Some years ago, a cultural historian wrote in a Dutch newspaper that land-grabbers should not complain when they get killed.
His remarks were triggered by the killing of a family of settlers in the West Bank. My written response was that I wasn’t sure that, despite all our differences, it could possibly be true that my own settler sister should not be allowed to complain if somebody tries to murder her for being a land-grabber.
>> Read all of Arnon Grunberg's reports from Dolev: I Detest My Sister's West Bank Settlement. That's Why I'm Going to Live There >> When You're Staying With West Bank Settlers, Here's How to Break the Ice >> Yes, I Still Care About Israel; I Often Feel Shame and Disgust, but I Do Care
A few years later, I attended a Jerusalem Day March, marking the post-1967 "unification" of the city, together with members of the right-wing religious youth movement, Bnei Akiva (I used to be a member of Bnei Akiva in my teens, without much enthusiasm).
The moment it became clear to the celebrating marchers that I was a journalist working for the "foreign media," I was basically branded a traitor and pushed out of the march.
Most of the enthusiastic young marchers refused to talk to me; only a young man who called himself "an official spokesman" was willing to engage in conversation with me. It turned out to be not much of a conversation.
No matter what question I asked him, his response was: "Could you tell me why you are a self-hating Jew?"
Sitting in my sister’s kitchen in Dolev, and drinking Nescafé, I think of these two events. More specifically, I think about the certainty with which some people know whom their enemy is.
In the past my sister had called me a "self-hating Jew" as well, but those days are gone. We are much more polite to each other nowadays. We love each other, reluctantly on my part, but I’m the youngest, it’s the privilege of the younger sibling to love reluctantly, teasingly.
Ironically enough, in the Netherlands, some members of the extreme-right have the habit to call me a self-hating Jew as well.
Whenever I write an article arguing that there is not much difference between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, whenever I declare that the insistence that all Muslims are terrorists is more or less the same rhetorical trick fine-tuned by Hitler claiming that all Jews are Bolsheviks or capitalists, or capitalists and Bolsheviks at the same time, because with Jews everything is possible, those readers will call me a self-hating Jew.
Many of these people writing me angry emails urge me to visit a certain neighborhood in The Hague, in the Netherlands, where lots of Muslims live, and to walk around there with a yarmulke on my head. I’m quite sure they themselves have never been to this neighborhood, and most likely they’ve never met anybody with a yarmulke on his head either. It seems that, among certain people, the old saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is very much alive.
My sister knows who her enemies are. First of all, she hates the Germans, even though our parents were as much German as they were Jewish, and they both very much identified as German Jews.
Our parents resented the Dutch Jews for how they had half-heartedly welcomed and treated the German Jews, before and after the war. My father proudly announced, over dinner, especially during Jewish holidays, that German culture was the best culture in the world. He didn’t do this so much to provoke, rather he genuinely believed that German literature and philosophy were superior to any other literature and philosophy.
My sister was raised bilingual, Dutch and German, whereas with me my parents didn’t bother - they only spoke Dutch to me. It is a miracle to me how one can be loyal to one’s parents while ignoring such an important part of their heritage.
I consider myself both Jewish and German, even though I’ve never lived in Germany - the German mountains feel more like home than the hills around Dolev. This is something I won’t tell my sister, because then she would call me a self-hating Jew again, or maybe even worse.
At her kitchen table I realize something else. None of her children have even so much as tried engaging with me in conversation about religion or politics. Except for one instance - with her youngest daughter Rinatya, when she was in Amsterdam to visit her grandmother, and I had taken her to the Anne Frank House, she said to me: "How can Jews live here?"
I answered: "Despite everything that happened, Jews can live here and they live very well here."
For my nieces and nephews, politics and identity are not something you talk about, at least not with me. To them it all appears to be obvious - identity, Israel, or the question where Jews are supposed to live. There’s no need to discuss it relentlessly, and they’re not tempted to convert those who haven’t seen the light yet.
To some of them, kashrut is more important than politics. When my nephew Tuvya was in New York and he visited briefly my apartment, he even refused to drink a glass of water. I had to put the water in a plastic cup.
Besides the Germans, my sister also considers the Arabs to be an enemy, although she hardly mentions them. Before the second Intifada, a Palestinian from a nearby village came to Dolev to sell vegetables. My sister speaks almost fondly of him. "He would sell vegetables on credit," she says, “but then he stopped coming, because other Palestinians would have killed him.”
The invisible enemy appeared in the past as a kind greengrocer - but, of course, this man was the exception. Her husband tells us: "When we lay down our arms, we will all be killed. When the Arabs lay down their arms there will be peace."
The love object and the enemy have something in common. The less you know about them, the easier it is to project all your fantasies on them.
I strongly believe that you should talk with everyone. That is not to say that enemies don’t exist, I’m not naive, but talking to anyone means to learn something, and to realize that your fantasies are often not very accurate. The closer you come to the monster, the more you see that the monster looks very much like yourself.
Back in 2009, I was in Baghdad to write about the aftermath of war – it was really still more of an ongoing war than an aftermath. I had hired private security, friendly Iraqi guys with guns who insisted that I should wear a flak jacket. I had remained silent about my Jewish background, and to be on the safe side, I went by the name of "Arnold."
One evening, we were eating lamb in a restaurant, one of the guys said to me: "I know you are Jewish, but I couldn’t care less about the Palestinians. We have our own problems. And you know, Jews, Christians, Muslims, we all believe in the same God. The real problem are the atheists, they are pigs."
I smiled and I appreciated this remark. But I didn’t tell him that I was a kind of atheist. Silence can be golden.
My sister would not make that difference, Germans, Arabs, Muslims, enemies. But she is willing to treat my non-Jewish girlfriend with all her kindness as if she were already family. The closer you come to the other, the more you see the vulnerabilities, the paradoxes, the contradictions.
My sister and I ready ourselves to go to Jerusalem to visit the graves of our parents.
Although my sister is only eight years older than I am, at 55 her health appears to be deteriorating. She is deaf on both sides – she wears hearing aids – and she has problems with her teeth. On Shabbat, she refused to change the battery of her hearing devices, even though her husband had told her that it was probably okay to do so.
"The most important thing for me is to be a good person," she says.
"So, being good," I answer, "means being deaf for half of the Shabbat?"
She ignores this. "What’s the most important thing for you?" she asks.
"To be a good writer," I reply.
Arnon Grunberg is the author of the recent novels "Good Men" and "Birthmarks." As a reporter he has been embedded with, among others, Dutch and German troops in Afghanistan and U.S. troops in Iraq, in a nursing home in Flanders, with a fire crew in The Netherlands and is about to travel all 50 U.S. states to explore God, love, work, race and punishment. He was born in Amsterdam and lives and works in New York. Twitter: @arnonyy
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