AMMAN – Skilfully dodging mid-afternoon traffic, Tariq, my Palestinian taxi driver raced past a blur of mosques and hotels, blackened by the exhaust of the endless flow of trucks, cars and buses squeezing through the narrow streets of downtown Amman. Two rusty keys dangled from the rear-view mirror – not a decoration, but real keys that belonged to his grandfather and once opened a door somewhere in Jaffa, beside modern-day Tel Aviv.

I turned silently back to the view, soaking in the smell of incense and fuel exhaust, my Jewish identity and Israeli passport neatly hidden in my pocket. Keeping one hand on the wheel, he turned to me almost accusingly: “The Israelis, you know – the Jews – the Yahud, kicked us out. They kicked us out of Palestine.” Without another word we continued our journey in silence, the jingle of keys a wry smile, a little “welcome to Jordan” drowning out the honking cars outside.

Little has been written about Jews in Jordan. For starters, open academic discourse on Jews residing in an Arab state has been a virtual taboo in the Middle East outside of Israel since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Jews are almost always synonymous with Israelis or Zionists, and therefore the subject has largely been overlooked or approached with hostility or suspicion.

Second, very little precise data on religious demographics exists throughout the Middle East, compounded by the tribal and often semi-nomadic nature of population groups in the region. Jews visiting or still living in the Arab world are often hesitant to reveal their identity for fears to their personal security.

Before heading to Jordan I met with Sarah Zaides, a doctoral candidate in history who studied in Amman in 2011 on a US State Department critical language scholarship. She gave me a kind of heads-up on what to expect before hitting the streets.

“I absolutely had to hide my Jewish identity. I have a Jewish name. Every taxi I would get into — they were very friendly — the first thing they would ask is: where are you from, what is your name?” Zaides recounted a few weeks ago over a cup of coffee in a Jerusalem café.

“I couldn’t say American because we were told to keep that quiet. I couldn’t say Russian (my family’s of Russian descent), so I’d say I was from Spain,” she told me, adding, “They would respond: Sarah is a beautiful Arabic name — it’s from the Koran. I would reply: Exactly,” she said.

I looked back at Tariq as he dropped me off on a busy street corner against the backdrop of the setting sun. I was still quite sure I was under no suspicion, camouflaged by my Western guise. “Shukran Habibi” – thank you – I told him. He offered me a warm smile and a handshake, and then disappeared with his taxi to join the late afternoon fray.

No Jews on the east bank

Since a peace treaty was signed between Israel and Jordan, no restrictions exist on Jewish travelers to the Hashemite Kingdom, but every person I spoke to told me that they were discreet about their identities. It was not because of any overt danger — “chances are you’ll be fine,” Zaides told me, “but you just don’t know who’s listening.”

‘I feel threatened every day. I pass swastikas, ‘kill the Jews’ slogans and protests against Israel’

Almost all countries throughout the Middle East boast illustrious Jewish histories and long-standing Jewish communities – nearly all of which were expelled and depopulated with the establishment of Israel. Actually, a dwindling handful of Jews still lives — beleaguered and, at least publicly, hostile to Zionism — in some of these countries; Yemen, Egypt, Iran and Tunisia come to mind.

Yet one country in the region is noticeably absent from the tribal map — Jordan. Despite its proximity to Jerusalem and references to biblical Israelite settlement within its borders, no Jewish community in recent memory ever resided within the borders of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Today, the Jews of Jordan — a trickle of American aid workers in Amman who hide their identities, alongside Israeli officials at the local embassy — may be the first Jews to live on the east bank of the Jordan river for centuries.

Jews are prohibited under Jordanian law from owning property or acquiring citizenship.

A midday view of a sleepy town south of Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A midday view of a sleepy town south of Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Midday traffic as people head home from their offices after 3 pm (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Midday traffic as people head home from their offices after 3 pm (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

The elephant in the room

Granted, Jordan’s relationship with Israel is furtively blooming albeit deeply unpopular. Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom signed a $15 billion agreement in September under whose terms Israel will supply natural gas from its Leviathan reservoir to Jordan over a 15-year period – the biggest-ever contract signed between the two countries.

A 2013 accord signed between the neighbors to save the dying Dead Sea by constructing a canal to transport water from the Red Sea is another example of rare strategic cooperation in a region often marred by tribal politics and existential threats.

