Monday, 23 April 2007

At home with the Zionists

Khaled Diab
When I was a young child, I had no conception that teachers had lives outside of the classroom. The idea that they could have a family or go to sleep or to the toilet like us seemed a little far-fetched. To many Arabs, Zionists do not really exist outside the political sphere, which is where they commit a lot of sinister acts.

Of course, in the early days of the conflict, it was a simpler age, and Zionists were invariably portrayed as comic book villains – and how many of those have time to fit in a family, do the cooking, shopping and cleaning, in between all that villainy and political manoeuvring? Today, many more species of Zionists have been discovered by Arab political zoologists, but they are still, in the Arab psyche, essentially a dangerous and possibly deadly political animal which roams the Palestinian territories and occasionally neighbouring countries.

Given this backdrop, you can imagine how bizarre and surreal it felt to find myself coming down to breakfast in an authentic Israeli Zionist household! This weirdness was accentuated by the fact that it wasn’t so weird – that once you move beyond the conflict, you notice how they are just folk like us, as the Americans would say.

In Israel, they like to say that whenever you bring two Jews together, they will have three opinions. Well, after some empirical observation, I have come to the conclusion that if you throw an Arab or two into this mix, you're guaranteed hours of political debate for the whole family.

Jam and Jerusalem is what women’s church groups are all about, jam and politics was what breakfast turned out to be. In fact, within less than 10 minutes we were deep into political debate. As if subconsciously starting at the beginning, we talked, at first, about the early settlers in British mandate Palestine and the war of 1948. Amos recalled how good relations were between many of the early settlers and the local Palestinian population.

But already points of long and debate were emerging out of the woodwork to surround us: how militant or peaceful were the earlier settlers; who was David and Goliath in the first Arab-Israeli conflict?

Collective ideals
Amos, a one-time kibbutz member and veteran of the 1948 war was passionate about the subject – and, although I was dubious about quite a few of his assertions, I found the new perspective it offered me enlightening. He so warmed to his subject that he drove us to a local Kibbutz so that I could see its history and values for myself.

Amos and Zipora told me about their early life, their schoolwork, their reclaiming of desert land, their move to Argentina to teach there for a while, their artwork, and more.

Over the years, I have heard a lot about kibbutzim, mainly from friends who had been on holiday in Israel and worked and lived on a kibbutz and from some of my readings. But this was the first time I had seen an actual one. The film about the kibbutz’s history was created in the form of a silent film with a semi-humorous narrative. Amos showed us around the grounds and told us about the harshness, discipline and hard work of the early kibbutzim communities. He also reminisced about the communal ideals of the early kibbutzim which have been lost as the different camps privatise.

From a different age
Anat’s grandfather in Netanya is a Tunisian Jew and he took the opportunity of my presence to speak some Arabic and reminisce about life in Tunisia when he was younger, when Arab and Jew lived in peacefully alongside one another and intermingled. But he spent more time wanting to learn about Egypt and in particular the Egyptian dialect.

Dinner was at a friendly Palestinian-run restaurant where they did not expect an Egyptian to be coming for dinner and I had a chat with the owner. During our walk along the beachfront, on the way to and from the restaurant, and over dinner, the spicy issue of debate was the one-state solution which was greeted by scepticism by both Anat and Tzachi. He thought that it sounded nice as a vision and it could be one of several options but it was the least likely. Anat began to warm to it when I explained that there was no reason for a bi-national state to lose its Jewish identity; this would just be enlarged to encompass the Palestinian one, particularly if this is done within a looser federal system.

Meet the family
Anat and Tzachi
Anat is the founder of METalks, an initiative which encouraged Israelis and Arabs to dialogue directly during the conflict in Lebanon. She runs her own internet business. She has a degree in international relations and English literature. Tzachi has just retired from the military to spend more time with the family and to follow his dear wife's orders. He decided that it's not good to spend too much time away from the kids. Tzachi has a first degree in physics and an MBA.

Amos and Zipora
Amos is what is known in Israel as a 'pioneer', being of the founding generation of the left-wing Kibbutzim movement. He is a veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. His early career was dedicated to journalism and writing, but he turned to teaching after a theatre production almost ruined him. As a teacher, he has taught thousands of Jewish-Israelis and Palestinian-Israelis. Zipora was a teacher who taught literature. She met Amos on the Kibbutz. She is a painter and sculptor, and the cool matriarch of the household.

©Khaled Diab. Text and photos


Rachel said...

I am here via Lisa (On the Face) -- I am an American Jew who has spent very little time in Israel, and my own thinking on the political questions is complicated and muddy. But I wanted to tell you how cool I think it is that you are doing this, and how glad I am that you are blogging about it. May you be blessed in your journey!

Dee said...

I too arrived here via "on the face".
Thanyou for sharing your thoughts- although I cannot say they give me hope.