Staying on the move in Israel and the Palestinian territories through a month of trial. And today: reflections on a troubling billboard.
Friday is Ruthie’s birthday. We’re having a picnic with friends at Jaffa’s “crest” park. The view of Tel-Aviv and the sea from here is spectacular, and the guilt factor limited. While it’s true that the park was planted where Palestinian houses stood before 1948, it’s also true that most of them were demolished earlier by British authorities in order to enhance their control of the old city during the Arab revolt.
For several decades after the war, the site of the ruins was an urban wasteland known for its prostitutes and drug trade. Today it’s a very pleasant park. We even receive a visit from Israel’s national bird, the hoopoe I voted for it back in the day, when the Society for Protection of Nature called a referendum on the matter of a national bird. I helped you win, hoopoe, hope you appreciate that.
In the evening we go to a party thrown by “Gilist”, a website and mailing list run by Ruthie’s sister Gili. The site acts as a bulletin board for a community of friends, most, though not all of whom, are women, most, though not all of whom, are Lesbian. I just love the cake prepared for the event by Michal Hammer of “Fondant Sweet Delights”
As we step out into an industrial area of Tel-Aviv, we notice a peculiarly badly proofread English billboard hanging over a major intersection.
The spirit is familiar. This is the usual Israeli jab presenting critics of Israel as being hypocritical. The use of English, however,is unusual. The choice to address the message to Turkey’s leader himself seems somewhat unclear and the number of typos on such an expensive billboard is disheartening. The Israeli right has proven over the years that many authors, artists and intellectuals count themselves among its ranks. Proofreaders, however, seem to side with the left.
The sight is so strange that it produces strange thoughts. “you see how it’s unsigned?” says Ruthie, “what if its the government who paid for it and they intentionally use flawed English to make people think it’s a private initiative? I mean, I know it sounds conspiratory, I don’t in all honesty believe that, but desperate times call for creative thinking.”
Desperate times call for hitting the road again. The following day I take a “sherut” van up to Nazareth. It’s a lovely road that goes there.
Nevertheless, all the way I am tormented. Who put up that poster? Could it really be the government or a government-supported organization? And who is really responsible for the government’s deeply counterproductive policies? Most Israelis support a two state solution, and yet the newspaper headlines scream of how “Israel” is putting down all its weight to try and prevent that from happening. Is Netanyahu following his own political conscience? To what extant is he a puppet worn on the hand of Lieberman? The tent protests drew our attention to the extent of influence Israel’s tycoons have over its politicians. Do we even know who all these tycoons are and what their objectives may be? And what about foreign money? I described here earlier how Sheldon Adelson, an American gambling mogul, brought Israel’s Channel 10 news literally to its knees. This is one story we got to hear. What are the ones we don’t?
Desperate times bring out the Paranoiac in each one of us. As we enter Nazareth my questions narrow to one: who runs the show? Who benefits from the conflict, from the occupation, from the discrimination felt in such places as this Paelstinian-Israeli city, from our hopeless economical state. Is it God (symbolized here by the Basilica of the Annunciation on the top left)? or are these earthly beings led by greed (rather weakly symbolized by the hotel under construction, bottom right)?
Who runs the show? These are the buttons in the elevator leading to the rooftop that made the previous photo possible. Inscribed letters indicate that a Muslim “shariya” court convenes on the second floor. This is, for Muslims, an authority above any other, but the letters are Hebrew ones. Nazareth is located in Israel proper and here Jewish culture holds more power.
A mosaic in the basilica’s garden seems to suggests that the Pope runs the show.
But a sign posted outside, where Christian intervention prevented the building of a mosque, claims the Pope is a loser.
I walk through the market to one of my favorite places in the country, a peaceful guesthouse that occupies an old family home and is named after the family’s Patriarch, Fauzi azar. The building is still owned by the family. It’s got wicked ceilings.
A lady is sitting on the Fauzi Azar’s balcony, cooling her foot with bags of ice. Her name is Susanne and she’s hairdresser from San Diego. Susanne arrived in the country in the footsteps of controversial American radio host Glenn Back, but two hours before attending his Jerusalem talk, fell and hurt her ankle. She ended up spending that night at the hospital and taking it easy ever since.
I ask Susanne whom she thinks runs the show.
“I’m afraid it’s the Muslims,” she says, “I’m afraid they will be trying to caliphate their Jihad. This is the biggest problem we face today, and we are not facing it properly. look at Obama, he’s letting Israel go.”
