(Editor’s Note: The following piece is excerpted from the first chapter of a memoir-in-progress by Marcia Freedman, the founder of feminism in Israel, a member of the Knesset in the mid-1970s, and a Mideast peace activist.)
On September 13, 1993, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn under the paternal gaze of the much younger, taller, and infinitely more photogenic Bill Clinton. I watched it on my 13” television, the same one I’d bought when I returned to the U.S. from Israel in 1981 and became a citizen of Berkeley. I watched it again and again, first on one channel than another, unable to get enough, and I wept. Could this terrible struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians finally be coming to an end? “You can go back now,” an inner voice whispered. “I can go back now,” I repeated aloud. “Yes, maybe.”
Four years later and I am on a plane to Tel Aviv. After a 16-year absence, I am going to give it a try. “Just for a few months,” I told my friends, my lover. With worried looks, they gave me their blessings.
Most other passengers sleep, but I find no rest. The plane is too quiet now. I can hear my own doubts, the ones that have been nagging at me for months and that I’d been stubbornly ignoring. Yitzhak Rabin is now dead, assassinated by a right-wing extremist. The Likud, the party of the Israeli settlers, is back in power. What I still call the “peace process” is halting at best and perhaps moribund. I don’t really have many friends left in Israel, only a very scattered and diminished social network, and I am going back without any defined work. On the whole, it doesn’t seem promising.
The plane lands, and as it taxies to a stop I see the single terminal announcing itself in huge brass letters: Ben Gurion International Airport. What am I doing here? Why this need to come back?
I join one of the lines at passport control, surprised to see how many people are wearing the shtetl garb of the ultra-orthodox. Lots. The Israelis around me shout across lines to friends or family members, they push forward, stand on one another’s heels and toes. Some large families split up to stand in several lines simultaneously, all running wildly at the last minute to join the lucky one who gets to the head of the line first; a wave of guttural grumbling passes down the line behind them. But no one challenges their right to be there. Israelis expect and respect chutzpah. The opposite they call being a freier, a sucker.
I watch these small dramas play out with a writer’s interest, but also with a certain amount of affection. It is so familiar and so unabashed. But the lines are long and the constant and unnecessary motion, the loud chatter pierced now and then by shrill shouts, begins to get on my nerves. What am I doing here? I am a calm person in Berkeley, at least I’ve learned to be. But by the time I hand my passport over, I am as tense and short-tempered as the rest, my affection worn thin.
The inspector, a young woman, looks down at my passport, stamp in hand, looks up, down, up. “The Marcia Freedman?” she says. “Ya’allah, you’ve gotten old!” She is too young to remember me, I think. I’m confused by such unlikely name recognition. How does she know about Marcia Freedman? I want to ask but feel shy. With one last look she stamps my passport, and I am released into the cavernous arrivals terminal to collect my overweight baggage.
I emerge at last into the balmy Israeli evening. It is October, still late summer. The air is warm and dry and, even in the airport, impossibly over the gasoline fumes and smells of human sweat, there is a thin scent of jasmine. As I wheel my luggage toward the van bound for Jerusalem, the air envelops me. The sensation is intensely familiar, like a lover’s welcome. It reminds me of what I have glimpsed sometimes in my most secret place, as I do now. I am here because my story with Israel did not end when I left in 1981. It is a love story, and I, the unrequited lover, am still hoping for a happy ending.
The minivan reaches my destination just before midnight. I am the last passenger. The driver tells me he grew up in this neighborhood, Nachla’ot. “One of the first Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City,” he says. The van descends steeply on a narrow cobbled street and stops at the address I’ve given. We are in front of a wrought iron gate set into an old stone wall, forming the outer courtyard of the house. The key to the gate, I’d been told, would be waiting in the mailbox, and it is—an antique, about 4” long, its two teeth covered with rust. Impossibly, it turns smoothly in the lock.
The outer courtyard has long since become a private dump by successive generations of renters, but there is a clear path to the front door. I open it with a more modern key and enter, finding myself in an inner courtyard that is roofed over with corrugated tin; the walls are large blocks of hand-chiseled Jerusalem stone, but one wall is all windows, opening in large panes onto the outer courtyard. A long wooden table, battered and scarred, dominates the room. It is bathed in the light of the moon.
