Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When Arafat Tried to Come to Jerusalem: A Short Story

The news of Osama Bin Laden’s death did not make me rejoice. The man had done so much evil that it is a relief to have him out of the world. It is too bad, though, that it couldn’t have happened years earlier. That’s about how I felt when Arafat finally died. Thinking about Arafat brought back all sorts of dark memories; terror attacks, propaganda, and protests. I especially remember the time Arafat tried to visit Jerusalem. It was the summer of 1994…
My neighbor, Rena, is one of those people who is always organizing something. Mainly it’s interviews with journalists and for a long time I was one of her favorites to be interviewed. She had grand ideas of headlines like Long Islander Gives It Up to Live on the West Bank or Jewish American Princess Becomes a Settler. I can’t say I ever wowed any of the reporters but I didn’t make a fool of myself either. Then the first intifada began and the questions become far more political than sociological and I couldn’t handle it. Not that I don’t have opinions on the matter, but I find them hard to express to strangers, especially strangers who try to twist my words to fit their preconceived notions.  
So when Rena knocked at my door on that hot Thursday, I came right to the point as soon as she said hello.
“I don’t want to be interviewed by anyone.”
“Don’t worry, Pnina,” Rena gave me a charming smile. “There’s a good chance that Arafat will be in Yerushalayim this weekend…”
“He’s really coming?” I interrupted.
Rena nodded glumly. “The government thinks they can sneak him in on Shabbat and we won’t notice but we have plans. The Old City is going to be full of people like us who can close down the streets at a moment’s notice if he comes.”
Rena settled herself at my kitchen table and as she sipped iced tea she told me about the school that was available to our village. “It won’t be luxurious. There will be a women’s wing and a men’s one. Everyone will have to bring mattresses or sleeping bags. We’ll get meals from a cheap caterer.  What do you think?”
“I have to speak to Binyamin,” I answered guardedly, “but it sounds like a good idea to me.”
Rena smiled. “So you’ll make some calls for me?”
How could I say no? I really did want to help. I had been shocked by the Oslo agreement ten months earlier. The distribution of guns to the Arab policemen terrified me. And I could not believe that the Prime Minister, for even a second, let the question of negotiating Jerusalem be raised. The thought that Arafat might enter the Holy City sent my mind reeling. It wasn’t just my safety I was worried about. I was worried about the future of Israel. By the time Binyamin came home I had made my calls, convinced a number of people, and it didn’t take me long to convince him also.
Rena was right. It was not a luxurious Shabbat. Still, there was a special atmosphere as we gathered around the classroom tables that had been moved onto the street which was closed to traffic, and ate our Shabbat meals together. There were other groups all over the Old City. Some stayed with friends or relatives. Most, though, were camping out in community centers or schools like us. As for the Jews not staying in the Old City there was a special mincha that they walked to the Kotel for in the afternoon. The plaza was packed and it was really special to see.
Later, after the heat of the day had passed, I found myself sitting at our tables watching the world go by.
“Look at those tourists,” Rena pointed to an obviously American group following their tour guide. “They look so happy and relaxed and totally unaware of what is going on here. I wonder what they think about Arafat coming to Jerusalem.”
“Why don’t you ask them?”
“I’m too tired,’ Rena yawned. She left me to go take a nap but I was too keyed up to try resting. The tourists went on their merry way and I regretted not knowing what their reaction to Rena’s question would have been. So when I saw two college age girls with a map in their hand I initiated a conversation.  
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“We sure do,” the dark-haired one had a thick Brooklyn accent. “Why?”
“I was just curious as to what you think about Arafat coming to Jerusalem?”     
“I think it’s wonderful!”
I guess my shock showed on my face.
“What’s your problem with it?” Her tone was aggressive. “He has as much right to come here as anyone else.”
“Uh, not really,” I stammered. “The man is a murderer.”
“There’re a lot of murderers in this country.”
I felt my face flush and wished I had Rena at my side, but I had to say something. “Arafat has been murdering Jews for the sole reason that they are Jews.”
“She’s right about that, Sue,” the blonde one spoke up but her friend ignored her.
“Israel is finally getting ready to make peace and you people are doing your best to sabotage it.”
She stepped closer to me and I felt nervous. Just because these two were touring Israel didn’t mean they were Jewish. Why had I opened my mouth in the first place? Apparently, I wasn’t the only one feeling worried. The blonde put her hand on her friend‘s and dragged her away.
I watched them until they disappeared from sight, disgusted with myself for not being more eloquent. There was not much time to think on my ineptness, though. There was the third meal to set out and eat, then havdalah, packing up, and then the demonstration downtown. If I had thought the plaza of the Kotel had been crowded at mincha then I don’t know how to describe the demonstration. There were people as far as one could see in all directions. And we were jubilant. Arafat had not come to Jerusalem, after all. Was it our efforts that kept him away?
We returned home late that night and settled into our summer routine. It was after the holidays that Rena asked me to host some girls from a school for the newly religious in Jerusalem. I enjoyed hosting these kinds of girls. Their stories of how they decided to become religious were always so interesting. This Shabbat was no exception. Karen told us she decided to volunteer on a kibbutz after she broke up with her non-Jewish boyfriend. A visit to the Kotel brought her a Shabbat invitation and she fell in love with the beauty of Shabbat. Her friend, Jennifer, was quieter and did not open up until after the soup. In a soft voice she told of an encounter she had in the Old City in the summer.
“My friend and I had just come from Egypt and were spending a few days in Israel before heading to Europe. There was a lady we saw who asked what we thought about Arafat coming to Jerusalem. I hadn’t thought about it at all. My friend’s reaction was so strong that I began thinking about it. We had been friends for several years but her reaction to this woman was almost anti-Semitic. Then I saw a poster about a Discovery Shabbat. I decided to go but Sue was not very supportive and then, when I told, after Shabbat, that I was going to stay in Israel she got really nasty. I guess I was so assimilated I never noticed she had an attitude towards Jews.”
If Jennifer noticed me blushing as she told her story she gave no notice. She began coming to us for Shabbat often. Almost a year later, after she was already engaged, I confessed that I was the woman she had met in the Old City.
“I know,” she smiled.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I was afraid I would embarrass you. Now that you’ve brought the subject up, though, I want to thank you for stopping Sue and me that day. Your question changed my whole life.”
Mincha: afternoon service   
Kotel: The Western Wall
Havdalah: ceremony marking the end of Shabbat

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