The Masks We Wear, and Don't

It’s Purim in Jerusalem today, a day of masks, of identities hidden, of a topsyturvy imaginary world. In this region, though, the absurdities we create for Purim can sometimes pale in comparison with the painful realities that will endure long after the holiday.

Each year, I interview a few candidates for a college in the US. Typically, they are either American students in Israel for a gap year or Israelis just out of the army who want to attend an American school.

It was thus without too much curiosity that I opened this year’s email with the names and addresses of the two students I was being asked to interview. But then I saw that one of the candidates came from east Jerusalem and the other from Ramallah.

This, I thought, could actually be interesting.

The candidate from Ramallah arrived in the company of her father. Impeccably dressed, speaking almost perfect English devoid of any appreciable accent (she’d lived abroad for a number of years, it turned out), she was smart, inquisitive, affable and interesting. She spoke articulately about how difficult it was to move back to Ramallah in September 2000, just as the intifada was starting.

There were tanks near her house, she told me, and soldiers everywhere. There were curfews and fear – life was very different from what she’d experienced during her years in the West. Then we spoke about the books she was reading, the science and literature she was studying. It took only minutes for me to know that I was going to write her an excellent recommendation.

I could have just thanked her for coming, but her father hadn’t yet returned to pick her up, and more importantly, I wanted to ask her about things that really matter.

How often, after all, do I sit down with a bright young woman from Ramallah who attends a first-rate high school (which, she told me, enables exceptional students in Gaza to “attend class” via Skype), reads voraciously, is completely at home on the Internet and prides herself on her intellectual openness? How often does she sit with a Jew wearing a kippa, in an office lined with books, talking about whatever interests both of them? For both of us, I imagined, this was a pretty unusual meeting. So I asked her if we could discuss something completely off-topic, with no bearing on what I’d write to the school, and she said it was fine.

“Imagine it’s 2032,” I told her. “You’re not 18, but 38 years old. You’re still living in Ramallah, and the situation in this part of the world is more or less what it is now.

The only difference is that you’re in charge. You determine Palestinian policy, and can make anything happen. How would you solve this?” She smiled.

“It’s complicated,” she said, as if I didn’t know that. But she then launched into her description of what she would do. Now, though, for the first time in our conversation, I couldn’t understand what she was saying. The words were clear, but the ideas weren’t. So I decided to press.

“Wait,” I said. “First of all, are we talking about one state or two?” “Two,” she said, “of course.”

“And where you and I are now, in pre- 1967 Israel, this is the Jewish state?” “No,” she said.

“No? But there is a Jewish state?” “Of course,” she said, “there has to be.”

“But where is it?” She continued to explain, but I still didn’t understand, so I sketched a basic map of the region, with all the standard markings so we could get to work: On the west, the coast, with a little bump for Haifa. On the east, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. I drew the Green Line, marked Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Gaza, and said, “OK, so now show me what’s where.”

The basic principle, she explained to me, is that refugees from both sides have to be permitted to return to their original homes. Basic human rights demand that. So Israel, she said, will have to absorb all the refugees from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

That, she rightly understood, is a significant number of people. So what is now Israel, she explained, can’t be the Jewish state. Instead, it will be a “shared state” of Jews and Palestinians. I chose not to ask her how well she thought those Jews would fare as a minority in such a state – things were getting complicated enough.

“So where is the Jewish state?” I asked her. “Take the pencil and shade in the area.”

What she shaded was a portion of the West Bank.

“The Jewish State is now in the West Bank?” I asked her. “Why?” Because, she explained to me, the “settlers” are really refugees. They, too, are returning to their ancestral homelands. It wouldn’t be fair to tell them to leave. So the Jewish state will be in the part of the West Bank where there is a concentration of Jews, and the rest of the West Bank will be Palestine.

There was no way to tell her, without being insulting, how utterly absurd her plan was on many levels. As well-read as she was, as much Internet access as she had, she clearly knew virtually nothing about the conflict, its history or the current proposals for how to end it. I was struck that she could be so thoughtful, so earnest, so open and live just a few miles from me, and inhabit an entirely different “reality.”

I opted for a bit of a “Hail Mary pass.”

September 2000 was also hard on my children, I told her; I even wrote a book about it. If I gave her a copy, would she read it? She assured me that she would, and three days later, I got an email from her with a lengthy response to the book, which she’d clearly read from cover to cover. We exchanged a few more notes, and she asked me to look her up if she gets admitted to that college.

I will. I liked her, and I’ll be interested in seeing what four years at an American college does to her views of this small region that we both claim as home.

Weeks later, I continue to ponder that conversation. In some measure, it was encouraging. Two people, from opposing sides of the conflict, could talk, laugh and learn with each other, and even stay in touch beyond. I think she liked me no less than I liked her. There was something refreshing about the whole thing.

