Today I went to Tira, a Palestinian village in Israel. I’d be shocked if any of my Israeli Jewish friends have been here (maybe a brave or open-minded one or two!). This is not Abu Ghosh or Yaffa. This is not a tourist area. This is simply a Palestinian town- not for outside consumption.
Tira, even when I asked locals about it, does not have any particularly old mosques or historical sites. It has old homes from the original residents, but let’s just say the Ministry of Tourism probably doesn’t mark this on their map. Although it should.
Why wouldn’t the ministry mark it? Because the more people know about what actually happened- and still happens- here, the less they may want an Israeli Ministry of anything.
Tira is actually quite pretty, despite one of my Arab friends calling it the “Detroit” of the Arab Triangle, a region abutting the West Bank. It’s literally an hour walk to the border.
Today I met all sorts of interesting people. I met a high schooler in a hijab who loves Harry Potter and says Hebrew is her favorite school subject. She she said likes how Israeli Jews are “freer” to wear what they like and to ride bikes- apparently women in her community get flak for doing so. I also met an adorable 6 year old obsessed with Real Madrid and even had a book about their players. Since he’s 6 and super cute, I’ll let his poor taste in soccer teams slide (I’m a Barça fan) 😉 I even met a basketball player with Jewish friends in Baltimore and absolutely amazing English. My bus driver was a Bedouin who loves Akon and American hip hop- and the Quran. We listened to some of our favorite Quranic verses on our empty bus until an Israeli Jew got on the bus and started complaining about bus schedules.
I also met a scary guy who started yelling at me for no apparent reason, which was alarming, and fortunately having honed good survival skills, I reached out to local residents who got my back. Turned out fine, but basically cross-cultural travel can be hard- stay aware of your surroundings and resources. And build your skills over time.
I want to share a particular story from today. Fatima is an absolutely amazing pastry maker. Her shop makes the mouth drool. I’ve eaten tons of types of baklava here and her cashew baklava was so good I moaned out loud.
She asked what I was doing in Tira- a question I frequently get in Arab villages. Mostly because other than visiting a restaurant or a weekly market, Israeli Jews rarely interact with Arabs. Even less so on their own turf or in their language. I spent the entire day in Arabic and loved doing so. If you’re Israeli and don’t speak Arabic, you’re not a very good Israeli so pick up a fricking book. It’s the native language.
When I shared with Fatima that I made aliyah and have since become disillusioned with Zionist nationalism, she started to smile. She asked why. I explained that my Judaism is founded on social justice, compassion, and diversity. And that I see the government doing the opposite- in my name- including the expulsion of Arabs from their lands. Lands on which I now reside. That it offends my Judaism and my humanity and I want to show my friends around the world the reality here so we can make it better.
She started to open up to me. She said her family is not actually from Tira, but rather Miska. Haven’t heard of Miska? That’s because the village was depopulated by the Haganah Zionist militia in 1948. Everything was destroyed except for a boys school and a mosque. It once had 880 residents and today is empty and in ruins. With not a single human life living on its soil. In 2006, after the government realized Palestinians and their Jewish allies used the site to hold remembrance ceremonies, they destroyed the school house. All that remains is the mosque in the cover photo (credit: Michael Jacobson). The neighboring kibbutz is named Ramat Hakovesh- Conqueror’s Hill. And since 1948, the government has forbidden Palestinian citizens of Israel from rebuilding their town.
Fatima said her family used to own land in the village. Orchards and other property that sustained them through generations. The village itself is believed to date back to the 7th century. And today, in Fatima’s own words: “we live in poverty. We do our best, we have a nice bakery and we’re poor. We go each year to Miska to remember and to cry together.”
My heart sunk. I told her about how my neighborhood is built on the Palestinian village of Salame, as I’ve written about earlier. She knows about the town and finally, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m on the same page with someone here. Because we both get it. No need to convince each other- we both realize what is right and what is wrong. And we connected.
That’s the beautiful part of it. That my empathy opened her up and hopefully offered some healing. And that her opening up showed me the problem here isn’t that all Arabs are reflexively anti-Semitic- it’s that the system here has hurt them. There are real reasons for their anger. Nothing justifies violence on any side. And I can understand why Arabs, why Palestinians are pissed off. Because I am too.
This state is built on so many lies. And on deep-seated racism- a word I heard over and over again today and frankly agree with.
I’d like to end on a queer note. For the first time in a while, I was on Tinder today. And when I told an Israeli Jewish guy what I did today and my concerns about racism, he said “oh well my part of Tel Aviv is a lot less racist, I live in the liberal center of the city.” And I said: “well, if you walk just a few blocks south, you’ll be in Al Manshiyya. If you take the bus to Tel Aviv University, you’ll be in Sheikh Muannis. If you meet me for dinner, you’ll be in Salame. All Palestinian villages beneath our feet. Destroyed.
His response was to talk about U.N. resolutions authorizing Israel’s creation and faults on both sides etc. etc. I asked him- “what do you know about these neighborhoods?” He said “not much but…” Which pretty much says it all.
I’m not asking for Israeli Jews to vacate their homes and hop on a ship. We’re here. We’ve built lives. We have a historic connection to this land that our government wrenched violently from the hands of our neighbors.
What I am asking you to do is Google. Yes, just Google. Google the Arab villages you live on top of. Where your university is, your favorite kibbutz, your nightclub, your life. Know where you stand and know the people- some of whom are your neighbors- who are suffering because they can’t return to that land. Because of our government.
Put down the “end the occupation” signs, take a deep breath, and do the hard work of realizing that the occupation isn’t just in the West Bank. And it’s not just in the past. It’s here and now as I’m typing this blog on someone’s orchard. The occupation will end- and freedom will begin for all peoples here- when we change our mindset. To recognize historical facts and let go of the propaganda we’ve been taught- myself included. It’s hard. It’s an internal struggle.
When we let go of what others expect us to be, we can be ourselves. And we can let others be themselves. Like Fatima. Who I pray will live to see the day when she can rebuild Miska and we’ll sit together underneath her orange tree eating cashew baklava. Looking back at today’s chaos as if it were just a bad dream.