Chapter 13. Shabbat conversations




Justice is the cardinal pillar of Jewish social order. Its importance is highlighted throughout the Torah and the Talmud. It is also all over the liturgy. In Genesis, when G-d tells Abraham his mission and that of his seed, he tells him that it is “to do righteousness and justice.” In the Book of Deuteronomy, when the people of Israel are finally entering the land, the narrative is suddenly interrupted to include one paragraph devoted to the importance of acting justly. Similarly, in the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer which is to be recited three times a day, the blessing for justice comes right after the blessing for the ingathering of the exiles in the land of Israel. Moreover, the commandment to establish courts of law is present in the Noahide laws, which apply not just to Jews, but also to gentiles. The message is clear –justice is the most important pillar upon which any civilized society at any time must stand. By the same token, it is the first value to be upheld when Jews build communities in the Diaspora or in structuring a society in the land of Israel.

I was pleased that this was recognized at a Shabbat dinner I attended in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv one summer. The guests were all accomplished religiously-observant academics. As we were nearing the time for desert, one of the guests gave a brief and well-thought-out “dvar” on the Torah portion for the week. The portion was precisely the one covering the entering of the Israelites into the land of Israel. The speaker stressed the point mentioned above –that there is a reason why the Torah interrupts an otherwise flowing narrative on the entry into the land to speak about justice. “The reason is,” he explained, “that there is nothing more important upon which to build a society than justice.” I got a sense that he felt that this cardinal principle was not properly understood and adequately applied in the Israel that we lived in.

No connection with Palestinians

I was having Shabbat dinner at the home of an American family who made alyah a number of years ago. Their daughter, who is now in university in Israel, has grown up in Jerusalem. Over the meal, the conversation turned to my work at Tel Aviv University and I was asked what I would be teaching the coming academic year. I explained enthusiastically that I was hoping to teach a graduate course on development policy and practice jointly with professors from Al Quds University (a Palestinian university) for both Israeli and Palestinian students. The daughter of the family –who had posed the question—was clearly taken aback. “With Palestinians?  Why? What is our connection? What do we have in common with them?” What struck me about her reaction was what she said as much as the tone in which she said it. The smirk on her face and her angry tone evidenced that the thought of Palestinians evoked in her nothing short of repulsion. She went on to ask why Israeli students should be sharing a class with students from such a backward place as the Palestinians. In her view, there was nothing in common between the peoples and no connection between what each ought to be studying. So, why do it together?

Part of her reaction is unfortunately familiar to me. I could imagine some Spanish students having a similar reaction to an initiative to study development jointly with students from Morocco. There is a difference, though. Despite the fact that good relations between the countries and the economic development of its southern neighbor are in Spain’s interest, the country’s fate is not inextricably linked to that of Morocco. Neither is Spain occupying Morocco at the current time (aside, arguably, from two cities in the North).  A connection between Israel and Palestine does exist. It is now the reality of occupation and a better future for each country is unthinkable without taking into account the well-being of the other. Despite this, the possibility that a new kind of connection, based on mutual knowledge, recognition and respect and the generation of an economic and political positive-sum-game was clearly unthinkable for this young Israeli woman.  Only the current negativity, contempt of the rich for the poor, let alone any sense of Israeli responsibility in the fate of Palestinians is a sad commentary on the views of some Israeli youth. It also bodes poorly for the creation of a different reality and eventual peace (and not just absence of conflict) between both nations. I tried to make some of these points to her. By the end of the discussion, she said I should be teaching development at her university, but I am not sure I was able to convince her of my broader point on the importance of joint study between Israelis and Palestinians.


Water is an extremely scarce resource in the West Bank. It is also extremely unfairly distributed. Somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the water is used by the settlements. Palestinians have to make do with what is left. Their access to water is made even more arbitrary by the fact that some (lucky) areas are connected to the water supply of the settlements and some other (unlucky) areas are not. I had noticed in my visits to a refugee camp near Bethlehem that there did not seem to be water restrictions even in the summer. I asked my friend Sara about it. She told me that they were lucky because they were on the water supply system of the settlement of Gush Etzion and, therefore, they did not have water restrictions. On the other hand, another refugee camp located in Bethlehem itself, where her grandparents live, is not on the Gush Etzion water system. Therefore, the camp suffers from severe restrictions in the summer, sometimes having to go for over a month without water.

As I spoke to Sara, I wondered how many people in Israel knew about this problem and, out of those, how many cared. I had the answer –or an answer of sorts—at a Shabbat dinner that same week. A young American-Israeli woman proudly explained over the meal how Israelis are highly conscious about water scarcity and how every school child is aware of the problem and is instructed to follow the level of water in lake Kinneret –a major water source for Israel–. She made no mention of the use of West Bank water by Israelis or of the restrictions which Palestinians are forced to endure. Her explanations only helped to confirm my belief that there was no education about and no awareness of the fact that a very high percentage of water used by Israelis comes from the West Bank, that the average Israeli uses more than five times the amount of water of the average Palestinian or that, whenever water runs short, it is Palestinians whose supply is cut off. In water, like in everything else, the Israeli story was completely inward-looking and ignorant of its effect on Palestinians.

The group from the Wild West

It was Friday night and a group of evangelical Christians from Texas was visiting our synagogue. The synagogue had asked for dinner hosts for our guests, but I had cowardly not offered my home up because I had anticipated our lack of commonality in political views. And yet, I wanted at least to welcome the guests to our synagogue and to get a bit of a sense as to what kind of trip to Israel they were on. So, after services I introduced myself to a group of them and welcomed them. They were very friendly. They thanked me and told me they were very much enjoying their trip. I asked them where else they were going. They explained that, in addition to Jerusalem, they were going to visit Ariel. Ariel is a large settlement in the northern West Bank. My suspicions were confirmed. The trip had a right-wing political agenda. I told them that I myself would not go to Ariel. They laughed and one of them said “We are from Texas, we are from the Wild West!” implying that they were not afraid to travel to Israel’s “wild frontier.” I was cowardly a second time. As I saw myself surrounded by enthusiastic evangelical Texans as well as supportive fellow synagogue congregants, I just did not find the strength to explain why I would not go to Ariel. Instead, I just wished them a good trip and went on my way. At least, I thought, their comparison to the “Wild West” had elements of truth in it –Israeli Jews, just like Europeans in America before, were taking land away from those who were living there before them. It seemed like the Texans knew what the picture was. They just agreed with it.

I, my, my people, my nation

We were having Shabbat lunch at my friend Yonah’s and the conversation turned to the West Bank. Shira, a young Israeli guest, argued that the situation for Palestinians in the West was not so bad and that, if a person wanted, “really, really wanted,” she emphasized, they could do anything they set their mind to. Shira comes from an upper-middle class American background and she has been raised in a beautiful neighborhood of Jerusalem. Her arguments, her self-assurance, her lack of knowledge of the realities in the world of those she was speaking about and her lack of sympathy for them reminded me of the attitudes of American conservatives who state that anyone in the American ghetto who really wants to can make it (except that, in Palestine, the argument is even more preposterous). I made the same kinds of arguments I make in those circumstances –mainly, that for a person to “make it,” they need a supportive environment, including the right education, societal and state structures and a functioning economy.

Shira then changed to arguing that the absence of such structures in the West Bank and Gaza was due to the failures of Palestinians themselves (a different argument from whether an individual needs them in order to “make it” or not). I pointed out that switch in the argument to her and went on to engage her on this second group of arguments. What struck me most about her reasoning was that it expressed in an extreme form a trend I had noticed in many Israelis I had spoken to –an almost exclusive focus on us which invariably makes me want to yell “What about them?”. A textual analysis of her sentences would have shown the pervasive presence of the first person, singular and plural, and the almost absence of the second person. “I feel,” “I want,” “Our people need,” “my nation wants…” I pointed that out to her and asked her whether she had asked herself what the Palestinians felt, needed and wanted. She stopped to think for a second and then started to say, “If I try to sympathize with them…” and, to her credit, she acknowledged “but, I can’t sympathize with them.” She tried a new choice of words: “If I try empathize with them,” and she stopped again, “but I can’t empathize.” She finally said, “If I try to look at it from their point of view,” and she finally continued.

I wish I could remember what she said. Unfortunately, all I can remember is that what she did say reflected an utter inability to look at things from the viewpoint of Palestinians. It seemed to me that she had read nothing written by Palestinians, never visited the West Bank (except as a soldier I assume), and had no Palestinian friends. I asked her what the solution to our territorial dispute should be. She said Palestinians should accept part of the West Bank with settlement blocks in the middle as their state after a protracted process of “education in co-existence,” which, she argued, should also include Israelis. She concluded that the model for Palestinians should be “Abu Ghosh,” (a town in Israel which had not resisted during the war of independence and had collaborated throughout). I, provocatively but with a straight face, asked her why not do the opposite. Since she wanted to keep so much of the West Bank in Israel, why should we not have just one state with a Palestinian majority in which Jews follow the “Abu Ghosh” model, cooperate with Palestinians, get educated in co-existence –while Palestinians are as well– and hope we will be respected. She did not like my proposal. She said hotly “But I don’t want to be a minority in someone else’s state! We have not had a state for a very long time and we want one!” I told her that Palestinians probably would feel the same way about her proposal.


