A unique and incredibly uplifting Iftar meal (the feast that breaks the daily Islamic fast during the month of Ramadan) took place last week in the ancient biblical city of Hebron. Attending the feast were not only practicing, adherent Muslims but Jewish Israelis as well who live in the surrounding environs in Judea and Samaria (West Bank). Even more noteworthy of mention is that the catered food was not just “halal,” permitted for consumption in accordance with Islamic law, but was strictly kosher coming from a restaurant in the neighboring Jewish town of Kiryat-Arba.
The Iftar ceremony that I attended is just one among many incidents I have encountered of coexistence and friendship between Israelis and Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. My organization, the US Israel Education Association (USIEA) of which I serve as its executive director, works to familiarize lawmakers in the United States to realities on the ground in Israel. More recently, we have focused on introducing members of Congress and officials in the White House to such examples of mutual cooperation throughout the West Bank. Unfortunately, these incidents are generally clouded over in the media with stories that hone in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is particularly essential to educate US lawmakers about the ever-growing business model of joint entrepreneurship between Israeli and Palestinian business leaders in the West Bank. The paradigmatic demonstration of this phenomenon is in the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JS Chamber), which was founded by two entrepreneurs — one Israeli, Avi Zimmerman and one Palestinian, Ashraf Jabari. When I mentioned such an arrangement in which Israeli and Palestinian business leaders, all of whom live in the West Bank, cooperate with each other on equal terms, the vast majority responded with glee but astoundment as well.
The surprise of many on Capitol Hill was in no way disappointing to me. I did not expect them to know of such cooperative initiatives taking place in the West Bank. Nevertheless, their reactions indicate the imperative to provide lawmakers, who have the potential to impact realities on the ground in Israel, with a more objective and inclusive perspective regarding the status of relations between Israelis and Palestinians. More importantly, a better understanding that also includes an awareness of the existing positive interactions between members of both populations can help in any attempt to bring about more progress between Israelis and Palestinians.
Perhaps what may be most important to glean from such encounters is that all too often it is mistakenly assumed that progress can only come from top-down approaches. However, the JS Chamber as well as the Iftar meal I attended demonstrate that a good many Israeli and Palestinian leaders in civil society are not waiting for politicians to bring them a better reality on the ground. They are planting the fruits themselves. My organization is working both to highlight this growing reality on the ground as well to offer Israelis and Palestinians any support in this endeavor. I not only welcome but highly encourage others to give individual Israelis and Palestinians like Avi Zimmerman and Ashraf Jabari a chance to build, from the grassroots, a better tomorrow for both populations in the West Bank.