We are in the Olive Room of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem for a meeting with two history teachers — an Israeli and a Palestinian — who have written a double narrative of this land. The Israeli, Eyal Naveh, in his open-necked shirt, has a casual toughness you find in many Israelis over sixty, yet with keen, blue-grey eyes that are empathetic despite having fought seven wars to defend his right to stand here.
We don’t know what his Palestinian coauthor looks like, because he is on the speakerphone. After waiting two hours at the checkpoint, Dr. Sami Adwan knew he’d be too late for us and returned home to Bethlehem. “This is typical of the problem here,” says Naveh. “I was stuck in traffic; that is all right. My Palestinian colleague was stuck at the checkpoint. That is not all right.”
Our group of thirty-five sighs and nods. We are lawyers, entrepreneurs, peace activists, professors, political operatives, and writers, mostly American and many Jewish, who are on a ten-day, fact-finding trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. Our host is J Street, an American organization committed to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, one with strong security for Israel and a viable state for the Palestinians.
I’m here in 2010, partly because of a 1924 photograph over my desk: of my father visiting Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, one of hundreds who watched the ceremony of laying the cornerstone of Hebrew University that year and imagined a Jewish democracy built on justice and fairness. I also liked the J Street itinerary. We are meeting all sides from Israel’s president to the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister: from Jewish settlers, to West Bank resistance fighters, to UN officials in Gaza. “A whiplash trip,” is how Jeremy Ben Ami, the head of J Street, described it. And so it is, each voice informing and contradicting the next, except for two other Palestinians who had to cancel because of checkpoint issues.
So today’s hitch is not a fluke; it is part of the double narrative of this land. You hear it in words like the Nakba, or Catastrophe, which is how Palestinians describe the first war in 1947, the one the Israelis call the War of Independence because it began after the Arabs rejected the UN pronouncement of the State of Israel — and attacked. And in what the Israelis call the Security Wall, designed to stop the suicide bombers from blowing up discos in Tel Aviv and bus stations in Jerusalem — and the Palestinians call the Racist Wall or the Apartheid Wall because it cuts into their land and prevents their moving freely into Israel proper for jobs and family, as they did before the Intifada, a word that conjures up the liberation movement for Palestinians and the existential threat of annihilation for Israelis.
The book that Naveh and Adwan wrote, together with two other scholar/activists, Dan Baron (Israeli) and Adnan Musallom (Palestinian), is called Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative: Palestinians and Israelis. It begins: “Schoolchildren studying history in times of war and conflict learn only one side of the story — their own — which is, of course, considered to be the ‘right’ one.”
They wanted to correct the way “one side’s hero is the other side’s monster,” so, in 2002, after the Oslo Accords, they recruited twelve teachers to try out the double narrative text in their ninth- and tenth-grade classes. The Israeli version is on the left:
The war … is known as the War of Independence because it resulted in independence for the Jewish community in the land of Israel, in spite of the fact that at the beginning local Arabs, and then armies from Arab countries … attacked isolated Jewish communities, Jews in the cities, and on the roads…. They also employed terror tactics — all Jewish people, settlements and property were considered to be legitimate targets.
The Palestinian version is on the right:
Fighting and clashes between the Jews and the Palestinians began after UN Resolution 181 was passed by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947. The situation deteriorated into an unequal confrontation. Zionist forces were organized, armed and trained. Not only were they superior to the Palestinians, who for over 30 years had been exhausted by unjust British policy and Zionist terrorism, but these gangs were also superior to the Arab armies, which entered the war on May 15, 1948.
And in between is white space for students to join the conversation. Naveh tells us that people are ordering the book around the world, but you won’t find it in Israeli or Palestinian schools because of political fury on both sides. “No permission yet, but we keep trying,” says Adwan on the speakerphone.
Such a book could get beyond the sound bites of vengeance and fear, our group agrees. It could promote understanding and empathy. If only… I think of what Napoleon said: ‘that history is myth that men agree to believe in” and how the double narrative undercuts that myth — and the agendas that depend on telling one side of the story.
