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Paris Lights: Navigating Israel

When last we checked in with PJM Paris editor Nidra Poller, she was dancing at a journalist's wedding with some big-time political types. In the second installment of her Israel travelogue, she shmoozes with Bibi Netanyahu, gets lost in Jerusalem, visits the West Bank, and contemplates whether flames can be extinguished on the Sabbath.

by
Nidra Poller, PJM Editor, Paris

Bio

June 27, 2007 - 7:30 am

As the music played at Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick’s wedding, I chatted with opposition leader Bibi Netanyahu, asking him if he has a strong grip on our new French president’s ear. He replied that he hasn’t spoken to him for a month, and isn’t pleased about the invitation to Hizbullah.

What can I say? Me too! Caroline came over, beautiful bride and ever-sharp journalist. Conversation ensued. I couldn’t understand the Hebrew, but I know the gist. Someone teased her about talking politics on her wedding night. “I was told I could do whatever I want tonight,” she replied. And every other night, I might add. I left with a white and red rose centerpiece to grace my humble hostel room and to offer later, with the bride’s compliments, to my Shabbat hosts.

The next morning, sunning on my balcony, I began the phone call routine and landed an invitation to join a JCPA (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) seminar that afternoon but, as I made one last call, a woman’s voice warned, “you have nine shekels left.”

Lilach and her efficient disabled assistant (several handicapped people work at Beit Shmuel) tried to help me use the recharge-by-phone function but it didn’t work. They said I could buy a card on Jaffa St. and I set out, with their directions, my map, and just-got-into-town confusion.

I have no sense of direction, I navigate by landmarks. Noisy traffic interferes with my perceptions. I walked past the huge dusty construction site where a pasha’s palace is being turned into a posh hotel, crossed a busy intersection to an ugly patch of uphill road, and just kept going. I remembered getting lost there before. Trying not to make the same mistake as last time, I kept going and…there it was… the familiar stretch of bagel shops… Caf√© Hillel with its tragic memories. I was trying to reconstruct the geography of Ben Yehuda street (more tragic memories)… the cell phone shop I used to approach from the top of X? street and find, each time, by miracle. Suddenly there it was in front of my nose, the same nose I had been following for twenty minutes in the hot Mideast sun (which I love.) Right next to the Hapoalim bank at Kikar Zion. I bought my card, jumped into a cab, and arrived at the JCPA building in the German Colony just in time.

I presented the hopeful news from France–Sarkozy’s triumph over the media, the sleaze campaign, the racaille– and shared my concerns for the U.S., in the grips of defeatism and targeted by jihadis in suits and ties. The basic questions regarding France were raised: would the UMP keeps its lead in the final round of the legislative elections, would the labor unions and other retrograde forces sabotage his proposed reforms? I was optimistic on both counts. I’ve lived in France for over three decades and this is the first time I’ve seen a president go into action on all fronts with high octane energy from day one. (At this writing –Sarkozy has a 71% approval rating.)

Lilian Beckwith, emeritus UC Santa Cruz professor, and member of SPME (Scholars for Peace in the Middle East) gave a masterful presentation of the situation at UC Irvine. Inordinately high Muslim student enrollment, extravagantly virulent MSU (Muslim Student’s Union) disastrously laconic a dministration and, facing them, StandWithUs, a courageous student, Reut Cohen, and a burgeoning SPME chapter spearheaded by Ami Glazer (my cousin by marriage).

Cohen has challenged the administration on a particularly testy issue: contravening all regulations about the use of the UCI logo, the MSU printed and flaunted UCIntifada t-shirts. The affair is pending. Will the Administration find a t-shirt free speech copout?

After the meeting, I went with retired psychologist Daphne Burdman to have a late lunch-early dinner at the Magic Carpet, a Yemenite restaurant at the corner of Rachel Imemou and Emek Rafa’im. Noisy, cheap, and delicious. I love their fresh home made pita served on a pizza-size platter – a far cry from the dry round garden variety that looks like flattened hamburger rolls. Daphne is doing research on Muslim society, focused on the roots of violent behavior in the upbringing of children. Familiar stories of intimate cruelty, oppression, frustration. Baby boys are coddled and spoiled, then grabbed from the mother’s breast and turned over to the men who slap them around, initiate them into the might-makes-right social disorder. One woman described how mothers put pepper on their nipples to wean babies and teach them “not to trust anyone.” Some of these practices have been toned down in Israeli Arab society, influenced by surrounding mores.

