Ruth, Ibtisam and students

It’s hard not to feel the hope drain out when you read about kids stabbing other kids.

Last month, Ahmed Manasra, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, and his cousin, Hassan Manasra, 15, stabbed two Jewish Israelis in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood. One of their victims was Naor, a 13-year-old Jewish Israeli boy, who was stabbed in the neck as he rode his bicycle out of a candy store.

On Tuesday, two Palestinian children stabbed an Israeli security guard on a light railway train in East Jerusalem. The older assailant was 14 — and the younger one, not even 12.

These days, it’s excruciating to be a peace activist who supports a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The stabbings, shootings and car-rammings of civilians on city streets, sidewalks and buses in my hometown of Jerusalem and other parts of Israel horrify me. The random nature of the violence and its brutality leave me wordless. Many Jewish Israelis narrow their eyes in suspicion at every stranger who looks “Arab” or “Palestinian.” My Palestinian friends worry that if they slip their hands into their pockets to take out their wallet, an apprehensive Israeli might draw a gun.

These fears are not unfounded: On October 19, Haftom Zharhum, a 29-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, was mistaken for a terrorist in the midst of an attack at the Beer Sheva bus station; he was shot and brutally beaten to death by a Jewish Israeli mob. Even just speaking Arabic, one of Israel’s national languages, in a public place can arouse suspicion. People on both sides would rather cross the street than share the sidewalk with Other. Black canisters of pepper spray are sold at the bodega around the corner — and at local toy stores.

Extremists on both sides practically cheer and gloat when they hear of the senseless death of the others. The rest of us sigh and try to dissociate from the news or grope for another coping strategy. What can we do to break the latest cycle of violence that began in early October?

Gone is my faux-certainty that peacemakers will not be harmed. Last month, Richard Lakin, a 76-year-old former elementary school principal and veteran peace advocate, was riding the bus to a doctor’s appointment in Jerusalem, when two terrorists stormed route 78 and shot him in the head and stabbed him in the chest. He died of his wounds two weeks later. In the 1960s, he and his wife had survived mob violence when they participated in Freedom Rides in the South, protesting racial segregation on buses. His death shattered my illusion that in some magical, mystical way, my family’s sympathy and care for Palestinian rights and the Palestinian cause would shield us from the madness. We were no more immune than he was. Terrorists don’t stop to quiz you on your values or politics before they slice your insides. When I read that the light went out for Richard Lakin, I closed my laptop and wept.

A ray of optimism surfaced from an unexpected place: Ramallah. Ghassan Abdallah, a Facebook friend I’ve never met, posted this hashtag across a photo of planet Earth shot from space, where the only borders are masses of land and bodies of water.

#BeThePeace.

“We can’t change the political situation. The only thing we can control is ourselves. If you want peace, be it!”

If Ghassan could rally from Ramallah, I could rally in Jerusalem.

I could, and still should, #BeThePeace.

And when I went out to share my message of coexistence in late October with young Israelis, I discovered that teens did not only lunge out of pain and despair. They were also the ones pressing forward to connect.

During a sunny break between patches of rain, Ibtisam Erekat and I headed to The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to share the story of how breast cancer brought us together — a devout Muslim Palestinian woman and an American-Israeli Orthodox Jewish woman living on opposite sides of the separation barrier.

In a white-walled classroom decorated with a framed portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, 70 ninth-graders sprawled across maroon cushioned chairs. Others sat cross-legged on the stone floor. All of them listened to us talk about illness and about the friendship that developed between us and our families.

Nearly five years ago, I joined an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group, hoping to find something “good” in cancer. There, I met Ibtisam: loving, intelligent, with a wicked sense of humor, and a life narrative very similar to mine. That friendship opened me up to a world I did not know: traditional Palestinian society, Islam, day-to-day life in the West Bank. In time, Ibtisam and I grew to be like family.

I started telling the story of our friendship in July 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. As rockets launched on Gaza and missiles rained down in southern Israel, relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis deteriorated at an alarming pace. The air grew thick with racism and aggression. Our Israeli-Palestinian sisterhood could offer a blueprint of what’s possible. Between the two of us, kinship comes so naturally. But invitations to speak rolled in primarily from American organizations.

A half-sunny, half-rainy Thursday in late October was our first attempt to talk to Israeli teenagers. I had booked this speaking gig to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness month, before the recent wave of bloody violence. Because Ibtisam lives in the West Bank, it was too dangerous for me to pick her up. She took a Palestinian taxi to the school gate.

When she got to my car, she rushed in and slammed the door.

“I’m scared to walk the streets.” She wrapped the folds of her black embroidered abaya, her floor-length flowing tunic, around her.

“Now that I’m with you, I feel safe.”

The air had that clean, fresh smell after a good rainfall.

Minutes later, I was standing in front of two black pianos in a windowless classroom under fluorescent lights, talking about illness and friendship. Ibtisam sat along the wall, sipping steaming coffee and wiping her moist eyes.

Then it was her turn.

In the English she had gleaned from watching television, Ibtisam talked about being diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing and pregnant. She told them about her miracle baby: Yusuf, now six feet tall, with thick wavy brown hair and penetrating eyes.

“He’s 15, just like you,” she chuckled. “When I try to kiss him, he resists. I’m not your baby, Mom! I say, you’ll always be my baby!”

The students guffawed.

“Last night we watched a video of an Israeli tirelessly helping a Palestinian.”

Ibtisam sighed.

“This is not a good life,” she said. “I wish for peace for all Palestinians and all Israelis.”

Hands shot up. “How does your friendship survive this conflict?” “What do your children think?”

“What’s the way forward?”

“Knowing people from the other side,” I affirmed.

“Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped in July 2014 and burned alive,” I said. “It was a revenge crime for the murder of three Israeli teenagers abducted and killed in the West Bank. I did not know him, but he felt familiar because he was the same age as Mahmoud, Ibtisam’s eldest.”

I pictured Mahmoud washing my car. Asking me to translate the Hebrew lyrics of his favorite Eyal Golan song. Sporting cool jeans, tooling around with his friends, wondering aloud how they could meet Israeli teens on the other side.

“Once you have Palestinian friends, they’re no longer transparent. Once Palestinians have Israeli friends like you, you’re no longer transparent.”

Ibtisam nodded.

A round of applause was followed by a surprise.

Instead of filing out of the classroom to fiddle with smartphones and kick around a soccer ball, students lingered. One by one, young women stepped forward and stretched out their arms to Ibtisam.

They wanted to embrace someone who for many, if not for all, is the first Muslim Palestinian hijabi woman they’ve met from the West Bank. And I felt the glint of something I haven’t felt in a while: unadulterated hope.

Day to day, Israelis and Palestinians are physically and psychologically divided by walls of all kinds. Those divisions make it easy for each to assume that other is nothing but enemy. That makes it a scary time to be a teen. Is it safe to ride the bus? Go to the mall? Go dancing? Walk the streets with friends? Perhaps most frightening are the bleak prospects for peace.

Yet after a brief introduction to one friendly Palestinian, these Israeli high school freshmen wanted to connect to someone they might have skirted on the street just an hour ago. And the speed with which they bonded suggests to me something about the depth of their desire. As if each embrace signaled a genuine longing for human connection.

Ibtisam picked up that gesture and reciprocated in kind.

“Just like my kids,” she muttered quietly.

And in that moment, they were.

#TheyWereThePeace.