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Friendship in Time of Conflict

goldsborobooks.com

Let me tell you a story. A story about friendship, a story about war and peace, a story about a book. I’ll start with the friendship: When I arrived here in Sacramento almost twenty-four years ago, right away I got involved with a small group of people from different backgrounds (but mostly Jews), who called their group ‘The Middle East Peace Project,’ and who were dedicated on educating the public at large about all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more so even, on spreading the word that peace was possible to achieve.

Among the group activists was a Palestinian named Akef Shihabi, who was a mild-mannered, middle-aged man, educated and very pleasant to be around. We struck friendship soon after I joined the group, I visited his house and he mine, and though his family was expelled from East-Jerusalem in 1948; and though my parents arrived to then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1946, refugees and survivals of the Holocaust, we not only fast became friends, but on behalf of our group we began appearing together around the city and county, universities, congregations, Jewish and Christians and Muslims, where we shared our different experiences but common belief in the possibility of peace.

At some point we drifted apart, due to life’s other obligations, necessities, and misfortunes. Also, due to my realization that at some point we were just treading water, and had exhausted all the open venues in this area. Still, on occasions I would think of him. None more so than nowadays, when for the last three weeks I was consumed by a new book—’Apeirogon,’ by Colum McCann—which was published last month to great acclaim and much interest. So much so that one book reviewer I’ve read, in ‘The Guardian’ of London, concluded by saying that if ever a book can bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is the book.

I was immediately intrigued: Can a book bring peace? Not only that: At the center of the book—the author is calling it a novel, yet it’s really a novel in name only since it’s mostly a nonfiction, biographical, historical book using real people, real names, and real incidents—are an Israeli and a Palestinian, from Jerusalem and Jericho, who both lost young daughters to the conflict. They form an everlasting friendship, first through an organization called ‘The Parents Circle,’ and then through an organization called ’Combatants for Peace.’ Both organizations are also real and active presently.

At the core of the book is the story of these two men. How their daughters were killed—the Palestinian man, Bassam, ten-year old daughter, Abir, was shot in the back of her head by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier riding in a Jeep, just as she came out of a small shop on a break from school, a candy in her hand; the Israeli man, Rami, his daughter Smadar, only fourteen, was walking with her two best friends on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers exploded themselves one afternoon. The book tells their stories, their families’ and daughters’ stories, how they deal with the constant grief and loss, how they became friends and active in peace and reconciliation efforts, appearing and lecturing together not only in Israel-Palestine, but in Europe and America.

This ancient conflict, they believe, won’t end until we talk. (A side bumper-sticker on Rami’s motorbike says just that in Hebrew : (זה לא ייגמר עד שנדבר. And the book indeed talk. And talk for long about them and about other things. It’s all those other things, unrelated to their friendship, peace activities and personal stories that obscure and dull the effect of the book somewhat. They hold our attention, the two men; their stories original and painful enough for the book to sustain interest and emotional resonance throughout. The author though, it seems, wanted to write the “ultimate” book about the Middle East at large, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. Which takes away from the impact at the core of his book.

Nonetheless, it’s an admirable effort. But can it bring peace? No, it cannot. Still, it’s an important book. And it’s important not only because it shows the historical depth, and current magnitude of the conflict—as other books had done already (not to mention the Bible)—but also because it gives voice to the possibility of friendship in time of conflict. The possibility of shared experiences and shared humanity and efforts working, united, for the common good. And it makes clear that peace is possible to attain.

Therefore, in conclusion, I suggest that anyone who’s connected to this conflict in any way, to the ‘land of milk and honey’ and to its people, whether closely or remotely, would surely find this book of great interest. As Rami thinks to himself when he first joins ‘The Parents Circle’—an organization of bereaved parents from both sides—“It is not a decree of faith that we should live forever with a sword in our hands.” And equally so Bassam (who experienced seven years of humiliation and torture in an Israeli prison) thinks that “The only revenge is making peace.” So ultimately, and persuasively, their story renews the hope that someday in the future, sooner rather than later, driven by the people more than by their leaders, a peaceful resolution to this endless war would be found.