I couldn’t take notes, because of the pita and drippy sauce and luscious stuffed eggplant that required maximum attention. But I’ll catch up with the details when Daphne publishes her research. She drove me back to Beit Shmuel whereby I discovered the easy route between the German colony and chez moi: straight on Emek Refa’im, which becomes King David Street, right on Shama’a, and I’m home. Lots of noisy traffic but faster than the uphill downhill scenic route I’d followed once before.

Richard and Lijana Baer invited me to breakfast at the King David Hotel. Sorry for the cliché but it was a feast fit for a king. For a dozen kings. Something you must do at least once in your life. The famous Israeli breakfast, multiplied to infinity. Talk about diversity! And every single element was tops in freshness, quality, presentation. Except for the coffee. Perhaps I could have asked for espresso?
No time to linger. I had to tear myself away from the luscious food and conversation to go back to my humble habitation and check out for the weekend.

If I’d had time to plan this trip… but I didn’t. So there I was, homeless for the afternoon, with limited mobility (my luggage was in the baggage room but my super light Toshiba is still too much of a drag for excursions). I worked, read the Jerusalem Post, observed the party in the courtyard, filled with festive tables. What was the occasion? Why did almost all the men who arrived en famille wear black t-shirts over superbly muscular torsos and, most often, carry motorcycle helmets. Then came a few in full uniform, carrying rifles. That’s Israel. A family affair-I would find out later it was a bar mitzvah party-with rifles and balloons. (And later still I would see men on motorcycles in those uniforms …I guess they were policemen.)

I was sitting at the bottom of the stone stairs with my luggage, computer, and floral centerpiece waiting for my dear friend Emmanuel Navon (professor of international affairs at Tel Aviv University). Nearby, a gaggle of boys, acting boyish, eyed me with curiosity and asked, in Hebrew, if I was waiting for a taxi. No, I’m waiting for a friend. We switched to English–they told me they’d been to the bar mitzvah party–and went on to French. A young man whose grandfather lives in Marseille stretched out his hand, swept it across the panorama of the old city, and asked, “Why don’t you come to live here? It’s so beautiful.” Emmanuel drove up, the boys took my luggage and loaded it into the car.

We made our way out of the city, through the tunnels, across the Green Line, passing patches of wall, stretches of security barrier, discussing, and seeing eye to eye on the major issues of the moment, the Gaza putsch followed by the Abbas West Bank putsch, and — here we go again, inventing moderates, shoveling money at them, grasping at straws. Arab women on heavily laden donkeys climb the hills right and left.

After the sun set, and we were waiting for Emmanuel to come back from the synagogue to begin out dinner, a neighbor knocked at the door. “There’s a fire in a garbage can.” I imagined a small fire in a small garbage can. It was a raging blaze in a huge dumpster directly across from the house. Flames leaping from the inferno, whipped up by the howling Efrat wind. A few neighbors gathered. A young man with a bucket of water was stopped in his tracks. “No, it’s Shabbat.”

Toxic fumes rose in a thick plume as the Talmudic discussion tickled the subject. The scary decision prevailed: “It’s not life-threatening. It’s contained. It will burn itself out.” Pop! Something mildly exploded. I jumped back, the decisionaries didn’t flinch. Emmanuel came home, walked past the fire and into the house and we proceeded to enjoy the Sabbath meal. We had finished eating when the fire trucks arrived. The neighborhood sentinels had passed by on a routine patrol, saw the raging fire, and called for its extinction. Simple as that. But not really.

Out there somewhere not too far for the eye to imagine, the Fatah nomenklatura, having lost Gaza without a fight, was settling into luxury hotels, ready for a fresh start in a reduced field sown with same old tired international-community illusions. Horror stories were pouring in, we followed them down to the last grisly detail but the foreign media and bleeding hearts were not to be disturbed. Blood libel is more potent than real 100% Palestinian-shed blood. And the small minds that had been pushing for recognition of the legitimately elected Fatah-Hamas government are now pushing for confidence in the undemocratically Hamas-amputated Fatah government. Eighteen-state solution, anyone?

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