Two Sisters At War

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26 Nov 2008

Peace in the Middle East may be hard to find, but on Thanksgiving Day in the year 2000, two Jewish sisters in Los Angeles found their way to a cease-fire, courtesy of Peggy Post. Peggy Post is the granddaughter of Emily Post, who, as we all know, served for several generations as the world’s greatest authority on manners.

Now, etiquette is not a traditional “Jewish” subject, and this was especially so in Israel during one of the intifadas, when people were too busy thinking about survival to remember how to fold their table napkins. But on the day of which we speak, Peggy Post rescued the above-mentioned sisters, one of whom lives in Jerusalem and the other in Oakland (and both of whom were visiting their mother, who was due to undergo major surgery a few days after the American holiday) from an outbreak of hostilities which could have hindered both the executive and the legislative branches of family government for weeks, if not months, on end. At the very least, their enjoyment of the kosher turkey would have been much diminished were it not for Ms. Post’s timely intervention.

The war began with CNN, when dinner was still a few hours off and the family took up positions on the couch to see how Florida was coming along. But instead of the ongoing recount of Gore ballots in Palm Beach, they were presented with a news bulletin.

An Israeli bus had been bombed in Hadera, near Haifa. The family saw the nose of the bus plunged headfirst into a store, the awning of the store imprinted with the Elite Chocolate company logo, which to the sister from Jerusalem was jarringly and profoundly familiar, as was the sight of the rear window of the Egged bus. They saw the street, a dark vision of blood and shattered glass, and people running and screaming.

The sister from Jerusalem went into a kind of panic. One of her children’s in school near Haifa.

* * *
You see that? she exclaimed bitterly. Arab civilians attack Jewish civilians, but Jewish civilians don’t attack Arabs.

Israeli soldiers attack Palestinian civilians, said the sister from Oakland. Israeli soldiers are shooting at unarmed children.

Unarmed children, said the sister from Jerusalem. That’s ridiculous. That’s how CNN presents it.

NPR, said the sister from Oakland.

I couldn’t believe it yesterday when I heard someone on National Public Radio say that Israel is “aggressing” against the Palestinians, said the sister from Jerusalem. That’s absurd. The Palestinians are shooting at us.

Israel prevents the Palestinians from having their own army, said the sister from Oakland.

That’s because each of the five wars in Israel’s history since 1948 began when the armies of our Arab neighbors invaded. That’s why Israel occupied the West Bank – or Judea and Samaria, that’s their ancient Jewish names – in the first place. I know we should be more cooperative and help the Palestinians establish an army and fulfill their national aspirations, said the sister from Jerusalem, especially since the Palestinian Covenant declares that its people’s national goal is destruction of the Zionist entity. But there’s something, je ne sais quoi, that rubs me the wrong way about generously promoting our own destruction.

Israel is occupying Gaza, said the sister from Oakland, as well as the rest of the Palestinian homeland. Even in the midst of the Oslo negotiations, Israel was permitting new settlements to be established in the contested territories of the West Bank. No wonder the Palestinian people are furious.

They’re furious because Arab pride is wounded by our existence on sacred Muslim soil, said the sister from Jerusalem. They’re wounded by our existence, period! Violence against Jewish infidels is sanctioned by Islam. Saying it’s because of settlements is their lie to make it more palatable to the world! Arabs have a unique capacity for brutality. It’s a cultural characteristic. They have a particular capacity for committing uninhibited violence and cruelty.

That’s a stereotype, said the sister from Oakland.

It may be a stereotype. It’s also a fact of life. The sister from Jerusalem thought: I am not going to lose my temper. I’m sorry, but you just don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t live there.

There are plenty of people who do live there who agree with me. How as a Jew can you ignore the Palestinians’ suffering? The Palestinians were forced off of their land when Israel was created.

