What follows is an excerpt from Iris Keltz’s new memoir, “Unexpected Bride in the Promised Land: Journeys in Palestine and Israel,” introduced by Keltz. The 293-page paperback is available at bookstores, online retailers, or from publisher Nighthawk Press, for $19.95.
I arrived in East Jerusalem, Jordan in the spring of 1967, weeks before the onset of a war that changed the face of the Middle East. Although it is called the Six-Day War, Israel’s breathtaking victory was won in the first few hours with the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force. Raised on the narrative of Jewish suffering in a Diaspora lasting thousands of years, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, I believed Jews deserved a homeland in Palestine—our promised land.
Forced to wait three days for a visa allowing me to cross the U.N. checkpoint into Jerusalem, Israel–– gave me the chance to meet a handsome young Palestinian poet, musician, and world traveler. After a whirlwind courtship of less than three weeks, we married and were planning a honeymoon when war broke out. The day Israeli soldiers barged into a basement apartment in Ramallah where we were hiding, I was afraid––afraid for my life, afraid the soldiers would not recognize me as Jewish, and surprised these Jewish soldiers invoked such terror. I meant to cry out, “I’m Jewish, American, and these are my friends.” But I spoke no Hebrew, and they spoke no English, so I remained silent. My silence that day inspired me to write this book.
Chapter Eight: WAR
By the time Faisal and I awoke on June 5, Israeli pilots had effectively destroyed the Egyptian Air Force in a surprise attack lasting less than two hours. Long-range bombers, fighter jets, transport planes, and helicopters, exposed in open-air hangars, were bombed like sitting ducks. One-third of Egypt’s pilots were killed. Israel also destroyed two-thirds of the Syrian air force, leaving it unable to retaliate. Israeli pilots were ordered to “destroy and scatter the enemy throughout the desert so that Israel may live, secure in its land, for generations.” They succeeded beyond their dreams.
Radio Amman announced that Jordan had been attacked by Israel and the “hour of revenge had come.” Israeli tanks were moving steadily through the Sinai on their way to the Suez Canal while Radio Cairo played patriotic music between calls to liberate Palestine. Official Egyptian communiqués falsely claimed they were shelling Israeli towns and their military had downed more than one hundred and fifty Israeli bombers. International phone lines had been cut, and Israel did not contradict these lies.
All this happened before we had lunch. Later in the day, Faisal’s mother called from Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives to tell us she had been recruited to be a nurse for the Jordanian army. “Go stay with Khalti Suad in Ramallah.”
Just after sunset, distant explosions from the direction of Jerusalem pierced the night. They might have been Israeli mortar and artillery shells securing Mount Scopus, the isolated Israeli enclave on Jerusalem’s highest hill. Since 1948, an agreement between Jordan and Israel allowed weekly convoys to bring supplies to this one-square-mile garrison, home to Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University. Or the explosions may have been the Jordanian army safeguarding positions on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City to the east—the site where Jesus wept at a vision of Jerusalem lying in ruins.
To protect ourselves from the possibility of shattering glass, Faisal and I moved a mattress into the windowless dining room and closed every door leading to this inner sanctum, but an urgent curiosity drew me to pull back the heavy curtains covering the huge living room window. Three huge spotlights were casting an eerie orange glow over the landscape. Most likely flares and search beams, they looked like vacant eyeballs looking into the void. I returned their merciless stare, willing them to disappear. These surreal, incomprehensible events seemed to be happening in the safety of a darkened movie theatre. I felt like Scarlett O’Hara watching Atlanta go up in flames.
New rounds of artillery shells or bombs broke my reverie. Ignorant of the sounds of war, I had no way to distinguish them. Sleep, the only escape, was hard to come by. We listened to broadcasts from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Faisal translated as best he could. If we had understood Hebrew, we would have heard an Israeli broadcaster warn, “All of Israel is the front line.” Believing another Holocaust was imminent, Jews from around the world were boarding planes bound for Tel Aviv, ready to defend their precious nineteen-year-old country. I, too, wanted Israel to survive but could not fathom how Faisal and his family posed an existential threat—to me or to Israel. The voices on the radio eventually melted into a monotonous stream of static, lulling us to sleep in the safety of each other’s arms.
