In my last post I talked about going to the Dead Sea for two days, and on the way there visiting my niece in a West Bank settlement. A well-off settlement, with schools, parks, and lookout points overseeing the desert. A year or so ago I attended a birthday party there with nieces and nephews and their children. We sat outdoors on a green slope overlooking a basketball court and, behind that, the desert.

Everyone was happy; no one seemed conscious of the fact that for much of the world, this is considered occupied land.

In America we also live on occupied land, but generations later, after waves of voluntary immigration from Europe and Asia and coerced ship journeys bringing Africans for the purpose of enslavement, who, other than Native Americans, considers the US occupied territory?

This is what Israeli strategists banked on: Let’s make the West Bank economically attractive for young families, they’ll settle there, their children will be born there, their children, etc., and we won’t have to worry about two states any longer.

By now I say they succeeded. But succeeded in what?

For several years I refused to go into settlements in the West Bank. Years ago, I told the same niece I visited on Tuesday that I couldn’t come there, it went against my sense of right and wrong, my hopes for a just peace in this land. Jews needed a home, I thought, but not this way. I imagined the Israeli strategists congratulating themselves on once again outsmarting the opposition, planning well ahead, sitting back, and watching their plans move forward unimpeded.

But whether it’s my sharp values or strategists’ plans, they seem to get upended by life unspooling day after day.

I spent two days in a hotel in the Dead Sea, a place that, what with the heat and salinity, causes you to slow down, even come to a standstill (or sits till) and do nothing. Here I am, closer to the center of the earth than any other place on the earth’s surface, closer to the heart. And the heart surprises.

Bernie and I brought different people to the Dead Sea, in addition to my mother. They included Peter and Maria Matthiessen, they included our Zen familiars Junyu and Tamiko Kuroda, as well as Bernie’s cousin George Plafker, Penrose Medal-winning geologist who related much about the enormously long rift under the Sea even as we drove alongside it. On occasion I’d see Israeli Arab families in the hotels as well, but very few.

This time, busloads of Arab women came down and stayed at our hotel. We encountered them everywhere—the lobby, the dining room, the Dead Sea Mall—and on the beach. One evening, going back to the room after dinner, I heard Happy Birthday sung in heavily accented English. I peeked into the club. Around one table sat a large group of older religious Jewish women, hair covered under hats. Next to them was an even bigger group of Israeli Arab women singing loudly in English, accompanied by a stringed oud.

We encountered them in the indoors pool of heavy Dead Sea salt water in the hotel’s spa. They went into that oily, warm water wearing black pants or leggings under long blouses or tunics, hair enclosed in a hijab. This is how they also went into the Dead Sea outside, joined by young Jewish women in bikinis. I was in the pool and noticed that a few had entered the adjacent jacuzzi, which already contained Jewish Israeli women.

“Where are you from?” one Jewish woman asked.

“Acre,” replied the Arab woman, in Hebrew.

“All the way up there in the north!”

And then they chatted. First, about their children, how many, who’s married, who has grandchildren. They compared notes about the Dead Sea, how often they go down there, for what event, who has elderly parents, who teaches school.

I watched how easily they spoke with one another. When two peoples live in such close proximity to one another, the mix  begins: language, music, culture, values. Israel prides itself on being part of the advanced West, but to my eyes, looking at things from street level, it doesn’t feel anything like the US or Europe, it’s too noisy, too clannish, too young, unruly, and passionate. It reminds me of nothing but itself, on the coast of the Mediterranean rather than the Atlantic, just south of Mesopotamia where so much began.

You can plan from the outside, like the Oslo political accords, or like the Israeli strategists who drew maps, developed towns, allocated populations. Even now I know Palestinians are closed up in the West Bank and Gaza, unable to come to areas like the Dead Sea and interact with their Israeli counterparts.

But there in the Dead Sea, where you don’t run and don’t splash, where you slowly melt into mountains populated by mystics millennia ago, where great forces do their work under sediments of salt and soil and mock your efforts and manipulation, one learns humility and patience.

Big mounds of salt on rim and at bottom of Dead Sea

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