My Dinner in Palestine

'Appetizers' from hosts Hamid and Ayet in their Ramallah home
'Appetizers' from hosts Hamid and Ayet in their Ramallah home

Israel is a country of contrasts. At one turn you find the most modern of first-world cities, expansive infrastructure, well designed high-rise apartment towers and beautifully built single family homes. With another turn you find (after negotiating an Israeli border patrol checkpoint), a cramped crowded energetic small town with a completely different pace and feel. One side is Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people on the other is nascent Palestine. Nascent due to its status as a wannabe country of, by and for Palestinian Arab people. The two exist next to or even on top of each other.

Over more than 40 years, I’ve both lived in and visited Israel many times. When I was a college student in the late 1970s it was an amazing experience to live and study at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Mt. Scopus campus. Mt. Scopus from 1948–1967 was completely surrounded by what was then Jordanian administered Palestine, yet it had special status as the university was established well before the 1948 founding of the modern State of Israel, so Jordan and local Palestinian Arab residents of east Jerusalem left the campus out of the line of fire, yet inoperable.

iconic photo of young Israeli combat soldiers at the Kotel in June 1967

After the famous Six Day War of 1967, all of Jerusalem fell into Israeli hands, including most famously the Old City’s Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel.

Mt. Scopus was also won back from Jordan and Hebrew University’s original campus became a thriving addition to the west Jerusalem Givat Ram campus. Today Mt. Scopus campus is completely swallowed up by surrounding Jerusalem neighborhoods as just one part of the thriving metropolis. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem continue living within the municipality, essentially stateless as they are not citizens of Israel nor legal citizens of Jerusalem. A country of contrasts.

In all those months living in and visiting Israel, never once had I spent time or been invited to a meal by Palestinian Arabs until my new friend Hamid asked me to join he and his family for dinner in Ramallah. And as always in 2019, I said yes!

Who could say anything but yes? From this point back over 40 years of experiences, an invitation to a family dinner 10 minutes drive from Jerusalem was a remarkable and unforgettable adventure. To ensure my comfort and safe passage through the Qalandiya checkpoint and the rush hour traffic of Ramallah, Hamid met me on his motorcycle and escorted me on the half hour drive to the home he shares with wife Ayet and their 3 young sons (who unfortunately were sleeping). The graciousness, which came so easily to these millennial Palestinians, was extended to me as though we had been friends for years.

Old City businessman Hamid and his wife of 7 years Ayet in their Ramallah home

Soon after finishing dinner, Hamid’s cousin came over to join as did his step mother bearing a special Palestinian soup she had made when she heard about my visit. Soon thereafter Hamid’s father Ahmad dropped in as well to share in both the meal and celebration of my presence in the home. Turns out that Ahmad, is also an Old City small business owner of 50 years, he and his father and grandfather were all natives of Jerusalem. This makes Hamid and Ayet’s boys 4th generation Palestinians, much like my daughters are 4th generation Coloradans.

Since relocating my home from Boulder, Colorado to Mitzpe Ramon, Israel last summer, seeking out unique first-hand experiences has been my quest. Just a few months ago I drove from Jerusalem to Ramallah late one afternoon to meet my LinkedIn friend Sam Bahour a Palestinian businessman/activist who handles both roles with ease. Sam decided after the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed to move from his home in Detroit, to the family home near Ramallah as a personal commitment to helping his people succeed economically. Over the years he has been discovered by international visitors who seek a non-governmental and essentially non-political speaker who has first-hand knowledge of the Palestinian experience.

Anas of Green Olive Tours briefing on the Nablus tour

Through Sam’s suggestion, I took a Green Olive tour of Nablus, planned and guided by another young east Jerusalem native Anas, who not only knows Jerusalem and the West Bank like the back of his hand, but easily flows from Arabic to Hebrew to English as he handles questions from mostly non-Jewish participants. He appreciated my questions and suggestion as I pointed out some terminology that I found incomplete.

At least he said he appreciated my questions 😉

In seeking out new first-hand experiences I find both a frustration and a sense of optimism existing in parallel. For me personally, it is completely unacceptable that 40 years has gone by yet Israelis and Palestinians are seemingly not any closer to finding a mutually beneficial solution to each other’s aspirations. Israel has made so much obvious and visible progress over these past 40 years, especially in the area of infrastructure. It’s clearly a modern first-world country. Two generations have been born on both Israeli and Palestinian sides but they seem to be mired in the history of previous generations and competing stories that emphasize trauma, killing, displacement, occupation, and learned hatred of the other.

Yet, if and when one accepts an opportunity for dinner in either an Israeli or Palestinian home (and I have accepted and enjoyed both) it’s so clear that these cultures can compliment each other. Israeli know-how and accomplishments are shared with the world, yet not shared with their next door neighbors. Palestinian hospitality, warmth and graciousness will be shared with Israelis given the opportunity.

In this country of contrasts, it seems most apparent that there is room enough for both. And possibly with a new generation, young people will step up and show that history does not have to be an anchor to the past. Yallah Shalom

About the Author
Ken Toltz began his professional career at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. from 1979 – 1982. He's a 3rd generation Colorado native, businessman and long-time gun violence prevention activist. After 42 years from his first visit to Israel he has relocated his home to Mitzpe Ramon in Israel's Negev.
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