In fact, Ezra, a stocky man with thick eyebrows and a bronze complexion, is not a politician at all, but a plumber, a gay Jewish plumber, from an Iraqi Jewish family. He became an activist in an Arab-Jewish human rights group in the 1980s after becoming intimately acquainted with the hardships of Arab life in Israel through his Palestinian lover.
Ezra’s activism is more practical than overtly political. He goes wherever Palestinians are in trouble, being chased off their land by the Israeli army, or assaulted by armed Israeli settlers. His main area of operation is south Hebron, where Bedouins try to survive as best they can in the desert or in the slums. When they refuse to move from their land, their animals are poisoned, their wells blocked, and their plots of land destroyed or simply confiscated. Israeli settlements surround the squalid towns where Arab shepherds, deprived of their traditional livelihoods, are often forced to live.
This is a lawless place, where young armed men in black hats make their own rules. And when they need more force against the natives, they can call in the army. These men and women came to this land from all over the world, from the US, Europe, South Africa, Russia, and Israel too.
I set off one Saturday, with Ezra and a number of other activists, including David Shulman, the eminent Iowa-born Israeli scholar of Indian civilization. Not far from a large Israeli settlement, we stood at the edge of a small brown field, watching a Palestinian farmer sow seeds with a flick of the wrist, rather like a fisherman casting with his rod, while another man drove an old tractor up and down. On the other side of the field stood a group of Israeli soldiers, guns slung across their shoulders. We were there, David explained to me, to make sure settlers didn’t come to prevent the Palestinians from planting their seeds. Often the soldiers, at the behest of the settlers, would chase the activists away, or even arrest them. This is not legal. But, as mentioned earlier, the law does not usually stretch to these ancient lands.
This time they kept their distance, and the seeds were sown. Meanwhile, Ezra had already gone ahead to another trouble spot. Settlers had erected fences around a field that had belonged to a Palestinian family for generations, until it was taken away from them a decade ago. The reasons for these confiscations are variable; in this case the army had claimed it was necessary for military exercises, which didn’t prevent Israelis from building their settlements there.
While surveying the majestic rocky landscape, stretching all the way to the Negev desert, David remarked that these wild places tend to attract crazy people. This was once the land where prophets and other holy men roamed. As he spoke, I heard a raucous voice yelling something in German. On the other side of the new fence stood a wiry man in a black cowboy hat and black jeans. He spoke with the fury of a fanatic. His name was Yohanan. He was shouting at a middle-aged Palestinian, telling him to shut up (Maul halten!).
The Palestinian explained in Arabic that this land had belonged to his family for generations. Yohanan, a Jewish convert, born as the son of a Catholic priest, said there was no proof of this. He did not invoke the Bible, however, to bolster his own claim to this bit of what he called Judea and Samaria. He talked like a pre-war German nature worshiper. He spoke fervently about his special relationship with the land, his understanding of the plants that grew there. In Germany, he pointed out, if a plot of land is not taken care of by its owner, it falls to the person who works it instead. He was the tiller of this soil, he said, and so the land was his.
Yohanan is an oddball, a loner, disliked by other Israeli settlers. His house, a kind of improvised caravan, stood in isolation on a nearby hill. He had some dark tales of Israeli violence, of vengeance, and festering feuds. It is tempting to see the violence in places like south Hebron as deriving from ancient tensions, fed by religious or racial hatred, going back perhaps even to biblical times. In fact, however, the Bedouins are not religious fanatics, nor do they lay sacred claims to their property. And not all the Jewish settlers are fired by religious zeal either. What you see there, on these arid frontiers, is not an Old World story but a New World one, of settlers and natives, of cowboys and Indians, of eccentric gunmen and outlaws. It is how the West was won.
During my stay, the Israeli papers seemed obsessed by sex scandals. Two in particular dominated the news: the conviction of Moshe Katsav, the former president of Israel, of rape, sexual harassment, and “committing indecent acts”; and the accusation made against Police Major General Uri Bar-Lev of “using force in an attempt to have an intimate encounter” with a woman, a social worker identified as “O.”
“O,” as well as another figure in the lurid tales of the general’s love life, named “M,” a cosmetician, were not paid party girls, à la Berlusconi. Major General Bar-Lev met “O” at a conference, and she had known “M” for a long time. A third woman, “S,” had allegedly introduced “M” to Bar-Lev, after he had requested a threesome. Ex-President Katsav, too, knew his accusers well. He even told one that he was in love with her. They were women working in his office, one in the Tourism Ministry when Katsav was minister of tourism, the other two in the President’s Residence.
