Rich and Susan in Israel/Palestine, June 2014

by Rich Rubenstein on July 18, 2014 · 0 comments

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Rich and Susan in Israel/Palestine, June 2014: A Shortish Report

July 18, 2014

We returned recently from a memorable trip to Israel/Palestine and wanted to give family and friends a relatively brief report on our activities there. It would have been briefer if Rich could have foregone making a few observations of his own prompted by the experience – but the leopard cannot change his spots.

The world changes so quickly! Since returning from the Middle East, Rich has had his cardiac plumbing reconfigured, Susan has become a grandmother again, and Israel and Hamas have gone to war in Gaza. None of these events is included in this report, although they cannot help but shadow it. Our thoughts this week are with all who are in danger in the Holy Land, especially the most vulnerable: children, elderly people, and the poor.

What made this trip so special for us was the opportunity we had to combine ordinary tourism with candid conversations with a number of fascinating and amiable people, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, on both sides of the Israel/ Palestine divide. We especially wanted to thank these kind and informative hosts and guides, and the friends who recommended them:

• In Haifa, Elias and Labiba Halloun, recommended by their daughter, Fakhira, an S-CAR doctoral student;
• In Beit Jann, Sameer Assad, recommended by S-CAR doctoral graduate and long-time friend Adina Friedman;
• In Bethlehem, Husam Jubran, also recommended by Adina;
• In Jerusalem, Benny and Haya Leshem, recommended by their son, Rich’s doctoral student and GRA, Oded Adomi Leshem

Other friends and acquaintances also offered to meet us and show us around; we wish that we had been there long enough to take advantage of these generous invitations.

* * * *

We met in Ramat Gan on May 30, a Friday that concluded a week of teaching by Susan at the Tel Aviv Medical Center and two weeks of teaching by Rich at the University of Malta. On Saturday, we drove to Haifa, where Elias Halloun showed us the city, with its breathtaking views of the harbor from Mt. Carmel, and then unexpectedly invited us to “my village for lunch.” The lunch was served at Elias and Labiba’s airy and comfortable house in the village of Osfia, not far from the city. Their children, children’s spouses, and grandchildren were on hand for a non-stop feast of food and conversation. “Hospitality” is far too weak a word to describe our reception at the Hallouns (and later at the Leshems). When Susan inquired about the tasty spices used in the meal, Labiba insisted on providing her with bags of freshly ground herbs and spices whose heady aroma flavored the rest of our trip!

Rich asked a member of this Christian family how people felt about the Pope’s recent visit to Palestine. The somber answer: “Nice words will not resolve the conflict in this country.” The same family member expressed his belief that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders were self-serving and incompetent – a viewpoint that we later heard expressed on both sides of the ethno-nationalist divide. Of course, we did not “interview” anything like a cross-section of Israelis or Palestinians. But we were struck by how tired of the conflict people seemed to be, how pessimistic they were about finding a solution soon, and how much they seemed to long for new ideas, new initiatives, and new leadership.

Back to Haifa, a good night’s sleep at the German Colony hotel, and a morning departure for the Upper Galilee. A phrase recurred to us as our rented Kia climbed breathlessly into beautiful mountain country: “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help” (Psalm 121, y’all). Our destination was Beit Jann, a mostly Druze village which boasts (if that is the right verb) the largest percentage of war casualties of any village in Israel. Sameer Assad, our cheerful host, flew the Israeli flag from his front porch of his B&B, “In the Shadow of the Cherry Tree.” Like many other Druse men, Sameer had spent many years fighting for the Israeli Defense Forces; although now retired from active service, he still advises the army on a part-time basis. On Sunday morning he gave us a wonderful Middle-East style breakfast (chopped vegetables, eggs, fruit, bread, cheeses, smoked fish, and strong coffee) and we came down from the mountains to the Sea of Galilee.

More than 50 years ago, I journeyed in a bus with other college students past the inland sea, really a large lake, that Israelis call Kinneret. The driver stopped the bus, pointed to a hill overlooking the lake, and said, “This is where they say Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.” That memory resurfaced as Susan and I stood outside the Church of the Beatitudes, admiring the placid view and imagining Jesus addressing his followers (probably not a large crowd, I realized, considering the topography – something more like a well attended workshop at S-CAR). I had not thought before about Jesus classifying “the peacemakers” as blessed along with the poor, the persecuted, those denied justice, and other marginal groupings. Are we conflict resolvers sure that we are on the way to becoming a respectable profession like lawyers or business execs? Or is there a connection between our own marginalization and that of the others singled out for blessing by the Nazarene?

