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Kaufman: Chanukah in Palestine: Human qualities, not conflict, are ageless

NABLUS -- I am a Jewish West Virginian teaching at an all-Muslim university in Palestine (the West Bank). On Dec. 9, I lit a menorah I bought at a second-hand shop in Nablus. I am burning candles that were made in the Gaza strip. I will even invite a few Palestinian friends to my home to light the menorah with me, this week. This could be viewed as irony.

Across the border, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, windows sparkle with menorahs, made from burning cups of oil, like in ancient times, unlike the candle-versions most Americans light.

 During the eight nights of Chanukah, Jerusalem becomes a city aglow. The eight small cups of oil, and a ninth to light the others, are enclosed behind a glass box so the wind will not snuff them out. Thousands flock to see the scene, much like people going out to look at Christmas lights. In the old part of the city, the streets are white and beige, quarried from the mountainside; they reflect the gilded light. They are dangerously slick, polished smooth as glass by thousands of footsteps over thousands of years. Feet of every religion, and none, have made pilgrimages here.

At night in Jerusalem, you hear the sound of church bells, the Muslim call to prayer and Jewish chanting, simultaneously. It is both one of the most elegant and brutally violent places.  

This Chanukah, I wish for no more bombs to be dropped by either side in the Palestinian-Israeli issue. And for no more illegal Jewish religious colonies (sometimes called settlements) to be built in Palestine, which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to do, pronto.

Now, every Palestinian village is surrounded by such colonies. I have been to copious Palestinian villages and, in addition to every sunset over the mountain, I see, in relatively close range, the red-roofed colonies, which look like 1950's American suburbia. Some are several years old; some are built this second. They are replete with Orwellian watchtowers and rolls of wire. It was dramatic teaching George Orwell's 1984 to my Palestinian university students at An Najah University. They found ominous parallels between that dystopian novel and their own lives.

I'm sick of the ignorant divisions. The power plays, the use of prisons by Israelis to subdue an entire population. Most all fathers or men I have talked to here have been detained in Israeli prisons. Yes, people throw rocks, but the media never asks why. Every human being believes in self-defense; however, popular media call it self-defense only on one side. You can tell who is in charge by who controls the prisons. By who determines when fathers and mothers can return to their families.

Palestinian families are the most tight-knit families I have ever met. To me, they are like the quintessential story of the pastor who would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it, no questions asked. All Palestinian people are like that. Palestinians, a poor people because of historical inequalities, have given me their finest everything, even when they knew I was Jewish. There is no act of kindness I have not been shown. People pay for me so often for everything that once, I almost walked out of a shop, forgetting to pay for bread.

There are things I disagree with here, surely. Such as a fierce patriarchy that most here perceive as equality. Since so many of the cultural norms are based on the Koran, it seems unpopular and anathema to be able to dispute or critique society, and so most people do not, openly. Perhaps they critique the government, but rarely things like gender roles. However, this region has no monopoly on patriarchy. It abounds in our own backyards, too, perhaps in different ways.

It is not easy being a closeted Jew here. Since I do not "look" stereotypically Jewish I can "pass" for being Christian. However, I do not want to do that. My ancestors felt like they had to assimilate and actually hide their Jewishness too much in America, where, in most places, you were treated differently. And, even as a high school student at South Charleston High I remember lying about a Jewish holiday and saying I had a dentist appointment because I did not want to raise the discussion of my religion. However, this is something I regret. It was a lost teaching moment. Later, when some people found out that I was Jewish, they were excited and wanted to learn about my faith. They wanted to hear me say prayers in Hebrew; I was giving them a gift by sharing with them.

Here, I have begun telling my Palestinian friends I am Jewish. After all, it is the reason I am in Palestine. I could be anywhere in the world doing positive work, but I came here because I felt a duty to show that not all Jewish Americans support an unjust occupation.

There are so many similarities between Jews and Muslims it astonishes. Both have similar dietary restrictions -- neither eat pork, for example. If they are more traditional, they both have large families. The man is usually in charge of the family (in more strictly religious homes) and food plays a huge role in life and traditions. The language is similar. In both faiths, men and women often wear head coverings. And both cultures see Jerusalem as the holy land. Both religions circumcise their boys. The first two letters of both the Arabic and Hebrew alphabet sound the same.

My time here, teaching literature at a university in Palestine, reminds me that our ideas of fairness and politics are skewed. It reminds me to look at people as people. Surely I do not agree with every cultural norm here, and no person in any faith is perfect. But, through the light of my Chanukah candles I am reminded that we are all people, that we all share burdens and joys of humanity.

 Yesterday, a Palestinian friend, and student, was telling me stories of pranks she played on her nine siblings and her parents. I laughed, unceasingly. I had a wake-up moment in that experience. A light turned on. It was if I had forgotten that Palestinians have a sense of humor, as if I had forgotten that we are, in our humanity, exactly the same. We all experience loss, sorrow, joy, laughter, sense of humor, resistance, tenacity, hope, hopelessness, anger, frustration, collapse. In a Gazette article by Sara Busse,  writer Maya Angelou  said during her visit to Charleston earlier this year: "I am a human being and no other human being can be less than me ... he cannot think, he can't be more needful, more happy, more sad. Pain attacks him with the same ferocity as me. We are more alike than different."

And Angelou reminds us that violence has always been a part of human existence: "The world is not any worse now than when you were being raised. The same abilities to be brutal maintain. Just because we have technology and the conveyances that show us now, at a moment's notice, the cruelties going on in the Middle East or Arkansas doesn't mean that they are any worse than when we were growing up."

And so to be Jewish in Palestine during Chanukah, is it a paradox? Not unless you think being human is a paradox. I am a human first and everything else after that. Human suffering is my suffering, human joy, my joy.

Essayist and columnist Cheryl Strayed writes in her new book Tiny Beautiful Things: "Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering." And so it is that we are all human and fundamentally feel the same things. 

It is my very great privilege to be having Chanukah in Palestine. Later this week, I will cross the border, something my Palestinian friends do not have the privilege of doing. I will go to Jerusalem, and I will view, in the old city, the oil lamps shining.

I am proud of my heritage and my Jewish identity, even though, I do not believe in all things that are being done in the name of my faith, just as all Catholics of course do not condone abuses perpetuated by some in their church, or agree with all teachings. No person is monolithic. No Palestinian has single views. No Jew. No Christian. No anything. No person can be called, in one word: terrorist. That's too easy. Try this: human being. 

Kaufman, of Charleston, is a former Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and is teaching at An Najah National University in Palestine.


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