Susanne regards her president, the one usually thought to run the show, as “more Muslim than Christian” I argue that he’s a believing Christian and am met with a laugh. “You know about that dinner he held for the Muslim holiday, they wouldn’t even let us know who was there.”
Incidentally, I happened to guide a gentleman working at the White House on his visit to Jerusalem. It was during the weeks following Obama’s Iftar feast and the evening came up in our conversation. “He said that only very moderate clerics were invited.” I tell Susanne.
She sighs, “I guess I can see where Obama is coming from and that he would like to make peace, but peace with whom? I mean, you hear all the talk here in the Mideast. They all talk about “the Holy Land, the Holy Land. It’s scary.”
“Did you get that from any of the Muslims you met here in Nazareth?” I gesture to the sea of rooftops spread before us.
“I wouldn’t give them the time of day,” she says.
I’m a bit baffled. “Why did you come to stay in Nazareth then?”
“It’s where Jesus lived. Haven’t you heard?”
Politics aside, I find Susanne to be an extremely agreeable individual. As soon as we leave Middle Eastern politics and touch on politics of the heart, I find myself in the midst of the most moving conversation about love and commitment I’ve had with a stranger in years. I leave the balcony grateful and moved.
I must leave it, though, because an event is about to take place on the other side of town. Several Palestinian-Israeli celebrities gather at the Mahmoud Darwish culture center. Here is filmmaker and actor Mohamed Bakri, director of the ground breaking documentary “Jenin Jenin”.
They are here to show support for the Sobol initiative. On part 7 of the travelogue I attended the first press conference of the initiative: a show of support by the Israeli public for Palestinian statehood, initiated by playwright Joshua Sobol. Here in Nazareth the turnout is more impressive. Jewish Israelis are here as well. Seen here are activist and poet Mati Shmuelof, among the founders of “Culture Guerilla” a group that demonstrates different issues by way of holding poetry and music events, and author Nir Baram who organized the writers petition against the second Lebanon war.
They are joined by dignitaries from the Palestinian Authority and two Arab Knesset Members: Mohamed Barake and Hana Sweid. Nevertheless, the speech most relevant to the record of this day on my journey is that of the city’s mayor, Ramez Jaraisi, as it makes direct reference to the uneasy situation of Palestinian-Israelis.
“Besides the struggle for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel we have another struggle,” Jaraisi says in Hebrew, “It is a struggle that we will not give up as long as even a shadow of discrimination persists in the state of Israel. This struggle is to move up one step now, so that we arrive at full equality. Preservation of the imbalances means preservation of tensions that may result in an explosion. Just as we are not interested in the continuation of the war between Israel and the Palestinians, so we are not interested in a explosion within the state of Israel.”
Jaraisy may not be interested in an explosion, but his words have the air of a warning. He may be mayor, but he does not run the show. He knows that his city is full of disenchanted youths who can easily be brought to cry rage against the state whether he supports them or not. Palestinian-Israelis rioted several times before over discrimination, land theft and in solidarity with their brethren across the green line. In October of 2000 the police shot live ammunition into their mobs, killing 13 demonstrators.
I walk away from town through the western boroughs, realizing more and more as I progress why such rage exists. Not only are the Palestinian-Israelis met with prejudice and suspicion wherever they turn, but their city looks in many cases exactly like West Bank cities I visited on this tour, cities that have known decades of neglect under the occupation authorities.
West of the westernmost suburb I see, rising over the tree tops, the watchtower of the Jewish town of Migdal Ha’emek, a Likud stronghold.
I keep moving west and then become lost. The road that should have taken me into Migdal Hae’mek winds instead to the north and becomes a major, albeit unlit, intercity highway, not the place to walk alone in the dark.
As I walk down in loneliness, new thought appear and I find myself musing about someone else who certainly doesn’t run the show: myself. Being a citizen of the “only democracy in the Middle East” I should feel differently, but the election system in Israel seems to counter any attempt its voters make to better things. Mind you, Netanyahu did not get a majority of the votes on the last elections, he wasn’t even the head of the biggest party. Coalition dealings are never done with the entire left block, because three of the leftist parties are considered “Arab” and therefore not fit for negotiations. What remains is to appease the right and the Jewish ultraorthodox block. The only way to do that is to promise a maintaining of the status quo, and here we are indeed.
Well, at least I made a difference once. I did cast my vote for the hoopoe, our national bird, and it holds office till this very day.
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