A year ago at the counter-AIPAC conference in Washington I met a New Yorker I’ll call Bill. Quiet and darkhaired and serious at 35, Bill told me he had grown up enchanted with Israel but had begun questioning his devotion in his late teens. The Israeli response to the Second intifada was the final straw. After that he’d stayed away.
Then last fall Bill visited Jordan and saw the lights of Israel and Palestine across the Dead Sea and felt a strong desire to go back, but he said he couldn’t justify it without a larger purpose. I said, What if you came with me and I wrote about our trip? I want to see the place through your eyes.
So for ten days in the middle of February we traveled together. This piece is a record of our experiences, with Bill's pictures. I'll run Part 2 next week. Bill wanted a pseudonym because he is not ready to be public yet.
On Sunday February 12, I picked Bill up at his hotel, the American Colony in East Jerusalem, and we went to Ramallah to meet friends for dinner. Then at 9:30 they gave us a ride back to Qalandiyah-- Bill’s first checkpoint.
Qalandiya, the first crossing
The Palestine side of the border square was bleak and desolate, wide open and poorly lit, like a charcoal drawing of a scene from the Soviet bloc. We went inside the wide steel-roofed border hut and passed through an entrance chute made of galvanized steel bars, which brought us to the actual checkpoint. A half dozen young Palestinian men lounged against the bars waiting at the large locked turnstile, which is operated by soldiers behind glass. You have to wait for a buzzer. The turnstile lets three people through at a time.
One of the soldiers was loopy. He kept getting on the microphone to sass the young men in Hebrew, and they called back at him in the same mocking tone. He switched into English, in falsetto.
“Don’t you like Israel? Do you like my country? It is beautiful. It is nice country.”
The turnstile finally buzzed Bill through with two Palestinians. He wore a scowl as he held up his camera to the glass and obeyed orders to open his passport to the right page.
When it was my turn, a little boy from a family that had arrived after us squirted forward and managed to get through the turnstile with me. Panic. His parents, suddenly separated by steel bars from him, grew frantic and called out to him and the soldiers. A soldier buzzed the father through. As he picked his boy up he met my eyes. “This is occupation.”
Qalandiya, the entrance chute
Bill stood waiting at the other side of the X-ray machine, face flushed, and we got onto the 18 bus and waited for it to fill up. A man in the row in front of us got on facebook on his computer.
“That’s one of the most disturbing experiences I’ve had in a while,” Bill said.
He looked out the window. “I know that! Who designed this place? Do you think they could have done it any worse? They don’t try to disguise it at all.”
“I guess they could have done it modern, like an airport lounge. But we bring a lot to this.”
“You know what it reminds me of? Or am I just crazy to even think that?”
“No it reminds me of the same thing.”
“But you can’t say it. Because it’s crazy to say it.”
“You’re not allowed to say it,” I said, “but it’s not crazy to think it. Because we’re both thinking it without anyone telling us. Don’t you think a lot of Jews would think the same thing if they had to go through this?”
Bill has a way of sitting up straight on his feelings. He said, “They should all have to go through it. They should take all the Birthright trips through it. But I’ll tell you something, I felt the same way at Ben Gurion airport. It’s got a huge ramp going down with all these people crammed on it. It’s completely different from when I was here last. I found it disturbing. Let’s get a drink. I need to unwind.”
We got off the bus at the American Colony and had drinks in the cave bar in the basement.
Bill was still agitated. “Did you see when we were going out there was a sign saying 'Israel,' with an arrow? Israel! As if they don’t know. Why can’t it just say Exit?”
“I didn’t see that.”
“Yes, this is Israel. And that little boy who got stuck with you--can he not grow up hating Israel? Why wouldn’t he?”
I said, “We bring a lot to this, we project stuff.”
“I don’t see why that matters. Jews should be sensitive to this stuff. “
I said, “Imagine if we were in Jordan, on the road to Petra. Imagine that they said, well there’s a checkpoint on the road for security when you enter the Petra district.”
“But I’ve been there. That’s not there,” Bill said.
“But imagine if it was there and they said, it will add an hour to your trip and you had to go through what we just went through. You wouldn’t think twice about it.”
Bill flushed with impatience and shook his head, refusing to answer. He doesn’t suffer fools. He’s never been a journalist!
The next day we took a cab to a Tel Aviv suburb and got dropped at the side of a highway to wait for Larry Derfner. We had our suitcases because we were headed on to Tel Aviv. Bill’s suitcase was huge and had rollers. That morning we’d heard about the Norman Finkelstein interview in which he criticized the boycott movement as a cult.
“Look, our side isn’t always right,” I said. “We can be imbalanced. Some folks think that Israel is going to be dismantled tomorrow. It’s not going away. Look at this place. It’s here to stay. I’m in Palestinian solidarity, because they’re the victims, but in a criminal case, the victimized family always wants the death penalty, and society doesn’t have to grant the death penalty. It doesn’t have to be inside that family. It has to balance other interests.”
Bill got impatient, pacing the shoulder of the road. “Ok fine,” he said. “Start balancing. You say there’s got to be balance, I agree with you. Start balancing. There’s never been any balance. You want a two state solution? The Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table. No one here has done anything to honor it. Where’s the balance? They can’t make a state this way.”
