His name was Kurt and he was from Norway. “I’m Kurt from Norway,” he said in a shockingly abrasive tone, even to an ear familiar with Israelis. “Are you Jewish?” he then asked, which sounded like a gulp, and before even asking my name (which would have been a dead give away, though my lighter complexion might have confused him). “Yes,” I said, knowing what he would answer with his overly gelled blonde locks hovering above the conversation, but asking anyway, mitigating the space, “Are you?” “I’m Christian,” he said, as if on cue, pointing to the large-print JESUS tattoo on his forearm. I nodded. “But I’m pro-Israel.”
His words rang loudly in the loud Tel Aviv bar, resounding over the mixed American-Israeli music with which the young DJ flirted. “But I’m pro-Israel,” pulsed like a beat in the vibe—reassuring at first, and then irksome.
As the young DJ packed up and disappointingly left YouTube to do his post 2 a.m. work, and my friends and I left the bar and negotiated with stubborn Israeli cab drivers in what we hoped were convincing Israeli (or at least assured, and not drunk-young American) accents, Kurt’s words lingered in my head like an overplayed pop-song.
Was it the “But” that bothered me, that followed his unnecessary-at-the-time religious confession, as if being Christian was somehow antithetical to being pro-Israel? Was I bothered by the fact that Kurt felt he needed to tell me in the first moment he met me where he stood politically while standing in a crowded bar, as if his presence there (conspicuous presence, I might add, because of his beaming Ken Doll hair), here in Tel Aviv, was not contrary to his beliefs about the place? That he needed to justify being Christian, or being pro-Israel, in Israel, or both? That he needed to qualify himself to me, perhaps after confirming my Jewishness, for fear or anticipation of a certain reaction, a certain questioning, that he assumed would follow, that he’d received before, so came prepared? Or, was he simply saying, a bit lost through his thick accent, over my head at the time and stuck in his hair, “I’m Christian, but I’m pro-Israel, so it’s okay, you can take me home?” Whatever cards he was laying out nagged at me.
And I continued to overthink it. Maybe I was bothered by the regular dissatisfaction I felt with terminology in its ability to box people in and eliminate the possibility of ambiguity, of gray area, as if being pro-Israel demanded being anti-Palestinian or anti-something-else and neglected to acknowledge a more fluid stance of being pro-peace.
Or maybe I was frustrated by the realization of, the redundancy of conversation around Israel never failing to be political — in what other country in the world do you meet someone in a bar, another foreigner, and feel inclined to say you support the state in which you find yourself? As if being there, for whatever reason, is not enough; your choice must be explained, asterisked, a “But” added. As if you cannot be in Israel for “business” or “pleasure,” BUT you must also tick off political affiliations, religious inclinations, and tattoo them on your arm.
And then I wondered whether my irritation was due to a misconception of or the accurate perception of those who feel like foreigners, outsiders, to the State of Israel — if I were here and not Jewish, not assumed to be here with Taglit by every cab driver trying to overcharge me, would I enter conversations like Kurt at bars in Tel Aviv and lay all my cards out on the table to avoid confusion, or to find synergy, or something else?
As I pondered, the cab driver sped past the Church of Scientology that I passed everyday on my way to work — the blue and white Hebrew, Arabic and English banner lit up at night. The blue dome of a nearby mosque popped into view, and it dawned on me what Kurt had not uttered in his very guttural way: “I am here, and I see what you see.”
In the noisy bar, Kurt had also managed to confess that he was here as a journalist for a large Norwegian paper, conducting interviews with Israeli soldiers (to what end, I do not know). But in his rookie state, amid the collisions of old and new, ancient walls crumbling and glass ceilings shattering, I realized that he had not yet heard the languages of Tel Aviv, of Jaffa, of Bat Yam, of Jerusalem overlapping like hushed prayers over water; he couldn’t have. I know this because I know what it feels like to tread the unsteady line between outsider and insider, to not live here permanently but feel closely connected. To taste Israeli waters and then see the tipsy, unsound social mirage reflected in international reports — bitter, treating everything in Israel with a grain of salt.
And that’s how I had received Kurt and his admissions — as a sour reminder of how Israel is often received by the rest of the world — politicized, combed over, and torn apart. And being here, working in Jaffa, passing peacefully glossed graffiti humming of coexistence and religious difference, pausing before tombs of Tabitha and King David in Israel’s oldest quarters, it is easy to forget what those outside of Israel cannot see. Being here, you are here, with ambivalence and complexities all around you, and with or without a mastery of Israeli assertiveness, it’s okay, you’re okay, just being, without qualifying why.
Kurt, if we should meet in Israel again, I should expect it. And I imagine you’ll be less awkward at the bar.