Itamar Marcus was in town, and instructions were that we had to eat "Kosher Kosher." Surprised to find neither the Zagat nor the Michelin had a listed kosher section, even here in New York City (home to more Jewish people than Tel Aviv), I began to realize how difficult it must be for an observant Jew looking to eat out. Fortunately Caravan of Dreams could accommodate us where I had arrived early, as is my custom. Red walled, with a low slung ceiling, the dining room ensconced me in bonhomie. While it was cold outside, in the womb-like room the air was pleasantly humid. A potted palm provided a far-from-here tropical ambiance. A breeze stirred, reminiscent of Al Nakheel's on the Jeddah Corniche. Nursing my thoughts in the pregnant silence, I sensed something about to hatch.
I thought about my invitation last month that had led to ringside seats at a Waziristan beheading. Tonight I was relaxed - whatever happened, I couldn't possibly see or hear anything worse. I leaned back into my chair, savoring the anticipation of unscheduled time in intelligent company.
The quorum began to assemble. Brooke Goldstein, founder of the Children's Rights Institute, arrived first. Soon after, my friend Richard walked in, made late by uncooperative trains. We all waited for Itamar.
I didn't notice him enter at first, even though the dining room was small. A diminutive, immediately friendly man approached our table, apologizing for his delay. Dressed in a sharply-pressed shirt, and yarmulke, this was Itamar. I signaled for him to sit next to me, under a feeble spotlight. I wanted to really see this person.
A few days earlier, in noisy traffic, over a bad blue-tooth connection, I had agreed to meet him, thinking he was the director of Palestinian Medical Watch. I imagined he ran some kind of NGO health organization. Only later did I realize it was media that he watched. Tonight, I would learn about Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), which examined the media output of the Palestinian Authorities. Indeed, I decided, it was a kind of medical surveillance, but of wholly alien diseases, diseases that propagate generational pandemics of terror.
Something about Itamar was immediately winsome, warm. I liked him at once. Without knowing why, I promptly recognized there was an air of urgency to the evening. Rather like taking a history from a complicated patient, I began peppering him with questions, worried I wouldn't have time to learn everything I needed. Practicing medicine is a lot like journalism - one gathers detailed eyewitness accounts of memorable events from multiple sources, repeatedly rechecking the story. This evening I wanted to know what Itamar had seen.
He told his story with simplicity, beginning with his birth in Uptown Manhattan, to his experience of making aliyah at 22, an ascent which would ultimately lead him to the fascinating Israeli destiny which, (as the Pirkeh Avot tells us) by Hasgahah pratis, patiently awaited him.
Over a decade and a half ago, while working as an advisor for an Israeli ministry, he stumbled upon Arabic medium broadcasts emerging from the Palestinian Authority. In his accidental discovery, he had fallen into an extraordinary abyss, leading headlong into the wellspring of an unparalleled Pop Culture of Death. As he talked, we each fell under his spell, transfixed for long silences as we followed his journey.
In the beginning, Itamar had examined speeches given by then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. While never advocating terror explicitly, translators were discovering Arafat did acknowledge the need for "Amalia" during the day, ("acts") implying civil disobedience to Israeli directives, while simultaneously (and rather coyly) stating matters "after nightfall" were an entirely distinct issue. Arafat was condoning any kind of response, one entirely open to his supporters' interpretations. All bets, he seemed to say, were most certainly off.
Realizing that there appeared to be two broadcasts from Arafat, one tailored to the English language Israeli audience and one to the Arabic speaking Palestinian audience, Itamar consistently found messages were often quite opposing. This observation of conflicting statements became the nidus forming PMW, a foundation which Itamar continues to direct today.
Early the same week, Itamar had been in the United States specifically to present PMW's incredible findings in a new report in Congress entitled From Terrorists to Role Models: The Palestinian Authority's Institutionalization of Incitement. In a previous appearance in Washington, to testify before the Senate's Committee on Appropriations, the committee and other colleagues (including then Senator Hillary Clinton, and a solitary Palestinian representative to the UN) were left aghast. The findings are public, accessible here here.
His report showed the marching glorification of suicide martyrdom, which at first encroached, and now engulfs every aspect of Palestinian culture. His data shows a Palestinian child can wake up, walk down a street named after a suicide bomber, attend a school renamed after a martyr, read text books peppered with political ideology, after school, play in a football team named after a terrorist or learn in a computer lab named after a suicide bomber, and then come home and switch on the television to watch none other than the Hamas Bunny.
Overtime, PMW has been funded by both Israeli government monies and private benefactors, though now the foundation is granted by private citizens only. PMW gains intellectual freedom and avoids bias by declining governmental funds, Itamar explained.
