‘Salt’ stands for ‘humour’ and ‘tears’

368 days are over and I’m airport-bound. It knocks my socks off when the Chinese tourists get on the minibus and fasten their seatbelts, whilst not giving any signs of insanity. It strikes me that these 368 days have really made me. Now, even in the most daring of my dreams, it wouldn’t occur to me that it might be suitable to fasten my seatbelt. So for a moment, I’m trying to see this bus ride through their eyes to recycle my own self from a year ago.

Yes, this journey really was back then the perfect introduction to Israel on the road. The driver leans through the window to (putting it politely) tell the pedestrians off for walking on the road. When I ask him if he can take me to Terminal 1 instead of 3, he snaps back: ‘Well, I don’t have a choice, I guess.’ Truly professional service, but perhaps not aimed to provide safe service, but rather introduction to Israeli roads. (Don’t get me wrong – I have made some thoroughly great friends out there and generally think that this country is teeming with cool folks. But the roads and drivers are a world with its own laws.) We stop at the traffic lights. The dustman just next to us is clearly thought it would be a shame to waste this occasion/two minutes of waiting for the green light, so he is trying to impress the girls on the minibus with his eye contact skills.

But I am still swaying dizzily between cynicism and sentiment. Seasoning the reality with a pinch of salt called humour, and simultaneously choking with salt, in this case melt in water. Laughter does mean survival, but even survival eventually leads to death. You can’t just be trying to survive all your life. Tears, on the other hand, lead to petty deaths that make your life.

Right now, I am not leaving a physical space, but rather a mental map of myself imposed on space. Foolish humans live thinking that space and them are mutually impenetrable. But one day space is all of a sudden raised into 4th dimension – the dimension of symbol. Like kairos when it breaks off the graph of mundane chronos and soars to eternity. Yet the place that I’m leaving and that has grown now stands sheepish and tongue-tied, because it didn’t deem itself worthyIMG_6642 of immortality. The imperfections is made perfect by sheer circumstance, not by its internal qualities. Like people who came down in history not because of their genius, but because of a favourable collision of time and space. From now on, the shadow has broken away from its object and will continue to ripen forever in our memory. And sometimes, on rare occasions, it is better that we’re not confronted with the realit
y again – lest we realise that she shadow has overshadowed its master. ‘Maybe the dream was better than reality.’ Continue reading


A face worth thousand words (#3; continuation of #2): A tent-based sewing business

11Sabha surprises me often as very cultural and simultaneously counter-cultural. Between a session with a charity consultant and finalising with me a new project grant proposal, she’d nip out to check on the maqluba* for the 11-member family. How can that work together? I mean, how does one match the hijab of the traditional woman’s responsibilities with the smart office trousers? But how does one think in the first place of putting on the trousers, if no one around has done it before?

How did it all start? You are the first in your family to get a BA attached to your name – what inspired you to study?

Since the age of 12, I had this nudging to become a big girl. Growing up and observing my mum working, it pained me to see how she struggled to make ends meet. I knew I had to become independent and to relieve her. And so I got myself a teacher and started learning to sew. This happened in our tent which had no electricity. Making progress step by step, I started selling the clothes.

A year later, I, a girl, won a big Qur’an reciting competition in my school, beating students from 6 different classes.

She doesn’t interpret this event for me. But from the way she narrates it, I gather that she treats it as a stepping stone in her ‘career’. A much needed boost for her still blushing confidence.

This was then your motivation for education. Now what was the stimulus that 30 years later prompted you to establish the charity? Your vision was to provide economic, psychological and legal aid for women in a tough financial or social situation.

I had been in their shoes.

issues.This concise answer strikes me as so different from the common approach to international development. It’s not an abstracts sympathy of a Westerner or ever worse – a subconscious sense of superiority. It is a personal desperation. I wonder what this means for her from-the-inside approach to issues.

For instance, when women come for advice, sometimes I tell them they are to blame too for their failed marriage or polygamy. In some cases, they don’t appreciate the pressure their husbands face, having to feel substantial families. And when the man comes home tired, he is then put through a tirade of his wife’s grumble. Eventually, he can’t stand it.

Yet all these things are now history. Looking back, what would you advise those of us who are still wet behind our years and hope to realise our ambitions?

