During the 1970s, while I was learning Hebrew at an ulpan in Jerusalem, a brother and sister from Syria joined our class. They were both around 13 or 15 years old; the brother was taller and older than the sister. Someone said they had been smuggled into Israel through Lebanon, by the Mossad.
There was something strange about them: they never parted, and they never smiled. They stuck together throughout the many months of the ulpan class, never once with a smile on their face. This was very odd. Most of the other students were like me, youths from the Soviet Union. We came with our parents from that anti-Semitic country and its oppressive regime. I was familiar with Russian anti-Semitism from personal experience. But none of us looked like these Jews from Syria. Not at all.
A few months after ulpan had finished, I met the brother elsewhere. He was alone, without his sister. He smiled at me and said “Hi Alex, how are you?” The words were quite ordinary, but my feeling wasn’t. I haven’t seen them since, but I haven’t forgotten them.
Over the years I was reminded of them whenever Arab Knesset Members made the pilgrimage to Damascus, showering praise upon the Assads, both the father and son. Azmi Bishara did this quite a lot, but he wasn’t the only one. MK Abdulwahab Darawshe once said, upon returning from Damascus: “If only the Arabs in Israel enjoyed the same conditions as the Jews in Syria.” Indeed, I thought, there might be quite a few supporters for this idea in the Jewish public.
MKs Abdulwahab Darawshe (above) and Azmi Bishara (left):"if only the Arabs in Israel enjoyed the same conditions as the Jews of Syria"
A few years ago, I participated in an Israeli-Palestinian encounter. The young Palestinians taking part made the familiar claim - that the Palestinian people are paying the price for European Anti-Semitism. I was reminded them that half of Israel’s Jewish population originated in the Middle East, not in Europe. The usual historical ideological arguments ensued. In the end, I said I wanted to share a personal story, and I told the story of the brother and sister from Syria, with the smile and the “How are you?” at the end. Silence spread through the room. No one questioned my story’s authenticity. Finally, one of the young Palestinians sighed and said,
“Okay, well, we know how they treat us, the Palestinians, in Arab countries. Why should we be surprised at how they treat the Jews?”
During the coffee break, one of the young Palestinians approached and asked me, “Do you know what happened to that young man?” “No,” I replied, “I lost touch with him. I suppose that all is well and he just became Israeli.” That was a surreal moment, in a positive sense: it was obvious that the young Palestinian was pleased to hear that the Syrian Jew had become Israeli.
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