April 19, 2004

Hitler's Birthday Eve

April 19th, the day before Hitler's birthday, is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, though the Lad from Carthage doesn't think the one has anything to do with the other. At 9:59 this morning, a single minute-long air-raid siren resounded throughout all the Holy Land--even, I am sure, into the Palestinian Territories, the entrance to which has been sealed by the Israelis in anticipation of reprisals for their assassination on Saturday night of the most recent leader of Hamas.

Her Lad and I were to visit the 1500-year-old Greek monastery of Saint Savvas today, but were informed that foreigners are not being let in to the West Bank. When I phoned a friend of mine who lives near Bethlehem, behind the freshly constructed security fence, I could hear the tension in her voice. She lives in a hilltop apartment overlooking the Dead Sea to the east and the Israeli settlement of Gilo to the north, she and her two invalid parents and three sisters, all of whom sleep in one modest bedroom. When we visited last week, we were received with incredible warmth, though the matriarch of the family, who had lived once upon a time in Honduras, upon discovering Her Lad's proficiency in Spanish, insisted on gurgling Spanish words at him loudly, no small cause of discomfort on his part. It being Easter Week, we were provided, in this order, the requisite port and pina colada with chocolates, then red-dyed eggs, and finally Turkish coffee and Easter cakes. The laughter was contagious, the candor much appreciated.

It is safe to say that we have both forgotten everything we thought we knew about Palestinians and the Palestinian Territories. Passing from Israel into the road outside Bethlehem is like going from night to day. Walking the streets of Jerusalem's New City, which is modern and almost entirely Jewish, an American feels oddly at home. New York accents are in the air, the architecture akin to what one finds around the Bay Area--when we walked back to the monastery in which we are staying, we could have been walking down Treat Blvd. in Walnut Creek. The West Bank, on the other hand, feels more like what one would expect of the Mediterranean: shabby and chaotic, a bit depressed but resonant with a strong sense of community.

Even within Jerusalem's Old City itself, which is separated into four quarters, the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish, this distinction is apparent. Setting the Christian and Armenian Quarters aside, as they are mainly home to ecclesiastical foundations, in the Jewish Quarter modern people are everywhere, living in a modern way; in the Muslim Quarter, modernity is present, but it is filtered through something foreign to it, something we have been conditioned to consider 'oriental' and 'exotic': the poverty, the crowds, the noise of hustle, bustle and banter, the bubbles of waterpipes and sizzle of falafel set to fry.

Her Lad and I only found out about Saturday's assassination while we were circling the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. A British couple whose son works for BBC News told us about it, and suddenly the closed shops and melancholy in the air made complete sense. Aside from the explosive calls for revenge from a few, the mass Palestinian response has been to cry for justice by crippling so far as they can the foundations of Israeli commerce: the shops are all closed and will be for three days. Her Lad summed up their attitude: 'Oh, you're going to do this? Then we are going home.' Palestinians do all the grunt work in Israel--like Mexicans in California, for example--and so have a reason to believe their peaceful protest will have an effect. 'But when are such Gandhi-like attitudes and tactics reported by the media?' Her Lad's sagacity opined.

It is the way of modern people to focus only on the negative aspects of traditional life and only on the positive aspects of modern life. For someone like me, the temptation has always been to adopt the opposite approach, and gaze rosy-eyed on traditional beauty while condemning outright modern mediocrity. I would hate to think my experience of Jerusalem and its environs has passed through that mental sieve, though it is likely that it has, and Her Lad would probably attest to it. I don't want to paint the Israelis as racist covert colonialists, nor the Palestinians as oppressed freedom fighters. A situation like this one is far too complex for that.

It is difficult, though, very difficult. When the air-raid siren ceased, all the Jews of Israel stopped whatever they were doing and stood silent for a minute, bringing to mind the atrocities committed sixty years ago, in hopes that such evil will never happen again. And my friend near Bethlehem was forbidden at tank-point from leaving her fenced-in home.

Posted by djsmall at April 19, 2004 02:10 PM

thank you so much for posting this. it's so hard to figure out what's actually going on with absolutely no non-news-media reality to work with.

also, now that I can be sure the Lad is getting his daily dose of sizzling falafel I feel much better about his whereabouts.

Posted by: didofoot at April 19, 2004 05:58 PM

It really is fascinating to read these firsthand accounts of a life so different from ours in the states. Like Didofoot, I have been disappointed by the apathy of American news media when it comes to informing its citizens of ... well anything related to or based outside the country. It makes me feel sickeningly myopic by association.

I wish you guys safe travels over there, and a birthday wish for Dan/Thomas as well!

Posted by: kati at April 19, 2004 07:01 PM

You can find good news... if you look for it. Though i am certain we cannot truly understand without firsthand experience, here are three excellent sources for information:




Posted by: rick billeci at April 20, 2004 10:51 PM