I had just traversed much of Jerusalem, a good deal of it on foot. Coming from Ramallah, I had experienced the slow agony of the Kalandia checkpoint, was let off at the East Jerusalem bus station, then went to my hostel in the Old City and then on to the YMCA in West Jerusalem, where I was to meet my Israeli work colleague, who I’ll refer to as David. As I was rushing with brisk footsteps across the Old City and up the rather steep hill towards the Y, in the back of my mind, I wondered if I would excoriate Israel? I’d just spent my second full day in the West Bank, visiting the Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem, Abu-Dis, Ramallah, Jericho, the windy, hilly roundabout roads whose travelers are forced to defer to the apartheid wall and, lastly, Kalandia, where I experienced some difficulty getting through. Additionally, throughout Green Olive tour I was on that day, a Chinese American evangelical pastor was continuously interrupting the Palestinian tour guide, insisting that neither Palestinians nor Palestine existed. Suffice to say, this was all fermenting in my brain as I went to meet with my Israeli colleague.
David and I had exchanged a couple emails when I was back in the States: after my boss had heard that I was traveling to Israel/Palestine, she suggested that I meet up with him. David was in his late forties but life had weighed on him in such a way that made him look like he was in his mid-fifties. He was a balding divorcee, with two children that his wife was raising in Israel. While his family roots were in Scotland, David had spent time living in Belgium and South Africa before moving to Jerusalem for “religious reasons.” But he had since become a less devout Jew in the seventeen years that he lived in the city.
When I reached the West Jerusalem YMCA, David was already there waiting. He spoke in a jovial watered-down Scottish brogue that reflected his laid-back, friendly and likeable personality. Compared with other Israelis I had met thus far on the trip, he seemed far warmer.
“Where would you like to go?” he asked after we exchanged greetings, mostly out of courtesy, knowing that I was a visitor to the city and probably had little idea of good places for dinner.
“Anywhere – wherever you think,” I responded.
So he led us to an outdoor restaurant on a popular West Jerusalem street where there were several people walking about on this Wednesday evening.
While I was extremely curious about his attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I didn’t want to jump right into the subject nor did I want it to dominate our conversation. Thus, we talked quite a bit about how our respective work departments functioned. As he was the manager of an Israeli subsidiary of the company that I worked for, the subject served well in ‘breaking the ice’.
After we ate our dinner, we sat back leisurely, sipping on beers and chatting as we watched the many a passerby’s engagements in the West Jerusalem nightlife. I couldn’t get over how much life seemed completely normal in West Jerusalem, just like a Western city, despite all we hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
David must’ve seen me make eye contact with a woman who passed by, because he looked at me and smirked, “We have beautiful women in this country!” he exclaimed.
I nodded, “Yes, you do.”
“We have some Russian beauties, but my favorite are the Ethiopians!” he said with a grin.
I smiled and we continued to watch the people passing on the darkening nighttime street.
“So, what do you think about the conflict here, with Palestinians?” I asked in a casual manner.
“I’m really not into politics,” David responded.
“Well, that’s that,” I thought to myself, somewhat disappointed.
“…but…” he continued about a half a minute later, “I don’t think Israel is under an existential threat anymore.”
I couldn’t help reflexively thinking to myself “How flagrantly Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s existentialism is used these days! Would they or Camus even recognize how the term is so often used today?”
“And I do think that the security guards at checkpoints should not act so violently against Palestinians,” David commented, then looked to me for my reaction. I said nothing and began to wonder if he was also against the occupation.
“You see,” he went on and began adding terminology like ‘social conditions’ commonly applied in our mutual work environment into his analysis, “These checkpoint guards come from underprivileged social conditions and also they tend to be minorities. The frustration from their daily life culminates, sometimes, into the abuse of Palestinians trying to cross at the checkpoints.”