Next stop on Kinneret: the unspeakably old, sun-filled town of Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), with its urban ruins dating from the Maccabeean period, its gorgeous 4th century colonnaded White Synagogue, and its 5th century octagonal church built over the ruins of another synagogue. Jesus is thought to have preached there, around the corner from Simon Peter’s house. Capernaum is the kind of place that makes you happy to be a tourist. And so is Tiberias, our last stop in the north — a town the snobbish guidebooks call “tacky,” but which we found charming. We stayed at the Rimonim, with its bust of Ben Gurion in the lobby, swam in the Sea of Galilee, and visited the tomb of Maimonides, which my friend, the learned David Shasha of New York, tells me is unlikely to be the Rambam’s actual tomb. (“In any case,” David wrote me when I reported the visit, “the master did not approve of the practice of visiting sages’ tombs!”)

Now to Jerusalem. On Wednesday morning we drove the little Kia south down the route paralleling the Jordan Valley and soon found ourselves gaping like urban hicks at the glowing chocolate, brick-colored, and yellow hills of the Judean Desert. Susan said that the desert reminded her of South Africa’s Kalahari; it seemed to me one of the most uncaring environments (uncaring of people, that is) that I had ever seen. The God who made that desert was clearly not a Nice Guy. (Cf. William Blake’s question to the Tiger: “Did He who made the lamb make thee?”)

The heat hammered the car, and as we climbed from the level of the Dead Sea toward Jerusalem, it occurred to us that a breakdown in this place would not be a good idea at all. Suddenly, however, we were there, overlooking the city from the heights of Mount Scopus. “Mount Scopus was so named, Josephus wrote, because as you come up from the desert in the east, it permitted a first ‘sight of the city and the grand pile of the temple gleaming afar.’ It still does. Here the generals, from Nebuchadnezzar to Dayan, habitually paused for a covetous first look, or a last, before the final assault” (Amos Elon, Jerusalem: City of Mirrors).

Our “final assault” plunged us into Jerusalem traffic, which made me happy to have learned to drive in New York. We arrived just in time to return the car to Avis before the city shut down for Shavuot, a minor holiday in the diaspora, but a major one in Israel. A fashion model dressed like the spirit of the harvest handed out flowers in the lobby of the Inbal Hotel. Many guests were dressed for the holiday. Children were everywhere – these Jews have LOTS of babies! – and religious services were held on the hotel’s ground floor near the entrance to the swimming pool.

Not for the last time, we wondered about the role of religion in Israeli society. The original political arrangement induced Orthodox Jews to participate in coalition politics by recognizing the authority of rabbinical authorities over matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, the question of who is a Jew, etc. Otherwise, the earlier Jewish State seemed belligerently secular. When I visited Israel as a student, the Haredim were stoning the cars of people who dared to drive on the Sabbath, and young kibbutz dwellers lived “in sin” rather than submit to religious marriage rites. But people seemed now to accept the shutdown of public services on major and minor holidays as natural, even while protesting certain privileges of the Ultra-Orthodox, like their exemption from military service.

In any case, we found Jerusalem’s Old City open for business and spent the better part of two days happily visiting sites maintained by Muslims, Jews, and a welter of Christian sects. Rich put his hands on the Western Wall in memory of his sister, Ellen Schwartz, and Susan’s mother, Landa Duckrow. Susan and Rich walked the Via Dolorosa and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, founded by Constantine the Great’s mom Helena, who believed (as about a zillion pilgrims still seem to) that it was the site of the Crucifixion. We got lost deep in the Muslim Quarter and found our way out through streets lined with shops, restaurants, and kids asking for tips.

* * * *

Our most eventful day, however, was Thursday, when we visited Bethlehem by daylight, guided by Husam Jubran, and then spent the evening with the Leshems at David’s Tower.

Bethlehem. We went through the Wall at the Rachel’s Crossing checkpoint, closely watched (although not harassed) by Israeli soldiers. There is a certain unsmiling gesture, a sudden jerk of the head in the direction the soldier wants you to go, that is common in the region; you see it used by Israelis and Palestinians alike in films like Paradise Now and The Checkpoint.

