They say every rose has its thorn.
But earlier this month during Yom Yerushalayim, under the scorching fire of the Jerusalem sun, four of my friends and I found out that far too often, people fixate on the thorn to the exclusion of the rose.
Along with thousands of other Israelis, we found ourselves standing at the unfamiliar feet of Sha’ar Schem (Damascus Gate), about 200 feet further east than most of us had ventured on foot at any point in our nearly nine months in Jerusalem. Unlike thousands of other Israelis, however, we were standing there at four o’clock in the afternoon — not five — and were holding bouquets of ruby red roses — not flags and banners. Just to be clear, I see absolutely no problem with almost every aspect of the annual flag parade that flows into the Old City and down to the Kotel (Western Wall), and swell with pride at the thought that the Jewish people have reclaimed their holiest city’s holiest sites after thousands of years of exile. I do, however, see a problem with a small, but vocal, minority of the parade that almost annually chants vicious racist slogans, and all too often, I feel sharp pangs of embarrassment and dismay deflate my pride.
So instead of standing to the side and observing the parade as I had originally planned, I jumped at the opportunity to hand out flowers at Sha’ar Schem in an attempt to mollify some of what I feared could take place later in the day. I felt good about it, and after all, what could be bad about flowers?
Apparently, a lot.
Soldiers snickered at my friends and me as we walked by their posts, adolescent revelers mocked us at the steps outside the gate, and at least two flag-bearing demonstrators berated us for our act of goodwill. One child even went as far as to take a flower and throw it to the floor in disgust when my friend told him it was, “For peace.”
On the flip side, the countless upturned hands, downward glances, and curt shakes of the head offered to us by the Arabs streaming out of Sha’ar Schem only compounded the disturbing condemnations levied at us from “our side.” Perhaps they refused the flowers due to hate, perhaps they refused due to fear, perhaps they — or rather a number of them — refused due to religious strictures that prevent women from accepting flowers from men. I don’t know, I can’t read minds nor speak Arabic, but what I do know — and what became painfully clear painfully quickly — is that it should never be as hard as it was to give out free flowers.
To be fair, the average Yom Yerushalayim reveler paid us no attention, and a few even offered effusive endorsements. By the same token, a fair majority of those we offered flowers to — Arab and otherwise — accepted them graciously. As usual though, the negative interactions stand out most distinctly in my mind — and that’s a shame, because there was also some real beauty at Sha’ar Schem that day.
There was beauty in the five yeshiva students who went against the grain and stood up for that which they believed in. There was beauty in the little Arab children — in my memory, virtually every single one that we came across — who gleefully accepted the flowers with outstretched arms. There was beauty in the interaction between my friends and me and the young reporter from a Palestinian news organization — fresh out of school in the States — who came to the Gate expecting to see acts of violence and hatred, but instead encountered flowers and kindness.
These sparks of beauty certainly did not go unchallenged. Our friends and rabbis chastised us for foolishly believing that we could make a difference with the Arabs and putting ourselves in danger. Arab parents pulled their children to the side when they reached out to take a rose. An air of suspicion pervaded our interaction with the reporter.
One instance stands out most in my mind. As I walked into class the morning after Yom Yerushalyim, my rabbi began chastising my friend and me for our little adventure in East Jerusalem. Like a good Jewish mother, he wasn’t angry — just disappointed. He was truly baffled at how we could even make overtures for peace — reminding us that, “They want to kill you” — and seemed to pity us for thinking that we could actually change anything. All the while, I couldn’t help but think of those little Arab children who took the flowers without hesitation. I was sure that somewhere out there, a Palestinian teacher was shooing thoughts of peace out of a young Palestinian student’s head — with only that young student’s best interest in mind.
Both my rabbi and that teacher want only the best future for their students, yet they inculcate their students against the one thing that can ensure that future: peace.
I’m well aware of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — I hold no illusions as to the severity of the situation and visceral hatred it evokes on both sides. I am not blind to Palestinian terrorism and murder, but neither am I blind to Israeli aggression. That being said, I feel that a certain dimension of the conflict is manufactured from above. When thoughts of peace anchor in young minds, teachers and leaders with ingrained prejudices do their best to cut the mooring.
To those vanguards of conflict, I quote John Lennon and say:
Give peace a chance.