An Unusual Friendship
It was the largest Star of David I’d ever seen suspended from someone’s neck. I was in Maine for the first day of the Seeds of Peace Camp 2003, and the bus carrying the Israeli delegation had just opened its doors. I was there to observe and select some of the Israelis and Palestinians who appear in this book. I wanted to include both the students I knew from my years as a camper and some of the new kids who were attending Seeds of Peace in the middle of the second intifada. One by one, they were getting out, catching their first glimpses of the lake. And suddenly, there it was: a Jewish star the size of a silver dollar swinging over a blue T-shirt. “Now that’s what I call bling-bling!” someone behind me said. It was true; I’d seen plenty of Israelis strutting their stars down the camp road, wearing their chains like rappers, though this one was the most eye-catching. “So you’re a tough guy?” I silently asked the skinny kid with the outrageous star. “This is Seeds of Peace, not South Central.”
That was before I knew Omri, before he knew me, and before I had any insight into his politics.
Omri, fifteen, is dark and skinny with large, searching eyes. He is Israeli to the core and clearly has the jewelry to prove it. The six-pointed Star of David (which he got as a promotion from his favorite Israeli rapper) is both a Jewish symbol and a national Israeli emblem. Omri also wears his father’s army tag, which he keeps in a dark green canvas pouch. For him, the tag symbolizes his love of the army. He swiped it from his father’s dresser one day and was afraid his dad would get angry. Instead, his father was honored. I imagine this scene: Omri pulling up his shirt, showing off the tag on his bony brown chest, perhaps puffing up to look more manly. I imagine the pride in his father’s eyes.
One afternoon in the camp dining hall, I asked to see the tag, and Omri placed the silver rectangle on the table with great care, like a jeweler appraising his diamonds. For Omri, Israel is forever.
Omri is a Mizrahi Jew—a Jew of Middle Eastern descent. His mother was born in Turkey and his paternal grandparents are from Yemen. His family was part of the Jewish community that flourished throughout the Arab and Islamic world. Many of these Middle Eastern Jews were deeply integrated into their respective societies and had been for decades. The events of 1948, however, came as a revolution for these Jewish communities, as it did for the entire Middle East.
From the end of World War One until May of 1948, a British mandate had governed Palestine. The British made various unsuccessful attempts to map out a viable political future for the Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine. In 1947 the United Nations suggested a partition plan that would divide Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states with Jerusalem as an international district. Despite a great deal of internal opposition, the Jewish leadership endorsed the plan. The Arabs, however, rejected it, saying they opposed the Jewish claim to a state in Palestine.
When the 1947 partition plan failed, Britian withdrew its forces. The Jewish community in Palestine declared the independence of the State of Israel, and the next day, armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Iraq attacked the nascent Israeli state. The Israelis were highly organized in comparison to the uncoordinated Arab forces, and though the Arab soldiers outnumbered the Jews, Jewish forces had the upper hand in some of the most strategic battles. By the war’s end, Israel had signed cease-fires with each country. These were armistice agreements, not treaties; the Arab countries refused to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy.
Israel captured all of historic Palestine excluding the Gaza Strip, which remained part of Egypt, and the land west of the Jordan River, today known as the West Bank. (Israel did not capture the West Bank and Gaza until a second Arab-Israeli war in 1967.)
The war of 1948, which Israel calls its war of independence and the Arabs call al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe,” resulted in the creation of over 700,000 Palestinian refugees. These were Palestinian Arabs who fled to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as a result of Jewish-Arab hostilities. Some of these refugees fled believing they could return to their homes at the war’s end; others were intimidated into leaving by reports of Jewish atrocities. Many of these stories were fiction, but others, such as the infamous massacre of Arab civilians in the village of Dir Yassin, were true. Finally, the Jewish forces forcibly expelled Arabs whose land was necessary to built a contiguous Israeli state.
