After the troubling events of this past weekend in Tucson, Arizona, and the blog I posted yesterday, I found myself doing what I normally do after shocking events: searching for reasons to believe in people again. I found a past blog I wrote when I was blogging on MYSPACE -- a piece done as a recollection of a month I had spent in Israel. Perhaps I write a bit didactic at times, and maybe a bit overreaching, but I remember my return well and how enlightening going to a country of such high tension can be. Anyway, I hope you'll read and enjoy.
Jan 3, 2009
JERUSALEM - DAY 29
Every story has to have an ending, right? So here I am, sitting in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. It seems fitting with my impending return to be for the first time in a month eating American food. That's right, I'm eating McDonald's in Israel. I ordered a McRoyal. Let me tell you, it's McWeird. Either they misunderstood me when I ordered it, or they just like their burgers hot and spicy, because this thing is burning my face off. However, I thought it was just the burger until I ate the fries. There's something on them too that seems to be just as spicy. So it just goes to show that McDonald's is screwed up in every country equally. The difference is here I have Russian immigrant custodial workers speaking on one side of me and everyone else speaking Hebrew on the other. Surreal. However, in American fashion, I'm quite sure my food here will have the same effects on my insides as in the U.S. too. Come to think of it, maybe this is how they sell their ice cream. Makes sense. Give someone so much acid that they have to purchase a base, or their flight will be miserable.
However, the most humorous thing about the McDonald's at the airport here are the garbage cans that say 'THANK YOU' when you drop your trash in. I was expecting Todah, the Hebrew word for thanks. It would have been much cooler. Then I realized McDonald's is totally American and there's no way any garbage can manufacturer for this franchise would know the Hebrew word for thanks. It probably came from China anyway.
I look back on this trip and realize there are so many experiences that were amazing. I know I've learned so much. One thing I've learned is that Israel brings out many emotions for many different people. And when you leave it, it has a pull that makes you consider why you're going.
Upon my departure from America, I received an email from a frequent Israeli traveler which bestowed upon me the wisdom of 'never trust an Arab.' I often wonder how they'd feel hearing that the only person who tried to rip me off was a Jewish cab driver in Tel Aviv, even with the meter on.
I know that there are things about Israel that are impossible to represent until you've been here. Initially, you can't help but feel really out of place, even if you are Jewish. It's truly a foreign country – different languages, multiple religions (and within those religions, various degrees of sects with different intensities) and tons of culture. And in Jerusalem, those cultures are pushed so close together, it's understandable at times the clash that occurs. Can you imagine the Crusaders or the Turkish invaders coming into the Old City of Jerusalem to find the Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim quarters of the old city living side by side? I think the Crusaders particularly would feel like they wasted a lot of time, energy and death for nothing.
A lot of the American media paints the people over here as savages; that death is somehow a daily part of their lives and thus, they get used to it. No one gets used it. Not Jew, nor Muslim. And the pain they feel is so deep at times in this atmosphere they never fully seem to let it go.
I've learned that for some Palestinians, land is something that is valued beyond anything Americans can understand; so much so that if all the jobs and money left their home town and relocated to a town just five miles north, they still wouldn't move. Imagine if you will the city of Flint, Michigan, where the auto industry decline left that city in a complete mess. If Flint had been full of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, it'd still be jam packed, and the population would actually be increasing. It's not something we understand. And most Jews aren't this way. They're too dang practical, unless you speak about the ultra ultra orthodox. These folks don't read anything but the scriptures and their interpretations. So while they may get on an airplane to go to New York, many of them have never read a book that ever mentioned flight before. And they wouldn't even care about the science that went into creating it. Yes, even on the Jewish side, things can bad.
None of us are perfect, but in our own minds we like to think we always do our best. And from our own point of view, we are doing what is right, what we know would work for us. And because it will work for us, we often believe it will work for the other person. That's where we fail. The other person isn't us. They don't necessarily have one iota of the same experiences we had, nor react the same way with the same emotions to what we do. I've learned, and had to remind myself over and over on this trip, that it's time we stop doing --- it's time we stop talking. It's time to listen.
The amazing gift that listening offers cannot be measured. If you think I'm full of it, next time you sit with someone, look them in the eye while they're talking and really listen. Turn off the cell phone and cut out the other distractions. Just listen. Not only will you realize you often miss things about the person you thought you knew, but you'll also notice that they will be really engaged with you. And they will feel connected to you in ways I don't think many of us realize anymore.
