Monday, December 20, 2004

JERUSALEM — I recently spent a weekend in the historical lakeside town of Tiberias, in Israel’s Galilee region. At the hotel restaurant’s traditional Sabbath lunch, I happened to meet Moshe and Chani, a couple vacationing from their West Bank home in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. Since we were all checking out that evening and I had no car, Moshe and Chani offered to drop me off at my Jerusalem apartment on their way home. They also extended the favor to another hotel guest, Miriam, who lives one settlement over from them (and who, like Moshe and Chani, asked that her name be changed to protect her privacy).

Moshe, Chani and Miriam were obviously, like me, religious Jews. His black fedora implied that he veers toward ultra-Orthodoxy. We three women wore long skirts and sleeves. These facts, combined with their West Bank address, suggested that my car-mates were probably politically quite right-wing. So I was surprised when Moshe approached me before our departure and asked, “Is it OK with you if we go a bit out of our way tonight to visit Azzam Azzam?”

A follower of the Druze religion, Azzam is one of Israel’sapproximately 1.2 million Arab citizens. On Dec. 5, he was released from an Egyptian prison, where he’d been held for eight years on charges of spying for the Jewish state. Israel had arranged for Azzam’s release by trading him for six Egyptian students serving jail time for attempting to infiltrate Israel from the Sinai, allegedly on a mission to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Chani had heard that Azzam was hosting a celebratory open-house in honor of his homecoming.

We agreed that regardless of whether he’d engaged in espionage — a charge that he and Israel both strongly deny — Azzam had suffered because he is a pro-Israel Arab, and therefore deserves acknowledgement from his co-citizens. Azzam had come home to a hero’s welcome; Ariel Sharon himself had paid a visit. Yet I knew that my religious Jewish peers were unlikely to attend the open-house in great numbers, if not because of prejudice than from indifference or lack of time for the trip.

So, that evening, we four Orthodox Jews piled into a minivan and headed for the village of Maghar. I was excited; I’ve lived in Israel for over a year but had never been inside an Arab village. There was no reason to be frightened. For Jews to enter the Galilee home of Druzes is not the same as entering hostile Palestinian areas such as Ramallah.

As we wound through Maghar, I gawked at the architecture of the beautiful homes. The residents, meanwhile, gawked at us; it is not every day in their neighborhood that a black-hatted Orthodox man pokes his head out of a car asking for directions.

Azzam lives in a spacious house with an open living and dining area, in which were seated approximately 30 Arab men. One wall was draped with lace curtains; on a second hung a large Israeli flag. The man who greeted us at the door did a double-take and then invited us warmly inside. Seeing no women, I asked if it’s really OK, and was told “yes, of course!” As we headed toward empty seats in the back, wishing each man “mazal tov” (“congratulations”) on the safe return of his neighbor, every conversation stopped.

Azzam thanked us enthusiastically for coming and asked where we live. Rather than complicate the visit by bringing up the West Bank, Moshe answered that we’re all from Jerusalem. We were given orange juice and small cups of strong coffee. Everyone seemed glad we were there, but no one knew what to say. I sat in my long skirt and long sleeves and smiled and nodded at the men around me, who smiled and nodded back. We were brought cakes and cookies and nuts, but since the baked goods were unlikely to be kosher, we each accepted just a handful of pistachios. I hoped that our hosts understood.

Finally, we headed back to the door, once again having nothing more to do or say than smile, nod and murmur “mazal tov.” But as our minivan backed out of his driveway, Azzam ran out to us and tapped on Chani’s window. He leaned inside and asked Moshe “why did you leave so quickly?”

“We have to get back to Jerusalem,” Moshe answered apologetically.

Azzam looked at each of us in turn, and quietly asked “Why did you come?”

Moshe answered: “Because you suffered for eight years as an Israeli, and we wanted to show you support. We thank you for supporting the state.”

Azzam smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I suffered because I am Israeli. And, I am proud to be an Israeli. This is the best country in the world. See how Jews and Muslims and Christians and Druze show support for each other. I’m proud of you for coming, and I’m proud of myself. God bless the state of Israel.”

Sarah Bronson is a writer based in Israel.

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