What do you wear to an uprising, I wondered, when I met Roula Abed Dehouh while visiting Palestinian women at Tel Mond, an Israeli prison for security offenders. She was tapping her foot on the gray floor.
"Yes, I killed a Jew," Roula told me. Twenty-five years old, like me, she was going to sit on that cement bench for another 25 years. "I am not sorry for what I did, I killed for my people," she said.
Her eyes were steady. My eyes fell to her feet. I had expected that this would be a routine interview for a news feature. But my neck felt hot and my face, I imagined, betrayed my sense of Jewishness.
Then I spotted the label. Roula was wearing Reeboks. Pink Reeboks.
Roula kept talking: "I smuggled the gun into Jerusalem and gave it to my comrade." And I was thinking: What was someone like her doing wearing \o7 our \f7 trendy sneakers in the first place? "We are proud to be Palestinian women fighting for nationhood," she said, and I pictured an army of women, marching in pink shoes.
I couldn't help it. All the while she spoke about blood, death and self-determination, I was concentrating on her pink leather Reeboks. Pink clashes with red, I concluded; it's a bad color for an uprising.
Why was I so ridiculous? Why couldn't I meet Roula's fierce eyes? I wouldn't look at her and I didn't want to listen to her rage. Like many American Jews who grew up after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, I find it easier to latch onto labels, to concentrate on glossy appearances rather than on the nuanced reality of Israel's occupation of those lands.
Angry Palestinian faces have no place in the happy portrait of Israel we grew up admiring. Our parents rocked us to sleep with dreamy stories of a tiny and brave Jewish state: Israeli heroes winning with one rifle to every hundred Arab cannons.
We sleepwalked through Israel on teen tours, nudged from historical site to modern kibbutz, never encountering a single refugee camp. And somewhere, drifting through the fairy tale, we came to understand that this good little Israel meant that we, too, were good.
Along came the \o7 intifada \f7 with its prime-time death footage. Many young American Jews, like their parents, just slumped into their couches and complained about the biased news media.
Most of the chatter I hear focuses on Israel's image, not on Israel's actions. When a rabid Israeli lined up seven Palestinian men and shot them dead, my friends' response was: How will they label Israel now? Over dinner, a fretful discussion followed about how the press uses active verbs to describe Palestinian deaths but only weak passive verbs to report Israeli casualties.
Listening to them, I couldn't help noticing that as the image of the Israel they love clashed with the uncomfortable reality, my friends were retreating deeper into the irrelevant. Just as I had in the Tel Mond prison, they sought distraction in the superficial. Their adrenalin soars over newspaper grammar, but the daily "ings," as in clubbings, gassings, jailings, shootings, pass unheeded.
We have got to wake up. We're lost somewhere in our parents' bedtime stories. If they want to ignore Israel's wrongs and blame distorted press coverage, at least they have an excuse for their nearsightedness. Our parents' generation grew up during the most precarious time in Jewish history. But our experience has been one of pride in a large, strong Jewish state--strong enough to withstand a little criticism.
One can admit that Israel's policies in the territories are wrong and still be a good Jew. In fact, we had better open our mouths soon, or we may find that Israel's finer qualities, the ones that used to prop up our small chins, just might disappear altogether.
We first must find the courage to venture beneath Israel's surface. Drop the neat Palestinian-equals-terrorist image and examine the frightening, messy reality. If we want to stop pink-sneakered young women from shooting Jews, we'll have to wrench our averted eyes from the safe superficialities. If we truly want to stop the violence, we're going to have to listen to the story in Roula's flashing eyes.