It all began with my telling myself, an Israeli born, that if the Palestinian physician, Dr. Abuelaish can write the book,” I Shall Not Hate”, after losing three daughters in the conflict, I can make an effort to know more about the Palestinian people, in the spirit of peace.
That was several years ago. In January of this year, I joined a group of 22 travelers on an Interfaith trip to Israel and Palestine, led by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, of Minneapolis. Our guides were a Muslim Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli. The emphasis was on dialogue, multi religious perspectives and an in depth look at the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ lives and their conflict with each other. The trip had an enormous effect on me.
Upon returning to Minneapolis I started talking in my community about this experience. On a recent presentation, five members of our group shared our impressions in a gathering in a bookstore with an audience of about forty people.
It was the first time I addressed a mainly Pro Palestinian audience. I was scared and thought to myself while my co presenters were talking about the evils of the Israeli occupation, “what have I gotten myself into?”.
But, I am passionate about meeting ‘the other’ and am very concerned about the growing hate today, everywhere, not just the Middle East. So I talked.
In my talk I described how meeting Palestinians in the West Bank, seeing how they live, changed my previous perceptions. I expected dire poverty and helplessness, instead I found a people building a nation with goals and aspirations. I shared my evolution from growing up in an Israeli society with its prejudice towards Arabs, to wanting to meet ‘the other’. My transformation took a lot of internal work and education.
Now I would like to share a childhood story that moved the audience.
It was 1957, I was 8 years old living with my family in Haifa. The 1956 Suez Crisis with Egypt was just over. Gamal Abdel Nasser was ruling Egypt.
It was Lag B’Omer, a Jewish holiday, which we celebrated in Israel with community bonfires. We, children, gathered wood, and built a large puppet to be burned and assigned to it a political figure’s name.
On that particular day, I burst excitedly into our apartment. I opened the kitchen door, there was my mother standing by the stove and Rasmia, our Arab cleaning woman was squatting on the floor in front of a large bucket, washing our clothes. I exclaimed:” Ima Ima! (Mom, Mom!), we are going to burn Nasser tonight!”
My mother was horrified, took me outside, set me down, looked into my eyes and said:” Rasmia is a relative of Nasser, they are both Arabs, you have offended her.” I felt horrible and never forgot the incident. At that moment I realized that Rasmia had feelings, she was not just a cleaning woman, not just, “an Arab”.
Initially when I started talking in the bookstore I was afraid of being verbally attacked, judged or ignored. Instead people responded with compassion, moved to tears and could relate to me. Afterwards, several people came up, hugged me and told me their own stories of being judged based on one’s religion or nationality. I also asked the audience to open themselves to learn about the Israelis’ enormous fear and daily struggles with the violence perpetuated against them.
Meeting ‘the other’ takes a strong desire and effort. With each step I took towards knowing more about the Palestinians over the years, an internal shift occurred. I remember my fear the first time I had a serious conversation with a Palestinian man, here in Minneapolis. He invited me to come see a movie about the Nakba being shown to his community. I asked if my presence would be upsetting to the Palestinian audience. He put his arm around me and said: “It is going to be okay, Dorit.”
When I talk to people about prejudice they don’t seem to be aware of their own. Our interactions with ‘the other’ are superficial or nonexistent and the divide keeps on growing. With the current divisive reality in the U.S, there is an immediate need for softening of hearts and developing a curiosity and understanding of ‘the other’.