I am currently sitting in the ISM tent in Sheikh Jarrah, and the evening call to prayer has begun to blare out of the speakers of a nearby mosque. This is one of the most beautiful things about being in Palestine- I am walking along, absorbed in my own thoughts, when suddenly a sound drifts through the air (or fills the air, depending on how near you are to its source), as if a someone is crouching in a mosque with a megaphone, humming with a warbling, winding melody a prayer whose words my western ears do not understand. And usually within seconds, if you are within earshot of multiple mosques (as is often the case in densely packed Jerusalem), several more voices chip in from different loudspeakers, usually (by some stroke of magic or sympathetic listening) chanting in the same key; each continues for about 5 minutes, stopping and starting again, rolling up and down the middle eastern scale my ears have come to cherish and crave.
I am Jewish, and most of the modern manifestation of my tribe seem to claim a singular, exclusive and jealously guarded sacred relationship to this land; but when I hear the Muslim call to prayer crackling out of its loudspeaker, I can imagine no sweeter dew that more perfectly settles over every nook and cranny of these majestic hills and valleys. Nonetheless, according to Israeli law a suburban Jewish boy from halfway around the world has a God-given ticket to instant citizenship here, while a Palestinian child born into poverty in a refugee camp in Jordan cannot return to the land his family has cultivated for 700 years! The first time I heard the air come alive with this chorus of song, it was my second day here; I was walking along the pathways of the old city of david, on a guided tour with 30 other american jewish boys. I came to this land on a more religious, less alcoholic version of the Birthright program, called the Jewish Learning Exchange with the Orthodox yeshiva Ohr Somayach; the circuitous route that took me out from under the gaze of the Rabbinate, and into this brightly lit Palestinian solidarity tent, will have to be traced later. But as I walked with those bright-faced, impressionable, 20-something Jewish American males that day, and the Muslim call to prayer began to resound over the valleys, I was instantly taken aback, and awash with gleeful surprise; but just as my imagination was spirited away, the boy next to me said (to the best of my memory) ‘I can’t believe it, their prayer sounds so disgusting and war-like and violent, you can hear how violent they are’. All the boys cackled, and the tour guide, though he did not acknowledge the statement with direct approval or comment, went on to explain, with an exasperated and eye-rolling look, how Muslims won’t get out of the land that so obviously belongs to the Jews.
Though at that point in my education I was excited and proud to walk through what I perceived to be a Jewish land, something did not sit right with me after that moment; an uneasiness began to gnaw at me from the inside. I felt profoundly alienated from the group, and wandered back to the hotel room with my head down, saying little, and stayed deeply depressed for two days. Nonetheless I still bought into the Zionist mythology for the next three weeks; why? What so ensnared my senses and my reasoning power, that I swallowed with hungry eyes and open heart the Biblical fairy tale of ‘a land without people for a people without land’, even though I had some concept in my mind of Israel’s human rights violations, even though I knew in the back of my head that the shiny Jewish streets, populated with happy Chassidic faces, were paved over the ruins of Palestinian villages? Or perhaps the question is- what rescued me from this myth and restored me to my senses, what brought me back to reality and reminded me of the truth, so that I now sit here surrounded by Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein books, a self-hating Commy Jew if there ever was one?