The other side of the fence

Joshua Marks 29 October 2009

Beccy Talmy and Joshua Marks relate…

Beccy, that man just looked in our boot.”Yeah, that was security. He was checking for bombs.’

Pretty much everywhere you go in Israel, there’s a security guard there to check that you’re not carrying explosives. You can’t forget about the conflict. My Dad’s a kibbutznik originally; his parents were part of a movement that tried to establish a truly communist society. I’ve heard that Sabba (Hebrew for Grandpa) was very gentle and kind.

It’s hard to reconcile images of evil, violent Zionists forcing helpless Palestinians off their land, with the image of a gentle violin player who wouldn’t have hurt a fly. Sabba died the year before I was born, so I never knew how he reconciled his communism with his Zionism, many seem to think it to be impossible. I know that he didn’t emigrate to Israel when his brothers and sister did, before WWII. He was lucky: his violin trapped him in Russia while Poland was under the control of the Nazis.His parents and three sisters, who hadn’t moved to Israel, perished in the holocaust.

I’ve realised recently, I haven’t been obligated by my Israeli passport to justify everything about Israel’s past, anymore than my British passport makes me personally responsible for justifying the fallout of the British Empire. Nor can Israel be reduced down to post-holocaust refuge, apartheid state or any other neat slogan that doesn’t really say much.

There’s one level on which Israel is a particular sweet smell: the heat of the sun, a row of palm trees overlooking the beach, warm, chaotic families welcoming me into their home each year and insisting on feeding me.

There’s another level on which I see more Israeli flags in two weeks in Israel than I’m likely to see a British one in two months over here; each year a new family friend is about to go off to the army; a friend of ours was demoted for no other plausible reason than that he was a Palestinian Citizen of Israel and his new superior was Jewish.

Its endless arguments about exactly what has happened and what is happening and what should happen: can we really demand an end to terror when we won’t even offer a settlement freeze? Is the blockade really worth the limited security it brings in the face of its impact on the lives of innocent Gazans? It’s trying to forget about all that and have fun rafting on the River Jordan. It’s Israeli and Palestinian activists campaigning side by side against violence and for whatever solution they see as just.

More than that, it’s eight million people who each have a story to tell; its eight million people trying to get on with their lives.

There’s a line from a song by Bette Midler, ‘from a distance, you look like my friend, even though we are at war/from a distance, I just cannot comprehend what all this fighting is for’. That’s what it comes down to for me, far more than blame or revenge. Israel and Palestine are both full of amazing people who can see the friends on the other side of the wall and are pushing for change.

Beccy Talmy

‘The past week marks the end of the festive season in Jewish tradition, starting with the New Year back in mid-September, through the Day of Atonement which clashed with the first day of term (some might view this as providential) and then onto the final festival of Tabernacles, or in Hebrew – Succot.

Succot is one of the most bizarre festivals of a culture dominated by wonderful and often weird customs. Designed to remind us of our ancestors temporary sojournment in the desert after exiting Egypt, the laws of Succot stipulate that we must try to live part of our lives outside in a temporary dwelling – little more than a glorified shed, exposed to many of the rather un-desert-like climatic features of the British Autumn.

Such simple living harks back to the ‘baked-beans and toast’ days of my gap year in Israel, in which pretty much every day was one without material comforts. Against such a backdrop, distinguishing the Succot experience from a normal day was slightly more challenging, but in the spirit of exploration, I decided to camp out on the beach at the Bereshit (Genesis) world music festival.

Somewhere between Glastonbury, a Thai Full Moon Party and a peace rally, Bereshit is the biggest and most famous world-music event in Israel, attracting crowds of over ten thousand in a secular festival for the Jewish festive period.

Despite the rhetoric of division and conflict which dominates reporting of the Middle East, a stare up and down the crowded beach at this festival reveals the true diversity of cultural and religious identities that make up the Israeli public. Jews, Arabs, Christians and others join together, united by a love of music and the desire to celebrate.

The myriad�different acts that the festival has attracted over recent years are testament to the multifaceted identity, which cannot be simplified into the binary polarities which often dominate commentaries on the region.

The festival was an arena where conflict was restricted to mud-wrestling; and the loud clamouring keeping people up at night emanated from the moon-lit trance stage. Such a view of Israel is at best uncommon.�Whilst I know that this bohemian bazaar is not a comprehensive solution for peace, it is evidence that there is more that unites many people in this region than divides them.

At this time of year, when Jews look at counter-culture as a means of self discovery, the Bereshit music festival is an appropriate image to bring to the fore – a counter-culture of coexistence shining a light through the dark and dominate culture of hate for which, sadly, we have come to know the region. This musical and cultural oasis may lack the scope and scale required for a lasting peace process, but it does demonstrate that people in the region are capable of living side-by-side, embracing their own culture and enjoying each others.

When the political leadership reconcile their differences, and once again walk out onto the White House lawn to sign a permanent peace agreement, they should be reminded of the counter-cultural symbol of Succot and the beacon of hope it provides for the future.

Joshua Marks