Larry Derfner came along and we stuffed our bags in his trunk and drove into Lydda. We went to a hummus place, and Derfner told us his story. He grew up in a neighborhood outside LA with eight Holocaust survivors of his father’s generation. Derfner’s a fiery American lefty, and that Holocaust chapter of Jewish experience seems to shadow his worldview. He didn’t want to hear about the one state solution. It’s pie in the sky. The one state solution is a prescription for unending violence and unrest, he said, you have to figure out the same territorial questions but now as one polity, it won't work.
We walked back through the market to the car past stands of bright strawberries sold by Palestinians.
In Tel Aviv Bill checked into the Hilton because he’d stayed there with his grandparents years before. “This is a walk down memory lane.”
There were Ahava products in the bathroom, and I walked out on the balcony with him to look at the city.
“I can’t believe how much it’s changed,” he said. “It seems a lot smaller. That’s the Herod Hotel. It used to be the Moriah. I guess it seemed so big because I was small, and because I’d never been anywhere else.”
“When did you first come here?”
“I was two."
“Two! But you don’t remember anything.”
“Yes I do. I remember this view. I remember my father telling me there are sharks in the sea. I remember meeting my great grandmother. She lived in Bnai Brak. She went from Europe to Brooklyn to Israel.”
“Two, “ I kept saying. “And how many times did you come here?”
“Eight times! Jesus.”
“This is my ninth trip. By the eighth time I was pretty much done with it. I had talked to my cousin after trips six and seven and started to see the problems. Then on eight I was trying to find something worthwhile to cling to. That was the last trip.”
“And you’ve had nothing to do with it for 12 years?”
“Physically, nothing. But I’ve thought about it all the time. I’ve been thinking about it since I was 11. That was the trip that really got me. Just before the first intifada.”
We had drinks in the Business lounge on the 17th floor and watched Dov Weisglass’s entourage. They were flirting with a pretty blonde journalist, and a couple of the old men said they were jealous of the old American guy she’d come to talk to—probably some fatcat Israel lobbyist. The attitudes seemed very 1980s USA. Out over the sea, planes banked making the turn into the domestic airport to the north.
Bill said he was going out to see the cool new hip Tel Aviv, and I went to Jaffa to meet up with the friends I was crashing with. We were eating dinner at the bookstore café, Café Yafa, when Bill called.
I said, “I thought you were going down memory lane tonight.”
“I’m too upset. I’m lonely. Can I join you?”
“What about the cool Tel Aviv?”
“I tried. I didn’t find anything particularly appealing.”
We sat outside in Jaffa at a crowded alleyway restaurant with the journalists Lia Tarachansky and David Sheen.
Lia told a story about another friend who was a soldier. Almost everyone is a soldier. The man she talked about had killed people in Gaza. But Lia had grown up in a settlement in the West Bank. "So at the end of the day, how different is it?" she said.
Bill said, “The only thing that makes me feel good about this place is the people who are trying to change it. On the Jewish side anyway. People like Joseph Dana. That guy is totally legitimate. Otherwise I sort of hate it.”
Lia said, “At the same time, I have a lot of love for this place. Something lives here. I feel a part of it, this land and its air. I am a part of it with all its ugliness and nuance and terror."
Bill nodded. “I know. I don’t think I would be here if there wasn’t something I loved. I can see that. I think they did some really good things. You can’t think about something as much as we do and not love it. But it’s a different notion of love, it’s like not getting over someone you’ve had a toxic relationship with. And you tell yourself if you take away all the ugly parts, the ethnic cleansing, the discrimination, they’ve done a good job. For sure. I don’t deny it. And maybe I’m being occidentalist about it-- because I’m western and I look for western things. But even the good parts-- I still don’t think that goes very far in the whole scheme of things.”
The conversation had a tragic quality. These people all knew the place better than I did and none of them was fooling themselves about what is coming. Also, I’d been influenced by Bill’s Third Reich impressions. So the bar reminded me of Christopher Isherwood’s scene in Berliners-- hipsters and a beautiful waitress in black tights and a short black skirt and a slouched way about her. A guy came in with a dog. A group of four sat out on a building stoop. I kept looking at the sexy waitress with her black tights and short skirt and good jawline and tied-back hair. When she went into the kitchen across the alley, she sometimes ran into another waitress and she did a little dance as she passed her. She was wearing spectator pumps except they weren’t pumps, they were flats. She was cool but it felt decadent. I couldn’t believe that the galvanized steel of apartheid Qalandiya was less than an hour away. But maybe it was because of apartheid Qalandiya that she is this way.
We took a cab from Tel Aviv to Tappuah Junction outside Nablus.
The big Israeli driver was disturbed that we were going to Nablus. I asked if he’d ever been there and he said, “There is a Hebrew saying. You don’t put a healthy mind in a sick bed. Why should I go to Nablus?”
I said, “The valley is very beautiful and dramatic.”