Never focus on money – it will come without you even knowing how. During the first 3 years of working part-time at the municipality, I would make at most 700 shekel (i.e. £115/4500kč) monthly. I never told my hunsband – instead, I opened my own bank account. I was worried that if I did confess, he would stop me from continuing. But I perservered. Later, I went on to become the mayor’s advisor for the matters of women.

This is your career. Yet you also are still faithful to the tradition, be it in the field of family life, customs and lifestyle or religion. On the basis of that, what is the way forward for women in your community? To both be emancipated and traditional?

Look, if you have the determination, go for it and try. But you have to be realistic and realise that you won’t have everything. You should open as many doors as possible to be able to choose the opportunities that suit you. This applies to both professional and social life. On the other hand, we must be cautious the extent to which we expose ourselves to the foreign. We do need to preserve our own culture


*If you don’t know what a maqluba is, this means that you didn’t really delve deep into Palestinian culture, nor can you claim that you’ve grasped the essence of good food.

A face worth thousand words (#2): From a shack to a house – and back

‘I’m ringing my daughter, bus she’s not answering me’ was one of the first things she told me. Back then, I was going to visit Sabha and her charity to decide if I wanted to join them. From that moment on, I knew this would not be a dry professional relationship – by calling me ‘her daughter’, she adopted me into her family. A sense of safety in a difficult environment full of rivalry and not lacking crime too, a disarmingly blunt way of talking, expectation to be open too and the offer to get married into the clan – these were some of the consequences of that adoption.

But this week, it was me requesting that openness from Sabha. What is her life like? She is the generation of Bedouins who exchanged tents for comfortable living rooms. What does that mean? There’s no doubt that modern life brings astonishing education and work opportunities. Yet on the other hand, it slowly suffocates some ancient customs. Or does it? Perhaps what matters is what’s inside you – the blood containing the cultural DNA – rather than what’s on the outside – modern jeans instead of a modest dress? So will tradition win in the end?

So here’s my classic ice breaker – what place she would like to live in.

Out in the desert, in her Bedouin settlement. She is ready to give up the comfort of hot water in the bathroom and the TV for the freedom and the tranquillity of the desert.

Yet 25 years ago she made the opposite choice – she moved to the new city designed by the state for Bedouins. What was it like?

Unlike other families relocated by the government, their move was a free choice. The plain reason was that life was tough. For example, because of the distance and harsh weather, there were periods in winter and summer and winter when kids couldn’t go to school. Obviously – at first you are thrilled and leap at the opportunity. The bitter aftertaste comes later.

She came to this house with her husband – how did she find adapting to his family? In this context, marriage means becoming subject to the family’s traditions and culture.

She didn’t choose my life – her parents did. They wouldn’t let her marry a boy she liked. Instead, when her father chose a husband for her, he said: ‘Later you will thank me.’

When she entered her husband’s family, she was shocked to realise it was a whole new ball game. And this was even though they were cousins and had lived within 300 metres distance. The new family was much more conservative. And this meant being prevent from wearing trousers, having music play at home and setting her foot in the career world. And so this woman would come crying to her mother, but she used to reply: ‘Sabha, you are strong, you can persevere. Should you really ruin your and your children’s lives because of some stupid clothes?’ And so she was strong. And little by little, step by step, she regained her freedom. She didn’t rush, no – she waited patiently for an opportunity. She would be the first one in her family to get a university degree.

It turned out that her parents were also right about the marriage. Over time, she realised that her husband was a good man – much better than the boy she fancied.

And now she’s on the opposite side of the barricade – she is responsible for a family. Having had this experience, does she now impose her decisions, or let children make free life choices?


Sometimes she does impose or you assert your authority in the family. But the leaderships is mostly expressed by advice, not force. Take her married sons as an example. The one who married the girl she chose for him, is now content. The other two are struggling. They decided on the basis of their feelings, which is foolishness.

Fascinating. This brings to me memories of a different story. Sabha’s mother wasn’t allowed to marry her love. However, she went back to him when she was over 40, after her first husband, older by 30 years, died. Yet she wouldn’t make her daughter spoilt for choice either. And now the victim of the ‘violation’ – Sabha herself – is claiming that her choice for her children is the best one. Sometimes history moves in circles.

Yes, there are occasions when you suddenly remember the medicine by your great-great-great-grandmother, and return to the roots.