Very few people came through the checkpoint with us; visits to the West Bank are discouraged by the Israeli authorities. Most of the traffic was in the other direction: about 50,000 Palestinians have permits to work in Israel and 1,000 or so pass through Rachel’s Crossing each day. I was surprised at how strongly I reacted to my first sight of the Wall, which seemed to me incredibly ugly – truly, an abomination – and found myself wondering whether the stated reason for its existence, Israeli security, was the main reason, or whether it was intended as a continuous demonstration of Israel’s power and the Palestinians’ weakness.

We took the question up with Husam, who opined that terrorism had not ended in Israel because of the Wall, but as a result of the Shin Bet’s effectiveness in penetrating militant organizations and the conviction among many Palestinians that terrorism was not an effective or justifiable strategy. If someone really wanted to blow himself up in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem now, the Wall would not stop him (or her) from doing so. As we walked toward Bethlehem’s largest refugee camp, Husam described his own experiences, which included two stints in Israeli jails, the first as a rock-throwing teenager during the First Intifada, the second, during the Second Intifada, because he was on a list of previous offenders even though he had publicly opposed the violence of the second uprising. He was released 18 days after this arrest, and certain policemen put the word out on the street that he was a collaborator with the Shin Bet. (Such are the rewards of practicing non-violence resistance!)

Husam took us to the Dheiseh refugee camp, Bethlehem’s largest, which, except for various UN agency offices and some spectacular political wall-painting, looked exactly like an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago or DC. Originally intended to house some 3,500 refugees from the 1948 war, it is now home to about 14,000 people, most of whom work (when they can find jobs) in Bethlehem. Afterwards, our new friend exercised more traditional tour-guide skills, taking us to the Church of the Nativity and helping us shop for some olivewood gifts for friends and relatives back home. Meanwhile, we heard more of his own story – how he came to the U.S. to study conflict resolution at Eastern Mennonite University, and how, upon returning to Palestine, he managed to combine the functions of tour guide and peace advocate, leading groups from abroad on trips both to the West Bank and to Israel.

I asked Husam what he thought about the “two state/one state solution” controversy. He replied ruefully that he did not see how a viable Palestinian state could now be created, given the fragmentation of the West Bank, the 600,000 settlers residing there, and other obstacles. “So you are in favor of one state with an eventual Palestinian majority, “ I said. “No,” he insisted, “the idea that Palestinian and Jewish interests will inevitably conflict is false.” Not only are Israeli birth rates currently higher than those of the Palestinians, but, according to him, like-minded Palestinians and Jews will naturally join forces in a multi-party, multi-ethnic political system. So long as each side’s special interests are recognized and neither people feels in danger of extermination or expulsion, there will be no need for “pure” Palestinian or Jewish parties.

* * * *

A brave, persistent, interesting man, this Husam! But, almost as if to remind us to avoid stereotyping figures on either side of the Palestine/Israel line, we found ourselves shepherded on Thursday evening to the spectacular light show at David’s Tower by our new hosts, Benny and Haya Leshem. Both are Israeli patriots, former government workers, and peace advocates. Benny is an immunologist and cancer researcher recently retired from a job directing medical research at Hebrew University and the Ministry of Health. Haya is a psychologist and expert on learning disabilities who long worked for the Education Ministry. We had our differences, of course. But we and the Leshems were apparently members of what Kurt Vonnegut (in Cat’s Cradle) called a “karass”: a group whose members seem to be in instant communication as soon as they meet. It took the four of us about ten minutes to become friends.

With Benny and Haya, we drove around Jerusalem on Friday, seeing the city from assorted vantage points and listening to Benny describe the complex recent history and legal status of its patchwork of lands: this area taken from Jordan in the 1967 War and annexed; this area taken in ‘67 but never officially annexed; this area purchased from its Arab owners with funds procured by the Rothschilds or Montefiores; this area restricted to purchase or occupation by Jews. In a way, it reminded us of the complexity of West Bank lands, with their divisions into Area A (11% of the land controlled by the Palestinian Authority), Area B (28% under various forms of joint control), and Area C (61% controlled exclusively by Israel).

After Susan and I returned to the U.S., several people asked us if the trip had changed our views of the conflict. I had to reply, “Yes and no.” Both of us remained as opposed to the Occupation, if not more so, than we were when we first arrived. But the context for such opinions had deepened and complexified. I remember John Burton telling me that “when people in the Middle East talk about land, they are really talking about identity.” Yes, but land and identity are harder to disentangle in the ME than almost anywhere else. To Israelis, Israel is not just Israel – it is Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. To Palestinians, the Naqba – the “disaster” of 1948 – was not a blow to the Palestinian state, which did not yet exist; it was the literal dispossession of a landed people.

