Two men walk along the Jerusalem promenade: one is short and stocky, a former kibbutznik, the other is tall, white-haired, patrician in aspect, his clothes those of a midwestern American professor.
One is Israeli author Amos Oz, the other Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University. They’re at ease with each other. Oz jokes about his artificial knees setting off alarms in airports, bringing security down on his head.
Jerusalem sprawls in the distance. Oz: “We were both born in this city. Sari, what will become of it?”
Nusseibeh: “Well, I’m coming to believe it is a little bit overrated. We have given it far too much as human beings… But… it’s certainly losing its mystical element – from my perspective as a result of how we as human beings behave towards each other.” He has a wonderful Oxbridge accent.
Oz: “What drives me furious is the fact that we all know the solution… Everybody knows that this [he gestures in one direction] will be the capital of Israel and this [points the other way] will be the capital of Palestine… There will be an Israel embassy in Palestine and a Palestinian embassy in Israel… within walking distance of each other.”
Nusseibeh: “It makes me angry, too, that the holy sites, the holiness of the place, our memories, our religions, are actually making us live such miserable lives and create so much pain to each other. Once again I say we keep forgetting the human side, the human element, for the sake of rocks and places.”
This dialogue is part of a TV documentary titled Amos Oz: the Nature of Dreams.
Oz has dreamed much for his native land, dreamt of peace, only to see it recede into the far future.
The two discuss the refugee issue.
Nusseibeh: “People have often assumed on the Arab side that not to address the refugee problem… is in itself a good thing, but I think it is an immoral thing to do. Imagine how many children are being born today in the refugee camps in Syria, Jordan who do not have any chances, any hope for a life that’s decent. All because people are hoping the past can be brought back to life.”
Oz: “This is the inscription I would inscribe on the skies over east Jerusalem and west Jerusalem alike: ‘The past cannot be brought back alive.’ [Israelis and Palestinians] both have this disease about restoring the past.”
Nusseibeh: “The future is more interesting than the past. The future is still all the things we can do – you know, human beings can make their history… I believe in political miracles.”
Oz responds: “I would like to have the role of sound technician in the talks. I would give the sound technician an instruction to disconnect the mikes each time one of the negotiators is referring to the past, only to plug it in when they talk about the present and the future.”
One says, “We need to come here more often.” The other replies, “Let’s do it – without the cameras.”
By the time you read this, we’ll be finishing the most solemn period of the Jewish year, while fires in Syria threaten the tenuous stability of the Middle East – a stability based on fear of other possibilities. Can this dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli be relevant as we approach the end of the High Holiday season?
Rabbi Alan Lew in This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, a meditation on the High Holidays, writes, “It is precisely those who insist on remembering history who are prepared to repeat it.” For him, the cycle of the holidays from Tisha b’Av to Yom Kippur is the time to change direction, write a new history for our future – maybe not in the Middle East, but certainly for ourselves.
At Slichot this year, our rabbi (a child of Holocaust survivors) and a professor of New Testament studies (a child of committed Nazi parents) talked about reconciliation, forgiveness and memory. How much history had to be committed before these two men could reconcile their family histories and consign memories to the past?
Each one had to create a new story about themselves, their families, and how they would like their lives to depart from the old stories.
We all have stories we like to tell ourselves. Can we change them for the new year?