The following includes excerpts from Iris Keltz’s forthcoming book. Unexpected Bride in the Promised Land:
This week marks the 48th year since the ‘67 War. Israeli General Yitzhak Rabin was given the honor of naming the war. Considered possibilities were: The War of the Daring, The War of Salvation, The War of the Sons of Light. Rabin chose The Six Day War evoking thoughts of Genesis, but Israel created a new world in less than six days. With the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force, the war had been won in the first few hours. Palestinians call it the Naksa. For them it turned out to be—another Catastrophe.
In the summer of 1967 I cast my fate to the wind and hitchhiked from Paris to Jerusalem hoping to live on an Israeli kibbutz, but a caprice of fate found me welcomed and married into a Palestinian family within weeks of my arrival in East Jerusalem, Jordan. The likelihood of a Jewish-American woman finding sanctuary with “the enemy of our people” during a war that changed the face of the Middle East was just about zero. My family stressed the Jewish narrative of suffering in a Diaspora that lasted thousands of years, culminating in the Holocaust. On my bat mitzvah, I chanted from the book of Exodus about the Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt with miracles and signs of wonder—ten plagues and the parting of a sea. I read Anne Frank’s diary and prayed the horrors of the Holocaust would pass over the Secret Annex where she hid with her family like the Angel of Death had passed over the homes of the Hebrew slaves.
A two-lane highway cut through the desert between Amman and Jerusalem like a sword. As the jeep I was riding in ascended from the Jordan River Valley, Jerusalem appeared in the distance like a floating fortress. Ancient saw-toothed walls, church steeples, minarets, and a golden dome slowly came into focus. Resting on a ridge of hills running north and south, a Canaanite city-state founded four thousand years ago as an oasis for caravans crossing the Arabian Desert had become a city sacred to the world. Jews have dreamed of returning to Jerusalem ever since the Babylonian exile, but for me it was simply a resting place on my way to an Israeli kibbutz where I expected to be welcomed.
I was ridiculously nonchalant about setting foot in the Old City–– and ignorant. I didn’t know that Jerusalem had been divided in 1948 when Israel was created by the United Nations. Jordanian officials informed me it would take three days to get a visa allowing me to pass through the Mandelbaum Gate into West Jerusalem, Israel, and once my passport had an Israeli stamp, I would never be allowed into an Arab country–– but I didn’t care. From the window of the East Jerusalem youth hostel, I could see the flicker of lights in Israel. A sign posted in English and Arabic read: CAUTION! BORDER AHEAD! DANGER! MINES!
The Damascus Gate in the northern wall of the Old City was a short walk from the hostel. An imperious stone archway ushered me into a world where men dressed in ankle-length white robes and headscarves that protected them from the harsh desert sun. Giddy with discovery, I walked for hours. Donkeys carried burdens along sinewy streets. Women surrounded by mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables gossiped and shouted to passersby while babies nursed at their breasts. Merchandise spilled out of stalls little more than windowless units with corrugated metal doors. Household goods, clothing, jewelry, and tourist trinkets were displayed near trays of fresh baklava, sesame rolls, fruit, nuts, herbs and spices my nose could not identify.
A golden dome crowned with the crescent moon of Islam rose like a second sun over the Ottoman-built walls of Jerusalem. Like a moth drawn to light, I tried to find the golden domed mosque but ended up on a broad cobblestone street in the Christian Quarter. Tourists searching for religious trinkets walked between monks in brown habits and priests in black robes. Shop windows displayed filigreed silver and gold jewelry, olive wood crosses, brass bowls, leather goods, intricate boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and hand-blown glass of unimaginable beauty. Upon entering one of the shops, a dapper young clerk, speaking the Queen’s English politely asked if I would like a cup of tea, and could he help me find something. I was determined not to be pressured into buying. He asked how long I would be staying in Jerusalem.
“Three days. I’m waiting for a visa to cross into Israel,” I said, watching for any change in his expression. Not a twitch.
“That’s not enough time. There is so much to see here.” I finally bought a leather shoulder bag engraved with camel caravans and smelled of sheep The clerk whose name was Ahmed invited me to meet his cousins, Samira, Marwan and Faisal. That’s how it all began. When the Khatib family jokingly referred to themselves as the “fearful Palestinians” I had no idea who they were talking about. I had never heard that word before. Growing up, all Arabs were generically referred to as Arabs, meaning those people who want to push the tiny Jewish State into the sea. No context was ever offered. But there was nothing fearful about this family who welcomed me into their home and their life.
Faisal who became my husband three weeks later, was a world traveler, a poet and an inspired oud player. His nimble fingers slid up and down the fretless Middle eastern guitar, its atonal notes sounding like a journey with no end. He offered to be my guide in the city of his childhood. In spite of assuring him that I was not on a religious pilgrimage, Faisal insisted on taking me to the Wailing Wall. “You’re Jewish. You must go to see the Wall.”
