They Call Me The Jew

Last year, my good friend – my brother – invited me to Passover dinner at his parents’ home. I wrote about it, with the intention of publishing it, but for some reason, I didn’t follow through. Here it is then, one year on – sadly, every bit of it is still true (except I have now been to one Passover dinner and know what to expect, which is nice.)

Yesterday, I found a piece of crumpled up blue cloth nestled in my comfortable office chair. Unfolding it, I realised it was a kippah – traditional Jewish headwear – with the words ‘Jewish Museum of Prague’ printed on it. Instantly, I was transported back to the Old New Synagogue in Prague.

I remember being handed the kippah on entering the temple nearly a year and a half ago, remember the breeze that blew it off my head not once, twice, but three times. I thought, ‘if only my family could see me now.’ Why? Because oddly enough, though I was raised in a low-income Muslim household, my family long ago branded me with a nickname that stands apart from the others. They call me the Jew.

To them, it’s an insult. It’s a way of saying, ‘You’re not like us’, a way of saying, ‘You don’t believe’ and ‘You’re one of them’. Granted, it’s become a running joke, a thing not taken very seriously but the sentiment from which it was born is very real.

It makes absolutely no sense to me, so I poke fun at it, and when my cousin says, ‘Shalom’, I nod and say ‘Shalom’ back, and when they ask sarcastically, ‘Did you just come back from the Temple?’ I nod enthusiastically and say, ‘I had a good long chat with the rabbi.’ For a moment then, there’s an awkward pause, an ugly beat with the unspoken question, ‘Are you serious?’

So, why am I writing about this? I read a piece by Mehdi Hasan over at The New Statesman about the “virus of Anti-Semitism in the British Muslim community”. Now, the only issue I have with that piece is the use of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ being applied to Arabs, one of the many groups who fall under the umbrella of Semites. You cannot be anti-yourself. Otherwise, he’s pretty much spot on, and it’s true here in Australia as well. Mehdi isn’t able to provide a clear and present reason as to why this is the case and though he mentions the Arab-Israeli Conflict, he dismisses it as being irrelevant.

I think he’s underestimating the impact of that conflict, underestimating the shared sense of persecution Muslims feel when they talk about it, and the fundamental lack of understanding they have about the subject. To them, there are no nuances to the issue, no greys, only black and white. ‘They took our land,’ and ‘They’re killing our people’ is about all that registers.  Ask them about the McMahon-Hussein letters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the King Crane Commission, or the Six Day War, or the Yom Kippur War, or any of the countless momentous events in the history of the conflict, and they will stare at you blankly.

It’s important to remind you now that I’m speaking about my family, about my personal experience, not on behalf of the Muslim community here or abroad. I do, however, think it’s symbolic of a broader problem and that the Arab-Israeli conflict lies if not at the heart of the issue, then very close to it. I grew up in the same household as my cousins and brother, aunties and mother – I still vividly recall images of Palestinian boys and girls throwing rocks at tanks on the evening news. Still recall the feeling of injustice and helplessness, laced with a heavy dose of resentment.

‘They took our land.’

‘They’re killing our people.’

No word on how those sentiments are echoed by the Jewish people. No word on how they must feel to be constantly attacked or afraid of being attacked, on the aftermath of bombs. Sentiments shared by both peoples. There is a fundamental disconnect here, a schism between reality and perceived histories. So why aren’t I the same, why don’t I share the same casual racism? I’m not entirely sure. I put it down to education – most of my family members are high school dropouts – and empathy.

Too often when speaking about this issue, proponents from both aisles cry long and foul about the very same events I referenced earlier. Abstracts, one and all. History is meaningless here. Only one truth is worth mentioning: it needs to end. All of it. From the prejudice on both sides to the bloodshed; from the sustained, institutionalised oppression of the Palestinian people, to the attacks on Jewish people and the ugly rhetoric from despots like Assad.

This is a particularly pertinent issue given the recent visit by President Obama to the Middle East. He said, “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognised. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes.

“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.”

Fine words, Mr. President, clearly addressing the need for each side to employ empathy. That is, to put yourself in another’s shoes. As a writer, I find it particularly easy to do and perhaps this is another reason I stand apart from my family on this issue. But I know better, we all know better, than to think that this matter will be resolved by politics. While I hesitate to suggest a solution to a hundred-year conflict unable to be resolved by thousands of much smarter people than I, it would be remiss of me not to, given the broad strokes I’ve offered so far.

That said, it’s hard to be anything other than cynical about the peace process given its history of ineptitude and failure. Instead, I look with hope to the Arab Spring. It took the world by storm little more than a year or two ago but what has changed since then? The figures at the top may be different but the fundamentals remain the same. I do not think we have seen true spring yet, only the first few tufts of grass springing out of hard, broken earth.

We will see true Spring bloom only when Palestinian mothers and daughters, sisters and wives stand side by side with Israeli mothers and daughters, sisters and wives, to say: “Enough. Too many of our children are dead. Too many of our children are dying. Enough.” In the so-called Arab Spring, people spoke, and the world listened. Not hard enough in some cases, as the tragic Syrian civil war shows, but the ripple effects of change were set in motion nonetheless.

We will see true Spring bloom only when ingrained prejudices are acknowledged and confronted, not with heated words and insults, but with understanding and empathy: I understand. You’re hurting, and so am I. It is with the same empathy that I look at my family, who, despite all their faults, I love with all my heart. Their understanding and education is lacking, but I cannot take them to task for the depth of their emotion. Too often in my past, I’ve lashed out, thoughtless with emotion, and it is very much the same here.

We will see true Spring bloom only when education in the form of nuanced, considered approaches to sensitive topics is commonplace and consistent across the board, across all boundaries and state lines. We must stand as one and face these problems together.

Now I speak directly to my family, to my community, Muslim, Jewish, Australian, one and all. I understand that my words are idealistic, hopelessly so, but in this bleak, cynical climate, I have nothing else to cling to except hope.

Tonight, I will go to my friend’s parents’ home for Passover dinner. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, having never been before. Maybe I’ll wear the kippah, maybe not. One thing I am sure of, however: it will be peaceful. And that is a thing to be treasured.





Add a comment