Many mornings, my husband, Raj, and I have taken to dropping off the kids and then going to a nearby coffee shop for an hour or so before his class begins. We have even taken to sitting at a particular table, near an outlet, where I can linger and write and plug in if needed. It’s a big table, more than we need, but usually when we arrive there are lots of open spaces.
One morning a while ago now, we sat at the table, discussed the nature of revelation and religion with great passion, and then, Raj went to school. I stayed and began a very long call to the credit card company about car insurance and this is what happened…
Between transfers to various call center workers, out of the corner of my eye, I see an old man in a wheel chair lingering near the other end of my table. And then another old man comes and they talk a bit to themselves. And then a few minutes later, the second one sits at the table. No eye contact, no words, nothing.
I disregard it as I am not using the whole table and I am distracted by the call. Then a third old man comes and sits at the head of the table and tries to talk to me while I am on the phone. I hear him say something about how they have been coming here for years and he motions to another table nearby. I say briefly that I am sitting here and that I am on the phone.
When I end the call, another old man has come, and he tries to explain again.
“We are here for our Parliament,” he says. “They didn’t have big tables before like this but we have been coming here so long that they got them just for us.” He gestures to an open table nearby, expecting me to move.
“And what have you decided in this ‘Parliament’?” I ask.
“Decided?! Oh no decisions, just discussions, arguments – politics, books, religion. We love to argue…”
“So I have a question for you and your Parliament. Will there be peace?”
“No. Definitely not. Never.”
It seems there is consensus on this one.
“I’ll tell you, if you have time to listen,” says the one to my right. And over the next hour or more he says this many times, as I ask him his perspective on peace and the future of the Jewish State and the question of justice and so on.
The table fills with old men. I become the most interesting thing that has happened in the Parliament for weeks. They become one of my favorite memories so far on this trip. Eventually, when Raj joins us, they explain that they have extended me an honorary membership.
They tell me of their children in Miami and Los Angeles. I show them pictures of my children. I do not reveal to them that I am a rabbi. I do not tell them what I think of Netanyahu. I ask few questions, open my heart, feel a genuine fondness.
They are all Jerusalem-born. Only one of them is willing to give the Old City to international control for the sake of peace. They repeat cliches I have heard a thousand times before — “Give them a finger and they take a hand!” “The Torah says, ‘If they come at you with a knife, kill them first.'” “We want peace but there is no one to talk to on their side.” “They want to drive us into the sea.”
The man next to me is named Yaakov. And next to him are three more Yaakovs, a Yitzhak, a Moris, and a Shalom.
Morris tosses out a phrase in Arabic, says he works with Arabs all the time. He claims that the Arabs have nothing to complain about, that they have all they need. He tells a story of some Arab guy showing up to buy something with a big sack of cash. He says the current situation is acceptable because if they stab us with knives and we kill them, then we will only be wounded and they will all be dead.
The Yaakov closest to me tries to quiet him and seems a little embarrassed that his delicate new American friend should hear this harsh Israeli sentiment. He may not have hope for peace, but he knows that such things are ugly to say. He tells me that my point of view is shaped by an American, Western mentality. One that is accustomed to equality and rights and not feeling constantly under threat.
Even so, before long, he tries, as so many Israelis have tried, to convince me of the many reasons I should move to Israel. He has great faith in the future of the Jewish state — its strength, its technological prowess.
As a final selling point, he explains that Israel is more friendly than America.
I don’t think he means exactly ‘friendly.’
After years of living here off and on, I am still trying to find the words for what he meant. It is real, this quality, but not friendly. It’s some combination of passionate, open, vulnerable, tough, ready to fight, ready to be convinced by a good strong argument, quick to care, tribal loyalty. Once they decide I am part of them, it opens up. This fast, fierce love.
5 thoughts on “Jerusalem Parliament”
“In an era of great nationalism, the idealisation of one group often requires the demonisation of another. The idea that Israel epitomosed modernity meant that Palestine signified the precise opposite: primitiveness. Similarly, if modern Judaism epitomised enlightenment, then Arab nationalism was the heart of darkness, and as Ashkenazi Jews were progressive, Mizrahi Jews were regressive. These antitheses wounded and scarred society in such a way that only a constant state of emergency and near-war could suppress the pain and anger. On the other hand, as this view was the fruit of theoretical research, the Zionist narrative and highly positive self-image was accepted as scientifically valid.”
Ilian Pappé, The Idea of israel
i feel your pain, rabbi. we miss you!
I haven’t been to Israel in 30 years now, but I recognize this eagerness, or at least willingness, to engage, talk, grapple, and argue. It happens on urban and inter-urban buses, on the beach, at cafes, and wherever you let it.
I haven’t given up hope for peace, but I believe that existing leadership believes that one should never put off for tomorrow what can be put off for a decade or more.
Thanks so much, Reb Katie. So good to read your insights on how complicated and simple it all is. Sending love to you and your family!
It’s so great to hear from you again. This topic is so terribly fraught — often so painful, sometimes seeming impossible. Thanks for your moving, wise, sensitive response.
A quintessential Israeli experience…the kind that makes your heart ache when you leave it behind. How to explain it to those who have not experienced it?