Remarkably, a recent academic survey by Dr. Avigail Moor revealed that six out of ten Israeli men, and four out of ten women, did not consider “forced sex with an acquaintance” to be rape.1 The case of Bar-Lev seems to have had something to do with office politics. He was a contender to become the new police chief. Not everyone wishes him well. And Katsav’s deeds point to office politics of a more brutal kind. The tone in Israeli papers, censorious and lip-smacking at the same time, reminded me of the British tabloids—in the words of a Haaretz columnist, “that well-known combination of pornography and self-righteousness.”2
Public scandals were not the only items in the papers to do with sex, however. There was also the open letter from thirty-odd wives of prominent rabbis, belonging to an organization aimed at “saving the daughters of Israel.” The letter called on Jewish girls not to date Arab boys. “They seek your company,” the letter warned, “try to get you to like them, and give you all the attention in the world.” And then you are trapped. One rabbi, named Shmuel Eliyahu, notorious for telling people in his town of Safed not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs, expressed a similar sentiment. He said that he was happy to be civil to Arabs, but, he added: “I don’t want the Arabs to say hello to our daughters.”
Rabbi Eliyahu, it should be said, is reviled by the liberal Israeli press, and does not enjoy wide support in the country. And yet, to dismiss him as a complete maverick would be a mistake. A survey conducted jointly by Israelis and Palestinians found that 44 percent of Jewish Israelis support the call to stop renting apartments to Arabs in Safed. One can only guess what the figure would be if the question involved sexual relations between Jews and Arabs, but it would probably be considerably higher.
About a mile separates Al-Quds University from the Old City of Jerusalem. Catering to more than ten thousand undergraduates and postgraduates, Al-Quds is the only Arab university in the Jerusalem area. You could walk there in about twenty minutes from the Old City. But you cannot do so anymore, since the wall separating Israelis from Palestinians cuts the university off from the city. The original plan in 2003 was to run the wall right through the campus, destroying two playing fields, a car park, and a garden. Protests from faculty and students, backed by the US government, stopped this from happening. But the place still feels isolated. To get there from Jerusalem, you have to breach the wall and pass through several checkpoints. The twenty-minute walk is now a forty-minute drive, but only if you have the right permits and if the soldiers manning the checkpoints don’t wish to detain you. Israelis are not supposed to go there at all.
Despite being cut off, Al-Quds, whose president is Sari Nusseibeh, one of the great liberal minds in Palestine, feels like a lively institution. Muslim students in headscarves mingle with secular students and Christians. There are Jewish professors too. And most Palestinians who teach there have degrees from European or American universities.
I visited Al-Quds on the last day of my stay in Jerusalem. The reason, apart from my curiosity to visit a Palestinian campus, was that Al-Quds has a partnership with Bard College, where I teach in the US. I was invited to a class on urban studies. The students presented papers on a remarkable plan to build a completely new Palestinian city, named Rawabi, just north of Ramallah. Construction work has already begun, even though the Israeli government has not yet given permission to build an access road, without which Rawabi would be stuck on a rocky mountaintop, with views of Tel Aviv but no road to Ramallah.
One of the students, a young woman in a headscarf, explained what Rawabi would look like, with office towers, American-style suburban homes, and all the comforts so often lacking in Palestinians towns today: electricity, running water, Internet connections, and sources for green energy. It would have cinemas, a hospital, cafés, a conference center, underground garages, and a large park. Rawabi, in short, is the stuff of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s dreams, the smart new Palestine, financed in this case mostly by the government of Qatar. And Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is said to be in favor too, for this would spell a kind of “normalization” without Israeli concessions.
This alone would be enough to raise Palestinian suspicions. Would such a project not be an abject form of collaboration? Is it not a way of acquiescing to the status quo? The students of Al-Quds could not make up their minds. They were excited about the plans for a new, modern, urban Palestine but could not shake off a sense of deep ambivalence.
For there are other problems, besides Netanyahu’s alleged enthusiasm. Prime Minister Fayyad is not popular among many Palestinians. Hamas may not be much loved on the West Bank, but the news, revealed on an al-Jazeera website, that Fayyad is cooperating with the Israeli army to suppress fellow Palestinians was not generally well received. Nor was the fact that—also revealed on al-Jazeera—the Palestinian Authority was prepared to concede parts of East Jerusalem to Israeli control. Aware of his vulnerability, Fayyad, almost as soon as the crowds revolted in Egypt, dissolved his cabinet and promised elections in September.