I went to see a play which was part of a Jewish Arab Cultural Festival taking place in Jerusalem. The play was a series of monologues by four Israelis about their personal histories. It featured Jews from Germany, Russia and Egypt and a Palestinian. That weekend a friend asked me how the play was. The best way I could find to summarize it was that it was a play about people whose worlds had been destroyed –the world of European Jewry in Germany and Russia, the Jewish world in Egypt and the Palestinian world in Israel. I also remarked that the chosen format was of significance –a series of monologues. There was no communication between the characters and virtually no references in their monologues from one group to another. They lived in isolated, parallel worlds. The only character who spoke of another group was the Palestinian, as Israeli Jews were critical players in the destruction of his world and the continuing pain of his present. The play oozed a deep melancholy and striking pain at the loss of the worlds past and, to varying degrees, disappointment in their worlds of the present. The prevailing feeling was sadness. I have thought back to the play on various occasions. When my Palestinian friend Ahmed asked me whether I was planning to stay in Israel after my sabbatical was over, I told him that I would stay if I was happy there. He looked at me sadly and said, “Rosa, no one is happy here.” I also remembered it after a conversation with the Palestinian director of the only joint Arab-Jewish schools in Israel.  We were discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, leaving my usual policy-oriented discourse aside, I heard myself saying “I just want both peoples to be happy.” He looked at me with a mixture of bemusement and dreaminess. “Happiness..,” he seemed to be thinking, “what a concept!”

Something beautiful

I had already returned to the US and was having Shabbat dinner with a group of friends. One of the guests included Shai, an Israeli man who was active in a liberal Jewish group in Israel that engaged in inter-religious dialogue and joint prayer. He told us how the group –which met in Jerusalem– included Jews, Christians and even a few Muslims. It sounded too good to be true in the current context of the pressure cooker of Jerusalem. I was, however, assured that the group not only existed, but worked. Shai explained how the openness of that group allowed Israelis who had turned against Orthodox Judaism to reconnect with their faith and was a particularly warm home for those who wanted to pray while reaching out. Shai told us about a member of their group. It was a young man who had grown up in a settlement and, as a teenager, had completely turned against the settler culture and moved to Israel. Somehow, the young man had found his way into this prayer group. Shai explained that when he experienced the spirit of the group –utterly different from the nationalistic right-wing orthodox environment of the settlers–, he told them: “I never knew Judaism could be something beautiful.” How wonderful, I thought, and how terrible. My own experience had been the absolute opposite. Until I arrived in Israel, I could not have imagined that Judaism could be anything but beautiful.

Fighting out of hatred, fighting out of love

I was at a Shabbat afternoon gathering and, as I often dread will happen, the conversation went from religion into politics. Sarah, one of the participants in the gathering, was leading the conversation into the political arena. Sarah is a beautiful American-Israeli woman in her mid-forties. She is charming and full of energy. She also holds very right-wing political positions and particularly distorted views of Palestinians. At that point, the group was discussing the 1948 war. “The reason we won,” she said passionately, “is that they were fighting out of hate and we were fighting out of love.”

I was dumbfounded and tried to think where she got that idea. I realized she just had no understanding of how Palestinians felt about Palestine. I realized that she knew nothing of Palestinian poetry and music, which ooze love for what Palestinians view as the historical land of Palestine. I realized she had never read the verses or heard the songs of refugee artists which are so full of longing and feeling for their paradise lost. It was clear she had never read the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, listened to the songs of Fairuz or just sat down with a refugee to talk about the town of their birth. The void left by her lack of knowledge was filled by prejudice, something I had noticed in other conversations. Whenever she spoke about Palestinians, they sounded like cardboard one-dimensional stereotypes, filled with rage, hatred and “ideology.” The combination of ignorance and prejudice about the other is powerful and dangerous as we Jews know only too well. In our specific context, Sarah really thought that Palestinians were fighting for their land out of hatred and she was completely unaware of the great literature and music of love of Palestinians for Palestine. I am sorry I did not get the strength to tell her.

 King David

It was a Shabbat afternoon and we were having a Torah discussion session with some members of the synagogue I was attending in Jerusalem. I forget the specific topic we were discussing, but I believe it had to do with biblical sources for religious Zionism. I am deeply distrustful of that movement, but interested in its arguments both out of religious curiosity and intellectual interest as well as because their proponents are a critical constituency of contemporary Israeli politics. What I remember clearly from that session is the observation of one of the participants, an American man in his mid-forties who had immigrated to Israel a number of years ago. “Perhaps we are the generation of David” he ventured. “David built the kingdom of Israel, but in doing so, he dirtied his hands with blood. It had to be done, but because of what he did, he was unable to build the Temple” (a task which fell to King Solomon).

This was indeed an interesting observation if interpreted loosely and I would even have agreed with part of the parallel insofar as the “necessary” wars of Israel were concerned (up to and including 1973). Beyond that time, however, the wars Israel fought were not necessary to its survival and the blood spilled (Arab and Jewish) was unnecessary. The parallel with David, in my view, stopped there. The power of parallels with Biblical sources in the religious Zionist community in Israel, however, is intoxicating. It fuels the settlement movement and the most uncompromising positions of the political spectrum.  I wished that, instead of making parallels with the heroic stories of the Bible, religious Israelis would focus (as the ultra-orthodox tend to do) on the law and ethics of the Talmud governing our relations with other nations, both of which are focused on fostering “the ways of peace.” I once asked an American rabbi what the political implications of Judaism regarding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict are. He told me the only implications are that we should try to choose the political alternatives that would be most effective in saving lives. I have often wished religious Israelis also espoused this view instead of focusing on Biblical heroic conquests and pre-messianic euphoria.


I was at a Shabbat meal at the home of an American-Israeli friend. One of the guests was a young and determined Australian Israeli woman. She led the conversation around the table with strength throughout the duration of the meal and seemed to have an agenda, wanting to make a number of points and to engage people in answering a series of questions. One of these questions was the vision of those around the table for a future Israel, “ideally” she said. This was a question which had been troubling me for weeks. I felt there was just no future vision for the country by mainstream Israeli parties or even Israeli society.  Despite that, I had no wish to share my views with this ideologically-driven young woman whom I had just met. So, I studiously avoided speaking. When our host said that he hoped for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and an agreement that would make both sides reasonably happy, I said I agreed with him (and I do). Though there is much more I would like from and for Israeli society, my assent saved me from speaking.

Our questioner launched her vision then: “My vision is that, in the future, all Israeli citizens will be so committed to the Israeli state that everybody will go to the army!” I was flabbergasted. She was visibly proud of her vision and saw no fault with it. I decided to speak at that point: “That is your ideal vision? That everyone in the country will go to the army?” “Wouldn’t it be a better vision to wish for people not to have to go to the army?” “That is unrealistic” she said shortly, her dreaminess gone. “But, you said ideally” I reminded her. She had no good defense for her dream, as one couldn’t. I was thoroughly depressed by her vision. As a continental European and a social democrat, I strongly believe in the role of the state in ensuring a good life for its citizens and in war as the worst policy option. On the contrary, I see the goal of the State as providing a good life for its citizens and, if at all possible, to avoid war. The State is never a goal in and of itself, let alone the army. I felt, more than ever, that Israel had really lost its vision. A country founded by the people of the Bible, which contains the most vivid description of ideal society at the end of days, days of peace, of every man and woman enjoying their life under their fig tree with no one to disturb them. And this is what we come up with? A fully militarized society as an ideal? I felt we had completely lost our way and that it was of the greatest importance that we find it back.


I was at a Sabbath meal at Patty’s, a member from my synagogue in Jerusalem. Patty is an American-Israeli in her thirties, beautiful, stylish and charming. She is also quite right-wing politically and used to live in a settlement near Nablus. Patty works as a medical doctor specializing on infertility. She told me of a “test” she once had in her job. A Palestinian-American woman came to her looking for fertility treatment. She was quite surprised, as Palestinians did not figure in her vision of potential clients. “This is a test of my professionalism” she told me she said to herself. “If you are the real thing, you should be able to take in a Palestinian woman as your patient.” To Patty, this was quite a stretch of mind, as she clearly viewed Palestinians as our enemies. As it turned out, she and Rana, her Palestinian lady patient, were around the same age, both American born and raised and they quite hit it off. “Can you imagine?” Patty said in wonder just reminiscing about this episode: “I was helping a Palestinian woman get pregnant!”

In any other context, this would be normal. But in the ideologically-charged atmosphere of Israel and in the mind of much of Israeli Jewry, the “demographic question” or the constant fear of being eventually outnumbered by Arabs is a haunting threat. In Patty’s mindset, what she was doing was outstanding. She recounted how she and Rana would even bond regarding the things they missed about America. Rana, who was a more recent immigrant, was asking Patty about places where she could find American goodies, something much harder to do in East than in West Jerusalem. “She was so homesick!” Patty said, “I don’t know why they came back to live here” Patty said. She explained it was the decision of Rana’s husband, who had been born and raised in Jerusalem, to come back to live in the city after some time in America.

This decision, Patty could not understand: “I have no idea why Rana and her husband came back to Jerusalem.” She repeated: “They had a good life in America.” I volunteered that, since he was born in Jerusalem and had been raised here, perhaps he was missing his country. She shook her head, gave me a knowing look and said: “I think he came back for ideological reasons.” Amazing, I thought to myself. Patty, who had not been born in Israel, immigrated there and built a life in this country. I knew it had been hard for her and her family, as she herself had told me, precisely because they themselves had a good life in America and starting anew in Israel was not easy. How could she possibly not understand that someone else, who had actually been born in Jerusalem, would want to come back? Even more, how could she think that going back to one’s place of birth was a gesture in ideology and her immigration to Israel was not? I did not have the heart to ask her.

The iron curtain

I was having dinner with a group of European Jewish friends. Among them was Ariel, a young man in his twenties whom I had met in Hebrew class, his wife and their two children. Ariel had typical right-of-center views on Israel. Despite that, I felt I could speak to him. We would most often not agree, but we could communicate. It was one of the –many—instances in which I felt that our dialogue was healthy and that it was good for both of us to hear the other’s views. His wife, on the other hand, seemed to be completely sealed off within herself and her views. I could not even speak with her. Literally. She would make a point about Arabs –invariably hostile—and, when I tried to present a different view, she would not even let me speak. She would interrupt heatedly, emotionally, shaking her head. I felt she had cornered herself into a world of fear and prejudice and was completely unwilling to let any information that was not consistent with the views she already held enter into the fortress of her mind and heart. I tried to tell her that I had met many Palestinians over my two years in Israel/Palestine and that her views simply did not square with what I had seen.

