What Happened When This Israeli Jerusalemite Realized He Shares His Hometown With Palestinians

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli living in Romania reminisces about the time his Jewish-Arab band traveled to Jordan to pass a letter to a Lebanese singer

Dhyan Or.
Tomer Appelbaum

Dhyan Or, 44, lives in Transylvania, Romania. Arriving from Bucharest, Romania

Hi, may I ask why you live in Romania?

Because of the wife and kids. My wife is Romanian. We met in Switzerland. She was active in a German peace organization and I was there as part of a group I founded with some friends, called All Nations Café. We opened it on the Mount of Olives originally but they built a wall there so we moved it to Ein Hinya. It’s a place where Jews and Arabs go, there’s a spring and some abandoned buildings there and we would play music and sing there, and mainly serve coffee. We were a band, too, and we performed around the world.

How did your group come into being?

I’m from Jerusalem originally. During the second intifada, I returned to Jerusalem after living in Tel Aviv and other places and I encountered Palestinians for the first time in my life. I was in high-tech, a good boy. I knew there were Arabs in places like Nazareth. But Palestinians in Jerusalem? No.

So what happened?

We were sitting on the Mount of Olives and I thought I was in Egypt. I saw so many green lights twinkling on mosques, and I looked at this huge amount of lights, and I realized that there must be 100,000 or 200,000 people in all these packed neighborhoods there, and I thought, Where did this come from? I’d been in the Old City, how could I not have seen them? And I’ve driven to the Dead Sea – how did I not see them on the way? And then the desire arose to do something together. And it worked. A year or two ago, we organized a get-together there, and this young couple showed up and said they were from Gaza. They asked to play the guitar and one of the guys handed them a guitar, and afterwards when they wanted to take his picture, he refused. He must have been in some undercover unit or something – but because of the music, they made a connection. That was something that this place made possible.

Where has the band performed?

When we were in All Nations Café, one of the Arab guys told us that we had to go to the Jerash Festival in Jordan. He said it was a giant music festival. We said, Yallah, let’s do it, we were like a Jewish-Arab group, so we signed up to perform there. I was the manager and the sometime drummer.

Did the festival accept you?

No, but we went there anyway. We had a letter that a bunch of Arab kids wanted us to give to a Lebanese singer, Nancy Ajram, a hugely popular singer. We couldn’t give it to her because we were kept away from her. To deliver the letter, we found our way to some associate of the king of Jordan, and we were taken by limousine to this VIP gala. He told us we’d be allowed to perform at the festival, that they’d made a space for us. We did our thing and also gave out coffee.

And what was the reaction like?

Two journalists interviewed us. The next day the article came out – ‘Settler Israelis occupied the music festival.’ Only the national singer of Iraq didn’t give a damn and had her picture taken with us. She’d been criticized for performing Iraqi Jewish songs, and she said they were classics and that music is above politics. But I understand it better now. You can’t make peace and love when you’re keeping people in subhuman conditions.

Is it hard for you without the band?

A few years ago, I stopped by the café for a visit. An older man came up to me and said, you’re Dhyan? You’ve got to do something here. He said it to me in Hebrew. As if he was giving me a message that was bigger than both of us. As if he was telling me, you can’t leave this place and go do programming in Romania. Who cares about that?

There’s no action in Romania?

Where we live in Transylvania, there are Hungarians and Romanians. Separate schools, separate churches, totally different languages. They live right next to each other. It boggles my mind that they don’t fight. Except maybe once a year when the Hungarians put on a big cultural festival with a parade of Hungarian flags. Then the Romanians feel like they’ve been occupied for a week, but that’s it.

Mark Boot.
Tomer Appelbaum

Mark Boot, 55, lives in the Philippines, flying to the Philippines

What brings you to the Holy Land?

I was in Jerusalem with my wife and a friend. We came here because they wanted to. I’m an atheist, so for me it was more for the food.

Was it interesting?

Yes, we do have some Jewish relatives, but still didn’t see much Jewish food in London.

You live in the Philippines or in England?

Ah, London was a long time ago. We’re in the Philippines.

What did you do in London?

I worked with the child welfare services in local councils. I did a project to promote reading.

And then you decided to leave, like on that BBC show “A Place in the Sun,” where British couples want to move to warmer climes?

I left because we got fed up. It was crowded, expensive, dreary, cement everywhere. We traveled around the world until, to be honest, I got tired of being a tourist too.

Then what did you do?

We signed up with a volunteer organization and they sent us to the Philippines. We didn’t choose it. My wife wanted India, because her family is Indian.

So you’re not going back to fight the whole Brexit thing?

Oh, that depresses me. I’m against Brexit. Older people wanted to return Britain to the days of the British Empire. They wanted less immigration and more control. They think Europe is being run by Germany and France, and that infuriates the nationalists. The demography of those who voted for Brexit is of people who will be gone from this world in 10 years, and this is what they’re leaving us with.

What do you think should be done?

I think it’s better to work through the system. The European Union isn’t perfect, but it’s better to work with it to change it than to split off.

What is the conflict in the Philippines all about?

It’s very complicated God There’s an island called Mindanao. The Philippines were under Spanish occupation for many years, and in Mindanao there were Muslim tribes with different belief systems. For about a hundred years, there have been conflicts between them and the Christian settlers.

So it’s a religious conflict?

People have tried to paint it as a religious conflict, but really it was a conflict over resources. Most of the people on Mindanao are poor, and usually in a place where there are poor people, there are riots. It’s the same story all over the world.

And what’s happening there now?

ISIS attacked on the island last May. Conflicts started with ISIS rebels. It wasn’t clear if they were really ISIS people or just

Part of a trend?

An ISIS trend, let’s say. It went on for five months and the city was bombarded from the air by the Philippine army.

Were you there?

No, we’re not allowed to go there. And most of the local people were evacuated from the island. The dead were from the rebels and the army. The residents were resettled in nearby cities.

So what’s going to happen?

There’s an ongoing peace process between the Philippine government and the various rebel groups. And there’s another conflict between the administration and Communist rebels, and an aggressive war against ISIS.

You’re “negotiating with terrorists”?

You know, one person’s terrorist is someone else’s freedom fighter. Anyway, there are three levels of conflict, and the air war and bombardments everywhere.

And what is your job exactly?

I just work with local nonprofit organizations. I fund-raise and write proposals for them in English and consult.

That really does sound like working within the system, like you said, and using bureaucracy against terror. Tell me, what was your degree in?

Geology.

And what did you do with it?

Nothing.