After Israel declared its independence, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed the Law of Return, which grants full Israeli citizenship to any Jew in the world. The law is highly offensive to Palestinians, because it allowed masses of Jews to immigrate to Israel while 700,000 Palestinian-Arabs who had been living in Palestine for hundreds of years were uprooted from their homes. For most Jews, however, the Law of Return embodies the very meaning of a Jewish nation.
After the war of 1948, Mizrahi Jews like Omri’s family were in need of a safe haven. When Israel defeated the five Arab armies, the Arab and Islamic nations either expelled their Jewish communities or made their lives increasingly difficult. The Law of Return made Israel the obvious destination for these Arab Jews, though not always the easiest. Until the mid-1950s, Israel was dominated by Ashkenazi Jews—Jews of European descent. They were highly skeptical of and even outright discriminatory toward the new immigrants, who seemed much closer to Israel’s Arab neighbors in terms of custom and appearance. Israel’s intense desire to acculturate the new immigrants as “Israeli”—by teaching them Hebrew, putting them in the army, and instilling in them a connection to Eretz Yisrael—has largely paid off. Despite remaining divisions, including cultural differences and a sizable socioeconomic gap between the majority of Israeli Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, today Jews of Arab origin have all but lost their former national allegiances. In fact, their communities consistently vote in large numbers for the right-leaning parties that advocate rigid policies toward the territories and the Palestinians.
Omri’s parents and grandparents have passed much of their distinctive culture on to him: the food they eat, the music they enjoy, and the way they practice Judaism. Omri says that if an Ashkenazi Jew were to attend his father’s Yemeni synagogue, he would hardly understand a word of the service. But as a second generation Israeli, Omri is completely integrated into Israeli society. I have never heard him refer to himself as an Arab Jew or call himself culturally Arab. Neither does he feel part of a separate ethnic group. Omri is Israeli and Jewish. To him, the Arabs are a people apart. This includes Israel’s own Arab population—those Palestinians who did not flee Palestine in the 1948 war and to whom Israel ultimately granted citizenship.
Omri told me about the tension between Bat Yamis (the Jews who live in Omri’s neighborhood of Bat Yam) and the Arabs from the neighboring city of Jaffa. According to him, an Arab man murdered a Jewish girl at the Bat Yam bus stop in 1996. In retaliation, a group of Bat Yamis went to the city limits near Jaffa and started burning Arab cars and smashing windows.
“That’s why the kids, and actually me and my friends, don’t like those kinds of people.” Omri paused and then decided to clarify, “The Arab people.”
Omri went on to say that every year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, the Arabs from Jaffa come to Bat Yam with discmen and cigarettes. “They are very disrespectful,” he said scornfully. “And they paid for it.”
They paid for it. The way he said this, it sounded like the Arab world had collectively insulted Omri’s mother.
“How did they pay for it?” I asked.
“Five years ago on Yom Kippur, they came with a jeep and started to honk the horn. And we are not allowed to drive on Yom Kippur. And people just flipped the jeep into the water,” he said, as if this were a casual occurrence. “So this is where I come from. The city where almost everyone is rightist.”
For Omri, it seemed, being “rightist” was a badge of honor. Having tough, uncompromising opinions about the Arabs made him feel tough—perhaps made him feel more “Israeli” and less an Israeli with Arab roots. Not that Omri is ashamed of his heritage or that his feelings about Arabs are all a show. The stories he told me were very real, and they did cause him pain. But I began to wonder if there wasn’t something slightly exaggerated about Omri’s “rightist” pride.
At the same time, this pride is a source of strength for him. Omri’s parents are divorced. During the months I spent in the region, he was living in Bat Yam, a lower-middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv with his mother, who works in a sunglasses store. His father does part-time gardening and electronic jobs in wealthy Tel Aviv suburbs. Omri’s home is a modest apartment in a crowded Bat Yam neighborhood where every street and building resembles the next. There was rarely a time when I didn’t drive in circles trying to find it. The neighborhood is rich with tropical plants and trees, and the gray-colored apartments are livened by clothes hanging out to dry. But the sidewalks are dirty, full of pigeon and dog droppings. Omri says the parks are local gang hangouts. One afternoon, Omri and his mother returned home to find their apartment burglarized. Now Omri’s mother blasts music when she goes out in order to throw off potential thieves.
