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Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Etiquette of Arab-Jewish Relations, or What Emily Post Doesn't Cover

I accompanied an Israeli friend the other day to a very nice hotel where a family simcha was going to take place. I had never been inside this hotel, and I'd heard wonderful things from the family about the plans for the simcha, so when invited to tag along to finalize the arrangements, I was happy to go and check it out.

The hotel is lovely, with a wonderful lobby and various sitting and dining areas on the ground floor. Lots of light.

Lots of Arabs. Service staff, supervisory staff and customers.

So we're sitting at one table and I'm watching the family finalize the menu and plans for their simcha. The event planner, a middle-aged professional with an easy smile and genuine good humor, is waiting for her supervisor to come over and sign off on the arrangements and chosen date. The event planner is Jewish; her supervisor is Arab. While we're waiting, she orders a round of coffee for us "on the house" (and it was excellent coffee), and we just schmoozed. Mostly in Hebrew but she would reply to me in English if I made a comment.

Her supervisor was held up at another table with a young couple. This young couple looked like any Jewish couple in the country except for one thing: the young woman was wearing hijab. Apart from her hair covering, however, she was wearing a contemporary long-sleeved sweater, nice make-up and jeans; her fiance was wearing a nice Henley but was also in jeans.

Looking at their age and happiness, I asked (in Hebrew) : "A wedding?"

Yes, the event planner confirmed that they were booking for a wedding at the hotel.

At that exact moment, her supervisor walked over with the young man in tow and asked the event planner to check the calendar book in her possession to make sure the date for the wedding was clear. The young man was standing closest to me, looking hopeful.

I looked up at him and grinned. "Mazel tov!" I told him. He looked momentarily startled but then grinned back and said "Todah rabah (thank you very much)!"

As the prospective groom returned to his table with the supervisor, the event planner turned to me with a clouded face.

"What do you mean, "mazel tov"? she asked acidly. "They're Arabs."

"It's a wedding," I protested. "It's from G-d."

My friend, a native Jerusalemite, also looked askance at me. "Yes, Sarah, but after the wedding come the children, and after the children comes the indoctrination in hate, and after the hate comes the suicide bomber--so what's with the 'mazel tov'?"

"It's a wedding," I reiterated. "I don't know these people. They're young, they're full of hope for their future. I don't know their politics--they're not dressed like Hamasnikim. I suspect he's just a working guy who wants to get married and she wants to raise her kids."

"Yes, yes," the event planner said impatiently, "It's a wedding and all weddings are blessings from G-d but then they'll have a lot of children which they'll raise with our tax money and teach them to hate us and to kill our children," she ended bitterly.

"Maybe so," I conceded. "But we don't know what's written, and I can only deal with what I see -- a young couple who hopes for happiness in their future."

Then this chiloni woman leaned over and said quietly, "The Arabs have to be here. It's part of G-d's plan for them. They exist to serve us, as Ishmael served Isaac."

Now, I've read this interpretation before, but never thought to hear it from a woman who by all outward appearances is totally secular and modern. For a moment, I was too stunned to say anything.

"You don't agree?" she challenged me.

I hedged. "I personally would be much happier if they stayed on their side of the border, and we stayed on ours, and suicide bombings and terrorism were things of the past. But I don't see that happening any time soon."

And no, I didn't agree with her that G-d made the Arabs to serve the Jews but this didn't seem to be the time to challenge her with our friends' plans in the balance. Such a belief smacks too much of the triumphalism that Islam and Christianity imposed on Jews, and I can't accept that the same G-d who created us all alike would impose servitude on one people vis-a-vis another. I prefer to subscribe to the belief that we are all G-d's servants--and if we all acted as such, then maybe the world would be a better place.

Nonetheless, our friends accepted this (to me) bizarre statement without flinching, and it made me aware of a conceptual gulf between the Sephardi natives of Jerusalem and the Askenazi olim that transcends such details as kitniyot. It wasn't just the concept of servitude but the palpable hostility towards wishing someone happiness on the ocassion of his nuptials--because he is Arab.

I'm told by veterans that this didn't use to be the case. That Arabs and Jews interacted with more courtesy and less hostility. The Arabs blame "the Occupation" and "the Naqba" but fail to acknowledge that mass murder of Jews led to Partition, to multiple wars, hence to Occupation, and after Oslo, more mass murder ("resistance" in the Arab lexicon) by suicide bombings, car bombings and shootings which led to renewed Occupation.....I don't know. I know the history, but I wasn't here before Oslo when Jews allegedly shopped in Tulkarm and got their cars fixed in Bethlehem. I never felt the feelings back then. I only know the feelings now, and they're not positive on either side.

Many on the Left call this 'racism.' It's not racism--Arabs aren't a race any more than Jews are. We are two peoples caught in the crossfire of historical conflict. My personal opinion would never be accepted in the Arab narrative--that all this war, death and pain is due to their own misplaced sense of Arab/Islamic superiority that disallows the equal rights to self-determination to the Jewish people. Bitterness, pain, death--the death of children, the death of friends and relatives, the death of hope, kidnappings and terror--these products of Oslo and other lunatic force-fed "peace plans" have created a well-founded skepticism and bitterness among the Israelis that found expression yesterday in their hostility to one man's marriage.

This isn't Europe. This isn't New York or San Francisco. This is a land whose peoples have a vast history and literary traditions. This is a land where almost all people believe profoundly in G-d and those who don't believe in their own national cause. This is a passionate land where disagreements are not settled by 'talking it over' or 'making concessions' because talking and concessions have led to failure and death.

I don't know what Emily Post would recommend. I suspect that however displeased my associates were with my utterance, H"S would approve of congratulating someone on their wedding. In a land of sudden war and death, of mutual suspicion and distrust, and long-standing bitterness and pain, I suspect a little courtesy and good-will is worthwhile. I have to go with that.


Blogger Esther said...

Sorry to disappoint you, but I heard this very same type of comment (non-Jews are in the world to serve us, etc) 32 years ago from a very ashkenazi yeshiva student. Needless to say, it made my blood boil.
Some arguments are so profoundly stupid that it would take eons to try to correct them.

Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 9:31:00 AM GMT+2  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

The best advice is always, "Kabdayhu v'chashdeihu", respect them, but be wary.

I try to never have my back facing an Arab, even if I know him well, as there have been way too many terror attacks between Arabs who were "very very close friends of Jews"...and then they stabbed the Jew in the back (literally). There are dozens and dozens of scenarios like this.

One of the personally most difficult situations for me, is doing an MDA ambulance shift with a MDA Arab EMT...who is also armed. (I am as well). We volunteer together, and respect each other...but I'm always wary.

Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 3:39:00 PM GMT+2  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

esther--you don't disappoint me at all! I'm actually happy to hear that this surprising interpretation is not something Sephardic but rather sounds like a fringe interpretation across the board.....the bigger surprise was that this woman was so secular in appearance!

jameel--I've seen those stabbings in the news...it's the reason my husband never sits with his back to the door and never leaves me alone with Arab workers in the house.

Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 4:45:00 PM GMT+2  

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