Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Friday, 1 December 2000

The Peace Process

The Peace Process

Predict the worst and you’ll be hailed a prophet. So, the Oasis Casino opens in Jericho (…..4462 square meters…..high fence……forerunner of five square kilometre tourism mecca to come. Three hotels, conference facilities tennis courts and golf course - (Palestinians need not apply).  A biblical theme park is planned for Old Nazareth, and, today, Bill Clinton goes to Palestine. His helicopter touched down at the new Gaza City Airport. And, on the tarmac to meet him; His Excellency President Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority.

Oh, but they love it, the press - little brown men in ill-fitting uniforms, playing national anthems ever-so-slightly out of tune. Recall yesterday in Jerusalem as Israel put on its customary splendid show - the crisp blue/white, the candlabra logo and, that peculiarly Israeli touch, the pretty girl soldier. They do this so well! Yom ha’shoah - Holocaust Day: a single siren and a nation stops in its tracks. On the Jerusalem-Tel-Aviv highway, cars stop dead on the road, as if from some ghostly pile-up, drivers stand outside their cars, shoulders hunched in united, purposeful commemoration. As one. Or, if you will, observe the world’s favourite citizen army at training. Conscripts, (for, such they are despite massive propaganda to the contrary), haul a load up and down sand dunes. So what’s new? Young men perform tasks, the aim of which is to reduce thinking individuals into particles of a greater whole. But hold on a sec. These boys aren’t any old boys. These are Jewish boys. And that load isn’t any old load. It’s an ethical load - a stretcher. And lying on that stretcher, the luckiest kid in the platoon role-playing the fallen comrade. Purity of arms

Peres didn’t win his election and there’s no peace, though it depends on what you mean by peace. Israeli soldiers aren’t shooting children in Nablus anymore and Arafat’s got his villa in Gaza. So it’s a kind of peace. But justice? I don’t think so. Check the map. Israel: one seamless whole from Tel-Aviv to the Jordan River, and, in between, a remnant people. You can call it a state if you like but all the autonomous zones, staged redeployments and final stage talks can’t conceal the fact that Palestine is destroyed. Israel has conquered Palestine.

                                                                                   2

Suddenly everybody’s reconciling. Encounter groups, workshops, consciousness-raising groups, these days you can’t spit without hitting some Jew looking for a Palestinian to reconcile with. I’m at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn attending a benefit performance of a new play “The Garden of Habustan” The performance is in support of ‘British Friends of Neve Shalom’. Neve Shalom, or to give it its full name Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam” is the Hebrew and Arabic for ‘Oasis of Peace’. It’s a village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where Israeli Jews and Palestinians live together and in so doing hope to provide a model for others to do the same. My connection with this project is my friend Karen.

I met Karen in the library at CAABU and got chatting to her at the photocopier. She fled Lebanon with her British mother in the mid eighties after the death of her Lebanese father. A graduate of Manchester University, she is just completing her PHD thesis. It’s about conflict resolution in the Middle East and it’s well chosen, for Karen is one of life’s conciliators. So fair, so just, so eager to see the other’s point of view is she that she begins the talks she gives on CAABU’s  behalf to school kids with the question,

“Now, how many of you know what a pogrom is?”

So, her young audience must first reflect on Jewish suffering and only then, after
attending to the needs of the perpetrator does she sadly move to the victim. Then it’s
pictures of demolished houses, roundups and arrests, the flight of refugees, the camps.
Only at the very end of her talk does she offer her audience the thickly embroidered
Palestinian dress. As she passes it round, her voices rises above the hubbub of a crowd
of kids too close to lunchtime.

“Look at the embroidery” she calls out over their heads, “Did you know you can tell 
which village a Palestinian woman comes from just from the embroidery on her dress?
Did you know that?”

They don’t but Karen hopes just that one day they will see what she can see, that,
quite simply, these were people. 

I’ve just discovered that Karen and I have something in common. When things get a little too much we get sick. Today Karen is sick.

“Something you picked up in Gaza?” I ask referring to the trip she recently made to Neve Shalom and the private detour she made to Gaza.

We’re seated together on a bench in the lovely gardens of 21 Collingham Road where CAABU is housed. Karen agreed to be interviewed but not, she insisted, to be recorded.

 “No” she replies sadly “though there was plenty to make me sick.”

 “What was it then?”

