Married to a Palestinian – The Journey of an American Jewess Irish Keltz

Married to a Palestinian – The Journey of an American Jewess Irish Keltz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Post-Blog

48 Years Ago: Commemorating the ’67 War

 Iris Keltz on June 8,
2015
 

East Jerusalem, 1967 From left to right, Ibrahim Khatib, Iris and Faisal Khatib and friends. (Photographer unknown)

 The following includes excerpts from Iris Keltz’s
forthcoming book.
 Unexpected Bride in the
Promised Land:

This week marks the 48th year since the ‘67 War. Israeli
General Yitzhak Rabin was given the honor of naming the war. Considered
possibilities were: The War of the Daring, The War of Salvation, The
War of the Sons of Light
. Rabin chose The Six Day War evoking
thoughts of Genesis, but Israel created a new world in less than six days. With
the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force, the war had been won in the first
few hours. Palestinians call it the Naksa. For them it turned out to be—another
Catastrophe.
In the summer of 1967 I cast my fate to the wind and
hitchhiked from Paris to Jerusalem hoping to live on an Israeli kibbutz, but a
caprice of fate found me welcomed and married into a Palestinian family within
weeks of my arrival in East Jerusalem, Jordan. The likelihood of a
Jewish-American woman finding sanctuary with “the enemy of our people” during a
war that changed the face of the Middle East was just about zero. My family
stressed the Jewish narrative of suffering in a Diaspora that lasted thousands
of years, culminating in the Holocaust. On my bat mitzvah, I chanted from the
book of Exodus about the Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt with miracles and signs of
wonder—ten plagues and the parting of a sea. I read Anne Frank’s diary and
prayed the horrors of the Holocaust would pass over the Secret Annex where she
hid with her family like the Angel of Death had passed over the homes of the
Hebrew slaves.
A two-lane highway cut through the desert between Amman
and Jerusalem like a sword. As the jeep I was riding in ascended from the
Jordan River Valley, Jerusalem appeared in the distance like a floating
fortress. Ancient saw-toothed walls, church steeples, minarets, and a golden
dome slowly came into focus. Resting on a ridge of hills running north and south,
a Canaanite city-state founded four thousand years ago as an oasis for caravans
crossing the Arabian Desert had become a city sacred to the world. Jews
have dreamed of returning to Jerusalem ever since the Babylonian
exile, but for me it was simply a resting place on my way to an Israeli
kibbutz where I expected to be welcomed.
I was ridiculously nonchalant about setting foot in the
Old City–– and ignorant. I didn’t know that Jerusalem had been divided in
1948 when Israel was created by the United Nations. Jordanian officials
informed me it would take three days to get a visa allowing me to pass through
the Mandelbaum Gate into West Jerusalem, Israel, and once my passport had an
Israeli stamp, I would never be allowed into an Arab country–– but I didn’t care.
From the window of the East Jerusalem youth hostel, I could see the flicker of
lights in Israel. A sign posted in English and Arabic read: CAUTION!
BORDER AHEAD! DANGER! MINES!
The Damascus Gate in the northern wall of the Old City
was a short walk from the hostel. An imperious stone archway ushered me into a
world where men dressed in ankle-length white robes and headscarves that
protected them from the harsh desert sun. Giddy with discovery, I walked for
hours. Donkeys carried burdens along sinewy streets. Women surrounded by mounds
of fresh fruits and vegetables gossiped and shouted to passersby while babies
nursed at their breasts. Merchandise spilled out of stalls little more than
windowless units with corrugated metal doors. Household goods, clothing,
jewelry, and tourist trinkets were displayed near trays of fresh baklava,
sesame rolls, fruit, nuts, herbs and spices my nose could not identify.
A golden dome crowned with the crescent moon of Islam
rose like a second sun over the Ottoman-built walls of Jerusalem. Like a moth
drawn to light, I tried to find the golden domed mosque but ended up on a broad
cobblestone street in the Christian Quarter. Tourists searching for religious
trinkets walked between monks in brown habits and priests in black robes. Shop
windows displayed filigreed silver and gold jewelry, olive wood crosses, brass
bowls, leather goods, intricate boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and
hand-blown glass of unimaginable beauty.  Upon entering one of the shops,
a dapper young clerk, speaking the Queen’s English politely asked if I would
like a cup of tea, and could he help me find something. I was determined
not to be pressured into buying. He asked how long I would be staying in
Jerusalem.
“Three days.  I’m waiting for a visa to cross into