It’s the oldest of stories — and begins this way: Abraham, the patriarch, comes from Ur (somewhere in Iraq) to the land of Canaan (now Israel/Palestine) with his wife Sarah. They are childless for so long that Sarah, beyond the age of childbirth, agrees to let Hagar, her Egyptian handmaiden, have a child with Abraham. His name is Ishmael. Years pass and, miraculously, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
So far, Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree, even about God testing Abraham’s devotion by commanding him to go to the mountain and sacrifice his only son. But then comes one word — Isaac — and the story splits apart.
Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:3-212).
“We believe it wasn’t Isaac, but Ishmael who was to be sacrificed by Abraham,” said Dr. C., the Pakistani Muslim teacher of “Understanding Islam,” a course I took at our Adult School before this trip. Its aim was to promote interfaith understanding and dialogue. “Ishmael was ‘the only son.’ Isaac wasn’t even born yet,” he added. The Jews and Christians in class flinched. This was not our story. Genesis says “Isaac” and we believed it, our forefather was not to be displaced by the forefather of the Muslims. “And what’s more,” Dr C. continued, “unlike Isaac, who struggles against his fate, Ishmael goes willingly to God. In fact he volunteers. So it is written in the Qu’ran.”
That night, I reread Genesis and found no signs of Isaac struggling. In fact, Isaac was duped. When he asks Abraham where the burnt offering for sacrifice is, Abraham says, “God will provide.” End of that episode. So I didn’t see where Dr. C. was coming from.
I read on into the problem of God’s double promise. First there’s a covenant with Abraham that Isaac, and his descendants, will inherit the land (which is why religious Jews claim both sides of the Jordan River as their birthright):
And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding, and I will be their God.
Then there’s the promise that Ishmael will rule. After he and his mother Hagar are expelled from Abraham’s camp and dying of thirst in the wilderness, God says through the Angel of Death:
Come lift the boy up and hold him fast with your hand and I will make a great nation of him. (Genesis: 28:18)
And a well of water appears.
Muslims reenact this part of the story every year in Mecca, said Dr. C. with pride, “I myself took part.” And he told us how, dressed in a plain white loincloth like the other pilgrims on the Haj, he circled seven times as Hagar did “until Allah, Blessed Be He, was convinced of her devotion and made water miraculously appear.”
When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael return to Hebron to bury him next to Sarah. I didn’t know that until Dr. C. showed us a PBS film about the three great faiths. I liked the story and the question asked by one of Christian theologians in the film: “Is it the beginning of a new story or the end of an old one?” He didn’t know, but I heard reconciliation in the two heads bowed, side by side, and wished this were the scene we all kept imagining, retelling it often to our children.
Our bus takes the Settlers’ road that bypasses the checkpoint with its long line of trucks and cars and heads for Hebron, the West Bank’s biggest city. Our guide, Ilana, is a passionately peppy, Israeli-American in her late twenties who leads an organization dedicated to bringing Jews to the West Bank to see life through Palestinian eyes.
Ilana points out the Wall, and the expanding Jewish settlements that have exclusive rights to this road (Palestinians can’t drive on it) — and the two-color water towers. Palestinians often have their water shut off by the Israelis and so need extra water tanks on their roofs for storage. Those are the black ones. Israeli settlers don’t have these problems and have one tank, in white. “That’s how you tell who is who in this occupied land,” she explains.
And yet, looking out the bus window, I am struck by the lush countryside, the neat rows of vineyards, bright white houses, and fields of olive and fruit trees. I expected more shacks and trash. Whether it’s from foreign aid or the Palestinian Authority’s growing power to keep order in the West Bank, Palestinian life (despite Jewish settlements, some rising like fortresses) looks thriving, even prosperous.
We stop on the edge of Hebron, at the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be buried, along with Isaac, Sarah, and other founding mothers and fathers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to the Bible, Abraham paid good money for this spot: four hundred silver shekels to Ephron, the Hittite, turning down a free burial site. As an outsider, Abraham must have wanted proof of ownership:
So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre — both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. (Genesis: 23:17)
It was about real estate, even then.