“OK, fine, my friend. Tell me about it when you come back.“
Bill was silent throughout the cab ride. Later he told me that he kept looking at the Israeli flag on the dashboard and thinking, we’re driving through the heart of the West Bank with an Israeli flag in the windshield. What is it saying? OK, shoot us. Or worse, Up your ass.
Riding to Tappuah Junction deep in the West Bank
We passed a field of olive trees. A few trees were burning. The driver said offhandedly it was probably settlers burning Palestinian trees.
Bill lurched forward. “Do you think there should be settlements on this land?”
The driver shrugged. ‘Why not? This is Jewish land. You are American so you don’t understand. They could have had peace twenty times already. But they don’t want it.”
He dropped us off with the warning that we shouldn’t tell any Palestinian we were from America, we could get in trouble.
We walked 100 yards around the circle at Tappuah junction to get to the Nablus road. A service was there, and the driver opened the back door so we could put in our suitcases.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
Bill said, “We’re Americans.”
“Welcome,” the driver said, and shook our hands.
All the ride into Nablus, Bill raged about our Israeli driver. “’We can’t live with them. They are Arabs.’ And they’re all afraid to step foot in an Arab area. It’s utter racism. And that accent. I hated it, it’s so throaty. Then that high whining tone they get. Why not? Why not? I hate this fucking country.”
“Every country’s fucked up,” I said.
“This is not a normal country. I’ve been to Iran. Iran is a normal country.”
“What does normal mean?”
“In Iran there isn’t this obsession with security and demographics. They have a 55 percent Persian majority, so the place is a mélange. The Supreme Leader is an Azeri. They’re doing a better job of getting along. The racial talk never stops here.
“Look," he said. "I’m for one state, I think that’s the most just solution. But I’m not a total pig. I could get behind an honest two state solution if these people could have a real state.”
“What does real mean?”
“It means, they have all the rights and privileges any other country has. It means, Control over its electro magnetic spectrum, control over its borders, the ability to enter into treaties with other countries, even a military if they want one. Control over their water.”
In Nablus we went out to dinner with Saed Abu Hijleh. Saed is a professor of geography and a poet and extremely animated. He drove us up on the south mountain overlooking Nablus to show off his city and tell us of its ancient history and cosmopolitcan traditions. His family’s house is halfway up the mountain. We went to his house and he asked us to use our right foot as we stepped over the threshold. It wasn’t religious, he said-- it’s his superstition.
Well that front walk was filled with meaning. At the front door Saed showed Bill the spot where his mother Shaden was cut down by Israeli soldiers while sitting outside, embroidering, ten years ago. He showed Bill where he and his father were standing when the Israelis pulled up. He showed us where the shots had hit his mother and grazed his father, and how the glass from the front door had splintered and a piece had cut him in the head.
I thought, that is when Bill said goodbye to Israel, when it killed Saed’s mother.
We went out to dinner and had a famous Nablus dish, and afterward Saed drove us east through the city. He was full of energy. We could see lights on the eastern end of the southern mountain, and Saed said the highest lights belonged to an Israeli army base. During the second intifadah, the army would shoot down into the city almost at random, killing people. “One night I had to drive out to pick up my nieces. My sister’s children. They were visiting their cousins and they were terrified to leave the house. I had to get them.”
Nablus at night
Bill said the scene reminded him of visiting Sarajevo. That city is also in a basin, and the Bosnian Serbs shot at Muslims down in the city. A scene of ethnic cleansing.
Later in the al-Yasmeen Hotel, Bill came into my room. His room was cold and he was troubled by seeing the scene of Abu Hijleh’s mother’s death.
“I wonder what would happen to me in that situation. If I could ever forgive that," he said softly.
I said, “Israelis know that they’ve screwed the Palestinians. And that’s what they’re afraid of. They’re afraid of the revenge if there were suddenly one democratic state.”
“It doesn’t have to work that way. I don’t see these people doing that. They just want their rights. Do they have to love each other? No. But they’re living alongside one another right now and they’re in ghettos and they don’t love one another now.”
“It could be like Iraq, that’s what they fear.”
“Iraq’s a different place. I think South Africa is the better model.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
Bill lifted his open hand like he was weighing the argument. “What if I am wrong? I don’t know why that changes anything. We might as well be on a different planet ever since we left Tappuah Junction, and the Israelis don’t care about this place. Did you see that huge industrial park next to Ariel Settlement. Do you think they’ll ever give that up? No.”
“There are differences like this back home,” I said. “You can go from uptown to midtown and it’s like a different planet.”
Bill got the irritated sneer he sometimes gets, and I said, “It’s the racial angle that upsets you.”
“It’s more than that. It’s that my race is doing this. So that I will have a safe place to run to in the highly unlikely event that I will be forced to leave New York. And when you come out here you see that it has nothing to do with security. Did you hear that soldier at Qalandiya asking me if I had taken any pictures of the checkpoint? ‘Are you sure?’ he said.
"If this was seriously about security would he say that, would he trust me? ‘Are you sure!’ It’s not about security. It’s about putting people in their place.”
In the morning Bill wanted to get going. He didn’t want to see the famous Nablus soap factories. He was too upset.
“It’s like these people are living in a cage here. I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the persecution here.”