At first, people just ignored us. Then they began to sing songs in Hebrew a little louder. Then an elderly woman with the face of a kind grandmother called me “Palestinian whore”. A man, maybe three times my size, called me an animal and ordered me to stand with the “rest of the animals” (he was pointing at my fellow protesters). One man spit on a Jewish woman carrying a sign that read “Jews against occupation.” Later a man, lit with contorting anger, explained that we were all terrorists, intent to kill. “Arabs are the curse of the earth,” he said; That we are hateful.
On the evening news, a spokesperson speaking on behalf of the Israeli “independence day” celebration indicated that this was a festival for Israeli supporters to come together and share their love.
Irony was also in the aroma of hot falafel. I could smell the Arab cuisine as it was passed out as Israeli “ethnic” food.
Falafel made me remember soap.
Some years ago I came across an expensive bar of soap in an organic store. Before reading the label, I recognized its texture and smell as the kind of soap my grandmother used to make. It was Palestinian soap. Saboone Baladiyeh is what we called it and it was the cheapest around. As a kid I used it grudgingly because I wanted shampoo.
It is a little known fact that Arabs in the Arabian Desert and later the Turks were the first societies to make and use soap. When the Turks invaded the Byzantine Empire, soap was introduced to Europe. The label on the Saboone Baladiyeh bar read, “made in Israel.” They even took our soap, I thought.
We stood there, roughly seventy people, while beeping horns turned our attention to pointed middle fingers. Some gave a supportive victory sign. A man with his family, my back turned to him, leaned in our direction and said softly “dirty Arabs.” I did not turn around. I wish I could say that I was not affected. I wish I could say that I felt pity for him. Instead my blood began to boil. Deep breaths punctuated by my futile, and loud, attempts to argue back that we didn’t invade Israel in 1967. It was the other way around. Ask Israel’s historians, I said to their deaf ears. He yelled something back to my deaf ears. Deep breathe. Remember not to respond, I reminded myself.
The man who screamed in my face told us that Palestinians were all hateful terrorists. His belly was swollen with gluttony and his jewelry betrayed Western material hedonism. He dared to stand in judgment of young boys with the real life courage he can only watch red-eyed in front of a theater screen.
Those young Palestinian boys are little Che Guavaras reminding the world with their blood every day that their will to be free will not be conquered by tanks or F-16 fighter jets. Nor will they be dissuaded by the international community that has callously ignored their misery for decades.
As he screamed in my face I realized that he could go to Palestine at any time and live there permanently. He had what I wanted and I wanted to scream back his own obscenities. But a smile crept to my face with the reminder that I am a daughter of Jerusalem. I can say that and prove it. Maybe that is what he wanted but couldn’t have.
He was most likely a Jewish-American, born to American Jews who probably came from Europe. Maybe some 3000 years ago one of his ancestors was in Palestine. Maybe not. He was not a native son of the Land. But we are. Our fathers, who are older than Israel, are alive to prove it. The bones of our grandfathers are permanent elements of the soil. My friend Anan, standing there beside me, is the natural daughter of Akka, where she was born, but later expelled.
In Israel’s molecular biology labs, built atop Palestinian villages, their scientists are proud to show that some Israeli Jews have genetic resemblance to Palestinians. It is their proof that they too were once there. Because we have always been there. We are the original Jews who embraced Christ and later Mohammad.
I felt a devious sense of satisfaction with that knowledge, like I was somehow one-up on him. When I went home, I was ashamed that I did, but proud that none of us stooped to his, and other’s, level of ugly racial slurs.
We have been willing to share our home with these new conquerors just like our forefathers shared with the Crusaders, the Byzantines, the Ottomans and the Brits. But we are not content to live in exile, torn from our collective identity and history. Nor are we content to live as animal-class citizens on our own land. This is what Israel must come to understand. There can never be peace until there is justice.
To my right was a baby-faced young man dressed in Israeli blue and white. He wanted my phone number and promised to call. He runs a peace camp for Arabs and Jews to meet as human beings, rather than sworn enemies. I hope he calls. Maybe he can teach me ways to keep my heart open even when someone calls me an animal. Maybe I can help him understand that I am a natural daughter of Jerusalem; that I am out of place in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq or any other nation. That we will always, always fight for justice–for our home, where our collective history lay.