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Baby steps towards mutual understanding

When Jews and Arabs share moments of daily life, they conquer the extremist both imagine behind the other's ID card

I’ve given birth five times. Five times, I’ve shared a room in the maternity ward. And something in that situation, that exhausting, aching, very intimate, slightly fragile situation, sparks conversations with your room-mate. Sometimes just chats about nothing; but sometimes meaningful conversations that couldn’t have happened in any other context.

Once it was an ultra-Orthodox woman who’d just had her tenth, a girl with Down Syndrome. I’ll never forget her calmness, and one sentence that blew me away: “The first five are really hard. From the sixth, it goes much more smoothly.”

Another time it was a hippy American olah from Jerusalem’s trendy Nachlaot neighborhood, who had a shortlist of names for her baby that were so bizarre that it almost put me in shock — but it also gave me some healthy giggles. Mostly, though, I learned from her just how hard it is to make aliyah, and what “cultural gap” really means.

And once it was an Arab woman who couldn’t speak Hebrew, and who needed some help from me with her computer. We managed to communicate as people do without language — with half-words and movement. And there were many more.

Arab and Jewish mothers and their babies (Photo: Ofir Levy, Kaplan Medical Center)
Arab and Jewish mothers and their babies (Photo: Ofir Levy, Kaplan Medical Center)

I enjoy meeting people who are different from me. I find it interesting. And women interest me most of all: the combination of deep similarity and stark difference all at once. I am grateful for opportunities like these. In a state where we learn in separate educational systems, live in homogeneous neighborhoods, read the papers of our sector only, and listen to different radio stations, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for unconditional encounters with others.

Despite the fact that we don’t meet each other and don’t live together, we do imagine each other. But we imagine each other only through the images and voices of the extremist versions of each other that we are exposed to through the media. And so we think that a “real Arab” is like Hanin Zoabi, and a “real settler” is like Meir Ettinger, and a “real Haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) is like the one who they videoed throwing diapers at policemen, and a “real secular Israeli” is like Uri Misgav, and so on. The “real other” is the extremist other in the media. And so all of us say to ourselves: “Our community is complicated, multi-vocal, and nuanced; but they’re all the same.”

The policy of separating Arab and Jewish women in maternity wards that Dikla Aharon has exposed saddens me, not just on a personal level, but also because it’s a terrible mistake on the national level. Actually, as a society, we need precisely the opposite policy. We need more safe interactions — as many as possible — between people from different backgrounds. We need as many opportunities as possible to get to know each other, to be exposed to each other’s ideas, and to meet each other in the places where we are all the same: not dialogue groups for the elite and the self-selecting, and not situations of conflict and confrontation.

We just need to meet each other in our regular lives, on the way, in passing. Not in situations where it’s “We’re the Jews” versus “We’re the Arabs,” or “We’re the religious” versus “We’re the secular,” but “We’re new mothers who have just given birth, exhausted and shattered, in pain from our stitches, and annoyed that the nurses are waking us up at 6.00 am to take our temperatures”; or “We’re parents at the zoo”; “We’re jogging in the park”; “We have children with special needs and are taking part in a support group.”

We need many many “We’re’s” like that.

It won’t solve the national problems or the economic gaps, but it will get us to doubt the harsh identities that we assign to the other. To consider less frightening ideas about who the other is. Small, baby steps of understanding. But those steps can be the beginning of a great journey.

Tehila Friedman-Nachalon is a Fellow at the Shaharit Institute, and a board member and past Chairperson of the Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah open religious Zionist organization.

Translated by Alex Sinclair

About the Author
Tehila Friedman-Nachalon is the director of Kolot's center for jewish leadership and a fellow in Shaharit, a think tank promoting new social covenant in israel. She was a fellow in the Mandel Leadership Institute, former Chair of Ne'emanei Torah ve'Avodah, a modern Orthodox movement promoting pluralism and democracy, and board member of the Yerushalmit Movement, a non-profit for a pluralistic Jerusalem. She was Director of the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, a grant officer at the Rothschild Foundation, and an adviser to Natan Sharansky.
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