Again there’s news out of Gaza. I wish there weren’t. Practically everything out of Gaza that’s newsworthy is bad news.
I don’t have any wisdom to offer on the current situation. I can’t say what the Israelis are doing wrong, what they might be doing better; given their situation, attacking Gaza makes sense. Ditto, from a very different perspective, for the Gaza Palestinians.
All I have is a story from when I was in Gaza. It’s an old story; it happened nearly 39 years ago, at the end of 1973 or maybe in the first months of 1974. Life in that beautiful, tormented place called Israel, or Israel-Palestine if you prefer, was a lot different then.
I don’t mean to be nostalgic. The winter of 1973-74 was a pretty awful time, if you (a) were an Israeli or (b) lived in Israel or (c) cared about Israel. Israelis had just lived through the shock and trauma of the Yom Kippur War to find themselves isolated, condemned, vulnerable in ways they never thought they’d be. Their Arab enemies were newly empowered, as “energy crisis” became for the first time a phrase in all our vocabularies.
Of the categories in the last paragraph, I wasn’t (a), certainly was (c). Whether I lived in Israel or not depended on how you defined Israel. I spent the academic year 1973-74 in an archaeological institute in East Jerusalem, the Arab part of Jerusalem, one of the territories–joined to the “West Bank” of the Jordan river–that Israel had captured in the 1967 war. There I got to know a number of Palestinian Arabs, employees or guests of the institute. I spent hours talking to them, hearing their stories. I traveled in the West Bank without feeling any discomfort, taking Arab buses to Bethlehem or Hebron. It was a different time.
But Gaza, even then, was considered dangerous.
I went there once, and only once. I was with a group of American scholars–archaeologists, mostly–from the institute. I can remember only vaguely what we went there to see. I think it was the mosaics surviving from an ancient synagogue, like the one pictured here. Perhaps there were other things too. We were warned: stay together. If you speak Hebrew, don’t let on that you do. If anyone addresses you in Hebrew, answer in English. Act like you don’t know what he’s saying.
I never realized, before that day, how hard it is to pretend you don’t understand a language that in fact you do understand. You respond instinctively, if not in words then with your body, your facial expressions.
I recall it as a gray winter afternoon. In Israel winter is the rainy season, often chill and gloomy. But that day in Gaza was uncommonly mild.
Toward the end of our visit I was talking with a “friend” from the institute. Somehow or other we’d gotten detached from the main group. Four or five teenage boys, their manner quietly menacing, approached us. They wanted to know who we were. What we were doing in Gaza. Whether we spoke Hebrew. This being, in someone who obviously wasn’t an Arab, the mark of an enemy.
“Oh, I don’t speak it hardly at all,” my “friend” said. “Now he“–he pointed at me–“hu m’daber ivreet m’tzuyan.” He speaks excellent Hebrew.
My “friend” grinned. He strolled off, leaving me alone with those Palestinian kids–young men, really–clustering around me, looking ready for a fight.
The grilling began. How did I come to know Hebrew? Did I read it, as well as speak it? I don’t recall if they asked the key question, if I was a Jew. They must have figured that out. Finally one of them said, with a just-kidding-but-not-really-just-kidding smile: “You might just as well be an Israeli!”
Not, I think, intended as a compliment.
It was then that I noticed: they were carrying their schoolbooks. In Arabic.
I’d studied Arabic a few years in college. Back then I could read classical Islamic texts pretty well, although my skills at speaking were limited. I looked at the title of one of their books and began, a bit stumblingly, to read it off.
In that instant the whole atmosphere changed. The sunshine, metaphorically speaking, broke out. All at once they were friendly, eager. Still quizzing me, but now in fun, like we were playing a game together. What about this? Can you read this? Here–thrusting a book in front of me–try reading that.
Like we were pals, sort of. And when the group from the institute moved off, and I went to go with them, the Arab boys and I said goodbye–not as friends, exactly; that would be going too far–but as people who’ve just had a friendly encounter.
Many times I’ve thought about that incident, and wondered: why did my reading Arabic, however clumsily, turn things around so dramatically? My thought is, those boys were so hungry for some sign of recognition that their language, their culture, were also worth knowing–not just the language of their occupiers. That they mattered too. And my giving them that reassurance made me, at least transiently, OK.
Boys. They’re now in their late fifties. If they’re still alive.
And the consequences of this story are–what?
Probably none. Good things have a ripple effect, we’re told, like a stone thrown in the water. But this was a tiny pebble, its ripples faint at best. The Israeli occupation of lands the Palestinians think of as their own has gone on for 45 years, a generation and a half, no end in sight. The best hope for ending it, the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, collapsed twelve years ago into the blood-drenched horrors of the Second Intifada. A generation and a half of oppression and exploitation, menace and terror, fear and hatred and the rage that burns like last summer’s wildfires, that can be contained (perhaps) but never quieted. If that ancient synagogue is still there, and hasn’t been bombed out of existence, you can be sure it isn’t being visited by any archaeologists from Jerusalem.
In the Gaza of today, I wouldn’t last five minutes.
And yet …
Seven years ago, when my wife and I were new to Unitarian Universalism (my present faith), we went out for pizza with a bunch of people, including several from our church. We fell to talking about that “ripple effect.” I told the story of my jury-duty experience that so moved me, that I’ve described in an earlier post. “Of course,” I said, “I know it had no effect beyond me and the few other people who were there. But still–”
One of the UUs (Unitarian Universalists) present said: “How do you know?”
Typical UU question.
How do I know that that little bit of goodness, little bit of warmth, little bit of human connection didn’t ripple all the way to some place I can’t imagine? Maybe it didn’t. Maybe it did. In the meantime, in our unknowing, we keep on going. Keep on hoping.
Keep on being human.