The next morning was quiet. I thought perhaps last night had been a nightmare, but when we turned on the radio, Nasser’s bombastic shouting confirmed what we already knew. War had started. The only words I understood were “Allahu Akbar!”
I worried that if our house, resting on concrete pillars embedded in the hillside, incurred a direct hit, we could be crushed. On Faisal’s mother’s advice we went to stay with his aunt, walking from Kafr Aqab to Ramallah, about four miles up the road. Buses were no longer running, and few people owned cars. With backpacks filled with clothes, food, and water, we joined the throng of people heading in both directions on the two-lane highway. Heavy burdens were balanced on heads or backs. Arms were saved for babies, hands for children. The lucky people rode in cars or on donkeys.
Many were becoming refugees for the second time in their lives, exacerbating the unresolved refugee crisis created in 1948, when over 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from towns and villages. Many still held tattered documents proving ownership of land and keys to homes that had been destroyed or given to Jewish Holocaust survivors from Europe and Russia. That Israel had been created on the backs of over five hundred destroyed Palestinian villages was not taught in Hebrew school.
Faisal and I had little sense of the historic import of this moment—that this was another life-changing moment for his family, for his people, and for Israel. All we thought about was finding a sanctuary.
History books offer a range of possible provocations that ignited the flames of war: Nasser’s bravado, Russian miscalculation, Syria and Israel’s struggle over water in the Golan Heights, Jordan’s misinformation, or Israel’s dream to extend its borders to the Jordan River. This much is clear: Israel struck the first blow in what they called a preemptive attack. Believing that Egypt had succeeded militarily, Jordan lobbed shells into West Jerusalem and seized U.N. headquarters in No Man’s Land. Once the Pandora’s Box of war was open, Israel did everything to conquer the Old City, something they had failed to do in 1948.
Khalti Suad wept with unabashed relief when we arrived at her door. “Thanks be to God you are here.” The squat windows of her apartment were covered with cardboard, creating a false twilight. When our eyes adjusted to the dimness, we saw that other families had also sought sanctuary here, mainly people living on the upper floors in this building. A young couple took turns cradling their infant. A sweet scent wafted through the house. Women were baking bread and cooking rice while there still was electricity. We filled plastic jugs with water, and gathered every candle and match we could find. No one knew how long we’d be here, so we prepared for a siege.
Since we were supposed to be on our honeymoon, Khalti Suad insisted on giving Faisal and me the privacy of her tiny bedroom. Everyone else slept on mattresses in the living room. They teased us about spending so much time in the bedroom. Imagining us making passionate love in the midst of war was reassuring, but if they had put their ears to the door, they would have heard Faisal reciting poetry and telling stories. Along with food and water, his survival gear included a black hardcover journal hand-written with original poetry, most of which he knew by heart. Faisal’s attempts to translate barely survived the linguistic divide. The words and images sounded excessively romantic to my ears, but the rhythmic cadence of his voice kept me from succumbing to abject fear. The inspiration he drew from these poems touched my heart and ignited my body. For brief moments we were able to create a cocoon of pleasure that overwhelmed the ear-shattering explosions followed by eerie silences. The uncertainty of not knowing when or where the next explosion would occur triggered his memories of another war.
“I was five years old. We were living in Ein Karem outside of Jerusalem. I watched my mother cry every time she read a paper or heard the radio announce more towns being taken over—Lydda, Ramle, Jaffa. One day we watched British airplanes flying overhead in low formation; they were saying goodbye to Palestine. The British left without securing the borders, and we were afraid of the Jews. They had strong weapons. We called them the brin and the stin, every bit as scary to me then as the atomic bomb is today. When the Jews pulled the trigger, their guns just kept shooting and shooting. Many of our friends and neighbors were killed.”
“Faisal, you knew I was Jewish and on my way to Israel, but your family was so welcoming.”
