Here’s to peace pacts. To peace talks. With Turkey. With Ramallah. With marriage partners. With business partners. With peace partners wherever you are.
I don’t know enough about politics to comment properly on today’s freshly minted reconciliation with Turkey. But I do know about the human condition. I do know that carefully navigated communication is the essential ingredient for the health of any system. I do know about family dynamics and facing the crucial truth that Israel is an inescapable member of the dysfunctional family known as the Middle East.
This is our people’s fate. To navigate our way through the murky waters of sour-willed neighbors. Brokering friendships, forging bonds, even uncertain bonds. Even potentially treacherous bonds. All with a deeply held ideal of peace. Reaching out our hands, even if warily, even tentatively.
I will never forget learning this lesson when I lived in Jaffa. – Jaffa is basically 30% Muslim, 30% Arab Christian, 30% Jewish, 10% goat. (I kid you not, I would wake up to find goats sleeping on the roof of my car.) I felt like I was making private peace treaties on a daily basis, at the corner store, on the sidewalks, at the cafes. And I made friends. Gingerly.
My street, Kedem St., was famous for its Arab fish restaurants that weekly got converted into wedding halls for these massive Arab weddings. Men in one fish restaurant. Women in the restaurant next door. (How’s that for a mechitza?)
One night, I got up the hutzpa to pop my head into the ‘women’s restaurant.’ To my delight, I noticed all my neighbors were there! Fatima was the first to notice me. Fatima was the Muslim mama of the neighborhood. She bounded over to me like a warm mix between Yasser Arafat, Borat and your classic yiddishe mama.
“Ahlan, Chaya, habibi, My Zionist cousin!” Fatima bellowed. “Come, you must dance with the bride! She will be so happy to see your American face. Come, I will show you what an Arab wedding is like. This is how we dance for the bride. First the bride is in the middle and we dance in circles around her. Very unique Arab dance. We call it – circle dancing.”
“We make her happy. Now you go. You clap, you shake. You must go and make the bride happy. And do not forget to smile. Show her your big white American teeth. In sh’allah soon by you, Chaya. Hamdalila!”
Fatima had spoken. I obeyed.
As I joined in the circle I realized, “This is exactly like a Jewish wedding! The circle dancing, the making the bride happy. This was closer to a traditional Jewish wedding than most of the Jewish weddings I’d been to. Wow, we really are related! These are my long lost cousins! We are family. There can be peace in the Middle East!”
My inner peace activist was activated. I was connected, committed, optimistic.
Two ecstatic hours later: “Goodbye. Shokran Fatima. Mazal tov!” I stepped out onto Kedem, late night now in Jaffa. In the sudden quiet, it was just me and the pavement and my elation as I headed home.
Until I started to notice that it was not just me and the pavement after all. There was someone walking behind me. Close behind me. I looked back. Dear G!d. It was an Arab man. Getting closer. My heart was beating like that darbuka at the wedding. I tried to calm myself:
“Remember, he’s your cousin. He’s probably just…escorting you. Remember, you just made peace in the Middle East. This guy is…family…”
But within a minute I shamelessly broke out into a sprint and didn’t look back and didn’t take a breath until I was on the other side of my locked door.
Scared, yet exhilarated. Confused, yet inspired. I mean, are they my enemies, my cousins, my friends, my foes? And what was I to them?
I realized that I was living the conundrum of the complexity that is Israel. After all, it’s easy to live in a place of clearly defined either/ors. Either your neighbors are your friends and you love them/tolerate them, or your neighbors are your enemies and you hate them/fear them/kill them. You certainly don’t crash their weddings.
In Israel, our neighbors are both. We live in the paradox, the grey.
Suddenly a wash of pride overcame me. What an amazing opportunity this is, to cultivate a mighty moral discernment! To live in a land where enemy and neighbor are enmeshed. I realized I was not an Orthodox Jew, but a paradox Jew. I was walking in the midst of what I could only call the moral greatness known as living in the greyness.
And indeed, this is Israel’s path to walk – in all its subtlety and complexity. May we as a people be made better for navigating the paradoxes of diplomacy in the Middle East.
Here we grapple with the justice of how to treat an ‘enemy’. When just next door she sleeps so peaceful
With prayers and knives…in kitchen sinks.
No black and whites, no rigid creed
but shared street lights and democratic
with equal rights and liberties.
Here we wrangle with the knowledge That enemy is more than beast
More than faceless; more than target. Less of Other, More of Me.
And in this challenge will be our greatness
And in this paradox will be God’s Name.
That we a people pursuing justice
have thus been tested and proved humane. – Please G!d may we be proved humane.
A mechitza is a divider used in Orthodox Judaism to separate between the men and women in a religious setting.