In May of 2000 I had the privilege of visiting with my then-new friend Amir (a pseudonym meaning “prince” or “leader”) in his home in Jericho. I was introduced to him by my daughter Susanna, who had spent a college semester studying the Middle East peace process; Amir was one of her teachers, and when I visited her toward the end of her stay, he became one of mine.
We had been on a trip to Amman, and when we came back, Amir wanted to show us the hospitality of his home. Unfortunately, an IDF blockade was guarding the road from Jerusalem to Jericho; since a shooting had occurred that day, no one was being allowed in. But Amir was not without resources, and he found a back way for our little two-car caravan to crash through the bush and sand from the Dead Sea up to Jericho.
I have to say it was a bit unnerving when we rolled into a Palestinian police camp and were suddenly surrounded by young uniformed men with guns and clubs. But Amir talked them into letting us pass.
Although it was near midnight when we arrived at his home, he wanted to introduce us to a family of his neighbors. The father, like Amir, had been briefly jailed in Israel for acting up as a very young man during the first intifada. Now he was entertaining American Jewish visitors in the courtyard of his home. His wife was serving delicious thick coffee and his children were milling and playing around, pausing to gawk at their father’s bizarre guests.
Two other men joined us, also friends of Amir’s and of our host, and Amir explained in Arabic who we were. Evidently he had told them that I was an anthropologist, because one of them looked at me and asked Amir something. “He wants to know,” came the translation, “if you think we come from apes.”
I had many thoughts, in a matter of seconds, under that vast dome of stars above the ancient streets of Jericho, but in the end I decided that truth would be better than political or religious correctness. “Yes,” I said, “a very long time ago.” The man nodded, gazing into my eyes. As he spoke to Amir I felt the tension building.
“He thinks,” Amir said, gesturing toward his friend, “we’re still in the jungle.”
And so we are, all of us, and so we are likely to stay, unless we can overcome the fear and hatred that well up out of us as much as they do out of any other territorial animal. I understand now as then that the situation is very complex. But I will say, now as then, that fair treatment for those men and their wives and children—a chance to live and prosper in a free Jericho in a sovereign Palestinian state—is necessary for Israel’s future.
The next morning, over an American sort of coffee, I stood with Amir on the steps of his family home. He bragged that morning about his aunt’s rejection of Yasser Arafat when, as a suitor decades before, he had stood on those very same steps. Amir pointed out the highest buildings we could see in the town, all homes of Arafat’s cronies in Fatah. He mentioned the bank accounts in Switzerland, pointing out potholes in the street and describing physically decaying schools and clinics. Amir was not naïve, and he did not support Hamas; but he understood that Hamas was not corrupt
Jericho was not Amir’s family’s only home. It was more like a country cottage. For many generations, they had lived in Jerusalem, where his mother still had an apartment in the Muslim Quarter. But there was more.
Amir unfolded an ancient deed in Arabic and explained that it held his family’s right to a substantial plot of land on the Mount of Olives—not as a burial spot but as a place to live. They had more than once turned down offers of millions of shekels to cede that claim and hand that piece of paper across a table. Their right to live in their ancient homeland was worth more than millions.
I am not naïve either. I don’t see a future that includes Amir’s family settling back into the their old land on the Mount of Olives, where thousands of Jews are buried and thousands more will be, so they can be as near as possible to the point of arrival of Moshiach, their Messiah.
But Amir’s family will have to get more than millions. They will have to get the right to an independent state in Palestine, one that includes for them a comfortable apartment in Old Jerusalem, a second home in Jericho, a seat of representative government in East Jerusalem, a contiguous nation including almost all of what is now the occupied West Bank with an easily traveled train and highway to Gaza, and above all a sense of pride and hope for the future that puts the thought of violence out of the minds of the young men who will one day call Amir father.
There are many obstacles to this outcome, but most Israeli Jews want it to happen, because they understand that it is the only hope for their own country’s future. After that knowledge, it is mainly a question of will.