At one point, though, I realized that she was one of the –few—people I had met who simply did not want to listen at all. There was nothing one could say, nothing one could do to engage her in dialogue or get her to consider alternative views. She was completely convinced of the righteousness of Jews and Israel and of the evil nature of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. I felt as if she had built an iron curtain around her and there was nothing one could do to pierce it.

The Lure of Fanaticism

I was in Washington D.C. at the home of some friends from my synagogue. The formal meal had ended and various guests were engaging in small group discussions. Joseph, my host, is an American Jewish man in his thirties whom I particularly like because of his thoughtfulness and gentleness. He came up to me and struck up a conversation about my time in Israel. He knew the basics of my reaction to the country including the fact that I had decided to spend my second year teaching at a Palestinian university. That day, he told me about the year he had spent in Yeshiva in Jerusalem and his visits to the settlements during that time. “I found it fascinating” he said as he went on to expound eloquently on what I believe is a pretty common view among religious Jews. “I am both attracted and repelled by the settlements. I admire the settlers because they are taking their beliefs to their ultimate consequences. They are living out their dreams.” He did have a dreamy look in his eyes himself as he explained how he felt: “Moreover, the West Bank is beautiful.”

Joseph went on to tell me how he went particularly often to a certain settlement because there was a family there on whose daughter he had a bad crush. “We would be standing on the hilltop the settlement was on and the view at our feet was magnificent. One could think one was living out the Zionist dream.” He caught himself and stopped: “I understood the lure of fanaticism” he said with a much more sober look in his eye. He continued: “As we looked down from the hilltop, we would see Palestinians going about their lives and I would ask my friends: “What do you expect them to do? Just sit back and take it all, the injustice, the humiliation…throw their hands up and say, yes, you are right! We accept your version of history and we are packing up and moving to Jordan! I would sometimes ask my friend this question” he told me. “What did she answer?” I asked Joseph “She had no answer for me” he replied.



Chapter 14. Jerusalem stories


You shall have one law for stranger and citizen alike:
for I the Lord am your G-d.
Leviticus 24:18


Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
To the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice well up as waters,
And righteousness as a mighty stream

Amos 5:22-24


If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.
Let my tongue stick to my palate if I fail to recall you,
if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy.
Psalm 137


Once I was sitting on the steps
near the gate at David’s Citadel and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me.
A group of tourists stood there around their guide,
and I became their point of reference.
“You see that man over there with the baskets?
A little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period.
A little to the right of his head. “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself:
Redemption will come only when they are told:
Do you see that arch from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left
and then down a bit, there’s a man
who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
” Jerusalem is full of Haredim and Arabs!”



I spent my first month in Israel studying Hebrew at an ulpan in Netanya. During that time, I took a number of taxis in the Netanya and Tel Aviv areas. My conversations with the cab drivers would typically go from when I had arrived in the country to what I was going to do there and where I was going to live. My answers to the first two questions would be welcomed (I had arrived very recently –welcome!—and was going to be a professor at an Israeli university –congratulations!–). My answer to the third question, however, was almost invariably received with a mixture of disbelief and disapproval. “Jerusalem? Why do you want to live in Jerusalem? It’s full of Haredim and Arabs!” Though this last point was sometimes expressed in a round-about manner, it was most often made directly and unabashedly –as if we all knew that civilized, modern Jews like ourselves are not supposed to like let alone wish to live anywhere near those two groups of people.

I would try to explain that, though I was pleased that Israel had such a modern city as Tel Aviv, being from Barcelona, it was not much of a novelty for me. Jerusalem, on the other hand, was special, in particular for a religious Jew. I would also explain that I was especially interested in Jerusalem, because there were large Haredi and Arab populations. My interlocutors would typically acknowledge my first point while expressing undisguised shock at my second, seemingly uncanny, interest.  These cab drivers, as it turns out, were expressing a view that I saw confirmed in many conversations later on, in articles and even in statistics–most Israelis have no desire to live in Jerusalem, feel little connection to it and harbor negative feelings towards it. At first, I was very surprised by this hostility which many secular Israelis feel towards Jerusalem. After all, Jerusalem has been at the center of Jewish prayers for two millennia and the longing to the return to the land of Israel was most often expressed specifically as a return to Jerusalem.

I later realized that Jerusalem is disturbing to secular Israelis precisely for the reasons that I love it. The Haredim embody traditional Judaism and the culture of the Diaspora and the Arabs represent an unacknowledged history and contemporary reality which Israel is trying hard to bury. Both groups are also seen as a threat to what secular Israelis would call “a secular Jewish state and a modern economy” or to what one could alternatively call a “traditional Judaism-free, value-free nationalist Jewish state.” Namely, traditional Judaism reminds Israelis that there is nothing in the world –let alone something as momentous as the building of the State of Israel—that should not have a spiritual –or at least an ethical—objective. The mainstream Israeli view is that the survival of the state is so precarious and the history of the Jewish people so full of blood, that any action is justified in the pursuit of the preservation of the state of Israel and its (Jewish) population. Judaism presents a completely different view –survival is never enough and there are some actions that are always forbidden, even in the pursuit of survival. Moreover, the prophets warned about the downfall of Israel were it to forsake ethical behavior, in particular justice and kindness. These unwelcome messages –Jewish history, its pacifism, its mission, and its death toll– are embodied in traditional Talmudic Judaism and personified by the Haredim.

Arabs, on the other hand, are resented because they are a living reminder of Herzl’s willful misconception –there were people in the land, there was even “a” people –the Palestinians– and of Israel’s “original sin”— their expulsion during the 1947-48 war and their exclusion and mistreatment in Israel and their occupation in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. A satisfactory solution has not yet been found by the “democratic Jewish state” to any of these two “problems” – Israel’s Jewish mission and its connection to Jewish history on the one hand and the place of the Arab population in the country on the other.

The tunnel between two worlds

I often travel from my apartment in West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem. The route is gorgeous and one gets to see much of Jerusalem through it–churches, the Mount of Olives in the background, the city walls, the tower of David. What is most striking to me in the whole route, though, is the change in economic and social scenery before and after the tunnel that links the western part of the city walls to the eastern part. As one goes into the tunnel, one is immersed in a western, rich, Jewish country and, as one emerges one minute later, one is in a developing country in the Arab world. It is as if one were travelling in time and space at the same time, all in one minute’s time, by Jerusalem’s walls.

They want to give you citizenship and you don’t want it; I want it and they won’t give it to me!

It was Sunday morning, a working day in Israel and my last available day to do errands before going on vacation. I wanted to make sure the Israeli Ministry of the Interior knew I did not wish to receive Israeli citizenship. In order to receive my residence permit, I was asked to sign a paper which said that, unless I said otherwise, I would be given Israeli citizenship automatically after a period of three months. I had decided I wanted to continue on my temporary visa and was determined to brave the most unfriendly and inefficient bureaucracy I have ever encountered to make sure I would not be made a citizen against my will.

I hailed a taxi just outside my home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bak’a and asked the cab driver whether he knew where the Ministry of the Interior was located. He assented and asked me whether I was going to get my citizenship. I told him that the opposite was true –that I was going to tell the Ministry that I did not wish to receive citizenship. He burst out “They want to give you citizenship and you don’t want it; I want it and they won’t give it to me!” I asked him if he was Arab. He said: “Yes, I am, but it should not matter!” I told him that I agreed and that this was one of the reasons why I did not wish to acquire citizenship. Seeing support for his frustration, he went on to explain how he had lived on this land his whole life, as had his parents and his parents’ parents’ and yet, the Israeli state, who was ruling the land, would not give him citizenship. This is the plight of East Jerusalem’s Arabs. “Something is not right” he concluded sadly shaking his head. I agreed with him and we both knew his was a major understatement.

Jerusalem is an Arab City

My friend Khaled and I were taking a walk on the Sherover promenade in Jerusalem. It is a fantastic vantage point offering amazing views of Jerusalem, including the old city and the Dome of the Rock. In the distance, you can see Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives and even some of the Judean Hills in the background.  We stopped for a moment to rest and admire the sights. Khaled extended his arm to the distance and said: “See? Jerusalem is an Arab city.” At the beginning, I did not know what he was referring to. “What do mean?” I asked him. “That when you look at the city’s architecture, you see that it is an Arab city.” I would never deny that Jerusalem is an Arab city, not so much because of the architecture, but because of the people who live there. It is also true that architecture is a manifestation of human presence. However, the type of architecture he was referring to–grand religious architecture—is only one manifestation of human presence or of attachment to a land. I thought of another Palestinian friend who had told me that Jerusalem was “a Muslim and a Christian city.” That is true from an architectural point of view. Most Jewish sites have long been buried underground and the synagogues which had been functioning up to 1948 in the Jewish quarter of the old city were destroyed during the war of independence and after the loss of the quarter by Israel and the expulsion of its inhabitants.

During that walk with Khaled, I realized that in other to lay claim to Jerusalem, both sides use parameters appropriate to their culture, but less so to that of the other. Arabs emphasize architecture. Jews emphasize literature and liturgy. Jewish liturgy is absolutely replete of references to Jerusalem –from the Torah to the Talmud to the prayer book. In trying to emphasize the religious importance of Jerusalem to Jews compared with Muslims, Jews often cite that Jerusalem is cited X times in the Torah and not even once in the Koran. That, to some, proves its infinitely greater significance to Judaism than to Islam. Muslims don’t even understand what you are talking about when you say something like this. Jerusalem is the third holiest city to them and the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosques. The fact that it is not mentioned in the Koran is no proof of the contrary. Jews feel the same way about the absence of grand religious Jewish architecture in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. Both arguments reflect a deep misunderstanding of the other as well as a deflection of the real issue today –that Jews, Christians and Muslims do live in the city and that we need to find a way for all of us to continue living there with justice and in peace.

