At 19, I travelled to Israel where I lived and worked on a kibbutz (a communal agricultural property) picking apples in the orchards for four hours in the morning and studying Hebrew for four hours in the afternoon. I stayed on the kibbutz for three months which was located about 36 km from Israel’s harbour city of Haifa. During my sojourn in Israel, I “touristed” on my one day off a week taking buses to different parts of the country and on one pleasant sunny, summer day, visited the town of Acre, a modern albeit small metropolis of sandstone houses where the Jewish settlers lived. Nearby was another much older part of the town called Akko, home to hundreds of Israeli Arabs (as they then called themselves in 1969) and site of the 12th century Crusaders’ conflicts and ancient prison cells and fort. In this part of the town, I met a local Arab boy about my age who offered to show me around his environs for nothing as I had very little money. Speaking English quite well, he told me he usually worked as a tourist guide for other more prosperous visitors but this day was quiet and no one else was around. So not only did he give me a very comprehensive history lesson, he then invited me to his home for some watermelon and coffee. To say I was horrified, saddened and dismayed at his home is an understatement.
What greeted me was an old dwelling of adobe brick with two rooms, bare walls, fruit boxes for chairs, an old rusted heavy iron kitchen sink with just cold running water, a couple of gas rings for cooking and an ageing ice box that was much past its use by date. There was no bathroom (the shower was a drip by drip of cold water outside at the back of the dwelling) and no toilet except a hole in the ground a few metres away. The other room was for sleeping; not real beds just cast iron bases with thin mattresses and a couple of threadbare blankets (if you could even call them that). His mother was sitting on a fruit box as we entered; she got up and retrieved some watermelon from the ice box and then went to make Turkish coffee on one of the gas rings as her son requested or so I presumed as they spoke Arabic. I smiled at her and said todaraba (thank you in Hebrew) as she didn’t speak any English. Her son and I talked as we had for the past couple of hours roaming around Akko; reflecting on his lack of equal rights in Israel as an Arab despite being born there and why he didn’t hate the Jews (or so he told me when I asked). He talked instead about both Jews and Arabs being Semites, brothers really, and how peace would come one day when both Jew and Arab could live side by side with equality and freedom without fighting or war. When I was leaving, he asked me to come again on my next day off and I said I would look forward to it.
At this time, I was staying with my cousin and his family in Haifa (they had emigrated to Israel from Australia a few years previously) and on arriving back at their home (sheer luxury by comparison to the Arab boy’s home), I told my cousin’s wife about the really nice young Arab boy I had met and how upset I was at seeing his home and that I promised to return to meet him on my next day off. Her reaction was crushing. He could have killed you was her damning response. You’re a fool for going back to his house and as for going there again next week, you WILL get killed. You can’t trust these people. They hate us. They want us all dead. I was rendered speechless. It all seemed tragic; beyond any words that I could think of. What could I say? Her paranoia was rampant; a sad untrusting fear I had heard from so many other Israeli Jews, but was it purely irrational or was there some rational and logical basis for this fear? Certainly, the newspapers and TV news covered many stories of assaults and murders of Israelis by Arab citizens; the dangerous perils of living in Israel were all too real and I could only retire to my bedroom reflecting on the tragic circumstances of both the Jews and the Arabs. Suffice to say I never returned to meet the young Arab boy.
On another occasion, this pitiful reality shocked me once more just a few weeks later when I was staying at my cousin’s home in Haifa again. I was returning by bus from the town centre to their home on Mt Carmel and as I got up from my seat to press the bell, my eyes were transfixed, albeit aghast at what I saw as I looked out the window. I alighted from the bus and walked a few steps backwards to see an apartment complex just a few metres from my cousin’s home reduced to a heap of rubble with grey smoke still billowing around the bricks and mortar that were spreadeagled in the front. There was a clear, blue ultramarine cloudless sky and the sun was hot overhead; a tranquil summer day for appreciating the beautiful harbour and breathtaking, panoramic views. But within seconds, I was in another space; ugly, frightening, terrifying for life itself. With my journalistic instincts unleashed, I retrieved my camera from my bag and snapped a few photos before rushing to my cousin’s apartment to find out what had happened. A bomb had gone off a few hours before, ripping the guts out of the building though fortunately no one was killed. The bomb had been left outside a door but no one knew by whom and why. It didn’t seem, the police had said, a personal vendetta, just yet another incident of Arab hatred against the Israelis, part of the on-going campaign to kill and destroy the Jews. Once again, I was speechless; horrified, numbed into a silence I could not escape with words. None seemed adequate to explain it all. Were these experiences in Akko (and my cousin’s wife reaction) and now in Haifa, typical of the normal, ordinary way of life in Eretz Yizreel?
