Exploring the gray area between Arabic and Jewish thought
by Joey Glick, guest writer; photo by Margaret Morelli, guest photographer
From propaganda to scholarly essays to poetry, there is no lack of words written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my limited experience, these words tend to take on a life of their own, often outrunning the control and the intentions of the writer. I ask that, as you read what follows, you keep in mind that this is my perspective as a Jew who has studied Arabic language and culture. I ask that if you discuss this piece in the future, you do so in a soft voice, as there is more than enough yelling on this topic.
On November 14, I attempted to cross from the north of Jordan into Syria for a weekend of sightseeing. At the customs office on the Syrian side of the border, I noticed that an agent had put my passport in a separate pile from that of my friends. During a short interrogation, a Syrian official informed me that a small square of sticky residue on the back of my passport appeared to come from an Israeli sticker. I would not be allowed to cross into Syria. After a series of uncomfortable conversations with Jordanian soldiers, who found my quick return from Syria suspect, I was allowed to re-enter Jordan.
A week and a half later, I tried to enter Israel and the Palestinian territories by way of the King Hussein Bridge. A female Israeli soldier at the border took my passport and asked me to say my middle name. “Alan,” I replied.
“Could you say that again?” she asked.
“Alan,” I repeated.
“Please take a seat over there,” she said, motioning to a corner of the room filled by men with full beards and veiled women. “You will need to speak with an agent before we can make an entry decision.”
After an hour-long wait, a security agent who resembled Woody Allen in the film Bananas called my name and, when I answered, pulled me aside.
“Say your middle name,” he ordered.
“Why did you tell the woman soldier that your name was A’li? Do you think Israeli security is a joke? Do you think pretending to be named Joey A’li Glick is funny?”
“No,” I responded. I attempted to clarify that I had never claimed to be named A’li and that I would not consider doing so funny (although that might have been a lie). When he still looked skeptical, I told him that I was a religious Jew and that my last visit to Israel was for Rosh Hashanah. After he confirmed that I did not intend to harm the state of Israel, the agent stamped my passport and I was allowed to enter the Palestinian territories en route to Jerusalem.
After returning from a semester of study in Amman, Jordan, I’ve come to think of these two border crossings as symbols of my cultural and political identities. I was raised in a Jewish household and I continue to practice Judaism. Like many young American Jews, a love of Israel has accompanied my religious education. The call for freedom in the Passover Seder seems to develop naturally into the sovereign hope of Zionism. Even more compelling than these religious lessons are memories of making matzo ball soup and hearing stories at my grandmother’s house. As she added a gallon of chicken fat to her broth, my grandmother would retell her memories of May 14, 1948. Normally a stoic woman, her eyes would tear up when she remembered hearing the Israeli Declaration of Independence for the first time.
That day, May 14, 1948, the Jewish and Arabic narratives of Israel/Palestine split. What Jews refer to as a day of independence, Arabs call Al-Nakba, meaning The Catastrophe. While most Jews see the months and years that followed that May as a time of redemption and healing, many Arabs remember this period as the beginning of a traumatic diaspora. A sort of geographic schizophrenia has emerged from this split, by which geographic neighbors live in cultural isolation from each other.
Before leaving for Jordan, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the counter-narratives that I would hear. Though I anticipated encountering frustration and confusion, I also hoped that I would be able to find myself a place between these contesting voices.
I decided to study in Jordan largely because of the peace that has lasted between Jordan and Israel for more than a decade. I thought I might be able to find Jordanians who could accept my Zionist perspective while helping me to understand the Arabic view of the conflict. I also looked forward to traveling to Israel and meeting young Jews who shared my yearning to bridge the cultural gap between Jew and Arab.
In my first months in Jordan and my first trip to Israel, I had a number of discouraging interactions. In Jordan, I met a young man who casually talked about the destruction of Jewish Israel, as predicted by the Qur’an. In Israel, when I told people that I was a Jew studying in Jordan, I was met with responses ranging from mild confusion to complete disbelief. An Israeli woman told me that she simply couldn’t understand why a Jew would want to live in the Arab world.
As I observed more of Jordanian and Israeli life, I came to see that these overtly negative responses were not representative of entire cultures; most Jews and Arabs that I met preferred to simply ignore each other, a coping mechanism that, after sixty years of separation and war, helped members of both sides to lead their day-to-day lives. When the topic did arise, however, it was difficult for me to find voices that spoke against party lines on either side of the Jordan River.
In my last month in the Middle East, I found a number of notable exceptions to this rule. The first came in the form of Madian al-Jazerah, who proudly holds the title of the first openly gay man in Jordan. An American- and British-educated Jordanian, Madian owns a chic bookstore and coffee shop that resembles Poor Richard’s. Through his store, Books@cafe, known as one of the few gay-friendly venues in Amman, Madian has been pushing the boundaries of free speech in Jordan for almost two decades.
