This essay originally appeared in

Of Hearts, Minds, Pedestrians, and a Finger

“When the wise man points to the stars, the idiot looks at his finger.”
—Chinese Proverb


In the center of downtown Jerusalem, when red lights halt vehicular traffic every three minutes at the intersection of Jaffa Road and King George Street, the space fills with pedestrians crossing in twelve different directions—north, east, south, west, and on the diagonals.

On busy days of relative calm, before it clears and the vehicular traffic resumes, the street is filled with dozens of people for a full minute. Arab men in their keffiyehs pass Chasidic men in their black suits. Tourists with cameras slung around their necks pass young soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders. Students, professionals, children, couples, and families cross the street here.

Given the tension we ascribe to Israel, and given the curious yet often-confirmed hybrid of Middle Eastern antagonism and hospitality, it is no small wonder to witness such a fluid pedestrian movement—with contact so minimal as to appear choreographed—every three minutes at the intersection of Jaffa and King George.

In New York City, where I live, virtually all pedestrian crossings are two-way affairs, either east-west or north-south, and they invariably produce more awkward jostling and sidestepping than what transpires at that 12-way confluence in Jerusalem.

This juxtaposition baffles me. Instinct says that the Jerusalem intersection would be a chaotic jumble, that the Manhattan intersections would be fluid. My eyes, though, tell me that just the opposite is true. Here I am referring only to a street crossing; religious or political issues would seem completely beyond grasp.

A thorough understanding of Jerusalem—of its blatancy and nuance, meld and clash, heartbreak and hope, of its enlightened and beleaguered history—this understanding requires years, if not lifetimes.

As entrenched as it may sometimes seem to residents, visitors, admirers, and detractors, Jerusalem is an organic city, growing, bending, breathing, the physical and spiritual shape of it formed by the push and pull of history, by the passion of its people.

At the eastern end of Jaffa Road stands Jerusalem’s Old City, a place as tangible as it is ethereal. Within its walls are actual and spiritual foundations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Enter Jaffa Gate, pass David’s Tower, turn right, and you are in the Armenian Quarter.

One afternoon in January of 2005, in a narrow alleyway near the Church of St. James in the Armenian Quarter, a young Jewish yeshiva student spit on an Armenian monk.

The monk grabbed the student to stop him. Four other yeshiva students saw a monk holding the student, and they jumped into the fray. Much yelling and pushing ensued.

My friend Amir, an Israeli tour guide, was leading Dr. Charles Tannock, a Member of European Parliament (MEP) and his assistant on a tour of the Old City when he saw this happen. A man with no tolerance for intolerance, Amir is fundamentally opposed to fundamentalism, whatever its form.

He approached and asked the monk if he needed help. The monk said yes. The most aggressive of the students tried to push Amir out of the way. Amir began to choke the student.

“At a certain point,” Amir said, “I knew that if I continued I would kill him.” So, he released his grip on the student and kept pushing him to prevent the student from hitting.

Amir held his finger near the student’s face, pointing, telling him to stop. That’s when the student bit Amir’s finger, to the bone.

The police arrived. They separated the participants. Amir wrapped tissue around his finger to stench the bleeding. He took Dr. Tannock and his assistant into the Church of St. James, where he explained and apologized for what had happened. They were, he said, polite and appreciative.

When Moses saw an Egyptian whipping a slave, he killed the Egyptian, hid the body in the sand, and soon fled.

When Amir saw the student attacking the monk, he choked the student, released his grip before it was too late, got his finger bitten, filed a police report, and then went to a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics.

If Amir did not adhere to the dictum of Leviticus 26:7 (“And ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword”), neither did he act in tandem with Abraham Lincoln, who said, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”

“The fact is,” Amir said, “the student spit on a monk. Zealots are motivated by hatred. They believe, ‘If you are not like me, you are my enemy.’ That’s why zealotry is so dangerous.

“I would have been equally upset to see something like this happen and just walk away. I am sure I would interfere either way and try to help the monk. Still, I felt embarrassed. Because they are official guests of the government, and I’m an official guide. I’m the host and I’m responsible for what happens. And the attacker is a Jew. I was very uncomfortable.”