We don’t go inside the Cave of the Patriarchs — this is not that kind of trip — so I don’t see the subterranean caves, or spaces where Jews, Muslims, and Christians, depending on the century, come to pray. Ilana’s focus is on the Israeli soldiers standing on Shuhada Street that abuts the Cave complex. “Israel needs five hundred soldiers to protect six hundred settlers and two hundred rabbinical students. Why? Because they live in this Arab neighborhood.” Several of us shake our heads. What a waste!
The Israeli soldiers, less than a dozen, are heavily armed and solemn. No one smiles or waves, the way I remember in a younger Israel. It was 1972, and my family spent a sabbatical year in Haifa. Israel had taken over the West Bank in the 1967 war, but the moral and political ambiguity of occupation had not yet set in. We hiked with Israeli friends in the Jordan Valley, we shopped freely in Arab souks in the Old City of Jerusalem, and the army stood guard, holding a moral compass that pointed one way: to defend Israel’s right to exist. We all felt proud of the soldiers and they felt proud of themselves, smiling easily.
“Can you imagine?” Ilana says, “This was once a thriving Arab marketplace.” She looks down the long street of boarded-up stalls. Except for one souvenir stand, it’s like a ghost town from a movie set. An old man and a child walk towards us, single file, along a narrow walkway defined by concrete barriers. Someone says, “apartheid,” and Ilana points to the checkpoint at the other end of the street that everyone must pass through. I ask one of Ilana’s helpers, a red-bearded rabbinical student from Jerusalem, where the people of Hebron shop now that this marketplace is closed. He shrugs, “Nowhere.”
“Did the shop owners get compensated at least?” Another shrug.
Across the road from the shuttered stalls is a long wall with murals. “This was once a thriving bus station,” says Ilana. She mentions that the Jewish settlers put the murals up and moves on. I stop to study the colorful pastel scene of Hassidic Jews on crowded streets and read the heading: “Christians and Jews are welcome to live here as they did in the old city of Hebron.” (No Arabs though.)
The wall’s history is in four parts, beginning with the “Roots of the Jewish People.” Here in Hebron, it says, our forefathers and mothers are buried. Here is the capital of Judea where King David began his reign. And here in 1929 “Arab marauders slaughter the Jews. The community is uprooted and destroyed.” There is a plaque with two candles and picture of a rabbi and his wife, among the seventy or more killed in those riots. The British, then in control, evicted the remaining Jews, wanting no more trouble here.
The last mural has the heading “Liberation, Return, and Rebuilding” and beneath it: “1967: liberation of Hebron and reestablishment of the Jewish community.”
“Ethnic cleansing” pops into my head, which I resist. Yet what else to call it when a people are wiped out of Hebron after centuries of living here? A sign leans against the stone wall:
This land was stolen by Arabs following the murder of the Hebron Jews in 1929. We demand Justice! Return our Property to Us!
The lettering is in bright red, full of fury and self-righteousness. I recoil from the certainty of hate.
Still, Ilana told only half the story when she blames the Jews for living in this Arab neighborhood. Before 1929, it was the Jewish neighborhood; the settlers are arguing for the right of return, much like the Palestinians who had to flee Jaffa and Ramallah in 1947. It’s ironic how, whichever narrative it is, the themes stay the same: displacement, exile, right of return, victimhood, injustice.
“Before 1929,” says Herzl, a psychiatrist from Wisconsin who is part of our group, “Jews and Arabs lived in peace. “In fact, my grandparents were rescued by Arab neighbors during the 1929 riots.” I want to know more, but we get separated at the checkpoint. Instead, behind me I hear:
“Wasn’t Hebron where the bloodiest riots of Intifada took place?”
“Wasn’t that rabbi killed here?”
“Yes, and then that Goldstein guy slaughtered twenty-seven Muslims who were praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque….”
