My Arab Colleague from Mayor to Persona Non Grata?

Some of the most satisfying and challenging work I do as a tour guide is for Aziz Abu Sarah’s Mejdi tours. Aziz’s recent aborted run for mayor of Jerusalem and his subsequent troubles with the ministry of Interior have put him in the headlines.  I met Aziz while studying to become a guide. I came across an article describing Mejdi Tours. Mejdi specializes in dual narrative tours. They are led by two guides, one Jewish/Israeli and the second Palestinian/Arab. The tours present two contrasting perspectives of the sites visited, their history and stories. This sounded like a fascinating, enlightening, and challenging way to guide. I immediately sent an email sharing my interest in working for the company.

Before long I managed to arrange a meeting with Aziz, one of the founders of the enterprise. From our first encounter, I was impressed with Aziz. He is familiar with Jewish practice, history, Israeli culture and speaks excellent Hebrew and English (I can’t vouch for his Arabic). Breaking with the common anti-normalization stance so common in Palestinian activist circles, Aziz is willing to speak to, hear from and work with Israelis — even passionate, religious Zionists like me. Aziz renounces violence and actively works to promote dialogue and co-existence through peaceful means. While Aziz is deeply critical of Israel, he is also self-reflective and critical of Palestinian society and culture. In many of my encounters with Palestinians I have found that they are often defensive and unwilling to expose their vulnerabilities, even after the Jewish/Israeli side has already made the first gesture. However, I found from the beginning that Aziz was willing to admit the weaknesses and faults of his people and society.

All of the above makes Aziz unusual, at least in my experience. However, his recent campaign for the Jerusalem city council was particularly exceptional. Many Israelis, myself included, are frequently frustrated by what we see as Palestinian overplaying of victimhood. We are exasperated by the constant demonizing of Israel and expect Palestinians to take ownership for their part in their suffering (and in ours as well).

For example, on a Mejdi tour of an underserviced east Jerusalem neighborhood, my Palestinian co-guide pointed out the dilapidated state of the neighborhood and the garbage in the streets. He blamed Israeli prejudice against Palestinians. While I admitted that Israel can’t be absolved completely from its responsibility to the neighborhood, I countered by asking how many people in this neighborhood take advantage of their rights to vote in municipal elections. The guide admitted that voter turnout is negligible. I suggested that part of the problem is the Palestinian preference to delegitimize Israel even over improving their own lives. Moreover, in this case, I insisted that part of the remedy to the problem lies in actualizing rights that Israel in fact gives them! If the representation that Israel does indeed grant the residents were employed, they could themselves change budget allocations and the like.

Aziz’s campaign was a valiant attempt to improve the lives of Palestinians without violence or aggression towards Israel. His campaign was about democratically applying the rights that Israel has bestowed upon east Jerusalem residents. I was therefore disappointed to read that his political run was cut short by a downgrading of his residency status. Aziz, a peaceful, self-reflective, and positive force, is a Palestinian that Jerusalem and Israel should be eager to work with.

To be clear, I do not agree with many of Aziz’s ideas, opinions, and critiques. Nevertheless, he seems to me to be someone with whom we can disagree and still work with for our mutual benefit. If there is some security reason for which Aziz’s status is in question then he and the Israeli public deserve to know its nature. If there isn’t any such issue, then I for one cannot see any legitimate reason to deny his residency status. I wish him well in his mission to improve his constituency’s status in the holy city of Jerusalem.

About the Author
Ross Singer served as a rabbi in the US and Canada before making aliya with his family in 2010. He currently lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa with his wife and four children and works as a tour guide and educator.
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