Sad Journey in a Time Machine

There was a real political debate between me and a settler spokesperson at my old high school recently, but it only made me realize how little things have changed.

The first time I walked past this wall at the entrance to the school, the following crude graffiti was scrawled on it: "Mayor is a whore." As simply as that. The unholy anger of a frustrated student was thus engraved in my mind for eternity as my first memory of this school, Ironi Alef High School in Tel Aviv. That was about 40 years ago, when I arrived with my parents to register for the prestigious secondary school. I remember the strong and threatening impression this inscription left on me.

Eva Mayor, the splendid English teacher from the graffiti, later killed herself by jumping off the Century Tower. I have in fact fond memories of classes with her, and of my years at that school. Once Miss Mayor asked the class what "to discuss" is and I replied it's like diskutieren in German. Mayor praised me but after that I was mocked by my fellow students.

Last week I returned to the school to discuss very important issues with a settler woman from Ofra and I saw that where the nasty graffiti had been, there now hangs a friendly sign: "Welcome and much success."

Every visit to the school is a sad journey backward in a time machine, but this time it wasn't just a matter of recalling our secret smoking corner, where there is now a structure funded by the Eshkol Payis organization, or the place for storing Gadna youth brigade equipment, which has been replaced by a parking lot for teachers (and maybe students). The journey back in time continued this time into the depths of the attractive Eshkol Payis auditorium: The public debate between Merav Gold, spokeswoman of the West Bank settlement of Ofra, and I also became a painful journey in a time machine. The smoking corner may have disappeared as though it had never existed, but what hadn't disappeared, it emerged, were some old and very frightening concepts from way back when.

Gold spoke there about two weeks ago week about "Palestinian autonomy," about the "Jordanian option" and the good neighborly relations between "the Arabs" and the Jews at a local grocery store in the Sha'ar Binyamin, north of Jerusalem. "Arabs" is in quotation marks because that is what Gold, faithful to the spirit of those far-away days, called the Palestinians. The fact that "Arabs" and Jews shop together at the same grocery store, which is of course under Jewish ownership, embodies Gold's vision of better days.

This is her solution, this is her vision: shopping at the settlers' supermarket. "They" buy 5 percent fat cottage cheese happily, pick out tomatoes together and weigh oranges in total amity with their Jewish neighbors. The guys who unload the delivery trucks are Arabs, the manager is a Jew - how lovely and delightful and to hell with national rights, self-definition or a Palestinian state. A few more supermarkets like the one in Sha'ar Binyamin and there's no Palestinian problem, if it exists at all for Gold. A few more special deals - two for the price of one - and salvation will come to Zion (and Palestine).

Important questions

The debate at the school was born of three recent articles published in Haaretz. Two of them were mine: "Teacher of a lifetime" (January 7), in praise of the school's principal, Ram Cohen, who gave a real lesson in civics to his students by speaking out bravely against the occupation and its manifestations, and was severely criticized by the educational and political establishments - a certain member of Knesset even suggested putting me on trial - and "What the settler wants" (January 3). Merav Gold of Ofra replied in an article entitled, "Brainwashing in Tel Aviv?" (January 10, Hebrew edition):

"I'm glad Levy is posing questions to the public to which I belong," she wrote, "questions that are important to ask. I am certain there are also questions that can be asked of principal Ram Cohen and those who think as he does. As a regular reader of Gideon Levy, I would be glad to see someone cast a little doubt with regard to the leftist agenda."

Then, the week before last, we met at the high school.

The young Cohen sat in the office that once belonged to our principal, Dr. Yosef Fried. It has been renovated and has wall-to-wall-carpeting. Today's students spray themselves with deodorant and perfume in the bathrooms - something unheard of in my time. The cabbie who drove me said there are students who ride to this school in a "special" - i.e., private - taxi. And before our debate, the teacher-moderator Orit asked that all mobile phones be turned off, another thing that in our childhood could only have been taken from science-fiction stories.