Yet the world is a different place today. Sabha is the generation that has had a taste of both worlds. But what are some of the things her children won’t understand?

When she shouts at her daughter to finally get out of bed, she realises they won’t know what hard physical labour means.

Did I go mad, obviously they will. What do I mean ‘for example’, they are not like Palestinians. No, no, no, they are different. Palestinians have more strength. A Bedouin cannot deal with suffering and war. A Bedouin is frightened. What a Bedouin cares about is his world: his land, his house, his family. He wants to live in respect. Yes, respect is the value that will remain, never mind external conditions.

Kto wyzbył się domu swego, najgorliwszym patriotą jest (czyli o zżywaniu się z inną kulturą i o własnej tożsamości)

Z namysłem i jak najspokojniej wybieram gruszkę że stołu pełnego brudnych naczyń z resztkami. A właśnie, że zrobię to jak najspokojniej, bo obrzydzenie i irytacja to dokładnie to, czego ono ode mnie chce. A ja tego nie zrobię, bo mój protest jest nie tylko w formie, ale i w treści. Umrę chyba z rozkoszy, kiedy delikatna melodia zagłuszy dźwięki gry komputerowej i podnieconych okrzyków dudniących po całym domu. Nie, oni się, wbrew pozorom, nie kłócą. To zwykłą rozmowa. A niech się nawet kłócą, co mnie obchodzi, ja zaraz będę się dławić przyjemnością.

Buntuję się więc przeciw zdzieraniu strun głosowych. Jestem w domu u beduinów (o ile to określenie nie jest oksymoronem). Normalne natężenie głosu odpowiada tu takiemu, którym ja w moim  śląskim domu zarobiłabym bez wątpienia noc na ulicy. Dziecko krzyczy na matkę i potrząsa nią, tą oddaje wyznaniem, że jego podłość zniesmaczyła jej życie. I tak w kółko, pomimo istnienia kodu czci dla autorytetów i rodziny w ich kulturze. A więc zaraz puszczam sobie utwór chóralny i rozpuszczam się w słodyczy głosów dźwięczących jak złoto. A niech sobie zdzierają gardła. I ty też, muezinie, nęcący swym lamentem do litanii.
I gryzę sobie te gruszkę. Taką sobie maleńką. Nie pitę, w która palcami wpycha się mięso nadziewane mięsem. (Tradycyjna kuchnia zawiera tu przede wszystkim: chlebopodobne wypieki (pita), mięsa pod różnymi postaciami (smaczne, a jakże, jednak w umiarkowanej ilości, proszę), humus (przecier z ciecierzycy) i sałatki). Mam nawet ochotę swoją gruszeczkę pokroić nożem.
A forma mojego buntu jest taką, że właśnie nie jest on buntem. To znaczy, jest buntem prywatnym, nie krzykaczem, który rwie się do ulepszanie świata. Nikt o nim nie będzie wiedział, i to sprawi mi największa przyjemność. Będę siedzieć sobie cicho na tapczanie, stworzę antytezę do ich życia. Taki sobie bunt indywidualizmu przeciw kulturze razem-ności.
Ale po co ja się tu w pierwszym rzędzie wpychałam, czemu nie siedziałam sobie cicho na tapczanie w moim (na tutejsze warunki) schludnym mieszkanku w Jerozolimie. Bo jakiś masochistyczny instynkt pcha mnie w takie zderzenia kultur. Już teraz cieszę się, jak wsiądę na autobus powrotny do Jerozolimy, powoli będę się budzić że snu, moja rozdwojona osobowość przepłynięć w te inną rzeczywistość. Opuszce domy, namioty i wielbłądy i (samo-narzucaną?) biedę tego miasta. Usiądę koło Izraelki, która w życie nie była w mieście, z którego własnie wypadłam. I nie radziłabym jej tam buszować w jej kusej mini – patriarchalny konserwatyzm bliskowschodni nie przyjąłby jej z otwartymi ramionami. Nie, ona żyje w wszechświecie równoległym. Jest Izrael Arabów i Żydów, religijnych i ateistów. Bez punktowm przecięcia, wyjąwszy ten oto autobus. I ja na moment zachwieje się między nimi.
Czy ja przyjeżdam tu więc z powodu tego durnego autobusu i jego chwiejnej ekscytacji schizofrenii? Niezupełnie. Ale opuszczam umyślnie to, o czym chce się dowiedzieć, ile go trzeba cenić. Uwielbiam rzucać się w kulturę, która jest odrębną od mojej. To pomaga mi lepiej zrozumieć swoją dzięki jej odrębności od tamtej, i tamtą dzięki jej odrębności od mojej. Postrzegamy na zasadzie kontrastu, zaskoczenia. Kiedy przyzwyczajamy się, nie dziwi nas nic i nie jesteśmy zdolni docenić.Dziś poczułam najgłębiej, co znaczy dla mnie śmierć Jezusa na krzyżu, gdy rozmawiałam z tym, który ją negował. Co z tego więc wynika? To może ja właśnie ja, która rozbijam się po świecie, jestem największym patriotą? Bo na tyle chce docenić własny dom, że wpycham się do innego, w którym boleśnie poczuję brak swojego? A ty,któryś nie polizał obcego – skąd wiesz, że twoje jest najlepsze?

