When I envisioned spending this year in Tel Aviv, I imagined that I would spend some time writing. Writing what? Lots of ideas – but only one firm one – I’m not going to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To my mind, nowhere is the Ecclesiastical adage “there is nothing new under the sun” more clearly proven than in political position writing on the conflict. Very often we, like Bibi Netanyahu, mistake a new turn of phrase about the conflict for a new idea. And that’s how it all just starts to sound like white noise. I do not want to be white noise.
But then here it is again, the bloodshed. Like a deeply disturbed relative who turns up on the family’s doorstep every now and again to wreak havoc, it takes up all the air there is to breathe.
Still, I am determined to not let it take me where it wants to go – the same ground over and over.
And so, I do not have anything new to say about how or why we got to today’s “breaking news.”
But I do have a personal conflict.
* * * *
I’ve always strongly identified with Judaism and Israel. So naturally in 1996, when I met Ramzi, a Palestinian Muslim from the exurbs of LA, during orientation week at law school, we engaged in a heated political debate. I left the encounter feeling shaky – sure that we would continue to clash, or at the very least avoid each other, for the next three years.
As it happened, Ramzi attached himself to the same group of great people that I did and we often ended up in each other’s company. Not wanting to perpetuate the awkwardness, or to be defined as the knee jerk “Zionist” or “Palestinian,” we came to a tacit understanding to put the political arguments aside when we hung out.
That became easy enough when the stresses of the 1L year set in — the Socratic method, impenetrable arcane legal principles, the gnawing thought that maybe law school wasn’t the right choice after all. These conversations were more personal and immediate than anything else and Ramzi and I had them in common.
As unlikely as it might have seemed from the outside, Ramzi and I were similarly out-of-our-element in the rarefied world of our Ivy League law school. Both Ramzi and I were the first generation in our families to go to college. Our parents were so proud and yet so painfully disconnected from us, they would exaggerate our accomplishments to family and friends in improbable ways that only highlighted how little of our world they understood.
And we in turn, understood very little about our parents and why they made the life choices they did. But we could entertain our friends with stories from our crazy families — as we lifted heavy burdens from our pasts, demonstrated our resilience, and in the course we became a tag team.
I remember one cringing chapter of Ramzi’s family history: Ramzi’s father owned a liquor store. This, despite Islam’s prohibition against consuming alcohol. If that were not embarrassing enough to a young Muslim growing up in a fairly traditional Muslim community, it was infinitely worse because his dad named the liquor store after him: “RAMZI’S LIQUORS.” Eager to show off his firstborn son, Ramzi’s dad constantly pressured high school Ramzi to come to the store with him and work as cashier, ringing up alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, Hustler Magazine and the like.
After several years on the East Coast, Ramzi, loyal to Palestinian causes but also a bundle of contradictions, called himself an “honorary Jew.” This meant his vocabulary included some Yiddish, like “schlep” and “schtick.” He was a regular at our Shabbat dinners. He would chastise guests who flouted the custom of not speaking between washing hands and blessing the challah. And he was a Chaim Potok appreciator.
The fall after we graduated from law school, Ramzi was diagnosed with Synovial Sarcoma, a rare and insidious form of cancer. He underwent a full year of draconian chemotherapy and missed a large chunk of his clerkship with a federal judge he adored.
Ramzi’s mom and his teenage sister, who by parental arrangement was about to marry a Palestinian living in Jordan and was giddy flipping through bridal magazines, took turns flying out to take care of Ramzi.
Coming often to visit Ramzi myself, I got to know the family very well. The family of course knew I was Jewish and very connected to Israel but if it bothered them, it was overridden by seeing Ramzi rally when I came to visit. And while Ramzi slept, they loved to try to get me to reveal information about him — insignificant things he hadn’t told them because he never felt like himself around them.
Ramzi’s cancer was in remission for a few years during which time he worked as a federal public defender and became a law professor, his dream, at a small school in the Midwest. During that time, I left my job at a big corporate New York law firm to work at a Jewish women’s organization. We had a baby boy. Ramzi flew in for the bris.
Those were the years after 9-11 and the Second Intifada in Israel — years of constant brutal terrorism, years of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush years. Ramzi, pleased to have his hair back after chemo, grew a full unwieldy beard. Looking like a stereotypical Arab man, he faced some very scary anti-Muslim harassment and suffered an anxious existential crisis in the aftermath. A girl I knew in my sister-in-law’s high school class in Jerusalem was killed in a terrorist attack. In sharing these things with each other it was very easy to mutually agree that the world was falling to pieces.
The cancer eventually returned and spread to his lungs. Ramzi underwent more grueling treatment, but nothing worked. He died at age 30. Synovial Sarcoma has a 10% survival rate.
When I arrived at the family’s house the night before the funeral, Ramzi’s mother, who barely speaks English, clung to me sobbing. How was she going to continue to live, she wanted to know. Someone would have to stop her, she warned, she was going to jump into the grave with Ramzi’s body.
And when I left to fly back to New York, Ramzi’s mother clung to me again — she said I was her connection to Ramzi and she pleaded with me to stay in touch.
In the nine years since, Ramzi’s parents relocated to Ramallah where they currently live. We had a second son and named him Ro’i in tribute to Ramzi. He is now seven.
I am Facebook friends with Ramzi’s sister. She has messaged me several times with good wishes for our adventure in Israel — and a request. It is very important to her parents who are in Ramallah to see us sometime soon.
The request has some urgency to it. As a mother, who has lost a mother, is thinking about mothers, Ramzi’s mother, I understand.