Off to one side are two tiny rooms, no more than 6’x6′. One is the bathroom, the other the kitchen. Before the inner courtyard had been enclosed, they had been two small sheds serving the same purposes. Now they are crowded with antique fixtures and appliances that in the 1950s must have shone with modernity. Everything is grimy, inadequate, antiquated, squeezed in to fit in the small space.
I flip a light switch and follow a long passage that leads to a vast high-ceilinged room. Suddenly a bell clangs loudly. A real bell. Clang, clang. Clang. It is 2 a.m. By the third clang, I locate the sound—just outside my outer courtyard gate. “Who is it?” I shout aggressively, my heart beating hard as I walk out toward the gate. The outer walls are not very high. It would be easy for someone to scale. Stop, breathe. This is Jerusalem, not South Berkeley. No one is going to scale a wall to rape, rob, or murder me. “Who’s there?” I ask in a more normal voice, standing close to the gate.
“It’s Tanya. We’ve met. I live in the neighborhood. I saw your lights. I can’t sleep either. I’ve been waiting for you.”
I unlock the gate and there stands a woman I had met very briefly in New York two years earlier. I remember her mostly for the fact that she was very beautiful in a classic Slavic way.
Tanya proffers a dish of watermelon sprinkled with feta cheese. “Come in,” I say, wondering if this will be a nightly thing—neighbors noticing my insomnia through my front wall of glass and joining me in the early hours of the morning. “I’ll make tea.” We settle ourselves near one another at one end of the long table in the inner courtyard.
“I heard you were arriving tonight,” Tanya says. “Actually, I’ve been waiting for you, and when I saw that you weren’t going to sleep right away, I came over. I didn’t expect to have to ring the cowbell, though. No one ever locks their outer gate.” She laughs, but she is not looking at me. “I’ve just finished reading your book,” she says, her face suddenly darkening. “You know, I had to give up leadership in the movement. Just like you.”
I never have had watermelon and feta cheese before. It is surprisingly good, especially at 2 a.m. Grateful as I am for the offering, I am not quite ready for the bearer, let alone the conversation. It isn’t just the hour or even that I’ve just arrived , not sure where I am or why I’m here. It is the too-sudden intimacy, the intensity of Tanya’s gaze. The sad eyes, the suddenly defeated posture. Too much need. It is too familiar. This is Israel, where some strange woman might clang my cow bell at 2 a.m., seeing a light in my window, because she can’t sleep and needs to talk.
I get up and open the windows. The early morning air is chilly. Tanya shivers and I breathe deeply, trying to make sense out of what she is saying until it finally clicks into place. She identifies with the Marcia Freedman she’s read about in my memoir, written 15 years ago about a time three decades ago, and she has read about her as the exiled mother of a movement. Which is precisely how she sees herself at the moment.
Tanya tells her story. She has removed herself from the women’s movement and from the peace movement because there was too much criticism of her leadership, and because she’s been doing it all for too long and is burnt out. She’s removed herself from everything that had given her life meaning and replaced it with yoga, meditation, and her family. Unlike me, I knew, she had no passport to elsewhere. Hers had to be an internal exile. “Aren’t you angry?” she asks. “Weren’t you angry then?”
First light is breaking on my first morning back, and here before me is a needy sister asking questions about a time in my life that is now so long ago that it has become the subject of a story, a time I thought I’d left behind when I wrote about it. “We’ll talk about it some other time, Tanya,” I say, as sincerely as I can, though I am lying.
I lock the gate behind her.
On my second day back in Israel, I go to a demonstration. Orthodox men have been harassing three Palestinian women students who rent an apartment in a secular neighborhood, Musrarah, that borders Mea Shearim, a fiercely ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Yesterday they tried to set the apartment on fire.
There are not more than fifty people at the demonstration, held in a vast space that is new to me, Safra Square. I can’t recall what had been in this place when I was here. Now it is all polished granite municipal buildings around a huge granite square, gray and angular, though in the sunlight the stone sparkles unexpectedly.
