Sunday, February 02, 2014

A Jew In Jordan

Me at the Amman Citadel, December 2011
“Ted”, a commenter on my first post, wondered whether I felt safe living in Jordan, which I called my home for the better part of five years. While I suspect from his tone that Ted was more likely trolling than asking a sincere question, I’m going to answer that question here, since Ted may not be the only one wondering.

Let me begin by making it clear, if I didn’t already, that the views I outlined in my previous post are not entirely my own. I do not subscribe to the paranoid style of Jewish politics; in fact, I think that the assumption that everyone is out to get us, everywhere, always, is actively detrimental to the good of both Israel and the Jewish people. I’ll get into more detail on that in a future post, but anyone who, like Ted, thinks I live in constant fear of a second Holocaust should rest assured that I sleep quite soundly.

I also slept soundly every night during the years I lived in Amman, even through the call to fajr prayer in the wee hours of the morning. Not once in that time did I fear for my safety as a foreigner, an American, or a Jew.

As you might imagine, there are not a lot of Jews living in Jordan. Even within my circle of expat friends, I think I met all of three. And while plenty of Israelis travel there for cheap dental work or to visit Petra or Mount Nebo, it’s not a terribly welcoming place for them: the 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty has never enjoyed much popular support and the two countries’ relations have never advanced beyond a weak chill. Seeing as Jordan’s population is majority Palestinian, it’s easy to see why Israel is not terribly popular.

However, my Jordanian friends and colleagues were always quick to distinguish among Israel, Israelis and Jews; one of the managing editors at the Jordan Times explained to me that inflammatory political rhetoric about “al-yahud” was really directed at Israel and that there was little animosity toward Jews qua Jews among the Jordanians, even those of Palestinian origin like himself (he liked to refer to Israelis as “our cousins”, referring to the mythological lineages of Isaac and Ishmael). His account was surely a bit of a whitewash, to put it mildly: another friend told me how in his Islam classes as a child, he was taught such things as that Jews were monkeys and that the Muslims would fight them in an apocalyptic war at the end of time. I mention this, however, to remind readers that animosity toward the state of Israel, however deeply held, cannot be automatically conflated with animosity toward the people who live there, much less toward Jewish people writ large.

When I first arrived in Jordan, I was cautious about revealing my heritage to anyone, and when I say I never felt in danger, that’s not to say that I never felt uncomfortable. My first shock came when I walked into the finance office of the American university where I had my first job there as an English teacher. One of the staff had a bulletin board over her desk on which she had printed out and tacked on a number of inspirational quotations from eminent figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Adolf Hitler. Yes, you read that last one right. It was then that I began to understand, among other things, that not everyone learns the same version of history in school.

Later in the semester, I was leading a discussion in one of my classes on what it means to be “great”, and asked my students to name some great people from history.

Rami, one of my brightest, friendliest, and most enthusiastic students, spoke up. “Hitler!” he offered.

More than slightly taken aback, I asked Rami why he thought Hitler was a great person.

“He killed Jewish people,” he said. “He was on our side.”

I didn’t have a ready response to that. Until that moment, I had never before had to seriously debate the evil of Adolf Hitler and had never expected to find myself in such a situation. Anyway, what does one say to such preposterous illogic?

Seeing that I was upset at Rami’s proposition, another one of my students explained that it was OK if I was Jewish, that they didn’t have anything against me. I denied that I was Jewish, said that wasn’t the point, and stammered something about how Hitler had killed many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, and that they should know better than to think of him as a positive historical figure.

I come back to the moment in my mind from time to time and wonder what I would say if I were faced with the same situation today. In retrospect, I could have reminded Rami of the tens of millions of innocent lives lost to Hitler’s megalomania, of which Jews were but a fraction. I could have explained to him that Arabs were no higher than Jews on Hitler’s periodic table of the races, or even pointed out that if not for the Holocaust, the history of Palestine might have taken a different shape, perhaps one that didn’t involve his family losing their home. But would any of that have gotten through? I’ll never know.

The longer I lived in Jordan and the more I got used to it, the more comfortable I became being open about my roots. Obviously, I didn’t wear it on my sleeve. When taxi drivers asked me if I was Muslim or Christian (which they did with surprising frequency), I continued to answer that I was Christian, but over time, pretty much everyone I knew eventually became aware that I was Jewish.

When I moved on from teaching to my job at the newspaper, it didn’t take that long for me to “come out” to my colleagues. This revelation was mostly a non-event. To the extent that anyone cared, they were happy to meet an American Jew who had actually bothered to come to Jordan and see the other side of the coin, as it were. While I remained as secular and unobservant as I had been since college, from time to time I was called upon in conversation as the best available authority on Jewish religious beliefs and traditions. My friends and colleagues, many of whom had never met a Jewish person before and knew little or nothing about Judaism, were curious, so I found myself scouring my memory of what I had learned in Hebrew school 15 years ago to explain Judaism in broad strokes. I made Jewish food; I even threw a Hanukkah party. And the Jordan Times newsroom is probably the only one in the Arab world where anyone has ever uttered the phrase “oy gevalt”.

On an outing with my Jordan Times colleagues, April 2012
In editorial meetings that often evolved into political and philosophical debates, continued over many coffee and cigarette breaks, I often found myself defending Israel from criticism that I considered unfair: an uncomfortable position for me to take at the time, considering that I had little affection for Israel and generally agreed with most of my Jordanian friends’ attitudes toward it. Still, when one of our more polemical columnists would make a factual error or outrageous claim about Israel, I would let our opinion editor know how I felt about it. My motto became: “Bash Israel all you want, but get your facts straight.” Truth be told, though, the most offensively uninformed and bombastic anti-Israel talk I heard came not from Jordanians, but rather from other American expats.

