For an Israeli who lives in Jerusalem, it’s strange being the only Jew in the room. Yet that’s how it was on Jan. 10 as I gave a talk on the current political situation to an international conference of Catholic bishops at the elegant Knights Palace Hotel in the Old City.
When I left the house that morning, my 15-year-old son wished me good luck.
“And Abba,” he added, “wear a kippah.”
We are a traditional family, yet neither my son nor I go around with a yarmulke as a matter of course. Nor do I generally wear a kippah when meeting with Jewish groups. But his instinct was wise and correct: Among the Other, stand up and be identified.
As I walked down to the Jaffa Gate, though, I wondered: Will my knitted skullcap give rise to preconceptions about my political views? Will it mark me as a right-winger, a settler? Or will most of those assembled be fairly oblivious to the nuances of Jewish headgear, what author Donna Rosenthal, in her book “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land” (Free Press, 2003), refers to as “kippology”? I decided to wear it. (Besides, some of the clerics would be wearing theirs, too.)
My next problem was how to lead off. My custom is to start with a moment of levity. Not everyone was fluent in English. Few if any were accustomed to my kind of humor. Again, I took a chance: “The Frenchman says, ‘I am tired and thirsty. I must have wine,'” I said. “The German says, ‘I am tired and thirsty. I must have….'” The bishops grinned and said, “Beer.”
“And the Jew says,” I continued gingerly, “‘I am tired and thirsty. I must have diabetes.'” Following a few interminable nanoseconds of high anxiety on my part, the room burst into laughter.
I explained my reasons for telling this classic joke. (An early version may be found in the marvelous three-volume Hebrew “Book of Jokes and Wit,” compiled by Alter Druyanov in 1922.) First, to underscore what everyone knows — that people of different cultures have different tastes and mindsets. And second — more importantly — that despite the image of the tough, brash, domineering Israelis, we have a deep strain of insecurity, too. And that unless one understands that, one cannot understand the political situation.
I should hasten to add that I was not the only speaker invited to address the group. After I concluded my remarks — which touched on political messianism, Ariel Sharon’s new government, the scourge of anti-Semitism, Jewish empathy for the oppressed and, above all, the hope that the new Palestinian leadership will finally turn away from self-destructive violence — Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a Palestinian academic and chair of Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem, took the lectern to express his point of view.
“I am tired and thirsty,” he began, “but I am denied the water.”
And so it went: the occupation (“we are in a prison”); the “three Gs” (“gates, guards and guns”); and the wall (which Israelis call a security fence, and he called “a sharp knife cutting our flesh and sucking our blood”).
“We must awaken the Jewish conscience,” he said, as if I had not dwelt, for 20 minutes, on the urgent need, in the face of myriad obstacles, to remedy the suffering of the Palestinians.
“Your pressure,” he told the bishops, “is very much needed.”
The time came for closing remarks. I recognize, I said, that when one puts a metaphor on the table, others are free to make of it what they will. For my part, I hope that we can envision together a thirst-quenching glass that is at least half full. And if diabetes, alas, is an incurable disease — at least at present — it is surely treatable. And that, too, is a good thing.
But my Palestinian colleague wasn’t buying. He dismissed my rosy rhetoric. He demanded historic justice. And so it went.
In the days since, I have been replaying that morning in my mind — and reading the papers, watching TV and talking to people in the know — and wondering: We are again sitting down at the table, but are we in for the same old story? Will they demand of us, and we of them, things that neither can deliver? Or is there reason to believe that this time around — with Yasser Arafat finally gone — a conflict that has proven strikingly intractable, and has thwarted generations of talented diplomats, can finally be resolved?
Actually, I do think there is reason for hope. Abu Mazen, the new Palestinian president, is a pragmatist. He recognizes, as do most of those who voted for him, that terrorism is the wrong way to go. He knows that the Palestinians need to clean up corruption, overhaul their security apparatus and establish a viable democracy — not just because this is what the Americans want, but because it is good for them. For decades, Arafat manipulated the Palestinian leadership, playing one person against the other in order to stay in power. Now, the best and brightest of them need to work together, to build credibility in Washington and — here comes the hardest part — to build confidence among the Israeli public.
And what about our own house? Can we, as a society, overcome our well-earned fears, our internal divisions, our habitual self-absorption and take bold steps toward peace? If Prime Minister Sharon can get us out of Gaza — despite the demagogic tactics of the settlers, and in the face of fiery opposition from within his own party — he will have implemented an essential principle of statecraft: Just because what you are doing in your own self-interest also serves the interests of your adversaries, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
If both we and the Palestinians can, in fact, come to share that crucial mindset, a breakthrough may be in store. Someday, we may even laugh at each other’s jokes. n
Stuart Schoffman is an associate editor and columnist for The Jerusalem Report. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.