It was my last evening in Jerusalem and I had just spent the day with a new friend, a travel writer who happened to be in town at the same time. We explored Yad Vashem and he was gracious enough to teach me the ins and outs of the bus system. After a glass of wine at a quiet café in the heart of trendy West Jerusalem, we parted ways and I began my nightly search for dinner.
During my stay I had moderate success at finding restaurants in Jerusalem. I honestly expected a greater selection, but managed to find a few good spots. Since it was my last night in Jerusalem, I wanted something special. I stopped at several restaurants and read through their menus, but none seemed right. Just as I was about to give up hope, I stumbled upon a self-described Israeli style restaurant that looked promising.
This was my first solo trip since I was in my early twenties and one aspect I didn’t particularly enjoy was eating alone. Scott and I have had some of our best conversations and experiences over meals around the world and I missed not having him there. As I was eating my appetizer at Alma Restaurant, a woman and her dog stopped to look at the restaurant menu. After a few moments an older gentlemen joined them, and they seemed to be debating whether or not to eat there. Meanwhile, I was completely obsessed with their dog. I have no idea what breed he was, mutt probably, but I had been away from my fur kids for several days and was desperate for canine interaction.
I signaled to her to ask if I could pet the pup, she nodded and I was able to get in a few good head scratches before they took a table nearby.
My entrée arrived, and I spent some time reading over my materials for Tel Aviv, the next stop on my Israel trip. As the waitress took away my plate, I looked over at the couple and the dog and noticed that the woman was motioning to me. I went over and she asked if I wanted to join them for dinner.
I was shocked at the kind invitation and by the fact that anyone would want to invite a complete stranger to join them for dinner, but I quickly accepted. In retrospect, our common puppy love was probably the deciding factor.
For a dinner with strangers, there was never a moment of awkwardness. The woman, whose name I learned was Hadar, is one of the lead managers at the City of David archeological area. I had just seen a 60 Minutes story on the controversial site and the story sparked a lively discussion. Our other companion, the relationship to Hadar I could never figure out, maybe her father, lobbies the Knesset on behalf of a handicapped citizens rights organization. I marveled at the chance of meeting a fellow lobbyist in Israel and we spent a lot of time discussing politics both in the US and Israel as well as the rest of the world.
What amazed me most was their unflinching ability to address sensitive subjects. The topic of terrorism and the Palestinian issue arose quickly and dominated much of our discussion. They were disappointed in President Obama, not an unusual feeling, and felt like Prime Minister Netanyahu was walking over him. They also said that Americans don’t understand how to really stop terrorism and that they recognized long ago what type of person wants to destroy Israel and they take measures to target them. I tried to explain why profiling on the basis of religion or race wouldn’t work in the U.S., but I was never able to really make them understand.
Because of Hadar’s job at the City of David, I wanted to know her perspective on the Palestinian issue. Hadar said that the situation flares but that just the week before stones were thrown at her car as she drove through East Jerusalem on the way to work. They said that a divided Jerusalem would never work but that the current status quo could not last much longer. According to Hadar, tensions were increasing and a solution once and for all had to be achieved sooner rather than later.
The talk was a bit tense at times, but overall it was a wonderful evening. Hadar invited me to visit the City of David site the next day, which I accepted. That night was one of the most enjoyable of my trip and I thought that after dinner it had come to a conclusion, but it had not.
For whatever reason, I chose a hotel located in the heart of East Jerusalem. Not my best travel decision to be honest. I arrived at the hotel a little after ten, exhausted and ready for bed, but not before I could upload some photos to my site. The only wifi was in the lobby, so I sat there with a Diet Coke and worked. The hotel owner came over and sat across from me, bored out of his mind from the looks of it. He was probably in his late 60s or 70s and looked like he had lived a hard life, the wrinkles on his face telling their own story.
With Israeli politics on my mind following the dinner with Hadar and her dad, I decided to delicately broach the subject with the hotel manager. Once again I was taken aback by his willingness to talk about anything and everything. Contrary to Hadar’s point of view, which was decidedly anti-Palestinian, the hotel manager was similarly anti-Israeli. He spoke of the difficulties in getting to work from the West Bank, of the divided Jerusalem and the condition of East Jerusalem. That was something in particular I had noticed right away. East Jerusalem in general is dirty, poorly lit and most of the buildings are crumbling. The streets look like they could be in any of the world’s poorest areas. West Jerusalem on the other hand was very modern, clean and vibrant. The dichotomy between the two areas of the same city spoke volumes.
After a half hour or so, the hotel manager went on to talk about terrorism. This is where I started to get a little nervous, but just let him talk with only the occasional nod. In a few short statements he made the astounding announcements that the US government was behind 9-11, that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda had never done anything and that Americans were using it all as an excuse to destroy Islam.
I looked up shocked at his apparent nonchalance and tried to convince him otherwise, knowing full well my words were lost on him. It was late, the conversation had come to an uncomfortable close and we bid each other a good night.
In that one evening, I had two conversations roughly on the same subjects, but with remarkably different opinions. I felt like I was in a grad school master class or colloquium. I wasn’t angry at the hotel manager; more dismayed as I knew his opinion was commonly held. And even though I loved meeting and talking with Hadar, I knew that her views and inability to consider any concessions to the Palestinians were also commonly held.
I don’t know what the future holds for Israel or her Palestinian neighbors, but I know that these chance encounters revealed more to me than had years of education on the subject. I learned that the issues plaguing the region for decades are infinitely more complex than anyone not living there realizes and for us to think we can solve it easily or quickly is perhaps naïve. Regardless, I loved my evening and it only reinforced my respect and admiration for this tiny, Middle Eastern nation.