By the same token, one is acutely aware, in Israel and the West Bank, of the extent of segregation of the Holy Land’s peoples. Again, Chicago came to mind, the most racially and ethnically segregated city in the U.S. Not surprisingly, one effect of the Wall has been greatly to reduce the number of interactions between Palestinians and Israelis. But at least the West Bank is clearly visible from Jerusalem’s high ground. Gaza is visible from nowhere; totally isolated, politically and geographically, it might as well be on the moon.

One colorful exception to the ethos of separation is the vast, delectable Mahane Yehuda outdoor market, where Arab and Jewish identities mix in a common appetite for schmoozing, negotiating, and turning a profit. Every shopowner and restauranteur in the market seemed to know Benny. Later, with the Leshems, we watched the black-hatted residents of the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim district hurry home for the Sabbath – an experience that can hardly fail to provoke mixed feelings among moderns like us. A Chagall painting come to life! An eighteenth-century East European civilization preserved, despite the ravages of Nazism and the temptations of modernism! But this is also the credulous, tradition-bound, cultish civilization my ancestors came to America to escape, and it still seemed disturbingly alien to me.

Our final day in Israel, fittingly enough, came on Saturday in Tel Aviv, the modernist “answer” to ultra-orthodox traditionalism. Benny and Haya generously drove us into the city (public transport, in any case, was unavailable on Shabbat), and we stopped at the Diaghilev Art Hotel just off Rothschild Street, a place so hip that the only sign indicating that it was a hotel at all was a rainbow banner hanging from an upper story. The Diaghilev was filled with contemporary Israeli art, some of it not half bad, and the sparely furnished, well-designed rooms made us sorry to be staying for only one night.

We strolled around the Rothschild district and were struck once again by the immense contradiction between this thriving, creative, daring, culturally liberated Israeli society and the deep insecurities, prejudices, and social divisions that have led it to accept the role of violent oppressor. Once again, American parallels jumped out at me across the gulfs of time, space, and culture. Couldn’t one say much the same about the contradiction between enlightened American society from the 18th century on and the dark substructure that formed this nation’s foundation? After all, America was also a promised land whose settlers believed themselves Chosen. (Many still do.) We also dispossessed and imprisoned indigenous people; reduced people of color, workers, women, and foreigners to the status of exploited, segregated objects; repeatedly betrayed the promise of democracy; effectively criminalized poverty; and looked the other way while crimes against humanity were committed by our agents on a global scale. (We still do.)

Saturday, 2:30 a.m. As our taxi wound its way through bustling Tel Aviv streets and onto an equally crowded airport highway, we were reminded of New York, another city that eschews sleep. Ben Gurion airport was jammed in the middle of the night, as it apparently always is, and we kissed goodbye, Susan heading home via Frankfurt, while I returned to Malta for the master’s students graduation ceremony. Several people had warned us that we might be hassled at the airport by over-zealous security officials, especially since we had visited the West Bank, and advised us to answer all questions truthfully (i.e., “Whom did you visit? What did you talk about?”), since false answers would only produce further hassles and delays. But we were not hassled; we were treated like respectable American senior citizens and virtually waved onto our planes.

I left the country still thinking about how to compare Israel/Palestine with America, or, indeed, with any other modern state and society. In the Holy Land the odor of uniqueness, of special-ness, is omnipresent. Archaeologists daily dig up biblical artifacts; three religions link their own alleged chosen-ness to the history of this place; and it has come to symbolize as well as enact dramatic conflicts between Western and Arab/Islamic interests and worldviews. This is a land that has long bred apocalyptic hopes and fears, and the disappointment that it has not lived up to its grand spiritual destiny often leads people to hold it to a higher standard than one might apply to lands less promised and promising.

I remain impressed by the need to deny the uniqueness of Israel’s uniqueness. The point is not to exculpate that nation on the grounds that it is being held to too high a standard of equality, social justice, and willingness to take risks for peace. On the contrary, it is to demand that America abide by the same high standards instead of continuing to preach to the world what we dare not practice. This reminds me of a great line from the movie, “A Very Special British Coup,” where a radical Labourite, just elected prime minister, is asked by suspicious journalists whether there is any truth to the rumor that he plans to abolish First Class tickets on the British Rail system. “No,” the PM replies, “we plan to abolish Second Class.”

Whatever else one may say about Israel/Palestine, it is a place that generates strong thoughts and feelings. A place that remains in the memory, urging one to return. May it soon realize its prophets’ promise of peace and justice!

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