Talking Gaza, sharing falafel

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Roni Krouzman
Photo by Alexander Warnow

By Roni Krouzman

Twenty years ago, I walked into a Palestinian restaurant in occupied East Jerusalem with my Israeli cousin. He was one year into his military service, clad in IDF military fatigues and carrying an M-16. Uncomfortable, to say the least.

This week, 10,000 or so miles away and just before the cease-fire in the latest round of war was announced, I walked into my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I approached the counter, I noticed I was having trouble looking the owner in the eyes. He is Palestinian, and I am a Jewish American with Israeli roots. Not exactly an amicable time for our people, yet again.

But I summoned the courage to look up, and I ordered the food I love and enjoyed so much on those summer trips to Israel (and on a few occasions, to Jordan and the Israeli occupied West Bank): falafel, tomato cucumber salad, humus, fried eggplant and pita.

I asked the man, who appeared to be my mother’s age (she lives in Tel Aviv), “Do you have any family in the Middle East?”

“Yes,” he said, looking down. “I have a sister in Gaza.”

‘Shit,’ I thought.

“Oh wow,” I said.

“This morning I called her and suddenly I heard a loud boom in the background,” he said, gesturing with his hands. “She told me that the house next door had just been hit by an Israeli shell.” I exhaled. His voice rose, and grew tighter. “Then she told me she had to go, and hung up the phone.”

He was visibly upset, of course, this kind man in his late 60s, my mother’s age. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“This is a massacre. This doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m Israeli and I agree with you.”

We commiserated on how sad and stupid it all was. He came around the counter and stood next to me.

“We want to live in peace,” he said earnestly. “Let’s sit around the table and work it out. We’ll have to give some land, the Israelis will have to give some settlements. We’ll work it out.”

I know that. If only I had the power. But unfortunately, the way I see it, Israel, the dominant force, hasn’t been keeping its end of the bargain. It didn’t when I was 17 and it isn’t 20 years later.

I sat at a table outside and ate my falafel, tomato cucumber salad, humus, fried eggplant and pita. I thought of this man and his sister, and her neighbor’s home. And my heart felt heavy.  

Had her neighbors survived? Had she? One story of so many thousands. But now, after weeks of seeing unconscionable images of grieving parents, terrified children, bloodied bodies and neighborhoods in rubble, the war suddenly had a very personal face.

But my heart also remembers that food we love, Arabs and Jews. My heart remembers how this Palestinian restaurant owner in Marin always greets me with a smile when I ask in my Israeli accent, “Kif h’alek?” (How are you?) My heart remembers how those young Palestinian guys who sold my cousin and I our falafel 20 years ago asked if we were Israeli, and when we said we were, they said, “Peace my friends,” and smiled.

“How can they not hate us after what we’ve done to them?” I thought back then. I wonder that less today. I know some do, and I honestly can’t blame them. 

But the vast majority don’t. Because the vast majority see past the governments and the extremists, and past even majorities when they go astray, and know we are all human and hold a vision of peace. They tell me we are cousins. Maybe, if enough people hold this vision, we’ll all sit down to falafel some day and live like cousins again.

Roni Krouzman is an American Jew born to Israeli parents. His articles on Israel and Palestine have been published by the Middle East Report and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. His mother, cousins, aunts and uncles live in Israel.