Thursday, November 20, 2008

House of Meat, House of Bread...(part two)


Time to continue. After a of month of drama, things are calming down. Depression of the spirit is lifting in time to welcome the economic recession that's coming. Still, I'm hopeful. Godspeed to Barack Obama and his family.

And the irony of witnessing this moment in history is not lost on this 44-year-old. Today, the New York Times has a front-page photograph of the Hezbollah scouts. When I first saw the photo and before reading the caption, I kid you not, I thought they were Israeli scouts. Maybe it's the neck ties.

The advantage of not living in the middle East gives me a not-so-stressed view of the "situation." The bigger picture reminds me that we're all connected. There are factions on all sides that condemn the other; there are people on all sides who are reaching out in dialogue and friendship. I choose the latter.

A few days after the election, I read a column by Jeff Gates who complained about the selection of Rahm Emmanuel as Obama's chief of staff. He tried smearing him because his father was born in Israel--Jerusalem, actually. He insinuated that Emmanuel would not be loyal to the United States because of this. I find this backstabbing among "liberals" evidence of profound bias. What's Gates insinuating anyway? Within a few days of his appointment, Emmanuel apologized for an anti-Arab remark made by his father. Like him or not, he did the right thing.

Again, it comes down to those who want to make peace and live in peace and give peace an opportunity to flourish, and those who want more of the same...terror in an imbalanced world.

Call me naive but when I grew up hearing about Israel, I envisioned an almost-utopia where Jews could live on the land in relative peace with their neighbors. My extended family, which is religiously mixed, enthusiastically supported my choice to study abroad for a year. A Protestant uncle urged me to pick up a memento from the Biblical era...a pottery oil lamp, perhaps.

I spent three weeks in an intensive Hebrew class taught by Israelis of Iraqi and Yemeni descent, fresh out the army. I became an adequate speaker in a class made up of mostly American Jews. I remember the three Christian German students who felt compelled to come to Israel out of their families' connection with recent history. Another teen, whose father was a minister in a Lutheran church in the Old City, amazed me by advocating blowing up the Dome of the Rock shrine which is holy to Muslims. Her reason? So that the Jews could rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount and the Messiah would come...again. I was amazed that some people took this stuff literally. All this was turning out to be quite the distraction from previous urges to count calories or compare myself to magazine models.

Over the Fall I traveled by bus to Masada, Gamla, Jericho, Tiberias, Safed, Haifa and more. I took photographs. I wrote aerogrammes. I voraciously read the newspapers. I learned of a crazy "rabbi" who carried an automatic rifle and shot at stone-throwing youth in the West Bank. Rabbi Levinger, I felt, was setting a bad example for everyone. He thought, I bet, that he was being a macho, never-again-to-be-victim role model. Yes, rocks could kill, but guns were more likely to.

I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1984 in the shuk just inside the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem's Old City, haggling with a merchant over a little lamp and a camel-hair rug. The sky was indigo; the stars were starting to show. I stood on terraced steps leading to famous places. I felt no fear...only the pinpoint of history. This was a town that got so many people stirred up. Less than a quarter mile away was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There were so many contingents of Christian monks and overseers that the site was split into little territories. Most of the time there was peace. Not far from there was the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount connected to the Western Wall, all that remains from Solomon's temple.

On an earlier visit to the Old City, I helped a young mother carry home her groceries. I saw her struggling with bags and made the offer; she sized me up with a street-smart eye and told me to come along. I was fascinated that this modern (though orthodox) woman lived with her family within the walls of this ancient city.

On another occasion as I visited the plaza in front of the Western Wall, I saw an Arab merchant struggling with his cart. Without words I helped him to push the wagon out of a rut. He gave an astonished look, then a grateful smile.

Of course I've also witnessed people being less-than-kind to one another. While visiting a shop in Hebron near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, I heard the owner speaking derogatively of Jews to a German tourist. The irony wasn't lost on me. On the way home my friend was harassed on an Arab bus as we rode from Hebron to Jerusalem. This person, who disembarked at the Deheishe refugee camp outside of Bethlehem, verbally attacked my more-Semitic-looking roommate, while the rest of the bus sat silently. She stood up for herself but he blathered on with hatred. We could have avoided this encounter by taking a taxi or Israeli bus. We were lucky.

Another friend spent a Sunday in a park near the French Hill and was attacked by a man who told her he was accosting her because she was a Jew. Actually, she had converted to Judaism, but this was not considered. In court the man's mother pleaded for leniency. My friend told her story to the judge. The man was sentenced.