However, growing internal opposition and calls against normalization of ties with the Jewish state are threatening to put the kibosh on the energy pact and the conduit. But still, Jordanian officials, and most importantly, King Abdullah, who rules much like an enlightened despot — are risking popular anger at home, amid domestic calls to review the two countries’ 20-year peace treaty, in order to proceed with the deals.

In a region where my enemy’s enemy is usually my enemy, with Islamic State sitting on Jordan’s borders, and Hezbollah and Al-Nusra camped on Israel’s north and Ansar Bayit al-Maqdis in the south, a subtle friendship has emerged between the Jewish state and the Palestinian-majority country. But it is for all intents and purposes a peace between governments and not between people.

‘My friend did mention to me that I was the first Jew he had ever met’

As an island of stability surrounded by fundamentalist, failed or collapsing states, Jordan is one of the few places tourists, Jews, and Israelis can securely travel to.

“Jordan is a safe place, I definitely felt safe there,” Zaides told me.

“When I was ‘discovered’ [as Jewish], people were very friendly, I had a lovely time. I think that at the end of the day nothing will happen. It’s not as if you say ‘Israel’ and the Mukhabbarat come running out of the bushes,” she said, referring to the national state intelligence agency.

“You’re living in Amman beside two million Palestinians. Palestinian refugees are not going to like Israel any way you cut it. But this is just politics, this isn’t some kind of primordial battle between Islam and Judaism or the West. It’s politics; most people just want to live their lives,” she said, noting that some of her best friends in Jordan were Palestinian, and, “once I got to know them, I never hesitated to tell them that I was Jewish.”

Downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Swastikas and Stars of David

Jordanian society has a peculiar attitude when it comes to Jews. Walking through Amman, one can find copies of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” translated into Arabic and proudly adorning the windows of bookstores and street newspaper vendors.

For me, looking back at Hitler’s image juxtaposed with a Star of David had a somewhat cathartic effect — it was so open, so public; but meeting and talking to local Jordanians gave me the impression that this was almost a cultural, non-malicious anti-Semitism. A society where the pernicious “al-Yahud,” or Jew, hangs like a dark cloud over the city, but where meeting an individual Jew on the street – a rarity given their paltry number, the transitory nature of their sojourn, and their unwillingness to self-identify — will elicit a curiously friendly, if uneasy reaction.

Unlike in Iraqi, Egyptian or Syrian circles where an aging World War II generation still fondly recalls the Jewish neighbors who were “lost” to Israel in the 50s and 60s following a spate of pogroms, Jordanians have no such reference point. There simply were no Jews historically in the area.

Unlike their cousins over the border, they meet and live “the Jew” vicariously through their local Palestinians – and the image is overwhelmingly negative. A Jew who is an occupier. A Jew who is a baby killer. A Jew who is an obstacle to peace in the region.

Street newspaper vendor in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

Street newspaper vendor in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

I picked up a copy of “Mein Kampf” in Arabic lying beside how-to yoga guides and “50 Shades of Grey” in a trendy Barnes and Noble-style bookstore downtown and approached the affable young man behind the counter. I was on swanky al-Rainbow Street, Amman’s version of Rodeo Drive, bustling with flashy sports cars, overpriced restaurants and high-pitched Arabic sprinkled with American slang. “Does anyone buy this?” I asked, indicating the portrait of Hitler indignantly staring from the front cover beside a large swastika. “Sure,” the storekeeper said, “’Mein Kampf’ is very popular in Jordan. For some people [Hitler] is a role model. Other people are just curious to know about him.” My question seemed to elicit as much of a reaction as a query about a comic book.

Arabic version of Hitler's Mein Kampf on sale in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Arabic version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

‘Coming out of the closet’

Jordan is a largely Western construct, sliced off from the British Mandate of Palestine and given to the Hashemites; it’s perfectly angled boundaries are testament to a time when borders were decided upon over a cup of tea in Europe rather than on the ground by the region’s indigenous inhabitants.

No Jews lived in Transjordan in 1946 when it became an independent state, following Winston Churchill’s 1921 decision in favor of “preserving the Arab character” of Transjordan and the resulting British policy forbidding Jews from settling there.