“We were at the village and the council were discussing what to do to mark Israel’s fiftieth - Jews and Palestinians sitting round a table chatting about what to do, and the Jewish committee members just could not understand why the Palestinians were less then enthusiastic about the celebrations. They just could not see that what was for them, a moment of liberation was, for the Palestinians, the most terrible catastrophe. ”

“Well what do you expect?”

“Well, you’d think that of all people they’d understand….”

 “Karen, you don’t know who you’re dealing with!”

“Well maybe I don’t. But you’ve got to try…”

 “Try? Try for what?”

“Well for some kind of reconciliation?”

“Karen, I really don’t think you understand what these people are like…The only reconciliation these people want is for their victims to reconcile with their victimhood. I mean, do you hear anything, anything at all from these people about any kind of penitence?”

“Well, maybe not now but….”

“Karen, ….They’re the worst, the very worst. You know they act as if they’re doing the Palestinians a big favour in talking to them. They act as if they’re doing you a big favour in talking to you. They smash up your country and slaughter your people and now they let you sit on their committee…… I’d rather talk to Ariel Sharon than  this lot. You want to talk to Jews, why don’t you find some old Grandmas in Palmers Green? You’d do a lot better than with this lot.”

Now here I know I’ve touched a nerve because there’s something else I’ve noticed.  Karen likes old folk. You only have to see her greet the elderly Palestinian emigres who attend CAABU functions. In an Arabic, beautiful even to me who can’t understand a word, she welcomes each one “Dr Nusseibeh, how lovely to see you…”     

So she just smiles “But where do I find these old grandmas?”

I quieten as I realise that in my alienation from any kind of Jewish community I would be hard pressed to find any grandmas myself. In the end I’m forced to play my last card

“Karen these people… They think they’re better then you.”

“The chosen people” she smiles sadly.

“The chosen people” I say


                                                                             3

‘The Garden of Habustan’ concerns Yoni, a young Israeli waiting out the night before his enlistment in the army. Anguishing in the courtyard of his family home in Jaffa, he is assailed by voices from the past: His old grandfather with his Zionist dream, his grandmother with tales of strudel and kugel and then, most critically, by an old Palestinian come back to reclaim his home.
Sitting alone in the bar before the performance I study the programme. There’s an awful lot about balance. ‘Disputed Claims for the Same Land’, ‘1948: The Israeli Perspective – 1948: The Palestinian Perspective’, ‘Jaffa and Tel-Aviv – A Tale of Two Cities’. And the reviews pinned up in the foyer attest to the same. Attacked from both sides, the play has been described as both, “Zionist propaganda” and “Arab lies” Well, says the conventional wisdom they must be doing something right.

Karen approaches. She’s busy tonight organising the hummus and pitta buffet for after the performance. But not too busy to do what she does best, introductions. I’m introduced to Shona, a young committee member who, I’m told, has written and, tonight will perform, a song about Neve Shalom. She’s dark, not so pretty but she does tell me she wants to see Jews and Palestinians living together in peace and equality.

“Well I’m glad to hear that. So you’ll be giving up your Jewish state then?”

“What?”

“Well”, say I, “If you’re going to live together in peace and equality you can’t have your Jewish State. I mean, what will you do if suddenly there are more Palestinians than Jews?

She mumbles and leaves.

But no matter because there in a corner is Rebecca, the writer/director of “The Garden of Habustan” I recognise her from her photo in the program. Karen introduces me and we sit. I ask how she came to write the play. She was, it seems, commissioned by the Arts Council to write a play celebrating Israel’s fiftieth birthday. So she went to Israel and then to Gaza

“It stinks” I say.

“Yes” she agrees, “It does stink, and such a contrast from Israel.”

“….like from LA to Bangladesh I say trying to impress by paraphrasing David Hare’s Via Dolorosa

 Unimpressed, she goes on. She was so shocked at what she saw that, instead of writing the proposed celebration of Israeli independence she decided to also write a commemoration of Al Nakba

“Ah yes” I say, “the great lie.”

“What do you mean?” she asks

“Well, they stole the land and threw them out didn’t they?”

“Actually, it is a little more complicated than that…”
“No, no it’s not. It’s not complicated at all. Actually it’s simple. They stole the land and threw them out.  It’s simple. They’d have us believe it’s complicated, but it’s not complicated at all….”

She leans forward and points a finger.