Killing and stealing

I was riding a taxi cab from my home in West Jerusalem to Hebrew University. The taxi driver was a Palestinian from East Jerusalem. We struck up a conversation. Although we did not get into specifics, I believe he assumed I was an American. Our conversation was in English and he spoke freely. It all started because we had to take a detour in our trip due to road closures around the King David Hotel. “Some President or some big politician is visiting” he said despondently. “Maybe it is Condolezza Rice. If she is back, it must be because she likes the food, because she isn’t doing much else than eating and creating traffic jams here!” I laughed and, in a more serious tone, asked him whether he really believed nothing would come out of the Annapolis process. He was certain it would not. “Listen,” he said, “this country has always had problems. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed were all here” he said (though Moses was not). We have had the Turks, the British, the Jordanians and now the Israelis. Jews want the country, Arabs do too…” He threw up his hands in a gesture of desperation. He then went on to explain how hard life was for Arabs in East Jerusalem. “There are twenty-five of us in my house. The family has expanded, but when we ask for building permits, they are consistently denied.” I had read about this in the press, but I had not yet heard such a poignant personal story. Twenty-five people in one home. At the same time, of course, Jewish areas in Jerusalem were booming. “People here are angry” the cab driver went on to explain, “It is not a good place to live. All people do here is killing and stealing, killing and stealing. No one likes each other. Not even Jews like it here. I just took an Israeli Jew to the airport. He and his family are moving to Brazil.” I do not think I had yet heard such an indicting statement of the Holy Land.

Giving up

When I asked a Jerusalemite Palestinian friend from my ulpan about his work, he invited me to go and visit the school where he was teaching. His school is located in East Jerusalem and it is a girls’ school that was founded after the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948. In the Deir Yassin massacre, Jewish troops killed hundreds of civilians in a town near Jerusalem despite the fact that it had signed a non-aggression pact with them. It was an act meant to instill terror across Palestine and it succeeded. After the massacre, some surviving children had been left orphan and needed a place to go. The school had been created as a boarding school for them. It continues to exist to this day.

I visited it on a beautiful spring day and my friend Mohammed proudly showed me around in the various classrooms and introduced me to the teachers. We finished our visit with a stop at the principal’s office. Amjad, the principal, was a woman of impressive strength. You could tell as soon as you met her. She was in her seventies, but was sharp as nails and radiated energy. She invited me to sit down and offered me wonderful Palestinian coffee with cardamom and Arab sweets. We sat down to talk. In addition to the school, she told me about her life. Amjad was from a well-heeled Jerusalemite family who had owned a beautiful home in what is now West Jerusalem that was taken over by the Israelis and turned into a hotel. She recalled some of her most vivid memories from the years after the Nakbah. When she was in her twenties, an Israeli organization took a joint group of Palestinians and Jews on a tour of Tel Aviv. “Why would they do that?” I asked her “Were you supposed to be impressed?” She looked at me with determination: “They wanted us to give up” she said wisely. “They wanted Palestinians to feel like uncultured peasants who would never be able to compete with them.” “In the group,” she reminisced, “some of the Jews were surprised I was Arab.” “What do you think an Arab looks like” she asked them defiantly. “I was looking very good. I was wearing a beautiful green coat I had” she said and I saw her dreaming back to the years of her youth. She quickly turned back to the present: “But we haven’t given up and we won’t.”

Perhaps you can help me change

I was late to my Hebrew class and I decided to take a taxi. The taxi I stepped into seemed to be out of an Almodovar movie. It had leopard skin on the seats, all sorts of bizarre ornamentation hanging from the roof of and, to top it up, a bottle of whiskey in the cavity in-between the two seats in the back. The driver engaged me in an inane conversation whose content I do not recall. As we were nearing the end of the ride, a young woman motioned to the taxi driver to stop. He did and she asked if he could take her somewhere in town. He rudely said no, rolled up the window, sped up and said: “Fuck you!” (in English) followed by “she is an Arab” (in Hebrew).  I asked him what his point was. He was happy to tell me: “She is an Arab!” he repeated thinking I had not understood him the first time around. “They have their own drivers” he continued to further support his imagined argument. I told him that I knew there were Arab drivers, that the cabs I would ride in would often be driven by Arab cabbies and that I would not be happy if they refused to take me on board because I was Jewish. “Listen,” he said, “this is the way I am. I can’t do anything about it.” Fortunately, we were nearing the end of the ride. Before he let me out of the cab, he asked me: “Can I have your phone number?” I could not believe his chutzpah and could have thought of many reasons why I did not wish to give it to him, but I chose one. I told him: “After the way you spoke about that Arab lady, you have no chance of getting my phone number.” Without missing a beat he pleaded: “Perhaps you can help me change!” “You told me yourself that you cannot change” I answered and hurried with relief to my Hebrew class.

I want to give a fair judgment

Ismail is from Jerusalem. His family has lived in the city at least for the past three centuries and, unlike most Palestinians, they have the documents to prove it. Ismail spent some time in the United States studying and, later on, married an American citizen. He did not take on American citizenship though and, after he divorced, he decided to go back to Jerusalem where his whole family is living. This turned out to be an odyssey. It took him two years of paperwork, a trip to Jordan and countless headaches, expenses and worry. As a “Jerusalem resident,” Ismail is in a precarious situation. Israel has designed its regulations in such a way as to maximize the chances to strip Palestinians off their residence rights, which helps implement the stated policy goal of keeping the number of Palestinians in the city within the “Arab quota” (or maximum percentage of Arabs in the city) established by the Jerusalem municipality. Even the regulations concerning who is a resident and what it takes for Palestinians to conserve or to lose residence in Jerusalem are not established in a transparent manner, available to all or consistently applied. This increases administrative discretion for the municipality and uncertainty for Palestinians. After a time-consuming battle with the Israeli bureaucracy, the time for Ismail’s trial had come. He invited me to attend and I eagerly agreed. We went to the Court House in East Jerusalem, which stands out, like all official Israeli buildings, with its Star of David flag and Jewish symbols, in the middle of an Arab town. After being checked through security, I, together with Ismail and his elderly parents, walked into the building.

Ismail’s lawyer was an Israeli Arab with the physical appearance of an Ashkenazi Jew. He spoke flawless Hebrew. I hope this helps them, I thought. Although Palestinians are entitled to interpretation into Arabic, Ismail –who also speaks perfect Hebrew—preferred to have the trial run in Hebrew. I wondered how disorienting it all must have been for his parents, how surreal and how unjust. After centuries of living in that city, their son had to face a foreign court in a foreign language to argue for his right to return to his town and his family just because he had lived abroad for a few years. If his right was denied, moreover, it was not clear where Ismail would have returned to, as he was not a permanent resident of the United States or any other country. This is part of the predicament of being stateless.

The trial was short and to the point. The state attorney presented her case –Ismail had lived abroad for a number of years that justified removal of his Jerusalem residency and he had not sufficiently proved that he did not have residency anywhere else. The judge was weighing the facts and the law, but, thankfully for Ismail and his family, he was also, even in that crazy and distorted context, weighing justice. At one point, he interrupted his own reasoning and said: “I am trying to give a fair judgment.” It was clear that he was. The problem was the context within which he was operating –illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and the racism of the Jerusalem municipality’s residence laws with their ethnic cleansing goal. The judge ruled that a temporary Jerusalem ID card was to be issued to Ismail, to be confirmed after he provided proof that he did in fact not enjoy the benefit of US permanent residence. The judge also ruled that all the expenses Ismail had incurred in the previous two years were to be reimbursed to him by the State of Israel. I sighed in relief at the outcome and hoped that those involved in the trial on the Israeli side realized that their problem in administering justice was the basic injustice of the system of which they were a part.

There is room!

I was sitting down with a group of friends from Hebrew class at a barbeque. I was casually chatting with Khaled, a sharp, polite and charming Palestinian Jerusalemite. At one point, he changed the topic of conversation and, looking at me with concern, asked me if it was true that some orthodox Jews wanted to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount so as to re-build the Jewish Temple there. He seemed genuinely worried. I told him that the people proposing such a thing were a tiny group of crazies and that this in no way represented the mainstream of even the most right-wing orthodox Jews. He seemed relieved and added: “You can build your Temple next to our mosques. There is room!” I was overjoyed. What a beautiful thing to say and what a wonderful attitude to have. I thought that, if everyone thought like Khaled, the messiah would finally come to that troubled land.

The third Temple

It was a gorgeous Shabbat summer afternoon and I asked Isaac, a friend of mine visiting from Washington DC, whether he wanted to walk to the Kotel for mincha with me. He eagerly agreed. It was a beautiful walk and, after about forty minutes, we arrived at the Kotel. We went to our separate sides of the wall to pray. Afterwards, we spent some time just taking in the wonder of the moment as the late afternoon sun bathed the white stones of the Jerusalem walls in a beautifully subdued light. At one point, Isaac said: “You know, we pray for the third Temple, but it is already here if we were only able to see it.” I thought that was a beautiful thing to say. From a physical point of view, we cannot expect much more beauty from Jerusalem. From an ethical and a spiritual point of view, however, there is an enormous amount of wrongs to be righted before we can consider the world is ready for the coming of the Messiah and the building of the third Temple.

