Today I’d like to share with you some of my reflections on “The Diversity of Cultures Within Israel’s Borders.”
Our tour began in Jerusalem, a beautiful city, of buildings on top of buildings, up each hill, reaching far into the distance. I didn’t even bother taking photographs. Got it, I thought. This is Israel.
In fact, while walking the ramparts of the Old City wall, I felt an odd sensation, that I’d entered a 3-Dimensional version of my Bible-story books from childhood. Everything looked remarkably familiar. This was the Jewish Israel I had more-or-less expected to see on our trip. I was, pleasantly… not surprised. Until the third or fourth day. Our unmistakable, huge bright-pink coach bus delivered us to a sloping, grassy hillside on the side of a Jerusalem road. There we met a robust and magnanimous gentleman, Danny Tirtza, retired Colonel of the Israel Defense Forces. He explained to us how he had designed and overseen the building of the “security” wall that divides East Jerusalem and the West Bank from the rest of Jerusalem and Israel. He gestured, with a sweep of his arm, to the hills across the way that encompass the vast area called East Jerusalem. At that moment I saw for the first time how Israel can be a totally different experience for its various residents, depending on their identities, which seem to be determined by skin color, culture of origin, gender, and practiced religion. So unlike the beautiful Jerusalem I had already begun to take for granted: mile after mile of development, white stone Bauhaus structures declaring life… and victory, victory over very heavy odds. Here I also saw victories over peoples, and inequalities actually designed by government policy.
Whereas the Jewish areas in Jerusalem were developed and prosperous, the Arab hills across the way were – for the most part – brown, spotted with pinches of green here and there. Yes, a village. Yes, a domed mosque. However. MANY fewer buildings. Many fewer resources. As we traveled outside the city, isolated Bedoin camps popped up here and there along the way. Their dwellings were nothing more than tin shacks. I was struck by the universality of this pattern, and how all my scenery photographs of Israel seemed to fit into one of two categories. Developed or Undeveloped. Regardless of locale: city, town, or rural area. Developed is Jewish. Undeveloped or under-developed is not Jewish, or not Jewish enough.
In Israel, there are so many possible categories to which one can belong. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish or Hassidic, Orthodox Jewish, Conservative Jewish, Secular Jewish, Child of Zionists Jewish or Ashkenazi Jewish, Sephardic Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Christian, Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, Druze, Muslim, Arab, Arab Christian, Arab Muslim, even Jewish Arab, Israeli, Palestinian, and even Israeli Palestinian. I am confused! Every time I think I understand, there is another layer of truth, another point of view. In fact, I thought to myself many times on our trip that it wasn’t so much a vacation as it was a graduate course… in social dynamics, maybe, or social governance. The country’s history is long and complex. Our group said so many times about Israel, “It’s complicated.”
After our meeting with Danny Tirtza, our bus drove along that seemingly endless security wall until we reached the next town, Bethlehem, where we met Said, a young Arab activist working to bring Arabs and Jews together in mutual recognition of each other and ultimately friendship. Said took us on a short walk through what was left of the town after its commercial center was separated from its residents. It was sad to see the solid 8-foot wall planted not ten feet in front of one family’s front door. But I totally understood Danny Tirtza’s point of view: the security wall was necessary. Of the many terrorism statistics that he cited, I remember only these two. Within one month’s time, elementary school buses carrying children were bombed 17 times. Within one month’s time, one hundred twenty-nine rockets were launched into Israel. Attempts at breaching the wall occur
regularly, including once a couple of hours after we had visited a hilltop memorial to a fallen Israeli soldier.
Said suggested that Danny Tirtza may have exaggerated a bit. But Said also downplayed the dangers of terrorist acts on the Israeli people. He called the terrorists, “a couple of crazy guys.” He felt the wall was a horrible divider of people, and in some cases, it did divide, even, families. Everyone in our group felt for the Palestinians living on this side of the wall. We were sad to learn the Palestinians were almost never granted building permits, even though, of course, they needed places to live. So, on occasion, some would attempt to build a house or two. The Israeli government, stating lack of building permits, would raze the new buildings, often unannounced, usually just before daybreak.
