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For Judeophile Living in Jordan, Studying in Israel is Merely a Dream

April 1, 2003
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Aviv’s mother marvels at the way her son, perhaps one of Jordan’s only self-avowed Judeophiles, references the Bible in discussing contemporary politics in the Middle East.

“You see,” says Aviv professorially, “the borders of Israel are supposed to stretch from the Nile to the Euphrates. That is what it says in the Bible: Numbers, Chapter 2.”

Aviv, who has cat eyes and receding hair combed straight back on his head, says, “Who knows? Maybe I have Jewish blood somewhere in these veins.”

Aviv — a Christian whose family asked that his Arabic name not be used — stands in stark contrast to the prevailing sentiment in Jordan.

With the local and Arabic satellite channels searing the suffering of the Iraqi people onto Jordanians’ minds, anything American, British and especially Jewish is taboo.

Thus his courtship with Hebrew is conducted under supreme secrecy.

A crafter of mosaics who once owned a thriving arts shop near the Roman ruins in Jerash, he has developed numerous friendships with visiting Israelis who were stunned to hear his astoundingly good Hebrew.

His only formal training was a six-week course conducted at a local tourism college in Amman. The rest he picked up from tourists and long hours of studying after work.

Now his Hebrew books — Amman booksellers have since taken such texts off the racks — are stashed away under the family’s Armenian Orthodox Bible.

They stand beside the heirlooms his family managed to cart with them from Jerusalem to Jordan following their displacement in 1948.

Among the books are Arabic-Hebrew dictionaries and one hefty centennial celebration book called Sefer Hameah, or Book of the Century, which one of the Jewish tourists in Jerash gave him back in 1997. He flips through it and lightly touches the pictures of some of his favorite Israeli icons: former military leaders and politicians Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan.

An indelible line has been drawn from the American campaign in Iraq, perceived as “occupation” in Jordan, to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Palestinians and Jordanians here are convinced that Israel and its Jewish lobby in Washington initiated this war.

Siri Nasir, a professor of sociology at the University of Amman, told JTA that nothing since Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdul Nasser called for a pan-Arab nation some 40 years ago has so unified the Arab street.

At the center of the hatred is the American government, which, said the professor, “is financed and supported by the Jewish lobby.”

“Palestinians are angry to begin with,” he said. “They are now more than ever full of anger and hatred towards the U.S. and U.K.”

So undesirable is any reference to the United States that “Uncle Sam’s” restaurant in Amman, whose menu consists almost entirely of versions of hamburgers and fries, has unceremoniously dropped “Uncle” from its name.

But it is Palestinians on the street who seethe the most.

During last Friday’s anti-war rally in Amman’s Wehdat refugee district, home to 250,000 Palestinian refugees, the liberation of Iraq was uttered in the same breath as the liquidation of the “Zionist state.”

A phalanx of Jordanian police in riot gear stood at the outskirts of the district, tapping their clubs in their hands. It was a solemn reminder of what happens when demonstrations too heavily criticize the government.

Aviv is even unique in his own family. Isam, his older brother, disapproves of Aviv’s Judeophilia.

“We were taught for a long time that Jews are the enemy,” said the gruff mechanic. “Just like Jews are afraid to say they are Jews in Arab counties, that is how we feel about speaking Hebrew here. It is too much trouble.”

His family begged that neither Aviv’s picture nor his real name appear in print.

The family belongs to the minuscule Aramaic Christian group that numbers fewer than 1,000 in Jordan. They speak Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus, and have a tortured history of flight and persecution.

Turkey expelled them in the late 19th century. They fled to Syria and ultimately settled in the Jerusalem area from which they fled in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence.

Lamia, Aviv’s mother, was born to a Christian family in Bethlehem in 1941.

She struggles with her son’s identity, yet is resigned to what she calls his “quirks.”

In truth, she gushes, “I wish I had more sons like Aviv, but all this Israel business concerns me.”

Aviv’s politics are a mixture of hard-line Likud and Shimon Peres’ “New Middle East.”

“Likud,” he says, “is much better than Labor. In this region you need an iron fist, and Labor cannot provide that for Israel.”

Most strikingly, Aviv displays an intense dislike of Palestinian Muslims.

“All the problems of this region are their fault. When I see a suicide bomber I think he is an animal, not a human,” he says.

On the other hand, he envisions a Middle East where Israeli traders can flow through open borders to do business in Arab capitals.

For six glorious years, Jordan benefited from Israeli tourism and business, and Jordanians want that to resume, he says.

“Take Petra for example. Before 1994, there were two hotels there. By 1998, there were 67. But when all the Israelis stopped coming, the Bedouins there started blaming Israel,” he says.

“You Jews, it seems, you people can’t win,” he says with a laugh.

When the Palestinian intifada erupted two and a half years ago, Jordan’s tourism trade dried up. Eight months later, Aviv closed his Jerash shop and found work as a bookkeeper in Amman.

“We have to let in Israelis to do business here, to bring the West to us. We will be their ambassadors to the Arab world and they ours to the West,” he says.

It will be Jordan’s task, as it is now, he says, to protect Israel from the Arab countries to the East.

“We are a natural buffer zone. Even if you ask a child on the street why Jordan was created, he will tell you it was to protect Israel.”

But the days of a warm peace between the two nations are likely far off.

Aviv, who longs to study Hebrew in Israel at the Akiva Ulpan in Netanya, knows that any trip under the current circumstances could be “very problematic.”

Visas to Israel are nearly impossible to get, as the Jordanian authorities are loath to grant them.

Even then, the secret police is highly suspicious of Jordanians who travel to the Jewish state.

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