"Did you know that Arab women, not all of them, but a lot of them, MOST of them . . . Arab women only have children because they hope the child will be a male so she can strap a bomb to him and send him into Israel to kill us. That's why they have babies."
My plane from Barcelona to Tel Aviv had not even begun to taxi, and my row-mates, a young Israeli man and his girlfriend, found out I was an American and came straight at me with questions regarding my thoughts on the "Israeli-Palestine problem". I had prepped myself well for customs, but I was not ready to be interrogated on the plane. As a lover of languages, I was well aware that every person in at least five rows in both directions was speaking only Hebrew, so I was more than hesitant to enter this debate. I laughed nervously, then claimed I did not know enough to answer intelligently. When his verbal essay on Palestine did not seem to sway me in the way he had hoped, he came out with the above gem of knowledge. In my head, I was thinking that I know several Arab mothers and exactly zero of them want their children, male or female, to die in a bomb explosion but instead I looked him in the eyes and said, "Wow." I let him believe my awe was at his statement, when in truth I was overwhelmed by his despicable racism. That seemed to satisfy him and we moved on to American television and life in Israel.
Customs, though intense, was relatively easy. My five-day trip in Israel as a tourist seemed perfectly reasonable, so through I went and out to the curb. The airline had claimed to have found my bag, but at five AM I thought it better to find my apartment and deal with the bag later (it was finally delivered that evening), and I hopped in a cab.
"The population of Jerusalem is around 1.3 million people," my cabbie explained as we discussed Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem, "unless you count Arabs as people. Then it's 1.5 million." His phone rang and he answered it, covering the silence of my horror.
Welcome to Tel Aviv
I spent the afternoon at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which saved me from my own disgust and fear. The artists can always remind and inform me, and seeing works exploring terror, war and cultural identity in a nation besieged by hatred and resentment and persecution helped my to put my first two interactions in context.
But still I was thrown. I had not encountered racism and hatred like that in such a casual manner . . . ever. My naiveté was shattered, and my hopes that this country would, too, change my pre-determined notions of rampant xenophobia was sifting away in the actuality of these neighboring and warring peoples. On the beaches of Tel Aviv that evening, I was furious at the tourists sipping martinis and giggling (Tel Aviv at night by the beach reminds of a beach town anywhere in the world, dotted with looming hotel chains and cafes while half-dressed men play volleyball and couples stroll hand-in-hand on the boardwalk), but I realized I had no right to be angry. When I pop into Starbucks on Ninth Ave chatting on my iPhone, I ignore the conflicts of the world and live my life. Proximity does not excuse apathy or create activism - everyone just wants to be happy, and for most of us that means pretending the world stops at our periphery. Distance from the problem does not give us absolution. It was time to go to Palestine.
Armed with assurances from my lovely host Eli (a wonderful Israeli-Persian man who quizzed me each morning on my travel plans to make sure I had them correct, and joked that he would keep my stuff if I didn't make it back one night), I hopped the bus to Afula where I was to meet a car that would take me across the checkpoints and to the Jenin refugee camp. Loaded with Israeli soldiers, children armed with M-16's (okay, I don't actually know anything about guns, so I think they were M-16's...) doing their required military service - off we went. After a little confusion, I found the driver and we headed in, across the boarder (where he was questioned and I was waived through with a glance at the United States emblem on my passport) and into the Jenin refugee camp.
Everything you have been told about the Palestine people is a lie. Every image forced upon us by the media and the Israeli propaganda machine - dusty angry Arab men holding make-shift weapons and spending their days plotting the fall of Israel - is complete and utter crap. These men may exist, but when I entered the West Bank, this is what happened to me:
The people at the Freedom Theatre had arranged for my transport both in and out of the camp. They met me at the theatre with a warm and beautiful greeting and introduced me to everyone around. They then, of course, fed me - a sesame broth stew that I can still taste, and coffee after (always). Nabil, the Artistic Director, showed up, greeted me like an old friend, and drove me to the rehearsal hall where I was introduced to the acting company and technical staff . . . and fed again. Di, the British director, greeted me and explained her hesitation at having me in rehearsal, so we worked out my cue to leave if it seemed my presence was distracting.
It was truly incredible, in the midst of this place and under this oppression to see exactly what I would see in any rehearsal anywhere in the world. Artists struggling between the text, ego and their own lack of focus. A frustrated and loving director trying to pull it together in what never seems like enough time. Back stage shenanigans (including a fall and a trip to the hospital) and repeated stops and starts and, eventually, two scenes came together. "Well I think we might almost be telling a story." said Di with a smile. After rehearsal, a quick company meeting to discuss tech and schedules, and the company was dismissed.
I do not know what I expected to find, but it wasn't this. It wasn't just people trying to make a decent piece of theatre. Theatre is my church, and I had stumbled upon the temple in a refugee camp in Palestine. The rituals of the mass were the same.
After rehearsal we went to coffee and then to Nabil's house for more food. Beers arrived and pasta was served and art and theatre and sex and life were discussed and a TV was moved around to get better reception for a futbol match. At one point, Micaela (the movement director and Nabil's wife, an incredibly talented and insanely intelligent artist) brought up Israel, and Nabil and his friend groaned at her seriousness, "PLEASE can we not? We are having a nice time and enjoying each other. Let's not talk politics!"