A face worth thousand words (#1): Embracing the other and yourself

This week I finally manage to get hold of her. She’s one of only about 1,100 students in Israel who learn in bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schools. My friend Anna currently attends the Hand-in-Hand Bilingual high school in Jerusalem. Some time ago, the institution has piqued my curiosity. What’s its role in a place packed with tension between the two groups, but where there is often also lack of knowledge of the other? How does this school aim to change this? And secondly – between Jews and Arabs, the drastic differences in historical narrative mean that their political views are two different kettles of fish. Bearing that in mind, isn’t it in easier for the two groups to live peacefully, yet separately? Doesn’t dialogue just pour out into bitter clashes?

So come meet Anna with me. A few words about herself, before we go on ranting about her experience. Can she tell me what place she would like to live in and which one she wouldn’t?

Columbia would be a yes. Most of her relatives live there, she’s familiar with it and enjoys its culture. You see, what counts for Anna is knowing the folks there and feeling comfortable around them, rather than being stunned by the scenery. However, she wouldn’t be caught dead in Europe. Apparently people there are just a bit too quiet.

Can we talk about her education now. What’s the school’s mission and how is it different from other institutions?

Most other places are segregated. And there are curriculum differences too. Jews have to take Bible classes and learn a little bit of Arabic, while Arabs study a great deal of Hebrew.

In Anna’s school, on the other hand, they have been studying in two parallel languages of instruction, often with dual teachers.

An equally important part of the system is listening to each other, even when they don’t agree with one another. You should give people a chance to speak out for themselves, Anna suggests.

But why is listening to and interacting with the other necessary?

Because people don’t really know much, except from the news. And of course, there they show all the negative and extreme cases: Palestinian terrorist attacks or human right violation by the IDF. Thus, interaction with normal people helps remove generalisations. And it is through dialogue that you lose the fear of the other, but also dare to embrace your own identity. For instance, she now feels comfortable knowing that she is a Christian and that makes her dissimilar from others.

Her answer resonates with my own experience. Meeting people from a different group helps remove stereotype and ignorance, which in turn lead to the removal of fear and hatred. You realise they too are vulnerable humans. So could she please give me a specific example of this from her education?

She struggles at first. Precisely because she’s been in Hand-in-Hand already since kindergarten, she’s been learning to navigate her way between two or three stools.

This makes her realise that this sytem can be a vicious cycle. Most students already come from families where plurality is emphasised, encounter it at school and have their opinions shaped in this environment. Yet their flock doesn’t necessarily grow.

But here she pulls out one for you: cousins marriage in some Arab communities. The internal justification is that precisely because they’re in the family, it’s easier. They and their parents know each other well and so can have a deeper trust for one another. As for health concerns, they tend to be second cousins. For them, it’s not weird because they are used to it.

She mentioned discussing different viewpoints. And I wonder: isn’t it better if the two groups live in peace, but separately? Don’t they just drown in the hot water of the arguments?

No. For instance, if you don’t know the history of another group, you won’t understand why they can be so sad or angry about it. It will just irritate you as irrational. But on the other hand, some topics are so hard that they’ve learnt not to touch them at all.

Could we talk particulars.