Partway through dinner, Itamar pulled out a child's textbook from his bag. For very young children, it was written in such clear Arabic that even I could read it. Relying on my Arabic garnered at my mother's knee 35 years ago and child like, pointing to the sentence with my index finger, I read a sentence out loud. We were examining a math textbook. Itamar pointed out one of the questions.
"The State of Palestine was declared in 1988," said the math textbook.
What happened in 1988 I asked my dinner partners, unaware of the Arafat speech declaring Palestine as an independent state that year.
"How many years have passed since then, until today?" demanded the book.
Children were learning subtraction from this, small children, perhaps no more than six or seven? I remembered my own misery at learning math with nothing more troubling than an abacus or a series of apples. I would struggle to the correct answer counting on my worried fingers, still tubby with baby fat. These children, on the other hand, would know Arafat's politics better than I, and well before they could do long division. There was no time or space permitted for their innocence, even in the ordered world of rudimentary arithmetic.
Over the past decade and a half PMW has been the sole observer documenting the contradictions between the public image the Palestinian Authorities present to the world in English, and the messages they actually deliver to their own people in their own tongue. The publicly accessible findings are so jarring, you can draw your own conclusions irrespective of your perspective. I ask you do what every scientific reader must: evaluate the data, verify the sources of funding and draw your own conclusions. Over time, repeated observations are very, very difficult to ignore. It may also be worth knowing that many of these observations are made by Muslim Palestinians working alongside Itamar. That evening, very soon, I had seen enough to know that something very, very unhealthy is both clearly afoot and frighteningly well entrenched.
By now we had managed to tear ourselves away from his riveting accounts long enough to order dinner, courtesy of a diligent waiter who had made his third round to our table in valiant attempts to secure our attention. I had already lost all track of time and practically forgotten my dinner partners, so absorbed was I in the intensity of this man. To my side, under his breath, now and again Richard hummed along to a nameless tune, reminding me he was there. Briefly distracted, I glanced at him. Behind his mask of preternaturally alert impassivity, Richard too, was rapt.
Now that he had secured our full attention, Itamar leaned forward and opening his laptop, powered up the screen. In short moments, we pulled back the shades on Palestine through his unique, horrifying window. He began to play video clips. I blinked, squinting into the brightness as they loaded on the player. We huddled in for a closer look. In the burgundy gloaming, our illuminated faces against the pall gloom made for a modern day Caravaggio.
A costumed figure dressed in a giant pink bunny suit appears on camera. There is an adult sized person in the figure, which moves like a spiritless Sesame Street character. Unlike Big Bird, the puppet conveys no joy or humor. The bunny is in a garishly lit studio surrounded by childrens motifs and over-sized building blocks, rather like a simulated play area which will never belong to children. There is a stillborn aura to this charade.
A small girl, clearly prepubescent (no more than 8 at most) is the host, veiled in full hijab, revealing her child's face. Her voice is soft and endearing, a stark contrast to the bald hate which formulates the entire dialogue of the show. Her downy innocence strangely heightens the sedition.
"You must know about the Hamas Bunny," said Richard, as an aside, as I tried to make sense of what was unfolding. I giggled at his arid humor, to which I am gradually becoming accustomed. I prepared to quip a riposte, when I realized he had been serious.
"Watch!" he said, almost terse, immediately focusing my attention.
"This is Assud, the Hamas Bunny, Qanta," said Itamar. My eyes widened like a child's might, as I took in the full import of what I was seeing.
I watched the scene unfold. Assud the Bunny was surrounded by his TV parents: an overweight, veiled woman, apparently portraying his Palestinian mother and an overweight, bareheaded Arab man portraying his Palestinian father. The bunny is asking about his missing sibling, Nahoul. Strangely his sibling, Nahoul, is a killer bee.
The parents are wringing their hands. Evidently, something bad has happened to Nahoul, I decided. As the parents confirm Assud's sincerity as a believing Muslim - albeit a cartoon Muslim- the bewildered bunny rabbit attests to the same, his voice cresting to a strangled soprano. From his spiraling anxiety, the puppet, like me, can tell something bad has happened.
The parents begin to tell him the difficult news. Nahoul the killer bee, his beloved sibling, has died because he had been denied entry across the Egyptian border by Israeli authorities, where he could have received badly needed, advanced medical care ( apparently for killer bees). Nahoul must have had a medical condition, it seems. Because the Israelis had denied access, the parents continue, Nahoul is dead. As Assud the Hamas Bunny Rabbit comes to terms with the death of his sibling, his bunny voice rises in condemnation of Israeli brutality. His bunny Arabic becomes increasingly hysterical and, I notice, peppered with Islamic phrases. The children watching at home, wide-eyed like me, stay tuned and get to see Nahoul's death in greater detail.
Flashbacks show the peri-cardiac arrest killer bee on the brink of dying, surrounded by his parents who remind him at his own hour of death that "all children are dying in Palestine." A clumsy rendition of basic CPR follows - adult actors pretend to try and revive the polyester bee which is even wearing a Venturi oxygen mask. Nahoul promptly dies, without advanced life support I note, sardonically.