Looking around I recognize Esther, and she sees me and approaches. “We’re neighbors,” she says hugging me warmly and kissing both cheeks. “In fact, I’m your landlady, but it’s a long story.” We stand back to look at one another for a few moments, openly assessing the passage of two decades since we’d last seen one another. She is still strikingly beautiful, but there is a hardness to the musculature of her face, her hair has been dyed too many times to even approach a natural color, her voice is conspicuously hoarse from overuse and chain smoking. She projects a tough exterior, but she always has, and I suppose it protects her in court. But this woman, one of the most radical human rights lawyers in Israel, had always softened easily, smiled often; she is infectiously likeable. “You’ll come for Friday night dinner,” she says. “We live just across the street.”
Esther calls over the crowd to A, another lawyer, another American import, and introduces us. I have heard of him from mutual friends in New York. Oddly, for Israel, we shake hands. “I’ve heard you work mostly on torture cases,” I said. “And I never win,” he replies with a laugh. “It’s been ten years, and I’ve brought case after case to the Israeli Supreme Court. They simply refuse to hear them. But we’ll keep the court dockets full until, sooner or later, they’ll have to take a case. And when they do, we win. We all know that. Israeli law clearly bans torture. The only way they can let it go on is to refuse to hear a case.”
Bizarre, but in the Israeli style I’d learned to appreciate long ago, perfectly governed by the logic of hypocrisy. Along with my monthly salary as a member of Knesset in the mid-1970s, I received a statement enumerating its components. The base pay was relatively low, probably about that of a school teacher. Then there had been a list oftosefot, additions, including a generous allowance for housing, travel, and much more. The total was triple the base. In addition, there were numerous perks—a generous guaranteed benefits pension, free telephone for life, free public transportation for life, many deluxe healthcare benefits for life, and need I go on? It was that salary and that long-term security that enabled me to divorce after 13 years of marriage. So great was the difference economically from my life before and after becoming a member of Knesset. This was my first true lesson in how the remnants of the socialist principles of the founders were being as-if honored but otherwise mocked and slowly, steadily eroded.
The crowd hushes as an imposing woman steps onto a low retaining wall. She is tall enough to stand above the crowd, noticeable enough to command attention by her elevation above us by a mere two feet. I hadn’t yet met her, but I’d seen her picture on various web sites. Hagar Rubelev, the founder and inspiration of Women in Black, is unmistakable. Long black curls surround her head and shoulders in a thick overlay framing her face, which is open to the crowd. She wears loose clothing that still does not hide a voluptuous body.
Hagar stands easily above the crowd, waiting a few moments, no more, before we quiet down, focusing our attention on what she has to say. She is all passion as she tells the story of the increasing harassment of the Palestinian students in horrific detail. The women are modern Palestinian university students who wear jeans. The young Chasids who harass and attack them see many Jewish women in jeans in their neighborhood, but it must feel safe and perhaps doubly righteous in their eyes to exercise their religious fervor against “lewdness” with young Arab women, whose presence among them is an anomaly and a further abomination.
The mix of gender, race, nationality, and religion in this one tiny incident is boggling. Is this the work for me to do here? And, if so, how to begin?
On day three, I take out my old address book, the one I last had when I lived in Israel. I have kept it ever since, living with two address books, one for here and one for there. The one for here is worn, the pages thumbed and dirty, the ink blurry from spilt liquids. It is time to make phone calls. Beyond a handful of people in Israel, no one has any idea I’ve returned. My social time, my activist time is entirely uncommitted. As an Israeli, once again, I am tabula rasa.
I make calls, mostly leaving messages, saying I’m here for three months and how to reach me. I record my own message in hurriedly stilted Hebrew and deliberately articulate English.
Gila Swirsky, a stalwart of Jerusalem Women in Black, is the first to call back.
We have no real history together, but she is as long in the tooth as an activist as me. “There is a coalition of ten feminist organizations coming together around the peace issue. It stretches from Zionist to anti-Zionist, one-state/two-state, mostly Jewish but also some Israeli Palestinian women’s groups. Our next meeting is in Haifa. I’ll be driving from Jerusalem. There’s still room in the car if you want to come.”