Jerusalem and its flags

We had just finished a visit to an exhibit in the old city of Jerusalem and our tour guide invited our group –a Northern European diplomat, an Arab-American political scientist, a Palestinian-Israeli engineer and myself—to go up to the roof of the building where the exhibit was located. The rooftop provided a breathtaking view of the old city. The day was sunny and clear, as many are in Jerusalem, and the city shined in its majestic beauty. As we looked around, I realized that the rooftops around us, many of them historic buildings, were full of flags. One could see the flags of a great array of European countries, including the flag of the Vatican, and several Israeli flags on the rooftops of buildings taken over by settlers. Only one flag was conspicuously missing –that of the people inhabiting that part of the city—the Palestinian flag. What a sad symbol of the state of East Jerusalem, I thought, that Palestinians have to go through their occupied city every day with reminders of everybody else’s nationalism and power without being able to fly their own flag themselves.

In Yafo, I feel like a human being

Mary is a Palestinian Christian whose family is originally from Yafo. They became refugees in 1948 and, since then, they have been living in what is now an Arab neighborhood of ever-expanding Jerusalem.  She works at an international organization. I went to talk to her regarding a professional matter and we ended up striking a conversation. She told me about the history of her family’s loss and how one of the brothers had stayed behind in the family home in Yafo. Like all Palestinian refugees, the other members of Mary’s family were not allowed to return to their home. As if this were not enough, the Israeli state tried to take over their shares in the family home away from the brother who had stayed behind. This resulted in a legal battle that has been ongoing for decades and continues to this day. Despite this, Mary said, Yafo remains home and now that, as a result of the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel in 1967, she and her family can visit the town, she loves to go there. Although Yafo is now a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood almost engulfed by an imposing Tel Aviv, the atmosphere there is much better than it is in Jerusalem, Mary explained. “In Yafo,” she said, I feel like a human being. In Jerusalem, I do not.”

Beauty, horror and holiness

Something which has struck me in my travels is how beauty and horror can live side by side, in a common physical space. Though philosophers and history itself have long discredited the idea, our brains and hearts still want to believe that ethics and aesthetics are related –that the beautiful must be good and the bad must be ugly. Reality shows us otherwise. One of the first memories I have of reflecting on this idea was as I was standing at the gateways of Aushwitz extermination camp. The camp lies in the midst of beautiful green Polish meadows. When I was there, it was summertime, the sun was shining and, if one could possibly have abstracted from where one was, the surroundings looked idyllic. I was shocked. Somehow, in my mind, Aushwitz needed to be in an ugly place. I tried to imagine how so much horror, humanity at its worst, could be acting in the midst of that beautiful landscape. I simply did not succeed.

I had a similar thought at Goree island in Senegal and in Zanzibar (Tanzania), outposts of the Atlantic and the Arab slave trades respectively. They are beautiful islands, right out of a dream. The blue sea, the blue sky, quaint old stone houses and, in the midst of all, the buildings where human beings would be treated as if they weren’t, captured and brought in in chains to be packed in airless boats and be sent off across the sea to slavery or death. Again, I simply could not believe that such ideally beautiful surroundings could have been the backdrop to so much human cruelty and suffering.

Jerusalem today does not exhibit the extremes of human depravity that either the holocaust or slavery entail. However, it is home to terrible injustice and lack of kindness and compassion. I would often think about this lack of ethics in the midst of such beautiful aesthetics. Moreover, in Jerusalem, we have the critical additional element of holiness. This is a city that three religions hold holy –the spiritual center of Judaism, the city of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the place from which the Koran tells that Mohammed ascended to heaven. One cannot miss the sense of holiness. At the same time, if one’s eyes and heart are open, one also cannot miss the feeling of injustice. The question arises again: how can so much injustice and unkindness be perpetrated in such a beautiful holy city? I believe the answer to this quandary is that physical environment and human beings are not as intrinsically linked as we would like to believe –the land can be beautiful, the land can be good; it can even be holy, whereas we can simply not be. Human beings can create horror in the midst of beauty, even in a holy place.


Agnes is a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem. She lives in what is perhaps East Jerusalem’s most prosperous neighborhood, an upper-middle class area where housing prices are higher than in the Jewish settlement next door. Despite the fact that it is a well-to-do neighborhood and residents pay high property taxes to the Jerusalem municipality, hardly any public services are provided to them. My conversation with Agnes was heart-breaking. “We pay taxes,” she said wistfully, “but the municipality does not do anything for us. Other parts of Jerusalem have green areas, parks and playgrounds for children. In our neighborhood, children have nowhere to go.”

I remembered a “tour” of Jerusalem I had taken with “Ir Amim” or (city of its people), a Jewish-Arab  Jerusalem NGO. The tour highlighted how the Jewish and the Arab neighborhoods of the city are next to each other, but worlds apart. As one enters an Arab neighborhood, roads are often no longer paved, municipal trash collection is wanting, schools lacking (thousands of Jerusalem’s Arab children are studying in private homes because the Government will not build schools for them). Green areas, parks or playgrounds are completely absent, a luxury only dispensed to Jewish neighborhoods. I felt so powerless. What could I say to her? “Yes, you are right. It is a terrible injustice” or some other obvious platitude. All I could think was that the Jerusalem municipality has no interest whatsoever in catering to the needs of its Arab population, that all they seemed to care about was keeping the percentage of Arabs as far under their policy-established quota as possible and controlling any potential violent activity on their part. Arab children, to these self-styled policy-makers, are not equal residents, not even little people who need playgrounds or schools, but a demographic threat they are trying by all means available to push out of the city. I was so ashamed I just nodded and agreed with Agnes.

Beverly Hills in Jerusalem

I watched a video about the settlements around Jerusalem and the building of the separation wall. The testimony that most struck me was that of a woman who, in Israeli parlance, would be called an “economic settler.” She was more than that. She was an “unwitting settler.” She moved into Pizgat Zeev without knowing it was a settlement. Israel has expanded the settlements around Jerusalem and integrated them to such an extent with pre-1967 Jewish Jerusalem that people will often not know what is a settlement and what is not. Hardly anyone among Jews, of course, calls them settlements, but “neighborhoods” which helps with the pre-meditated confusion. She explained how the government had offered beautiful, spacious apartments in an area which they said would be “The Beverly Hills of Jerusalem.” The Chutzpah! I thought. When she moved in, she was appalled. She realized that her apartment was in the West Bank and that Jerusalem’s “Beverly Hills” was facing a Palestinian refugee camp which she could see from her living room window. She was distressed, but felt it was too late. It was hard for her to look at such poor children right outside her window and just go on living her middle-class Jewish settlement life. She said she tried to write about the situation and the refugee camp in the settlement’s newspaper, but that no one else seemed interested. I felt sorry for her. She said she and her family would move in a heart-beat if the government provided them with an equivalent apartment elsewhere. The problem, however, is that the government would not be able to do that as land prices are much cheaper in Palestine (especially when the land is confiscated and hence free).


It was the day after the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel had been agreed after Israel’s grueling 2009-2010 war on Gaza. I was coming back to Jerusalem after one month’s absence. It was a mostly sunny and temperate day in January and, on the surface, things looked more or less as usual. The only objective difference I could point to was that things seemed to be quieter. There were very few people at the airport and not many people on the typically busy Tel Aviv to Jerusalem highway or on Jerusalem’s streets. More than that, though, I felt a change in mood. There appeared to be greater tension, controlled concern about the future and the uneasy feeling that one may be in the eerie moments of calm before the storm. My cab driver expressed these feelings: “No one is coming to Israel these days either from Europe or from America. People have cancelled their flights and vacation plans. They are afraid to come here.” “We are also concerned,” the driver went on, “that terrorist attacks may start again.” The beautiful landscape of the central plains between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was rolling outside my window and I was wondering what the near future may bring to this troubled land as well as how far Gaza and the images of death and horror I had seen on the media seemed to be from Israel.

Later that day, I went to my ulpan. Even there, where we normally have an upbeat and jovial atmosphere, things seemed to be different. We were all struggling to focus on the learning and to keep our customary mood, but failing at it. The Palestinian students made more or less veiled references to the war in Gaza and, during the break, as I was talking to one of them. He said to me: “Five hundred children were killed. Five hundred. After this, there cannot be peace. We will be asked whether we are crazy to be talking to the Israelis about peace after what they have done.” Many of the students in the class, when asked by the teacher what was wrong, said they were tired. That is how I felt and not only because I had just flown trans-atlantically that morning. I felt wiped out, as if the conflict in Gaza had been fought inside me.

As I was riding in a taxi to go back home after class, I heard a song in Arabic on the radio and the wave of sadness I was controlling inside me rose up. I felt as if there was no boundary between the city and myself. I felt anguish and almost as if the city was crying out in despair for all the cruelty perpetrated in the name of the religions that hold it holy. At one point, I realized that I could not distinguish whether the sadness was inside me and I was projecting it onto others and on Jerusalem, whether it was Jerusalem’s sadness spreading over all her children, or whether it was one and the same sadness that pervaded us all and, in a strange and morbid way, knitted us all ever closer together.

Are all these people settlers?

I had a dinner appointment with Jan, a European diplomat, and Hala, a friend from Lebanon who was in Jerusalem for some work with Palestinians through the United Nations. The job of the European diplomat was also exclusively with Palestinians and he was not very familiar with West Jerusalem. I had asked Jan and Hala if we could have dinner at a kosher restaurant in German Colony, a West Jerusalem neighborhood. They agreed. I arrived before them and sat at our reserved table. They arrived shortly afterwards. We greeted each other and sat down. Jan started looking at the restaurant guests around him with great curiosity and then whispered to me: “Are all these people settlers?” If these had been early days of my stay in Israel I would not even have understood why he was asking. By then, though, I knew that, to my chagrin, kippa-wearing Jews are assumed by Palestinians to be settlers. As I looked around me and saw a sea of kippa-wearing men, I knew what Jan was referring to. “No” I said to him. “I very much doubt they are settlers. They are just orthodox Jews. This is an orthodox area and most of these people live around here. It’s also likely that a fair amount of them are Americans who are visiting Israel, as this is quite a popular neighborhood with American Jews” “I see” he said. He seemed relieved.