‘None of the Jordanians had seen matzah before, so they had no clue what it might imply about me’

Before that, the area that is now Jordan was a relative backwater in the wider Ottoman Empire, consisting of semi-nomadic Transjordanian tribes traversing a desert hinterland hemmed in between prosperous Damascus to the north and Mediterranean port cities and Jerusalem to the west. There was little infrastructure or regional importance to tempt a community of urbane, often bourgeois merchant Jews that happily settled in Gaza but simply overlooked Amman, Irbid and As-Salt.

The country is in many ways sui generis. For starters, it’s (still) one of the few places to have maintained political and social stability throughout the turbulent Arab spring. Second, it has a peace treaty with Israel and Israelis (and Jews) are free to travel there. And third, there is almost no evidence of a Jewish community within its boundaries in the last 1500 years, setting it apart from historical Jewish centers like Morocco or Iraq.

After the peace treaty was ratified in 1994, many in Israel had high hopes that the accord would usher in a period of bilateral cooperation and normalization that would enable Israelis to travel unfettered throughout the region.

As the two countries exchanged ambassadors, there was even talk of opening a kosher restaurant in Amman.

And with the influx of Israeli tourists came American Jews. Not just for a quick vacation, but also to reside in the kingdom for an extended period of time for aid work and Arabic-study programs.

Israelis often experience less of Jordanian society because the length of their sojourn is often limited and they tend to stay away from the major cities. Far less conspicuous than their Hebrew-speaking counterparts, American Jews are able to slip by relatively camouflaged.

More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

For Moshe Silverman*, who asked me to use a pseudonym for this article, his experiences studying Arabic in the Hashemite Kingdom came full circle and he immigrated to Israel afterwards and enlisted in the IDF.

He encountered overt anti-Semitism, he told me – not directed at him specifically, but a general antipathy to Jews that engendered a sort of camaraderie between people as it unified them in acrimony toward Jews in a self-perpetuating background noise like the constant hum of airplane engine during a trans-Atlantic flight.

Silverman related a conversation he took part in at the local gym that he visited regularly. He and the gym owner had become quite close, trading jokes and spotting one another at the lifting station.

“One day I asked him what would happen if he saw that a Jew had joined his gym, on account of the fact that it was on the questionnaire required for gym membership,” Silverman told me.

“He responded that ‘if I meet a Jew in the gym, I will drag him out into the street and beat him to a pulp’ — and he said it in such a friendly way, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to say,” Silverman said, adding that owing to his high level of Arabic, he passed as a “Palestinian-American from Hebron discovering my roots.”

Yet despite the undercurrents of animosity, Jordan is still a good destination for Jews who want to visit and experience the region, he maintained.

More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

More swastikas in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

“In terms of Jews in Jordan, it’s truly the last safe place that you can experience Arab culture and learn Arabic at the same time. There are people who go to Morocco, but the influence there is [heavily] from France, so it doesn’t have the feel of more Levantine Arab areas,” he said, adding that “the Arabic you [learn] in Jordan is closer to modern standard Arabic, as opposed to Morocco, where the language is one-third French.”

“Initially I wanted to go to Syria. I got my visa, I applied, and got into this Aleppo program in the summer of 2011. The civil war hadn’t started yet. By April 2011 it was getting a little heated, but at this time Aleppo was still the safest city. Three weeks before my program was due to start there was a giant protest at Aleppo University and something like 60 students were beaten so badly that a few of them died. I think at that point they decided to cancel the program,” Silverman said.

“‘You have two options,’ they told me, ‘you can either stay in DC and do an intensive Arabic program here, or we can move the program down to Amman.’ My parents said I should go to Israel and study Arabic there. I knew Hebrew pretty decently at that time and I thought it would just confuse me. I wanted to be in completely different surroundings where I would have to immerse myself in the culture and the language. That’s how I ended up in Amman,” he told me.

Like Zaides, Silverman too had to keep his identity under wraps. Upon landing in Jordan, the program director took him aside and told him that his name was changed on the student register “to make it sound less Jewish.” Moshe was simply an inappropriate name to be walking around with in Amman, the registrar noted. From here on in, you’ll be known as Mike.

