An American tours Israel, looking for the Palestine his father never knew

Boulos is a longtime friend of this site, a pseudonymous Palestinian-American scholar with a doctorate from an east coast school. Last week he sent Weiss several letters from Cairo following a visit to Israel. These emails are so powerful that we sought Boulos’s permission to publish them, with some edits to preserve his anonymity, because this young man has an academic career ahead of him…

Sorry for the long radio silence. I finished at [X university] and moved to [an east coast city] and started a new job there–teaching and doing a post doc. I also met a girl and that sort of occupied a lot of my time. That’s actually an understatement. I am, in fact, in Cairo right now and I just asked her to marry me–and have been in the Middle East since May and will be here till the end of August.

I took her to Israel earlier this summer to meet my family there and am hoping to make it to Lebanon later in the summer to meet the family there. It was a very strange experience going to Israel. My second time there. This time was different than my first. The border crossing was a lot smoother and less awful. Maybe crossing over with a girl and not as a single guy played a factor, I don’t know. She has been a number of times and has been held for up to seven hours because she has an Arab name, and even though she is a Christian, they assume she is a Muslim.

The Israel I experienced this past time was very much the Israel I experienced the first time I went, which was an Arab Israel. Not much interaction with Jews at all, though we spent one day in Jerusalem with an Israeli scholar friend of mine who took us around and showed us things, including an ancient structure. I was struck by how scared she was of everything: of Iran, of Hizbullah, of the Egyptian Revolution. I actually felt bad for her.

I went with one of my cousins one day to attend a lecture by Guy Bechor at the IDC [Interdisciplinary Center] in Herzliyya and was struck by how comedically awful it was, how full of cliches it was, and how unselfconscious he was when he pulled up Wikipedia on the powerpoint screen in the middle of the class to check a date.

Afterwards, my cousin and I went and got coffee and I was talking to her about what I thought of the lecture when an American in the class started talking to us; my cousin knew him and he told her he was getting married in July and was going to do it “over the Green Line” (i.e., in the West Bank) to “make a point.” We had an interesting conversation. He was a total pin head and was completely tangled up and trapped in a suffocating web of nationalist and religious mythology. It was interesting to see the worldview of someone who was an actor, at some very basic level, in the conflict. He spoke to me in perfect American English and so I asked him where he was from. He told me “Tel Aviv.” After speaking to him a little bit longer, I said to him, “Where are you really from?” He was from something like Oregon.

As we were walking out of the university, I was talking to my cousin in English and she told me to talk to her in Arabic because when Israeli Jews hear people speaking Arabic, it makes them scared.

I told my cousins there that I thought a one state solution was the way to go; I was struck by the impression that they don’t necessarily want one, though they never said that. Another impression which struck me: there are lots of ties between Palestinians on the West Bank and Palestinians in Israel proper. Palestinians in Israel go to Ramallah and go to the West Bank, I think, pretty regularly. They shop there, they have friends there, they have family there. Palestinians on the West Bank cannot go to Israel, but there is definitely a traffic that goes in one direction. It is illegal for Israelis to go to ‘Area A,’ but the government doesn’t seem to care if Arabs go. We drove to Ramallah thorough a back route and we weren’t stopped, even though it was illegal…

We crossed over at Eilat and ended up catching a ride to Jerusalem on a French tour bus which had an Israeli tour guide and driver. He was very friendly, both my fiancee and I thought he must have been French-born–his French was perfect–but the tour he was giving was complete and utter propaganda and hasbara. We heard about cherry tomatoes, we heard about Israel and potassium, we heard about Israel’s courageous choice to give up the Sinai for peace, we heard about Israel conquering the desert. As we drove through the West Bank, we got the line, “On the right is Judea and on the left is Samaria.” We passed a Bedouin shanty town and he told the group that the Bedouin earned 2K euros a month working in construction and chose to live that way.

We were in Jerusalem, actually, on Jerusalem day and saw all these people in their white outfits coming back from marches. The Israeli scholar friend of mine wanted to stay out of the Old City that day because it was going to be a mess, so we didn’t see any of the action, so to speak, but we saw some of the people coming back who must have been there. Because there are people there from all over the world, Jews and non-Jews, it probably is one of the most interesting places anywhere.

I don’t quite know what to make of all of it and how to process it. Definitely when you are in Israel, it is very possible to go on and live and be totally unaware of the West Bank, the occupation, etc. I think it’s harder to do that in Jerusalem, but it’s pretty easy to do in other parts of the country. out of sight, out of mind. some random thoughts for you…as if you cared.

I was just in [another city] last week, visiting some of my old teachers and they are all over me because I have not been publishing. I am not so vain as to think that you have been wondering the same about me, but I guess the answer to their question is, in addition to all the stress of the new job and teaching….Cherchez la femme.