But it was somewhat devastating, too.

Where are we if the smartest, most open Palestinian kids, from the best schools, believe that the Jewish state is going to be a corner of the West Bank? Given that worldview among their best and brightest, what are the genuine prospects for any change for her or for my children, who will, of course, inhabit this region together? No need for Purim for confusion to reign, it turns out. Even without masks, it’s sometimes hard to imagine who’s who, who thinks what, or what’s possible. But it’s sad, not funny. For when the masks are put away and the hangovers are forgotten, the reality with we’re left will be no less absurd than the pretend world we’d delighted in creating.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

16 Comments on "The Masks We Wear, and Don't"

  • Cy Swartz says

    Happy Purim! Thank you for sharing your extended meeting with the young woman from Ramallah. Her vision of 2 states certainly has a deep thread of a sense of justice and respect for the rights of all parties. I do not believe that a bright sophisticated high school senior could do much better. Wonder how the same conversation would sound if the dramatis personae were reversed – adult – a learned published Palestinian ( Muslim or Christian) – the precocious student an Israeli?????
    The conversation you had cetainly reflects the infrequency and superficiality of relationships bewteen Israelis & Palestinians. Might be in the best interest of establishing a just and secure future for ALL in the region that talks like this happen regularly!.

  • Pesach Nisenbaum says

    Rabbi Daniel,

    Hope you had a happy Purim.

    Hmmm… you have a lot of hope in the liberal college model.

    You think your interviewee will have an eye opening, Western Civilization enlightenment at a top-notch USA university? And she will be changed into seeing the error of her current views, and begin to see the rational side, the truthful side of the Israeli – Palestinian problem, and accept a large Jewish Israeli state living in harmony with a neighboring Palestinian state?

    Well, this is what she will witness:
    Israel Apartheid Week, Boycott and Divestment of Israel, our current Haman..Iranian President Ahmadinejad invited to speak at your alma mater Columbia University, protesting against AIPAC because it supports human right violations against Palestinians, including the apartheid wall, settlements, and siege of Gaza, Israeli ambassador to the USA, Michael Oren, shouted down.

    She may even do an internet search on Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and see how across the USA, SJP has chapters on dozens of universities with the aim of delegitimizing Israel. She may even become chapter president at her top university.

    Alas, a Western Civ, liberal arts college education strays far from the road to intellectual and moral clarity. And worse, far from Israel as the viable independent Jewish state envisioned by you and I, and our children serving in the IDF.

    Shabbat Shalom

  • Alan Lasnover says

    Dr. Dr. (?) Gordis,

    This article, and the confusion you confess to having, remind me of the frequent conversations that I have with highly educated colleagues about religion. Although raised in a Jewish home, I gradually abandoned most of my beliefs and became an atheist. those colleagues who profess to believe in God or the divinity of Christ abandon all evidence of reason, as did your student from Ramallah. Some might call it “brainwashing,” but there is no better term to explain the thinking of my Theist colleagues and your sweet, intellectual Palestinian.

  • Ayala Zonnenschein says

    It’s very sad, and depressing, but what’s more worrisome to me is that she will most likely receive more of the same in the US at our finest universities which are hubs of anti-Israel thinking. She will probably not be challenged with looking at this with a wider perspective that includes examining historical fact. Instead, her perspective will be honored and supported. That’s more disturbing to me.

  • Dear Daniel,

    I was impress by the recount of your conversation with a young Palestinian. There is a large gap between the narratives of both sides. My son gave a talk about that at UC Berkeley TEDx after traveling to the Balkans with a mixed Jewish/Arab group to do a “comparative study of ethnic/religious conflict”. You can watch his talk at:

    Generally speaking, Israelis and Arabs/Palestinians know very little about each other. I myself took the first class about the history of Islam only recently… It is hard to imagine how we can close the gap without basic understanding of the other side. See:

    Unfortunately it may take many generations and a few more wars before real progress is made..

  • William Bilek, M.D. says

    Here is another example of what you are talking about, Dr. Gordis.

    And as Ayala says, given the current atmosphere on many U.S. (and even worse, on Israeli) campuses, she can look forward to having her opinions only validated.

  • Stuart L. Meyer says

    Dear Dr. Gordis,

    Let me say from the getgo that I am usually a fan (of yours but your optimism here veers well into the land of Pollyanna. The student’s view is not more enlightened than what was envisaged by Yasser Arafat, with (surviving) Jews assuming Dhimmi status. The even-handedness you laud didn’t seem to extend to the 800Million Jewish refugees forced to leave the Muslim countries they inhabited for millennia. Does she even know about them? By the way, how can the present Jewish population of Israel be squeezed into the region she describes? Will the “state” be a ghetto or a concentration camp or is this post-genocide?

