Israeli food! Israeli music! Israeli arts and crafts! Blue-and-white flags!
Adorable tots with glittery Magen Davids painted on their cheeks, eating falafel with the tahini trickling down their blue and white T-shirts declaring: “AMERICA DON’T WORRY, ISRAEL IS BEHIND YOU!” It was a beautiful day to celebrate Israel’s 65th anniversary, and the Upper West Side was awash with unequivocal love.
At the JCC in Manhattan, the Israel Forum — a new signature program of the center — gathered for a more substantive discussion, titled “Zionism and Liberalism: Conflicting Values, or Complementary Identities?” The moderator explained: “We’re going to talk about Israel as a Jewish state, Israel as a democracy, and then discuss whether or not these two things are compatible.”
I started getting interested in Israeli politics only here, in New York. Back in Israel, in the interest of self-preservation, I steered clear. It was the time of the second intifada, in the early 2000’s, places in Jerusalem were exploding, the air was ripe with fear and anger; in this atmosphere, discussing politics was like talking about sex in the safety of a dorm room. In Israel, my friends and I had been happy to stick to topics like art, spirituality and recreational drugs.
I was a senior in the Bezalel Academy of Arts, working on my big graduation project. Three years as an art major had not taught me how to bolt a screw into the wall (I conveniently leaned towards conceptual art), and I was having a rough time setting up the infrastructure. That’s how I got to know Sally: a muscular, tough-looking Mizrachi guy, replete with skull and dagger tattoos on his forearms, who ran a falafel joint nearby. One day he told me he built the place by himself, with his own two hands, and I started batting my eyelashes at him. “I’m just so helpless with all the banging and screwing,” I sighed. “I wish I had someone like you to help me.”
With just a little prompting, Sally agreed to moonlight as my handyman, and for a fantastically low fee. “It’s nothing,” he waived off my gratitude, “If we don’t take care of each other, who will?”
Sally worked in the falafel place during the day, and helped me in the campus workshops (open all night for seniors) at night. On the fourth night, chatting as we worked, I discovered the meaning of his unusual, effeminate nickname: “Sally” was a variation on the Arabic name “Salach.” Turns out he wasn’t a Mizrachi Jew, but an Arab; an Israeli Palestinian from the infamous east Jerusalem village of Issawiya.
So. I was alone, at night, on a half-deserted, isolated campus on Mount Hatzofim, in a time of war, with an Arab. An Arab who, if he so wished, could snap my neck like a twig.
My thoughts must have shown on my face, because Sally smiled and gently put down the electric drill. “Look, I get it,” he said. “If you don’t want to work with me anymore, I understand. I’ll leave right now, with no hard feelings.”
“No, of course not,” I shook my head vehemently, turning a bright red. “What do you think I am, a racist?”
Back at the JCC, the moderator asked: How can Israel discriminate between its citizens, maintaining laws preferential to its Jewish subjects, and still be a democracy? Indeed, answered Israeli professor Moshe Halbertal, being a democracy involves “giving these minorities full equality in terms of land distribution, political rights, economic opportunities, etc. … As for the law of return, if it becomes the exclusive channel to citizenship, it’s actually discriminatory; our Arab citizens must have other ways of naturalizing.”
“I’m not sure I like where this is going,” the woman next to me whispered sharply to her neighbor. “But if I hear one more pro-Palestinian sentiment, I’m going to puke.”
With Sally’s help, my project began materializing at a miraculous pace. Word of the good, cheap, Arab labor that was driving it spread fast among my friends, and soon Sally was juggling more nighttime gigs than he could handle. His popularity had to do as much with his agreeable nature as it did with his prices; he had a way of treating all the new people he met as if they were his longtime friends, and they responded in kind. More often than not, nights that started with a mere repair would end as a social gathering, with the group of us sprawled around Sally, listening to his outlandish tales of life on the Arab side as we slowly got drunk together.
Friendships between Israelis and Palestinians are not a common thing — not back then, not today — but somehow this one lasted, and we became permanent parts of each other’s lives. Through Sally, we got to know the other Jerusalem, the one we had no access to on our own: a rougher, poorer, wilder place that reminded us of the Israel of the pioneers, the one we knew of only from history books. We also got to know the darker side of our own Israel. We were all familiar with the term “second-rate citizens,” but only now, as we observed Sally go through routine curfews, detainments and insulting little discriminations, did it become real for us. The law, the municipality, the security forces, the checkpoint guards, the Jewish neighbors, the black “Death to Arabs” graffiti sprayed on almost every corner; now that we could see for ourselves what kind of a life it amounted to, we were appalled.
Sally, on the other hand, took it all in stride. “What, you think we would be better off with a Palestinian government?” he chuckled. “I have a Hebrew accent in Arabic, and an Arabic accent in Hebrew. Either way, I’m screwed.”
The moment you start seeing things from the point of view of people who are not your own is a very unfortunate one. From that moment on, you will feel chronically uncomfortable. When you hear about some victory your team gains at the expense of the other, you won’t be able to cheer it. Seeing your flag flying high, your pride will be mixed with guilt, your love with frustration. Leaving the country won’t help: your new American tribe will be celebrating the Jewish state just the same, often with a brighter conviction burning in their eyes. They won’t always want to hear what needs fixing, and if you tell them anyway, they won’t like you for it. Even the select crowd that chose to attend the JCC discussion was not entirely open to it.
After the panel was over, I met the woman who sat next to me in the cafeteria line. “You didn’t puke,” I noted. “I guess not,” she laughed, and then asked: “Tell me, what did you think of it?”
“It was a thorough discussion,” I answered curtly, trying to avoid a useless confrontation. When I didn’t continue, she smiled and walked away. With a flash of regret, I realized it was I who put up the barrier. If Sally were there, he would talk to her, make her laugh, and — Palestinian or not — win her over. He was just that kind of guy.
Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot Achronot America. Her column appears monthly.