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The Masks We Wear, and Don’t

March 9, 2012

It’s Purim in Jerusalem today, a day of masks, of identities hidden, of a topsyturvy imaginary world. In this region, though, the absurdities we create for Purim can sometimes pale in comparison with the painful realities that will endure long after the holiday.

Each year, I interview a few candidates for a college in the US. Typically, they are either American students in Israel for a gap year or Israelis just out of the army who want to attend an American school.

It was thus without too much curiosity that I opened this year’s email with the names and addresses of the two students I was being asked to interview. But then I saw that one of the candidates came from east Jerusalem and the other from Ramallah.

This, I thought, could actually be interesting.

The candidate from Ramallah arrived in the company of her father. Impeccably dressed, speaking almost perfect English devoid of any appreciable accent (she’d lived abroad for a number of years, it turned out), she was smart, inquisitive, affable and interesting. She spoke articulately about how difficult it was to move back to Ramallah in September 2000, just as the intifada was starting.

There were tanks near her house, she told me, and soldiers everywhere. There were curfews and fear – life was very different from what she’d experienced during her years in the West. Then we spoke about the books she was reading, the science and literature she was studying. It took only minutes for me to know that I was going to write her an excellent recommendation.

I could have just thanked her for coming, but her father hadn’t yet returned to pick her up, and more importantly, I wanted to ask her about things that really matter.

How often, after all, do I sit down with a bright young woman from Ramallah who attends a first-rate high school (which, she told me, enables exceptional students in Gaza to “attend class” via Skype), reads voraciously, is completely at home on the Internet and prides herself on her intellectual openness? How often does she sit with a Jew wearing a kippa, in an office lined with books, talking about whatever interests both of them? For both of us, I imagined, this was a pretty unusual meeting. So I asked her if we could discuss something completely off-topic, with no bearing on what I’d write to the school, and she said it was fine.

“Imagine it’s 2032,” I told her. “You’re not 18, but 38 years old. You’re still living in Ramallah, and the situation in this part of the world is more or less what it is now.

The only difference is that you’re in charge. You determine Palestinian policy, and can make anything happen. How would you solve this?” She smiled.

“It’s complicated,” she said, as if I didn’t know that. But she then launched into her description of what she would do. Now, though, for the first time in our conversation, I couldn’t understand what she was saying. The words were clear, but the ideas weren’t. So I decided to press.

“Wait,” I said. “First of all, are we talking about one state or two?” “Two,” she said, “of course.”

“And where you and I are now, in pre- 1967 Israel, this is the Jewish state?” “No,” she said.

“No? But there is a Jewish state?” “Of course,” she said, “there has to be.”

“But where is it?” She continued to explain, but I still didn’t understand, so I sketched a basic map of the region, with all the standard markings so we could get to work: On the west, the coast, with a little bump for Haifa. On the east, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. I drew the Green Line, marked Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Gaza, and said, “OK, so now show me what’s where.”

The basic principle, she explained to me, is that refugees from both sides have to be permitted to return to their original homes. Basic human rights demand that. So Israel, she said, will have to absorb all the refugees from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

That, she rightly understood, is a significant number of people. So what is now Israel, she explained, can’t be the Jewish state. Instead, it will be a “shared state” of Jews and Palestinians. I chose not to ask her how well she thought those Jews would fare as a minority in such a state – things were getting complicated enough.

“So where is the Jewish state?” I asked her. “Take the pencil and shade in the area.”

What she shaded was a portion of the West Bank.

“The Jewish State is now in the West Bank?” I asked her. “Why?” Because, she explained to me, the “settlers” are really refugees. They, too, are returning to their ancestral homelands. It wouldn’t be fair to tell them to leave. So the Jewish state will be in the part of the West Bank where there is a concentration of Jews, and the rest of the West Bank will be Palestine.

There was no way to tell her, without being insulting, how utterly absurd her plan was on many levels. As well-read as she was, as much Internet access as she had, she clearly knew virtually nothing about the conflict, its history or the current proposals for how to end it. I was struck that she could be so thoughtful, so earnest, so open and live just a few miles from me, and inhabit an entirely different “reality.”

I opted for a bit of a “Hail Mary pass.”

September 2000 was also hard on my children, I told her; I even wrote a book about it. If I gave her a copy, would she read it? She assured me that she would, and three days later, I got an email from her with a lengthy response to the book, which she’d clearly read from cover to cover. We exchanged a few more notes, and she asked me to look her up if she gets admitted to that college.

I will. I liked her, and I’ll be interested in seeing what four years at an American college does to her views of this small region that we both claim as home.

Weeks later, I continue to ponder that conversation. In some measure, it was encouraging. Two people, from opposing sides of the conflict, could talk, laugh and learn with each other, and even stay in touch beyond. I think she liked me no less than I liked her. There was something refreshing about the whole thing.

But it was somewhat devastating, too.

Where are we if the smartest, most open Palestinian kids, from the best schools, believe that the Jewish state is going to be a corner of the West Bank? Given that worldview among their best and brightest, what are the genuine prospects for any change for her or for my children, who will, of course, inhabit this region together? No need for Purim for confusion to reign, it turns out. Even without masks, it’s sometimes hard to imagine who’s who, who thinks what, or what’s possible. But it’s sad, not funny. For when the masks are put away and the hangovers are forgotten, the reality with we’re left will be no less absurd than the pretend world we’d delighted in creating.

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