Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem
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A Ramadan Rorschach

Remembering when a care package for fasting Moslems seemed to call for Jihad and the end of the Jewish state
Courtesy of Alyn Woldenberg Family Hospital
Courtesy of Alyn Woldenberg Family Hospital

The summer of 2015 is haunted by images from the summer past. Instinctively, unconsciously, against our will, we are taken back to last year at this time: where we were when we heard of the kidnappings, how we found out that the three bodies had been found, our horror and disbelief that Jews could immolate an Arab teen. Reports of new Hamas activity on the Gaza border, the occasional missile, and the wave of Ramadan violence — ambushes, stabbings, drive-by shootings — bring it all back: the sirens, the news headlines, the casualties on both sides.

In the summer of 2014, the tension between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem was palpable. Even at Alyn Hospital, the pediatric rehabilitation center where my husband works, relations between the two groups were tense. Alyn is usually an island of coexistence. Politics and ideology melt away as Arab and Jewish parents and professionals join hands to treat children with complex conditions that make you want to hold your own children tight and be grateful for all that you have.  Whether their heads are bare or topped with kipot, hats, hijabs, or wigs, everyone shares each other’s triumphs and setbacks at Alyn, their eyes fixed on the future as they focus on life and quality of life.

Cultural sensitivity is not just a value at Alyn; it is part of the hospital’s DNA. Alyn was the first hospital in Israel to have a Muslim prayer room in addition to a synagogue. All signs in public areas are written in three languages — Hebrew, English, and Arabic — and daily therapy schedules are printed in each patient’s mother tongue.

But as the operation in Gaza raged on during the summer of 2014, the outside reality began to penetrate this unique bubble. The murders struck very close to home. One of the doctors was related to Naftali Fraenkel, while a classroom aide was related to Mohammed Abu Khdeir. An uneasy discomfort began to develop between some Jewish and Arab co-workers; once simply colleagues working together on the same team, they now saw each other as representatives of their people, somehow accountable for the actions of others.

Parents on both sides were on edge during Protective Edge. The images of death and destruction pouring in from Gaza, the footage of funerals of soldiers, and the constant concern about events outside the hospital, left feelings ragged and raw. In an attempt to defuse the tension, the hospital blocked the reception of all television news channels, trying to reset the focus in the public spaces and prevent evocative images from sparking a conflagration.

It was against this backdrop that the boxes appeared: charity food parcels that were intended to enable Moslem parents to break their daily Ramadan fast. While the contents of the boxes were noble, their exteriors were frightening. Emblazoned on their lids were what appeared to be a Palestinian flag, a large gun, and silhouettes of mosques and minarets. Dark figures rose up from the ground, their arms brandishing swords, while blood red Arabic writing cried out “Ahlahu akbar,” calling for Jihad and the end of the Jewish state. Alarmed and anxious, the Jewish night nurse who had been on call when the boxes were distributed brought the issue to the urgent attention of her seniors.

Ramadan Food Box

The Ramadan food boxes put the hospital’s leadership in a quandary. Denying Moslem parents their Iftar meal could spark an ethnic blow-up; exposing Jewish parents to inflammatory imagery could do the same. With the delicate balance of coexistence at stake, it was time to think outside the box. Perhaps the food could be unpacked and transferred to neutral boxes, or served on plates. But that would not be fair to the charity that had donated the food. Moreover, any intervention could be seen as an act of dominance and disrespect.

Alyn’s coordinator of cultural competency, a senior member of staff responsible for ensuring that the needs of patients from diverse backgrounds are met, was dispatched to locate a box and discreetly explore the meaning of the words and images that adorned it. This is what she discovered:

  • The flag at the top left of the box is not the flag of Palestine but the flag of the United Arab Emirates, the country where the food initiative originates.
  • The black writing beneath the flag says “The Good Deeds Non-Profit Organization.” The green writing below it says “The United Arab Emirates.”
  • The round image at the top right is the logo of Human Appeal International, the sponsoring charity. Among its many projects, this humanitarian organization distributes more than 80,000 Iftar meals a year in the courtyards of Mecca and Al Aqsa.
  • The blood red writing ominously splashed across the middle of the box is not a call for Jihad, but says “The project for feeding people who are fasting in the Al Aqsa mosque.”
  • The ornamental patch of calligraphic script towards the bottom left wishes the reader “May your month be blessed.”
  • The fine white print at the bottom left of the box says “Please keep the mosque clean.”
  • The dark, deadly weapon of destruction in the strip of silhouettes at the bottom of the box is the ceremonial Ramadan cannon. Still fired in many cities today, it announces the end of the fast at sunset on each day of the holiday.
  • And the men rising up and brandishing swords? Their oblong hats, outstretched arms, and full skirts are the clue to their identity: They are whirling dervishes in traditional dress, swirling in devotion to God.

Once the results of this Ramadan Rorschach test had been revealed and the layers of suspicion and fear were stripped away, the benign words and images could be seen for what they really were: credits to the sponsoring charity, indicators of the contents of the box and its country of origin, blessings for the holiday, mundane instructions, and celebratory holiday imagery. The crisis evaporated and the boxes could be distributed without compunction. Freed of their fear, the staff members were left wondering how often parents from the other side interpret innocent images or actions through the prism of their own pain.

The summer of 2015 is haunted by images from the summer past. But in the summer of 2014, the staff of one Jerusalem hospital, a bastion of coexistence and acceptance of Others of all kinds, learned that sometimes, no matter what Freud might say, a cannon is just a cannon.

Detail of cannon and dancers

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three boys, two of whom are soldiers in the IDF. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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