'Zionism and it's discontents' beside healthy living guides at '50 shades of grey' -- on sale at a trendy bookstore in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

‘Zionism and Its Discontents’ beside healthy living guides and ’50 shades of grey’ — on sale at a trendy bookstore in downtown Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Perhaps a common motif connecting all those whom I interviewed was the experience of disclosing their Jewish identity while in Jordan – either to a trusted confidant or to another student who happened to be Jewish as well. “It’s like letting go of your deepest, darkest secret and coming out of the closet,” Silverman quipped.

Zaides recalled such an experience during her stay. “I ran into somebody on the street. She was American. So I said, ‘What’s your name?’ and she replied ‘Shira,’ then I asked ‘Oh you’re Jewish? And she said ‘shhhhh’! She immediately hushed me. We had forgotten for a moment that we were out on the street.”

Another Jewish student who studied recently in Amman summed up the feeling of meeting another member of the tribe: “When we find out about each other’s religion, there’s an immediate understanding of what that means for us.”

Hashem’s for hummus

A gargantuan, low-density urban sprawl, Amman is an idiosyncratic Arab village on steroids, a grossly oversized baby that outgrew its mother and gobbled her up, like a dystopian East Jerusalem consuming the tony western side of the city.

Narrow alleyways defy topography and suddenly veer sharply uphill, houses are in a constant state of renovation with additional floors continuously added to accommodate ever-growing families, thousands of black satellite dishes, as numerous as the stars in the smoggy night sky, point south toward Qatar, and in the evening, fluorescent green lights radiate from the city’s thousands of mosques. Amman is the ultimate Arabic Disneyland, a sprawl of souqs, malls and markets, banks, shwarma stands, government offices, mansions, highways and hookah bars.

Wedged in between languid Jordanian working professionals and American expats, I dabbled my pita into a bowl of ful, savoring a great taste that still fails to distinguish between borders. Sitting at Hashem’s, a popular hummus joint downtown, the tone seemed somewhat subdued, somewhat reticent; a cursory glance between waiters portending some sort of cataclysm, impalpable beneath the surface.

The dialect on the street is increasingly Syrian as Jordan absorbs an influx of refugees from the civil war there. It’s been less than two months since captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive by ISIS in a cage, with the kingdom vowing a protracted revenge against the terror group. Jordan suffered an immediate blow to its tourism industry, a 67% decrease according to one tour operator I spoke to.

“Jordan isn’t a standalone destination,” he told me, asking not to be named because he maintains ties with local Jordanians. “It always comes as part of a package that includes either Israel or Egypt, or both. There are no tours that come direct to Jordan.”

The Jordanian government, he told me, has a vested interested in keeping tourism alive, but after the gruesome death of al-Kasasbeh, they’ve been struggling to remain an attractive destination.

The breaking of the fast at Hashem's, Amman's most famous hummus eatery (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

The breaking of the fast of Ramadan at Hashem’s, Amman’s most famous hummus eatery (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A view of East Amman from a cafe in the Western part of the city (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A view of East Amman from a cafe in the Western part of the city (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A lonely Passover in the Hashemite Kingdom

Over the course of their stay in Jordan, most of the Jews I spoke to told me they experienced a sort of personal Jewish renaissance in the face of the cultural hostility to Jews and Israel.

Bart*, an American Jewish environmental researcher working for a small NGO in Amman, said he was careful not to flaunt his identity, even though he felt his time in Jordan brought him closer to his roots.

“I wore my Magen David around my neck at all times – safely hidden under my shirt,” he said. “I was in Amman for Pesach and smuggled matzah across the border from Israel. During that week, I would actually eat matzah sandwiches publicly on my walk to work. The benefit of hiding your religion in a place where it’s not fully understood is that even if people see it, they don’t always recognize it,” Bart told me.

“None of the Jordanians had seen matzah before, so they had no clue what it might imply about me,” he said, referring to the unleavened bread traditionally eaten by Jews during the week-long Passover holiday.

‘The people here are so ingrained with the idea that Jew means the same thing as Israeli’

“I do feel this experience strengthened my Jewish identity. While I was in Jordan, I largely kept that part of me to myself. [My Judaism] was what I made it,” he noted.

“I couldn’t wear a kippah around,” he said, but unlike in the US where “a much more definitive concept of what it means to be Jewish” permeates social norms in the wider Jewish community, in Jordan “I didn’t need to identify as a Jew … which really made it feel like Judaism was mine to keep.”

