Revisiting memories of construction work in Jerusalem

March 13, 2009 by

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Perhaps you know something about the back alleys in downtown Jerusalem where I once lived: dusty, cobbled-stoned roads, labyrinthine alleys, and rusty railings greet you there. I entered my apartment by passing under a stone archway, turning right, jumping over a gate, climbing stairs, jiggling a difficult lock, and passing through my roommate’s room. My job was no less idiosyncratic and, fittingly, the open courtyard where I dug dirt and carried tiles was within sight of my apartment. My co-workers were Palestinian tiling experts and Ukrainian leathernecks in their fifties.

The Ukrainians and I earned overtime pay by working some nights, pouring buckets of dirt off of a rickety balcony and into a dumptruck that could only double-park during off hours. I slept on a mound of dirt for 15-minute stretches and focused on resisting the cold. I didn’t join my co-workers for “SMO-KEENG” time activities which, confusingly, included no tobacco but shots from a brown paper bag instead. That is, I didn’t join them until I came to collect a paycheck on New Year’s Eve. It seemed right to join them for their “Sylvester” celebration, to contribute some baklava to the party, and to give the struggling men a gift of a Russian-Hebrew phrasebook. Later, I saw them leave the worksite, as usual, in their tweed jackets, pulled over their work clothes in a throwback to a different time.

These men had been closer to me than our Palestinian co-workers. We were on the same jobs, could leave the building for lunch, and united together to stay somewhat above the fray of the smoldering Intifada II. They weren’t Jewish but had some sort of Jewish relations: sons-in-law or something like that. I was Jewish-American but wasn’t planning to stay forever and my mediating personality led me to listen patiently when the Palestinians explained to me in Hebrew their disgust with Prime Minister Barak, who I felt had taken enormous risks for peace. I was their designated lunch purchaser, which filled me with some shame since I knew that their work permits did not allow them to leave the premises. Of course, the Ukrainians and Palestinians had even less in common. I knew about the Palestinians’ history and shared a common language with them. I could imagine their villages and knew about their politics.

Eventually, I moved on. I developed friendships with Israelis, worked on a kibbutz, and studied in a tour guide training course. By the end of the year, when I showed an Australian friend around town, he said, “You’ll be back. This is like home to you.” That statement sounded more convincing coming out of the mouth of a non-Jewish tourist than out of a Zionist fellow-traveler. Yes, I thought, this is home.

I’ve felt that way for nine years now, even though my life is firmly rooted in America, by bacground, family, career, and habit. Israel, though, was anything but foreign.

Until Yisrael Beiteinu surged in the polls. I was caught by surprise, having missed the earlier indicators of that process, and was shocked with revulsion when I read Lieberman’s comment that “Israeli Arabs should pack their bags and go to hell” and confronted his new role as kingmaker.

I remembered my Palestinian co-workers and realized that I felt more at ease with them than with Lieberman. I thought of Ukrainian co-workers and wondered if there relations were among those from the former Soviet Union who are so important to Lieberman’s base.

As a construction worker in Israel, I was underpaid and lived in a dirty apartment. But I knew that the state privileged me and that I could be welcomed by Israeli society. Now, I wondered if I really knew what that society was and what it would become.

I still have reasonable confidence in the state but considered the limits of that confidence for the first time. I felt like my dilettante Zionist acquaintances in the US who are “troubled” by Israel’s actions and have ambivalent feelings about the country but have spent little time reading about or visiting it. Was I a fair-weather Zionist now, too?

Of course, I still love Israel. But now I know that that love looks different depending on where in the labyrinth of streets, or labyrinth of Israel, you look.

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