First things first:
I'm a Jew.
A Jew in Palestine (I'm just waiting for some smartarse to 'politely' inform me that Palestine is not a country, although, as of last Thursday, I have the might of the UN behind me).
'So what?' you might ask, and go back to your lunchtime panini and the work you should be doing.
I hear you. What does it matter? Why does it matter?
It shouldn't but it does. When I first decided to move to the West Bank as a freelance journalist, many of my friends thought this was one of my crazy peccadilloes. My mother, of course, was horrified.
"It's dangerous", she wailed. "What will my family say?" My mother's family in Israel are ultra-orthodox Jews, black-hatted and bewigged, who initially took a rather dim view of my mother's marrying out (that is to say, a non-Jew, and a revolutionary socialist at that). Over time (give or take a couple of decades) relations mellowed: now my religious family see my father for the mensch he is, and my father, well, let's just say his views are starting to look alarmingly neo-conservative...
My religious family weren't, however, wild about the idea of me moving to Ramallah ("Didn't I know that was where, at the start of the second intifada, two off-duty Israeli soldiers were lynched?") but they weren't surprised.
First, I got a job with Al Jazeera English (to their minds synonymous with the evildoings of Al-Qaeda) and now I was moving in with them (the 'them' in this instance referring to 'Arabs', as my family would dismissively refer to them).
As I patiently explained to anyone who asked, I wanted to explore the Palestinian Territories for myself, to see first-hand, even if I could not, as a privileged white Westerner, experience the grim realities of living under occupation.
And to allay my mother's fears I promised to spend regular Shabbat meals with my Chassidic family chowing down on cholent (traditional slow-cooked stew) and stuffing myself with chocolate rugelach (sticky pastries that are something of a Jewish speciality).
I found myself in the unique position (at least to my knowledge - I'd be pleased to hear of any similar stories) of dividing my time between Palestinian Authority-controlled 'Area A' and the ultra-orthodox enclave of the old city, acting as a de facto messenger between populations with little or no access to each other. Israelis are prohibited from entering the West Bank, and likewise, West Bank residents are not permitted into Israeli-controlled areas (it goes without saying that the average Israeli citizen has far greater freedom of movement than her Palestinian counterpart).
The main point of interaction between Israelis and Palestinians is through the dreaded checkpoint (if you've ever had the misfortune to cross Qalandia you'll know exactly what I mean), which, as you might imagine, is not the kind of situation that is conducive to great friendliness. Most Palestinians know Israelis as soldiers, as stroppy teenagers with guns (due to mass conscription of 18-21 year-olds this is often what they are) issuing commands and generally making life as complicated as possible for any Palestinian who crosses their path. I am not saying all Israeli soldiers are culpable, but rather that there is a well-documented culture of humiliation and abuse.
For their part, most Israelis I meet have no real understanding of Palestinians or Palestinian society. At one of my Aunt's Friday-night meals a wide-eyed American-Israeli woman tells me, "You can't trust them. They say one thing and mean another. They will do anything for the camera". It was fitting that this woman should mention a camera as I'm quite sure the only interaction she'd ever had with a Palestinian was mediated through a TV screen.
I'd like to say such ignorance was uncommon. I'd be lying. Some of the most avowedly liberal and secular of Israelis, who hate haredim (ultra-religious communities) even more than they hate Palestinians (that's a whole lot of hate) spout unreconstructed racist views of a kind that went out of fashion in the UK around the time Nelson Mandela came out of prison.
A couple of months ago, when couch-surfing with such a 'liberal' Israeli near the coastal town of Hadera, after explaining that I was writing an article for the New Statesman (cheeky plug, read it here) on the demolition of Arab Bedouin homes, I was informed that "They [Arab Bedouin] steal. Anything not watched over and tied to the ground is up for grabs".
I knew then, I was a long way from home.
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