A friend of mine is making aliya. He’s one of those smart, thoughtful, sensitive and deeply committed people whose addition to Israeli society bodes well for all of us who live here. So we took a walk on the relatively new train-tracks-converted-into-apathway a couple of weeks ago, when he was in Jerusalem, to chat about his family’s choice of neighborhoods, schools for his kids, and in essence, the immensity of the move. It was going to be great, I told him – for Israel, and for them.
“I hope so,” he said, but he actually didn’t sound very convinced. So I pushed a bit. After all, he was choosing to come, so how could he not be sure this was going to be great? Hard at times, of course. But not great? How could it not be wonderful? “I just hope that we’re not doing wrong by our kids,” he clarified. “Deep down, I just wonder about the future of this place. These peace negotiations are going nowhere. The Palestinians don’t want a deal, the Israelis announce new settlement construction just to stick their thumb in the Palestinians’ eye, and Bibi’s afraid to say anything because he believes in preserving his coalition more than he believes in anything else, and little by little, the creeping growth of housing over the Green Line is going to make a deal impossible.
“Then what will we be left with? A one-state solution? Occupation forever? I can’t see any way that this is actually going to work out. Do you see a solution? Do you not think we’re running the risk of destroying everything that’s been built here?” For a moment, I was silent. I found myself remembering what life was like here 15 years ago, when we made aliya.
It was a different time. Shortly after we arrived, Ehud Barak beat Bibi Netanyahu in the race for prime minister (who says Israelis aren’t good at recycling?); it was obvious that peace was around the corner. Some people were worried about the deal that would be made, while others were ecstatic. (On the street where we lived, people went outside with bottles of wine on the night Barak won and toasted each other.) But one thing seemed virtually certain – peace was around the corner. And now, a decade and a half later, another American family is on its way, with kids around the ages that our kids were then, and there is one thing of which they are certain – peace is not going to happen.
“So,” he interrupted my silent musings, “do you see a solution? How would you solve this?” How would I solve it? If I could wave a magic wand, I’d change Palestinian culture. (Yes, I’d also change more than a bit about us, of course.) If I had that wand, I’d want them to recognize that we’re indigenous to this region, just as most Israelis have recognized that they also are. I’d want there to be as many of them who want peace as there are among us. I’d wave my wand and make them as willing to compromise on significant issues as poll after poll shows Israelis are. I’d want them to have a free press, which would strengthen their peace-seekers. I’d like them to stop jailing people who post pictures of Abbas on Facebook – that, too, might create more dialogue, no? I’d want them to protest in the street for peace, the way that Israelis have been doing for years.
I’d want them to be... well, more like us, actually.
But no, that’s not going to happen, not any time soon. So, no, I told him, I don’t have a solution. But, noticing that we were still walking on the train tracks, I said to him: “Imagine, though, that these tracks, which were laid in the mid 1930s, could speak of what they’ve seen from right where we’re standing. In the late 1930s, at the height of the Arab revolt, could these tracks have imagined that the day would come when you and I would walk in this neighborhood, so completely secure, in a city so utterly at peace? When the war broke out fullforce in 1947, could the tracks (which, at their southern end, overlook the Old City, which would soon fall into Jordanian hands) have even imagined that the day would come when Israelis would walk in the Jewish Quarter as if it were the most natural thing in the world? If those tracks could tell you of the vicious battles around San Simon in 1948, just off to our right, would they have imagined the tranquility you see around us here today? “When Israel captured the Jordanian half of the Arab village of Beit Safafa in 1967, could anyone have imagined that these tracks would one day be the place where kids on skateboards and young couples going for a run would start in Baka and go through Beit Safafa, scarcely aware that they had moved from a Jewish neighborhood to an Arab one? On Shabbat mornings, when I cross these tracks at 6:20 a.m. on the way to shul, there are young Arab women running, sweatpants and head-scarves, iPhones and earbuds, right through my Jewish neighborhood, perfectly comfortable and totally at ease.
Could these tracks have imagined that in 1948, given everything they’ve seen? “No,” I told my friend, “I don’t have a solution, but I think you can only move here if you have some faith. Not faith in the God-who-will-protect-usno- matter-how-stupid-we-are (though, tragically, there are more than a few people here with that sort of theology), but faith that somehow, because there are so many variables here, what seems to us impossible may actually be achievable. How? I don’t know. But we need faith, I think, that comes not from theology, but from the knowledge that these tracks, laid in around 1934, have seen more horror and bloodshed than we can imagine, but are witness now to perfect peace. Can it be sustained? I want to believe that it can. Do we have to be smart? Yes, we do. Will we need some luck? We will. Would it help if the international community had not lost its mind? It would. Will Israelis have to be creative and courageous? Yes, that, too. But will it work out? I believe it will.
“So go home,” I said to him, “and start packing. And this year, at your Seder, when you say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ know that you are one of those who really mean it. And so, too, I’m willing to bet, will your kids, many, many years from now.”
The writer is senior vice president, Koret distinguished fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His latest book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, was just released by NextBook.