I’m sitting in my kitchen and working when I see some young women photographing through the window of the gate to my yard, and I hear them speaking Arabic. There have been several recent reports of people’s houses being photographed, break-ins, and the security situation has everyone on edge. I go out to talk to the women — there are five of them, in their late teens or early 20s — and ask them what they’re doing. They tell me they’re photographing because it’s their history. I ask if their grandparents were from Ein Karem, and they say no, not exactly.
They ask if they can come into the yard and see the house. I say no, but then I soften and say yes, but no photographs. I tell them that the vast majority of the houses in our compound were built in the ’80s by my landlady, that only a small part (and I show them which) was here from the time that the Arabs lived in Ein Karem. Ahh, they say, so you admit that there were Arabs here. Yes, I say, I know it was an Arab village. I refrain from mentioning that many centuries before that, it was a town of Jewish priests where John the Baptist, a Jew, was born.
They focus on a floor of carpet tiles on the neighbor’s patio. This was here then for sure, they say, and I tell them that I’m not certain that that’s true, that in my previous home in Ein Karem, my living room floor was all carpet tiles that were bought, transported (on donkey back), and laid by a previous Jewish owner.
They ask if I live alone. I think of what would be the best answer to prevent a break-in, and say no (after all, I live with my cat), and that there are several families living on this property. Perhaps I should have been thinking of the best answer to prevent a terror attack, as several of my friends later suggested when I posted the story on Facebook, in which case I completely bungled up. How insane and iniquitous and tragic that we even think of thinking this way.
I ask the girls where they’re from — one is from Umm El Fahm, one from Akko, one from Arabe — and they’re studying at the Hebrew University. I ask again if any of their families were from Ein Karem, and if not, why this is their history. They answer, “In general, our grandparents don’t live where they grew up.” I answer that my grandparents also didn’t end up living where they grew up (my maternal grandparents’ families fled from pogroms in the Ukraine). They say, “It’s not the same.” I say it is the same, that they fled for their lives and most of them died on the way. And I don’t mention that no one offered them a partition plan that they didn’t accept, because I don’t want to go there and because there are so many different narratives about 1948 that it’s very difficult to know what really happened then…
War is always a tragedy, but it has, unfortunately, been a reality throughout history, and people have been displaced as a result, in all periods and places. But somehow the Palestinians have a unique status that perpetuates them as refugees and victims, both in the eyes of the world and in their own minds, while they enjoy the benefits of living in Israel, studying at the Hebrew University, working in Israeli businesses for an Israeli salary, etc.
My siblings and cousins are not showing up in the yards of the homes where my grandparents lived in the Ukraine (and certainly not now!), nor where my half-siblings’ grandfather was born in Morocco, and trying to make people feel guilty while feeding their own self-righteousness. Our families just got on with their lives in a new country where they had arrived empty-handed. They do not keep the keys to their former home in a place of honor and dream of the day they will return to it. They, and many others, thrived because that was their attitude. To move forward. To do the best they could and be the best they could be.
The situation here is light years from being black and white, and I’m not in any way saying that we’re totally right and they’re totally wrong, for there is right and wrong on both sides, which needs to be acknowledged by both sides. I am saying that as long as we look back instead of forward, perpetuate bitterness and argue about who was here first, there will never be peace. Only looking forward and trying to find a way for us all to live secure and fulfilling lives here together can achieve that. And when that day comes, I will greet the Arabs who come to visit their ancestral home without suspicion, offer them tea, and, hopefully, we will be able to truly hear one another’s stories.