My roommate from Boston, whose mother was Israeli, studied Arabic and made friends with Palestinians. One classmate, Omar, from the Hebrew University invited her home to his village for the weekend. She went. She learned a lot from her experience. Omar grew more militant and anti-Israel in his rhetoric and drifted away from their friendship.

When my parents came to visit we traveled to the Mount of Olives for a picturesque view of the walled city. As dusk came a group of young men approached our party. While one man tried to pick a fight with my father, I flagged down a taxi for my grandmother and mother. As we closed the doors we still heard the man yelling "mafia" in my bearded father's direction. The Palestinian driver who had saved us drove us back to our hotel.

At the end of the school year, I visited hostels in Europe on my backpack trip home to the states. I finished college, got a job teaching at an Episcopal prep school in Honolulu; I interviewed for the American International School in Israel while visiting cousins in California and was shocked to be offered a position on the spot.

I spent the next school year as an English teacher north of Tel Aviv. My students were from all over the globe...diplomats' kids, B'Hai kids, etc. It was a different Israel than I'd remembered. There had been an Intifada since I'd left. My roommates were hopeful interns with connections to the peace process. We had parties in which Israeli Jews and Arabs mingled. My teacher friends and I explored the Negev Desert via camels, camping in dry wadis under the stars. I chaperoned a group of teenagers in a week long SCUBA camp at the Red Sea. I traveled to Rhodes and Turkey. I read good books.

At the end of my year I flew in to Detroit and bumped into a friend from the University of Michigan. An Iraqi-American Christian, Debbie didn't approve of my have gone to Israel. She was critical of the way that Arabs were treated. My Chaldean American friend felt that I should ally myself with anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian groups. Indeed it wasn't a perfect state and work needs to be done for true civil rights for all citizens. Not as an excuse but that can be said for all the other states in the Near East as well.

I listened to her criticism. Why should I be allowed to go to Israel, an American Jew, when there are Palestinians living abroad who could not? Why should I reject the whole of Israel, I countered, when many Jews returned there after being expelled from Arab countries? I preferred to start from pragmatic reality and move toward a peaceful middleground and she could do the same...and when everyone met again we wouldn't have to be anti-anything--except extremism.

I wasn't planning on settling in Israel when I went there. A daughter of a convert, I wasn't even sure I would be considered a Jew to the religious authorities. I was and am American through and through. I wanted only to experience living abroad for awhile and teaching kids. I had no desire to displace any other person from their homeland. I was a sojourner with eyes open wishing to learn. Of course, while there it was easy for me to slip into daydreams of what it would have been like to grow up there in the present or in the distant past.

If I hadn't returned to be in Israel for another year, I would not have met Jamal and his sister, Alam. I wouldn't have been invited to her pre-wedding party. Their father, a devout Muslim, told me in perfect Hebrew that Jews and Muslims are family. Maybe he was being polite, but the generosity of spirit emboldened hope.

I wouldn't have met Hananyah and his family in Ramat Gan. His family had perished in the Holocaust. Rachel's had come from Russia during an earlier aliyah. These secular Israelis invited me to Passover Seder. Each year I get their holiday card adorned with art made by a victim of terrorism.

And I wouldn't have met Daniel, a Tel Aviv restaurateur. During my first visit he was a philosophy major just back from the Lebanon war. His father's family had emigrated from Italy. He worked as a part-time police officer and when on reserve duty in the army as a medic. Since the first Intifada, he had served in the territories and found himself calming younger troops...keeping them from abusing the Palestinians they policed. He did not like what the occupation was doing to his countrymen.

There are groups in Israel and abroad made up of family members on both sides who have lost loved ones in this conflict. These individuals get together to express their grief, to share their stories and keep the essence of their loved ones alive. It is a hopeful occurrence. Humanity and suffering defies labels that many wish to put upon us. In the end it's up to us to transcend fear and its limitations.

I am hopeful of a future where people of different groups don't disparage one another collectively. There are bad ones in any group and those who must be educated. We must police our own and recognize ourselves in the other. Learning each other's histories is a start.

Let's build up each other, giving our children better opportunities. We must risk this connection so that we are not constantly at war or dehumanizing each other. Those who value killing others and themselves to further a political agenda--and gladly sacrifice their children to the cause--are the ones we must confront. And we must challenge their view of the future. Propaganda must not replace truth.

Making peace is risky. But without the effort, it cannot realistically exist. We are all balanced between extremes. Sanity lies within that balance. Our future...all of our children's is worth the struggle.

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