The Wall St. Journal’s OpinionJournal.com was promoting a book last month, titled Jerusalem 1913. Here is one of the featured excerpts:
After the state of Israel had been founded and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was well under way, many looked back, trying to pinpoint the moment when they realized that that conflict was inevitable. David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, said it was the day in 1915 that he sat on a train waiting to leave Jerusalem at the order of [Ahmed Djemal, the city’s Ottoman ruler], who banished many known Zionist activists from the city.
Ben-Gurion had tried to turn himself into an Ottoman — studying Turkish, attending law school in Constantinople, trying to organize a Jewish legion to fight on behalf of the Ottoman Empire in the war, and even donning a red fez. But all these gestures had been to no avail, for at the end of the day, Djemal had looked at him and seen not an Ottoman but an advocate for a future Jewish state, and had him jailed in Jerusalem. . . . Upon his release from jail, he was exiled to Alexandria. Later, in his books and memoirs, he recalled vividly a particular moment on the train, when an Arab acquaintance of his, whom he called Yeya Effendi, walked by and saw him waiting to leave. The men embraced, exchanged news and greetings, and then Yeya Effendi asked him where he was going.
Ben-Gurion told him that he was being exiled, ordered never to return to Jerusalem. Yeya Effendi held him in the embrace of a true friend, mourning his loss of their shared city. Then he looked at Ben-Gurion and said something that Ben-Gurion pondered for the entire train ride to Alexandria. “As your friend, I am sad,” Yeya Effendi told him. “But as an Arab, I rejoice.”
I was in Jerusalem last month, the most Arab-Jewish mixed city in the world. I met the manager of a restaurant inside the David Citadel Hotel, and observed the endearing way in which she interacted with her mostly Arabic wait staff, using cute nicknames and at one point blowing the head waiter a kiss for handling some complication or other. I asked her if she was Jewish or Arab, and though her name was Medina, she told me she was Jewish. (”Medina” means “State” in both Hebrew and Arabic.) I asked about her warm relationship with her Arabic staff, and how they manage to stay that way amid the constant turmoil, especially knowing where their loyalties lie, and she told me a story from her childhood, which she never forgot.
When Israel was fighting for its life in the 1948 War of Independence, Medina was a baby, and the Joint Distribution Committee was getting food to Jerusalem’s residents, who were confined to their houses and had nothing to eat. A lot of the actual, physical distribution was being done by Arabs. When an Arab rang her family’s doorbell with a box of powdered milk for the baby, the Arab said to Medina’s parents, “Look, I know what you named your daughter, and I don’t like it. But a baby is a baby and she has to eat.”
Beign a sap, I then shared my own story — of how during the evacuation of Odessa, when my grandparents were living in Uzbekistan, it was my grandmother’s Uzbek landlady who talked her out of aborting my father, and so I am alive today because of a Muslim woman’s persuasion. But in both cases, I told Medina, those were not jihad eras, and so the Muslim world wasn’t galvanized the way it is today, everywhere with its eye on the prize, and cynically I doubted that both of us would be as lucky today, given the same circumstances. Though she didn’t want to agree, she told me another story:
It was 1979 and the Iranian Revolution was going on. Medina was working with Peace Now!, being a typical young Israeli peacenik sympathetic to the Palestinians. One fine day, out of the blue, one of the Arabs she worked with came up to her out of the blue with the following bizarre statement: “Listen, the Islamic Revolution is coming, and we know where you live. We’re not going to kill you, but we won’t stop them from killing you.”
Medina replied, “Look, I’m not stupid. If it’s between you and me, it’s gonna be you.” She then told me, “After that, I was no longer a member of Peace Now.”
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