The 1948 war is an obvious example. For the Jews, a defensive war for independence. A reaction to aggression. For the Arabs too, a reaction to the aggression of the Jewish conquest.

You’re also inevitably influenced by your social context. Anna’s discovered that there is a striking gap between Israeli and West Bank Arabs. Palestinians in Israel listen to Israeli news, while they might not be used to hearing so much about Gaza.  They would have Jewish colleagues. For West Bankers, on the other hand, the interaction with Israelis is limited to the army. This means that there is divergence within the Palestinian narrative. In contrast to this, her Jewish classmates tend to think alike. Because people who would send their children there would already be left-leaning (i.e. more pro-Palestinian).

An independent and highly objective sit-com review by a delirious convalescent

Feeling somewhat delirious from too much garlic, my head dizzy from social anti-claustrophobia as I am spending the 3rd day on survival mode in my bed. And getting addicted to ‘Arab Labour’ – an Israeli-Palestinian sit-com.

Once again I find that one can only handle reality or virtuality. Whilst in Israel, I tend to find it too burdening to trudge after the socio-political truth in this place. Only whilst physically away from the ferocious honking at the checkpoint at 6,30 in the morning that I hear from my bedroom, do I feel like doing some mental exercise in this area.

This is why perhaps this amazing sit-com thing was invented. Because people living in Jerusalem-type reality 24/7 need to lighten it by making fun of it. Perhaps this is a subconscious awareness that the problem can also provide a (temporary) solution. When you know you can’t change a whole reality at a given moment, you better laugh at it. Laughter, in turn, will make you feel better and give the stamina to look the reality in the eyes again. And this is precisely what this Israeli-Palestinian sit-com does: poking fun at the Jewish-Arab relations in Jerusalem. Of course, exaggeration is the main tool and both groups are subject to ridicule. Can an Arab be integrated into the mainstream Israeli society without losing his own identity? For instance, the series’ protagonist, paranoid that dogs bark at him because they ‘sense’ his Arab ethnicity, starts wearing a kipa, and it works. Was he paranoid or was his sense real? I mean, this is not an advert for ‘Arab Labour’, but ya Allah, you will love it.

Only now the delirious thought-processes make sense to me. This is what garlic and the sit-com have in common: laughing at the difficult situation and stuffing myself with nasty garlic are a subconscious survival reflex. And this reminds me that I should be off to the kitchen for more mouth- and throat-burning delight. I’ll do that after I check where the army helicopter is flying this time.

Wandering through Jerusalems (#7): So close and so closed

I see it from my window, just across the road. At first glance, a normal residential area. Except that it’s enclosed by the security barrier and corked with a ‘feedbox’ (checkpoint in local slang). And that it is supposedly a refugee camp. Since I’ve been here, Shu’afat and I have sat quietly and observed each other curiously. I peeked at the modern apartment blocks and at the countless unfinished building sites. I have seen the children playing outside, just before the barrier, by the rubbish dump. I have been woken up early by the merciless hornsIMG_4124, the checkpoint jammed by cars heading to work. And I have witnessed the occasional firecrackers. After some time, I decided I had to break the barrier of my ignorance of it.

Over time, I realised that the houses in my window were the perfect political case study: ‘[Shu’afat is] the only location where the three main issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian overlap: refugees, security, and Jerusalem.’1 While this place is undoubtedly an extreme illustration, it also shows the desperate entanglement of the issues.

I’ve heard this kind of debate many times. Jerusalem: who should have sovereignty over it and what exactly are its borders? As for Shu’afat residents, they are legally Jerusalemites. But the practical side is a different story altogether. Majority of the services, from rubbish collection to healthcare, are provided by someone else than the municipality. And they tend to be rudimentary: piles of rubbish, no sidewalks, crime in broad daylight. So my neighbours across the barrier ask, why doesn’t Ramallah step in? Probably because, for the Palestinian Authority, it isn’t the most urgent issue. And so for now, these ‘Jerusalemites’ are stuck in a political limbo between Israel and the West Bank and tangled in poverty.

When I told my friend that this neighbourhood is refugee camp, he was astonished. This place, despite poverty, has nothing of the vein of temporariness. Another way in which this place defies expectations. Yet about 50% consider themselves as refugees because their (male) ancestors were displaced by Israel some 50 or 70 years ago. And most strikingly, for many, their desire to return to the orange groves of their grandparents is still alive. A dream awkwardly problematic for the peace process and harmful for refugees themselves: the only thing left of many of the groves is their own mirage of the place.

