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Original Essays

A Symbol of Selflessness

by Jennifer Miller
  1. Inheriting the Holy Land: An American "This is a hopeful book about a conflict that often seems hopeless....What emerges is a sense that there are both ordinary people and powerful people who are groping for a livable solution to this intractable struggle." Jay Freeman, Booklist (starred review)
Of all the conflicts I expected to encounter while traveling through Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, I never imagined that one would involve a treadmill. I was researching my first book, Inheriting the Holy Land, which compares the attitudes and experiences of Israeli and Palestinian young adults with the opinions of their national leaders. I was on a quest to find some hope in this seemingly hopeless conflict — and I did. But the journey was rough.

I felt the walls of my Jerusalem apartment shake one evening when a suicide bomber blew up a café two blocks away. On another occasion, I heard Palestinian refugees express the view that the September 11 attacks "weren't enough." I spent an afternoon listening to Ehud Barak deny any Israeli culpability in the second intifada.

At the end of these intense and often trying days, I longed for a release. Unlike many Jerusalemites who traveled to the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque each evening in search of calm, I made a daily pilgrimage to a different sacred space: the neighborhood gym and its row of blessed treadmills. Once there, my feet pounded to the beat of Beyonce and Brittney Spears, expunging the day's emotional ills. The environment wasn't exactly "holy." The gym was a fluorescently lit cinder-block box populated by Israeli muscle-men and diminutive old ladies. A guard at the door checked gym bags for weapons and explosives; even exercising, it was impossible to forget that I was in the world's most conflicted city.

The gym was often crowded, and management strove to make people share the coveted machines. Hebrew and English signs proclaimed a twenty minute limit when others were waiting and the treadmills automatically shut down at the twenty-minute mark. If you wanted a longer run you had to restart your machine. This was frustrating, but I always heeded the time limit, aware that other runners needed their catharsis, too. Even more frustrating was that fact that most runners ignored the time limit. No matter how many people awaited their turn in the tiny, sweaty space, dozens of runners restarted their treadmills two and three times before finally getting off. It seemed that in Israel, giving something up — be it territory or treadmills — was a sign of weakness. Israelis made sure you knew: they were anything but weak.

One afternoon after a stressful day, I nabbed the last free machine. I was the only female running; all around me were the beefy body builders, pounding up unfathomable inclines at ridiculous speeds. Shortly, however, an elderly woman approached. She had beauty-parlor hair, a pastel sweat suit, and carried a green towel. She wasn't frail, but she moved slow as if the gym carpet were a swiftly moving belt from which she could fall at any minute. I wondered how she could possibly manage the real thing. But she was determined. After a few moments, it became clear that this woman had set her sights on my treadmill. I could see her in the mirror, loitering behind my machine, sideling up beside me, checking my clock. Around me, treadmills were hitting their automatic shut off and were being restarted, just as automatically, by their sweaty occupants. Now I understood. The old woman had deliberately chosen me, the skinny little girl instead of the imposing muscle-men. Annoyed, I turned off the timer display, but this act of defiance backfired. Suddenly, the old woman was standing right next to me, wrapping her towel around the arm of my treadmill.

I was as furious as I was stunned. Think again, I shouted silently at the old woman. You may have occupied the West Bank and Gaza, but you won't occupy my treadmill! At that moment I knew what I had to do: I was going for forty minutes.

The old woman saw my treadmill shut down and watched me restart it. She looked aghast, but only after forty minutes of blissful running, did I give my machine up. As I stretched on the mat, another old lady — a friend of the first — bent over me.

"That was very rude what you did," she told me.

"I'm sorry," I replied curtly, "but why don't you ask all these other men why they are still running." And with that, I turned up my headphones.

Walking home, the guilt set in. For all I knew, these women were Holocaust survivors. At the very least, they were old and deserved more respect than I had shown them. But the sense of entitlement, so pervasive in Israeli culture, wasn't something I could get used to. It was this attitude of "I deserve" from which the other stereotypes grew. Not that all Israelis acted this way. I knew many who followed rules and time limits, who believed in Israeli-Palestinian compromise, and who understood that a winner-takes-all solution doesn't exist. I understood that I had fallen prey to this same entitled attitude. I had taken an extra twenty minutes on the treadmill because I was angry — not because I deserved it.

This past August, when Israel removed its 9,000 settlers from Gaza, the country proved it was capable of transcending its anger and entitlement. The action was historic, because the ideal of settlement has been integral to Israel's history from the time of its pre-state pioneers. Every Israeli government from 1948 to the present — including the left-of-center Labor party — has supported, funded, and protected the settlers. Even Israel's secular majority feel some historic connection to the biblical lands of Greater Israel. Despite the bitter protests which protestors cast as a count-down to Armageddon, most Israelis understood that it was time to let Gaza go.

To be sure, Ariel Sharon did not spearhead Gaza withdrawal for the sake of peace or Palestinian justice. He did it because Gaza's settlements had cost Israel too much money and too many lives. It was amazing to watch the Israeli Defense Forces, (beloved institution of the Prime Minister) whose primary purpose is to protect Israel by means of force, conduct the withdrawal with an emotion one does not usually attribute to militaries: compassion. Soldiers and police had intricate instructions on how to remove household items — and people. Moreover, soldiers were directed to sit and talk with settlers before touching a single item. Many photographs show soldiers embracing settlers, consoling them, and crying. This was not weakness on the part of the IDF but a full understanding of what the settlers were being forced to abandon: not just their ideology of Greater Israel but the critical details of their lives.

It is these details, especially those pertaining to human interactions, that one easily forgets living amidst conflict. The curt, entitled attitudes I often encountered among Israelis comes from the omnipresence of hidden threats. Similarly, the experience of living under occupation allows Palestinians to pull the victim card when critics express legitimate concerns about incitement and terror. After living in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza I understand why the people there so easily lose perspective. Back home in America, the notion that I would ever link the idea of occupation to a treadmill is absurd; often in the Middle East, acting with tolerance, patience, and respect requires a concerted vigilance.

Which is exactly why I found Gaza withdrawal so extraordinary. Not only because Israelis relinquished precious land, but the way in which they did it. There were protestors and ideologues who fought back, but there was also deference and respect, and contrary to Israelis' worst fears, not a single casualty. Sharon may not have intended Gaza withdrawal to be a symbol of selflessness, but it is nonetheless. I think the region needs more Israelis and Palestinians who understand that giving is the key to receiving. As I learned in my little gym, bitter conflict makes us forget the sacredness of our holy sites. As I learned from Gaza withdrawal, it's not the sites that are most sacred but the people who live there. spacer

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