Omri’s room is a small corner space with a dresser, a bookshelf, and a narrow bed. He has decorated his door with bumper stickers: “Oslo Is Proof: Don’t Give Them a Country”; “I Am a Patriot”; “Don’t Give Terror a Country”; and “Achud Leumi,” the logo of Israel’s National Union party. They advocate “transfer,” the removal of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to Israel’s neighboring Arab countries. Omri’s CD collection is full of Subliminal, the highly nationalistic rap artist whom some people consider a racist. The cover of one album, The Light from Zion, depicts a muddied hand gripping a Star of David. The fingers curl up out of blackness, clenched in anger. In a song called “Hope,” a reference to Israel’s national anthem Hatikva, “The Hope,” Subliminal rhymes in sharp, forceful Hebrew: “Another soldier coming back covered in the Israeli flag / Blood and tears falling down / Strong nation, we won’t leave / Cause no motherfucker can stop Israel.” Another song is entitled “Beladi,” which means “my country” in Arabic. Beladi is also the name of the Palestinian national anthem. “Zionism is in our blood,” Subliminal raps in “Beladi,” but he goes on to say that “the Jews respect Islam and Christianity / My throat is not thirsty for blood . . . I put down the Uzi and pick up the microphone / I’m dreaming of peace but I get good-bye.”
On one visit to his home, after we had met at camp, I asked Omri about the racist accusations against Subliminal.
“It’s not true!” Omri was quick to defend his hero.
“But I’ve heard that people shout ‘Death to the Arabs’ at his concerts,” I said.
“I went to his concert,” Omri replied. “And there were forty thousand people there. And the whole room started shouting this. And Subliminal told them not to say it.”
“Did you say it?”
Knowing Omri’s politics and his feelings about Arabs, especially before Seeds of Peace, I wasn’t surprised that he had participated in this type of anti-Arab tirade. And yet I simply could not picture this fifteen-year-old I had come to know so well standing among a mass of people shouting racist slurs. I asked Omri if he would do it again or if he could remain silent while forty thousand other Israelis screamed.
“I won’t do it now,” he said. To prove it, he showed me his screensaver. It was a photo from Seeds of Peace: the wide grassy field leading down to the bunkline and, through gaps in the buildings, slivers of lake.
“That camp, it did something to him!” Omri’s mother, Sima, whispered a few minutes later when Omri went to the bathroom.
“He’s really that different?” I asked.
“In some ways he’s just the same; in other ways, you’d hardly know it was the same Omri.” At that moment, Omri appeared around the corner with a skeptical look. Sima winked at me and popped back into the kitchen.
As Omri searched the Internet, I began thinking about my first real conversation with him. We were at camp and I had persuaded him to skip general swim in return for “illegal” phone privileges. Campers were not allowed to use the phone during activities, but I promised to cover for him. I wanted a chance to talk to the boy who boasted the fanciest bling. We chose a table at the back of the dining hall overlooking the lake. Perhaps it was the tranquil setting or the gentle wind, but suddenly, realistic, hard-nosed Omri was talking about transfer the way romantics speak of lost love.
“It was my dream,” he said, his large eyes drifting across the lake.
“Since I was a boy, I dreamed that the Arabs would be transferred away from here.”
“You mean from Israel?”
Omri emerged from his reverie. “That’s what I wanted, but I know it’s not going to happen. You can’t just take three million Palestinians and throw them in other countries. But”—and now he looked straight into my eyes—“it was like a dream for me. I voted for the Achud Leumi [National Union] party in the last elections.”
“I thought the voting age in Israel is eighteen,” I said, thinking about how National Union was one of the most extreme parties in the Israeli parliament.