Old animosities flare up again in places I’ve visited in recent years
The sun has just set behind the Flatirons in peaceful Boulder, Colorado, but I’ve been glued to the CNN footage of rockets lobbed into Israel from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory Israeli missiles shooting down many of those rockets and tanks massed on the Israeli side of the border.
This makes me inexorably sad, first on general principle but even more so because in the last few years, I have visited the tumultuous Middle East several times –once for 8 days days to the West Bank (aka, the Occupied Territories or Palestine); next for 10 days in Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring, and most recently, for eight days to Israel with a day in Jordan. Each visit has been memorable, for the antiquities, for the pervasive sense of wariness and for the regular people living in a perpetually troubled part of the world, with a tug-or-war between ancient animosity and longing for peace. Especially with the approach of Thanksgiving, whose story, at least according to myth and legend, began with Native Americans and strangers from across the sea sharing a harvest feast.
Earlier this year was my third trip to the Middle East in just a couple of years. By the standards of the American West, the places I visited — namely the West Bank, Cairo, Luxor in the Nile Valley, Alexandria, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Eilat and Petra — are practically on top of each other. They would fit easily within the borders of Montana with room to spare.
Of those three visits, the most recent was an SATW Freelance Council meeting in Tel Aviv — a vibrant Mediterranean city with Art Deco buildings, modern skyscrapers, 21st century nightlife and the picturesque old port city of Jaffa, once an Arab city and now a gentrified Israeli neighborhood. A couple of years ago, I had visited the West Bank, where nothing was gentrified as far as I could tell. The Palestinians I spoke with then seemed weary and frustrated, but still hopeful that their desire for an end to the occupation would be a homeland of their own — and a little of what the far more prosperous Israelis enjoy.
When the sun sets on a Friday anywhere in Israel, Jews — very observant and less so — enjoy a Sabbath meal by candlelight. One such feast was prepared for our group at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv. The tables were festively set, and the meal was leisurely, generous and congenial, but to me the best part were the prayers sung by a cantor whose glorious bass filled the large room and my heart. Everyone in the room gave him a standing ovation, but I am frustrated that I can’t find his name. I don’t understand Hebrew, nor do I know what the subject of Sabbath vocal music might be. But even at the time, when the political situation was relatively quiet, I hoped there was at least one with a wish for peace. And I still do. More than ever.
The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are not the same place, but unfortunately, IMHO, the leaders of the two Palestinian areas — I believe the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and more militant Hamas in Gaza — did join political forces. Now with the current conflict escalating and occasional rockets reaching from Gaza the suburbs of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I keep thinking about that Sabbath dinner and the cantor’s wonderful voice, wishing that he is singing of peace — and that someone, somewhere will heed his song.