Excerpt from:

Our Jerusalem

© 1999 Jordan White

He'd prepared a nice speech that he was happy with. He dressed carefully, putting on his best blue blazer. He was a little shocked at how small it was. He couldn't button the front. Oh, well, he'd leave it unbuttoned. He frowned at his reflection in the mirror.

"Sayyid, you are too fat," he told himself.

He told himself it was not a beauty contest. The important thing was that the message got out. They need to know what Israel is doing to our country. That we want our land back. We want a state. We want peace and safety in Jerusalem. Our Jerusalem.

The meeting room was quite full. Erin came, just as she'd promised. Sayyid's stomach was queasy. He was more nervous than he thought he'd be.

Leah Kostroff introduced him.

"Here to share his thoughts and impressions of his life, growing up in Palestine, is Sayyid Youssefi," she said.

Everyone applauded as he came to the podium. He remembered not to try and button his jacket. He looked out at the sea of attentive faces.

He looked at the red-headed girl, sitting right in the front. She sat with her hands over her stomach, a little smile on her face. He smiled back. He was so glad she was there. Just looking at her gave him strength.

"I am a Palestinian peasant," he began. "My father was an olive farmer, my mother a Bedouin and a textile worker. The Bedouins are Arabs of the desert. Neither of my parents went to school or college. They were workers of the land, tied to the land. It was the source of their identity.

"When I was but seven months old, my father died. My mother had to struggle to raise five children on her meager salary. We were living in a refugee camp because the Israelis decided they needed our land for housing for their own people. We were hungry all the time. In the winter, we were cold.

"The United Nations gave us food, sugar, flour, beans, rice. They gave us soap and kerosene. My mother sold our allotment of kerosene so we could have more to eat.

"I was a sickly child. I had asthma and other health problems. It was hard for me to get through the nights that were so cold and miserable. Many nights, my older brother Abdul would hold me to keep me warm. On the worst nights, he would wrap his own blanket around me, saying he wasnít cold. But I knew he was. We all were.

"When I was strong enough, I was sent to go to work for my uncle, on his farm. My brothers worked for him, too. He was very harsh and would beat me, so I decided, when I was fifteen years old, that I was fed up with that life. I ran away from home. I sneaked into old Jerusalem (this statement brought some smiles from Sayyid's audience.) For a while I lived foraging food from the streets. I tried to find work, but no one would hire me. Finally, sick and hungry, I was rescued by an English-speaking family who took me in. They sent me to a fine private high school and even helped get me a scholarship to go to college. My time in Jerusalem was the best time of my whole life."

He came out from behind the podium. He raised his arm into the air.

"How many of you have ever been in Jerusalem?"

A few hands, here and there, went up.

"What did you think of it, what was it like for you to be there?"

A nicely-dressed young woman spoke up.

"Frankly, I thought it was rather squalid," she said. "Backward."

"The accommodations were horrendous," said another young lady. "It was nothing like America. It is very expensive and you donít get much for your money."

"I thought the archeological digs were rather interesting," said one young man. "I didn't go over there to be impressed with hotels and such." He gave the two young ladies a somewhat annoyed look.

"What else?" Sayyid tried to think how to probe their minds, get them to say what the city really meant to them. "How about religious significance? Did you feel more close to your God, more in touch with Him because you were in your Holy City?"

No one said anything.

"I mean, it is your Holy City, is it not? Your temple was there, I believe, until about A.D. 70? When it was destroyed by the Romans? Is it not something you wish to see rebuilt? What about the people at the Wailing Wall, praying for the future of Israel?"

The young man who had spoken before raised his hand.

"I don't want to speak for the others," he said, "but I did not go over there for that reason, you know, getting in touch with God. I went over there because I wanted to see for myself the land of my ancestors, to understand our culture better."

"It is a point of fact," said Sayyid, "that most American Jews are of Khazar extraction, which means they trace their ancestry to eastern Europe, not to the Middle East, so you are actually wasting your time. Now, if you were interested in tracing the history of your religion..."