In the “magical thinking” of grief (Joan Didion), I imagine that seeing me and my family would give her a sense — however slight, however ephemeral — of seeing Ramzi today as he approaches forty. How have we aged? She wants to know. Not much? She can continue to imagine Ramzi as he looks in the photos she carries. Aged significantly? Well then she should update her mental picture of Ramzi — add some gray hair around his temples, recede the hairline an inch, add some heft to his belly. How old are my children? Ramzi’s children would be about the same age — give or take. Am I alive, joyful, lit up from within? Do I laugh, eat, kiss and hug? If I do then Ramzi must too, wherever he is these days.
Or maybe she needs my help to reenact in her imagination a scene with Ramzi where I had been in the room. She wants me to play me and she’ll play Ramzi, she’ll embody Ramzi, she’ll bring him to life.
Maybe it’s the scene when Ramzi was very sick, wasting away, lying on the couch in his apartment, barely conscious. His mom and I were sitting opposite each other in club chairs at the sides of the couch. Ramzi’s mom was pleading with him to swallow a spoonful of soup. She alternated whispering to him gently in English, “Raam-zi, please, soup,” and screaming at him in Arabic. Either way, he was unresponsive. Meanwhile, I put on one of Ramzi’s records on his turntable and sat back down. We were sitting like that when, without warning, Ramzi stood up and hobbled over to the record player to change the track. Ramzi’s mother rolled her eyes at the insult to her soup but beamed as she recognized in Ramzi his force of will, music obsession and reprise of adolescent spite.
Only once in the lead up to his death did Ramzi talk to me about dying. About his funeral. He wanted to warn me that the funeral was likely to disappoint me and others who would expect a meaningful tribute to who he was — eulogies by friends citing some of his best lines, testimonies from clients he had freed from jail, a speech about his scholarship by the dean of the law school where he was a professor, maybe even a guest appearance by Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter. The funeral was not going to be that, but instead, a traditional Muslim funeral and burial. That’s what his mother wanted and above all else, Ramzi, about to devastate her with his death, wanted to give her any comfort he could from the other side.
Thinking back to that, I want very badly to offer his mom whatever comfort I could.
Tachlis: I start to think, how and where can we meet up with Ramzi’s parents?
Could we drive to their house in Ramallah? I am sure there are Israeli soldiers stationed on roads at the turn offs to Ramallah to ensure that Israelis do not accidently wander into the City. And I am grateful. I was in Israel in October of 2000 when two Israeli reservists accidently entered Ramallah. They were lynched by a mob. We are left with the iconic photo of a Palestinian standing at an upstairs window holding up his bloody palms to a cheering crowd.
So no, traveling to Ramallah is not advisable. But it is legally permissible for U.S. citizens. So how would I explain to Ramzi’s parents that unlike other American tourists, we do not feel safe in their home, among their people?
Let’s side-step that conversation. How about if I suggest that we meet in Jerusalem? Are Ramzi’s parents allowed to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem? They’re U.S. citizens. I check the U.S. Department of State website:
“Entry of U.S. citizens to Israel is controlled by Israel and “[t]hose whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin … may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel or the West Bank.”
Are there any special rules that apply to U.S. – Palestinian citizens? Yes.
“U.S. citizens with Palestinian passports must use the Allenby Bridge-King Hussein border crossing to enter or exit the West Bank. They are not permitted to transit via Ben Gurion International Airport.”
I infer from this that Ramzi’s parents would be treated at the border like all other Palestinians.
Palestinians require entry permits to enter Israel. But according to Israel’s thirteen page “Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Order,” dated September 2, 2015, Palestinians over the age 45 (women) and 55 (men) do not need permits on Fridays to enter for prayer, subject to security clearance. Ramzi’s parents are older than that so if we scheduled for a Friday, and this order has not been amended in light of the ongoing spate of terrorist stabbings, presumably they would be able to get to Jerusalem.
But would they? Undoubtedly security at the border is on high alert. What if we plan to meet on a Friday morning, take the kids out of school and travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Ramzi’s parents are turned away at the border for whatever reason? What is that phone call like? What if they aren’t turned away, but detained by “time-consuming and probing questioning” and are late to meet us? What is that conversation like? Even if they arrive on time – where common courtesy is to ask “how was your flight?”, “how was the drive?”, “how did you sleep?” — how could I meet Ramzi’s grieving parents on the other side of the world without the acknowledgment of “how was your trip?”
This is new to me. Not Israeli-Palestinian hostility, not the tension between Palestinian human rights and Israel’s self defense, not the checkpoints, and not Friday access to pray at the Temple Mount, for god’s sake. What is new is to put this very sensitive, very intimate, bubble of a relationship smack in the middle of the conflict.
There is no getting around it. I briefly entertain hiding from Ramzi’s parents behind my U.S. passport, pretending to be a neutral, referring to Israelis and Palestinians in the third person, with a “why can’t they just get along?” But that is so disingenuous, it’s a lie. I instantly think of the wicked son at the Passover seder, the one who asks, “‘what has the Almighty done for you?’, for you and not for him.” While I don’t give the orders, don’t even vote here, the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints are acting on my behalf. My kids are at school today, we have chosen to spend a year in Israel, because they are there. I appreciate them. I pray for their protection, and for all of our sake, that they use their power judiciously.
And so, status quo. I don’t call Ramzi’s parents, I don’t write. Like everybody else in this conflict, I wait for something out there to make it easier for me to sit with them and sit with myself at the same time. It’s a wait.