December 29 to 31, 2010

Two agnostic Jews, a recovering Catholic, and a Druze walk into a monastery….

I am always jolted by the contradictions of Ben Gurion airport, a bastion of modernity and normalcy, evocative art and posters celebrating the Israeli national mythos. I know my Palestinian friends cannot walk these corridors, my heart lurches when the 20 year old Israeli soldier asks me: “So what are you doing in Israel?”  My travel plans and contacts have all been emailed to friends in country because I do not want to expose my true identity: detective, critical observer, activist.  Indeed I have been called “a danger to the Jewish people” merely because I report on what I see and I refuse to be silent. Come see what I see.

The train from the airport to Akko is sleek and double decker, reminding me of Europe, except for the number of soldiers chatting and dozing and the increase in Arab looking faces as we head north. We are met by Basel in his new BMW, a 30 year old Druze Palestinian from the tiny village of Al Maghar in the western Galilee. He stayed with us in Boston last summer, teaching in a tennis program for inner city youth. So this is the next contradiction in the contradictory “democracy” that is Israel. There are Jewish towns and Arab towns, Jewish schools and Arab schools, Jewish funding and Arab funding. An Arab town is “mixed” in northern Israel when the inhabitants are Christian, Muslim, and Druze.

Walking down a steep driveway to a cluster of homes built on a hill, his family comprises 10% of the 2000 inhabitants of the village, most living in this extended family enclave.  We immediately enter another world: heavily ornamental brocaded couches, white gauzy curtains decorated with gold patterns, and a long table piled extravagantly with taboule, chopped parsley seasoned with lemon, stuffed grape leaves and squash, fresh salad, 4 different breads flavored with chicken, meat, zetar, and tomatoes, and four over-the-top desserts.  While much of the family eats separately in the kitchen, we gradually meet the many handsome sons and their wives and the one daughter who is the main cook and also a graphic artist. I sense that the wives have formed a warm sisterhood, supporting each other with cooking and childcare. Clearly the proudest family moment comes with the arrival of 3 volumes of the most recent wedding photos, airbrushed movie star poses, happy relatives pinning money on the groom, parades of aunts and uncles and cousins. This family of barbers,  car mechanics, career army cooks, teachers and young people still looking for work, knows how to celebrate like the rich and famous; they have these mythical pictures to prove it.

Basel finds this all encompassing warmth and closeness both grounding and stifling and keeps a bachelor apartment in a nearby town where he teaches physical education and develops tennis programs. He is both a village boy and an adventurer, thinking of buying land in Al Maghar, yet wanting to travel, study guitar, avoiding “the prison” of marriage and children. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, he Is at once very identified as an Israeli, could easily “pass,” served in the IDF for a year, but went to prison after refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories.  The following day he reverently takes us to the tomb of the Druze prophet Shueib, a mosque with rows of graceful arches and an elegant garden where sweet water pours from the mountains.  At the same time he mentions, “Jewish villages look better, more money more services.” He talks about recent news that orthodox rabbis have announced that Jews should not sell to Arabs, or even speak to Arabs.  He mentions that the separation of towns “is not comfortable,” that sometimes the Israeli government does not allow Arabs to build on their own lands because they build horizontally rather than vertically and thus use too much space.

The following day we drive to a Carmelite Monastery for the stunning views of the valley below and the Dr Seuss-like cactus gardens. On the roof we thread our way through a tour of Arkansas Christian Zionists, singing with a guitar and praying earnestly.  There is talk from the Book of Revelations of the end of times, the valley below is where “people from Africa, China, and all over will come because it can support everyone; the top soil is 10 feet deep.” The Southern accents, the absolute beliefs, and the palpable delusional religious passion make me giddy.  I keep thinking…. “Two agnostic Jews, a recovering Catholic, and a Druze walk into a monastery….” I can’t figure out the punch line, but one man with a cowboy hat and friendly drawl walks up to me and says, “I’d like to hear the end of that one.”

Basel wants to show us the area of the recent terrible brush fires that resulted in tens of deaths, including a bus filled with prison guards trapped by the flames, and the destruction of acres of forest and houses. The hills of blackened skeletal trees, grey soil washed by the rain, swaths of fiery destruction slashed across the landscape are humbling. If I believed in a wrathful God, I might wonder why the Jewish National Fund forests were burning?   What is the price of destroying Palestinian villages and planting hundreds of thousands of non-indigenous pine trees which grow quickly and make excellent tinder in this dry Mediterranean climate? Or perhaps this is the cost of building a massive military infrastructure and ignoring firefighting equipment and personnel. Basel reassures us that the trees will be replanted.  I do not think he understands the destructive role of the JNF; after all, he was educated in Israel and that history is not in the textbooks.

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