Israel,” I said, watching for any change in his expression. Not a twitch.
“That’s not enough time. There is so much to see here.”
I finally bought a leather shoulder bag engraved with camel caravans and
smelled of sheep The clerk whose name was Ahmed invited me to meet his
cousins, Samira, Marwan and Faisal. That’s how it all began. When the Khatib
family jokingly referred to themselves as the “fearful Palestinians” I had no
idea who they were talking about. I had never heard that word before. Growing up,
all Arabs were generically referred to as Arabs, meaning those people who want
to push the tiny Jewish State into the sea. No context was ever offered. But
there was nothing fearful about this family who welcomed me into their home and
their life.
Faisal who became my husband three weeks later, was a
world traveler, a poet and an inspired oud player. His nimble fingers slid up
and down the fretless Middle eastern guitar, its atonal notes sounding like a
journey with no end. He offered to be my guide in the city of his childhood. In
spite of assuring him that I was not on a religious pilgrimage, Faisal insisted
on taking me to the Wailing Wall. “You’re Jewish. You must go to see the Wall.”
I followed him through the streets and back alleys in a
city saturated with religious, historical and cultural memories. In the middle
of a poor overcrowded neighborhood we got to the Wailing Wall. It was unmarked
and unnoticed. No one stopped me from leaning my forehead against the cool
stones. With a few exceptions, between 1948 and 1967 Israelis and Jordanians
had been forbidden to cross each other’s border because officially a state of
war existed between those countries. American passports did not mention
religious affiliations, and here I stood alongside a Palestinian who was
encouraging me to pray at the sacred wall.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble
Sanctuary or Haram al Sharif, was a short walk from the Wailing Wall.
Two mosques, built after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, have graced either
end of the plateau for over 1300 years. The Dome of the Rock was the golden
structure I had been drawn to on my first day in Jerusalem. Cobalt tiles
imprinted with Quranic verses wrapped around the outside walls of the mosque
like a blanket. Faisal secured permission for a non-Muslim to enter. The dome
protected a massive sharp-edged black granite stone like a giant womb. Many
believe this rock to be the site where Abraham (called Ibrahim by Muslims)
almost sacrificed his son Isaac (Muslims believe it was Ishmael), where farmers
threshed grain during the reign of King David, and where the Prophet Mohammed
departed from earth when he rode his horse to heaven. At Zalatimo’s Sweet Shop,
I became addicted to fresh squeezed carrot juice and knafeh, a cheese filled sweet
pastry. We left the Old City and walked along Nablus Road to a walled-in
garden. Let archeologists decide whether the Garden Tomb or the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre was the true site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We
didn’t care. I delayed my passage through the Mandelbaum Gate for a few
days. 
One day an urgent telegram was waiting for me at the
Jerusalem American Express. “War imminent. Stop. Take first boat or plane to
Cyprus. Stop. Mom.” My Palestinian hosts believed none of this. We were
blissfully ignorant. If I had bothered to read a newspaper, I would have
understood the cause of my mother’s alarm. On May 14, 1967, Cairo announced
their armed forces were on maximum alert. On May 18, Egypt demanded the recall
of all UN troops stationed in the Gaza Strip and the United Arab Republic.
Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and took over UN positions in the Sinai.
On May 22, the day Faisal and I got married, Egypt closed the Gulf of Aqaba to
Israeli ships and ships carrying goods to Israel. By the time Faisal and I
awoke on June 5, Israeli pilots had effectively destroyed the Egyptian Air
Force in a surprise attack lasting less than two hours. Long-range bombers,
fighter jets, transport planes, and helicopters, exposed in open-air hangars were
bombed like sitting ducks. Israeli pilots were ordered to “destroy and scatter
the enemy throughout the desert so that Israel may live, secure in its land,
for generations.” They succeeded beyond their dreams.
Radio Amman announced Jordan had been attacked and the
“hour of revenge had come.” While Radio Cairo broadcast patriotic music between
calls to cross the 1948 Armistice line and liberate Palestine, Israeli tanks
were steadily moving through the Sinai. Official Egyptian communiqués falsely
claimed their military had downed more than one hundred and fifty Israeli
bombers, and Israeli towns were being heavily shelled. International phone
lines had been cut and Israel did not contradict these lies.