“Well that’s not exactly true. They bought the land……….”

“No..No it is true…you may not want to see it but it is true. They did not buy the land, at least certainly not more than the measly six percent they’d actually managed to buy after seventy years of so-called pioneering. The rest they stole.”

“Well……..if they hadn’t run away…..”

“Oh for God’s sake…no one believes that anymore. It’s just one more lie along with all the other lies…..Land without a people…making the desert bloom…..purity of arms….All lies!”

 Rebecca smiles and the finger rises again,

“Jews are just like everyone else.”

“Yeah right, so why don’t they act like everyone else.”

Rebecca turns away. She’s got other things on her mind. Her boyfriend has arrived, surely more congenial company than I. I turn to Karen whose throat is hurting.

“Rage?”

“Rage.” she agrees

I start to think escape. I move to the door and the cool air. I really need to get out. But I shouldn’t. I’ve come here for a reason. There’s something I want to see and to hear, so I turn round and enter the auditorium.

Inside, I choose my usual back row seat for a quick getaway and watch the play. It only takes a few minutes and I know something is wrong. I’m not sure what, but something is wrong. It’s balanced alright. Suffering, both Jewish and Palestinian served up in equal dollops. It’s only some days later as I read the script that it comes. It’s when I start to wonder what a Palestinian would make of this play. Not some PA apparatchik but a real Palestinian, from a real camp in Gaza.

Well the strudel and fat grandma jokes will certainly pass him by. And Yoni’s anguish might also give him pause. What’s he so upset about? He’s not going to be beaten and tear-gassed. He’s not going to be confined to a hovel for eighteen hours a day. But then I realise that it’s precisely that balance that’s really going to get him going. “If a man breaks into my house,” he’ll ask, “do I ask for his point of view? No. I tell him to leave and, on his way out, perhaps he’d like to pay for some of the damage and perhaps a little something for the inconvenience and the anguish. “Ah, but I’ve suffered…,” says the man, “…Oy how I have suffered…..”

The play’s finishing and the audience rush for the exit. Some, in response to Karen’s pleas reluctantly head into a room where a “Palestinian buffet” awaits.  “There’ll be discussion” calls out Karen over the hubbub and “perhaps Rebecca will answer questions.”

We file in and struggle with the paper plates, the humus and the pitta. Then questions as Rebecca moves to centre stage. There’s only one from a young woman in her mid-twenties.

“In your play you compare what happened to the Palestinians with the Holocaust. Was this deliberate? If it was, I’d like to know how you justify such a thing?”

Rebecca gracefully steps in.

“Those lines were said to me by a Palestinian and to not include it in the play would have been to deny that Palestinian a voice. But I do understand that some people have found those lines painful.”

No more questions the evening ends with Shona singing her song

“There’s a village up on high…”

And we all join in……

“Neve Shalom…Wahat al Salaam”

Next day I phone Karen. We’re going to meet tomorrow and I want to confirm this but really I’m dying to know what she made of it all.

How do you think it went? She asks

“Fine. Good.”  I say. “I thought for a moment you were going to lose it…but”

“Really? What do you mean”

“Well when you started talking lots of them started to go out but enough stayed and it was good…… …..Karen there were so many of them and they were so young.”

“You know you’re the third person who’s said that….”

“….and so different from the Jewish kids I remember. I never realised that this is the kind of thing they do now, to look for suitable partners I mean … For us it was Golders Green Station, then crash a couple of parties, but not this lot. And they look different too …all that glossy hair and shining teeth. You know I couldn’t place them. Like they were Jewish...but something else as well, like they’d been genetically modified….not at all like the kids I used to hang about with. But this lot, they’re kind of international, continental but not quite. Then I get it. They’re Israeli. Of course they’re not really Israeli but they look Israeli and they sound Israeli…like you’d see on any Saturday night on Dizengoff….

“Well a lot of them were Israeli.”

“Well they weren’t speaking Hebrew. They were speaking English like you and me……..Karen what exactly are you doing?”

“Well if we can get people to see the other point of view…”

 “But Karen those people aren’t interested in helping Palestinians. Look, what do you do when you’re young, clever and Jewish? You write a play, a balanced play, about Palestinians. Al Nakba, I hear it’s quite the thing….”

“Well it’s a start…”

“It’s not a start It’s the end, the final end, the absolute final end and …

“David you really should read my thesis.”