(I also met the occasional Jordanian chauvinist of “East Bank “origin who had no problem with Israel and rather saw the Palestinians as a common enemy. In those instances, the script was flipped and I found myself vociferously defending the Palestinians!)

After years of trying to shed my Jewishness, I found it stickier than I had imagined. After a few years in Jordan, I finally got around to crossing the border and spending a week in Israel. I will never forget standing at the Western Wall and realizing that while I was absolutely sure I did not believe in God and not at all sure I believed in Zionism, I was most definitely a Jew, could not escape that fact, and probably wouldn’t choose to even if I could.

While in Jordan, I was privileged to spend most of my time with highly intelligent and educated people, mostly journalists and scholars, with whom I could discuss such topics as theology, nationalism, linguistics, sexual politics, and human rights. I got to learn a great deal about Islam, Arab history, and how Jordanians and Palestinians understand the world and their place in it. I also got to share a fair amount of my own knowledge and experience, and to correct a few misconceptions while having some of my own straightened out. In other words, I had a rare chance to participate in a conversation that takes place far too infrequently and for that I am grateful.

More importantly, though, I made good, lasting friendships among people I was raised to understand as my natural enemies. The political lens through which I had always viewed “Arabs” and “Palestinians” has been replaced with a personal lens that can focus on actual human beings I know and care about. I can no longer talk about what “Arabs” or “Palestinians” do or think as though such generalizations made sense. At the same time, there are a few more people in Jordan who can say they have a Jewish friend, and as such might stand up to those who would talk nonsense about what “the Jews” do or think.

I don’t expect a medal for this. It feels pretty basic. Peace won’t come about just from more Jews and Arabs getting to know and like each other personally, but it could make the war harder to sustain. To paraphrase Lincoln, do we not destroy our enemies when we make them our friends?


Lilly Rivlin said...

Jonah, I love your writing. I myself had some very good Palestinian friends when living in Jerusalem, in fact I was a weekend guest quite often at the home of one of Palestine's notables in the 60's, and later in the 70's. In the beginning she knew me as a Jewish feminist, and all was well, but later, when I talked about my being born in Palestine to an old Jerusalem family, she was willing to modify the then PLO stand that Jews who came to Palestine after 1918 were not welcome. Slowly, though, that too changed, but I know that it was very difficult for her, and her friends, to understand the Jewish connection to the Land. Now I believe that too will change with future generations. More and more Palestinians have gotten to know the Israeli narrative, (and I wish more Israelis would learn about the Palestinian narrative) however, I am always aware that the distinction between Israeli and Jewish remains problematic both for Palestinians and many Jews in the diaspora. Bottom line, it can't hurt for Jews and Arabs to get to know each other, but the reality is that very few Jews live in Islamic countries today. And when they did live under Islamic sovereignty, it was always as a minority (Demi), hence, perhaps that is why one reason that it has been difficult for them to accept a Jewish nation state. Bottom line, I thank Jonah for his article and hope there will be more Jews accorded the opportunity to live and work in Arab states.

Ralph Seliger said...

On Rami's admiration for HItler, I know you're aware of the Mufti and didn't want to delve into his story, but I think it's important. Arabs may have theoretically been no higher than Jews in Nazi racial theory, but the Nazis sought them out as allies. The Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini was especially heinous for recruiting Bosnian Muslims to the SS and broadcasting radio tirades from Berlin for Arabs to commit mass murder against the Jews in their midst. Btw, Tablet has an essay on how we should regard the Mufti; the reviewer does not buy the authors' contention that the Mufti convinced Hitler to embark upon the Holocaust, but the article's well worth reading (especially its second page) on Hitlerian and antisemitic influences in the Arab world.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jonah,

Actually my question was sincere, as I tend to find that people, Jewish or non-Jewish, who have spent significant time in amongst Arabs (or any other people for that matter) subscribe to fewer stereotypes and tend to view the "others" who they live with as human beings who have their own prejudices, some rooted in reality, some not, as well as some ability to grasp the common humanity of people who are different from them.

Reading your first piece I did actually think you subscribed to a paranoid view of Arabs, as opposed to representing the views of others, and so I wondered if your experiences had been so different from many other people who I know - Jewish and non-Jewish. It seems not. Your experiences sound to me to be more or less typical.

I can only say that it is a shame that others who write and comment on this site lack the depth of experience that you've had and are only able to comment on "Palestinian friends" and visiting Palestinian homes.

My second related question for you, is do you feel safe in the United States as a Jew? And if yes, how do you justify demanding a spare "homeland," which as you know comes to an important degree at the expense of another people? This may sound like a harsh question, but I think it is a very real and justified one.

Thanks very for taking the time to respond thoughtfully,


Ralph Seliger said...

Ted's question continues in the vein of most of his comments, which dispute the legitimacy of Israel's existence. Israel doesn't exist as a "a spare homeland" for American Jews, but it was established and populated as an outgrowth of the Holocaust and other instances of persecution & discrimination against the Jews of Europe and the Middle East. I suspect that like me, Jonah does NOT feel unsafe as a Jew in the US, but we know there are people who hate us as Jews, and anyone who knows the fate of Jewish communities in so many countries has to be at least a little nervous. This is similar to most minority populations, but especially acute for a historically persecuted group like Jews.

Hopefully, some day soon, Arabs and jews will turn the page and be able to relate to each other more respectfully in the here & now, but history's hold on all of us cannot be easily dismissed.