I witnessed quite a few of these episodes during my stay in Israel. One of my best friends in the country is an Orthodox Jew originally from Miami. A Palestinian friend from ulpan once asked me about him: “Isn’t your friend very right wing?” “No” I said “I would say he is center-left” “Why do you ask?” “Because he wears a kippa,” he said as if this were conclusive evidence of my friend’s political leanings. I tried to explain that not every single Jew wearing a kippa was right wing. Unfortunately, however, these are not inaccurate generalizations. A high percentage of all settlers, almost all of the ideological settler movement and all violent settlers are non-haredi (and hence kippa-wearing as opposed to hat-wearing) orthodox Jews. The reverse, however, is not true. Namely, not all non-haredi orthodox Jews are settlers. Nevertheless, a very high percentage of those who are not settlers themselves hold right-wing views and support the settler movement. The association between what is called “modern (i.e. non-haredi) orthodoxy” and right-wing views on Israel is less strong in America. In Israel, however, it is unfortunately very tight. As a result, anyone wearing a knitted kippa is assumed to be, at best, a right-winger and, at worst, a settler. This perception is not only shared by Palestinians and gentiles, but by secular Israeli Jews as well. An American friend who is an orthodox rabbi told me that, because of his looks (with kippa and a beard), secular Israelis typically assume he is a settler. “Through their reaction to me I can gauge the general mood about settlers in the country” he explained.

From Jews!

Mahane Yehuda is one of the few places in Jerusalem where Jews and Arabs seem to mix. Even there, though, the mixing is not unfettered or on an equal basis. It is, unmistakably, a Jewish market. Young Arab kids (no older than 16) are the main ones pushing around carts and boxes and sweeping the ground, cleaning the fish and doing all the hardest and most unpleasant labor. Almost all stall owners are Jewish, though some of them employ Arab sellers. While shopping there, I would look at the young Arab kids and hope they were treated fairly, how ever one may define this in the distorted context of Jerusalem.

One day, I was strolling about looking for vegetables. Since it was a shemita year –a year during which Jews are not allowed to eat produce cultivated by other Jews in the land of Israel– I tried to buy produce cultivated by Arabs. Given the hostility toward that population group in the Israeli Jewish context, however, not all clients feel like me and look for ways around the prohibition. That day, as I was strolling through the market, there was a vendor who was catering to those clients and screaming at the top of his lungs: “From Jews!” he yelled about his vegetables, “Not from Arabs! From Jews!” How depressing, I thought. Even Mahane Yehuda is contaminated by this hostility. That day, I was too embarrassed to look at the Arab kids pushing carts and boxes around me and just wondered how it must feel to have to work in an environment that so utterly rejects you, but is happy to use you as cheap labor.

Do you know Sarah?

I was sitting in the home of some friends in Jab-el-Mukkabber, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. I had met the grandfather of the family because he works in my neighbor’s apartment in West Jerusalem and he had invited me to their home. I was at the visitors’ room and Mussa, an adorable boy of about five, was sitting there with me trying to make polite conversation. With his short age and my extremely limited Arabic, this was no easy task. At one point in our faltering conversation, he asked me: “Do you know Sarah?” I asked him who Sarah was. He told me that it was a Jewish friend of the family. I enquired where Sarah lived. Mussa shrugged his shoulders and answered: “There, with the other Jews.” It struck me that this was how the world around him must appear to a little Palestinian Jerusalemite –that there was this other world in the city, the Jewish world, that it was a world apart, and that it was the place where all the Jews lived. Unfortunately, a whole host of Jews were about to move into a settlement in Mussa’s neighborhood. I also wondered how, as Mussa grew older and developed more of a consciousness, he would perceive the ever-expanding place where Jews lived and the ever-shrinking place where he was allowed to reside.

Hi! Hi!

I had accepted an invitation to join a group of friends for a Shabbat picnic in a West Jerusalem park. Since the Jerusalem municipality does not build any parks in East Jerusalem, the law of unintended consequences leads the West Jerusalem parks to be one of the very few leisure places which both Jews and Palestinians visit. Each group, of course, visits them separately. It is interesting to see the grass full of Palestinians and Jews relaxing with their families. It provides some (false) sense of normality. That warm spring Shabbat afternoon, I was with a group of orthodox Jews walking through the park to go to the spot where we were supposed to meet others for our picnic. At one point, we went by a Palestinian family –a couple with their children. Their youngest kid –a boy of about two years of age—saw us and started excitedly waving at us and yelling “Hi! Hi!” in English. I waved back and smiled at him. I saw the forbearing and somewhat embarrassed smile of his parents looking at their son. It was as if they were thinking: “We are sorry. He does not yet know Jews and Palestinians do not really greet each other and that we are each supposed to stay neatly within our worlds.” I felt sad thinking that, in a few years’ time, that boy would not have waved that way at us anymore.

Arabs did this!

I was strolling around a beautiful promenade with a wonderful view of Jerusalem with an American Israeli friend. We came to a part of the promenade in which there is a mosaic some of whose tiles were missing.  An American woman in her sixties who was also observing the mosaic turned to us and said indignantly pointing to the missing tiles: “Arabs did this!” As my friend is an observant kippa-wearing Jew, she probably felt she would be eagerly supported in her accusation. I turned to her and asked her disingenuously: “Really? Did you see them do it?” She was surprised by my seemingly innocent questions. “No, I did not see them, but who else would do this?” I told her that there were hooligans everywhere. She shook her head unimpressed and walked away.

When she was gone, my friend told me it was good that I had said what I did and that he had seen this woman, an evangelical Christian, in some other contexts. The evangelical support for Israel unfortunately often takes the form of great animosity toward Palestinians. A Palestinian Muslim friend who used to work as head of maintenance at an evangelical school in Jerusalem told me that he had felt no greater prejudice and hostility towards Arabs as from evangelical Christians. The evangelical movement also spends millions of dollars in funding the most radical, right-wing Jewish groups in Israel, including the settler movement. It is their belief that Jews need to return to the whole of the historical land of Israel and, if Palestinians need to be swept away in the process, so be it. That is so even if it brings about Armageddon, which would be good, as it would speed up the end of days and the coming back of the Messiah.

It is all one country

It was a regular day in our ulpan class and the teacher had decided to do a quick quiz of knowledge about Israel as a way to help us use some Hebrew grammatical constructions. One of her first questions to the class was: “Which is the southernmost city in Israel” “Aricha!” (Jericho) answered quickly and unhesitatingly Saleh, a 22-year-old East Jerusalemite sitting next to me. Interesting, I thought, that a Palestinian should consider the West Bank to be part of Israel. The surprise did not end there. A few questions later, the teacher went on to ask us “Which Israelis have won the Nobel Peace Price?” Students in the class provided the right answers (Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Itzhak Rabin). Saleh was not happy with this list. He added forcefully, as if someone had forgotten something vital: “Arafat also won the Nobel Peace Price!” At this point the confusion in the class passed to the stage of sheer bafflement. I could see the faces of the Jewish students just not knowing what to think or say. I could not believe my ears myself. The teacher –a committed mainstream Zionist—kept her cool and answered: “Listen Saleh, I would have been very happy for Arafat to consider himself an Israeli, but I think that is pushing it.” I was sitting between Saleh and Ibrahim, another East Jerusalemite whom I had befriended over the past year. I turned to Ibrahim and asked “What is this about? What is going on? If Arafat heard him, he would turn in his grave.” Ibrahim, who is a pragmatic scientist not particularly exercised about politics, also felt Saleh had just gone too far. “That is Jerusalem,” he said to me with a shrug, “people just do not care.”

I still was not sure whether Saleh’s comments were indeed coming from lack of political consciousness. So, during the class break I asked him about it. “Why did you say Aricha is in Israel? Or that Arafat was Israeli?” Saleh seemed unmoved by the reaction of disagreement aroused in me by his comments. “It is all one country!” he said. Most East Jerusalemites feel this way –they do not care what you call it and perhaps even who runs it—to them it is one country and they want to be able to continue to travel freely from one end of it in the Galilee to the other in Jericho. Unfortunately, they are the only ones to be able to do so, as Israelis are forbidden from travelling to the West Bank and Palestinians prevented from travelling into Israel.

These guys can’t get a job in Ramallah

I was discussing the situation of East Jerusalem Palestinians with Mufid, a Palestinian friend who, despite holding an Israeli passport, chooses to live in Ramallah. I told him that, from my conversations with Palestinians from East Jerusalem, I gathered that they were wary of being separated from the rest of Israel in a two-state solution. Although they are politically unhappy about being occupied by Israel, economically speaking East Jerusalemites are worried about how they would fare in a Palestinian state. I  was thinking about this concern from the view point that Israel is a developed country whereas the Palestinian state would be a developing country and hence would offer few and less well-paid job opportunities. Mufid, however, looked at it from a different perspective: “Of course” he said with disdain, “These guys,” (meaning East Jerusalem Palestinians) “can’t get a job in Ramallah.” “Why?” I asked him “Because they have focused on taking low-skilled jobs in the Israeli economy rather than investing in their education. We in the West Bank have much higher levels of education than they do.” I believe empirical data backs him up. Regardless, it is a point of pride I have noticed among Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza that they have invested in their education and many of them use it to build their economy as opposed to Palestinians from East Jerusalem who have focused on doing the dirty jobs Israeli Jews won’t do.