Ilana interrupts to point out four Arab schoolgirls in blue uniforms. “They must pass through the checkpoint to and from school and until recently, they had to go through an x-ray machine. Some parents were so concerned about radiation, they kept the children home.” We feel their parental despair — with outrage.
Half a block beyond the checkpoint, everything changes. We are in the middle of a bustling marketplace, both modern and timeless. There are rows of bright yellow buses and cabs, windowed storefronts, and streets crowded with stalls and tables piled high with blue jeans, embroidered dresses, pita, or shoes. There’s even one with string beans. Why isn’t this part of Ilana’s story? Does it lessen the impact of the empty street? Or the Arab schoolgirls? Not for me. I’m drawn to the gray narratives, the contradictory truths: the deserted souk and the thriving marketplace; the evils of the Occupation and the Massacre of Jews in 1929. And now, the third narrative told by Herzl: of Jewish rescue by Arab neighbors. How can there be peace without recognizing it all?
“This restaurant is Hebron’s best,” says the assistant mayor, who greets us in a room full of lattices strung with grapevines, the sun’s rays streaming in. Each table has two Palestinians who will tell their story, says Ilana, as we sit down to mounds of hummus, pita, and black olives, all the good stuff. Beside me is a young Palestinian teacher, slim and earnest, who speaks excellent English and says, shyly, that he spent a few months in the United States.” I’m about to ask where, when the mayor stands to welcome us. An urbane man in Western dress, he tells us how important it is for us to be here together. “Even the Jews among us should feel welcome.” I wince.
Then Herzl stands up — it’s his turn to introduce our group and say how pleased we are to be here. People keep dipping into hummus, familiar with the routine until we hear, “This day is special for me because my family comes from Hebron.” The restaurant quiets. The mayor’s contingent looks up. We all do, as Herzl tells with great pride how his grandmother was one of the four hundred Jews who were hidden by twenty-eight Arab families during the massacre of 1929.
His great grandparents came to Hebron from Eastern Europe in the 1800s, very religious people. They multiplied and prospered, he says, until 1929 when those who survived had to leave. He pauses, his voice shaky with emotion: “I am the first of the family to come back here, to break bread with descendants of those who may have saved my grandmother and others in my family. To you,” he looks at the mayor, “I want to say thanks.” Everyone is silent, unsure about how to respond. Stories like this, of “the Other” being decent, are not spoken around here; they get whispered or lost, fitting no one’s political agenda. And yet, as the history teachers said, how else are we to change how “one side’s hero is the other side’s monster?”
Herzl didn’t dwell on those who were killed, although the descendants of the murderers were also probably in the room. “That wasn’t what I wanted to think about,” he told me later. “Dwelling on victimhood only leads to victimhood, revenge to more revenge.” It turns out that the three young Palestinian men who speak next have come to the same conclusion. They are part of the growing Arab movement that promotes nonviolent resistance to win their Palestinian state. Ali, a brooding man with an electric smile, comes “from a family of fighters” (Israelis would say “terrorists”). He and his mother have been in Israeli jails and his brother was killed by Israeli soldiers, and yet Ali has turned fury into a peace-focused political strategy. “Being pro–one side is not enough. You must be pro-solution,” he says. Jews must like his message for Ali is invited to speak in Israel proper and abroad. “I never knew I’d be in so many synagogues, telling what I tell you today.”
After all the speakers, I talk more with the Palestinian beside me. He grew up on a small farm next to a Jewish settlement and says there was a hole in the barbed wire fence between them. He and the Israeli children would crawl through, trading marbles for figs and plums. To this day, his family has a photo of both families in their farmhouse, taken at some shared celebration. During the Intifada, the fence was replaced; there’s no connection anymore. I ask what it would take to change that. “Take down the fence,” he says. Simple, really, when the answer comes out of individual experience that is good.
From my window in the Intercontinental Hotel, I see a mosque across the street, the afternoon light glowing red on its stone. Not much movement. Has it been abandoned? I ask the concierge, who says it may be used sometimes; he doesn’t know its name. When I take a swim at the hotel pool, surrounded by bikinis and voluptuous white towels, I imagine the Muezzin’s call to pray, maybe even hear its low murmur on the other side of this stucco wall.