[Weiss seeks permission from Boulos to publish the above, and he adds the following postscript]

The experience in Israel was a curious one. There are these incommensurable worlds at play there: there is a certain attractive logic to the hasbara claims that the French tour guide made: I mean, the cherry tomatoes in Israel really are amazingly tasty. The country does have good roads and they have made the desert bloom. The Zionists did take a place and do a lot of good things with it–but there are also the bad things they did with it, there is also the human cost that came with the taking of the country, there is also the dark, exclusivist worldview that animates religious Zionism, if not Zionism tout court.

What struck me this past visit is what struck me the time I went previously: there is a very Arab part of Israel: many of the street signs are in Arabic, you can get really excellent Arabic food–we even ate at a Lebanese restaurant outside of Jerusalem at one point–you can go through life, it seemed to me, and get by just speaking Arabic. Perhaps it is the same way with Spanish in many parts of the US. This Arab side of Israel does not get much press anywhere, I don’t think, including Israel.

It seemed to me, talking to my relatives, that the Israelis don’t really want the Arabs there. Wealthy Jews are buying up Jaffa, a traditionally Arab place, and driving up the rents such that the Arabs who lived there can’t afford to live there any more. If you have a family, your kids can’t afford to buy houses there when they get married and they will go live in Lyd and Ramleh instead. In Akka, I talked to a guy at the sandwhich shop where we had lunch. a little, semi-run down place which wasn’t touristy but which had delicious kefta sandwhiches. In Jaffa, he told me, they sell their land (i.e., the Arabs). Here, he said, we don’t sell. Wealthy Jews have been trying to buy properties in Akka and develop them.

It was sad to me when I asked him if I could get jibneh akawiyeh in Akka, this sort of Akka cheese that my dad likes and which you can get in America. My family in Jaffa had never heard of it, though the older people, who were born before ’48 had. The guy in Akka knew of it but said you couldn’t get it any more. A few people made it in their houses but it was not available as it had been in the past. There had been changes, he said. I assumed he was talking about 1948 and all that.

The Palestine that my father never knew–he was born in ’49 in Beirut–is gone in Palestine and now survives in the diaspora. Even linguistically, there are words in arabic that I knew from my father which the younger people don’t know anymore in Jaffa, but the old people know them. it’s like the diaspora is a time capsule. This is one thing that hit me when I went the first time and it hit me again this time: Palestine is dead. At some level, the Zionists did win. The clock cannot be turned back.

Another thing that struck me about the Arab Israel: one of the most heart breaking things is to see how badly Arabs in Israel would love to go and visit Syria and especially Lebanon. They watch Lebanese satellite t.v., they know Lebanese fashion, they know the Lebanese dialect, and they are a few hours’ drive from Lebanon, but it might as well be in outer Mongolia. At the port of Jaffa, there is a very neat map of the Mediterranean which shows how far various Mediterranean port cities are from Jaffa and it is absolutely striking to see how far (or rather, close) Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut are to Jaffa. In history, one often talks about continuities and discontinuities, and it is in such moments that one is struck by how both co-exist so strongly in such a place–a new language, a large number of immigrants from all over the world, what is essentially an American colony (one feels, when one passes into Israel from an Arab country, that one has just entered America)–but underneath it are also traces of that same, common Levantine culture that used to exist there and which made Jaffa, Haifa, Akka, Tyre, Sidon, etc., all part of a similar cultural continuum….

More inchoate thoughts for you: the situation is a royal mess. In my very unexpert opinion, I think that Israel as it stands right now is probably a sinking ship and is unsustainable. The US and Europe, if they somehow found the political will or testicular fortitude could perhaps force a two-state solution, but I think that it may in fact ineradicably be in the DNA of right-wing Zionism to oppose the establishment of any kind of Palestinian state west of the Jordan. Which means that what is going to eventually happen is the death of the current state of Israel–secular and Jewish–and the gradual emergence of something else. I don’t know what it will look like and am not persuaded that it will be a nice place to live for anyone, but the current state of Israel won’t last another decade. Haaretz is basically the opposition party and my impression is that it represents about 2% of the population.

About Boulos

i'm a perpetual student.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 5 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. annie says:

    this is a really worthwhile post. thanks for publishing.

  2. Yes,
    Thanks for publishing.

  3. “I was talking to my cousin in English and she told me to talk to her in Arabic because when Israeli Jews hear people speaking Arabic, it makes them scared.”

    i laughed out loud, that is so hilarious and ridiculous.

  4. notatall says:

    Every one of the states in the Middle East is the result of external military and diplomatic interference: a friend of mine in Beirut refers to herself as “north Palestinian.”

    • “a friend of mine in Beirut refers to herself as “north Palestinian.”

      I don’t get your reference here. If you (she) are implying that Beirut or Lebanon was cut out of Palestine then technically and practically this isn’t true. It was cut out of Syria.