27 February 2013

It's True

On our walk through Jaffa last week, we were taken around the old port town by two young men--one Israeli and one Palestinian--who told the story of Jaffa from each of their historical perspectives, talking about its origin as an ancient city on the sea, its evolution up and through the Ottoman Period, into the British Mandate and then its unification with the greater municipality of Tel Aviv by the time Israel was established as a state.  The program is run by Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv's Progressive synagogue, a community at the cutting edge of synagogue social justice programming in Israel.  Beit Daniel fosters Israel-Palestinian coexistence work as well engagement with the thousands of Sudanese refugees in Israel and much more.  It's become an essential stop on our tours to Israel--to understand ways in which Israel's Declaration of Independence obligates its citizens to foster universal values of justice for each person within Israel's borders.  Never easy in a region painfully divided by competing individual narratives that too often tragically seek the eradication of the other.

Our Israeli guide was (ready?) a left-wing, Communist party voting, tefilin-wearing, modern Orthodox carpenter studying to be a psycho-analyst whose paternal great-great grandfather composed one of the more traditional melodies for the Hatzi Kaddish.

Our Palestinian guide was from the Galilee.  His narrative was less quirky, more typical for a Galilean Arab from a middle-class family.

Though they were cordial to one another and guided us around with interesting stories about their lives and their devotion to sharing a land mutually beloved by both their broader familial and national narratives, we were all left with the impression that they're not actually friends.  Their accommodation to one another was not tense, mind you, just necessary in a rather mundane way.  Each man expressed a deeply jaded view of their mutual national leadership:  no faith in the Israeli political leadership to forge peace and no faith in the Palestinian political leadership.  They grew up believing in a two-state solution but now, in their thirties, they have abandoned that hope.

"What's the solution?" someone asked.  And both espoused bi-nationalism.  This then led to a frustrating discussion about demographics, the ticking time-bomb of Israel's Jewish democracy.  Park Slope wasn't so typical after all:  our group was perplexed and rather unified in the view that bi-nationalism would mean the ultimate dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state.  We left the conversation with the hovering dread that both Israeli and Palestinian leadership were locked in and that without negotiations soon, the end result would be bad for Israel.

What to do?  Our guides parted ways--again, cordial but distant.  Like they both were exhausted from a youthful hope disappointed.  Of course, what is adulthood without a few shattered illusions?  Our Israeli guide pointed us up the hill from the port toward Abu Hassan, where we drowned our sorrows in the best hummus on the planet.  Palestinian and Israeli residents of Jaffa and Tel Aviv crowded around the window; warm pots of boiled chick peas were transported into the kitchen; there were no distinctions among the men and women present save one:  who had yet to be served.

Practically screaming with ecstasy, a few of us gathered on a park bench to eat.  The sun beat down hard; the sea was a ridiculous blue.  A man's needs are basic:  a home; a meal; the comity of friendship. How maddeningly ironic that in such a place that reduces one to his most elemental state--after all, who has not come to Jaffa port for any other reason than finding his way home?--we can't seem to get off first base.
at a shakshuka cafe in the jaffa flea market
We shook off the sun and headed to Jaffa Flea, where again, Jews and Arabs bought and sold what has been lost and found in the land for hundreds of years.  Purim music played on the radio in a nearby cafe.  We sat down to order shakshuka for the kids.  An afternoon service began so that a shopkeeper in mourning could say Kaddish.  I stood with the group, anonymous among the prayers.  The leader recited the Hatzi Kaddish.  It wasn't the same melody as that written by our guide's ancestor which was European in origin but one from the Mizrachi or eastern tradition of Jewish liturgy.

It was a different melody, an unfamiliar sound, but it went straight to the heart nevertheless.  And in its directed trajectory, its intentional expression, the words and the song enabled the men assembled to reach the place they sought to be.

It brought to mind those fated words of Amichai:  "I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, 'You see that arch over there from the Roman period?  It's not important.  But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.' "

I know what you're thinking:  stupid, naive, condescending, bleeding-heart American Jew, coming to tour in Israel and telling us how to make peace, with hummus no less.  On one level, it is a problematic paradigm.  I'll admit it.

"They hate us." It's true.  So is: "We hate them."

But it doesn't apply to everyone.  Some can see through the fires of hatred, can stand strong against the headwinds of intransigence.  There one finds shared ideals like freedom, justice, a roof over one's head, a window onto a horizon, and a meal with family and friends.  I saw it with my own eyes.  That's true, too.

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