Some days later he received an e-mail from Dr. Tannock, who saluted his “courage taking on the bully.”

A trained psychiatrist, Charles Tannock has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999. His report to Parliament on the tainted Ukrainian election in 2004 contributed to an informed international diplomatic outcry that eventually led to a new vote and the election of Viktor Yushchenko as President of Ukraine.

Dr. Tannock visited Israel that January on a fact-finding mission and as an international observer at the Palestinian presidential elections. His parliamentary research includes a familiarity with Turkish oppression of its Armenian population, prompting his reservations about the admission of Turkey into the European Economic Community. As such, he had a special interest in touring the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Armenians have lived in Jerusalem for a thousand years. (Amir wryly described them as “another talented little group of people that is always persecuted by somebody.”)

The incident involving Amir, the yeshiva students, and the Armenian monk occurred just in front of the Church of St. James, named for James, brother of Jesus, who was the leader of small, growing community that believed in the return of Jesus. James is a central figure for Armenian Christians.

Though we differ in our interpretation of resurrection—where some embrace gospel, others find metaphor—the Judeo-Christian tradition shares the notion of redemption, its potential and its hope.

In this regard, a pedestrian crossing in and of itself does not give us much to grasp in terms of redemption. Still, to witness that 12-way pedestrian movement at the intersection of Jaffa Road and King George Street in downtown Jerusalem is to see a certain potential, if not for redemption then for the hope of a coexistence and a mingling, however temporary, without incident.

I asked Amir if he thought his actions that day were courageous.

“No,” he said. “When you do things, you don’t give yourself evaluation. I don’t know how courageous I was. I was motivated by my anger and my sense of justice. I did not know, don’t know, what to call courage. It’s certainly a responsibility. But I don’t think I should take praise for that.”

“The question should be raised: why did he spit at the monk? What is the source of this hatred, or fear, or whatever you want to call it? Who taught the yeshiva student to spit? That is my big puzzlement.”

Throughout our conversation, I was much more impressed by the incident than Amir was. “What the yeshiva student did to me was irrelevant,” he said. “I don’t think my actions that day helped prevent the next attack.”

When I mentioned writing this essay, he suggested that I focus instead on the largely unreported story of Jews in Israel assisting Palestinians.

Such a thing is conducted neither as official government policy nor through any charitable or grassroots organizations. Unknown numbers of Jewish families employ Palestinians throughout Israel. This situation has existed long before and since the Intifadas.

The easy answer as to why this does not make news is that it’s antithetical to the black-and-white portrayal of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the hard-line attention-grabbing polarity for which it is so easy to summarize and to pull comments from experts, victims, and government officials.

Amir wanted me to write about his neighbor in Har Gilo, a gated community near Jerusalem that aligns the troubled West Bank. For many years she has employed a Palestinian woman as a maid, provided her shelter when the border crossings were clamped down, given her extra food, clothing, money.

In 2004, this neighbor was shot seven times at point-blank range near the entrance to Har Gilo. She survived the attack and today is physically compromised, with one of those bullets still inside of her, a fraction of an inch from her heart. She continues to support the Palestinian woman.

“I want the world to know this story,” Amir said. “The image given Israel is so often demonic. A story about Jews supporting Palestinians for their livelihood is ultimately much more important than what leads the student to bite my finger.”

Okay. I agree with him. Still, the image persists: my friend Amir, husband of a psychotherapist, father of three, a big, gregarious man with a deep and abiding passion for Israel’s land, people, and history, who inserted himself into such a fight. Intellectually and emotionally, it remains a sad, ugly story, but not without some hope.

Amir doesn’t think that what he did was heroic; I do. In his novel Continental Drift, Russell Banks wrote, “We are the planet, fully as much as water, earth, fire and air are the planet, and if the planet survives, it will only be through heroism. Not occasional heroism, a remarkable instance of it here and there, but constant heroism, systematic heroism, heroism as governing principle.”

If we live in a world where non-confrontation often seems heroic, then so be it.

In early 2003, Dr. Tannock joined a press conference calling for a European Union Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into the alleged diversion of EU funds by the Palestinian Authority for terrorist purposes.