Madian spoke to my class about the need for a cultural shift in Jordan. He believes that the 1994 peace with Israel lost much of its meaning when it failed to bring normal Israelis and Jordanians into contact. Without this contact, both sides continue to view each other as abstractions. In the early days after the peace, Madian tried to combat this cultural separation. He hired the daughter of the Israeli ambassador as a hostess in his café after hearing that she could not find work in Amman. After being hired, the young Israeli mentioned to Madian that her mother made the best banana cream pie in the world. Madian asked for the recipe and began selling the pie. This tiny cultural exchange led to a boycott of his cafe and placed him and his employees in danger.
In addition to the pie episode, Madian has twice been forced into exile because of death threats. The most recent exile ended when the Queen of Jordan invited Madian back into the country. He told us that in the midst of these threats and challenges, he felt the need to continue to fight for liberal change in Jordanian society.
About a month after meeting Madian, I returned to Israel to interview two young conscientious objectors, known as Refuseniks in Hebrew. A friend of mine who had graduated from a United World College had introduced me to the Refusenik movement. He had had a classmate who opted out of military service and was sentenced to a number of months in military detention.
I met Emelia Marcovich and Yaara Shafrir at a high-rise mall in Tel Aviv. Though I had known that they would be young, I was still surprised to encounter two women that could have been my prospies. Neither had served their military detention time, but both Emelia and Yaara had officially objected to their mandatory two-year military service. They were co-signers on an annual declaration of protest drafted by Israeli twelfth graders known as the Shministim Letter. Each year’s Refuseniks craft a letter of protest in line with their passions. In this year’s letter, the co-signers emphasize what they perceive as the harmfulness of the current state of militarism in Israel. In order to create and defend a peaceful Israeli society, the co-signers contend that young people should consider humanitarian volunteerism over military service. In this role, Refuseniks claim, Israeli youth can work in cooperation rather than antagonism with their Arab neighbors.
I asked what they would want for Israel’s future. Yaara replied that she wanted to see an Israel populace that “was less radical about everything.”
“But we are radicals,” Emelia quipped.
The Shministim movement’s radicalism might be the only point of consensus between all sectors of Israeli society. Even left-leaning institutions in Israel, such as the Labor Party, denounce the Shministim movement. In a country that finds itself at war once a decade, Israelis view a powerful military as a necessity. Mainstream Israeli society sees any challenge to this military as a crime against the country. Deeper than these security priorities, Israelis value their military structure for its egalitarian influence on the country. When an Israeli mother sends her son or daughter to war, she finds herself amassed in a support network as large as the country itself. Many Israelis believe that the Shministim movement endangers the emotional well-being of the Jewish state.
Emelia and Yaara responded to these concerns with shrugs. They told me that, realistically, their movement would never be large enough to endanger Israel’s need for troops; only one in 10,000 Israeli youth currently object to military service and it is not Shministim’s goal to dramatically enlarge the population of Refuseniks. Instead, they want to present young Israelis with options outside of the military.
Yaara discussed the efforts that the movement takes to publicize the Shministim cause. Referring to Israeli youth, she said, “They’ve heard of us, but we’re the bad guys.” It is the movement’s intention to change this perception and break the hegemony of a sacred and mandatory military. The Refuseniks believe that their protest could one day lead a transformation in which civil rather than military service formed the heart of the Israeli narrative. They acknowledge that a change in the geopolitics of the region must accompany this transformation, but Emelia and Yaara insist that Israeli youth must take a role in creating the necessary peace.
I admire Madian and the Refusniks for the sacrifices they are willing to take in pursuit of their ideals. While inspiring, their stories are also frightening. On the borders of Syria and Israel, I found a strange microcosm alienated from both Arabic and Jewish culture. My friends and contacts confront this reality on a daily basis. Their experiences force me to wonder if it is possible to live in the gray between the hard lines of Arabic and Israeli thought, while avoiding the pain of isolation.
Two days ago, I showed my mother a draft of this article. I had ended the draft with a paragraph in which I re-evaluated my view of May 14, 1948 in light of my experiences of the past six months. I had written that I could no longer consider May 14 the mythical victory that I had known it to be as a child. Mostly in jest, my mother suggested that I wash my mouth with soap for writing such blasphemy. I explained to her that the word victory was inappropriate; the Refuseniks had taught me to re-imagine Israel without this history of militaristic symbolism. Additionally, I could never start a productive conversation with an Arab regarding the founding of Israel while keeping this event in an entirely positive light; to do so would ignore the Arab narrative of Al-Nakba and set myself up for a screaming match. In usual Jewish mother form, my mother ended the argument by informing me that she was not moved and that she was glad my grandmother was not alive to witness the shame.
Though she was 85 percent sarcastic, the trace of sincerity in my mother’s voice continues to trouble me. It has been difficult to discard a narrative I’ve heard since childhood and I do not yet have a compelling story to replace my old view of an entirely triumphant May 14. I do, however, have a plan:
On May 14, 2010, I will lure Jewish and Arabic students into a room in upstairs Worner with 200 falafel from Heart of Jerusalem Cafe.
I will tell them that they may not leave until the falafel are eaten.
I will ask that people talk in soft voices.
The Shministim Letter is online at http://www.shministim.com/.