Excuse me, Jerusalem was founded by King David. The land of Israel has been occupied by Jews for 3,000 years. And you have no idea what‘s going on there now between left and right. Even Leah Rabin said her husband Yitzhak would be spinning in his grave. Rabin told us not to be afraid, the Palestinian Police would never dream of shooting at Israelis with the guns he agreed to give them at Oslo. They’d only use them in our joint fight against terrorism. But surprise! Jerusalem heard her own voice rising sharply to a higher octave. They’re using the guns against Israelis. All around the country. Look, there are thousands of Arabs who would prefer to co-exist with us, at least for pragmatic reasons, but countless more who would consider it an act of heroism to kill anyone in our family.

How can you condone the suffering that goes on in Palestinian refugee camps?

I don’t, but it’s the Arabs who are keeping them there. Look, now that I see the news media here, I understand why it’s impossible for you to comprehend what’s going on! All you see about this is what you get from all the American newspapers! And American television! Jerusalem thought: I have to keep my voice down! What would you say if for fifty years Israel hadn’t gotten Jewish refugees out of refugee camps? Arabs don’t want to absorb their own brethren.

Israel has the right of return but denies it to the Palestinians.

Their right of return would mean the end of the Jewish State! Can’t you see this? The Palestinians are right next door to several immensely huge Arab countries! The only place on the planet that belongs to the Jews is this incredibly tiny spot! Three Israeli children lost limbs a few days ago when Arabs attacked their school bus in Gaza. Get it? Jerusalem lit up like a rocket. A school bus? What do you think has to be on a man’s mind to attack a school bus?

I’m very, very sad about the children on the school bus. Oakland’s eyes filled suddenly with tears. Jerusalem loves this sister as much as her own life. I’m also very sad about the Palestinian children. And don’t say Arab, said Oakland, say Palestinian.

The land of Israel is your birthright, too! Jerusalem was yelling. It’s not only my children’s, it’s your child’s! Look, either you think Israel has the right to exist or you don’t, that’s what it comes down to, and I really don’t care anymore if people agree or disagree, because we’d rather live. To be or not to be, baby. What do you want? You want us to commit suicide for our enemy’s sake? Here we are in the worst situation we’ve ever been and you manifest that marvelous Jewish tendency to see the other side more than our own!

I am not taking the other side. All I’m saying is: both sides are guilty. Both are responsible.

G-d forbid, screamed Jerusalem, let’s just see how even-handed you’d be if they killed – Here the sister from Jerusalem uttered words that went too far, and both sisters became abruptly conscious of their mother, seated between them on the couch, head lowered as if she’d been struck.

* * *
The sisters were never ever going to speak to each other again in their lives. Wolf Blitzer was reporting from Tallahassee that the Supreme Court would hear arguments on Friday about the counting of the ballots.

Jerusalem stormed out of the room. Oakland drove off to Ralph’s Supermarket, to get a basting brush and a bunch of celery for the stuffing. In the car – she would tell her sister later that afternoon – she heard Peggy Post being interviewed by Linda Wertheimer on National Public Radio. When families get together on Thanksgiving Day, said Linda, sometimes old tensions have a way of surfacing. Do you have any advice for our listeners in this regard?

Certainly, said Peggy. If there are old family issues that have been a source of disagreement in the past, these are usually best avoided for the duration of the holiday festivities. We might want to save those things for later on. And if there are family members at the gathering who don’t see eye to eye on political issues, it might be best to just sort of steer clear of whatever might touch on somebody’s sore spots.

Would that include the election? You know, the whole recount issue? asked Linda. Peggy laughed politely. Oh, yes! That could certainly spoil the family get-together!

The sister from Oakland stopped off at a florist to pick up a bunch of pink tulips for her sister from Jerusalem. The sister from Jerusalem went out and got Best American Essays of the Year for her sister from Oakland. They exchanged the gifts (as their forefather Yaakov learned to appease his brother Esav, when he feared the latter might kill him), resolved to refrain in future from discussing G-d, Israel, Jews, Judaism, Arabs, Jewish identity, and Jewish history ancient and modern, at least until they were out of earshot, and agreed to talk only politics- American politics – since they and their mother are all Democrats.

So tell me: if even sisters can lay down their arms, can lions and lambs be far behind?

Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. She teaches writing in Israel and the United States. This article was reprinted with permission from “A Gift Passed Along” [2001]

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.