From my window, to the right of the mosque, I see Tel Aviv’s beaches: white sand and calm blue waters. To the left is a building complex with its back against the sea and a semi-circle, like a small stadium, in the middle. Every Israeli knows what’s here: the burnt shell of the Dolphin Disco blown up by a suicide bomber in 2001. They know twenty-one Israelis, mostly teenagers, were killed and 120 were wounded. They know there were many other attempts to bomb it — and that a Palestinian terrorist group claimed responsibility for its “success.” And that, after this tragedy, the Army tightened security, increased checkpoints, and building the Security Wall became a priority. And that, nine years later, enemy rockets are still falling on the borders next to Gaza and Lebanon, but no more suicide bombers have gotten through to this heart of Israel.
The name of the mosque is Hassan Bek. It was an important mosque, but when many Arabs fled in 1947, it sat idle — until Israeli developers made plans for this site. Then the Muslim community in Jaffa (who are Israeli citizens) joined together, through fundraising and political protest, to make it a place of worship again. It has become a symbol of their rights as Israeli Arabs in the future Israel. Will they be respected? Will they be knocked down?
In the States we have a great debate about allowing a mosque close to Ground Zero. The memories of victims collide with the rights of those who, fairly or not, are seen as guilty by association. America is a big enough place with a short enough history to absorb a few such clashes. But in this small land, there is no room to maneuver; ground zero is everywhere you stand.
I am on the midnight flight home from Amman, laptop open at 2 a.m. writing about Jordan:
Today we met King Abdullah and Queen Rania, and what a Camelot couple they are. She is beautiful, a Palestinian who talked with great enthusiasm about building schools and health centers. He is urbane, very savvy, and of all the leaders we met, he seems most willing to articulate both sides of the conflict. Is it because he is across the border?
The guy beside me touches my sleeve. “Will you send me a copy of what you are writing?” He’s dark, slim, and Mediterranean-looking, with a tiny scar on his cheek — and an appealing earnestness as he hands me a slip of paper: “Abdul A.” neatly handwritten, with an email address below it. “I was looking over your shoulder and want to read more.” He smiles. “You are writing about my king.” Abdul lives in Florida now, a U.S. citizen, he says, but with family still in Jordan.
I’d like to keep writing, use this time to sort out the many voices we heard, all interesting, all persuasive; but this man continues. He tells me how he was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Amman, but his roots are in Hebron. “I am a Palestinian,” he says solemnly, “and I tell my three children the same!” His family left Hebron in 1937, the same year my father left Germany, I realize. Which is probably why, when he asks me where my roots are, I answer “Germany” instead of “New York,” my usual response. “My parents left because of Hitler.”
He nods. “You are Jewish.”
“Yes,” I say. He nods again.
Now I could shut my computer and then my eyes, as on other long flights next to talkative strangers. But here is a Palestinian who is not royalty, not in the high-powered political loop we’ve been in all week — and yet an essential part of it. “Why do you still feel Palestinian?” I ask.
“Roots are roots. Do you not identify as a German?” He immediately rethinks. “No,” he says before I can shrug, “I can understand why not.”
Again, a good place to stop talking — except he says, “My family once saved a Jewish family. My grandmother would often tell the story of what she and my grandfather did.”
Now I am really engaged. “Was it during the massacre of Jews in 1929?” I pause before the word “massacre,” not wanting to offend with ten more flight hours to go. Abdul shrugs. “I don’t know when exactly, maybe it was 1929. I only know the family story.”
I can’t help imagining Abdul grandparents saving Herzl’s grandfather and think: How great would that be! I scan the aisle looking for Herzl’s silver hair; he is somewhere on this plane.
“Have you been back to Hebron recently?” I wonder if he has seen the Israeli soldiers on Shuhada Street and the dozens of empty stalls.
“No, the last of my family left under the Jordan rule, a difficult time. But the family house… maybe, Allah Be Praised, is there. I’d like my children to see it one day.”