Chairing the press conference was Ilka Schröder, at the time a German Independent MEP who was instrumental in the demand for an inquiry. On a lecture tour of Israel and the United States later that year, Ms. Schröder said:

“If you wanted to question the legitimacy of a defence of Israel against its Arab and Palestinian neighbours on the grounds that Israel is engaged in a defensive fight against an anti-Semitic national project, then you would portray Israel as the real aggressor and you would try to equate the suffering of the Palestinians with the Shoah.

“This recasting does not bear the light of a reasonable analysis of facts, and in my opinion this is exactly the secret about the immunity against facts and arguments. You can talk forever, pile up facts, bring forward one argument after another, but you will not succeed against the decision to picture the Palestinians as victims.

“The greatest danger today is that the globalisation critique, anti-Americanism, and anti-Zionism which exist in the heads of millions of people is amalgamated into a common sense that is supported and used by European policy.

“There is no difference in the consciousness of an average Member of the European Parliament and an average German peace demonstrator and I consider this to be a mixture of naïveté, moralism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism and an altogether serious danger. It is against these trends that my efforts are directed.”

Amir wants me to write about nonviolent Israeli-Palestinian human interaction. Dr. Tannock raises our awareness of suspect political processes. Ilka Schröder voices a strong alternative to the entrenched “immunity against facts and arguments” of classical anti-Semitism. All three call for our more nuanced understanding of exceedingly complex issues that are too often painted in starkly contrasting images.

I keep returning to thoughts of my favorite intersection. As with my passion for Jerusalem, the corner of Jaffa and King George provokes more questions than answers.

Do more choices in our directions invite more possibilities in our decisions? If the yeshiva student had passed the Armenian monk at the many possibilities of Jaffa and King George, would he have spit? Would the dynamics of the confrontation have been different if a monk had spit on a Jew?

Does the prevalence of two-way intersections in America suggest the domination of Republicans and Democrats in American politics? Does the 12-way intersection at Jaffa and King George reflect the presence of nearly 40 active Israeli political parties? Does the United States have too few choices? Does Israel have too many choices?

Which is more important, more vital, more difficult to maintain—the freedom of choice or how we express those freedoms?


January 12, 2005

Dear Amir,
Thank you so much for wonderful guidance through the history of Israel, Palestine and fantastic time in Jerusalem which we had thanks to you and your deep knowledge of your country and its problems. This trip helped all of us to understand a little bit more of the dynamics and problems of the relations of this region. We wish all the best to you and to Israel. Hopefully after this Palestinian election the peace will come soon. Please do not hesitate to contact us any time you are in Brussels or in London. Thank you for your hospitality and introducing us to your country.
Best wishes
Dr. Charles Tannock MEP
P.S. We salute your courage taking on the bully.

• • •

January 13, 2005

Dear Dr. Tannock,

Thank you so much for your e-mail to me. My day with you and the others in Jerusalem was a day of gratitude and hope. I was grateful for your stance on the side of my country, which stands almost alone against Muslim fundamentalism and the evils of terrorism.

My day with you also gave me some hope that good people will question the negative image Israel receives in Europe. People like you are uniquely positioned to tell those blinded by their liberal beliefs that a wolf will not change its nature and become a lamb by getting sympathy and understanding. No. The wolf is not the victim of the situation but is responsible for the situation.

All of my life—and especially after the murder of my hero, Itzhak Rabin—I have stood against religious fundamentalism. I very much appreciate your strong stance for the same ideals.

Unfortunately, you were witness to the damage of Jewish fundamentalism during the attack of an Armenian monk. I am ashamed that something like this happened in Jerusalem. After you left, I went to the police to testify against the perpetrators. It may please you to know that the police arrested all of the participants in the event, and they will soon face charges. The event also made headlines in the television and radio news that night. The police also asked me to apologize to you for what happened. One of the officers was an Armenian man. He asked me to express his gratitude to you for being a friend of the Armenian people.

The people of Israel are frequently rejected by the world in many ways. From my point of view this feels quite lonely and isolating. Your visit confirms that we are not alone. I wish to thank you and hope that our ways will cross again.

Amir Orly