Before we begin, I have to acknowledge that I have no idea if the group in question is or is not affiliated with Birthright. From my own experience I can, however, be sure that the version of the story I overheard fits in perfectly with the Birthright-sanctioned version of events.
Field trip! As part of something to do with work, we had a tour of Old Jaffa from a native. It was in Arabic, and predominantly told the story of the wrongs visited upon the Arab population by the invading Jewish colonizers. Totally legitimate, and full of factual details and colorful anecdotes.
Like Akka, Jaffa was once an important coastal city for its citizens but also for Crusaders, Ottomans, and the British, among others. The architecture and layout of the city itself tells the story of this rich and layered history. We began along the old wall at the edge of the port. As we walked, through arched stone gates and over uneven stone pavement, we came upon another group hearing stories of the city of Jaffa. But this group was not like ours.
We were a group mostly of 30, 40, and 50-year-olds (with the exception of myself and two others, offspring along for the ride) guided by an Arab and listening to the Arab history of Jaffa in – what else? – Arabic. They were a group of early twenty-somethings, a shady character packing heat in their midst. They looked exhausted, dehydrated, and wavering between interested and desperately bored. You could tell all they wanted to do was jump in the water (I would have gladly joined).
But it was the stories that set us so much apart.
Their leader was spinning the yarn (in a slight New York lilt) of Avi Aryeh Weiss, or some other equally Ashkenazi Jewish-sounding name. He was an immigrant from Russia? Poland? wherever.
He arrived in Jaffa while it was under the rule of the “Turks”. Mr. Weiss is expecting the Promised Land, the Land of the Jews. He was shocked to discover the actual political situation. “We’re not in control anymore, we don’t rule. What has happened?” Avi Aryeh Weiss laments. He disembarks from the ship, horrified: “what is this? All the signs are in Arabic!” Avi Aryeh Weiss is dumbfounded. This is Israel, what are these heathens [my word] doing here? He finds out the Jews of Jaffa have a meeting that night to discuss how “the Turks are cutting them off from the water”, and he resolves to attend. He storms in. “For years and years and years we’ve been dreaming, and now you’re here and you’re not fulfilling your dream? What are you doing?” The Jews of Jaffa look at him skeptically[…n00b]. “I dream of Hebrew! I dream of Hebrew street signs and a country where people learn Hebrew, speak Hebrew! Anyone who wants to establish this Hebrew city with me, please join.” He appealed, desperately.
He must have had some weight, or some oratory gift, because next thing you know the Jews are establishing a city – a Hebrew city – next to Jaffa. The birth of Tel Aviv.
I wanted so desperately to lean over the railing and talk to these kids. “Listen!” I wanted to tell them. “Really listen! Do not so easily accept what is presented to you. Think for yourself.” I wanted to confront the woman speaking. I wanted to ask her, “do you believe what you are saying? are you morally at peace with this?”
I could see us through their eyes: almost a threat. A group speaking a language whose culture and legacy they were at that moment being indoctrinated against. Who is the enemy here? Two simultaneous histories, one egregiously omitting the other, that other demonizing the deeds of the first.
I wanted to show these young ‘uns the Jaffa, the entire history of this land, that they were being forced to ignore. Such attempts to invisible-ize cannot succeed. How is it possible to ignore the Ottoman (Turkish written in Arabic script) engraved in cornerstones on most historic official buildings? Hebrew signs cannot dream to to whitewash the entire cultural history of this place. It is in the architecture, in the streets, in the air. It is in the stones.
But all I could do was watch, and listen, and hope against hope that even one of them would listen to what wasn’t being said.