All five readers of this blog know that I don’t like to talk about politics. I don’t. It’s not for lack of interest or opinion. I’m more of a chronicler of moobs if you will. I also find politics boring and ultimately, at least in this country, super repetitive. That being said, I’d like to discuss the release of the 26 Palestinian prisoners that happened this week, not because my opinion bears any gravitas or because you, my readers care, but rather because I happen to know one of the prisoners. I’m actually friendly with his brother. And that’s how I learned about it to begin with. By asking Bing to translate (rather poorly I might add) a Facebook post in which W., my friend from Abu Dis in the West Bank, was letting all of us, his friends, know that after 28 years his brother was finally coming home. Let me rewind to 1995.
I was 17 and Rabin was prime minister I was a member of the Likud Youth party. At first it was part of my diabolical scheme to attract the attention of a certain blonde girl that I had a crush on. It then turned into a creepy “Bridge over the River Kwai” style obsession. Before I knew it I was one of a handful of national Youth leaders. It was during the signing of the Oslo agreements and one of my tasks (assigned to me by higher ups in the party, Bibi being one of them) was to follow Mr. Rabin around everywhere with a group of brainwashed kids like myself and chant hurtful slogans like: “You’re a traitor!” or “You’re ruining this country!” Our eyes met once outside city hall in Holon. True story. Next thing I knew two beefy Shaback agents were kicking my ass.
For reasons I still cannot begin to understand I received a phone call that summer from a representative at the Ministry of Education. She explained that she was running a program for Israeli and Palestinian youth in Vienna, Austria. It was a coordinated effort by the Austrians (who, as part of the Oslo agreements, were assigned the Education portfolio) to promote coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. The idea was to bring together various grass roots youth leaders on both sides, teach us to coexist and then provide us with the tools to educate our peers back at home.
I agreed to go even though I was opposed to coexisting on an ideological level. I was Israeli already and therefore would never, ever pass up anything that’s free, let alone an all expense paid trip to Vienna. So I would have to put up with some bullshit propaganda and some bonding exercises. Fuck it. I was too busy researching the various beers Austria had to offer to give a shit about the implications. In fact the only Deutsche I learned before leaving was “eine bier bitte.”
None of the Palestinians really liked me. I couldn’t blame them. I represented everything that they loathed. I walked around clutching a copy of Bibi’s book like a Hitler youth carrying Mein Kampf in pre-war Berlin. I went out of my way to antagonize and confront my Palestinian peers. None of the Israelis liked me either. They were all hippies who listened to Aviv Geffen and talked euphorically about the end of the conflict. They were supremely condescending, as most left-leaning liberals are, and found me to be cavemanish in my right-wing stupidity. Finally, the Austrians hated me though I can’t pinpoint exactly why. My guess is that it was on account of my general deuchiness. As a matter of fact I probably would have been lynched if not for the leader of the Palestinian group, W. He had earned the respect of the Israelis on account of his moderate views and merited serious street cred amongst the Palestinians due to, as I would later learn, his brother serving a life sentence for murdering a Jew. He liked me for some reason and we found some mutual admiration for each other one night when we snuck out to sample a bit of Vienna’s nightlife and beers. I got hammered for the first time in my life and then severely chastised by the Israeli leadership for embarrassing myself and the country that I represented. I didn’t give a shit. I had made my first Palestinian friend.
That November Rabin was shot. I was in a movie theater with my girlfriend. I felt so guilty. I felt like Lee Harvey Oswald for Christ’s sake, or whoever pulled the trigger that morning in Dallas. Or at Kikar Malkhei Israel. I quit the Likud and decided to never, ever participate in any political activity again.
I came back to Israel in 2007 for a number of reasons. One of them was to pursue a documentary idea I had been toying with of tracking down some of the members of the youth delegations and seeing what had become of them. I was especially curious about W. Thanks to Facebook it was easy to find quite a few of them, both Israelis and Palestinians. I took a crew and interviewed W. in East Jerusalem. We had a cup of coffee and discussed what we had both been through in the past 15 years. He was married with kids. Living in Abu Dis. He was a lawyer and had spent years teaching at a prestigious university in San Francisco. He took me on a tour of the separation wall and the Calandia checkpoint which he had to go through to meet me. He told me about his neighbor who was killed during the second Intifada. It was around the time of Cast Lead and the reports out of Gaza were difficult to stomach. Despite all that, he implored me to try and orchestrate a reunion.
One by one I tracked down the Israeli participants and almost unanimously they were against any kind of reunion. Most of the liberals had shifted right. One was even a religious settler now, with views far more extreme than I ever held back when I was a teenager. None of us could agree on a neutral location to meet. Getting the Palestinians into Israel would require a virtual miracle of logistic cooperation. None of the Israelis wanted to enter Bethlehem even though K., one of the Palestinians, was running a large hotel and offered to host the shindig.
The documentary, much like the peace process itself was dead in the water before it even started. If we, the youth who had been raised on the values of Oslo and coexistence, could and would not agree to try and meet, what hope was there for peace?
I haven’t spoken to W. since his brother’s release. I’m sure he’s been busy making up for lost time. He did, however, like a picture of my son D. drinking lemonade at the bar of a Mexican restaurant in Florentine. I, in return, really liked the beautiful pictures of his children and family he took when he was visiting relatives in San Francisco. Our relationship is virtual now and we coexist so harmoniously online that I almost forget that we have enormous physical and emotional walls that will, I’m afraid, forever separate us.