"Of course we are from the Middle East!" the young man exclaimed. "Why else was Israel formed, if not to give us back our traditional homeland?"

"Let me ask you this," said Sayyid, calmly. "Why is it that I keep talking about your religion, and you keep changing the subject?"

The young man looked flustered.

"Could it be," Sayyid continued, "that you are not really sure of what you believe?"

"Yes, I'm sure," he said. "Of course I'm sure of what I believe." He sounded irritated.

"Since you are sure, then, you will not mind my saying this. God gave you Ten Commandments, to your Musa, Moses, on the Sinai Mountain, did he not? And were they not considered to be the most important part of your law?"

Several people nodded.

"And does not your law teach you to love God, to put him first in your life? Does it tell you not to kill? Does it tell you that you must respect your neighbor and his property? Is not every word of your law designed to focus you on what is good, what is holy, what is worthwhile? That is what I have been led to believe!

"I came to this country expecting to see a country of international excellence, of people well-versed in the problems of the world, and with the means to help solve those problems. After all, your government sends out very generous dollops of economic support to the nations it wants to see remain powerful. Billions of dollars to Israel a year, just as an example. Instead, I find a people so isolated, so uncaring that they have no idea of what is happening in other parts of the world.

"You here, in this room, formed this group because you were concerned that there was hatred for you and your fellow Jews present on this very campus. There had been some graffiti, some nasty remarks, some newspaper editorials, and the like, that you found unacceptable. It is fine that you have such a group. You should be doing this.

"But what about what is happening in this land, Israel, which you have been in such a hurry to tell me is not a nice place, but, gee, she is important to me because she gives me some sort of neat identity thing that I can wear like some high school girl wears her boyfriendís sweater, or something?

"You are right, in many ways it is not a nice place. Many of us, and we are called Arabs, donít have such a good time. You have hate-filled graffiti, so do we. You have nasty remarks, so do we. Newspaper articles? Oh, yeah, not to mention books, propaganda of every sort, organized, orchestrated hatred directed upon us from every side. Beatings, searches. Endless job discrimination. Housing discrimination. Everything we try to do, from obtaining building permits to simply travelling from one place to another, takes miles and miles of red tape and hours and hours of our time, energy, and patience.

"You have the freedom to meet here, to discuss your problems and find solutions. We are not allowed to hold meetings and talk about Palestinian issues. We cannot address one another, or the Israeli population, either in the press or on the newsmedia. We cannot sing our national songs or dance our dances or even show our beautiful flag. We are always in danger of having our property confiscated, without decent compensation, or even of being deported because we find ourselves in the way of Israel's endless expansion plans.

"Israel regularly breaks U.N. Resolutions, even ones she has agreed to. She breaks Geneva Convention dictates. She goes back on her word and breaks agreements she has signed with us Palestinians and our designated representatives, almost before the ink is dry.

"If Americans decide that they wish to be isolationists, I can't do much to change their minds. Iím not sure many of you know or have any way of knowing what it is to live in a global, international sense. I can't even get you to voice what it is Jerusalem or Israel really means to you.

"You say that you understand the Ten Commandments. Okay, then. Put them into practice. Stop worshipping the idols of your past, your ideas of what Israel means to you. Focus on what she should mean to you: an opportunity to approach and worship and understand the true God. And perhaps, when you understand Godís love, you will understand why you must learn to reach out beyond your boundaries, and care that these people that you claim such kinship with, are oppressing, murdering, plundering and harassing thousands and thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

"It is only when people like yourselves learn to care that pressure can be put upon your government to stop propping up and supporting the lawless regime that calls itself  Israel. Please, go to the library. Go to the bookstore. Find out what is happening in Palestine. Find out the truth, not the lies that the Israeli public relations specialists feed to the American press in order to ensure a steady supply of dollars. Be on the side of justice and truth."