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Foreground and background
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Foreground and background

As a 20-something living in Israel, I paid a lot of attention to cafes, falafel stands, and 20-something women (whether they paid attention to me is another story). When I went to live there as a family man in my 30s, I paid a lot of attention to playgrounds and ice cream stands, and when I saw a 20-something woman my only thought was whether she babysat.

Israel isn’t the only place where foreground becomes background, and vice versa, depending on who you are, what you believe, and where you are in life. But few places change so drastically depending on what the visitor brings to the country.

I am realizing this yet again on an interfaith mission to Israel sponsored by the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope & Peace. The organizers include Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, and the Waris Cultural Research and Development Center, a mosque in Irvington. The 33 participants include Jews, Muslims, and Christians; white folks and black folks; suburbanites and city-dwellers; first-timers to Israel and jaded returnees like me. In just two days in the North, where Israeli Arabs form a majority and the Jesus story often speaks louder than the Jewish one, I’ve seen an Israel I overlooked on previous trips. Again and again I am reminded that what is foreground for one group is background for another.

That sunk in before the trip even got under way, when our group emerged from the plane into Ben-Gurion Airport. Most of us breezed through passport control and customs. But two of the young Muslim women with us were held back by security. Nearly three hours of anxious waiting later, they emerged from wherever they’d been held for questioning, to a group flush with relief, embarrassment, and sympathy.

I’m willing and able to defend the Israeli security protocol that flagged the two travelers, but the incident showed me how the experience of Israel can be very different for different groups.

A few hours later we were in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe that Jesus preached and stayed in the home of Peter and other apostles. The Rev. Bob Morris, executive director of the Interweave spirituality center in Summit, joked that “Jesus slept here,” but he wasn’t joking. The archaeological finds at the site line up nicely with the New Testament accounts. “This is the real thing,” said Morris, reminding a Jewish listener that Israel is Christian history, and its Christian sites are neither religious abstractions nor roadside attractions.

The next day we visited Tsippori, a site with strong historical resonance for Jews. It’s where Judah HaNasi helped compile the Mishna and where, as Rabbi Marc Rosenstein of Hebrew Union College in Israel told us, Jews fashioned a workable arrangement with the Romans — a compromise that worked until it didn’t. The group sat in a circle, singing a wordless niggun and then listening to Imam W. Deen Shareef of the Waris mosque talk about Abraham’s importance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark added that when the Nazareth of Jesus’ day was a hilltop backwater, Tsippori (Sephoris in the Christian tradition) was the Roman capital of the Galilee. The disparity, and the decadence, “radicalized him,” said Beckwith. “It inspired him to build bridges between the rich and the poor, between one hill and the other.”

But some bridges couldn’t be built so easily, at least not in the first two days of a week-long trip. It soon became clear there were divergent views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some members sparred gently over terminology and responsibility for the fate of Palestinian refugees and the social and economic gaps among Israeli Arabs.

My foreground and background shifted abruptly in these exchanges. In discussing Israel with Jews, as I do in these pages every week, I am often the liberal in the room, urging Israel to address its civil rights challenges and celebrating the work of coexistence champions like the New Israel Fund and its grantees. But when Fathi Marshood, the Arab-Israeli codirector of NIF’s Shatil office in Haifa, began to catalogue the discrimination faced by Arab municipalities, I found myself anxious to defend Israel to those in the room for whom Israel’s failings are not just the foreground, but the entire picture.

Of course, I couldn’t know for sure, having just met most of my fellow travelers. By Tuesday’s debriefing, there seemed hope those bridges could be built after all. One Muslim woman spoke movingly about the picture we presented: whites and blacks, kipa-wearing Jews and Muslims in head scarfs and kufis, walking, laughing, and singing together. “We’re a picture of unity in a land that’s divided,” she said.

It’s enough to make you imagine a merging of foreground and background, and a frame within which the distinctions matter less and less.

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