My best friend came 10 days ago to visit Israel for the first time.
She almost didn’t because yours truly sent her a link to the Times of Israel and said “Oh, you totally want to have this open on your browser all the time so you know what’s going on here.”
That night, the story about the 170,000 warheads pointed RIGHT AT ISRAEL, led the site.
“Um, I don’t know if I should come.” she said. “It sounds like Israel has a lot of enemies right now.”
Still, I backpedaled fast. I sent her the Tel Aviv Happy video. I sent her music by Idan Raichel. I sent her pictures of my kids frolicking in the fields behind the village where we live…. those rolling fields that spill over into the same big blue sky we share with her and the rest of the world.
“Yihye beseder,” I said. “That means, it’s all good.”
We both did.
At a glimpse: A guy in dreads playing Hava Nagilla on a ukulele at an art fair in Tel Aviv.
Jews and Arabs shopping together in the Acco shuk like it ain’t no thang.
The best lunch in the whole entire world at a goat cheese farm in Tal Shahar.
Cappuccino on the kibbutz.
Posing with the angel wings in Yafo.
We went back to the Old City on the last day because all roads lead to Jerusalem.
While we were there in that city so holy to so many people, we met a woman from a Presbyterian Church group… One of the many groups that are very critical of Israel — often in ways that do more harm than good.
But we spoke, because that’s what you do when you’re in Jerusalem and the sky is the same shade of blue that the locals — The Armenians, the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews — in all four quarters use to ward off the Evil Eye.
“You know,” she said to me, “Over the years, I’ve made friends with Israelis, and my views have softened. I believe when you meet someone from the other side, you see their humanity and have more tolerance for their narrative.”
Because let’s be real: It doesn’t matter what our leaders decide for us — unless we know one another and recognize the humanity in the other, we’re going to be tearing at each other until we rip a hole so effing big that we’re all sucked into it.
The stakes are really high right now. This isn’t like back in the day when we sang about beating our swords into plowshares. Unless by swords you mean nuclear warheads.
I thought about what this woman said while my friend and I wended our way through the Muslim Quarter as the shadows grew around us.
“Are you afraid?” my friend asked me at one point when we realized that we were very very lost and the call of the muezzin was echoing off the ancient walls.
“I’m trying not to be,” I said.
We found our way to the main road that leads from Damascus Gate to the Christian Quarter, and more importantly, we found the place with the best kanaffe in the whole entire world.
In the past, I would cleave my identity into quarters to fit the colors all around me. And in the Muslim Quarter, I was always American.
The last time I was there, I spoke English.
The last time I was there, I stretched my smile into an American’s rictus.
The last time I was there, I was afraid to give the man behind the counter who was holding the iPhone with a picture of the Palestinian flag and Yasser Arafat the chance to see that an Israeli woman was eating in his restaurant.
This time, I busted out the Hebrew.
We spoke about kanaffe – we kept it simple, this time.
Be the change you want to see in the world.
And then today…
I was by the escalators at Ben Gurion airport, bleary-eyed from saying goodbye to my beloved friend, when I saw three men trying to negotiate a selfie.
Oh, I have been there.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” I asked in Hebrew.
“Ken!” they said in unison.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“We are from Sudan.”
The iPhone was the same as mine, minus the hot pink cover. And I know the buttons intuitively, even when the language on the screen is in Arabic.
I held the iPhone while the three men smiled — I dragged the focus in the middle, the lighting shifted, and just as I hit the camera button, the man in the middle flashed a quenelle — the Nazi salute 2.0.
Yes a nouveau Nazi salute. At Ben Gurion Airport. While a priest in a long black robe and a giant cross led a group of Russian tourists past the elevators, while three guys in yarmulkes argued over the merits of Aroma cafe vs. Arcaffe as they nursed their Purim hangover. While two soldiers helped an old woman in a hijab with a heavy bag. While a little girl wept over a lost balloon.
I felt the air sucked out of my chest.
My throat closed.
But sometimes, being the change you want to see in the world means not smashing someone’s phone and punching them in the face.
So instead: I felt my smile turn to steel.
“Shalom, I told the three men. “Peace be with you.”