This was more than 40 years ago, before suicide bombers, before The Wall and before the Intifadas, while peace now between Arabs and Jews echoes like an empty waste of verbal energy across the Middle East. I have been unable to return to Israel since that first visit (money not permitting), except friends and family tell me living there in the 21st century is much worse; more fraught, more stressful, more dangerous. Recently, I read an account by a Palestinian doctor called Izzeldin Abelaish living in occupied Gaza behind the Wall who lost members of his family in a military attack by mad, murderous Israelis in the territory. Titled “I Shall Not Hate”, the book, based on his life both in Israel and in Gaza, is a testimony to one man’s plea for peace; for understanding, for justice, for equality and for love in a hostile and untrusting environment. Reading his story, I cried many, many tears and many, many times; for his courage in the face of real danger, for his suffering at the hands of some deranged Israelis and for his love of humanity despite it all. He is a truly beautiful, albeit remarkable person. But as a Jew, I felt so lost and helpless in trying to find a way to end the hatred, bitterness and suspicion that envelop both Jews and Arabs in the lands. Only this week, I watched a TV discussion program on ABC TV which featured an Israeli Jewish historian called Illan Pappe who calls Israel’s behaviour against the Palestinians “ethnic cleansing’, accusing them at the same time as guilty of crimes against humanity. Is this perspective just? valid? rational? Or yet another attempt to portray Israel as perpetrators of murder because it exists at all? And continues to flourish against all the odds? Another more sober view on the program was offered by a Jewish Australian barrister who called for a two state solution to the conflict (war?) as soon as possible. Once more I shed a few tears, and felt again very, very lost about what we as an international community could do. Where does it all end? Wherein is the real road to peace?
As an Australian born Jew, I am not a religious person, but I believe very strongly in not just Israel’s right to exist, but far more significantly, its NEED to exist. In a world where anti-semitism is just as alive and thriving as it has been since pagan times when people condemned and persecuted the Jews for then worshipping only one God and believing in monotheism, the evil against the Jews continues to flourish. I, too, have been physically assaulted and called “a Jewish cunt” walking down the streets of downtown Melbourne no less by a drug ravaged Anglo female Australian. The Holocaust is just one brutal, horrendous cruelty along a long history of hatred of the Jews, and few people went to help the Jews as they were butchered, tortured and murdered by the Nazis in the concentration camps and streets of Europe. World War II was about British and Allied efforts to save their own countries from Hitler; not about saving the Jews. The fact that many survived was just a fortunate by product of the war. As a Jew, I hope I never forget this. Certainly, there is a real paranoia by some Jews in the Diaspora about all Arabs, all Christians, all Others, but as Jews we too must understand that we must not hate, must not fear, must not cease to live as sane, rational human beings as best we can. The anti-semitism that does exist is at least circumscribed by democratic governments in the West that uphold and cherish human rights, outlaw racial and religious discrimination and allow us to live as equals with the same rights as everybody else. A far cry from Eastern Europe that my parents grew up in. Nevertheless, in some ways, we are on our own, and Israel MUST continue to not just exist and survive, but flourish as a democracy in its own right (however imperfect). That does not mean I concur with all its aggressive foreign policies or blindly support its military forays into neighbouring countries or even agree with all of the Jewish settlements it is building and some of its obvious discrimination against the Arabs who live inside Israel. Illan Pappe also lambasted Israel for being racist; akin to apartheid in South Africa pre- Mandela but who will look after the Israelis if they do not look after themselves? And what of the Palestinians, where millions of them live in refugee camps after losing their land and homes to the Israelis?
Yes, there are facts about the past and sadly, the present, that are discomforting and disturbing about Israel and the Palestinians, but one only has to look at the conflicts in Gaza and the West Bank between extreme Islamic fundamentalists, Hamas and Christian Arabs, the civil war in Syria, the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen et al to realise that the Arabs can’t even make peace among themselves. What hope is there, then, for the Israelis?
I wish I knew; I wish I could provide some clarity, some answers, some direction for both Israel and the Palestinians to pursue to resolve what often seems unresolvable. But what I do feel certain of is that hatred will solve absolutely nothing – on both sides! Preaching a doctrine of ethnic cleansing and of racism only serves to fuel hatred between these peoples that sadly already exists; teaching your children distrust and fear is equally reprehensible; (one must stop the paranoia on both sides) and passing on a legacy of bitterness and suspicion ignites only further contempt between peoples who have so much in common. It is INDEED tragic! Islam and Judaism share many common tenets; and as the young Arab boy in Akko told me so long ago we are all Semites. Brothers! And as the Palestinian doctor wrote in his book we must continue to work for peace, we must continue to hope to find a harmonious path to forge a new way forward for both Israel and the Palestinians and for me, it is about two states as the UN decreed many, many decades ago. But for that to succeed, people on both sides must learn to trust and that has to be earned by all. There is no easy solution to a web of conflict that is so very complex and difficult that has divided these peoples for centuries past. I’m not sure you can right all the wrongs of history with one simple peace agreement; our human heritage is littered with blood stained pieces of paper over hundreds of years, but we as humans are also capable of great love, creativity, respect and forgiveness (aka Mandela) so we must open our hearts and minds to the real and very human challenge to make a peace that all feel profoundly committed to! No more lip service, no more glib diplomacy, no more political correctness but instead a true commitment to peace. And what does Shalom really mean? Peace!