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In the land of Israel

Amazon.com

In the land of Israel—modern Israel, that is—never lived a finest man than Amos oz. As a writer; as a salt-of-the-earth farmer and warrior; as a peace-loving man and activist; as a man of his word and vision. And when he died unexpectedly from a sudden illness at the end of last year, at age 79, a voice whispered in my ear—it was him, I believe—that his optimistic outlook of Israel just couldn’t stand the disaster—cry for the ages, as we like to say in Hebrew—of the coming elections, and of what they might bring upon the country and people he so much loved.

About the latter I will write in the next month or two, just before the elections, but about the former—the man and his vision—allow me to add my humble voice to the many who spoke and wrote so appraisingly about him. To my sorrow, though he was one of the founders of the ‘Peace Now’ movement (and in a way, so was I), we never met. But that’s not exactly true, since I’d met him so often through his essays and books. One of which I’ve found in my library, in a section reserved—one shelf for fiction, one shelf for non-fiction—for the best works I ever read.

I reread ‘In the Land of Israel’ in his honor. And though his fiction was always more to my liking—The New Yorker just published his beautiful short story, “All Rivers,” from which you can learn so much about the man and his origins—I found plenty to admire, and to fear, in this book from 1982. In it, Amos Oz chronicled his interviews with everyday Israelis, which he had conducted throughout the land, and the occupied land, allowing them to speak their mind freely. It was first published in the Israeli morning paper ‘Davar,’ and later collected into this book.

He took a journey while writing it, becoming “a tourist in his own country in order to explore and record the cauldron of emotions, fears and prejudices” of Israelis. As he writes in his ‘Author’s notes:’ “Every place is an entire world and every man is a world in himself, and I reached only a few places and a few people, and even then I was able to see and to hear only a little of so much.”

In line with his words, I’ve chosen to highlight only two people who spoke to him, from two different “worlds,” though they lived so close to each other. The first person (he names no names, generally, in this book), it that of a resident of the development town of Bet Shemesh, whom he met at a Café in the center square, together with some others, all of them Mizrachim: Immigrants from Arab countries and North African countries. What used to be referred to back then as the “Second Israel.” Among so many other things, he’d said this:

“When you were on top (he meant Ashkenazim, kibbutzniks, the “First Israel,” H.D.), you hid us in holes, in moshavim and in development towns, so the tourists wouldn’t see us; so we wouldn’t stain your image; so they’d think this was a white country. But that’s all over now, because now we’ve come out of our holes. You still haven’t figured out what hit you, have you?”

And still more: “You guys, your time is past. Even after Begin (the Prime Minister then, H.D.) you won’t make a comeback in another hundred years. We are sick of you and your squabbles. Yes to the Palestinian state or no to the Palestinian state… To give back or not to give back, peace in the Galilee or not… Anything goes.”

Two things strike me here: First, the force of the hurt and resentment that existed back then; second, the prophecy ingrained in his simple words. It may be that, as to the former, the equilibrium had changed, but if so, just a bit. What used to be the “First Israel” is now centered in Tel Aviv and around it, no more just Ashkenazim but liberals, secular Israelis of all backgrounds, who emphasize democracy first and Jewish second.

The “Second Israel” is now centered in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the settlements of the West Bank, and it’s not only Mizrachim there now, but everybody who put the emphasis on Jewish first and democracy second. Moreover: As the second quote indicates, the “Second Israel” is still in power. It is actually the “First Israel” now. And the hell with the rest. The occupation is not occupation; the West Bank is Judah and Samaria; the rule of law is our law; the hell with the rest of Israel.

Here’s then is the second quote, from a veteran member of Amos Oz’s kibbutz, Hulda: “Ask them—hand on your heart, as they said to you in Bet Shemesh—whether now, when the power is in Begin’s hands, and in theirs, they really think it pays to settle accounts with us like this, the night of the long knives. And ask them another thing as well, hand on your heart: Was everything we did in this country in 50 years, or 80 years, so bad? Was it all malicious? Everything we built here at such great sacrifice, everything we created out of nothing, including the mistakes we surely made? What would the Land of Israel look like without the Labor movement?”

There would be no Land of Israel, if you ask me. Certainly not the “Land of Israel” where Amos Oz walked and wrote. He left us very poor, I’d say that, teetering on the edge of an abyss.

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