This immediately called to mind what some in the U.S. use as a means of excusing or explaining the violent actions of criminals, taking away personal responsibility and agency, so as to potentially mitigate their prison sentences following conviction. However, those who abuse Palestinians at checkpoints are rarely, if ever, penalized by the Israeli justice system.
The waitress came to our table and asked if we wanted another beer; we’d each had two or three thus far.
“Are you having another?” he inquired.
“Sure!” I responded and the waitress smiled as she left to get our order.
“What do you think about the occupation?” I asked bluntly, as the alcohol mixed with our conviviality had reached a point where this question felt appropriate.
He took a long pause to answer and seemed a bit hesitant to do so. In my impatience, I suggested a possible compromise for Israel “Do you think that if Israel was allowed it to keep the Golan Heights – which doesn’t seem to be as contested – that Israel would give the West Bank back to the Palestinians?”
David turned towards me and, catching my eyes, responded “Strategically, the Golan Heights is important due to its height and because it borders Syria and Lebanon, letting us to see what they’re doing.” He then looked at me with intense, solemn eyes, “But, if we lose the West Bank, we lose everything.”
“And this is from a seemingly ‘liberal’ Israeli!” I thought, swilling down the rest of my beer and hoping that the other one would come soon. The waitress was quick and returned with our freshly-poured brews. “Whose it to lose?” I wondered silently, taking a large gulp of the new beer.
There was a silence for a bit and we enjoyed the nice outdoor night.
Then, I asked, “Have you ever been to the West Bank?”
“I’ve lived here for seventeen years and I never have been…well, that’s not quite true. One time, when I first moved here, I got lost and I suddenly realized that I was in the West Bank. I drove around aimlessly for a while before finding my way back to [West] Jerusalem. But that’s the only time I’ve been there.”
Again, there was a silence until he changed the subject and asked, “How is your relationship with your girlfriend? Do you think you guys will end up together?”
“I really have no idea. We’ve only been together for six months and we fight quite a bit, so things could go either way.”
David grinned slightly, “It seems like you’re pretty lukewarm about the whole thing?”
“Yeah, well, right now I just don’t know how things will turn out…” I paused and pictured the two of us fighting on the night before I left. “…she actually wanted to come here, but she can’t get in because she’s Bangladeshi.”
“Really, she can’t get in the country? Why not?” he asked, looking a bit confused.
“Bangladesh doesn’t recognize Israel and so Israel won’t allow her into the country.”
“Hmm…” he muttered in response.
We finished our beers and walked down the street to an underground bar with overwhelmingly brown furnishings where we had a couple shots of bourbon and a couple more beers. I couldn’t get over how much this bar seemed exactly like one I would find in America – it was imbued with a 1990s ‘alternative’ style.
Then we departed, saying we’d keep in touch. And for about a half year we did – even during the massacre of Gazans in the 2014 summer. I emailed him, expressing my hope that he and his family were safe. He said they were safe and secure and, of course, like almost all Israelis during the war, they were.
Instead of walking back to my hostel, I got a cab to the Old City’s gates.
The driver and I exchanged pleasantries.
“How do you like living here?” I asked, trying to strike up conversation.
“Well, I’m Palestinian,” he responded, feeling little need to add more, but then added, “It’s not good. I come from outside Jerusalem to work.”
I nodded and looked upwardly ahead, to the ancient walls of the contested city.
He dropped me off at Jaffa Gate. Almost immediately after getting inside the gate, an Israeli soldier questioned me: where was I from; where was I coming from just now; and what was I doing in the Old City. Not more than fifty yards ahead another Israeli soldier stopped me and asked similar questions. Hadn’t he seen the last soldier who questioned me?
It was nearly midnight and all the shops in the Old City were closed, causing the streets to appear very similar to an outsider. I walked in circles for a while before finally finding my hostel. As I lay my somewhat-inebriated head down in my small Spartan-like room, I mused, “Even a liberal Israeli thinks ‘if we lose the West Bank, we lose everything’…Much like a thief carefully guarding his purloined jewels.”