Tuesday, October 28, 2008

House of Bread, House of Meat (part one)

Quite ironically Paul Krugman used William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" in a recent New York Times column, "The Widening Gyre" discussing the world financial crisis.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I say ironic because you could also use that quote about what is happening politically in the United States and in the Middle East, among other places. Ever since I was a college student twenty years ago studying for a year in Jerusalem and then later teaching in coastal Israel, I have found this poem timely and unnerving. More so recently.

There are just too many people who take the Holy Scriptures and such writings as absolutely literal. Who wrote these stories anyway? The Great Mystery some say...the Creator/ess...Eloheem...all the same one...while others acknowledge a human hand. It doesn't take a psychology doctorate to know that people--especially fundamentalist groups of any religious persuasion--often work to make their prophesies (and in this case a dark one) come true.

News stories of Governor Palin's vision of Alaska being a refuge during the End Days make me nervous. End Days? Really?? Naff off! Evangelical fundamentalists seeking to control women and their bodies mirror the Taliban in Afghanistan. Child molesting/marriage cults of off-shoot churches treat women and children as chattle. Meanwhile, Ahmadenijad rails about ridding the world of the state of Israel or is it just the Israeli government? All in all these are extreme viewpoints, out of whack.

I prefer the more hopeful, albeit harder to achieve perhaps, path toward reconciliation, an inclusive world view. The us versus them mentality doesn't hold for long, unless you go back to that "the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend" argument. Why is that necessarily true anyway? Should one actually believe it? What if you're all enemies anyway? That would not be good.

What's the alternative?

In 1984 in Israel and in the territories (West Bank/Judaea&Samaria) I saw people of many different backgrounds living in relative peace. There were exceptions, and I'm not making excuses for any excesses or abuses. As a one-year student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I read the Jerusalem Post and listened to the Voice of Peace radio station. I rode the bus to class, one time sitting next to a Arab person. I tried out my rudimentary skills in Hebrew (or was it Arabic?) "Shalom alechem," one of us said. "Salaam aleikum," the other replied or vice versa. Even the languages are cousins. In Hebrew the word Bethlehem means 'house of bread;' in Arabic it means 'house of meat.' Interesting.

I learned of the B'Hai, whose cultural center is in Haifa and whose founder B'ha'ula had been persecuted in Persia, and the Samaritans--relatives of both Jews and Muslims--who still inhabit villages near Jerusalem, and of the Bedouin who serve as scouts in the IDF. The Druze people of the North are loyal to the state, and their sons serve as border police. My friend Laura and I once spent an afternoon touring the Old City with three soldiers who happened to be Druse--Rami, Shuki and Moni. They looked like Israelis and were. As a one-year student, I met Jewish Israelis whose parents had emigrated from Arab countries, Israeli Arabs and students from around the globe, who wanted to connect with this famous place.

The first "Lebanon war" was winding down. A young soldier of Moroccan heritage was one of two survivors of his twenty-member paratroop platoon. He was a 21-year-old freshman with lively eyes and shrapnel embedded in his neck and torso. He spoke of his worst moment, when a young Lebanese child--like so many others to whom they had given candy and a smile--walked out of an alley with an M-16 and mowed down his companions. The war had grown chaotic beyond comprehension. He had survived but couldn't shake the guilty feelings of a survivor.

The remainder of the year I studied Israeli fiction, Shakespeare, Talmud, the Holocaust and modern Hebrew. My most important learning came from exploring the awesome city that is Jerusalem. My roommate Eleanor and I would often walk down Mt. Scopus through East Jerusalem to the Old City. On one occasion a group of boys approached us in the street; one reached out and grabbed by breast. Without hesitating I swung my backpack off of my shoulder and walloped him in the head. The culprits friends laughed at him. I felt vindicated.

After touring Egypt and Europe, I returned to the states and finished my degrees, whereupon I took a teaching job on the other side of the Earth...Hawai'i. But that's another story. After two years there I returned to Israel; this time to teach.

In 1990 I taught Yeats' poem; I used Joan Didion's book of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem in consort, in my senior English class at the American International School in Israel. I was surprised by how controversial my choice of material was for some of the parents. One boy's mother, a Canadian Jew turned Christian, had protested when I'd assigned Native Son . She didn't want her son to read something so bleak. I tried remaining neutral while reminding her the value in seeing the world from someone else's viewpoint, in this case an African American protagonist. Her son, who had been accepted into a prestigious Israeli pilots course for service in the air force, would soon be a soldier. Isn't it be important, I asked her, to consider the humanity of "the other" before making life-altering decisions (like dropping bombs on them)? I envisioned him high in the sky oblivious to those below whom he'd have in his sights. In the end I compromised and assigned him to read Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, not such a cop-out I thought.

But when I asked them to read Didion's essay and Yeats' apocalyptic poem, this same parent and a couple others protested to the principal, a nice if stodgy man from California. He and his wonderful wife had adopted a little girl from Ethiopia the previous summer. The principal wanted me to stop teaching the material. However, when the superintendent called me to his office he informed me that my colleague and head of the department had gone ahead and taught the same lesson to her senior honors class in solidarity with me. The prinicpal had gone to her to ask her to have me pull the lesson and failed.

I hadn't set out to cause a whirlwind. Another parent, who happened to be a psychologist and whose husband was a major American newspaper correspondent, wrote me a glowing letter of reference. My roommates, interns at the school, told me I had done the right thing in standing firm. What had I really done? I had given my students something to read, to think and discuss about and that was it.

Later that year I took a bus from Herzliya on the coast of the Mediterranean to Jerusalem for the weekend. I had booked a room at a hostel and spent the afternoon at a march from Western Jerusalem to Eastern Jerusalem. The marchers were women who basically were protesting the occupation. Women in Black, college professors--Jews, Christians and Muslims, and students. We chanted "Israel v'Falastine, shtei medinot l'shtei amim" (Israel and Palestine, two states for two peoples.) My former English professor, Alice Shalvi, a head of a girls' yeshiva, was one of the leaders. I remember a few protestors shouting at us along the route, but once we neared the old City--in what was traditonally Arab East Jerusalem--and walked down Rehov Salah el'din angry youth chanted from the curb, "Falastine, Falastine." I could feel the anger. I noted the lack of, what, conviviality? polite calls for equality as our chant suggested.

The Jews are often labeled the "chosen people." Chosen for what, I can hear my wry friend in Israel say. Online I've read rants against Turks for making the Hagia Sophia into a museum. What these Christian protesters don't acknowledge is the actual history--that it was Western Crusaders who sacked Constantinople. The Christians killed their Christian brethren who followed a slightly different path. It was years later that Muslims conquered the city and--instead of burning it to the ground--turned the beautiful church into a mosque. You can still see frescoes of Jesus in the entry hall. I traveled to Istanbul in 1990 and visited the synagogue that was bombed in 2003.

part two:

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