Forgiveness in the Melting Pot of IsraelSeptember 30, 2011
By Tinamarie Bernard
For the past two years we lived in Israel, a place only the most obtuse might label as tranquil and hassle-free. Without getting political, it’s sufficient to say that life in this sliver of a democracy that at best shares ‘correct’ relationships with a few of its neighbors is hard. It’s hard in ways you can’t imagine until you’ve lived there, because no amount of sightseeing prepares you for how the disparate groups co-exist between the ancient ruins, historical narratives and pounding sun of the Levant.
Forgiveness comes hard; it’s as simple and as complex as that. And what better time to contemplate our season of repentance, Yom Kippur, from a different paradigm, one framed from living in the non-melting pot that is Israel.
During our stay here, we made friends among the Druze, Arabs and Jews, the religiously observant and those who don’t give a damn. I tutored English to a wealthy Arab man who confessed personal secrets to me and still stiffed me of money; accepted invitations to non-Jewish weddings to find myself the only woman allowed to sit next to her husband; studied Hebrew with chain-smoking Russians; drank coffee prepared by Jews and tea by Arabs; even shook hands with a mayor or two. In short, I did my best to push through personal biases and embrace the people who find sanctuary behind Israel’s heavily secured borders.
I also learned hard truths about culture, womanhood and social morays; in a region dominated by non-Western cultures, the only thing that really stood between my rights as an American woman living in the Middle East was Israel’s secular, democratic government.
Once the marvel of walking on the same hollowed cobblestones as King David subsides, you are left with an imposing undertaking: how can we make a melting pot of people who have little in common except for breathing the same air or drinking the same water? The answer is as old as our Jewish faith, and very hard to come by.
Curiosity Killed Ignorance
A few months back, we took our family on a weekend excursion. It was a rainy spring day, perfect for slowing down, smelling the musky rain, and, here’s the amazing part: hanging out with Bedouin women sharing their weaving skills and wares at a one-day Museum exhibition.
I knew little about the Bedouin Arabs before moving to Israel. In some key ways, little has changed in their day-to-day existence from when they first appeared on the sands, a hearty people able to survive suffocating conditions. Traditional and patriarchal, modern times have found them trading their sheep-wool tents (amazingly waterproof, though scratchy as hell) for modest homes with proper plumbing. Some communities have city councils and enjoy relations with the Israeli social services that are easing the suffering of the most vulnerable.
That would be the women and girls. Even in Israel, where honor killings and child brides are outlawed, many Arab towns have stories of missing females, told hush-hush behind doors, if at all. Egalitarianism finds shaky footing in ancient societies, where resentment toward ‘western’ ideals means that even the women sometimes reinforce their second-class plight. (Nor is misogyny an Arab problem only, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Back to the museum and the Bedouin women-weavers, who were learning how to market their craft for two essential purposes: self-sufficiency and reading literacy. An overwhelming number of Bedouin women don’t know how to read, and the money they earned was being used to fund reading schools, among other things. This was something I could get behind; these were my ‘sisters,’ nu?
Hate Display at the Museum
One woman named Elizabeth (she wouldn’t give me a last name no matter how I probed) spoke excellent English. She agreed to translate my questions; my inner feminist wanted to know what life was like for this group living on the cusp of transitions. They poured me sweetened tea, a good sign, and answered with open smiles but guarded eyes.
“They don’t trust reporters,” Elizabeth explained. Why is that, I asked, since we were speaking off the record, woman to woman, with no political agenda? Because once before, when they spoke to another writer, they didn’t like what was written, she clarified. Their biggest complaint had to do with the title, which I paraphrase: Despite Serving in the Military, Bedouins Still Suffer Injustices in Israel.
My first thought was how frustrating it is to put your life on the line for your country, only to be treated as less than equal. To make sure I didn’t jump to conclusions, I asked her to clarify.
“Because they wrote that Bedouins serve Israel!” Elizabeth replied, her voice raised, eyes a darker shade of brown beneath a brow pinched. We aren’t equals here, she explained, but that wasn’t the trouble.
“I am a Palestinian. These women are Bedouin. Our people would never serve in the Israel military. That would be working for the enemy!” The meaning of her next words was clear: A Bedouin who served Israel was dead to their families, a pariah who traded community for democracy.
I did my best to hide my angst. We were far away from forgiving one another for past injustices, that was sure.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Ever since we decided to return to the States, I’ve wondered just what insights we’d discover from our time living abroad, strangers in a strange land, borrowing space and time from those who have called Israel home for generations. Acclimating to the social climate of the Middle East required more from us than, truth be told, we were willing to give, and the result mirrors that of many Anglo immigrants who return to their places of birth, not necessarily to lick their wounds, but to make sense of the outcome.
In spite of a life noticeably more challenging, burdened by cultural dynamics that can harden hearts, soften resolve and propel prejudices to the surface, living in the Middle East on the edge of democracy measurably changed our outlook, much for the better. Those two years taught me many things, including this: I realized that our survival depends on our ability to slow down and savor life at a pace more compatible with human nature.
What’s more, it’s obvious that diversity is one of humanity’s greatest strengths and greatest challenges. The best intentions do not easily overcome millennia of divergent ways of life. Our season of forgiveness is upon us, and this year I view it differently. It’s easy to forgive those whom we love, with whom we identify, or with whom we share a common history and narrative. Forgiveness for the other is much harder to come by.
Maybe that’s one reason life in Israel is so hard — hard in ways that can’t be imagined until you live there.
Still, I imagine a time when humanity gets over its differences to see one another for what we all are: the human race. Will it happen this Yom Kippur? Not likely, though this is the most fitting Jewish time of year to stretch our understanding of what it means to forgive, regardless of what the other does. As a realistic, romantic optimist, I know we’re many museum exhibits away from burying deep-seated cultural differences.
Forgiveness: it’s as simple and as complicated as that; when we fully know it, I think we will finally be able to give our species a chance at its real birthright: stewardship of a lovely planet.