At Large

Waiting for Esau

Let's hear it for cross-cultural interaction.

By 3.17.05

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The other day at my post office I saw Yossi, who has some kind of managerial job there, and Ahmed, one of the delivery men, clowning around in the room behind the room where the clerks sit. Though both in their thirties, they were acting like a couple of teenagers and it was impossible not to smile at their antics as they wrestled and shoved.

Not having much else to do while waiting in line, I indulged a habit I have of asking myself: now how do you really feel about this? The answer was that, even beyond the surface level of hilarity and horseplay, I felt very good about it. I liked the sight of this Arab and Jew acting so lighthearted and affectionate with each other.

That might seem ironic, since I've never been an optimist about Arab-Israeli peace and some have dubbed me "far to the Right." I've tried to tell such people that I don't differ from them in my desires, just in my assessments. I offer as proof this inner reaction I had to Yossi and Ahmed's follies.

Back when I moved here from the U.S. twenty years ago, it was Jewish Israelis who seemed "foreign" and intriguing to me, people with whom I had a cultural divide I was eager to try and bridge. I didn't think much about the Arabs and the larger Middle East, except as a sort of vague malevolence.

But in finally learning a second language, Hebrew, and getting to know native and also immigrant Jewish Israelis from all over the world, I learned that cross-cultural interaction is the most challenging, interesting, and potentially rewarding kind there is. It not only enables people to grow beyond themselves and their backgrounds, but also to glimpse, to sense, whole cultural worlds through the medium of other people who were shaped by them. I know of few elations like becoming truly multicultural, feeling authentic links to some very diverse places on this planet.

And after some years here, maybe seven or eight, I started to look beyond polyglot-Jewish Israel and become more interested in the world surrounding it, the Arab Middle East. I still felt it to be a malevolent, forbidding world, but I wanted to understand better what it was like in itself, and what seemed to be wrong with it. Here I was less ambitious; Hebrew was enough, and I didn't set out to learn Arabic, but fortunately there's a wealth of fine, scholarly books about the Arabs and Islam that can give at least a distant, intellectual knowledge.

Most of what I read confirmed my sense of a society that is very troubled in the present, but gave the subject a lot more color and depth. In some ways, Muslim Arabs are the people culturally closest to Israeli Jews. Like us, they have a religion both monotheistic and legalistic, with a bias to viewing God as a paternal figure who makes behavioral demands. Like us, they have a Semitic language. Even knowing a smattering of Arabic is enough to know how closely it and Hebrew are related; I've always thought Hebrew-speaking Arabs who claim Jews have no real connection to this land are fooling at least themselves.

So the wish is there -- the wish to "make friends," to bridge this divide and share both what is different and what is similar. This is where we both live, this is where we both come from, where both our religions and ancestral cultures were shaped. The urge to reach out, to interact, is probably also deeply Jewish; after so many centuries of interactions -- both rich and difficult -- with so many cultures, it may be "in our genes" to wonder about the surrounding people and want to get to know them better.

In this case, though, so far it's overwhelmingly been a story of spurned advances. The dog, eager and gregarious, bounds up to the cat wanting to play, but the cat recoils and snarls. A Semitic commonality comes up against an anti-Semitism that's unfortunately now ubiquitous in this world that's so close to us in space and not necessarily so far in spirit. For now, we do best to be cautious and not take surface pleasantries too seriously. But the dream is there, even in me.

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Jerusalem.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.