‘Excuse me, can you translate the name of this cheese?” a tall man standing in front of the dairy section asked me. I looked at the two packages he was holding, they both were 16% fat but had different names printed on the packages in Hebrew. “I don’t know the exact difference” I replied, “but if you’re looking for a strong flavour I recommend this Feta”.
This conversation sounds as normal as any conversation, but imagine this banal exchange of words happening in a supermarket, in the West Bank, in the heart of Gush Etzion settlement block between a women living in one of the settlements (myself) and a Palestinian from one of the nearby towns. Suddenly this act of communication surrounding the choice of cheese became an example for neutral, helpful and day to day interactions between the two people that almost never interact naturally.
Pushing my cart down the aisles of the Rami Levi Supermarket located in a commercial “no-man’s-land” between Israeli Efrat and Palestinian Beit Omar, I brushed shoulders and shared space with people who could not enter my town, nor could I enter theirs. Red signs entering Area C warn Israeli citizens to beware for their lives and create a sensation of fear towards any instance of crossing into the Palestinian Territories. Jewish towns guard their gates with great care, to ensure the security of their residents from potential attack and harm. Necessary as this might be, at this specific supermarket, these borders became irrelevant. From being two nations separated by years of conflict we entered the role of simple customers at the store since we all need to eat, we all need fabric softener and we all need to eat Falafel when the shopping’s done.
Criticism of the co-existence expressed in a shared employment network and clientele has so far proved futile, as the Gush Etzion branch is visited by hundreds daily. It is a commodity open to the public that offers fair prices and friendly service which makes it one of the more attractive grocery shopping options in the area for a bi-national clientele. Yellow/ Black and White/Green liscense plates dot the parking lot, and when I once got stuck in a parking spot it was an owner of one of the white and green plates that helped me edge out.
We all know that our leaders have a lot of serious issues to discuss and are aware of the difficulty in creating a political reality that tends to the quintessential issues of the shared lives of people living in the region. Yet it just goes to show, that a few sentences exchanged on the topic of Feta cheese expressed a need for dialogue centered on our most basic needs and areas of commonality. Also, as ironic as it sounds this mundane action happened in an area where Israelis and Palestinians live in a constant situation of friction- the West Bank. In Tel-Aviv this could never have happened, only in the grey behind-the-scenes of the Territories. What does this mean?
Could we possibly entertain the notion that since the settlements and Palestine are at this point somewhat indistinguishable, that this terrain could hold as a meeting ground? The late Rabbi Fruman who created deep bonds with the neighbouring leaders surrounding the Tekoa settlement, believed that separation was unnecessary and harmful to both sides. While respectful relationships based on the understanding that land belongs to The One God and not to men, was more in-line with the deep internal reality.
In the rare shared space of the supermarket, I interacted on a daily basis with my neighbours, if not through discussions about the ideal cheese then through the curious glances of the young children, through the non-verbal gestures of yielding with your shopping cart and smiling, so that the shopper on “the-other-side” could pass through, through the courtesy of the cashiers and baggers. It might be an isolated phenomenon of shared space or a harbinger of normalcy, that we all so need. I’m grateful for the secondary purpose that this place had for me, as a window to my neighbours that allowed me to meet and experience myself and my Palestinian co-shoppers as normal and equal, for a magical few moments before we got into our cars and went our separate ways.