A Few Days in Israel (Part 1)
As I write, I'm sitting comfortably in my daughter's Haifa apartment. It's Monday. I've been here in Israel since Wednesday (really, is that possible?)
Yesterday we went to her classes at the University of Haifa, where she is pursuing a Masters in Holocaust Studies.
This meant a German class, plus a number of classes related to Holocaust narratives, historiography, etc. The last class was mostly a showing of a film that I had read a lot about in the U.S. but not had an opportunity to see -- "A Film Unfinished."
More about that later.
Back to the beginning of the trip, I flew from Newark to Tel Aviv on United -- a decidedly less Jewish flight than an El Al flight, especially perhaps at this time of year when many tourists are headed for the Holy Land.
To my left, a woman joining a Christian tour run by Ayelet Tours -- so I could assure her how great it would be, how professional they are, how experienced, how I know so many people who work at Ayelet, and how I have worked with their top people for many years (because Ayelet has managed so many trips and conventions for the Cantors Assembly and other American Jewish organizations). To my right, a young Muslim woman from a midwestern city. Yes, a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian fly together to Israel, and. . .
It was interesting how my conversation unfolded with the young Muslim woman. I asked where she was going in Israel (I may not have said "in Israel.") She said "the West Bank." I thought to myself, if this was a Jewish person, would she call it the West Bank?
Little by little, I drew out her story -- trying to find the right balance between being overly inquisitive and having a substantive conversation between two people who might not ordinarily HAVE such a conversation. It turns out that she was born in the U.S. Her parents were born in what she would call Palestine. She has family on both sides of the ocean. She has spent a fair amount of time with her family near Ramallah. She speaks Arabic. She is a practicing Muslim. I think she was about 29, if I recall, a graduate of one of the universities in her city. Which means that she grew up having to explain Islam to many non-Muslims in her life -- at a time that it was quite complicated in this country, because of 9/11. It makes me think a little about Jewish kids who grow up in mostly non-Jewish communities and have to explain about Jews, Judaism and Israel -- often beyond their own understanding. At the same time that many Americans have grown fearful of Muslims, it has been a difficult and frightening time to be a Muslim the U.S. -- blamed for things that you had nothing to do with and WOULD have nothing to do with.
I wondered about what it would be like for me to visit her neighborhood near Ramallah -- whether I could. I asked her about her freedom to come and go from the West Bank -- and she indicated that as an American citizen it makes it easier, but she does have to endure the difficulties of going from one side of that border to the other. It seems that I probably COULDN'T go where she does without special permission or arrangements. And would I feel welcome there? That's a whole other question.
I imagined, and we talked a little, about what it might be like to be able to take trips with young people of the different traditions and experiences together. (Or not-so-young people.) I've been to Israel many times -- but I wonder every time (now) what it would look like from a Christian or Muslim perspective. We're fortunate, in Columbus (my home), to have warm interfaith relations, and to work together with Christians and Muslims in areas of common interest, especially through the BREAD Organization (Building Responsibility, Equality And Dignity). The folks from the Islamic Center a few doors down from the synagogue fill up our parking lot on Friday afternoons for an hour or two when they come for Friday prayers. I smile at them, but never have engaged in the kind of conversation I had with my neighbor on the airplane.
Jump a day ahead to Thursday and my daughter and I are visiting various spots in Haifa -- including its most famous attraction the Baha'i Gardens. On this day, the Gardens are being visited by many Arab children and women.
When the Arab kids see my daughter and me, they assume that we are Israeli and they try out (very) little Hebrew on us. . .SHA-LOM a few of the boys snicker and giggle as we pass them by. Haifa may be one of the few places in Israel where this sort of interaction takes place. It FELT like these children didn't see Israelis very often -- but there we were, and there they were and they thought it was fun to talk to us -- a little. Haifa is one of the most mixed areas in the entire country -- although it IS 90% Jewish.
Haifa is a city in which Jews and Arabs go to University in the same place, eat in the same place, shop in the same place. For some people, there are interactions between Jewish and Arab neighbors. For others, there is none. In time, there will probably be more. This is especially clear from looking at the faces and "costumes" on campus. It is a place of different languages and cultures, where people exist side-by-side and interact. A place where a covered Muslim woman receives a University education. In Israel.
Back to my seatmate -- we explored a little politics, without getting too deeply into it, and then talked some sports. She is a big supporter of her local baseball team -- which means that we have some common enemies, but mostly root against each other. She's also pretty into other professional sports teams in her city. This was a refreshing corner of the conversation.
I'm pushing pretty hard to try to move forward to the establishment of that Palestinian State that is to her a necessity. (She says that the community she is visiting is in Palestine.) My work with J Street is all about that Two State Solution that we feel is necessary for the brightest possible future of Israel. It strikes me as the only just path forward, yet it is a frightening one for us.
In conclusion. . . no conclusion. Some of the roads ahead are difficult to map. But I want to continue to try to map them, and to demand of our leaders that they do the same.