Two men: one the son of a Jewish woman, one the son of a Palestinian woman. Two very different views. Two very different experiences of reality.
One evening on our trip, we were hosted in the home of a Druze family, Miad and Snir and their three kids, living in the Galilee – on the Israel side of the Wall. Our hostess was dressed in modern clothes. Their home was spacious and new. A powerful air conditioning unit chilled their long dining room, and the roomy kitchen easily accommodated all of us, dutifully rolling dolmas, alongside Miad. We enjoyed a delicious dinner that included dolmas (rolled in homegrown grape leaves), tomato cucumber salad, tahini dressing, and lamb balls baked in tahini sauce. After dinner, we sat on the attached veranda, which looked out on several date trees and olive trees. And as we sipped strong tea and sampled delicious, frozen fresh dates, we listened to how their family took their olives to the local press each fall and returned home with home-grown olive oil. MMM
On the bus ride home, we asked our guide about Miad and Snir’s lovely home. We learned their relatively high standard of living is a result of the Druze people running and populating the building industry in Israel, so they can build for themselves at relatively low expense. Furthermore, we learned that life is still not that easy for them. The opportunity to demonstrate Druze cooking and prepare meals for groups, as a career, is hugely important in Miad’s quest to build a strong self-identity and develop the ability to contribute to her family’s income. Toward the end of our trip, we were hosted for another dinner by a Muslim woman. We walked through the streets of Old Yaffo (or Jaffa), not the nicest part of Tel Aviv, up a narrow flight of stairs, to a small apartment, to enjoy a meal prepared by our hostess, Myassarseri, who wore a white scarf over her hair at all times, indicating that she was a religiously observant Muslim woman. The black serge dress covering her arms to the wrist and legs to the ankle completed the impression. Amazingly, she didn’t seem uncomfortable, although the high temperature and humidity in the room were barely mitigated by the feeble air conditioning unit on the wall. When we arrived at the apartment, we couldn’t help but notice how the twenty-one chairs barely fit into the room. We entered and squeezed ourselves into every available corner. One person later said, “It was just such a small space, and it was so hot, and there were so many people, all squeezed together…”. I laughed and said that statement describes all of Israel. Really, I think it does. Such a small country, such a long history, so many people, so many stories, and so hot. It turned out that Chef Myassarseri’s outfit was sort of a disguise because, as she served out bowls of food one after the other, she relaxed more and more and soon started joking with us. She mercilessly teased one member of our group and spouted to our guide, more than once, “You’re fired!” although she had never met him before this evening. She had us all in stiches.
Like the Biblical Sarah, who was unable to conceive a child until late in her life, Myassarseri was married but without children. However, she received much love and support from her
family, who also lived in the building. While we were there, her sister dropped in to say hello, as did her college-aged nephew who keeps an eye out for his auntie.
Like Miad, Myassarseri was earning an income by welcoming guests into her home and introducing them to traditional Palestinian foods. She was mentoring other Palestinian women as well. She proudly showed us a copy of the hardcover cookbook with full color plates that she has published in two languages. Myassarseri has found a way to do meaningful work, earn money, and build a strong identity. What an inspiration!
Two women, with rich histories and culture, sharing who they were through food and hospitality. Danny Tirtza and Said, Miad and Myassarseri. Descendants, perhaps, of Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. As we are all descendants of them! Geneticists have found that nearly all people alive today will find ancestors, just a handful of people, common to us all, by going back only a few dozen centuries. That makes each of us more closely related to EVERYONE than perhaps we have realized until now.
At the end of the day, Israel is not that different from the United States. People from many cultures interact daily here, and various groups enjoy differing levels of resources and quality of life. So, at the end of my day, at the end of our trip to Israel, I have decided to become more active in making my local community, my neighborhood, a better place for its diverse residents.
Because, well…It’s complicated!