I go to the Jerusalem municipal courthouse in Givat Sha’ul with my brother to file guardianship papers for my mother. Standing in the queue next to us is an elderly, dark-hued man in summer work clothes. He speaks fluent Hebrew and tells the young woman what he needs, and my ears pick up that it’s probably an Israeli Arab—the way he pronounces h and a, the higher pitched nasal twang. The woman taking care of his case is much younger, and his tone is peremptory, demanding she put his papers in a manila envelope. She is surprisingly courteous and amenable, hardly the usual case.
It hits me how different are the two cultures trying to live side by side here, especially when it comes to gender roles. At one corner is a Western, European-based culture, women dressing and talking how they like. At the other end is a Middle Eastern culture, women wearing hijab and dressed modestly, speaking softly and demurring to elderly men.
AND THERE’S EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN, a wide range of family-based values and ways of being in which everybody finds their niche. In that range you’ll find super orthodox Jewish women covered from head to toe with 10 children in tow, and Palestinian women speaking eloquently and professionally about everything they want. There is no one way of being Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, or Jew..
Many years ago, after some Palestinian children were killed by an errant missile, I heard an Israeli man declare: “The only good Arab child is a dead Arab child,” and a few men near him chortled. But go to a hospital in Israel and you’ll see an orthodox Jewish midwife with hair covered helping an Arab woman give birth.
Hospitals are Israel’s true melting pots, with doctors and nurses that are Arab and Jew, some covering their heads with a yarmulke and some with a hijab, taking equal care of expectant mothers, children from the West Bank with cancer, sheiks with their fully covered wife at their side, soldiers, and folks who throw Molotov cocktails at each other from either religion. Many are fluent in both languages.
“The violence happening in the Holy Land today, especially in and around Jerusalem Is a result of the systemic racism, fascism, and apartheid that has been building up for decades. To clearly label things as they are is not the end of the road, but the beginning of the work needed to truly heal and move forward to achieve peace and justice in this land.”
The above is a post written by Sami Awad, a peace activist based in Bethlehem, whom I love and admire. It’s hard to tell quite where Jerusalem ends and Bethlehem begins; the two territories merge one with the other. At least, they did till Israel built a big wall to separate the two—for security, they said, with passport control and young Israeli soldiers manning and womaning the passport controls. Cultural sensitivity is not a prerequisite in the Israeli army, so I’ve watched these young 18-year-olds talk impudently and arrogantly to the elderly Palestinian men with their special permits. They have guns and back-up so they don’t worry, and I want to warn them about karmic consequences of bad behavior, only I prefer they don’t look at my papers too closely and see that I’m violating Israeli law when I cross over to Bethlehem.
Racism, fascism, and apartheid. These are the words we use to label things, and we have to use words to describe what’s going on, to write newspapers and books, posts and emails. So, I agree with Sami, we have to name things for what they are. In the landscape of words and concepts, there is racism and apartheid here (fascism I’m not so sure about). There are rules and laws that clearly discriminate between Arabs and Jews, only the tip of the icebergs of distrust, fear, arrogance, and anger that seem to reign supreme.
But, as Sami said: “To clearly label things as they are is not the end of the road, but the beginning of the work.” To dismantle the structures of oppression is one thing; to actually see the Other as yourself, as we say in the Zen Peacemakers, is something else.
My nephew, David, a young, orthodox Jew, studied Arabic and now teaches it to Israeli Jews. He also teaches Hebrew to Arabic students in East Jerusalem and facilitates meetings, in Arabic, between his neighbors and the Bedouins living close by. He was distraught when I saw him.
“It’s as if all our work is for nothing,” he said, talking about the riots, burnings and killings taking place inside Israel proper. “I don’t know who they are anymore and they don’t know who I am.”
That’s where the work lies, I thought to myself. So who are you, behind the label of Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, soldier and militant, behind David, Eve, Sami? The only way you’ll find out is in what is truly sacred in this place–its intimacy.
The great Zen master Soen Nakagawa would say to his American students: “I’ll take off my mask if you take off yours.” That is my work.
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