    Among the criteria for admission are the benefits that a school might confer on a prospect AND those that the prospect might bring to the school (e.g. does she play the tuba?) I submit that a typical American “liberal arts” school in the U.S. will serve only to reinforce the biases, and not dispel the lack of historical knowledge, exhibited here. She’ll possibly major in Pre-Nakba Palestinian Gender Studies or some other such “Studies” curriculum devoid of intellectual heft.

    As a fellow Columbian, I can cite my disenchantment with what that erstwhile bastion of Western Civ seems to have become (“Occupy Wall Street” courses? ). What will the young lady bring to the campus? I would expect extreme Palestinian militancy cloaked in the guise of moderate open-mindedness that you seemed to see. Being intelligent and articulate, she would do more damage than good to an American academy. God forbid that you are recommending her to Columbia; Alma Mater can hardly bear more of the same.

    Suggest she go to an engineering school or some more general education in Europe. She might actually learn something at the former and cannot do more harm than exists in the latter.(I suspect the Sorbonne might not be appropriate since the President shut down that university recently rather than allow it to be part of the Israel Apartheid celebration. He must be the “anti-Bollinger”, in the sense that they would annihilate if they met.)

  • Adam Goldstein, MD says


    Thank you for sharing. This dialogue helps US understand better the divide. We think it is simply more dialogue, more concessions, more apologies,more compromises. It is not. Rather than dialogue, actions must occur that advance Israel’s interest. You writing is an affirmative action int his regard.


  • Cy Swartz’s observation is highly pertinent, it seems to me. There are two possible headlines in Dan’s essay: “Educated young Palestinian has unrealistic view of Jewish state,” or “Educated young Palestinian takes principle of a Jewish state as a given.” I think Dan balanced these two ideas very well. It’s up to the rest of us to parse them, and see where they lead us.

  • Stephen G says


    The biggest irony of Purim? Of course it goes without saying but nevertheless in holiday spirit I will say, “somehow Haman got back in charge.”
    I met a Libyan gentleman a few years back, university educated in the UK residing in Canada 8 yrs and not only believed but swore at Pesach we put nonJewish blood on our doorposts.
    Education and enlightenment aren’t the same thing.
    Belated Chag Sameach

  • Brynn Olenberg Sugarman says

    Western universities today have abandoned intellectual reason and factual discourse in favor of bandwagon conformity – bashing Israel’s misdemeanors while white washing the Moslem world’s felonies.

    As a result, is it any surprise that a Moslem girl from Ramallah, subjected to even worse propaganda, should embrace such a ludicrous political vision?

    All of her education is for naught, since we know that scholastic exposure fails as a resource for both reason and morality: remember that many Nazis held university degrees.

  • lovezion says

    Ayala Zonnenschein: I agree totally with you!

    Dr. Bilek: I viewed your link and it just makes me sick that so many segments of the world are so constantly devoting their entire lives to try to destroy Israel and the other Jews!

    Since the 60s all Jew haters have become extraordinarily stronger, more encouraged, more aggressive, and fearless because… Israel is not fighting strongly enough disregarding the criticisms of the world. This way we lose Israeli lives…for nothing!

    We shouldn’t act as saints, we should fight nonstop like beasts until we can keep what’s ours (and get some more too)!!! Otherwise…count on continuing shedding Israeli lives stupidly! 🙁

    We need to ask all young, healthy, strong men and women to go live in Israel, procreate a lot, go fight fiercely and make Israel strong, firm, and to be ours forever in true peace.

  • Mytyl says

    When you think that things cannot get any worse, then we get the American Universities with their most hostile anti-semitic campuses. Believe me, she won’t be confused at all when she gets here, on the contrary, she will have a place, a group and a very strong voice, where to strengthen their twisted information and believes. It is so sad.

  • Gavril Sholis says

    It’s illuminating just how far the divide is between people like the Palestinian girl and the Zionists as represented on this discussion board.

    She calls for BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS, and the Zionists here react by describing this stance as the abandonment of “evidence of reason”, abandonment of intellectual reason, and brainwashing. What’s more a call for basic human rights is attacked as a scholastic failure in both reason and morality, and is likened to the education of the Nazis.

    There is a long way to go in reconciling the ideologies behind humanitarianism and Zionism, before a peace could ever be achieved in Israel/Palestine.

  • TomSolomon says

    Very interesting conversation. It confirms my pessimism – there is no hope for peace.

  • lovezion says

    I can’t understand JEWISH PEOPLE to justify or try to appease the islamists/muslims who are only savage, primitive brutes who only know to cut throats and exist with so much hatred that it’s absolutely impossible for them to EVER become civilized. To those ignoramus Jews, I hope that when (not “if” anymore) the arab muslim holocaust arrives that they will be the first to fry.
    I also hope that the decent Jews and sympathizers who are young, healthy and strong will go to Israel to fight nonstop for the cause!

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