“Is there nothing to be done to prevent bloodshed?” I asked.
“I think you know the answer — and I know your response. From the time Ishmael was cast out by Sarah, we have been destined to compete. We claim the same land, and neither of us will accept subjugation by the other. As fellow People of the Book, we would treat the Jews well, but I know it will not satisfy you.”
Ali said he spoke for his father, but I still could not tell if that was really true. The old man just sat passively sucking on his pipe, never changing expression.
“Honorable Sheikh, we have had to rely on the kindness of rulers since we were dispersed two-thousand years ago,” I said, “and our health has suffered. Once the doctor has made you sicker once, you don’t give him a second chance.”
“I understand, Tevye. But you must not hold any false hopes or illusions about our will. If we defeat you, we will drive you into the sea and it will be the end of the Jews in Palestine. If you defeat us, it will only be a temporary setback. We are the many, you are the few. As I told you before, it took us two centuries to repel the Crusaders, but we succeeded. However long it takes, we will fight. How long can you hold out?”
“Ali, my friend, we share faith in the same God. He has not made the life of my people easy, but He has sustained us through famine, pestilence, pogroms and war. All those who defeated us are today gone, but we Jews are still here. As you Arabs like to say, we are a stiff-necked people. We are too stubborn to die. And you should have no illusions about our will to fight — and to win.”
Ali’s father stood, so the son rose as well. “Tevye, you are an honorable man. I hope that we shall find a way to avoid what I fear is inevitable,” Ali said with a bow.
“Inshallah,” I said, repeating the phrase I’d heard Arabs use so often to express their hope that God grants their wishes.
“So you have learned some Arabic after all.”
“As we say in Yiddish, a bissel.”
“Go in peace, my friend.”
“And peace to you, Sheikh Jabber. And to you Ali.”
We bowed toward each other and I went to my horse. Ali’s brothers had fed the old boy and given it water and now the beast did not appear anxious to leave. It looked at me as though it thought I was not worthy of riding upon its back. When the animal snorted at me, one of the Bedouins gently took the bridle and led the horse to me and helped me climb on.
I rode back in the company of Ali’s brothers, who did not leave me until we were within sight of the kibbutz. I thanked them and wished them salaam aleikum, but they galloped away as silently as they had snuck up on me.
I sat for a moment watching them disappear over the rocky hill, the moonlight creating ghostly silhouettes. How long before they return with different intentions?
“Dear Lord, is this why You’ve brought us back to the Promised Land? To fight for our lives, forever? Are we to have no peace, even in our homeland?”
“Once again my house is blessed. My children finally return, escape at last from the anti-Semitism of Russia and Poland, only to come to a place where we are once again hated by our neighbors. How many more tests must we face, Lord? How many?”
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s novel, After Anatevka – Tevya Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.