LIFE ON THE EDGE

An Israeli family feels lucky despite living next door to the enemy. ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU reports on an island of optimism amidst hate.

May 3 2004

LIFE ON THE EDGE

An Israeli family feels lucky despite living next door to the enemy. ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU reports on an island of optimism amidst hate.

May 3 2004

LIFE ON THE EDGE

An Israeli family feels lucky despite living next door to the enemy. ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU reports on an island of optimism amidst hate.

The Israeli government upped the ante again last week with the assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the leader in Gaza of the militant group Hamas. The result: gun battles between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters—and increased tensions throughout the Middle East. Maclean’s Contributing Editor Alexandre Trudeau has been working on a series of stories about how people on both sides of the conflictare coping in these troubled tunes. He filed this report on a Jewish family in the north of the country:

IN DECEMBER, exhausted by another trip to Iraq, I turned towards that other conflict in the Middle East—the enduring IsraeliPalestinian crisis. I set out to find ordinary people who might take me in, extraordinary people whose humanity might be cause for some optimism. Heading north to the rich farmlands shared by Israelis and Palestinians, I rode a bus from Afula in Israel, heading for Jenin in the West Bank.

Just before we crossed the border, the bus looped through a small Jewish farming village—a community of private farmers known as a moshav. It is in the area called the Yizreel Valley: “the valley planted by God.” On the north side are the steep hills of Nazareth, on the southern those of Jenin. To the east is Mount Gilboa, where King Saul battled the Philistines; to the west is Megiddo, where, it is said, the battle of Armageddon shall transpire, and in the middle of the valley is some of the best and most ancient farmland in northern Israel.

In part it was the Biblical resonance, in part the memory of an old man who got off the bus at the moshav that day (he was draped in exotic orange cloth and wore a saffroncoloured turban), that made me go back to that village when I returned to the area a month later. I approached a group of young men and told them I was a writer who wanted to live and work with a local farming family for a while. Instead of seeming surprised, they called out to a passing car that stopped for me. The driver of the vehicle immediately said he would take me to his sister’s family. And just like that, I was sitting in Nahum and Dalia Atar’s kitchen, with a plate of food in front of me. I would end up staying with their family for a month and a half.

NAHUM WAS born to Kurdish Jews in northern Iraq. He doesn’t know his birthday, but his mother told him he was born when it was raining, and in northern Iraq that means March. When he was a year old, in the early 1950s, Nahum’s people rode donkeys from Iraq to Israel, attracted by the promise of the newly created state. The majority of Kurdish Jews settled as a community in the Yizreel Valley. When Nahum’s father was asked by officials what his name was, he answered in Kurdish that he was an “atar”—tradesman—and so the family got its new name. Just beyond these villages is the border. The crossing is an enormous construction site— dug up and speckled with makeshift bunkers. To either side of the crossing is the newly erected security fence: a clean slash disappearing over the hills. Across the border are the beginnings of Jenin, which sprawls chaotically up onto the steep hills at the edge of the valley. The whole Atar family is unequivocal about the barrier that now separates them from the West Bank territories. “As tension grew, it got less and less safe for us here,” Dotan says. “There were constant thefts in the area and several even on our farm. One farmer was stabbed to death while in his fields. We even forbid our father to go out there alone. Now that is all over. The fence means security.”

Not long after arriving at their farm, I was picking lemons in the family grove. One day two surly agents of the Israeli Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs descended on me, sure that they had snagged an illegal worker. I tried to assure them I was not working for money. Nahum was called in. He laughed at them and said: “I am Kurdish! This young man walked onto my farm. Of course I would take him in! He is not a worker. He is part of the family.”

Nahum and Dalia have five sons—one more would not make a difference. In fairly difficult times for the agricultural sector, the Atars have managed to do well. Though Nahum still does all the farming, his eldest sons, Ofer and Dotan, have taken on the management of the farm and have added a produce wholesale business, buying fruit and vegetables from other farms, packaging them and redistributing the produce to restaurants, hotels and kibbutzim throughout northern Israel.

I LOOK at old photos of Nahum standing by a howitzer. ‘We once shot an Arab hut with that big gun,’ he says.

We’re all familiar with the idea of the “American dream”—here it is the “Israeli miracle.” The Atars are a shining example of it. In the space of a few generations, they have gone from dust and donkey to a life of modern comforts. The brothers are all constantly cooking up new business ideas. They are very enterprising and prosper accordingly. Ofer, 31, has built his wife and young children a palatial home just down the street from his parents’ house. His brothers drive new European cars; all have good lives. “We are lucky to have such a great father,” they tell me—conscious that he has given them much and that they must work hard to continue the tradition.

Dotan, 26, takes me for an impromptu tour of the area. Outside of the moshav are two Arab villages, recognizable by their flurry of flat roofs and slender minarets (in contrast to the orderly arrays of peaked terra cotta roofs in Israeli areas). The Arab villages are on the border just inside Israel. “They are Arabs,” Dotan tells me as we continue on, “but they are with us. They don’t throw stones or cause problems.”

Times have changed. “We used to go into Jenin to shop,” Ofer says. “That was before the first intifada of the late eighties and early nineties. Now it is another world.” For Ofer, Jenin occupies an especially dark spot in his heart. During the first intifada, he served as a paratrooper and was posted to Jenin for over a year. “It’s a short walk from my family’s home, but it could have been on the other side of the country, that is how far it seemed.” Israeli paratroopers are a notoriously tough lot and Ofer was the top soldier in his outfit, but he remains disturbed when talking about his experiences. “It was hell—I cried every day when I was over there,” he admits.

