N., a young Palestinian/Israeli Jew, was late for her meeting with her friend H., the child of Palestinian Muslim refugees who had returned from Lebanon on a bus a few years before. N. was still preparing her gift for H., a hat to cover his prematurely bald head. She was meeting him at the new Museum of Jaffa, which she called the Museum of Tel Aviv.
That was the binational reality: most cities and town in Israel/Palestine had two names. She’d learned in school that the settlers had in some cases deliberately named towns to taunt the inhabitants they had displaced: Levi, for example, had been Lubia, the sounds chosen to echo a reminder of displacement (1). She had read about the passionate debates and disagreements at the constituent assembly about whether the old place names, including the name “Israel” itself, could remain, or whether they would be a bitter reminder of the past of dispossession. But in the end, when Israel acknowledged the crime of displacing and imprisoning the Palestinians and made its apology, the Palestinians who had remained steadfast in their territories and those who had returned from their harsh exile had decided that recognition was sufficient, that they did not want any more memories to be erased, but wanted instead to build on all the memories, good and bad.
So the refugees had come back, and the Israeli residents had not left, so now it was Levi to its Israeli residents and Lubia to its Palestinian residents. And sometimes it was both, or neither, and much of the time it didn’t matter.
A lot of things that seemed to matter a lot to her parents, who had been born here to parents who had come very young from Russia, were hard for her to understand. Sometimes they lapsed into talk about “the Arabs”, and she didn’t get it. Hebrew was her first language, of course, but she was fluent in Arabic too. Her best friend had Arabic as a first language and spoke Hebrew quite well. Most of the kids she grew up with spoke both languages, switching back and forth with fluidity and ease, as she did. A lot of them learned English as well, and Farsi, and French, and Kurdish.
She packed her gift and got on the bus, enjoying the short ride. H. was already there. It was really nice to see him wearing shoes. She had met him when he’d first arrived and he had always seemed to be in bare feet. Worse, his feet were always swollen, his pant legs and shirt sleeves ragged (2). But not today – today he had a neat set of clothes and shoes, and presented his bald head to her with a smile, his hands clasped behind his back.
She had, of course, visited the Museum many times on school field trips, as had H. But they always enjoyed visiting the Memory Wall together. The Memory Wall was made of pieces of what was once called the “security fence” or the “apartheid wall”. Artists from different parts of the country had taken these pieces and painted and sculpted a mural on it, depicting the whole history of the two peoples in the land. H. found some of the medieval history distasteful. With his interest in history, he thought that the Memory Wall’s artists overstated the common oppression of Jews and Muslims by Christians. The crusades and inquisition were a historical wrongs, he would say, but many of us are Christians, after all. After everything we’ve all been through, surely we don’t want to make Christians out to be the villains.
N. thought he had a point. But the art work in the section that chronicled the history of Arab-Jewish civilization was spectacular, as the joint achievements had been. With her Jewish background, she spent a lot of time at the section commemorating the Nakba, the displacement of Palestinians and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. H., for his part, spent a lot of time studying the large section depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. These were always powerfully moving moments for both of them. They were silent for some time as they followed the exhibit along.
They followed along through the 1956 and 1967 and 1973 wars, the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights. They followed the 1982 war in Lebanon depicted, the war some of H.’s grandparents had survived. The Palestinian Intifada of the 1980s was celebrated on the wall, and the strange false start of Oslo. Why had her ancestors not negotiated in good faith, she wondered? And why did Israel’s allies, instead of helping, pour fuel on the flames and provide weapons so that our parents could kill one another? Why were they so foolish as to believe that weapons and killing could solve such important problems? Why did they think building walls and fencing people in and trying to starve them would protect us, their children and their future?
The Second Intifada was also commemorated here, with its thousands of victims. The findings of the Truth Commission of the war crimes committed during Israel’s operations in that era, 2000-2006 were not rendered artistically, but provided in blocks of text. In the end, the punishments had been relatively light, N. thought, compared to the crimes committed. She’d had an uncle who spent some time in jail. She’d refused her parents’ pleas to visit him, until H. and other friends of hers suggested that she do so. One of H.’s uncles had had trouble leaving resistance behind, had trouble accommodating to secularism, he told her. H. would sit with him, talk to him, calm him down, listen to his stories, listen to his lectures about religion. But that was different, N. had argued. Yes, H. had said, but we all have our duty.
This time, N. and H. lingered a long while at the section on the ‘Summer Rains’ operation in Gaza and the Lebanon war of 2006. Such terrible, murderous folly. Killing thousands of people, displacing much of the population. So many children. And in the end, disgrace. How close it had all come to the unthinkable, with nuclear weapons and inflamed hatreds and America pushing for more destruction.
How fortunate, N. and H. thought, that Palestinians had been able to hold on, and that the true friends of the peoples of the region were able to show the way. It was slow, and barely perceptible during that 2006 war, that the process had already begun. There had already been conferences – small, poorly attended – in Israel and elsewhere on the right of return. Many Israelis had already spoken out against what was happening and stated their belief that the future was for Israelis and Palestinians, sharing the land, together.
Warmongers in America and Israel who thought they enjoyed total support and impunity were pressured by a growing campaign of popular boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Eventually they could no longer present Israel’s wars as “self-defense” or dehumanize Palestinians, Lebanese, and other victims. People in those countries gained a new political maturity, so that even several attacks by militants on Israeli and American civilians that happened in the years that followed could not be used to derail the process, especially since the legitimate resistance groups began to adhere strictly to the laws of war, even though America and Israel did not. Within a few years, just as politicians in both countries had to worry about losing voters if they supported apartheid in Israel, generals in both countries had to worry about their soldiers refusing orders to fight. When that started to happen, apartheid started to unravel quickly.
How strange, that even her parents – who later had been so caught up that they participated in tearing down a section of the apartheid wall the day it came down – had worried so much about demographics, that if they couldn’t be a “majority”, even at the cost of imprisoning and starving and bombing all of their neighbours, Jewish life wouldn’t be safe. How wrong they were: Jews were safer now, here, than they had ever been, and Jewish cultural life an established reality, a part of the Middle East. She’d visited her Jewish family in Iran, Iraq, in Syria and Lebanon, all of whom were living freely, openly, as part of the wider community of Jews in the Middle East, as part of their own countries, and as cosmopolitan citizens of the world.
N. gave H. his hat, and they went to class – water management – before they had the chance to look at the years after 2006, the years when the tide turned in the world and everything was pulled back from the brink, when the electric fences and apartheid walls were torn down, when the refugee camps emptied and when no one, not one person, was thrown into the sea.
Justin Podur is a writer based in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected]
1) See this interview with Israeli historian Ilan Pappe: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7281 2) H. has actually been around for some time: http://www.palestineaidsociety.org/www/najiali.htm