And finally security, completing the vicious cycle. For Israel, protection is the main justification of the wall erected around Shu’afat. Yet it is collective punishment. And needless to say, this restriction only adds to the already existing frustrations, which are proving to be breeding ground for extremism. Embittered by Ramallah’s cold feet, Shu’afat is turning decisively to the more hot-blooded Hamas. And if one has to deal with a politically radicalised neighbourhood, the security concerns are perfectly legitimate. At the same time, it is clear that isolation and restrictions are not going to improve the social and economic situation in the camp.

So figuring the egg-chicken relationship with respect to restrictions and radicalism is a tough egg to crack. But what is worse – the chicken-cause will soon produce the egg-effect, and the nut will fall into the ground to grow into a new tree.

1 Ir Amim: ‘Jerusalem Neighbourhood Profile: Shuafat Refugee Camp’, August 2006

Wandering through Jerusalems (#6): ‘Jerusalem of (G)old’

At some point in history, Jerusalem and its shadow split. The shadow continued to live in people’s minds, even when people lived elsewhere. Yet for many, it was more than an image; it was a hope for a better future and a central theme in religion. But sometimes when the city and it shadow would meet, they would be too different to be reunited.

‘Jerusalem of Gold’ expressed the idea of the glory. But while many would treat this as a metaphor, others understood it literally. I am talking about this to my Ethiopian friend, a student in Jerusalem. ‘The Jews in Ethiopia really believed that Jerusalem is made of gold. But even more – they were convinced everyone here is religious and people coexist in peace.’

I ask her where this faith came from and she explains the history of Jews in Ethiopia. ‘It’s an ancient community whose Judaism has always been independent from the rest. For example, we didn’t celebrate some of the newer Jewish holidays. We only adhered to the Bible.’ And it seems that what this book promised about the future glory of the city, they took literally.

So it was this hope that brought to Israel around 80,000 Jews from the country. Yet many of them found here a bitter reality. Insufficient education, lack of integration and low socioeconomic status were the main hardships. According to a research from 2012, they’re one of the most underprivileged communities in the country, earning 30%-40% less than Israeli Arabs.

I ask my friend how it affected the faith of Ethiopians here. ‘Obviously this was disappointing. But they didn’t lose their faith. Because faith was what thousands of generations [in Ethiopia] relied on.’ The faith sustained and preserved Judaism in Ethiopia for probably over 2000 years, it brought them to Israel and it would continue here.

But the shadow and the reality cannot be reunited again. Many Ethiopians still live in absorption centres like the one in Talpiot, Jerusalem. Yet they would still meet to celebrate Sig’d, their unique festival. Then they pray for the restoration of the city, because they believe it is yet to come. Maybe for them, the shadow is the reality and the reality is only its shadow.

Wandering through Jerusalems (#5): ‘A Hundred Gates’ of perspective

‘Mea Shearim’ can mean ‘a hundred gates’. According to a tradition, the number of original entrances into this neighbourhood was a 100. Whether this is true or not, there certainly is at least a hundred gates of viewpoint through which you can look at this Jerusalem neighbourhood.

So you can be a devout ultraorthodox Jewish woman, a resident of Mea Shearim. You are up at 6 am, because a 12 member family means a lot of work. When you’ve put on your wig or head-scarf (hair covered in public is required by modesty law), you head outside for work, whilst your husband spends the whole day studying holy texts. But you won’t be a kvetsh. Because every challenging practise has a deep religious meaning or a positive explanation, and obedience to it gives you a sense of fulfilment. You have many children, because life is a good gift from God which you want to share generously with many. And it is a privilege that your husband can be fully devoted to the study. Because God is infinitely great, equally infinite can be the pondering of his greatness.IMG_3716

Or say you are a secular Israeli. All your interactions with the ultraorthodox boil down to a street argument when you happen to pass by in a skirt too short for their liking. That’s it. Your society and your state doesn’t exist for them. While you were serving the nation for 2 years in the army, they didn’t lift their eyes off the Talmud page. Or in fact – there is one case when they miraculously awaken to the existence of the state – when they request for social benefits. To your judgement, the ultimate expression of chutzpe-filled hypocrisy is the poster on their wall. It depicts an ultraorthodox soldier as a pig – the greatest offense to the army.