I followed him through the streets and back alleys in a city saturated with religious, historical and cultural memories. In the middle of a poor overcrowded neighborhood we got to the Wailing Wall. It was unmarked and unnoticed. No one stopped me from leaning my forehead against the cool stones. With a few exceptions, between 1948 and 1967 Israelis and Jordanians had been forbidden to cross each other’s border because officially a state of war existed between those countries. American passports did not mention religious affiliations, and here I stood alongside a Palestinian who was encouraging me to pray at the sacred wall.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al Sharif, was a short walk from the Wailing Wall. Two mosques, built after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, have graced either end of the plateau for over 1300 years. The Dome of the Rock was the golden structure I had been drawn to on my first day in Jerusalem. Cobalt tiles imprinted with Quranic verses wrapped around the outside walls of the mosque like a blanket. Faisal secured permission for a non-Muslim to enter. The dome protected a massive sharp-edged black granite stone like a giant womb. Many believe this rock to be the site where Abraham (called Ibrahim by Muslims) almost sacrificed his son Isaac (Muslims believe it was Ishmael), where farmers threshed grain during the reign of King David, and where the Prophet Mohammed departed from earth when he rode his horse to heaven. At Zalatimo’s Sweet Shop, I became addicted to fresh squeezed carrot juice and knafeh, a cheese filled sweet pastry. We left the Old City and walked along Nablus Road to a walled-in garden. Let archeologists decide whether the Garden Tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the true site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We didn’t care. I delayed my passage through the Mandelbaum Gate for a few days.
One day an urgent telegram was waiting for me at the Jerusalem American Express. “War imminent. Stop. Take first boat or plane to Cyprus. Stop. Mom.” My Palestinian hosts believed none of this. We were blissfully ignorant. If I had bothered to read a newspaper, I would have understood the cause of my mother’s alarm. On May 14, 1967, Cairo announced their armed forces were on maximum alert. On May 18, Egypt demanded the recall of all UN troops stationed in the Gaza Strip and the United Arab Republic. Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and took over UN positions in the Sinai. On May 22, the day Faisal and I got married, Egypt closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships and ships carrying goods to Israel. 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. 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 Jordan had been attacked and the “hour of revenge had come.” While Radio Cairo broadcast patriotic music between calls to cross the 1948 Armistice line and liberate Palestine, Israeli tanks were steadily moving through the Sinai. Official Egyptian communiqués falsely claimed their military had downed more than one hundred and fifty Israeli bombers, and Israeli towns were being heavily shelled. International phone lines had been cut and Israel did not contradict these lies.
Faisal and I found sanctuary in his aunt’s basement apartment in Ramallah. We listened to broadcasts from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. If either of us 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. Our greatest fear was a direct hit to the building that sheltered us. The bleating and braying of terrified sheep, goats, and donkeys was heartbreaking. Without their human caretakers, the animals were thirsty and starving. Time was measured by shades of darkness and light. During a period of uneasy silence Faisal described our future honeymoon to Petra. I wondered where I’d be if I had gone through the Mandelbaum Gate––perhaps living on a kibbutz or hiding in an Israeli bomb shelter? Maybe I would have flown to Cyprus or returned to New York? 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.
On the morning of June 7 we heard the sound of soldiers shouting in Hebrew. We understood Ramallah was being occupied. Fellow survivors implored me to run into the street, wave my American passport and shout, “I’m American. Jewish. These people are my friends. My friends are your friends.” Helmeted soldiers, guns poised, barged into the basement apartment. They searched every room, confirmed we were unarmed, confiscated watches and gold jewelry but didn’t notice the gold wedding band I was hiding with the palm of my right hand. I held my breath until they were gone. My silence at that moment has come to haunt me.
The war was over! We had survived, but the world was irrevocably changed. Instead of being swept into the sea, Israel completed the occupation of historic Palestine. They conquered 42,000 square miles, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, and Gaza. The 1.3 million Palestinians living in these territories who suddenly came under Israeli military control became Israel’s responsibility. The battle for demographic domination was beginning. Just as Pharaoh had feared that the Israelites would become as numerous as the stars, the Israelis worried about being outnumbered by the Palestinians.
With youthful innocence, I shared life with the Palestinians moments before the curtain of occupation fell. I’m grateful to have seen the Wailing Wall when it was nestled in the heart of the ancient Moroccan Quarter, to have walked through the streets of Hebron with no soldiers in sight and to have experienced village life before the onset of modernization, pollution and occupation. I loved the pristine landscape between Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah before it was riddled with settlements and checkpoints. It was a borderless, seamless world that welcomed me. Renown Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once wrote––unfortunately it was Paradise.
Solutions have been put forth––two states, one secular democratic state, a confederation, internationalizing Jerusalem, land exchanges––but solutions lie in a distant future paved with graves and broken families. Whatever compromises are reached, Israelis and Palestinians will remain entangled in each other’s lives. We must learn to empathize with “the other.” Change does not happen with arguable facts and conflicting narratives found in history books. Change starts with the human heart.