I remember the day I became aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it was at a very specific moment. Like any Israeli child born in the early 60s, I grew up knowing that our enemy were the Arabs around us, the Arab nations whose constant wish, so we were told, was to annihilate us, “to throw the Jews into the sea”. I was in kindergarten during the terrible weeks before the Six Day War in 1967, when the Israeli population was preparing for the worst. Around that time, we were asked in kindergarten to make a drawing for Air Force Day, which isn't really celebrated any more. Or it might have been right after the war, when victory was celebrated. Many years have passed and I don't remember the teacher's instructions, but I do remember the painting I made: blue stick-crosses high up in a sunny sky, over green meadows dotted with red-roof houses facing black stick-crosses which were flying in the opposite direction, in flames, their tips facing down, signalling that the burning planes were doomed. The planes were Arab, dark and ominous, and belonged to the Arab nations around us. It was in 1967 that I first saw the insignia on Egyptian and Syrian fighter-planes and learned to tell them apart. We all knew that “the Arabs” had showed blatant inhumanity in 1948. We were trying to create a state, to begin our independence after so many years, and – go figure! - they chose that very moment in order to attack us, instead of empathizing with our human project, so natural and right. It was 1967 and I was four years old.
Still, I knew nothing about a conflict between us and the Palestinians. Even up to the mid-70s we'd fervently argue whether such a people existed, about criteria for a people being a People. Anyway, in the late 60s all this was still in the future. So it was a big surprise to discover it directly for the first time. And in a swimming-pool, of all places.
It happened around 1970, when I was living with my family in Honduras. Many times we'd go to the lovely swimming pool at the capital's best and brand-new hotel, the Honduras Maya. One Sunday, as I was in the water and the air was thick with the smells of the brunch that was being prepared outdoors, I met a girl from my second grade class. I knew she was an Arab. In Spanish we called the local Arabs turcos. By then I already knew why: they were descendants of Arabs who'd left the Middle East during the late days of the Ottoman Empire, usually in order not to serve in the Sultan's army during the First World War. Anyway, I was glad to see the girl, and she approached me. The sun blinded me, but I remember her body in a one-piece swimming suit as she waded and came closer. We must have talked about our families having come to the pool, maybe about lunch as a tempting prospect. By now they were grilling the meat and the smell of frijoles made my mouth water even more. Then someone called her, someone I couldn't see because of the sun. She went and then she returned with two older kids, boys. The trio stopped just under the string that ran across the pool, marking the place were the water became deeper. I was in the shallow part, still a hesitant swimmer.
“Where is this one from?”, asked one of the older boys, half spitting the question, half directing it to my friend. He looked like he could be her brother. I knew how to identify turcos.
“He's from Israel”, she said.
“There's no such place!”, he retorted in a flash. I protested saying there sure is a place called Israel, especially since I happen to come from there. He didn't wait much and went on:
“If you say you come from there, tell me the name of your capital.”
“Jerusalem”, I said, happy at the easy question. This was beginning to look like a quiz and sweet adrenaline ran through my skinny body.
“No way!”, said he. “It's Tel Aviv! Ha!”
We pingponged: Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Tel Aviv. The other boy backed him up: “Your capital is Tel Aviv!”, and added a new piece on the board: “And it's Palestine, not Israel!”
I knew Tel Aviv was not the capital of Palestine, and to the best of my knowledge, neither was Jerusalem. But they were so vehement. I thought for a moment. All I could use as a response was the historical facts I knew:
“It used to be Palestine, but now it's the State of Israel. Palestine is the name of la Tierra Santa, the Holy Land, but the State is Israel”. Feeling encouraged but what I took as ironclad logic correcting the mix-up, I added: “And its capital is Jerusalem! Why, I even have an aunt living there, so I know what I am talking about.”
The boys grunted loudly and motioned my friend to come with them, back to the other side of the pool. And then, as they made their way to were their family was, the older one turned his head back towards me and yelled: “And your president has a funny hat!”
I really had no idea what sort of headgear our president might prefer. In fact, I didn't even know we had a president. I went to where my parents were sitting with some Jewish friends and asked my mother: “Do we have a president? Is it true he has a funny hat?” My mother laughed and told me that in fact we do have a president and told me his name. She made no reference to hats. When I told her about the argument I'd just had she told me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had started – so she explained in her meticulous way – in 1882, when we started to return to the Land of Israel after 2000 years.