“Habibti, there was nothing about you that reminded us of war.”
The bleating and braying of terrified sheep, goats, and donkeys was heartbreaking. Without their human caretakers, the animals were thirsty and starving. Our greatest fear was a direct hit to the building that sheltered us. Time was measured by shades of darkness and light. During a period of uneasy silence, Faisal again described our future honeymoon to Petra.
“We will ride donkeys into a canyon so narrow you can touch both sides, and pass into a valley with temples carved into the side of a rose-colored mountain. A steep winding trail leads to a monastery, where we will sit on the edge of a cliff and watch the sky turn purple. We won’t be worried about my mother traveling with an army or my family hiding in Jerusalem.” Neither of us said who we hoped would be the victor. We just wanted the war to be over.
I wondered where I’d be if I’d used the visa and gone through the Mandelbaum Gate—perhaps living on a kibbutz near the Dead Sea or hiding in an Israeli bomb shelter. Maybe I would have flown to Cyprus or returned to New York. At such moments people become religious, or insane. I held imaginary conversations with my mother.
“I told you to take the first boat or plane out of there,” she’d say, to which I would humbly reply, “You were right, Mom, I should have left when I had the chance, but I discovered that Palestinians are not our enemy. We can live together,” something I hoped to convince her of someday.
“Habibi,” I whispered, “surely no one would bomb Jerusalem. That city is sacred to everyone,” but my words hinted at underlying doubts. Radio Damascus falsely announced they had begun to bomb Israeli cities in the final battle for liberation from Zionism. In fact, two-thirds of their air force had been destroyed, and Israeli soldiers were poised on a hillside outside the Old City waiting for orders to break through the Lions’ Gate. Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, had flown to Paris, London, and the United States to make a case for his country in the court of world opinion. During a speech at the United Nations on June 6, Abba Eban declared, “Israeli streets are dark and empty with an apocalyptic sense of approaching peril.”
Few people knew that in the Negev desert, Israel had already built a facility capable of assembling a nuclear device. Israel kept this incredible accomplishment a secret. The international community feigned ignorance or truly had no idea, and the myth of Israel’s apocalyptic danger prevailed. King Hussein of Jordan appealed to the UN Security Council for an immediate cease fire, but a twenty-four-hour delay gave Israel the opportunity to seize complete control of the West Bank. All this happened while Faisal and I dreamed of riding donkeys in Petra and remained hiding in Khalti Suad’s basement apartment.
Ear-shattering explosions kept ringing in my ears long after the bombing and shelling stopped. Fortunately our building was never hit. It felt like the shelling had been going on forever, although it had only been days.
On the morning of June 7, we heard the sound of human voices. I had no idea what the Israeli soldiers were shouting, but we all understood Ramallah was being occupied.
“Hadha Yehudis hon!” The Jews are here! Khalti Suad screamed in Arabic. I realized they shared Faisal’s childhood terror. It hardly seemed necessary to remind everyone that I was not with the conquering army. We had just survived a war together.
“I don’t understand what they’re shouting,” whispered Khalti Suad.
Sunlight streamed into our twilight sanctuary when we removed the cardboard from the windows. Tanks and military vehicles were flooding the streets. Israeli soldiers known for their ferocity were entering homes. One of my fellow survivors implored me to go outside and wave my American passport like a white flag of surrender.
Terror is contagious. I didn’t look terribly different from my fellow survivors. Only a thick New York accent could identify me. I imagined being shot while shouting, “I’m American. Jewish. These people are my friends, my family. My friends are your friends.” The soldiers would discover too late that I was kin. My death would be mourned, but the army would declare that innocent people die during war. I decide against running into the street.
I held Faisal’s hand as helmeted soldiers, guns poised, barged into our sanctuary. The Israeli army had not been driven into the sea. Soldiers searched the apartment, confirmed we were unarmed, and confiscated watches and gold jewelry, but they didn’t seem to notice the gold wedding band I tried to hide with the palm of my right hand. I held my breath until the soldiers were gone. My silence at that moment has come to haunt me.