Faisal and I found sanctuary in his aunt’s basement
apartment in Ramallah. We listened to broadcasts from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and
Israel. If either of us had understood Hebrew, we would have heard an Israeli
broadcaster warn, “All of Israel is the front line.” Believing another
Holocaust was imminent, Jews from around the world were boarding planes bound
for Tel Aviv, ready to defend their precious nineteen-year-old country. I, too,
wanted Israel to survive but could not fathom how Faisal and his family posed
an existential threat—to me or to Israel. Our greatest fear was a direct hit to
the building that sheltered us. The bleating and braying of terrified sheep,
goats, and donkeys was heartbreaking. Without their human caretakers, the
animals were thirsty and starving. Time was measured by shades of darkness and
light. During a period of uneasy silence Faisal described our future honeymoon
to Petra. I wondered where I’d be if I had gone through the Mandelbaum
Gate––perhaps living on a kibbutz or hiding in an Israeli bomb shelter? Maybe I
would have flown to Cyprus or returned to New York? I held imaginary
conversations with my mother. “I told you to take the first boat or plane out
of there,” she’d say, to which I would humbly reply, “You were right, Mom, I
should have left when I had the chance but I discovered that Palestinians are not
our enemy. We can live together,” something I hoped to convince her of
someday.
On the morning of June 7 we heard the sound of soldiers
shouting in Hebrew. We understood Ramallah was being occupied. Fellow survivors
implored me to run into the street, wave my American passport and shout, “I’m
American. Jewish. These people are my friends. My friends are your friends.”
Helmeted soldiers, guns poised, barged into the basement apartment. They
searched every room, confirmed we were unarmed, confiscated watches and gold
jewelry but didn’t notice the gold wedding band I was hiding with the palm of
my right hand. I held my breath until they were gone. My silence at that moment
has come to haunt me.
The war was over! We had survived, but the world was
irrevocably changed. Instead of being swept into the sea, Israel completed the
occupation of historic Palestine. They conquered 42,000 square miles, including
the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, and
Gaza. The 1.3 million Palestinians living in these territories who suddenly
came under Israeli military control became Israel’s responsibility. The battle
for demographic domination was beginning. Just as Pharaoh had feared that the
Israelites would become as numerous as the stars, the Israelis worried
about being outnumbered by the Palestinians.
With youthful innocence, I shared life with the
Palestinians moments before the curtain of occupation fell. I’m grateful to
have seen the Wailing Wall when it was nestled in the heart of the ancient
Moroccan Quarter, to have walked through the streets of Hebron with no soldiers
in sight and to have experienced village life before the onset of
modernization, pollution and occupation. I loved the pristine landscape between
Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah before it was riddled with settlements and
checkpoints. It was a borderless, seamless world that welcomed me. Renown
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once wrote––unfortunately it was Paradise.
Solutions have been put forth––two states, one secular
democratic state, a confederation, internationalizing Jerusalem, land
exchanges––but solutions lie in a distant future paved with graves and broken
families. Whatever compromises are reached, Israelis and Palestinians will
remain entangled in each other’s lives. We must learn to empathize with “the
other.” Change does not happen with arguable facts and conflicting narratives
found in history books. Change starts with the human heart.
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