I find myself sitting far away amid the cornfields of central Illinois, contemplating the day when I’ll have to return to Israel with my family. My contract with the University of Illinois is up in two years, and if I haven’t found another position by then or other work in the United States, I’ll have no choice but to return to the place where I’m considered a citizen. True, a moment hasn’t gone by where I haven’t missed our apartment, my family and friends, and the language. But still, a great fear grips me whenever I imagine returning to Jerusalem.
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Sometimes I find myself sitting on the deck in the backyard of our Illinois home and thinking about the Jerusalem we left a year ago. Sometimes I find myself gazing out at the cornfields with which I’ve surrounded myself and thinking about peace. It’s like a job I’ve taken on, just like other Israelis and Palestinians, in which I have to predict the future of the region, think about a peace plan – comprehensive or limited, broad or specific – thoroughly weigh the possible solutions, raise arguments for and against the views I come up with in my mind in search of another new way that will be fair, a way that will ensure a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Sometimes I wonder why I’m trying to find an acceptable solution – who the hell asked me anyway? And why do so many people from the place I come from think about peace, with practically everyone having his own view about it, what to do and what not to do, what they’d be willing to do and what they wouldn’t. As if the desire is there to achieve this peace that everyone wants – it’s just that our leaders don’t know how to get there and somebody has to help them, to think outside the box, to come up with a new way that no one else has ever thought of before: a new way that will open everyone’s eyes and convince them this is clearly the only way.
So many people are busy discussing various issues like the two-state solution, or a binational state, transfer, annexation, full Israeli control, autonomy, transferring the Triangle and Arab communities within Israel to the Palestinian Authority. They talk and talk about it as if someone really is searching for a solution, as if the desire is there and the problem is just finding the solution to this so-called complex equation that no one has managed to solve yet. Yet this is not the situation in Israel, and all the talk is beside the point when there is no desire on the part of the Israeli leadership, and perhaps also much of the Israeli public, to reach an accord, find a solution or make peace.
Sometimes, as I gaze upon the Illinois cornfields, I realize it’s not really so complicated, that it’s actually quite simple, and clichés such as “mutual trust” and “it’s the thought that counts” come to mind. If there was genuine desire on the Israeli side, even without a solution it would be possible to solve a large percentage of the problems between Israelis and Palestinians by means of simple statements from the Israelis. Such as a sentence beginning with the words “To our Palestinian brethren” or that contains words like “forgiveness” and “hope,” and, especially, words like “equality,” “freedom” and “liberty.”
Sometimes, from far away, it seems it could all be so simple. That a smile, instead of the sword by which the prime minister lives, could really change the picture. That the ability to recognize the other’s suffering could work magic. Simple sentences that are different from the sentences so full of hatred and violence and incitement that come out of the mouths of the prime minister and many of his ministers could do wonders even before any practical steps are agreed upon.
Sometimes when I sit and gaze at the Midwest fields where I have made my home, I realize it doesn’t look like any move can be expected from the Israeli side. That one shouldn’t expect anything from the one who holds the sword versus the one without a sword. One should expect the holder of the sword to share his power or spare the lives of his Palestinian subjects in the name of universal morality, or human compassion. The one with power, who makes the laws and prints the money, is also dictating his own morality and redefining human compassion.
Sometimes I wonder if there is any hope left for an Israeli-Palestinian discourse that is built on equality and liberty, rather than a fruitless discourse of master and servant. And sometimes I wonder how I became a servant kneeling before the master, who taught me that, without his kindness and benevolence, I would be much worse off.
Sometimes the master accuses me of spitting into the well from which I drink, or of biting the hand that feeds me. And sometimes I remember that the master stole my well, and the fields from which he gives me the leftovers when I behave according to the rules he has set for me. Sometimes inside my new house, I’m afraid of the day when I’ll truly be free, afraid that I won’t know how to cope with freedom, won’t know what to do with it, that I’ll fail in my attempt to become independent and, in the absence of a master, will have no one to blame but myself.
Sometimes I think that if we have to go back, then it certainly won’t be to Jerusalem. Not to the Jerusalem beset with racism that we left at the height of the last Gaza war. Not to the Jerusalem where the separation between blood and blood is so direct, where the injustice and oppression of the western part of the city toward the eastern part is so glaring, and nothing is done about it. Life in the western city for an Arab with a familiar name, who got lucky after numerous attempts and found a homeowner willing to sell his place to non-Jews, was hard and upsetting, especially when it came to the children. They gave up their Arabic language and, despite their awareness of the family background of refugee-hood, loss of land and destruction of villages, preferred to adopt the history they learned from their teachers in the Hebrew schools, having grasped that they were better off doing so if they didn’t want to stick out in the neighborhood where we lived or be hated in school.
The main concern was not that same old Palestinian national pride, but the knowledge that the Zionist narrative is good only for Jews; that the same narrative they were learning in school was negating their existence, perpetuating their foreignness as enemies, and instilling in them values that said they were somehow less human, somehow lacking. Maybe I would go back to West Jerusalem without too much bother if I could lie to my kids and tell them they are equal citizens in a democratic state.
Sometimes I think I ought to act like all the other Arabs and convince myself that my only choice is to return to Tira, the place I grew up and where my whole family lives. Sometimes I find myself gripped by nostalgia, and in my imagination I liken the Tira of today to the Tira of my childhood, which was a poor village, but a warm and protective family haven.
But I know full well that there is no place for nostalgia, that today’s Tira – which now calls itself a city – is a kind of mutation of an impoverished town and village, a dense family ghetto that has devolved into violence and operates according to rules whose internal logic is anyone’s guess. An agricultural village that in 1948 was home to about 2,000 people from a small number of families, and today has a population of over 25,000, all related to those exact same families. Families that were once a source of support, of a sense of belonging and solidarity, have now expanded to the point where they are a source of dispute over every meter of land, of sometimes lethal rivalries between brothers over every bit of earth – as everyone knows there is no room, and that even if you were lucky enough to get to build a house near your parents, it’s highly unlikely your children will be able to build their home near you.
A city in which almost everyone who is born there keeps on living there, a city without industry, a city lacking any characteristic of a city. A city whose inhabitants all seem to want to keep clinging to the same imaginary past and keep calling it “Tira village.”
But there won’t be any choice. If we do return and things haven’t changed by then, it will be better to live in Tira village, for its fate is my fate. Or as my mother used to say, “Put your heads between these heads and shout: Cut our heads off!”
The writer is an award-winning novelist and columnist for Haaretz.