1970 moment of tranquility in the Holy Land keeps hopes alive

I was once held on suspicion of prostitution. Yes, me, the ba’alat tshuvah/Princeton Ph.D. It was at the Bethlehem Police Station, 33 years ago. What sticks in my mind more than my utter embarrassment was the natural camaraderie between Arab and Jew, so hard to imagine now, that got me there in the first place.

The year 1970 was midway between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. An idyllic interlude in the violent history of that region. There wasn’t yet any Palestinian national movement to speak of. Acts of terror were few and far between.

If the East Jerusalem Arabs were upset at finding themselves citizens of Israel, you wouldn’t know it. The Old City was bustling. Shopkeepers stood beaming, their wares dangling precariously above their heads: sheepskin rugs, colorful Bedouin weavings, copper pots, Damascus mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes, “Allah is great” coin jewelry – all being snapped up for the most fashionable Jewish homes.

The term “radical chic” was as apt for Israeli-Arab relations as it had been for the black-white interface in New York in the ’70s. No Israeli party was complete without a token Arab, and I guess the reverse held, too, or I wouldn’t have found myself in jail that fateful night.

Israeli-Arab socializing stayed within class boundaries, however. Higher-echelon Israelis would drop the names of prominent old Arab families, like Nashashibi, whose members were prized guests in their homes.

So we were delighted, my Israeli friends and I, when a young Arab merchant invited us to a party at his grandmother’s house in Beit Jala. No one batted an eyelash at venturing into newly conquered territory. A suburb of Jerusalem near Bethlehem, Beit Jala then was a peaceful enclave of single-family homes with manicured gardens, populated mostly by well-heeled Christian Arabs.

True Arab hospitality awaited us when we arrived: tables spread with thick amber hummus; veiny, glistening stuffed grape leaves; skewers of lamb; and eggplant in all its variety. I recognized several of the all-male Arab contingent as scions of the owners of distinctive shops in the Old City, both the Christian and Muslim quarters.

No more than 10 or 15 minutes into the festivities, we heard a loud knock on the door. Our host, Ahmed, answered. It was a policeman. He was there to summon us to the Bethlehem Police Station.

Incredulous, I appealed to Ahmed. “You and he are both Arab,” I whined, pointing to the policeman. “He’s not only an Arab, he’s my cousin, and I still can’t do a thing,” Ahmed responded, gesturing helplessly.

So all of us, Arab and Jew alike, gritted our teeth and piled into a Bethlehem paddy wagon. When we arrived at the station our escort showed us into a glass room, then locked the door. To my horror, I was being detained!

One by one we were let out for interviews with the chief of police, an Israeli who supervised the original Arab force. Hours passed. Finally, it was my turn. I was greeted by a tall, muscular Sephardic man with shaved head and a dark pencil mustache. He proceeded to examine my passport, question me about my activities in Israel (I was at the Hebrew University), and then, abruptly, he dismissed me.

Puzzled, as I was leaving I turned to ask him why I had been brought there. Oh, he smiled. Since the borders had opened up, those empty houses in Beit Jala were being used for parties with Jewish prostitutes (“Orgies,” presumably). Our music had alerted the neighbors.

I felt faint. “No, now that I’ve met you I realize your party was not one of those,” the dapper chief assured me. I heaved a sigh of relief.

We were driven home at 4 a.m. in a police car that still bore the emblem of the kingdom of Jordan. I scurried into my house. (Gossip spreads quickly in Jerusalem.) Some months later I went back to America. “I’ll return,” I said, but it was not until 1996 that I finally did.

Alas, Jerusalem bore little resemblance to the city I remembered. Arabs and Jews were killing each other every day. The Old City was empty of tourists, the merchants somber and hostile, and the young men who had hosted the party all those years before were long gone — mostly to Europe, I was told. The Israelis had become rougher, more quick-tempered, less open.

The violence only intensified over the ensuing years. My friends became wary of even their old, faithful Israeli Arab housekeepers. Old City treasures were closeted from view. It would be offensive even to wear my beloved embroidered Bedouin dresses.

After the failure of the Camp David talks, when intifada two began, Beit Jala became a launching pad for daily Arab assaults on the neighboring Jewish development of Gilo, and I could hear the mortar fire from my apartment in Old Katamon, two miles away. As I remembered my adventure in Beit Jala 30 years earlier, tears rolled down my cheeks. I left once again. But I didn’t give up on peace.

Many say the political situation in Israel is hopeless, that the sides will never come to terms. And even if they do, Israelis and Arabs will never be able to live together harmoniously.

I know differently. For I remember a moment when both sides gladly dropped their hostilities and partied together. When a Jewish girl could find herself in Arab hands and the worst that would happen to her would be she’d get arrested on suspicion of prostitution.

Those days when I was young and we all felt like cousins will come again. I know. I lived them.

Jane Falk is a linguistic consultant who specializes in California vs. Israeli communication styles, and the president of Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood in Berkeley.