Bambi is cute

I was in Hebrew class sitting, as usual, next to my East Jerusalem friend Mohammed. We were reading a text about one of the remaining green parts of west Jerusalem that a developer was trying to urbanize. The environmentalist community was making an uproar because, in addition to being one of the few green spaces left, a colony of deer lived in the area and they would be displaced if it was developed. The article was accompanied by a picture of a beautiful young deer. We read about the dispute, the arguments, the environmentalists and the deer. Throughout, I could not stop thinking about the displacements of Palestinians that take place in Jerusalem daily as the city is “Judaized.” A particularly large and systematic series of home demolitions was going on at that time very near my neighborhood. There were protestations by Israeli left-wing NGOs, but the mainstream press almost entirely ignored it. I could not resist the temptation and turned to Mohammed: “Why do we talk about displaced deer but not about displaced Palestinians?” I asked him “Bambi is cute” he answered, giving me a knowing smile. “So are Palestinians” I said.

The preferences of East Jerusalemites

Israeli Jews will often point to the fact that East Jerusalem Palestinians do not wish to be included in a future Palestinian state as proof of the righteousness of the occupation and of the fact that Palestinians are “better off” under Israeli occupation than under Palestinian rule. The truth is that many East Jerusalem Palestinians are indeed wary of losing the few advantages they have acquired in being under Israeli occupation. This includes access to health insurance, to parts of the Israeli education system, and to the higher-paying Israeli labor market without the hard-to-obtain permits that West Bank residents are subject to. It also includes pretty much free and unfettered access to the whole land of historic Palestine –the only Palestinians with such a right. If they were to be incorporated into a Palestinian state, they would lose these privileges.

This, however, is hardly a commendable sign of the beneficence of the Israeli occupation. The life of East Jerusalem Palestinians is in fact extremely difficult. They have a huge shortage of schools and their children often need to learn in improvised makeshift schools in private homes. They are constantly denied building permits and their homes are demolished when built without permits. They face discrimination in the labor market and undisguised social hostility. Their neighborhoods do not get municipality services in any way comparable to those of West Jerusalem and suffer from unpaved roads and piling trash. Post office and phone companies also under-serve the Arab areas of the city. In short, East Jerusalemites have to pay the same taxes as Israelis while getting a small share of lesser quality services. Despite this, it is true that a significant number of East Jerusalem Palestinians prefer this humiliation and injustice to the greater poverty, lower access to social services and severely reduced mobility that affect West Bank Palestinians. When I asked Ishmael, an East Jerusalemite young professional, whether he would prefer his part of the city to be the capital of a Palestinian state or to be integrated into Israel, he gave me a resigned look “They are both bad solutions.”

What Jerusalem is about

Synagogue services had finished and I was going back with my friend Shlomit and her two children back to their home for lunch. Shlomit came to Israel from France, married an American-Israeli and is now divorced and lives with her two children. Her daughter is about ten years old and her son about seven. When we arrived at their apartment, a short walk from the synagogue, I noticed she had some of her children’s paintings on her door. One of them particularly attracted my attention. It was a drawing of Jerusalem. It had many different kinds of buildings in it, some with stars of David, some with crosses and some with half-moons on their roofs, clearly symbolizing the three faiths that hold the city holy. It was painted in lively, bright colors. I told Shlomit it was a beautiful drawing. She knew why I said so and told me proudly that it was her son who had made it. I complimented him on his drawing. He seemed happy though not quite sure why I liked his drawing so much. I told Shlomit it was so nice to see how he had drawn buildings from all three faiths in Jerusalem –which should be standard fare, but is disturbingly not. Shlomit looked me in the eye and said: “Yes. He knows what Jerusalem is about.” I wished more people did.

What’s in a name

I was on my way to Hebrew class when I decided to stop by a grocery store to get a few items. As I queued up to pay, I overheard a conversation between the shopkeeper–an Arab man in his forties—and an Arab man in his twenties who was standing next to him. The young man was recounting a problem he had encountered in renting an apartment. “Did that apartment you were interested in work out?” the shopkeeper asked him. “No,” the young man answered, “They said the apartment was available, but when they asked my name and I told them it was Ibrahim, they no longer seemed interested.” The look on the shopkeeper’s face changed. It was clear he understood what had happened. The young man he was talking to, though, did not seem to. He said: “I don’t know why.” The shopkeeper looked at him with a downcast look and said evasively: “Perhaps they thought you would not be able to pay the rent.” “No,” the young man answered him “I told them I could pay. I told them I could pay the whole rent up front if they wanted” he said proudly. “Maybe they thought you would ruin the place” the shopkeeper offered, at this point short in arguments and perhaps not wanting to say what he thought in front of all the Jews in the shop. “How could I ruin the apartment? We are just a couple with two children.” The shopkeeper shrugged his shoulders and stopped trying to provide justifications.

Months later, I read in Haaretz that my favorite Israeli novelist, the Arab writer Sayed Kashua, was moving to a “Jewish neighborhood.” That is almost unheard of in the tightly segregated world of the holy city. Sayed Kashua devoted some of his weekly columns in the newspaper to all the social and psychological quandaries his audacity was bringing about for him and his family. The last article I read featured his daughter’s school assignment on their neighborhood. She told her dad that she had looked it up in the web and the information said that the Arab population of the neighborhood was zero. “Sure. This is a good neighborhood. I told you” her father retorted ironically. The daughter was undeterred: “But we are here!” “OK” her father answered her: “We are as good as zero, but put 0.001 percent if that makes you feel better.”

The judgmental people of Jerusalem

I was at a Shabbat dinner in Washington DC after my return from Israel. We were discussing the country when one of the dinner guests expressed her preference for Tel Aviv over Jerusalem: “People in Jerusalem are too judgmental” she said. I should have asked her in which way she felt people were judgmental. Instead, I shared with her the comment of a secular Israeli friend who is originally from near Tel Aviv but now lives in Jerusalem: “People in Tel Aviv are just as closed-minded as those in Jerusalem” she once told me” “They are just more hypocritical.” It was an interesting observation. When my friend had made her observation, we were speaking about Jewish-Arab relations and her point was that it was easy for Tel Avivis to be more “open-minded” regarding Arabs since they do not live anywhere near them. In reality, she felt, they were as prejudiced as Jerusalemites.

On the other hand, I believe that the dinner guest who called Jerusalemites judgmental was referring mainly to relations among Jews. I still do not believe the statement is correct. In my experience, secular Tel Avivis are just as judgmental about the religious in Jerusalem as the religious in Jerusalem are of them. What is sad is that people are judgmental precisely about the things that they not ought to be –people’s lifestyles and their degree of ritual religiosity. From a societal perspective, this is no one’s business. A secular Tel Avivi is just as entitled to his/her lifestyle and religious choices as an ultra-orthodox from Jerusalem. Regarding the issues they ought to be judgmental about –how human beings treat other human beings (such as how Arabs are treated in Jerusalem and the rest of the country), very few Israeli Jews aside those on the “extreme left” seem to be making a judgment –whether in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem.

Paying taxes

Reem is one my students at Bethlehem University. Her family is from East Jerusalem, but like a lot of the Palestinian intelligentsia of the city, they have moved to Ramallah. At least Ramallah is run by the Palestinian Authority, she explained, and the occupation is less oppressive. Despite living in Ramallah, she recounted, they still have to pay municipal taxes in Jerusalem so as not to be stripped of their residency and be permanently prevented from returning to their city. The injustice of this rule is so grating that Reem could not hide her resentment at the Israeli government for imposing it on her family and thousands of other Palestinians. “My taxes,” she concluded, “are going to pay for Israeli soldiers to kill Palestinians.” Israel’s 2008-09 offensive against Gaza has just finished and the images of the death and destruction were fresh in everyone’s mind, especially in the West Bank. Although municipal taxes do not go to the central budget of the Israeli government to fund military expenditure, I did not correct Reem. I got her broader point.

Nice, huh?

It was Friday morning and I was driving around in Jerusalem with my Palestinian friend Ahmed, two of his sons and a cousin of theirs. Ahmed wanted to show me various Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. They are right next door to West Jerusalem and yet a world apart. Services are wanting, there is trash all over and, that day, Israeli police were patrolling the streets heavily. At the end of our “tour,” we drove into my beautiful West Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood. The streets were clean. It looked as if it had just been washed. It was peaceful, nothing was lacking and there was no stifling police presence. The contrast could not have been starker. Ahmed asked his eight-year old son Khaled. “Where are we?” “In a neighborhood” Khaled answered. “Yes, but what kind of neighborhood?” his father asked. Khaled shrugged his shoulders. “A Jewish neighborhood. Nice huh?” Ahmed asked his son rhetorically. Little Khaled nodded in assent. He was looking out the window, smiling.

Destroying an entire world

There is a passage in the Talmud which I particularly love –“If one saves a (human) life, it is as if he had saved an entire world; if one destroys a (human) life, it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.” This principle reflects the enormous value placed by Judaism on human life –any human life. It shows how each individual is precious and unique –a microcosm in him/herself. It also reflects the belief that a person is part of and is tied to a family, a community, a language, a religion, a culture –an entire world. Saving that person is saving that unique world he or she represents and the act is felt across that whole world. Conversely, destroying a person is like destroying that unique soul and his/her microcosm –a family, a community, a language, a religion, a culture –an entire world.

I often thought of this saying when I was living in Jerusalem witnessing the systematic destruction of its Arab neighborhoods through “Arab quotas,” restrictive residence requirements, non-granting of building permits, house demolitions, buy-outs, paucity of public services, social hostility and an oppressive Israeli military presence. The thought that kept on coming to my mind was: If destroying a single human life is like destroying an entire world, what must be the punishment for actually destroying an entire world?