Orit first asked Gold what her vision is. A community activist and mother of eight (that news led to a rustle in the audience), Gold talked about the excellent relations that have existed between Ofra and the surrounding villages. They once even planned to establish a quarry together, she noted. There was of course no mention of the fact that 60 percent of Ofra's property is actually private Palestinian land - "the largest illegal outpost in the territories," as Eitan Broshi, an advisor on settlement to the defense minister, once defined it. She also made no mention of the water-purification plant Ofra has recently built illegally on privately owned land, or of the Palestinians' olive groves that are now locked within the settlement.

Gold made a point of talking about the quarry, which was never excavated in the end: "That is an example of the vision I see: healthy relations on the ground together with a vision of autonomy. The issue of the Arabs' rights in Judea and Samaria is very important to me. With us living in those areas, there aren't any 'apartheid roads.' We stop at the same roadblocks as the Arabs do."

I smiled to myself. You have to see the separate lanes for settlers at the roadblocks and how they sail right past, leaving the "Arabs" behind.

Gold continued with her vision: "I definitely accept that rights can't preserved in a [state of] conflict. The moment the Arabs recognize the State of Israel, we will be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial relationship."

Then came the story about the supermarket, where there are "Arabs and Jews working together, shoulder to shoulder." She continued: "It is necessary to have reciprocal recognition of rights, and our recognition of their right to live with dignity. There is a lot of scope for dialogue. The local leaderships have to initiate this. Our expectation of finding [a solution of] black and white on the other side is a blow to our nation. Be very wary of the delusions of those who speak about another state. Who will rule the Palestinian state? Hamas. I am in favor of a Jordanian[-run] autonomy and am aware of Jordan's opposition to this solution, but international pressure and dialogue with that country could bring about this solution. A state alongside Israel would be a disaster."

The moderator asked about refusal, on the left and the right, to serve in the army and to evacuate people from their homes. "Policing missions are not a matter for the army," said Gold. I agreed immediately. Lift the Israel Defense Forces-managed roadblocks, stop the pursuit of stolen-throwers - these are policing tasks.

Gold became indignant. How dare I compare searches in the Palestinian villages to evacuating settlers? "There is a tremendous difference between and Arab village where they do a search and demolishing an illegally built Jewish home," she stressed. "One mustn't compare those things. The Arabs in Judea and Samaria are not citizens of the State of Israel and therefore this isn't a matter for the police. Demolishing settlers' homes is a matter for the police and not the IDF."

I asked who demolished thousands of homes in Gaza and who is demolishing Palestinians' "illegal" homes and caves in the West Bank. In the end, we agreed that refusal to serve is a personal matter between a soldier and his conscience, and he must bear the consequences. It seemed we were both in favor. Real reconciliation.

Hurt by the rift

One red-haired girl said talking about autonomy reminded her of what the Jews were offered in other historical periods. A student called Itamar asked if the principal would have won the same support had he expressed opposite opinions. A teenager named Maya read out from her mobile phone a question prepared in advance: "How is it possible to be a proud Jew without being religious or a settler?" An excellent question. Another student named Natan asked about the solution of one state for all its citizens.

Gold replied courageously: "If the solution is one state, I'm leaving Ofra today. The move Uri Elitzur [editor of Makor Rishon] is leading, to give citizenship to the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, is a worse solution than evacuating settlements."

Gaia said that what hurts her most is the rift among people, and she addressed me: "People like you are causing a split, tearing the nation apart, and are serving to disunite us." She wanted a united people. A people that all think the same thing, in one uniform way.

It was depressing, I thought, that this is how young people, who are supposed to be subversive, are talking in Israel of 2010. "Tearing the nation apart?"

Was she referring to today's nearly nonexistent public discourse? And yet, despite everything, at this Tel Aviv high school two weeks ago, there was a debate, if only for a moment.

The students asked questions, they were lively and knowledgeable, and they maintained decorum. That too was something.

There I go again - being proud of my alma mater, Ironi Aleph.