Saturday, January 4, 2014

Israel, Palestine, Home, Me – Part II

by Miki Kashtan

I know that Israel is home, even after 30 years, because when I landed, exhausted and disoriented by the bitter cold and fury of the worst storm in decades, all I wanted was to go eat the food every child in Israel knows, the food I thought was Israeli until I learned it was actually Palestinian, adopted and adapted by the Jews who came to live in that land. Going home, after millennia, to the symbolic land of their ancestors, in the process destroying and displacing the actual homes of others. 

I wanted to eat hummus, and tahini. So we went to Jaffa, still populated by many Arabs whose ancestry there far precedes the young city of Tel-Aviv which forcibly absorbed Jaffa. Jaffa is a site of an uneasy coexistence, eroded by the constant push of modernity and gentrification. We found the food, unquestionably what I had hoped for, in an Arab restaurant, or would they call themselves Palestinian? Did their ancestors?

I know it’s home because the sights and the sounds and the smells compel me even when I don’t like them. Because the intensity of stress everyone lives with feels like it’s just been yesterday even though it had been three years since my last visit. Because despite my distaste for the gruff mannerisms, I still love the immediacy, the unmediated access to people, the directness. Both this time and last time, my sister Arnina and I had post-movie conversations in the bathroom with total strangers, conversation that traversed meaning and slices of everyone’s personal lives. I still miss the particular brand of kindness and generosity that means anyone can ask anyone for anything and mostly they will just do it. I recognize the longing, unmistakable, for some way of being “real” that I simply don’t find in the US, the place I have made home and never feel at home in. A longing which surprised me with its intensity when a group of local Israelis in San Francisco started gathering once a month to sing the songs we grew up on. The first time I simply cried, in recognition, familiarity, and unbearable sweetness.

We don’t get to choose who sits with us on an airplane, and so now, on my trip back, I feel lucky to have landed someone that feels like a companion to share the endless flight with. And he asks why I don’t want to go back, and I have to think, so I don’t have a rehearsed answer, because it’s still so fresh, the mix of it all. And that mix includes the reminders about why I left, the horrors that would otherwise be done in my name, so close to home, directly by my people to people who are clearly kin. 

The horrors continue, and not only against Palestinians. Two days before I left, I went to a demonstration, with my friend from high school, with whom I had gone to countless demonstrations while still living there. This time it’s in support of those seeking asylum in Israel, people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and a few other countries. My country of birth was created, in large part, to make sure Jews would always have a place to go to and call home, so they would never be refugees knocking on closed doors anywhere. How could the sons and daughters of those refugees say that you cannot compare, and allow thousands of people to live in despicable conditions, criminalize their stay in the country, throw many of them to jails and camps?

Yes, I live in a country now that I believe doles out much more harm to the world than Israel ever has – by sheer numbers, by intensity, by scope. Still the harm manages to be diffuse, and mostly away, hidden in the convenience of the vast spaces of the land and the world. My friend Nichola wrote in a sermon recently, about people in the US: “Without our consent but with our complicity, we have been positioned as enemies of the earth and its inhabitants, and we don’t even know it.” One can truly not know in the US, or one has to make a serious effort to know. Israel, by contrast, is agonizingly small, and the harm, whatever it is, is always so near, only a few kilometers away, visible. No one can claim they don’t see or know of the wall separating Israel from parts of what wants to be born and recognized as the free state of Palestine.

I don’t go home not only because harm, visible harm, continues to be done in my name. It’s also because of what doing harm to others is doing to my people. Yes, there is kindness, and generosity, and care that pierce me, regularly, and yet I have to remember them and dig for them underneath the surface of the vulgar, crass, loud, and insensitive shield everyone seems to be wearing, as if to protect their tender hearts from knowing, from feeling the devastation of being rendered inhuman, as if to find a way to not know, to believe it’s justified, to be lulled into accepting the fears that perpetuate the war and separation.

So I am not going back, even if I didn’t have the fundamental aversion to and sense of trauma about the idea of moving from anywhere to anywhere; even if I didn’t have a sister six and half years into cancer I want to be near; even if I didn’t have my work and the thickly woven web of doings and beings and support and meaning that ties me to where I am; even if I didn’t live in the place on earth that has the most obscenely abundant year-around access to fresh, local, organic, delicious food of all varieties.

In my choice to stay away from this land, I now can celebrate, as I wrote about in my last piece, that I have found some way to contribute, something I can do as my small part in aiming for peace, for a new future for two peoples. You can read about it here, as I describe the 4-day training in Convergent Facilitation I did while there. What I didn’t tell about in that piece I want to complete here: the friendships I encountered there, both old and new, that ultimately sustain everything I do.


The biggest gift of this trip is that I am flying home with a new friendship I hope to sustain for life, with Sami Awad, host, translator, and true nonviolent activist [at right, with Miki]. Sami, nephew of Mubarak Awad (who was deported by the Israeli government when engaging in nonviolent resistance), joined him at age twelve and has never looked back. His commitment to nonviolence only deepens with time, understanding gradually how much more significant the nonviolence of love is compared to what he called the nonviolence of hate that he used to practice. Sami and I took one look at each other and he became an instantaneous friend of my soul. It’s hard to describe how astonishing this feeling was, and how it deepened by the hour without us having hardly any conversation, being consumed in teaching and translating respectively. Without knowing Arabic, I could sense how Sami translated. It wasn’t the words, it was the spirit and essence he carried back and forth with his heart, finding ways of giving the gift of each message in words that would most likely reach the audience, back and forth, all day. I told him that his work was harder than mine, because I had micro breaks whenever he or others spoke Arabic, while he had to listen all the time to catch everything. Sami was one reason I was crying in the closing circle, because the bond was so strong, and I was already missing him, knowing how life is, and that we are not likely to see each other often.

Each time I go to Israel I experience paradox. Time there is both nourishing and challenging. With my old friends, whom I see, intensely, every two or three years, something is surreal, love and loss combined. Into this, another new friendship was born, through an accidental chat on a train on a stormy day that turned into deeper and deeper engagement as we rode the train together. As I was telling her one day, on email, about how much I work and how tired I am, she said something I imagine I will carry with me for a long time: “I bless you with continuing to work and get tired, work and get tired, doing what you must do.” Amen.



  1. Dear Miki, I am touched by the way you described your paradox about Israel. Might explain something of what holds my only sister far from her original family not far from you, very sadly for me.

    I felt uncomfortable reading "Because despite my distaste for the gruff mannerisms" and "the surface of the vulgar, crass, loud, and insensitive shield everyone seems to be wearing". I want to express my voice which is totally different about my experience and how I see myself and many others around me.

    Happy 2014 for us all, Jacob

  2. I delight in knowing that you and Sami Awad have met in this way. Glad to know you have found companionship there, and guessing there will be much mutual support, learning, and inspiration that can come from it. I remember being totally inspired by Sami Awad at a Fellowship of Reconciliation conference in 2002 and often think about him. My heart celebrates that he is still alive and doing what he does -- embodying the spirit and practice of nonviolence.