The year was 2013. As a relatively recent oleh chadash, I was still finding my way as a progressive, open-orthodox, Jew in my new country. 2013 was special for me. I recall it as the year of a critical metamorphosis within my Jewish soul. It represents my first authentic encounter with “the other” in Israel, in a moment in time which compelled me to transcend the limitations of artificial fear. One day in July, I was forced to overcome latent racist generalizations I never imagined I harbored in my heart. That is, as a sensitive liberal Jew, I had no notion that it even existed when it came to my perception of Arabs.
It turns out that on some very deep level, my soul was indeed sullied on an unconscious level by images of “wild Arabs” so viciously parodied in Western culture and media; from head-lopping sheiks in Bugs Bunny cartoons to crazed bloodthirsty men with swords in the “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. And years of ill-fought U.S. wars against Arab countries planted images of “otherness” I had not yet confronted.
My moment of rebirth did not occur during my beloved jaunts to exotic Arab shuks with friends. Nor was mine an insular world of estrangement and interactions with Arabs. I had genuine Arab friends and was involved in countless interfaith peace ventures with clergy and laypeople. I can honestly state that I had long become one with them and learned to love my Arab brothers and sisters in the colorful carnivals of coffee, spice, stories and human encounters. Yet I too harbored inner bigotry, because to be honest there are examples of Arab violence against Jews, as well as of Jews who do likewise to ARABS. It was within this real but limiting framework that my own demons lived. I was liberal and tolerant, and I had an eclectic group of Arab friends. Yet still, within the heart of one birthed in a land where whiteness remains a privilege, I had apparently absorbed enough societal influences to shape my worldview.
The moment occurred down south in the remote Negev desert. I was on a three-day Native-American inspired vision quest (or what I hoped would be one) in the wild, at the advice of my life partner. It was a time to experience solitude in the wilderness. To meditate, to cry and laugh, and do nude yoga in an area where privacy was to be assured. To engage in intermittent fasting, a process of detoxification from airborne pollutants, and to contemplate the wind. To paint myself and on paper with the colors of the rocks. And to ponder beneath the acacia trees of old.
One day I fell asleep after hours of meditation, and when I awoke I froze in fear. A grizzled smiling Bedouin man of middle age was approaching me, dressed in the manner of his forefathers. Now I again would like to reiterate that I was no novice to Arab encounters and counted more than a few as my friends. But the visual image of a genuine Bedouin in the isolated desert conjured up fear in a deep part of me that had unknowingly accepted a racist stereotype. It had to be so, since in the absence of evidence I assumed and thus feared physical harm. Why would that be? Would I have feared a Jew in the desert?
I remember the philosophical dilemma. What would I do? Reject my pacifistic way and fight for my life. Or accept the way of resistance and show love through strength, even if it meant brutality and death? Could I be as Ghandi in my greatest moment of fear and the possibility of pain? A moment of sheer terror overwhelmed me.
What happened next changed my life forever. Certain that I would be murdered with a scimitar and buried beneath the sand, I smiled weakly and greeted him in broken Hebrew. He reached in his garment and pulled out…. “dear God”, my mind screamed….” a knife?”. Nothing so dramatic, and yet in some ways it was so much more. He withdrew a greenish colored leather sack of delicious dates.
And thus, it all began beneath our shared acacia tree. A friendship of trust and growth was sown as we munched on the most delicious and refreshing dates I have ever eaten and drank the rich indigenous Arab coffee (far better than Nescafe) beneath that twisted tree. We have never looked back. That evening he introduced me to his wives and his lovely children, and we supped together. And he even dropped me off at the Beersheba train station the very next morning.
A five-year friendship continues to this day with my brother Hassan. His family has met mine and, on many occasions, he has stayed the night in our village nestled in the Judean hills. And during our many trips south on family trips we never miss time with Uncle Hassan, Aunt Fatima, and “the cousins” as my kids lovingly refer to them.
As a committed liberal, that encounter in 2013 was the moment I confronted the hypocrisy and limitations of a sham liberalism that opines on things from the domain of gated communities and in the articles of The New Yorker. I thought that the desert Arab was not me. But in truth, we are one. Two acacias enduring and growing in our shared desert oasis. Our journey continues.
It is not always simple. I admit freely that Hassan’s ways are not always mine, and the eastern ways of family life sometimes shock me. But I do not judge him, and while he may tease me on occasion for flirting with veganism (“as not being a manly thing” he says with his broken English ), he respects my decisions. I often joke that the greatest obstacle to adopting such a restrictive dietary life is not that I must refrain from eating delicious shwarma, or the sweet and sour goat-head soup of his favorite wife, but rather because I will miss eating her delicious homemade yogurt, comprised mostly of goat milk. Perhaps vegetarianism is the best I can do.
During that first night Hassan noted that had I appeared less gentle and more threatening while I slept beneath the Acacia tree, he might have figured me for an aggressor and in the ancient code of the desert, been forced to kill me to protect his family. I was flabbergasted at first but when he smiled in that delightful way and said that he was only joking, I discovered his delightful acerbic wit and wisdom. “But” he added, with a beautiful smile with serious eyes, “once upon a time my grandfather would have done so.”
I believe this wonderful man, because Hassan must also overcome his fears, resentments, hatreds, and insecurities. And he is as honest as the length of a camel’s shadow. Eternally so. Today I am Hassan’s brother and he is mine. He often jokes that he would wage jihad to save me. I would do likewise (peacefully) if fanatics arose in Israel and wished to throw him out of the country. But ours is a tale of love and laughter. I once gave him a piece of gefilta fish to sample. He spit it out and we both laughed, and after that, he taught me an Arab dance. And while he danced his ancient dance, I played a song of life on my olive-wood ocarina, handcrafted to look like a green agama lizard.
Hassan and I are brothers.” How true the words of the ancient Arabian proverb!
“A brother is preferable to a gourd of sweetened water in the desert, since a brother will fight the desert jinn for you, and skin the desert jackals for liquid.”
We circumcised sons of the desert are united in our homeland. Abba Ibrahim would be proud.