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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Pita Dilemma

February 18, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

Friday was the first in our experimental series of tours in the Galilee, co-led by a Jewish and a Palestinian Arab tour guide. Publicity was thin, as these are just trial runs for the time being. We had about half a dozen paying customers, and a few more of us “staff,” along to critique and contribute.

We ended up spending most of the morning in Peki’in, a mixed village: a Druze majority, with Moslem, Christian, and Jewish minorities. It was made famous by President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi and his wife Rachel, who researched and wrote extensively about this small, picturesque community hidden in the mountains of the upper Galilee. They believed this to be the only site of continuous Jewish habitation in the land of Israel from Temple times until the present. The existence of Peki’in was important to the Ben-Zvis ideologically, as it served as proof of the unbroken connection of the Jews to their land - and their presence in it. Travelers’ accounts over the years mention Jewish communities in many of the Arab villages of the Galilee, though most had disappeared by the end of the 19th century. Only cemeteries, and legends, and names remain. However, in Peki’in, the Zeinati family stayed on; today, only Margalit, an unmarried woman in her 60s, is left. She maintains the synagogue, which was reconstructed in the 19th century - Roman-period remains found there, carvings of Jewish symbols, are plastered into the walls. She keeps the key, and if you are lucky, she will let you in, and give you a harangue about the failure of the Ministry of Religion to take care of the synagogue. She is on close terms with her neighbors, and the local women apparently turn to her for healing. I suppose it is sad that when Margalit dies, the unbroken Jewish presence in Peki’in will end. But then, in the meantime, the Jewish presence - and sovereignty - in Israel has been restored, so maybe this one little outpost is not relevant any more.

Our first stop in Peki’in was a restored typical Druze guest parlor. These houses have become a major industry in Druze villages around the Galilee; the owners collect heirlooms and reproductions of embroidery, furniture, kitchen implements, etc., to create a “traditional” home. Then they charge admission, and offer programs on Druze culture. This particular house was indeed ancient, and it was fascinating to see the materials and means of construction, unchanged from Talmudic times, in a house still inhabited. The Druze split off from Islam in the middle ages, and have since been persecuted by the Moslems. Their culture and language are part of general Arab culture, but their religion, which is mostly secret, has some unique aspects - for example, the belief in the reincarnation of Druze souls. It is perhaps because of their alienation from the majority of Arabs that the Druze agreed, with the establishment of Israel, to be subject to military conscription on an equal footing with Jewish citizens, and so they are. Our program was a debate on whether the Druze should indeed be subject to the draft. On the pro side - our young host could see no reason why not. On the con side - a charming, articulate, elderly gentlemen, a veteran leader of the local communist party, argued that after 52 years the Druze were treated no differently from other Arabs in Israel, they should feel no obligation to subject themselves to the draft and the alienation it causes from the rest of the Arab population. We listened, and all came away with a new appreciation of the Druze dilemma in Israel.

On the way out of town are two little restaurants, directly across the street from each other, both featuring delicious, paper-thin Druze pita, twirled like pizza dough by kneeling women and baked on an inverted wok over a wood fire. Abu-Yussuf, proprietor of the shop on the left, is a Druze, whose family have all served with distinction in the Israeli army. Raya, the Moslem woman who owns the shop on the right, displays a document certifying that when the Zeinati family fled temporarily during the war of independence, her family served as custodians of their property, and preserved everything for the Zeinatis’ return. Both are aggressive in their marketing; they won’t let you get past without feeling guilt over the pita you didn’t buy... “Only in Israel.”


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