Zaides too mentioned a clandestine Shabbat dinner she celebrated covertly with a few Jewish friends on her program: “It was all done via word of mouth. No phones, no Facebook. We couldn’t find challah, so we ended up buying a loaf of bread.”

“My introduction to my Jewish identity happened in Jordan, in a weird way,” she told me.

“It made me realize that it wasn’t something to be taken for granted. And it was very real. I was here amongst an enormous population of people who had suffered no doubt, but I was here, two hours from Jerusalem and I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t say I was Jewish or that I support Israel out loud. And it’s something that a lot of American Jews who grow up in strong Jewish communities absolutely take for granted,” she said.

For Bart, ‘coming out of the closet’ and revealing his identity to Jordanian acquaintances didn’t always go smoothly.

“I did confide in several Jordanian friends,” he said, “But I had one Jordanian friend in particular, a man I had become close with over the course of several months. I decided to tell him casually in conversation that I was Jewish – he had never asked my religion, so we had never discussed it before.”

“He didn’t shy away or become wary, but his first reaction was to feel out my opinions about Israeli politics. I answered his questions, and he seemed satisfied,” he recounted.

“Later that night, I overheard a conversation he was having with one of his Jordanian friends. He mentioned my name, and asked his friend if he knew that I was Jewish. There were two things that struck me about the conversation. The first was that he used my Israeli political beliefs, which happen to be left-leaning, as a kind of disclaimer to my Judaism, i.e. ‘He’s Jewish, but since he doesn’t agree with Netanyahu he’s OK.’ The second was that he revealed that he thought the holocaust didn’t happen. I still haven’t fully digested that portion, so can’t begin to attribute where he might have learned that or why he thought it was relevant. I never mentioned to my friend that I had overheard this, and our relationship didn’t change in any significant way after I told him my religion,” Bart said of his colleague.

“My friend did mention to me that I was the first Jew he had ever met. It was surprising to me, but I guess it shouldn’t have been. It seems like a big responsibility, though, to be the sole face of an entire people. I was his only direct exposure to Judaism, despite everything he had learned from other sources,” he said.

The souq in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

The souq in Amman, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Sunrise to sundown

The Hashemite Kingdom has huge tourism potential. Most vacationers overlook the majority of the country, opting for a one-day outing to Jordan’s principal tour destination, Petra. The lively souqs of Amman, the archaeological ruins at Jerash and the desert moonscapes of Wadi Rum are ignored.

Jordanian royal desert forces stand guard in front of Al Khazneh, Arabic for the Treasury, the most dramatic of many facades carved into the mountains, in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. March 24, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)

Jordanian royal desert forces stand guard in front of Al Khazneh, Arabic for ‘the Treasury,’ the most dramatic of many facades carved into the mountains in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. March 24, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)

For most Israelis, Jordan is a sunrise to sundown affair; organized excursions cut across the border in the morning – either at Eilat in the south or Beit She’an in the north – and travel directly to Petra.

A few Israelis stay a little a longer but they’re largely the exception. A few brave the steep wadis of the Edom and Moav mountain ranges opposite the Dead Sea, with others seeking to frolic in the Red Sea at Aqaba — considered a cheaper alternative to Eilat.

The kingdom seeks to discourage such one day romps by offering discounts to Petra for tourists who stay in the country overnight. An overnight visitor pays 50 Jordanian dinars ($71) to see the ancient Nabatean city, while a same-day visit will incur a 90 dinar levy ($127). Jordanian citizens pay just 1 dinar ($1.4).

Eli Mali, a veteran Israeli tour operator of 20 years told me that since the second Intifada, Israelis are reluctant to visit Amman. If they stay overnight in the Hashemite Kingdom, then it’s usually at a camping site or at a hotel beside Petra.

“Before the intifada there were heaps of Israeli bus tours around Jordan,” he told me. “Now it’s just a trickle of hikers and a few off-road adventurers: Mostly young people after their army service.”

From late 2014, Jordan began turning away individual Israeli tourists at the border – ostensibly to safeguard their security, amid last summer’s Gaza war and a small but growing number of ISIS sympathizers threatening to attack sensitive targets in the Kingdom. Organized expeditions led by local tour guides continue to be permitted.

