On the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha, I traveled to Tel-Aviv for a belated Thanksgiving celebration with a dear friend, who I will call Yael. Yael is a Jewish Israeli with dual American citizenship whom I met in the US years ago, long before I knew anything about Israel or Palestine. However, as I’ve become more politically aware concerning Palestine, our friendship has developed an uncomfortable tension. This tension was particularly agitated when I started posting articles on Facebook that were critical of Israeli policies in Palestine, the height of which occurred during Operation Cast Lead, along with my outspoken criticism of it.
My political expressions via Facebook deeply offended Yael, who saw my posts as one-sided and interpreted them as a direct personal attack on her. The hurt ran so deep that even until very recently it was uncertain if our friendship would survive our political differences. This meeting was our first since the tension erupted and since I’ve been in Palestine this time, and was a sincere attempt to repair our damaged friendship.
Last year when I was here, I spent a significant amount of time in Israel, much of it with Yael. This time I’ve mostly stayed in the West Bank and have ventured into Israel on very few occasions. The hassle of crossing Qalandiya checkpoint often deters me, yet when I do go I try to engage with Jewish Israelis, making a point not to shy away from telling them I live in Ramallah. I do this for two reasons: one because I enjoy the looks of shock on their faces when I tell them I live here, and two because I enjoy hearing their responses, which are quite telling.
On this trip the initial responses were the same without fail; with complete looks of surprise on their faces they all asked me if I said “Ramla (an Arab city inside Israel) or Ramallah,” as if I could not possibly have said the latter. Once it becomes clear that I did indeed say “Ramallah” a series of questions inevitably ensues; in my experience, Jewish Israelis become very curious when they encounter someone who actually lives on “the other side.” I am a strange and interesting creature to them.
Yael and I spent Eid preparing a Thanksgiving feast and discussing the tension between us. As we cooked we took turns sharing our feelings with each other and tried to reach an understanding of where the other person was coming from. In the end, we decided to let bygones be bygones but did not come to a decision about how to walk the delicate political line of our friendship. In the past, we mulled over the idea of never discussing politics again. Yet even if we had made that decision I don’t believe it would stick. My life in Ramallah is much too interesting to ignore for a Jewish Israeli who has never been to the West Bank, and my conscience won’t let me shy away from what I have born witness to here.
After we finished cooking, Yael and I took the food over to her friend’s house where five of her friends, all British Jews, joined us for the feast. Halfway into the meal, the daughter of one of Yael’s friends asked me where I live. I told her I live in Ramallah, at which point her eyes grew wide and she asked me “Ramla, or Ramallah?” Once I clarified that I live in Ramallah, the questioning commenced.
The first question asked was whether or not I have to cover my hair here. I told them it’s not necessary, and pointed out the considerable Christian minority in Palestine, to which one of them responded that she thought all Palestinians were Muslims. They were also surprised to learn that you can buy alcohol here, and that some restaurants actually serve it. They asked about my social life, wanting to know if I socialize with Palestinians or other foreigners. I told them my contact with other foreigners is very limited and that I mostly interact with Palestinians. They inquired about what kind of television is available here and if we get any Israeli stations. They also asked if I feel safe here, to which I responded that I feel so safe I have no problem walking home alone late at night.
Additionally, they wanted to know if I was questioned while crossing Qalandiya checkpoint – I told them I only have to show my passport photo and my most recent entry visa. I could tell as they questioned me about the checkpoint that it represents a clear boundary in their minds; one between safety and danger. The idea of a checkpoint seems to put their minds at ease concerning who has access to Israel.
As they questioned me it became very clear that my choice to live in Ramallah politicizes me whether I like it or not, making me a conduit for information. Although many Jewish Israelis I’ve met have expressed a deep-seated fear of Palestine and Palestinians, they are also eager to know what it’s like here, and I represent a portal into what is perceived as a forbidden world of danger. Yet as the girls questioned me, I began to realize just how serious the gap between the two places has grown, and I also realized the lack of accurate information they have about Israeli policies, leading them to be largely unaware of what the reality of life is like for Palestinians.
For example, the Goldstone Report came up briefly and one of the girls stated that the report was a farce because it only criticized Israel. I asked if she had read the report and she said no; this means her beliefs about the report are shaped entirely by the media and hearsay, which clearly omitted the fact that the report condemned the firing rockets into Israeli civilian territory as war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. More accurate information about Palestine and Israeli policies in the territories is readily available – it seems to me a matter of seeking to know or choosing to block it out. Yet even if most of the time the choice is made to block it out, the choice I’ve made to live in Ramallah invariably forces the issue of Palestine to the surface, making it impossible to ignore in my presence.
As someone who has the privilege of being able to travel freely between the two places, I realize that I am at times a bridge between the two worlds, particularly as contact between the two people becomes more severely limited. I am not entirely comfortable in this role and have not yet figured out the best way to navigate the crossing of these boundaries. It is important for me to hear Yael’s perspectives, but it is also important for me to find a way of expressing my own personal truths, whether it be telling my Palestinian friends that I have Israeli friends in Tel-Aviv, or telling my Israeli friends what their government and army is doing in the Palestinian territories. For now I will continue to live in Ramallah and hope that some good, no matter how small it might be, will come from my presence here and my ability to cross boundaries.
Britain Eakin is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.