June 29, 2000
It's not easy being 52, especially when you're a country. Israel and I are the same age, and I get the feeling it's harder on her than on me. The other night my high school classmates living in Israel got together for a 35th reunion. There were 116 graduates of our modern-Orthodox day school that June long ago, and today 12 of us live in Israel, four men and eight women. Half the women are grandmothers by now; one has a granddaughter the same age as my daughter. Jeepers, how time flies.
I'm out of step with most of my friends in other ways as well. I'm guessing that maybe four or five of us voted for Barak. Five of the group live in West Bank settlements, or used to. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say - it's just not my side of the street. The overwhelming majority of my fellow Israeli alumni are Orthodox, some very, and one guy whom I remember as the class hippie is now a Chassid, living near Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter and working as a religious scribe.
Howie the Chassid didn't come to the party, which is too bad. It was charming to see everyone and reminisce about old times and friends. One of our Israeli-born teachers, an ingenue from Bnei Brak when we had her for Hebrew lit in the 10th grade, also attended and regaled us with tales of her first day in New York in 1962 (straight from the boat to Macy's). We leafed through our unimaginably young faces in the yearbook, then came upon two facing pages with the word "censored" and a cartoon showing a kid in a yarmulke laboring over a sculpture, only to have it blown up by a walrus in a top hat. Oh dear, I figured, I must have been mixed up in that somehow, but for the life of me I couldn't recall, until my friend Anita reminded me that I had been the yearbook's humor editor, perpetrator of a number of satirical ditties deemed offensive and subversive by the plump, mustachioed principal, and expunged just prior to press time ...whereupon she commenced to recite verbatim one of the offending verses, embarrassingly puerile and definitely in poor taste. I didn't remember it at all. No wonder Anita was first in the class.
Israel at 52 also has a selective memory. Some of us have conveniently forgotten how the secular, Ashkenazi Labor party establishment treated North African and Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants with shameless condescension, to put it mildly, in the early years of the State. Other Israelis not only remember the humiliation but nurture it for political gain. Many Israelis repress the memory of what befell the Palestinians in 1948; others emphasize that story at the expense of the Jewish cause; and many of us struggle to find a fair balance. Everyone remembers the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, surely the greatest tragedy in Israel's history, but not everyone, unfortunately, has the same recollection of how and why it happened.
When a middle-aged Jew forgets what happened in high school, the more important question is whether he remembers where he put his car keys. When a middle-aged country fails to grapple honestly with its most painful memories, it may be condemned to relive them. This notion too, of course, is open to highly subjective interpretation, which is why it's just as well that as we shared a laugh with our former teacher and raised a glass to absent friends, my classmates and I assiduously avoided the discussion of politics.
In fact, I get the general sense lately that people I know are talking less about politics. For one thing, they're weary of trying to second-guess a volatile, uncertain situation: Lebanon after the withdrawal, Syria after Assad. They're tired of the machinations of Shas and the on-again-off-again negotiations with the Palestinians. On the other hand, there may also be, among people on my side of the political street, a sense that Barak in his own peculiar way is taking care of business. Unemployment is down since he took office a year ago, foreign investment and tourism are up, and maybe the yuppie fantasy that Israeli prosperity will inspire peace - and vice versa - will come to pass after all, even in our overheated, fundamentalism-plagued region.
To test this hypothesis, I hopped down to Jericho a few days ago with a couple of friends to visit the Oasis Casino. A joint enterprise of the Palestinian Authority and an Austrian corporation, the casino is off-limits to Palestinian citizens but a glittering mecca for gambling enthusiasts from anyplace else. According to Ahmet, a dapper young member of the Oasis managerial staff, 99 percent of the customers are Israelis, many of them arriving by the chartered busload.
Here it was 11 a.m. and already many of the tables, including $50 minimum-bet blackjack, were full-up with Israelis. The air was thick with smoke, the decor and ambience pure Vegas, without the sex: no pneumatic waitresses here. The dealers were local Palestinians, and the supervisors - said Ahmet, who is Turkish - hail from 43 countries, from Brazil to Sweden to Australia, and live 15 minutes from Jericho in the Jewish West Bank town of Maaleh Adumim - also home to one of my classmates, who made aliyah six years ago from Tennessee. Is this not a remarkable new world? Austrian capitalists abetted by a United Nations of pit bosses overseeing Arab roulette-spinners as they relieve eager Jews of their hard-earned money. World peace through honest commerce, the triumph of blackjack over memory.
Across the road from the casino is a tumbledown food kiosk with a sign in Hebrew that says basar kasher, meaning that the skewered shishlik is (allegedly) kosher. The owners, the Palestinian Abu Asal family (asal means honey in Arabic), will also rent or sell you shoes, proper pants and a shirt with a collar, if you are so gauche an Israeli as to arrive (as did one of my friends) at the classy Oasis in sandals, or worse. The name of this marvelous establishment is Mifgash Hahaverim, the friends' meeting place. Forget for a minute the traumas of yesteryear, and take a gamble on peace.
Stuart Schoffman is an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. His e-mail address is email@example.com.