The Atars are not very political. They are quietly proud of their country and the good fortune they enjoy here. They are conscious that in their small way they have accomplished something, and that this is a country indeed built of small miracles. Yet Ofer’s memories of Jenin are an example of the scars Israelis bear. The making of this country has been a struggle. A generation ago, Nahum fought in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. He has a few yellowed photos of himself as a young man in uniform in the desert, standing by the howitzer gun to which he was detailed. He is immediately recognizable by his affable grin; they are playful photos. I look them over fondly, enjoying the images of a young Nahum. He smiles as usual, but his eyes are serious as he tells me, “We once shot an Arab hut with that big gun from 10 metres away.” I do not need to ask what happened to the hut, or whether it was empty at the time.

On one of the rare occasions when we are drawn into a political discussion at the dinner table, the Atars’ youngest son, 14year-old Itzik, covers his ears. As the makings of a real disagreement become clear, he barks out plaintively to his father, brothers and me: “Shut up! Don’t talk politics!” We happily oblige.

THE ATARS are also not very religious. They eat according to kosher laws and mostly rest on the Sabbath. But that is about as far as it goes. When I ask Itzik how he would feel if his family were more strictly religious, he says, “I would kill myself. There is no fun in being that religious.” Then he begins looking around the kitchen, pointing out the microwave, dishwasher and double-door fridge, telling me they are not supposed to use any of those on the Sabbath, nor the television, computer or car. “I like modern life,” he adds.

Itzik is a computer whiz. He spends most of his free time playing an on-line shoot-’em-up game on his computer: terrorists against counter-terrorists. I ask him what he thinks about the inevitability of serving in the Israeli army, for him less than three years away. ‘T am afraid,” he says. “I don’t want to shoot at people, or be shot at.”

The Atars do not struggle with the past. Mostly, they look forward; they have their burdens, their scars, but they bear them quietly. Israel is a complex tapestry of peoples from different places. The Atars, tradesmen of Kurdistan, stand out. They have nothing to prove to the past. When they do look back at where they came from, it is not in anger or sorrow as their northern brethren, the Ashkenazim, look back at places such as Germany, or Poland, or Russia.

Dotan has the uncomplicated frankness of his brothers and his father. Driving his Volkswagen through the rolling countryside, he says, “If I were prime minister of this country, the troubles would be over very quickly. I would leave the Arabs alone and give them what they want.” He turns his attention to the Jewish settlers. “I would pull all those settlers off their land. Those people are ugly in their ways.” He makes spiralling gestures from his temples. “Ugly!” he adds for emphasis. “They do not serve in the army. We pay for them with our taxes and our lives. For what?”

Another time, Dotan tells me, “We are dark-skinned. Our Ashkenazi clients on the kibbutzim don’t always trust us. We are ‘blackies’ to them.” To deal with this, the Atars have hired two Ashkenazi men to help with sales to the kibbutzim. One of these people is Ofer Zuntz. His grandfather was a leader of the Jewish community in Frankfurt. In the mid-1930s, he sent his teenage children away from the Nazi insanity in Germany to Palestine. From his late teens onwards, Ofer’s father fought hard to make a home for his people here; he also helped found a kibbutz. Ofer himself took up arms to fight the war of his generation in Lebanon.

ITZIK is a computer whiz. He spends his free time playing an online game: terrorists against counter-terrorists

With the burden of all the dreams and sacrifices of his ancestors, Ofer’s heart is heavy with the demand of his Jewish identity. He grew up on a religious kibbutz and later joined the army. Then, for a while, he travelled happily through the world with little thought for his country. But he has returned to Israel, to his faith. He still serves intermittently in the army, and has risen to upper officer ranks. Before coming to work for the Atars, Ofer had a chicken farm, but it went bankrupt in one of the frequent downturns of the Israeli economy. “Maybe I was too innocent,” he says. “Maybe I was taken advantage of. But I struggle on.”

In my journeys, I am still not sure why people take me in, why they subject themselves to the watching, judging eyes of a stranger. But that is what I sought and what providence provided with the Atars. For that privilege, I work. I stoop in Nahum’s fields, picking beets and turnips. When I return home at night, I am greeted with laughter. The Atars have the demeanour of simple farm folk. They exude a warm, easy energy. But they are wise, not innocent. With me and with the world, humanity—generosity of spirit—is the weapon they have chosen in their struggle for happiness.

Itzik is my best friend here. On Saturday mornings, he noisily does tricks on his bicycle outside my window, hoping to rouse me from my sleep. One Saturday morning, we walk down to the water hole where he loves to swim. He tells me that his mother worries when he goes to the pond because the “Arabics” are sometimes there. That day, they are—a whole family of them, barbecuing a picnic lunch.

One night, as Itzik and I walk back from the mall in Afilia, the Israeli town closest to the moshav, he suddenly tells me we should cross the street. A house up ahead is “dangerous,” he says. “The Arabics live there.” We walk by anyway. Then we sit on a park bench, waiting for Itzik’s mother to come and fetch us. About the Jews and the Arabs, Itzik says: “We live together. But they hate us and we hate them. That is just how it is.” I ask him if he doesn’t find it heavy to live with hate all around him. “Yeah,” he says, “that is why I want to live where you are from.”

But “where I am from”—Montreal—a firebomb recently targeted ajewish elementary school, and police and private security forces recently went on high alert around synagogues and schools. Even where I am from, hate, not humanity, seems on the rise. 171