Blessed are the peacemakers

Bravo to Canadian writer Jonathan Garfinkel for giving us Ambivalence– Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide, which is an account of his travels in the Mideast in search of Capital T Truth. Like most books of this type, it recounts much more than just the physical journey — Garfinkel traverses memory, politics and culture, traveling miles from his Zionist-Canadian roots.

ambivalence.jpgThis is a brave effort; one wonders what sort of personal fallout the book is going to create for Garfinkel. Needless to say it’s not going to make it as a ‘Heather’s Pick’ at Chapters-Indigo, and there will be some on the pro-Palestinian side who will criticize him for moving only to a state of ambivalence on the issue — not outrage.

But one shouldn’t underestimate the scope and meaning of such a shift in perspective.

The ideologies and prejudices that get hardwired into us as children are often those to which we cling most tenaciously. We don’t get to choose the time, place or culture into which we’re born, nor do we get much say in our earliest encounters with some of the most influential people in our lives.

These include teachers. Garfinkel borrows from a fiction writer’s toolkit in creating a composite character of just such a dominating and influential personality — Mrs. Blintzkrieg. She haunts and taunts his thinking long after he leaves the grade school Zionist classroom she ruled. She is an effective device, the physical manifestation of childhood indoctrination who pops in and out of the story to express her disappointment in her former student.

“Ah, the Blintzkrieg complex. I suppose what’s most unsettling about her is she makes the questions I ask about Israel feel like the ultimate act of betrayal; critical thought is equal to being a Nazi or a terrorist. The Blintzkrieg-in-the-head: ‘What do you know, you foreigner, you Diaspora Jew? While we stay here and fight your wars – yes, every war we fight in Israel is for all Jews all over the world – you stand back and criticize us. Like a typically spoiled North American liberal’.”

The old tapes keep playing, but Garfinkel continues to seek understanding while confronting the realities of the Israeli Occupation.

There are other effective passages, such as a bit of Hunteresque reportage on some chance meetings with a couple of outsized characters in Jerusalem shortly after he arrives. He also has an eye (and ear) for detail:

“There wasn’t enough room in the old city so many Jews started to live in what is now called Central Jerusalem. In the 1960s and 1970s it was a real artists’ hangout. Now it’s becoming more and more religious. There’s a synagogue on every corner. Walk through the streets and you’ll hear the same prayers sung in myriad ways — the Yemenite wail, the Shlomo Carlbach hippie riff, the Ethiopian chant, the Ashkenaz dirge. The words are mostly the same, but each melody varies so much it’s difficult to imagine it being the same prayer.”

Although Garfinkel has a couple of volumes of poetry to his credit, any traces of stylistic gloss are overshadowed by the weight of the subject matter. Discussions of the Occupation vary only in the different layers of tragedy and suffering they reveal.

I should probably get my own cards on the table: I visited Israel in 2005 with the humanitarian aid agency Canadian Lutheran World Relief and came away appalled at the conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live, shocked at the distortions rampant in the Western media, and saddened by the world’s continuing indifference. (See: ifamericansknew.org.)

As Rabbi Michael Lerner noted in his Globe and Mail review of Ambivalence: “The Jonathan Garfinkels of the world will be increasingly ambivalent about their Jewish identity until a community emerges that can affirm the unity of all being and the oneness of humanity, and abandon its insistence that anyone who cares for Palestinians is either a ‘self-hating Jew’ or an anti-Semite.”

Amen.

And Shalom.

The Apartheid Wall.

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