Ours and only ours

During the municipal election campaign of 2009, I attended an event at which the four mayoral candidates for Jerusalem spoke. I was particularly struck by the speech of the one who turned out to be the winning candidate. He started by saying: “What we are doing in Ir David, we want to do all over the city to show that Jerusalem is ours and only ours.” “Ir David” is the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, from which its Arab residents are being pushed out through a combination of government pressure and Jewish private buyouts to give way to archeological work to uncover the biblical “City of David” as well as to the move-in of Jewish settlers. The mayoral candidate continued: “We will connect Jerusalem to Gush Etzion. We will connect Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim. We will connect Jerusalem to Beitar.” Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim are the largest Israeli settlements outside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. Beitar is not even close and is near Bethlehem. The candidate did not mention expanding the city toward Mevasseret, in the direction of Tel Aviv. Few Arabs live there, so there is no need to expand there to show that the city is “ours and only ours.” The mayoral candidate’s proposal was crystal clear –ethnically cleansing Jerusalem of Arab residents. I had witnessed the policies and its results for almost two years, but I had never heard its rationale articulated as clearly by any politician. The candidate was cheered by the crowd and, a week later, was elected as the new mayor of Jerusalem.

They don’t want our children

It was the middle of olive picking season in the fall and some Palestinian friends from East Jerusalem had invited me to their home for a breakfast including wonderful Palestinians delicacies, key among which was the new season’s olive oil. At one point, we were sitting out in their patio and I was discussing the study plans of the family’s teenage children with Ghaleb, their father. Ghaleb explained that, if they wanted to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, they were limited in their choice of studies. I was not aware of that and I asked him to explain. Arabs are forbidden from taking either medicine or law at the University. Although I had been living in the city for a year and a half at that point, I was still shocked. I did not realize Arabs were officially barred from specific career tracks in Israeli universities. Once again, I thought, it was so similar to the bars and quotas Jews had faced at European and American universities as to be uncanny. Worse, this was a situation of occupation in which the occupied population was not even granted equal access to the education system of the occupier. I told Ghaleb what he explained was shocking and I believe he saw the question mark in my expression. His answer was simple: “They don’t want our children” he said shrugging his shoulders with a look between disappointed and resigned.

Everybody prays and everybody fights

Yaakov is an adorable three-year old. He is the son of some American Jewish friends who came to Israel to spend the High Holidays with me. Yaakov had just turned three and his parents had followed the Jewish tradition of not cutting his hair till that age. Now, they wanted to have his hair cut by the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The whole family –parents, two grandparents and Yaakov– stayed with me for about a week before that day. During that week, Yaakov’s statements had been the usual ones for a three-year-old. They ranged from: “This is Thomas, the Engine!” to “I want Cheerios” and “Where is mom?”

When he, his grandmother and I were riding on a cab on the way to the Kotel, however, he was to surprise us. Yaakov’s focus –again, not unusual for a three-year-old, was on the presents he was going to get after the hair-cutting ceremony. As we were driving toward the Kotel, therefore, I wanted to tell him that the place we were going to was special. “The Kotel is all we have left of our Temple.” I explained “It is a very special place and, although the Temple is no longer there, people still go to the Kotel to pray.” Yaakov was looking out the window and did not seem to be overly focused on my explanation. His comment, however, stunned us: “Yes” he replied “everybody prays and everybody fights.” I looked at his grandmother in shock. She had the same look on her face: “Where did that come from?” she asked rhetorically. “I have no idea” I answered. We had not had any intense political discussions with him around. And yet, somehow, over the past week, Yaakov, at three years of age, seemed to have absorbed what was one of the critical problems of our holy city.

Shabbat in Jerusalem

Living in Jerusalem as a religious Jew is one of the most exhilarating experiences one can have. The city is holy and you can feel it in your bones, in the air, in every corner, in every place and at all times. I cannot remember a day in which I did not have this strong feeling inside me. However, some days, at some moments, the feeling was even stronger. This was especially the case on Shabbat. Shabbat in Jerusalem truly is, as Jewish tradition holds, a foretaste of the world to come. Time seems to stop as if, like us, it was also commemorating G-d’s rest in the seventh day of creation. As the beginning of shabbat approaches, people hurry home and, right after sunset, a beautiful, magical quiet pervades the city. Families walk to synagogue, to meals and back to their homes. Traffic almost comes to a standstill. Young and old people sit in benches on the sidewalks and in parks. The joyous and relaxed atmosphere in the streets tells you that it is the Sabbath. A few Shabbats, I decided to walk to the Western Wall in the late afternoon as the sun started to set. Those walks were some of the most beautiful memories of my life. I would walk down from my neighborhood of Baq’a and up the hill to the city walls, which would be bathed in honeyed sunlight. I would enter the old city through one of its gates and make my way through the winding streets paved with stone smoothed over by millions of passersby over thousands of years. I would finally arrive at the Western Wall to pray the afternoon prayer. In such days, I felt as fulfilled and complete as one possibly could and, now that I am no longer there, I sorely miss those Shabbats in Jerusalem.

A new Torah and a wedding in Jerusalem

One can feel Jerusalem is a holy city at any time, at any place. However, religious occasions highlight it even further. One day I visited my ultra-orthodox friends in Geulah and joined them for the inauguration of a new Torah scroll that had been donated to a nearby synagogue. Whole families were in the streets awaiting the Torah scroll with joyous expectation. When it arrived, it was accompanied by music, straight out of Eastern European shtetls, and candy for children. Men and boys marched in front of the scroll and accompanied it all the way to the synagogue while women mostly stood by the sidelines and watched. Some followed the men into the synagogue. Children were excited and enjoyed the music, the food, the arrival of the Torah, their friends and the overall atmosphere of celebration. To me, it felt like a beautiful world which had been saved from the ashes of Europe and transplanted to its natural soil to blossom in Jerusalem.

That same evening, I strolled with some Palestinian friends down the Sherover tayelet or promenade above Jerusalem. I had never gone at night. It was majestic. The city glowed in the dark and was still in the quiet breeze of that gorgeous summer evening. You could see the dome of the rock in the distance. Families –Jewish and Arab—were strolling down the promenade enjoying the view and the weather. Just down below us, we passed by a Jewish wedding. What a joy, I thought, what an immeasurable joy, it must be to get married in such a beautiful summer evening in Jerusalem.

Finally in Jerusalem

I was speaking to Mohammed and Mohannad during a balmy summer evening. They are two brothers from a refugee camp in the West Bank who are now living as refugees in Canada. They were born and grew up a half hour’s drive from Jerusalem, but have not been there since they were little boys and do not remember much about it. They are now in their twenties. They both had told me how badly they had wanted to go to Jerusalem for so many years, but had never been allowed to.

As we were discussing their new life in Canada, Mohammed told me: “You know, Rosa, there is a neighborhood of Toronto that is all Jewish. We sometimes go there to buy Israeli food because we know the brands and we are used to them.” I thought how strange it was that Palestinian refugees should be looking around to buy Israeli food in Canada after they had finally freed themselves from the yoke of that country. “We have even eaten at a kosher restaurant there” Mohannad added, “Since we look like them, they can’t tell we are Arabs!” I tried to imagine them eating at a kosher restaurant in Toronto and I smiled to myself. “When we were there and I saw so many Jews with their shops and their restaurants, I thought that was probably what Israel looked like and I felt I was finally in Jerusalem” Mohammed said. What a strange world Israel/Palestine is, I thought. Two Palestinian refugees who had grown up twenty minutes’ drive from the Israeli border were only able to interact with Jews thousands of miles away, in a Jewish neighborhood of Toronto. Sadly, that would remain in their minds as the image of Israel and, of all places, Jerusalem.

Baseless hatred

According to the rabbis, the second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred” among Jews in Israel and, in particular in the holy city. It was scarcely two weeks before Tisha ve Av, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when violent riots broke out in several of the city’s ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. The spark for the riots had been a decision by an Israeli secular court to take away the child of an ultra-orthodox woman on grounds that she was not properly taking care of him.

The ultra-orthodox are highly skeptical of the objectivity of Israeli secular courts towards their communities. Moreover, they feel that such issues should be treated by rabbis and not by secular courts. Some of them don’t even recognize the authority of the Israeli state. Secular Israeli Jews, on the other hand, have an attitude of condescension when not outright hostility toward the ultra-orthodox. They view them as backward and non-Zionist–a distorted reminder of a past they would like to forget. They also resent the fact that their large families receive child support from an Israeli state they often don’t even recognize and that they do not participate in the army or in national service.

These two communities are two worlds apart and they do not intersect. They have separate schools, separate neighborhoods, and separate political parties. The problem, however, is more than separation. It is the absolute lack of knowledge and respect of one world for the other and the harsh hostility between them, especially from the secular towards the ultra-orthodox. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that even a seemingly small incident can cause a storm. As I mulled over these sad occurrences in Jerusalem just days before the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, I could not help but think how closely we were reenacting the “baseless hatred” and the lack of compassion, justice and kindness that had characterized the days before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans.

Daily life under ethnic cleansing

It had been a year since I had returned to Washington. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Government and the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barak, were turning up the heat on the city. Expulsions from East Jerusalem neighborhoods were the order of the day and violence increased. I was following the news from Washington in trepidation. A woman from my synagogue who had immigrated to Israel and was in town for a visit, however, told me there wasn’t much to worry about. “Things are not so bad!” she said gingerly. “For whom?” I asked her pointedly. “For anybody!” she responded undeterred.

A few days later, I received an email message. It was entitled something along the lines of: “Jerusalem today.” It was a series of beautiful pictures of Jerusalem, Jewish and Arab, gorgeous buildings, amazing sunsets, lively markets, Jews walking through the winding streets of the Old city, Arabs sitting and smoking their water pipes. There were no pictures of the ongoing expulsions, arrests, check-points, threats, demolitions, demonstrations and shootings. What the pictures showed was that, in some parts of the city, people continued to live their daily lives and it reflected how, if you have overwhelming power and run a tight military occupation, you can undertake ethnic cleansing one neighborhood at a time. If you take pictures of other neighborhoods, you can still pretend it is “business as usual.”


Continue to Chapters 15-16

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