Nothing is more comfortable for me than staying with my sister, Ruth, in Jerusalem. Her guest bedroom in the back is quiet and I sleep well there. We’re very close despite our geographic differences, laugh at the same things, cry at the same things, love dogs, argue about television programs. I depend on her to call me out on voicing dogma (a/k/a Buddhist bullshit, as Aussie would call it), expressing abstract opinions, and spiritual bypassing. Our joint space is a zone of deep comfort, where past and present meet. She knows a lot about me and, despite that, always looks to spoil me. Hers is home away from home.
And then I go out with my brother, Mordechai, and venture into zones of less comfort. Yesterday we traveled to Tel-Aviv to witness two demonstrations by the families of hostages taken by Hamas on October 7.
The first took place outside the big Kirya, housing government and defense offices. Here were family members shouting slogans into megaphones in a cadence familiar around the world: “When do we want them back? NOW! How do we want them back? ALIVE!” More hostages are coming back in body bags or are reported to have been killed, and my sense is that more and more Israelis are questioning whether bombing Hamas and Gaza to smithereens is compatible with getting their hostages back, which the prime minister and army claim.
After that we went to the big plaza in front of the Tel-Aviv Museum, where at night the families come to process, meet, and get support for the return of their sons, daughters, parents, siblings, and children. I was struck by the long table with chairs, each seat with plates, cutlery, fine linen, glasses, and wine bottles. There were children’s toys in the first seats, and I wondered if they remove chairs every time they hear of more dead. The sun was setting, the sky turning mauve as the Tel Aviv skyscrapers lit up for the evening.
We also went to the big exhibition hall to see an exhibit of the Nova Festival, the music festival that took place on the weekend of October 7 near Gaza where Hamas killed so many young people who’d come to celebrate music and dance. In a darkened space, you could see actual videos taken by those same young people showcasing beautiful youth singing and dancing , a DJ putting on the music, the dry, brown trees, the music they played, what the sky looked like. There were the abandoned tents they’d found of those killed or taken into Gaza, their blankets, pillows, little stuffed animals even grown-ups like to go to sleep with. Tables were piled up with shoes, sandals, toothbrushes, even glasses, giving me a chill up my spine because they instantly remind one of exhibits at the Auschwitz Museum.
This was not a Holocaust, I tell myself. But all the reminders of life and death are there, and you can be forgiven for forgetting the dimension of time and generations, the passage of years, and thinking you’re witnessing the same thing time and time again.
This morning my brother and I had our old fight about religious Judaism and its role in the occupation of Palestinians; this, too, seems to survive the years. And after that we packed it in and drove to Beit Jallah to visit the Palestinian activist, Sami Awad, in his home. We had to go through back roads and walk through mounds of sand and rocks because the regular checkpoints to Bethlehem are closed. This comes at a time when Bethlehem’s economy zooms on account of Christmas pilgrims who come here from all over the world. This year there are no tourists and Bethlehem’s mayor canceled all Christmas celebrations in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.
Sami, founder of Holy Land Trust, is only 52, and over three decades has trained others and personally participated in non-violent resistance and interfaith dialogue, did joint programs with Israeli activists, speaking tours in the US and Europe, and provided leadership training to create new leadership in Palestine. He is a follower of Gandhi and has traveled all over the world; he recently returned from spending a month in the Amazon with indigenous tribes.
What is he doing now? He takes care of his elderly parents, who are no longer independent. Like so many peace activists, on October 7 he felt his work of 30 years had been a big failure. “We must turn the page,” he told me as we sat in his living room drinking the black Arab coffee I love so much. “We start from scratch.”
I feel as if what I’m writing here is a travelogue, going from this place to this place to this place, meeting this person and that person. There is more to write and say, but it needs time to take in, time for it to reach the marrow. That’s the time I need.
For now, I just quote Sami, who in some ways quoted Bernie: “We start from scratch.”