While the flashback is playing, these details are also being recanted to the newly bereaved Assud the Bunny rabbit, who, while he lacks the wile of Bugs' Bunny, compensates for the lack of wit with vapid, high-pitched psychosis.
The prepubescent network hostess, a kind of chirpy pre-teen Palestinian Rachel Maddow introduces Assud to the loyal viewership. I can tell, her endorsement carries weight with the crowd at home. Assud has thus assumed the mantle vacated by the martyrdom of the Palestinian killer bee.
Its staggering to see this content was produced, and expressly so, with extremely young viewers in mind. For them, the seven or eight year old network hostess is iconic, and older. Her voice greets the presumably heartbroken under-five audience at home with cheery joviality, assuring them that "not to worry kids," "a new friend has arrived on the scene," Assud. Assud, means Lion, an odd name for a bunny rabbit, I have to say, until you watch the rest of the scene.
As Assud recovers his composure at the death of his sibling and his muffled voice comes down an octave from the crescendo of hysteria, he makes a commitment to his TV parents and all the mourning child viewers at home. He reminds the viewers that Nahoul the bee actually took the place of Farfour, the Mickey Mouse doppelganger, who was martyred before Nahoul.
"Just like Nahoul took the place of Farfur, so I too will take the place of Nahoul and make all the children of Palestine happy again," says the awkward, Hamas- funded bunny.
"Inshallah, (God Willing)" encourage the grieving parents who have just buried one baby bee and now fearfully anticipate the inevitable burial of their child the Hamas bunny. I notice how facile the actors are at mimicking grief, how worn and listless their faces look. It's the only part of their acting which seems unforced. In fact, I don't believe they are acting at all. For them, this is reality.
"Inshallah, I will EAT the Jews," says the bunny, impassioned, "Kill the Jews!" This continues for sometime. Hence the bunny's name of Assud (lion)- this bunny was a carnivore, one with a penchant for Jews.
Over the course of perhaps twenty minutes, Itamar plays several such videos, all extracts of childrens broadcasting from the Palestinian Territories. This, and variations on the same theme, continue, in segment, after segment, after segment. It is mind numbing. While the storyboard reads like a bad Saturday Night Live skit, I don't find any of this funny. Rather, it is compelling in its stunningly fascinating horror.
Eventually Itamar had to eat something. So we turned off the videos and exited that world, but not before I noticed we had attracted some attention. From time to time, a woman at an adjoining table looks over, alarmed at the content. She can hear some of the dialogue because we had the volume dialed up. Subtitles play unsettling fragments like "Kill the Jews", "Eat the Jews" - lines the Hamas bunny speaks. The subtitles are in bold type, easily legible over six feet away. What must people think of us, I worried.
She makes assertive eye contact with me. I squirm in my seat almost on the verge of wanting to explain we four do not espouse such views, that three of us are Jewish and the other is a Muslim, but not a sympathizer to this madness. Her eyes look at me, and then the screen and then back again. I don't think anyone else at the table noticed her but somehow I feel guilty by association, guilty that the broadcasters, the scriptwriters, the producers, the puppet actors, the child hosts, and the viewers are all, like me, Muslim. Somehow, despite my French wardrobe, my short hair, my ambiguous race, I think she knows. Even as I type these words at Terminal One at Kennedy, or in a plane at 35,000 feet, I wonder if the Moroccan Muslim next to me can read over my shoulder, noticing the guilt follows me, even at altitude. Somehow, by sharing this reality of Itamar's, I have dirtied my hands in it. With this knowledge, I am soiled, in a way that the others, my friends the Jews, are not.
I return to the conversation. Itamar is still brimming with observations to share. I suspect it could be past midnight. I study his wide set eyes, flecked with a deep, intelligent kindness. Barely lined, his brow conceals a doting grandfather of very young people. We speak of how he protects his own grandchildren from the hazards of television. Together we wonder what is happening in Palestinian households where children the same age as his grandchildren follow the decimation of Farfur, Nahool, Assud without censure, protection, insulation.
Later, as I turn this over in my mind, I wonder can so much divide be created in the vacuum of absent opportunity? Is that the sole reason grandchildren on either side of the divide grow up so differently? Perhaps the Farfur-watchers cannot conceive of being a physician, a teacher, a lawyer. Instead, their conception of a future is an abstracted reality which centers on death as a vehicle to an alternate incarnation?
I want to relate to the Israeli, an uncomfortable habit of mine which immediately separates me from most Muslims. I change the subject, pleased to remember to tell Itamar the meaning of his name-I had been curious enough to look it up. "An Island of Palms" was the Hebrew translation, I announced. Itamar looked up, surprised, noting that while he knew the extraction of his name he had never conceived of it as such. As we smiled at each other I thought of another child named after a palm tree, a beloved daughter in Riyadh. She was a child I had seen presciently in a prophetic dream, full years before she was to be born. She was now growing up, the privileged daughter of an elite Saudi family.
