May 24, 2007
On this side of the Mediterranean, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out less like a war and a more like a team sport. |
That is to say, we don't pick up arms -- thank God -- we pick sides. And we follow our side, and root for it, thinking somehow our cheers will help push it closer to the end zone.
Just as with professional sports, most Angelenos aren't even spectators -- they couldn't care less.
A smaller but substantial number pay close attention only during wars and crises -- the equivalent of those of us who only tune into sports games during the finals and bowl games.
An even smaller number -- mostly Jews and Muslims -- follow developments in the news and online, send money and grill candidates. These are the season ticket holders.
And then there are the die-hard fans, the ones who write one letter to the editor per day, organize the rallies and shout down the opposing sides. In sporting terms, these are the guys who strip off their shirts when it's snowing to show off their chests painted in team colors.
Last Sunday, it turns out, was Game Day in Los Angeles. I counted no fewer than six events related to the Middle East, stretching from Pacific Palisades to Simi Valley. I set out to go to three of them, because sometimes the spectators can tell you more about the game than the players.
First stop was UCLA, where I dropped in on a daylong seminar titled, "Israel, Zionism and Apartheid: The Case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions." Inside a Humanities Building lecture hall, about 100 activists spent a day reiterating why Israel is awful.
I arrived just as a lunch break was finishing up. A man was inspecting a container of hummus. "It says 'Sabra,' but it's from America," he reassured a participant. "We were really scared when we saw the label."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that two years ago a majority share of the Queens, N.Y.-based Sabra was bought by Strauss-Elite, an Israeli conglomerate.
Before the next speaker came on, another middle-age man urged audience members to buy bottles of olive oil available for purchase among the stacks of anti-Israel brochures outside the hall.
"The land and sky of Palestine brings you this gift of extra-virgin olive oil," he said.
I stayed for one speaker, Dr. Laila al-Marayati, an American-born OB-GYN whose slide show depicted miserable conditions faced by Palestinian women and children in Gaza and the West Bank.
The audience -- mostly middle age or older and white -- never tired of hissing and tsk-tsking whenever the speaker accused Israel of some heinous act.
Then Al-Marayati told the audience that she was using an Israeli Jewish lawyer and the Israeli legal system to challenge the government's decision to bar her from entering.
"Israel is a democracy," she said.
Someone in the audience groaned.
The fans had come to cheer their team and their team only.
On my way out, I bought a bottle of extra-virgin Zatoun olive oil. I'm a nonpartisan lover of olive oil. The saleswoman told me part of the purchase price goes to plant olive trees in Palestine.
"Just like the Jewish National Fund," I said.
"Huh?" she said.
When it comes to food and fundraising techniques, I guess, we are all one.
Across town in the Fairfax district, Israeli music blared across the parking lot of Shalhevet High School. Sixteen-year-old Maxine Renzer had organized an Israel Street Fair there. Kids and teachers at the observant Jewish school walked from booth to booth, collecting pro-Israel pamphlets, tossing balls at a dunk tank, buying pro-Israel T-shirts and falafel. Renzer expected to donate about $4,000 in revenue from the event to Israel-based charities.
This wasn't a place for argument or debate, just a way to support and celebrate. The festivities felt at once connected to, and also a world away from, that day's news of missiles dropping in Sderot and civil war in Gaza.
I skipped my plan to drive out to a conference on Islamic radicalism in Simi Valley and instead headed to the Beverly Center, where Pups for Peace was holding its event.
Founded five years ago in Los Angeles, the group trains dogs to detect explosives for use in Israel. The idea is to prevent terror attacks before they happen, saving lives and reducing overall violence in the Mideast.
The group took over an upscale furniture showroom. Guests dined on fancy hors d'oeuvres and sipped wine and mingled with distinguished guests.
One of the dogs, a German shepherd named Rex, went through the crowd on a search for mock explosives, He couldn't stop wagging his tail. "To them this is a game," Sheriff's Deputy Richard Faulk explained.
There is a sense that all these gatherings are, well, sport. We gather with like-minded friends and celebrate or defend our agreement to ourselves. What a shame that in a country where Jews and Muslims do live peaceably together, we find so little reason to work together on Middle East issues.
Dialogue between pro-Israel Jews and pro-Palestinian Arabs in this town has broken down to the degree that we're ensconced with our own teammates, when in America, of all places, we needn't be.
Only one of the day's events tried to bridge the gap -- a musical concert with Arab and Jewish musicians at UCLA organized by the Yuval Ron Ensemble.
Otherwise, everybody had broken up according to their own teams -- and so it goes.
I got home and turned on the "Sopranos." Anthony Junior, the suicidal spawn of the great mobster Tony, was in his therapist's office, explaining why his class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depressed him.
"People blowing each other up because their God says they're allowed to live in a certain patch of f-----g sand," Anthony moans, "and then other people's God says they're supposed to live there."
I dished out a plate of scary Sabra hummus, then poured some of the Palestinian olive oil on it. I swiped a piece of pita bread through it.
Guess what? It tasted really good, just like extra-virgin Israeli olive oil.