Politics. Politics?! I had observed a state of life that brought up images of Nazi Germany - check points and abuse, police state and random arrests and jailing, harassment and racism and a rhetoric filled with words like "sub-human" that was so used it was commonplace talk in public transportation - and they called this politics?! At last my mind had been changed. I had come in with images of resistance and armed with conversational nuggets about the occupation, but what I found was human beings. Intelligent, gentle human beings frustrated with the ins and outs of daily life and who took me into their homes and work with a love and hospitality that I had only encountered in Arab nations. I wanted to talk about the injustice - they wanted to have me over for dinner and get to know me. I was floored.
Welcome to Palestine
The next morning, after staying in an apartment with two yoga teachers and a filmmaker (three incredible women in Jenin trying to make a difference) I went to the theatre to say goodbye. Jonatan, my original contact and host, had again arranged for me to get out, this time with a driver who would take me all the way to Tel Aviv. And we were off, with promises to stay in touch and a hope to work together in the future.
We drove out a different way, through the mountains of Palestine and in and out of towns and cities. I was so sad to leave and wished I had arranged to stay another night. At the checkpoint, the driver was harassed but I was waived through - yet again a white face, an American passport and a smile can get you whatever you need. I wanted to scream at this girl with her gun and her smug look and her racism and her fear, but what good would it have done? My passport may let me in and out, but it cannot save anyone else from the injustice it represents. Or can it?
This is where I am supposed to say she was just doing her job.
Back in Tel Aviv, I sat on the beach and watched the sun set with rest of the privileged world.
The next day I headed to Jerusalem, but I must admit, at this point, I was mainly going to gather evidence of my tourism. I wanted to go back to Palestine.
I met an American girl who overheard me asking for directions in English, and we toured the Tower of David museum. I relaxed, settling in to learn. The museum, a restored fortress, gives a terrific (and surprisingly objective) history of the land inclusive of all religions.
I was especially moved by this piece of text:
I said goodbye to my new friend and wandered into the Old City, planning to make my way through the Jewish Quarter and into the Muslim Quarter, eventually winding over to see the tunnels under the Western Wall. It was a market, not unlike Marrakech, with hundreds of small shops and winding tunnels. At this point in my travels, I was quite adept at wandering these vendor stalls, noting that the tea pots and Muslim items had been replaced by Menorahs, Israeli flags and other Jewish items. I almost didn't take note of the large Israeli shopkeeper coming at me, assuming he was going to try to lure me into a purchase, until he got very close to me and snarled viciously into my ear at a volume clearly intended to be heard by others,
"Go home FAGGOT! You are not welcome here."
Welcome to Jerusalem
I walked on, pretending I had not heard him, but suddenly the winding chasm of shops seemed like a cage. I moved at exactly the same pace, but inside I was in a panic to get out. Finally finding my way to the exterior walls of the Old City, I turned right, heading via the exterior to find the Muslims. I cannot explain why I needed to be around Arab people after a homophobic interaction - they are, too, a people and religion that does not accept who and what I am - but I knew I would find welcome there.
Calmed a bit, I decided to skip the markets and walk, instead, to see the sites around the exterior, an awesome and inspiring conglomeration of the major world religions.
I had purchased a ticket to explore the catacombs under the Wailing Wall (as with the Mosque in Morocco and my respect for that religion, I observed the religious site without participating in the ritual) and had more than an hour to kill before the tour began. I wandered back into the Medina, past a few small restaurants and shops, and found this place.
When the young Middle Eastern boy working with his father offered me Shawarma, I almost hugged him. I relaxed in the music and food and hospitality, finally at peace a bit in this strange city of religious pilgrimage. Fed and with a little bit of calm, I wandered back to the Wall. Some security issue had arisen and the tour was cancelled. Not bothering to try for a refund, I decided it was time to go back to Tel Aviv, pack and leave this place.
Getting through Israeli customs is an adventure. The risk, apparently, is that you will be questioned and not allowed to return. I had re-prepped my computer and gathered proof of tourism. I had left my Arabic notes in at the hotel in Barcelona, so my only worry was if my time in the West Bank had been documented. But yet again, an American passport and a smile and I was whisked through, even being taken up the employee elevator when my bag needed to go another way. The young man swiping the wand through my carry-on apologized (three times) for having to throw away my yogurt (the symbolism is not lost), and waived me away with a bright smile and a "Please come back to Israel Mr. Fitzgerald! You are always welcome here!" As long as you are white. And American. And do not mention Arabs.
Welcome to the world
I would like to say that I cried on the plane. Or that I made a grand declaration of the injustice in the airport. Or that I even understood any of what had just happened. But the truth is just sadness. I was, and am, so saddened by the hatred and racism I had encountered. There is no religious war in occupied Palestine. There is a race war, and it is more vicious and complicated than I could have imagined. I do not understand it, but it has changed me.
People from all over the world travel to the Holy Land to encounter God, in whatever form or by whatever name they address their own deity. I am not sure he is there.
- - Adam