The mainstream media makes conflict zones seem so black-and-white. You’re either on this side or that side. One side is the aggressor, the other the underdog. We are made to think that one side is made up of terrorists, and the other consists of innocent, peaceful civilians. Riots, demonstrations, divestment strategies. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
The longer I actually live in a so-called 'conflict area', the more encounters I have in my day-to-day life that make me realize how grey and complex the reality is. I come home at night after a day at work and a short shopping stint in the city center, and realize that the most palpable conflict zone is the one going on in my mind. Exhausted, with a million thoughts in my head, I come to see that this geographic conflict zone has become an emotional conflict zone for me. Short sociocultural exchanges quickly become long, twisted existential dialogues in my mind, when all I really want to do is live in pleasant surroundings and be able to trust those around me.
So I will rewind to the scene last night, as I walked by the luxurious David Citadel Hotel on my way to meet a date. I got off the bus and began to head towards the outdoor Mamilla Mall. As I walked down King David Street, I saw a large group of teenagers and young adults hanging out with some snare drums parked on the side, close to the building. They were all wearing a beige uniform with tassels on the shoulders and carried green flags. The closer I got, the more visible the Arabic writing on the flags became. At first I thought they were a group of tourists who had returned from a pro-Arab rally or maybe were about to start one. Then I got even closer and saw small Palestinian flag emblems on their uniforms, and noticed that they did not look like any European tourists. The dark hair, olive complexions, mustaches (Yes- Mustaches! Hello 1982? You were 30 years ago.) They were also speaking Arabic. I thought I was mistaken because even though I see lots of Arabic writing in Israel, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a Palestinian flag in real life.
However, these youngsters definitely we were wearing Palestinian flags on their uniforms. I got closer.
Now, I recall my own days in marching band. We were not a scary bunch. We wore those dorky green uniforms every darn Memorial Day Parade and marched down the bridge in Centerport proudly displaying our shiny instruments which glared from the sun as much as our metal braces in our mouths. As I walked by this group, I made the presumption that the nature of marching-band-geeks prevails internationally, and therefore did not sense any threat of potential violence. Fellow band nerds, Palestinian style. OK I have nothing to fear.
I walked over to a girl who was sitting down talking to a guy. They were probably around 17 years old. “Where are you from?,” I asked in Hebrew.
“What?” They responded in English.
“What kind of group is this?” I asked in Hebrew again.
“We don’t understand,” in English they responded.
“Oh,” I said in English, “Where are you from?”
“From Ramallah,” the guy said, “We are scouts.”
“Oh. Ramallah. Where did you play your music?”, I asked them in English.
“Beit Fajjar. You know it?,” he asked me.
Now at this point, I was stunned. Stumped! For 2 reasons:
1) Here is a group of school kids- boy and girl scouts - from a town about 20 minutes from Jerusalem who do not speak a word of Hebrew. Their English wasn’t so great either, but they didn’t even understand me when I spoke Hebrew, and usually comprehending a ‘foreign’ language is easier than speaking it (note: this is my own theory, not based on any research). And they live just up the road! Do they not get reception for Galgaltz Radio or Yes TV?!
2) Beit Fajjar? Do I know it? Um, yes. It’s in Gush Eztion. I pass by the sign for Beit Fajjar whenever I go to Alon Shvut. I distinctly remember the sign because it’s right near a trempiada (hitchhiking stand) in Tzomet HaGush which stands out in the open on the highway. There have been numerous shootings in that little traffic circle called, "The Gush Junction". It is one of few places in the Gush that frighten me. Whenever I see hitchhikers there, I get anxious that another shooting could easily occur again because there’s really nowhere to hide for safety except for behind a bus stop. So yes, I know of Beit Fajjar.
I also have heard about it because it was the village in which the mosque was vandalized by some fanatic Gush Eztion residents.
So how would you respond to this exchange?
Do you make reference to “Gush Eztion”, a totally legitimate, legal, widely recognized name that refers to the same exact neighborhood they were playing their music in? No.
The trempiada? Nope, they don’t stand there. They’re probably not allowed to.
The shootings? Em, nope.
Tzomet HaGush? ‘Shu Hadaa?’ They won’t know what that is either.
The mosque? Oh God no.
South of Jerusalem? Maybe, but they call Jerusalem ‘al-Quds’. So probably not.
Each time I tried to make some reference to show recognition of the town, I couldn’t.
Different language, different recognition, different frame of reference, different mentality, different ways of life. Different, different, different.
Foreigners with no common frame of reference at all who literally live 6 miles away from each other.
More than that, and this is where I get crazy, but the likelihood of some of their close relatives being members of the very organizations who actively pursue our annihilation is high. Hamas? Fatah? They build their parks, hospitals, and schools in their neighborhoods! Internationally-recognized terror organizations are the equivalent of the freakin’ Salvation Army down the road a few miles.
I don’t know what they were doing waiting openly in front of the hotel, but I am confident that there is no way a group of teenage, Jewish scouts would ever survive hanging outside of a Ramallah hotel lobby in one piece.
Perhaps I should be upset to see this group so comfortably hanging out on the streets of our Jerusalem. But honestly, I felt fine. I had a calm, yet admittedly awkward conversation with a group of Palestinian marching band members, with not one guard or policeman around.
I don’t know whether I should have been scared or comforted. Hopeful, maybe?
Maybe if we just find some common ground, and keep ourselves open to listening, we could just have a conversation and move on with our lives.
…And maybe in the end of the day, I’m really grateful they’re heading up 6 miles to Ramallah – the longest 6 miles away in the world.