Mali, however, believes the reason for the turn-away is financial: “they want every person who crosses the border alone to hire a guide. It’s [not security related], that would be completely unjustified; there have hardly been any attacks on Israelis traveling in the country.”

In Petra I met an organized group from Tel Aviv that had arrived in Jordan that same morning. After spending days masking my nationality and speaking English, I felt alarmed to hear them boisterously chatting in Hebrew, making no effort to conceal their origins – as if mistaking for a moment that they were hiking beside Mitzpe Ramon instead of in an Arab country.

“We got here today, we’re heading back tonight,” one man told me in Hebrew, as a number of local Bedouins grimaced nearby.

Yet even as much as I attempted to cloak my identity during my visit, somehow, inexplicably, I was always ‘discovered.’ Jordanians simply knew that I was Israeli, despite my fluent Australian English.

But how? Was it my post-army hairdo, my Hebrew-accented Arabic? I didn’t think so. It was something deeper, a certain familiarity shared by those of us that live in the region. American and European backpackers by contrast seem almost lost in the Middle East, shrouded behind a veil of politeness and overcome by their confusion of the orient. I was too forthcoming, too open, to chutzpadik, too confident in my Arabic; the kind of familiarity reserved for locals or long-lost cousins. I was too Israeli.

A view of downtown Amman on Friday, Islam's holy day of the week (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A view of downtown Amman on Friday, Islam’s holy day of the week (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Downtown Amman by night, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Downtown Amman by night, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Hebrew speaking taxi drivers

But how much had changed with the onset of the Syrian civil war, and could a host country so accommodating to refugees accommodate its Jews too?

An American student who recently spent a year in Amman and who asked me not to disclose her name, told me that on the contrary, the flood of Syrian refugees into the Kingdom was disrupting societal norms and causing political instability that may yet have wider ramifications.

“A lot of Jordanians are really angry with the refugee situation as they believe that job and work opportunities are being taken away from them – and honestly, they’re right. It’s a moral dilemma because where are these people to go if not Jordan, but at the same time they are hurting the economy and the people here,” she said.

“The influx is creating greater instability in a country that is the only stable Arab one in the Middle East. It cannot afford to fall – my worry is that with the continuing influx of refugees – it will,” she said, adding that “other countries need to start taking in more refugees and playing a greater role if, and when, Jordan does fall, there will be nowhere for anyone to go.”

‘It’s like letting go of your deepest, darkest secret and coming out of the closet’

And like the refugees, as a Jew from the US, she told me, she feels perpetually unwelcome.

“The people here are so ingrained with the idea that Jew means the same thing as Israeli that they will never be able to look past it. In their eyes, a Jew is an Israeli, a person who stole their homeland… When I confided my identity in friends that I trust, their reaction was that they ‘don’t hate Jews, only Zionists’,” she said, adding that it’s “normal” for someone on the street to ask you what your religion is, and being a conservative country, sexual preferences and army service fall under the same category as religion — they have to be hidden as well.

“Last semester, I was called into my program director’s office because another host family found out there was a Jew on the program and wanted me to leave the country,” she told me. “I feel threatened every day. I pass swastikas, ‘kill the Jews’ slogans and protests against Israel (which almost always turns into Jews) every day. There is not a day that goes by that I forget that if people found out who I was, I would not be welcome here,” she noted.

“I feel conflicted mostly because I feel very angry about the situation – I feel as though I took a year of my life to dedicate to this country – to learning the language, understanding the culture and meeting the people – yet, if anyone were to find out my religion they wouldn’t want to find out any of those things about me. It hurts to know that this one trait would diminish everything else about who I am,” she said.

For this student, feeling constantly on the defensive – especially during last summer’s war between Hamas in Gaza and the Jewish state – and a general lack of Jewish connection or wider understanding regarding her identity, was the “hardest” part of her year abroad.

“I did meet one taxi driver who was Palestinian and we actually started talking in Hebrew because I told him I had family in Palestine and I knew some too. Once I got into my house that night I cried and cried because it was the only form of Jewish connection I’d had in so long and it was under false pretenses. He gave me his number so we could meet again, but I never called him because I was always too worried he would find out my real identity. That 10-minute cab conversation gave me so much power to carry on here,” she told me.

