Guest columnist: The stranger who dwells among us

The stranger who dwells

'Do you mind if I break my fast while I drive?" asked the cabbie in a heavily accented English as he pulled away from London's Hampstead Hotel in the direction of Heathrow. Having just pulled myself away from the last session of a three-day conference of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain, it took me a moment to refocus and process the question. Oh, right, Ramadan, I said to myself, feeling just the slightest bit uncomfortable and wondering if in the encroaching darkness my interlocutor had noticed the kippa I was wearing when I'd gotten into his taxi. "No problem," I answered out loud, doing my best to offer an appeasing smile that he could catch in his rearview mirror. I needn't have felt uneasy at all. During the hour it took us to reach the airport, not only had Yousef and I resolved the entire Middle East conflict, but I'd also learned more about Muslim tradition than I had during the entire 35 years I've lived in the Jewish state - and I use that nomenclature pointedly. "There's too little opportunity for Arabs and Jews in Israel to talk like this," I mused at one point in our conversation. "Really," he responded, seemingly surprised. "Why is that?" GOOD QUESTION, I thought to myself, delving more than three decades deep into my personal history for an answer. I lived at Neveh Ilan at the time and was committed to making friends with my Arab neighbors in Abu Ghosh, but somehow that's something that never happened. I thought of my good friends in East Talpiot who two decades ago had succeeded in making friends with their Arab neighbors in Jebl Mukaber, only to have the relationships shattered by stones the size of grapefruits that were hurled through their living room windows. I thought of an Arab-Jewish encounter I had violated Shabbat to participate in more than a decade ago, convinced that by putting a human face on the political process we would ultimately be saving lives. I had returned disappointed by the obstinacy of those who refused to accept the hand I had extended them in a supplication for acceptance. I thought of my wife's office at Hebrew University that had been painted by an east Jerusalem Arab worker with whom she had shared friendly chatter who was later arrested for planting the bomb at the student cafeteria that took the lives of nine students. He might just as easily have left it in her desk drawer "I don't know," I answered, taking the easy way out. "The terrorism certainly doesn't help things." Yousef couldn't have agreed more, and launched into a diatribe against the evils of al-Qaida and Hamas that even our foreign minister might hesitate to voice publicly. I didn't interrupt, but knew fully well that I had unfairly fed him a mixture of apples and oranges, which in his hunger he eagerly swallowed undiscerningly. There is, or should be, a world of difference between those Arabs within our borders who are Israeli citizens and to whom our Declaration of Independence guarantees full equality and those who live beyond them, some of whom are committed to our annihilation. Why have I not communicated with the former all these years? Why did I have no one to ask if the fast of Ramadan was obligatory for women as well as for men, from what age children were required to participate, if its observance involves other rituals and what the significance of the month is altogether. "When does the fast end?" I asked."Seven forty-eight," he answered, munching on a carrot. Like Shabbat, I thought, smiling to myself."No, when does Ramadan end this year?" He told me. "Oh, Rosh Hashana," I said. "You'll be ending your fast more or less at the time we begin preparing for ours." AND IN the context of the conversation I immediately thought of the Torah portion we'd be reading that day. Not the binding of Isaac but the banishment of Ishmael. As I pondered the reasons for the lack of acquaintance between me and my neighbors, I wondered how they might explain it. Where would their narrative of the missed opportunity begin and what would it include? Was Genesis the genesis of the divide between us? I recalled my army service manning roadblocks in 1978, long before any intifada, when I was chastised by my superiors for apologizing to the occupants of the cars I was searching for inconveniencing them, then thanking them for their cooperation. I thought of the findings of the Or Commission into the Arab riots in October 2000, which blamed the outbreak of violence in part on years of "government handling of the Arab sector [that] has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory" and, castigating the security forces for their overly brutal response, cautioned that "The police must learn to realize that the Arab sector in Israel is not the enemy and must not be treated as such." Two sons. One father. And a God we both believed in who had twice tested this lonely man of faith by commanding him to part eternally from each of his children. As we approached the turnoff to the A4 I wondered if the relationship between Israel's Muslim and Jewish citizens today is better explained by the standard sociology of minority-majority relationships exacerbated by an external conflict, or by different readings of the Bible and Koran - the latter of which I plead guilty to being completely ignorant. Was Ishmael mocking Isaac or merely playing with him? Was Sarah appropriately zealous in protecting her son's birthright, or shamefully jealous of the woman she had urged her husband to have a child with in the first place? In heeding God's word though it blatantly contradicted his own sense of morality, had Abraham passed his tests or failed them? This was not the first time that our common progenitor had entered my thoughts today. The conference I had been a part of featured Muhammad Darawshe, a 27th-generation Palestinian and co-executive director of the Abraham Fund, which "works to advance coexistence, equality and cooperation among Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens." Listening to him speak, I was as discomfited in discovering how little I knew of Ishmael's descendants who carry Israeli passports and ID cards today as I was to learn of the mistreatment to which they have been subjected over the decades. Darawshe, however, was neither bitter nor belligerent. To the contrary, he was understanding and conciliatory, emphasizing that there was no need to change Israel's laws to resolve the problems (as had been necessary in South Africa to do away with apartheid), but only to uphold them. "El Al?" Yousef asked with a smile. "Yes," I answered absently as he pulled up to the curb. I thanked him for the ride, wished him an easy month of fasting, tipped him more than is my custom, and wondered if I would have to come back to London to continue getting to know my neighbors, or if this year I might begin taking more seriously the commandments concerning the treatment of the stranger who dwells among us. Rosh Hashana was still two weeks away, but it was already time to check in. As I took my place in the long line waiting for security clearance, I was reminded that it was not we who were responsible for the untold millions of hours wasted daily in airports around the world. But I resisted ingesting the same salad of apples and oranges I had fed Yousef. That we are not the root cause of the conflict in which we are embroiled does not absolve us of accountability for those transgressions of which we are guilty. "For the sin we have sinned against You by rejecting responsibility...." The liturgy of the approaching Day of Atonement played on in my head as I waited to be asked if everything in my baggage belonged to me.• The writer is a member of the Executive of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization where he heads the Department for Zionist Activity.