This is why the policies of engagement for me, no matter who you're engaging – enemy or otherwise – is much better than the policy of isolation. Isolation leads to the other form of engagement – that with weaponry. We've had that engagement time after time in history, and rarely has there been a true winner. The only way there's a winner in a war is if you just simply devalue human life. If you can say, "well heck, only 40 people died, that's nothing,'" and you can be OK with that justification, I think you seriously need to reconsider your language. Because to a mother who lost her son as one of those 40 it's so much more than nothing. When you've seen your battalion torn apart, and amongst the body count were some of your friends who were defending their right to live peacefully, it's so much more than nothing. And when your family was forced into a refugee camp, and your mother's brother died because no medical attention was available, it's so much more than nothing.
I've learned that this is one of America's giant problems. We've learned to get along with death in a way that's really quite odd. It's in our movies, our TV shows, and our daily lives. We've learned to fictionalize it and ignore it until it deals a direct blow to one of our family members. Then, and often only then, do we speak out against the things that are unjust and cause such tragedies. In its place, we've filled our lives with stuff – countless items that neither fulfill nor redeem us. If they did, we wouldn't always be looking for the next sale. I say this after staying with what would have been considered a rich family by their villages' standards – a family that has no central heating, and worries about the electric bill when they run their space heaters too much. This same family's values mean that Christmas gifts for their four young cousins means a chocolate Santa, a balloon and some gum. And the cousins don't complain about it. They smile at it, maybe because their father lost his job. Or maybe because they know it took an effort for their other cousin to put it together for them. I honestly can't imagine any American child who wouldn't be crushed by such a small gift these days, and for that I'm embarrassed.
Israel makes you appreciate your country even more. And I do appreciate the amazing freedom and opportunity our country provides. It truly is second to none. But staying for a while also allows you to realize how caught up we've become in crap that means absolutely nothing: the cool car, the coolest electronic device, the best dress or suit, or the highest paid contract. Try to use any of those things to keep you warm and loved during a winter's night. If you can do that, I'll be very impressed.
With America's economy hurting, Israel hurts more. There's an old saying that when America's economy coughs, it's Israel's economy that catches the cold. Everyone is feeling it here. So when you consider that the average Palestinian Arab makes $800 a year, you have to wonder just how they manage dealing with the basics. Never mind worrying about the political officials trying to screw them left and right. If they get a warm house and job out of the deal, you can bet they'll elect anyone.
Yes, this is didactic, but it's the end of a month long examination. And what kind of a writer would I be if I didn't end it with some sort of conclusions and realizations? What kind of a writer would I be if I didn't make you think even for a second?
But I don't want to leave you just thinking. I want to leave you with some optimism. I want to leave you smiling. I want you to feel like that if you got up and danced in the middle of your workplace right now just because you felt like doing it, people wouldn't laugh and point, they'd simply join in.
So here it is: in history, all conflicts have worked themselves out one way or another. Sometimes it was war. Sometimes it was peace. They don't go on forever. In this age where we log on to Facebook so we can connect with all of our friends with the click of a mouse, where we can find out the world's news in a split second, where we've donated millions of dollars to a cause like Live Aid over the period 24 hours, there's nothing we can't do if we try. Even with all of what I have seen and heard, and by measure it's really not that much considering how much of the country I've seen, I still believe in that hope. Even with what seems to be an impossible case of consistent miscommunication between the two parties involved (and by that I mean the people on the ground – not their governments), there is no doubt an Arab and a Jew can dine together. Even though it's not perfect, they were able to find co-existence in Northern Ireland, and Apartheid ended in South Africa. Someday this will end too.
At one point in the trip, one of the mother's said something rather simple but powerful. She said she wondered if she had somehow stopped using kind enough words with her children. That's truly a bold insight to have about oneself in front of a person you hardly know. So perhaps, all that's really needed is something simple: a little more kindness; A little less cuddling up with a television, and a little more coffee out with your friends; A little less time walking on the treadmill, and a little more time walking over to your neighbor's place to get to know him/her; A little less time spent labeling groups of whole people in fear, and a little more time approaching that which we fear to see if it's even legitimate.
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt so aptly put it, "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."
I, for one, am no longer afraid.