Here was an Israeli, named after palms, seated across from me at the table and there, east from here, was a young Saudi girl, named after palms too. The similarity across cultures is astonishingly bonding. If only each culture could see their own reflection in the other's soul.
I dwelled on the issue of palms for a while. I suppose it was the potted palm in the corner which kept triggering the image. Every time I looked away from my dinner partners, my eye was drawn to the glossy leaves enlivening a recess of the uterine room, the green cutting a fresh, clean sharpness against the blood red wall. Finally, I captured the remnant of a surfacing thought. Amos Oz had said it best in his short treatise, How to Cure a Fanatic:
No man is an Island, said John Donne, but I humbly dare to add: No man and no woman is an island, but everyone of us is a peninsula, half attached to the mainland and half facing the ocean - one half connected to family and friends and culture and tradition and nation and sex and language and many other things and the other half wanted to be left alone to face the ocean.
This is what I felt when listening to Itamar. While the Israeli and Palestinian territories are ever more disconnected from one another - whether walls of concrete, walls of hate, walls of psychosis incubated in the vacant lots of empty childhoods, or even literary festivals celebrating Israeli and Palestinian writers at the same time yet completely without acknowledgment of the other - we remain insistent on our island-like existence, instead of accepting we are each promontories and peninsulas.
When a Palestinian child watches a cartoon character enact the ritualized suicidal ideation which has become venerated as an entire genre of terror - the martyred suicide bomber - we are not, as Muslims, blameless. We are not islands. We are peninsulas, promontories of the giant Muslim Ummah. She is, by definition, an extension of us. We bear association, responsibility, blame. There is no rationalizing this diabolical dementia which is now seizing our youngest members of Islam, for rationalization leads to justification, which leads to tolerance, which leads to covert approval and ultimately, to overt support. Every Muslim bears responsibility for the blood being shed in the execution of these deadly hallucinations which kill real people. Our voice remains the final bastion against incipient Islamic brain death, when Muslims will become spiritually decerebrate. In our current, persistent vegetative state of the intellectual denial of suicide bombing, specifically and Islamist terrorism more generally, we are fast approaching the last exit to sanity.
Suicide bombings are conducted in an inversed perversion of Islam where death of one's child is an act of aggrandizing self-sacrifice, where the murderous destruction of civilian non combatants is beatified as holy martyrdom, where a suicide bomber is canonized as a saint and where the burial of one who has conducted the ultimate offense in Islam - to terminate given life - has become a matter for public accolade and societal secondary gain marked in revered processions. Suicide bombers have become emotional and monetized commodities for their surviving families.
These ideologies, so fanatically nursed, are best described as spectacularly ass-backwards (to borrow an appalling, phlegmatic phrase). They are completely opposite to Islamic ideals. Islam teaches that the individual who commits suicide has so offended his or her Creator that believers are not allowed to supplicate on behalf of his soul. He or she is allowed a burial for matters of public hygiene only but no one can appeal for mercy on his behalf. His soul meets his Maker without the comfort of prayer, with the benefit of recommendation.
Fundamental, core Islamic values - of protecting one's children from death, of collaboratively living in the present rather than in suspended animation awaiting an ephemeral and much fictionalized afterlife ( one which can be attained only through the killing of others) - are utterly subjugated in the febrile, generational psychosis which has gripped much of mainstream Palestinian culture. If we are to judge the content on which the nascent Palestinian future is currently teething, this delirium will only deepen.
"How long have you been doing this Itamar?" I ask, finally, feeling utterly defeated.
"Fourteen years," he answered, unblinking
"What keeps you going, in the face of such futility?" I asked bluntly, feeling his work was no different than watching a psychotic individual auto-mutilate to the point of drawing blood- how much of that can one watch, after a while?
"Qanta, all my work is undertaken from a position of Peace. If this climate of terror is advancing, there can be no hope for peace to take root."
I studied him carefully, sensing the sincerity within him. I believed he and his foundation truly care. I had no further questions of Itamar, only questions of myself. Now that I knew what he did, how much did I care? Where did my responsibilities begin, and his end?
The evening ended, leaving me feeling both bleak and blessed. While there was enormous ideological warfare being conducted through the malleable pawn of collective Palestinian childhood, perhaps there could be ways to learn how to provide an alternate, ways which would ultimately break the deadly life cycle of suicide bombers.
I was deeply humbled: Itamar's draining, devastating work was ultimately about an Israeli Jew who cared deeply about Muslim children, his neshama, his niyyat, a lone green shoot of fragile hope sprouting forth from lakes of blood.
Whom, of you, will join him?