And finally – you can be me, a somewhat schmaltzy and naive tourist. You will peep through the fence to see children running about the ramshackle courtyard which is hemmed with endless lines of laundry. This is the mishpoche life. Finance is scarce, but the mishpoche will provide, whether for the Sabbath meal or for your son’s wedding. On the street corner, you will amuse yourself with posters spiced with some Yiddish – the now almost lost language of European Jewry. But as you chew on words like ‘baleboste’ or ‘schmooze’, you will still feel the language’s seducing juiciness. Then you will browse through some clothes shops: the endless rhythm of black and white where there never are ‘new arrivals’.  Life froze there, just like in the case of Eastern European Jews in the past, through reactionary conservatism. This is the vicious cycle of the shtetl: the Jew is hated by the goy, so he withdraws to seclusion. But because of that, he will become even more different and even more…

So Mea Shearim can be seen as an anachronism of an age gone, a unique museum of the shtetl. But it just a poor, God-forsaken shtetl. Because the stones that the children were jumping on can be thrown in the next moment on the police car which breaks some of their rules.

Glossary of Yiddish terms used in article:

  • Kvetsh: a person complaining excessively
  • Chutzpe: Impudence, daring
  • Schmaltzy: overly sentimental
  • Mischopche: Literally family, but also a very close community which is like a family
  • Shtetl: a poor Jewish village in Eastern Europe
  • Goy: a non-Jew

Wandering through Jerusalems (#4): How I didn’t settle the issue of settlements


The security barrier of a Palestinian refugee camp with Pisgat Zeev in the background

‘A settlement?’ the woman repeated the word which I had just used to describe her home, with baffled disagreement. Her surprise took me by surprise. We were talking about Pisgat Ze’ev, the largest residential area in Jerusalem, located in the East of the city. Majority of international organisations define the place with this term. Yet a local resident was taken aback by it – she said she never came across this designation.

And this was not the first time I found this matter rather unsettling. Could I at least settle the bare definition? ‘A settlement’ is an Israeli residential area in territory which had until ’67 been behind the Green Line, under Jordanian control. To this, Israel would respond that on this territory, Jewish settlements had existed before the establishment of the state in 1948, and were then internationally recognised. And that there is one united Jerusalem, the capital. An UN official will object that Israel agreed in 1993 on borders roughly following the Green Line. For the Palestinian Authority, the settlements pose a problem for their future capital, which they envision in East Jerusalem. Needless to say, these neighbourhoods change the demographic map of the city.

But while political debate is boiling, people in the Pisgat Ze’ev settlement don’t read to their children ‘The Cinderella’s Guide to National Security’. Instead, they will take them to the playground. Or at least – residents I have interviewed will. Because for them, the choice of house wasn’t a matter of ideology. Most important was cheaper rent (could be 2/3 compared to the centre) and good service. When I ask them to what extent it was important for them to understand the legal background, they don’t have that much to say.

I think this has taught me something. There is a difference between national policy and people’s private life. While deciding whether the policy can or cannot be justified legally is important for politics, on a human level, we must avoid categorising people by ideology. This generalisation leads to harmful bias.

The same dichotomy seems to exist on the other side too. Wandering around the Pisgat shopping mall, I bump into a Palestinian family. They share with me that they come here often for shopping, and that they have good relations with locals. It is true that many Palestinians have a sense of a political claustrophobia, with Jewish neighbourhoods springing across East Jerusalem. But settlements also brings benefits: good services and transportation. According to Reuters, there is a growing trend of Palestinians moving into Jewish settlements – precisely for this reason.

I walk around Pisgat’s modern centre. This place wasn’t established by fanatics who invaded private houses at night. It was planned by the government on a land by-and-large not utilised. Someone else says to me: ‘it’s hard to talk about settlements on the whole. Every single one is a separate legal case.’

And so I’m leaving Pisgat and know it’s a long way before the dust over it will settle, if it’s hard to settle even on definitions. And for now, I don’t want to get off the fence. It enables me to see further. Because it’s high. Like the security barrier between the settlement and the nearby Arab neighbourhood.