Claremont in 1948 – we got our first rabbi, and the State of Israel was born. Until then it had been Palestine, and I remember wondering how come they changed the name. I must not have been paying attention in Sunday School.
I’ve never seriously considered “making aliyah,” the term for returning to the Land of Zion. Despite their annual Passover incantation, “Next year in Jerusalem,” my grandparents regarded this country as their Promised Land, and I guess I feel the same way. I did visit Israel some years ago, however, eager to see the country which, for Jews around the world, represents the tangible embodiment of the post-Holocaust expression, “Never Again.”
The most interesting person we met was not Jewish, but rather a man named Albert Agazarian. He was the head of public relations at Birzeit University, a Palestinian institution, and spokesman for Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian Delegate to the Middle East peace process. We visited his home in Jerusalem’s Old City, and from the roof of his building he pointed out the major sights, including the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the oldest Islamic building in the world. From there we could appreciate why the City is called “Jerusalem of Gold.”
Just a few weeks ago, I received an invitation to a “Holiday Celebration” at the White House. It was on vellum paper, not red and green but blue, like the flag of Israel. I guessed, correctly, that this was a Hanukkah party, and I accepted before somebody discovered they’d made a mistake.
It was a wonderful event. The library, the Red Room, the Green Room, the entire East Wing festooned for the holidays – including several Christmas trees, Hanukkah notwithstanding. There was ample food, including platters of the traditional potato pancakes (“latkes”), liquid refreshment of all kinds, and a lot of important-looking people.
We gathered in a large room. The President came down a staircase and said a few words. The family of a Jewish Naval officer serving in Iraq lit a 1783 menorah, on loan from the Jewish Museum in Prague. The President and the First Lady walked along the rope line and greeted many of us. Then back for more food.
I had a plane to catch, but time to fill my plate and say a few hellos. Eating standing up has never been one of my strengths, so I asked a man and woman if I could sit at their table. “Of course,” they said, and we introduced ourselves. The conversation went as you might expect. “Have you travelled to get here today?” I inquired. “No, we live here,” said the man, speaking with a foreign accent. “How long?” I asked. “Six months,” he replied. “Where are you from?” “Jericho,” he answered. Those of you who paid more attention than I did in Sunday School will remember that according to the Bible, that is where Joshua led the Israelites upon their return from bondage in Egypt. Today it is part of the Palestinian Territories, on the West Bank.
“What brings you to Washington?” I asked. “A new job,” he answered. “I am the PLO Representative to the United States” – PLO as in “Palestinian Liberation Organization.” We talked some more – his wife is from a small village on the West Bank, they have three sons, and, yes, they know Albert Agazarian very well. After discussing the mid-East peace process and the challenges of leadership in that part of the world, I told them, reluctantly, that I had to leave for the airport. “Please come and see us,” they said. I promised that I would. “Salaam alaikum” (Arabic for “Peace be to you”), he said. “Aleichem shalom” (Hebrew for “Upon you be peace”), I replied.