Downtown Amman at night, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

Downtown Amman at night, March 26, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

Downtown Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

Downtown Amman, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel)

A peace between peoples

The owner of the guest house I stayed at in Amman was an avuncular Palestinian man, originally from a hamlet outside of Bethlehem. He had lived in Jordan since 1978, after being evicted from the West Bank by Israel – and had not been allowed back since to visit his hometown or family. Whether he was expelled on trumped-up security charges or for committing an actual attack, I would never know.

“The Jewish are a religion, not a nationality,” he told me, freely interchanging between the adjective and the noun. “Jewish history is our history, Palestinian history,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye.

Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Amman as seen from the Roman ruins of Philadelphia, March 29, 2015 (photo credit: Avi Lewis/Times of Israel, Benyamin Loudmer)

Despite my protestations that we as Jews viewed ourselves as an “ummah” – ‘nation’ in Arabic – he continued to insist that we were in fact just a religion and therefore our territorial claims to any parcel of land were more than dubious.

“If you’re Polish-Jewish, you’re country is Poland, not Israel. You’re religion is Jewish. If the Buddhists and Christians don’t have an official state, why should ‘the Jewish’?,” he intoned.

But on the peace treaty, my Palestinian host took a line similar to that of most Israelis. He was tired of the conflict, of “politics” as Zaides put it. He just wanted to live his life; he just wanted to go home.

“Peace has to be made through the people, not the governments. It’s not just about giving land,” he said. “Yes, the Israelis have to give us 1967 border for peace. But that’s not enough.”

“Why didn’t it work with Gaza? Because [you] threw it away to let us deal with the problems,” he said, adding that “true peace will come from education. Both sides. Let both sides connect to each other. Let both sides meet. Let me go back home.”

“We have Hamas, you have settlements. I blame both sides for the violence, but I blame your government more — for putting us into a corner in the first place. Abu Mazen was forced into an agreement with Hamas because he had nothing to show for his dealings with the Israelis,” he told me, referring to Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas.

“He had to show the Palestinians that he was doing something; otherwise his leadership would be in danger,” he said, and added that if a peace accord were signed between Israel and the Palestinians it would have to be “first and foremost a reconciliation of the peoples. It would be stupid for two different countries to live in peace as bad neighbors. They will attack each other. It would become an everlasting war between two states without dialogue.”

Silence.

We both quietly shuffled in our seats, not quite making eye-contact, as an uneasy calm shifted between us.

He then got up, and served me a fresh plate of kanafeh on the house, still warm from the nearby market.

“When you come back to Jordan next time, take me back with you,” he said to me with a little wink.

A view of the al-Husseini Mosque, built atop an ancient mosque believed to be from the Caliphate era -- which archaeologists believe may have also been the location of a cathedral in the ancient city of Philadelphia (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A view of the al-Husseini Mosque, built atop an ancient mosque believed to be from the Caliphate era — which archaeologists believe may have also been the location of a cathedral in the ancient city of Philadelphia (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Men engage in communal prayer outside a mosque just before 8 pm, at which time fhe fast of Ramadan is broken in Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Men engage in communal prayer outside a mosque just before 8 pm, at which time fhe fast of Ramadan is broken in Amman (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

I went to sleep that evening against the unending loop of Koran verses echoing from the alleyway underneath. Both tortured and poetic, the pure voices were not so much confronting as hauntingly beautiful. My body tense at first from the foreignness — and then relaxing progressively, like a sweet surrender, a submission; a child enchanted and put to sleep by a mysterious lullaby.

Jordan is in many ways a bundle of contradictions.

It’s a Muslim majority country that allows Jews to pass through freely. It’s an Arab state that made peace with Israel despite its overwhelming preponderance of Palestinians – only one of two countries in the region to do so. It has absorbed thousands of Syrian refugees just as it prepares to pound that country to defeat ISIS. It is ruled by a secular, authoritarian monarch, but compared to the other countries in the region, is relatively benign towards its citizens.

For the Jews of Jordan however, I fear that the Hashemite Kingdom will continue to offer a mixed bag. Pass through freely, but leave your identity and your values at the border crossing.

“It has to be a peace between peoples,” I thought as I drifted off to the sounds of Amman at midnight.

A desolate street in Amman before the lifting of the Ramadan fast (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

A desolate street in Amman before the lifting of the Ramadan fast (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)