ISRAEL: Two peoples, one dream
Tel Aviv — As the terrible year of 2001 wanes, conventional politics offers little hope for peace in the Middle East. But conventional political wisdom is fallible. It failed to predict the Islamic revolution in Iran or the collapse of the Berlin Wall — monumental events that were forged in collective dreams, rather than government decisions.
It is in the dream life of the Middle East that a reporter still finds room for hope, amid the incessant bloodshed.
After a monthlong assignment there, the harsh official pronouncements from both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict recede into a chilling drone. Far more resonant are the echoes of personal conversations with people like Walid, 45, and Reuven, 53 — two men who are technically enemies, yet who speak in their unguarded moments more like brothers.
Both are fathers of two and professional interpreters, trilingual in Hebrew,
English and Arabic, a capability that is remarkably widespread among Arabs and Jews alike in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But because they allowed their unguarded words to be recorded, they didn’t want their full names used, nor their pictures taken.
Walid lives in East Jerusalem, which is a curse for his political self- esteem but a blessing for his standard of living.
Because the status of Jerusalem is the most emotional issue blocking a peace settlement, the 280,000 Arabs who populate the city’s east side hang in civil limbo. They are regarded as neither Arab-Israeli, with the rights and privileges of formal citizenship, nor as West Bank Palestinians, who, even in the statements of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, will one day have a state of their own.
“We float between two worlds,” Walid says.
FREEDOM TO WORK AND TRAVEL
Yet Walid’s dilemma also means that, as a legal resident in what Israel considers its own capital city, he can work and travel freely across the country, earning an income that is roughly four times the average in neighboring Jordan.
On the drive from East Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, his words and thoughts are framed by the passing scene. A few miles south of the city limits, an abandoned, ruined village clings to the slope of a deep gully. “There,” he says, nodding toward the village, “that was where my parents lived before 1948. ”
Walid says no more than that. In his glance at the village, in his allusion to 1948 — to Israel’s war of foundation and the subsequent diaspora of 750, 000 Palestinians — the entire story is told.
A few days later, the reporter asks Reuven about his family’s history. “What survived of my family came to Israel in 1946 from Romania,” he says, softly. “From the Holocaust.”
Like Walid, he says no more.
Route One, the freeway that traverses the 35 miles to Tel Aviv, twists through a series of dry hills and canyons, then descends into a verdant coastal plain. Skyscrapers rise against the horizon, soaring above an immense stretch of neatly landscaped subdivisions.
Greater Jerusalem is the Third World, even in the expensive enclaves that remind one of the wealthy suburbs of Cairo or Amman, walled off from the surrounding chaos of poverty and displacement. But Tel Aviv is unequivocally urban First World, Mediterranean-style, a beach-blanket-and-cafe city, where forests of moored sailing yachts sway in the breeze.
Walid, who has driven to the coast four or five times per week for 20 years,
knows the city as well as its natives. “Just look at it,” he says, his voice cracking with bitterness. “Look at the way they are able to live.”
Then, suddenly, he drifts into the dream. “This is what I want to build for my children,” he says. “They’ve created a miracle in Tel Aviv. Why won’t they allow us to do the same?”
A LONGING FOR THE SECULAR LIFE
His bitterness is the region’s angry norm, steeped in the politics of resentment. But the subtext is that Walid wants to be part of a Palestine that resembles Israel, and specifically, the secular, free-wheeling Israel of Tel Aviv.
This is Israel’s most potent weapon, even if Israelis seldom appear to recognize it: the image of affluent, modern democracy. It is the largely unacknowledged counterweight to the rising power of Muslim extremism among younger Palestinians, which is taught in scores of Koranic schools established by the fundamentalist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“What they learn in those places is a form of brainwashing,” Walid says. “For some time, I thought we should move to America, get away from all of this. ”
Instead, like many moderate Palestinian Muslims, Walid enrolled his children in Catholic schools. Their teachers, it is widely understood, are committed to education, rather than proselytizing.
Reuven shows no surprise when he hears of Walid’s decision against emigrating. “Arabs have a saying,” he explains: “A man is nothing more than a product of the place where he is raised.”
Walid’s refusal to budge from East Jerusalem is not so different from the determination that keeps Jews in Israel, Reuven allows, despite the ceaseless violence and uncertainty.
Asked by the reporter for an introduction to his own city, Haifa, Reuven parks his car and sets out on what proves to be a five-hour stroll.
PROFOUND NATIONAL INSECURITY
“This is the way an Arab would show you around,” he says, “close to the ground, in the markets and shops. This is the only way to engage a Middle Eastern city.”
The observation touches a remarkably consistent strain in the private conversation of Israeli Jews. The profound national insecurity — the sense that their precarious hold on this land depends on unflinching discipline, high-tech weaponry and the distant support of Washington — yields, in the Israeli dream life, to something very different from conquest and occupation of their neighbors.
“We will survive if we too become Arabs. Everyone who lives in the Middle East must eventually become an Arab,” Reuven says.
“I’m speaking of a certain mentality, a certain relationship to this place, a certain way that it molds thinking and acting — and not of religion,” he is quick to add. “Religion, theirs and ours, doesn’t hold the answers.”
Like most Israelis of European origin, Reuven worries about the role that Orthodox sects and extremist political parties have come to exercise in the nation’s political life, a role that seems to grow in direct proportion to the accelerating tensions and violence between Jews and Palestinians.
His concern, the reporter points out, is a precise echo of Walid’s wariness of Koranic schools.
“We are like Siamese twins,” Reuven finally says, after a long pause. “We find it very hard to live together, but we cannot live apart.”