It is a three-hour trip from Jerusalem to Haifa, what with pickups and pit stops. The cheap conference call hasn’t yet come to Israel. If there’s to be a national meeting, everyone has to get there. It is already 9 p.m. when we climb the steep steps to the first meeting of the Coalition of Women for Peace and my first political meeting in a very long time, not only in Israel. A month ago, in Berkeley, I would have been reading a novel, preparing for sleep.
We are in the offices of one of the organizations, and I’m not sure which. Someone, a stranger to me, greets us at the door. Off a tiny entrance hall is a long, narrow room dominated by the 8×2 folding tables and chairs that run its length. There are perhaps two dozen women chatting with one another loudly. We are the last to arrive. Here and there, I recognize someone and wave hello to the surprised look that greets me.
The worn wooden surface of the table is relieved by bright plastic containers of hummus, tahini, babaganoush, and labeneh, plates of freshly cut cucumbers, tomatoes, and red peppers, cracked green olives. Stacks of pita bread, fresh-baked that day, dot the array. I remember the pleasure of this food and eye it hungrily.
The hoped-for coalition has yet to hammer out its consensus principles, but in this room are the activist leaders of the Israeli women’s peace movement. Those who recognize me gather round in greeting with a kiss on both cheeks and surprised exclamations. I hurriedly explain, over and over, that I’ve come for an extended stay, several months at least, and that I don’t yet know what that might mean.
As the babble hushes, we take our seats. Someone I do not recognize takes the lead and chairs. She asks us to introduce ourselves. This can only be for my benefit, for surely they all know one another quite well, probably too well. My stomach clenches. I begin reaching for something if not memorable than at least funny or interesting to say, but I also need to find these words in Hebrew and I’d only been back for a week. I am still reaching when my turn came around. I mumble, suddenly but extremely shy, “Shmi Marcia Freedman” (literally, my name is Marcia Freedman).
“At b’emet kayemet, you really exist?” exclaims a 30-ish woman sitting across from me. The look of astonishment on her face is real. “My mother talks about you, my teachers talked about you, in the army they talked about you. Your name pops up everywhere. But you disappeared. You’re like a myth.”
“It’s true,” whispers an old Haifa sister sitting next to me. “While you were gone, your reputation has undergone rehab. In some circles, you’re now a national heroine. Maybe that’s the secret of getting respect in this country. You’ve got to leave it.”
I don’t hear much after that. “Marcia Freedman” is still alive and well in Israel. Fifteen years absence hasn’t erased her. She is remembered, maybe even, now, remembered well. There is sweetness in that, and, I understand without going fully there, there is a place in history as well, a sweetness even greater.
But these are also the words I had run away from, all the way to California. There, “Marcia Freedman” resurfaces now and then, but not all that often. I had been working in a job that had nothing to do with Israel or things Jewish. I could safely say my name without invoking a persona, someone else’s Marcia Freedman. Here, I am “Marcia Freedman” once again. Whatever I might say for the next few months, to most of the people I spoke with, would carry the weight and the freight of “Marcia Freedman” saying it, and of course I never knew exactly who she was. It had been a strangely dissociated way to live, I remember. Fifteen years ago, it had even begun to feel dangerous. Today, worst of all, “Marcia Freedman” and I are only of passing acquaintance. Most of what is remembered of her I have forgotten.
I try to concentrate on the discussion around me but can only form the most abstract impressions. The content escapes me. The meeting is raucous in the way I remember. The women shout over one another, the loudest voice commanding attention until a more insistent voice interrupts and holds sway. This is a room full of alpha females. No one ever seems to finish a whole paragraph without being interrupted. No one seems to mind. Somehow, they can understand one another when several of them speak at the same time. It is entirely familiar but foreign now. My brain cannot put it together. The Hebrew sentences collide with one another. The synapses fire too fast, the connections too slow. Cacophony.
Toward the end, when things have quieted down and somehow things have been agreed to, there is talk of tasks to be done. There is a need for someone to coordinate international outreach for the Coalition via the internet. A web site is being established. An extensive international email listserv already exists and needs to be managed. When after a long pause no one comes forward,
I say, in the old way, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
It would be some time before I understood that I had launched myself into the public sphere once again as an Israeli feminist and peace activist, this time internationally via the internet, in the same thoughtless way as I had done 35 years earlier.
“Okay, I’ll do it.”