This is the dawning of a new era, in ways both mighty and personal. Yesterday, a magnificent human being became president of this country. The day before that the formal melding of two rambunctious clans commenced.
Meet Louai Abu Osba, the cheery fellow in the picture above. He and my beloved stepdaughter Kate recently became engaged. FINALLY became engaged (it took a while)! Louai’s dad, Yousef, flew over from Jordan with his wife Muna, and their son Omer (Louai’s half-brother - he’s five years old). Yousef and Omer came over on Monday, along with Louai’s sister Lubna, her husband Arthur, and their son Faris . Like I said - the melding of two rambuctious clans...
My favorite passage in yesterday’s inaugural address included the following lines:
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.
And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself...
First of all – nonbelievers. President Obama actually acknowledged the nonbelievers! To quote some believers among us, hallelujah! About bloody time! I’m not going overboard with this, mind you – it was still a resoundingly Christian affair. Still, that’s a smidgen of progress right there. More important, though, was the idea that “the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve...” Yes!
What does this have to do with Louai? Here’s the shorthand answer – I’m Jewish, and Louai’s Palestinian. On the surface, you’re beginning to get it, right? Now I hasten to add that we’ve known each other for six years, and love and respect each other like, hmmm... father and son? I think there’s a bit of that, but more than anything I think we’ve become great friends. And is the Israel/Palestine thing contentious between us – you bet it is! But why?
This is where history inserts itself into our narrative. I grew up in a gilded beachfront ghetto in South Africa, very Jewish (we only really socialized with one non-Jewish family when I was growing up, the Claudes), and completely marinated in a Zionism which, I realize in retrospect, was of the most thoroughly slanted and brainwashing variety imaginable. Yes, the memory of the holocaust was still very fresh (one of my schoolfriends’ dad had his number from Auschwitz tattooed on his forearm), and of course the agenda of building this new country – Israel – the importance of putting money in the little blue tins every Friday (for the children) and filling up cards with ten-cent pieces (to plant the trees) were ingrained rituals.
So too the excoriation of the Arabs, about whom we were all experts. The Arabs who’d been living in Israel (we never used – or heard – the term “Palestinians” – to name them would have been to acknowledge them as a distinct population) had run away on their own. “We” (even little Jewish South Africans considered themselves part of “we”) had invited them to stay in 1948, they were welcome to live peacefully in “our” country – but they had run away, thinking that when the Arab armies had vanquished “us” in a few weeks, they’d come back. Of course that didn’t happen, so now they were languishing in the Arab countries where they’d landed, and “their brothers, the Arabs, don’t do a thing to help them”. Oh, cruel world. What else did our nuanced understanding encompass? The Egyptians were cowards, the Saudis were greedy, and the Syrians were brutal - “they waited for Israeli paratroopers to land with their swords draw to cut off their heads immediately”. Funny, we never asked why the Israeli paratroopers were landing in Syria to begin with.
And we used to hear about the oranges from Jaffa. The best, the sweetest oranges in the world. Jaffa – that’s where Louais’ family is from. Yousef told me a bit about it the other day. We were standing in the snow next to the barn; Omer was making snowballs. Yousef said:, “when you come to Jordan for the wedding we’ll organize a tour. We’ll got to Petra, and Wadi Rum. We’ll make a Bedouin feast in the desert, cook a sheep in a fire pit in the sand.” And then, more cautiously...”I would also like to take you to...Palestine, or whatever it’s called...to take you to where we’re from”. “That’s Jaffa, right?” (Louai had told me a little about it, but not much) “Have you been there before?” I didn’t know – could Palestinians go into Israel to visit like that? Yousef, an eminent physician in Amman, told me yes, they could, and he had an American passport so could go in as an American. “Still, they look at my name, and make it very difficult. They try to humiliate us at the border, to make us wait and get angry so that they can turn us back, but we’re patient.” So far as I could tell, he’s been there twice, once when Louai was a very small boy, and again when Lubna and Arthur got married. He talked about the house they used to live in (“there’s a Yemeni family living there now...”) And I have to tell you that when Yousef talked about Jaffa and the “old country”, his sensitive, warm face was deeply etched with contours of pain and sadness.
The point of this all being that it’s become intensely personal now. A historical emnity is suddenly part of daily life – and no, I’m no longer so brainwashed, I’m no big lover of Israel, and Louai isn’t exactly about to don the explosive vest, so we can talk about things civily, although it does sometimes get heated.
How do we move forward? Now I’m not talking about me and Louai, but in a broader sense? How do we ensure that “the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve”? On the one hand, it feels like the ONLY way forward, ultimately. At the same time though, I love being Jewish (culturally), and I love the fact that Louai is Palestinian. I love the diversity of customs and attitudes – not to mention the food! So how do we maintain a genuine sense of otherness, without imputing superiority or inferiority to any of the myriad varieties? That, it seems to me, is one of the biggest challenges we face.