This old house

by Karen Pearlman | September 2004 | 1 Comment »

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to Balboa Park, as the financially struggling House of Israel coexists uneasily with the new House of Palestine.

Most Sunday afternoons at the international cottages at Balboa Park are low-stress affairs. People stroll from house to house tasting ethnic delicacies, looking through the artifact-filled cottages, getting a feel for various nations’ customs and history, perhaps making donations or new friends. With the petite buildings and emphasis on national dress, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World” ride.

But the real world invaded the small world on Sunday, Aug. 8, when the House of Palestine held a cultural celebration, replete with debkeh dancing to Arabic music, the flying of the Palestinian flag and the singing of the Palestinian national anthem “Bilady Bilady” (“My Country, My Country”). Like the other 27 international houses, the House of Palestine gets one Sunday a year to put on this one-hour “lawn program.”

The House of Palestine is one of the newest members of the House of Pacific Relations, the non-profit organization that oversees the international cottages. The House of Palestine, like the House of Peru and the House of Mexico, does not yet have a cottage. For the time being, Palestinian displays and artifacts are exhbited at the Hall of Nations next-door.

“I am flabbergasted,” said Dave Goodman, a frequent House of Israel visitor whose views were similar to many of the other House of Israel visitors and volunteers. “They’re not a country. They should be called House of Palestinians, not House of Palestine. The group has created something in deliberate conflict with history.”

The House of Palestine is not the first non-independent state to join the House of Pacific Relations. The House of Puerto Rico has been a member since the 1970s.

“Palestine has been determined to be an official nation of people,” explained House of Pacific Relations President Alan Sczepaniak. “The State Department has officially recognized it…. It is recognized as a country by the world….

“What the House of Pacific Relations wants to do is have countries put aside their problems and delight in all the nations of the world. Forget about the world’s problems. We’re not going to solve the world’s problems here. We’re not in the business of politics, we’re into this for the culture.”

Judging by the lack of protestors or other antagonistic political demonstration, so were most of the visitors on Aug. 8. Children and adults alike looked over a table of Palestinian-themed books on arts and crafts, a miniature couch with hand-embroidered pillows, and a Middle Eastern guitar-like instrument called an oud. They ate falafel, shawarma, tabouleh, hummus, a lentil-like dish called mujaderah, and doughnuts called awameh while clapping their hands in time with the music.

“The mission of the House of Palestine is to promote the cultural aspects of the Palestinian society,” said Yousef Ibrahim, the Lebanese-born vice president of the House of Palestine. “We also strive for the creation of a Palestinian state…. The Palestinian people have a right to govern themselves and be a part of the world. We dream of the day conflict is going to stop. And if you don’t dream, you don’t get there.”

As with all matters relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, those on the other side weren’t buying it. “I’m not going to make any ruckus,” said Seymour Teitelbaum, treasurer for the House of Israel. “If [Palestinians] recognize Israel’s right to exist, I’ll listen to them. They show a map and they show no country Israel. What can I say?”

But not all Jewish visitors to the House of Israel were upset about the House of Palestine. Long-time House of Israel members Shimon and Joyce Camiel said they support its creation. “We have to care about each other’s culture and respect one another’s heritage,” explained Shimon.

For the House of Israel, the creation of the House of Palestine is just another headache in a long line of tsores. Donations to the House of Israel have dwindled in recent years, and the volunteer base is greying and shrinking. The House does not receive money from any local communal Jewish group like the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County. Sczepaniak says, however, that the House of Pacific Relations hopes to raise roughly $100,000 for remodeling the House of Israel as part of a $6.6-million fundraising campaign set to be launched in October.

“The House of Israel, a member of the House of Pacific Relations since 1948, has been begging the San Diego Jewish community for several years for help to refurbish its cottage, which is in dire need of a complete facelift,” says Thelma Menaker, secretary of the House of Israel, in a letter this month to the Journal, “and we are still begging.”

Like the other international cottages, the House of Israel is open for only a few hours every Sunday as well as the 2nd Fridays and 4th Tuesdays of the month during the school year. The cozy house displays everything from Israeli coins to tzedakah boxes, from menorahs to Torah scrolls, from newspaper articles quoting Golda Meir to photographs of Jewish Ethiopian children.

“Originally this was the dream of [those] who created [the House of Pacific Relations], that all the nations would be living together in peace. I believed in that. We’re not supposed to talk about politics here,” says Galiah Bukszpan, president of the House of Israel, “but how is it that there can be a house without a country?”

In a seemingly quiet place dedicated to peace and understanding, it’s ironic that one finds a microcosm of the one of the world’s most intractable political conflicts.

It is a small world after all.

For more on the House of Palestine, call Galiah Bukszpan at (619) 574-7824 or visit www.sdhoi.org.

For feedback, contact editor@sdjewishjournal.com.

One Comment to “This old house”

  1. Mark Paredes says:

    Excellent reporting by Karen. Hard to believe that the House of Israel isn’t being funded by the Federation. This story should get wider circulation. I’ve been involved with the LA Jewish community for 8 years and have never heard of the house.

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