem and the world of East Jerusalem, the world of Israel and the world of Palestine always appeared to me as parallel, disconnected worlds, though they were right next to each other. This feeling was strengthened by the fact that the transportation systems one takes in Jewish and Arab areas are different. So, the two worlds remained separate in my mind, as if kept apart by an invisible wall which now also inhabited my head and kept the two countries neatly apart. Over a year and a half into my stay in Jerusalem, I discovered that, if I walked down the Street of the Prophets in East Jerusalem for less than ten minutes, I arrived at Jaffa Street in West Jerusalem. These were two worlds I visited separately from my West Jerusalem neighborhood –I either took a Jewish bus to Jaffa Street down one route or an Arab bus to East Jerusalem down another route. Without a map and with my poor sense of orientation, those two worlds were completely disconnected from each other –as they are socially—though they are physically right next to each other. I was astounded and yet pleased to find out that, if I wanted, I could just walk from one world to the other.

I also remember being surprised to see how physically close some cities in the West Bank, such as Jenin, Nablus or Qalqilya are to Israeli cities such as Netanya. I had been on both sides of the border and they were such different worlds, I simply could not imagine them being physically near each other. During a visit to Jenin, the trip up from Jerusalem had been so grueling and had required going through so many checkpoints and winding roads, that I decided to just cross over the border to Israel and go back to Jerusalem down a straight line from the Israeli side. My Palestinian friends told me it was impossible. Though we were right next door to Israel –literally—there was no way for me to cross over to the other side. After all, I thought, my mental disconnect between these two parallel worlds was more real than their physical proximity.

Kever Rachel—Rachel’s Tomb

I was visiting my friend Chava in her Haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem. She told me that Rachel’s yahrzeit –the anniversary of Rachel’s death– was coming up and that there would be a large group of people going to pray at her tomb and asked me whether I wanted to join them. Chava knows I do not go to settlements, but she was not sure whether I would go to Rachel’s tomb. I told her, as politely as I could manage, that I did not wish to join them. For starters, I am not keen to visit tombs. In this regard, I am very much of a rationalist modern orthodox Jew and I do not see what one does at tombs. It seems to me that the reason why Kohens or Jewish priests were forbidden in the Torah from going into cemeteries was in order to break the pervasive cult of death that existed in antiquity. I think it is extremely wise. Entire cultures –like ancient Egypt’s—were built around the cult of death and enormous resources were devoted to building gigantic monuments to dead people. I believe it is one of the worst possible uses of resources. It is also a distortion of people’s mental efforts –people and societies should be focusing on improving the life of the living and not on worshipping the dead. It also creates enormous inequalities –between those who can afford mausoleums and pyramids and those who simply can afford a coffin. That is another beautiful and healthy element of Judaism –all Jews are to be buried alike, wrapped in a white sheet in a plain wood coffin. Moreover, I do not know what one would actually pray for at a tomb. The dead person was righteous, that is why people go to his/her tomb. So, the dead person does not need our prayers. On the other hand, if we are praying for ourselves or for other people, what is the added value of doing it at a tomb? Are we asking the dead person to intercede? If so, that sounds rather un-Jewish to me, as in Judaism our relationship is directly with G-d.

Since haredi Jews are very keen on praying in tombs, though, I did not explain all this in detail to Chava. What I did tell her was that I did not feel comfortable going to Rachel’s tomb because it is in the West Bank. As much as Chava tried to understand me, I saw this was a difficult one for her. “But you do go into the West Bank!” “Yes,” I answered, “but only to visit Palestinians.” “But this is our matriarch and she is buried in the land of Israel.” She argued. She is right and, in an ideal world in which Israel would not be occupying the West Bank, all Jews should be free to visit any sites in Palestine, just as any Palestinians should be free to visit any sites in Israel. But today’s world is far from this ideal. All these political considerations, however, are irrelevant in the Haredi perspective. For Haredim, what matters is the land of Israel. The state of Israel, on the other hand, is a reality, a fact, but nothing to be taken very seriously let alone something that should stand between Jews and the land of Israel. I understand her perspective, but I do not share it. For me, as long as the state of Israel exists and is occupying Palestine, pilgrimages to Jewish sites in the West Bank will be, appear to be and be used as political tools for the justification or expansion of Israel’s power while Palestinians can go nowhere in Israel without a permit. In such circumstances, if I were to go to Rachel’s tomb I doubt I would be able to think of anything else.

A train ride through the past

To go from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, I would often take the train. Half-way through the trip, the train wound through valleys. These valleys, for those with open eyes, were a living reminder of the destruction of the past and the voluntary amnesia of the present. On both sides of the train tracks, we would ride by ruins upon ruins of Arab homes, Arab towns. There was nothing left of the world that once peopled that landscape, but ruins. No sign to mark the destroyed villages, the derelict homes. Unlike in places where Israelis had wanted to build Jewish settlements on top, no effort had been made to do away with the ruins either. They stood there as guardians of the past, as reminders of the people who are no longer there, but keep on dreaming of coming back to a world which no longer exists but in their imagination. While we would ride among those ruins, I would sometimes look at those around me in the train. One would think no one saw what was in front of them. Like the Palestinians themselves, the ruins of their world seemed to be invisible to Israeli Jewish eyes.

Chapters 5-6 here to follow.