(I waited until I left Israel to post this story, and I am not sure why. I guess I didn’t want to have to confront whatever anger it might inspire in those I write about. I tried to convince myself that I was being polite. Now I wonder if I am just cowardly.)
I met a young writer at my reading in Jerusalem. He invited me to join him for the Purim holiday in the settlement of Neve Daniel where he lives. I accepted the invitation right away even though I have strong feelings about the settlements themselves. These communities are built on stolen land in the West Bank and are deemed illegal by nearly every international body. I believe, and so do most Israelis, that the settlements represent one of the biggest obstacles to peace. If violent jihadists represent extremism on the Palestinian side of the equation, than the settlers represent extremism on the Israeli side. I have always believed this.
I took the bus from Jerusalem into Neve Daniel. The Wall followed the highway for part of this journey. For the benefit of the settlers, I suppose, the Israelis have made the Wall attractive here. Some of it is built of textured stone in various shades of pinkish tan and ivory. The implications of the barrier – its effects on Palestinian life, its silent rejection of peace – are whitewashed by a pleasant, garden-wall aesthetic.
Purim is a fascinating holiday. People dress in costume, sometimes as characters from the biblical figures the holiday is derived from. Others in disguises that would befit our North American Halloween. There is a lot of eating and a surprising amount of drinking. For many, drunkeness during Purim has a spiritual component. The bus was filled with young Israelis and American yeshiva-students in varying costumes. I listened to them talk about all events that were planned. Who was going to which party and with who. I know little about Judaism, but I always associated the faith with sombre devotion. It was heartening to see Judaism linked with such silliness and fun.
My settler 'guide' met me at the bus stop and took me to the house where we would have the Purim meal. The place was packed. More than twenty people crowded around the table. The noise was amazing. At times it seemed that everyone was talking at once, with one or two people singing Purim songs at one end of the table or another. With all their guests and the happy noise, my hosts had little time to talk with me about my project. I was relieved at this. I was afraid such talk would lead to a talk of politics, and I knew that my views would be as repulsive to them as theirs are to me. I suspect my hosts knew this, too. I decided to be a quiet and grateful guest, even though this made me feel like a fraud.
Things got uncomfortable, though, midway through the meal. One of the children had dressed up as a cowboy, and the family sang ‘Home on the Range’ in honour of his costume. Afterwards his mother, my host, announced that she knew another version of the song that she helped write. Her husband asked her not to sing it.
“Okay. I won’t sing it, but I will say the lyrics.” She turned to me. “But you have to remember that I am from the inner city.” The woman proceeded to recite a racist version of the song written to insult Mexicans. I don’t remember the middle part, but the song began with:
Oh give me a home,
Where the cockroaches roam…
And ended with:
Where seldom is heard
An English word,
And the bodegas are open all day.
I didn’t know how to react. The woman was clearly proud of this song. And she was beaming at me. I wanted to tell her that the song fit exactly with my image of what settlers are like. I wanted to say that I was not surprised at the song because, after all, the settlements themselves are built out of racism. I wanted to thank her for showing her true colours to me and vindicating my discomfort at accepting her generosity, and for being here at all. But I didn’t say anything.
After the meal, one of the children, a four year-old girl dressed as an angel but with her wings tied on upside-down, decided she wanted to sit in my lap. While the rest of the family was distracted by the post-meal prayer, the little girl reached across the table, grabbed a handful of raw cucumber sticks, and started playing with them as if they were building blocks.
“What are you making?” I whispered in her ear.
“A choo-choo train,” she whispered back.
I like kids. The girl reminded me a little of my niece, who I miss terribly when I am away from home, and I was touched by her immediate trust of me even though I was a stranger. It was a sweet moment.
But as we were both playing with our food, something occurred to me. If you had asked me, in that moment, if I thought that this little girl’s home should be taken away from her, I would have said yes. I would support the bulldozing of her house, of her school, of the playground down the road where she climbs the monkey bars and swings on the swings.
I had a hard time with this. I had a hard time reconciling my opinion of the settlers as a group with the hospitality of this family and the tenderness of this one child. I haven’t changed my mind about the settlements. They are immoral. But things get complicated when we are confronted by individual souls. It was a difficult day.