“Are you coming over to Justin’s this afternoon?” It’s my friend Oren on the phone. I’m in my apartment and he’s in his. “We’re going to watch the Israeli-Palestinian peace ceremony. Maybe Yasser Arafat will even shave for it.” He laughs at his own joke.
Justin is one of the few friends in our social circle at McGill who owns a TV. It’s generally not considered cool. For entertainment we go to movies at the repertory cinema on St. Catherine, taping the monthly schedule to our refrigerators. For news, we subscribe to The New York Times, which we pick up every day from the student union building.
The last time we all watched TV together was in our freshman year, when we gathered every night in early second semester in the common room of McConnell Hall to watch the Gulf War unfold in real time. That year, in January 1991, we watched Iraqi Scud missiles raining down on Tel Aviv while Palestinians cheered. This year, in September 1993, we will witness Israelis and Palestinians finally making peace.
At Justin’s, I take my place on one of the kitchen chairs arranged in a semicircle in the living room. We face the screen as President Bill Clinton prods Yitzhak Rabin toward Arafat, for what will become the famous handshake between the two men. We cheer and toast to what seems like a new era. We are proud progressive Zionists, looking forward to a new chapter of peace to unfold in the country we love almost as much as our own, or perhaps even more.
From media reports we learn that Rabin used a Pilot brand pen to sign the historic document. “Hilarious,” I say to my friend Adam. “Only a sabra like Rabin would use a drugstore pen to sign the Declaration of Principles.” I can’t wait to get back to Israel. After we graduate, Adam and I plan to room together, along with another friend from McGill, in an apartment in Tel Aviv.
The next day, reading the coverage of the peace deal in the Globe and Mail, I clip the letters of mutual recognition that Rabin and Arafat have written each other. I tack them to my bedroom wall, just above my desk. It’s early in the school year, and I figure we’ll have lots to talk about in our Arab-Jewish dialogue group. But I’m not prepared for what awaits.
“We won’t sit and dialogue anymore,” the leader of the group says the next time we meet in the arts building on campus. “Dialogue means normalizing the agreement, legitimizing it. We don’t want to give our support to it. It’s a real defeat for the Palestinians, as I’m sure you know.”
Defeat? It seems like a victory to me. The PLO has managed to tame Israel’s adventurist impulses, even with their meager power. The Palestinians stand to gain a long-denied state. But still, I listen. He has seemed nice enough since we first met, and the fact that he was interested in engaging in dialogue with us in the first place says something. I’m willing to grant that he might be right. But my natural optimism persists.
Another member joins in. “Did you see what Edward Said said about the deal? He called it a Palestinian Versailles.”
I picture Rabin and Arafat shaking hands. I hear Rabin’s speech, drawing from Ecclesiastes, echo in my head: “there is a time for everything.” If Rabin—the warrior—says there is a time for peace, shouldn’t we believe him? Cynicism has no place here, I think. It’s Canada. It’s McGill. It’s Montreal: the city of jazz, poetry, the Habs and smoked meat. Can’t we just be happy?
But the Arab student group remains steadfast. I leave the seminar room, my shoulders hunched, and walk down the steps toward the Milton gates, letting out a long sigh. This will be the last time we meet as a group, and this will be my first time experiencing first hand what will later become more widely known as “anti-normalization.” This is the belief that dialogue for its own sake, meaning sitting and talking without actively pledging to overturn the structures of oppression and inequity first, is a way of shoring up the status quo, rather than resisting it. We all claimed to oppose the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But our differing views of what would soon become known as the Oslo agreement was enough to sever the connection we had made.
Years later, I will publish an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, spurred by the death of Shimon Peres. The “constructive ambiguity of the Oslo Agreement—the idea that the toughest topics: settlements, refugees and final borders—would be deferred to later rounds of negotiations arguably enabled the agreement to get signed,” I will write, adding, “But Mr. Peres would have also known that the vague deferrals in the Oslo Agreement also carried the seeds of its destruction. Two decades later, peace between Israelis and Palestinians remains elusive.”
Maybe the Arab students who stepped away from our dialogue group because they couldn’t countenance the Oslo agreements—which most everyone, no matter what they thought of it at the time, will eventually agree is “dead” with little to show for it—were right after all. To those of us who’d cherished it as we did, supporters of Israel and supporters of peace, maybe that agreement was a false prize, like the bookmark my teacher gave me in third grade.
My third-grade teacher, a stocky Israeli who sported a wide smile and favored brown dress pants, brown leather slip-on dress shoes, and beige, short-sleeved, V-neck collared shirts, called me to his desk one morning. “If you can get through one day without being sent out of the room,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “this bookmark will be yours.”
Usually, I was sent out of the room at least once a day. That year, I craved attention. My parents had an explanation for my antics: My mom had just gotten remarried, and I was reliving the anxiety of the divorce. On the days I got sent out, I would curl up on the threadbare orange carpet in the vestibule between our classroom trailer and the main school, willing myself to sleep in a paltry act of civil disobedience that never worked.
My teacher held up the bookmark for me to examine. The cardboard strip was encased in plastic and woven with gray thread along the edges. On one side were Israeli coins; on the other Israeli postage stamps. I was transfixed.
Until 10:30 a.m., I had managed to stay quiet and attentive. But then, in a lesson on Hebrew grammar, I sensed an opening. “Masculine and feminine endings are so funny! Words don’t have private parts!” I yelled. I burst out laughing and looked around. My laughter had become contagious and soon the classroom was a cacophony of giggles and repetitions of the phrase private parts.
The teacher turned from the blackboard to face me. “Mira, tze’i me-ha-kita. Leave the classroom.” My head down, I rose from my seat and walked the 10 feet toward the door, taking my regular spot on the orange carpet.
At the end of the afternoon, my teacher called me up to his desk. “You did get sent out of the room today,” he said carefully in Hebrew, the corners of his mouth curling upward to form the beginning of a smile. “But I know you tried.”
He handed me the bookmark, and I took the unearned prize in my hand, my face burning with both pride and shame.
I felt embarrassed by that small injustice, even though it ended in my favor. And yet I treasured that prize for years afterward. It was like my own fluffy pita and falafel—the cuisine that has become contested in the Middle East, with Israelis claiming it as theirs and Palestinians saying it’s been appropriated. That bookmark was my personal Zionism, my kibbutz, my worn cotton army T-shirt, my potato fields, my Oslo, my Fallujah.
This excerpt is taken from Borders and Belonging: A Memoir, by Mira Sucharov, published by Palgrave Macmillan, and is published with permission.
Mira Sucharov is Professor of Political Science and University Chair of Teaching Innovation at Carleton University, Canada.