Tuesday, November 30, 2010

peace, tolerance, and a waterfront view

There are many ways to observe Shabbat (Sabbath) in Israel, each of them satisfying in their own way. Orthodox people go to synagogue--much earlier than in the U.S.--and return again in the late afternoon after eating, studying, or visiting friends. Secular people, in Tel Aviv especially, tend to hang out in cafes or go the beach: a less traditional form of observance, but still different from what they do on weekdays, which is sort of the point. I decided to take a lengthy walk down the seashore and attend the Day of Tolerance (Yom Ha-Sovlanut) organized by the Israeli-Arab Center in Jaffa, the older and more Arab part of the city, with what appeared to be help or at least encouragement from French and other European interests. What I saw was encouraging in its way, but also reminded me how far the two sides had to go.

The good part is easiest to describe. On a stage in front of a reasonable (several hundred) audience, speakers, musicians and dancers alternated Hebrew and Arabic performances devoted to tolerance, peace, and understanding. Tents and tables represented a range of groups from interreligious youth programs to more overt antiwar organizations. Some of it was a bit on the naive side--songs saying I'm a child who wants to grow up in a world of peace and the like--and if the same event were held in the U.S. I would probably have run in the opposite direction. Still, the overall spirit was a good one: just the audience, Jews in T-shirts mingling with Arab women in traditional dress chasing their children, was novel enough to justify the effort.

The problems were less what was than what wasn't there. One thing that wasn't there was any Israelis flags: a compromise, I suspect, since Palestinian flags are either illegal or dangerous to display in Israel, so the organizers appear to have avoided both of them. Instead, the Tel Aviv city flag, which from a distance looks similar, alternated somewhat incongruously with the flag of the European Union, which gave an earnest but oddly tentative feeling to the event.

Likewise absent were any visibly religious Israelis--although to be fair, the event was held on the Sabbath--or many who appeared to be of Middle Eastern or North African origin. Indeed, many of the mostly secular, European crowd seemed to know each other, giving a sense of the "usual suspects" rather than the mainstream of Israeli society which the organizers presumably wanted to reach. Throughout the event, a large number of Israeli cars passed by on the nearby coast road, headed for restaurants or (perhaps) for one of the real estate open houses in the beachfront area (the Jaffa waterfront is increasingly Jewish and affluent while the inner areas remain Arab and noticeably poorer). A speaker lectured what appeared to be a tour group on the history of Jaffa--Crusaders, Arabs, Europeans--without seeming to notice the event right across the street. While there was little if any hostility--a group of policemen at the celebration had little to do--the indifference, and the distance, were palpable.

Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) I went to a movie in Tel Aviv based on David Grossman's "The Book of Intimate Grammar," the story of a small boy in 1960s Jerusalem who finds refuge from a dysfunctional family in the study of English tenses. Most of my effort was expended trying to follow the Hebrew which I'm not sure I ever quite mastered. Still I was struck by the number of cultural references that were common to Israelis but would have been meaningless to anyone outside the country. At one point the protagonist's older sister says, "Ani mitgayeset mukdam big'lal ha-matsav" [I'm signing up early because of the situation."] No one in the theater needed any explanation that "signing up" meant the army or that "the situation" meant the runup to the Six Day War. For all the country's sophistication, the political and cultural references of most Israelis remain so different from those of most American Jews--let alone Palestinian Arabs--that it sometimes seems hopeless to bridge the gap. Events like the one in Jaffa are worth the effort, but it will take much more effort, aimed not only at a few activists but at the mainstream of both populations, in order to make a real difference.


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