Abdul returns to the story of rescue. “My grandmother said a Jewish family came to the door, saying, ‘Please save us!’ So my grandfather took them to the basement and hid them. If someone comes to your door for help, it is written in the Qur’an that you must help.”
I wish friendship rather than religion had made the difference, but I won’t quibble. In my father’s German village, during Nazi times, Christians brought soup at night to hungry Jews, someone shared a ration card, another saved a Torah, but in dozens of interviews for a book I wrote, I found no one who defied an angry mob outside the door.
“There was a Jewish man on our trip whose family had lived in Hebron for generations.” I say, “and his grandfather was rescued in 1929 by Arab neighbors. In fact he’s on this airplane!”
“Is that him?” Abdul points to heavyset man in a black T-shirt who had asked me for the pretzel snack I wasn’t eating. I shake my head, turning to look for Herzl one more time. “I don’t see him.”
Another possible stopping point, but Abdul keeps on, shifting from past to present. He is a computer programmer who has suffered an aneurysm, so he’s on medical leave. And his three-year-old daughter has diabetes since birth and he must give her eight shots of insulin every day. He was never religious, he says, but now goes to the mosque daily to pray for her. He takes out her picture, a sweet chubby child, and I see tears in Abdul’s eyes. “I would gladly give up my life for her to have a good one. Why not? I’ve been all over the world, I’ve done so much.” I doubt he is older than forty, and think, how powerful his willingness to sacrifice his life. “She’s adorable. I wish all the best for her and for you.” He sits up. “Whatever is God’s will,” and thanks me. “You are kind.”
We become less cautious. We talk about the settlers taking over Palestinian land. Terrible, he says, and I agree. We talk about the checkpoints and he emphasizes how they stop people from earning a living, and I agree. “If this region has peace, I think the whole world would have peace,” Abdul says and I, very comfortably, challenge what I hear as subtext: that if Israel went away, everything would fall into place. “What about the Shias and Sunnis?” I ask. “They will battle without the Israelis.”
“You are right. This is a problem,” he says.
“What about Hamas and Hezbollah?” I ask. “Israel can’t pretend they are not there.”
Abdul says the same thing that Prime Minister Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority told us: “These groups will lose power if there is peace.” Abdul and I are on the same track, nodding, pleasant, sensible. And then out of the blue: “You know what created Hamas?” his voice rising now. “The Americans!” “You know what created Hezbollah? The Israelis!” I hear the words bounce off the ceiling. Whoa! I can’t let that go by, another version of the blame game, that everything is everyone else’s fault.
“I don’t believe this to be true,” I say, telling him, lecture-like, that Palestinians must also take responsibility. “Everyone must give a little to build trust on small issues before the big problems can be tackled.” His eyes glaze over. “It’s like in marriage,” I say. “My husband hates when I leave my shoes in the bathroom. If he complains nicely, I’m more likely to say “Sure, I can fix that…” Abdul’s eyes light up. “You are right. It’s the same with my wife, only I am the messy one!”
We venture below the “We-all-want-peace mantra” until anger builds, we are quiet for a while, and then we start again. Maybe because I know about his daughter, and he knows about my marriage, even about my shoes.
Waiting for our baggage at JFK airport, I finally see Herzl. I tell him about Abdul and his family story about saving a Jewish family. “Where is he?” Herzl asks, with great excitement. “I must talk to him.” At first I can’t find Abdul among the hundreds waiting, but then I spot him, a smaller man than I thought, not someone you’d notice in his black chinos, dark shirt, unhurried. He must have a long layover. “There he is!” I say, “next to the cart with the boy sitting on a green trunk.” Herzl hurries over. They talk. I see Abdul smile. I can’t see Herzl’s face, until he walks back to me, beaming. “I am so happy you told me that,” Herzl says, and, taking a deep breath, whispers loudly, “I told him thank you.”
Baggage in hand, we get ready for home or other flights, but for this moment we’ve found some common ground to stand on — and a small narrative we all can tell.