I was gathered with my kindergarten class and hundreds or thousands of other kids in some stadium. Each child got a cheap plastic cloth with a Jewish star between two blue stripes on a white background, attached to a plastic straw. That was our national flag. I liked the smell of it and wasn’t sure what it symbolized. The texture of the flag made it possible to see through it, a little bit. I was putting it over my face, inhaling it deeply, so I could see whatever happened on the stage through it. It smelled like a dollar store. Kipi was on the stage, my favorite character from the Israeli Sesame Street show. But since we had flags, it must have been Independence day or Memorial day, days in which tanks and army jeeps usually gathered in some plaza for kids to breathe in the mixture of metal, sand, oil, rust and adventure these cars represented. Kipi was my hero, but he wasn’t a soldier, he didn’t belong to a national event in a small town in the north. He was a walking porcupine, as beloved as Elmo. I’m probably confusing two separate memories, so I might never know what happened in the show I saw with blur blue and white plastic effects.
The morning after they signed the Oslo accord, I walked to school confused. I didn’t realize the value of peace. I remember being upset that my country would become smaller. Parts of the country I’d never been to would now come under the control of the Palestinian Liberation Organization new government. I looked at the big map that was on the wall of our classroom and wondered why Arabs would take over these parts of the country. I didn’t know the names of these places, just that Arabs would soon take them. I felt betrayed. I felt ownership over these lands. Being in 5th grade, often bullied, I knew better than Arabs how to govern, better than Jews too. Only years later I learned to define “Arabs” and “Palestinians”, “Right” and “Left”. I wasn’t the only one who was upset at the peace process that started at the White House on the afternoon of Sept. 13th, 1993. On the evening of Nov. 4th, 1995, someone shot Prime Minister Rabin, who initiated the process, three times in his back.
I answered the phone while I was eating dinner. It was Arik. He was a close friend of mine during elementary school, but then, in the beginning of eighth grade, we weren’t close friends anymore. Now he’s an accountant with three kids, a neighbor of my mom. On Sept. 26th, 1996, he called and asked if I heard what happened in the surfaces that day (Israelis often refers to the West Bank literally as HaShtakhim,“the territories”, literally “the surfaces”, disregarding the fact that there are also people there, not just lands.) I didn’t know what happened but I said I did in order to sound knowledgeable, and he said that Lior’s father got killed. In elementary school we had been a triangle, Lior, Arik and I. During the three days of riots that started because of the new Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s one-sided decision to open the wailing wall tunnel, Lior’s dad was on duty in Tul-Karem, about 15 minutes from where we lived, in Kfar-Saba. A sniper got him and another soldier who came to his rescue. I was there in the parking lot after the funeral behind Lior when he was screaming “why?” In the evening, the TV narrator reported coldly: “And what’s left, just a boy’s question, why”, and a long shot of Lior entering his house and wailing that one question. Nowadays, there’s a wall between Kfar-Saba and Tul-Karem, and Highway 6, Israel’s first toll road, theoretically connects them.
I didn’t want to supervise Palestinians so the officers told me to do some office work instead of manning checkpoints. The office was a trailer with an old couch, a broken chair and a table. The soldiers who did checkpoints told me over the distorted radio ID numbers of men they had arrested and I was supposed to call someone who would decide what to do with them. I might have misheard some numbers.
The first time I was supposed to shoot a gun I started crying intensely. I couldn’t control it. It was the most intensive cry I ever cried and I don’t think I ever saw someone crying like I did that day. I couldn’t stop for a very long time. I still remember the beating sound of guns shooting while I was outside, someone offering me water. It was the most meaningful event of my army service; I wasn’t meant to be a soldier. For about a week they didn’t know what to do with me. I remember talks about transferring me into another unit. Then I just started shooting, shooting and not crying anymore. For long periods of time during my service I told my officers I couldn’t shoot a gun and they had nothing to tell me besides sending me to do kitchen or office work. I was a coward, but a brave one.
I was doing some Bible class at a public school in Jerusalem. It was part of the studies for my certificate in education. Once a week I was supposed to teach third graders for about an hour and observe their teacher too. My instructor recommended I try and make the class fun. It wasn’t that hard. Their teacher was very rigid, similar to the way my third grade teacher had been. Compared to her, almost anyone could have taken the role of the cool guy. We made a pretend exodus march from Egypt, the classroom, across the Sinai desert, the hallway, and into the promised land, the classroom.
A few weeks after Independence day, Israel celebrates the reunion of East and West Jerusalem, even though forty something years after 1967, both parts of the city are still separated, like Harlem is separated from Wall Street. It’s called Jerusalem day, and around the Jewish parts of the city parades are being marched. I was observing the kids during the preparation for their ceremony in school. They made them march like soldiers in the basketball court, the sun was strong. Some held flags, all wore white and blue. I remember thinking to myself – “this is fucked up. Ten year olds shouldn’t march anywhere”.
There was never a time in my life in which I read more about the Israeli Palestine conflict as the first few years after I left Israel. Every day I checked the news and a few blogs. I learned about what was happening in and under the surfaces of the West Bank, what happened in 1948, how the Israeli occupation of Palestinians started in 1967 and how it’s still vibrant. “Israeli porn” my wife called it.
I learned not to divide it into the usual two sides. Now I divide it into the violent side, whoever chooses to act in violent ways in order to achieve his goal, and the non-violent side, whoever chooses to act humanely, regardless of his nationality, my side.