Even before the rocket sirens sounded in the early evening of Monday May 10th, a perfect storm was brewing in Jerusalem. Ramadan – always a time of tension here, this year more than usual – was coming to an end.
The city’s police force had been inciting Arab residents for weeks, blocking Muslim gatherings at Damascus Gate at the end of the fast each night, and initiating violent altercations in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood long under assault by extremist Jews seeking to expel its Arab residents.
That very day, Monday May 10th, a major court case had been scheduled involving 13 Arab families who have lived for years under the threat of eviction by Jewish settlers. The hearing was ultimately postponed and has yet to be rescheduled, but its shadow loomed large over the day.
Monday 10th May was also Jerusalem Day, when right-wing teenagers come from the West Bank for the now notorious ‘Flag Parade’. Thousands of adolescent boys in white shirts carry flags through Damascus Gate into the heart of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, on their way to the Kotel. This year, the parade was rerouted, but only at the very last minute.
And if this was not enough, on Monday 10th May, Israel was perhaps a heartbeat away – as it may again be now – from forming a Government for Change that would include Right Wing Jews and members of an Islamist party.
For Jewish and Muslim extreme right-wingers alike – along with Bibi supporters whose candidate had just lost his mandate to form a government and whose only chance to continue as Prime Minister was a fifth election – the Government for Change was a nightmare.
Not all the above wanted either the 11-day war between Israel and Gaza, or the shocking violence in the ‘mixed cities’ of Akko, Jaffa and Lod, that ensued. But many people on both sides were highly motivated to make the Government for Change unimaginable.
Against all the odds … they failed. Once again, as I write, we may be a heartbeat away from a Government for Change with Right Wing Jews and Islamists.
At sunset on the evening of Monday May 10th, I had planned to host an Iftar, the traditional meal with which Muslims break their daily fast in the month of Ramadan – free, open to all, and kosher. I organized it under the umbrella of Jerusalem Tolerance’s A Jerusalemite Day of Diversity, originally conceived by activist Michal Shilor as an alternative to the Flag Parade, and executed this year by Tal Alfasi.
The Kosher Iftar was cross-listed with the National Library of Israel’s wonderful Ramadan Nights program. Scholar of Islam and NLI Head of Collections Dr. Raquel Ukeles would be delivering the words of welcome.
It was supposed to take place at The Reading Station, a popular community landmark on the railway track park (Jerusalem’s High Line) that divides the neighborhoods of German Colony and Baka – a couple of minutes from our apartment. Until that night, equal numbers of Jews and Muslims used the park in the evenings for leisure and exercise.
Led by Palestinian master-chef Magdah Alshane, five Palestinian women spent two days cooking in our kosher kitchen. By 6pm on Monday May 10th, they looked exhausted (they had been fasting all day), but the food looked incredible.
And then the sirens sounded. Rockets from Gaza were falling near Jerusalem. We were expecting 50 to 100 Muslims and an unknown number (which turned out to be very large) of Jews, many of whom – for dietary reasons – had never been able to experience an Iftar. What to do?
Cancelling was not an option – because of the food that would be wasted and the unbearable disappointment of the women who had prepared it. But nor was gathering outside. Rockets were not the concern. I was worried about verbal abuse (which I had witnessed before), or God forbid worse, from Flag Parade participants. Someone suggested getting police protection, but, sad to say, that could have made things worse.
At 6.20pm, I decided to move the Iftar inside our large but not huge apartment which, after two days of cooking, was a balagan. We had just over an hour to get organized, and luckily help was arriving.
Some of us cleaned our open plan kitchen, while others threw all extraneous boxes, bowls and bags into the guest room and closed the door. Some extended our dining table and put out the food, while others made signs to redirect anyone who showed up at the original venue; three of us – Toby, Naomi and Esther – volunteered to wait there for a while in person. Still others got busy on social media, sending out the new instructions. I gave orders and washed the floor. Our soundtrack was gunshots ringing out from the phone of one of the Palestinian cooks. It felt surreal.
Very sadly, few of the Muslims who had been planning to come felt safe on the streets that night. Nor did the group of Jewish women from Beit Shemesh who are learning Arabic together and were looking forward to an opportunity to converse with native speakers. But our best estimate is that between 150 and 200 people, most of whom I did not know, passed through our apartment that night. That includes the baby who slept peacefully in his stroller in our bedroom.
Master-chef Magdah’s day job is at Beit Moses, a local home for the elderly where, coincidentally, I give a weekly Torah shiur. I circulated an invitation to the Kosher Iftar among the residents, thinking that some of those who knew Magdah personally might want to come.
The first people to come through our door at 7.30pm, an hour or so after the sirens and the news that rockets from Gaza had landed near Jerusalem, were residents of Beit Moses. At least one – I’m guessing more – is a Holocaust Survivor. She regularly addresses groups at Yad Vashem.
During the evening, my husband’s daughter, Elisheva Milikowsky, interviewed Magdah about Food, Women and Ramadan. We enjoyed wonderful live oud and percussion performed by Hezi Zabar and Shimri Hagai. And, of course, we devoured Magdah’s amazing food. But most of all, I think, we relished being together as the world was falling apart around us. Throughout the evening, these words – part prayer, part declaration of intent – rang in my head: you can’t make us hate each other.
That goes for our despicable politicians on both sides, for our extremists on both sides, and for our sowers of strife on both sides. It also goes for decent and well-meaning people around the world whose utter conviction that we are enemies makes it ever harder for us to be anything else.
I’ll leave you with some images taken by professional photographer Boaz Perlstein. As scenes of unimaginable hatred were unfolding around the country, so were these scenes. Think about it. Which do you want to nurture, encourage, and support?