Steven Aiello

Respecting the Other: Something Positive

It’s been a rough last month here. Kidnappings. Brutal murders of children. Mobs in the street, racism, violence. One government minister attacked at a “Peace” conference; another who received death threats for visiting a mourning Arab family. Incitement by politicians, goading by the media, mob mentality by the masses. Children in bomb shelters, children on stretchers, children being buried. And after a week and a half of escalating bilateral aerial attacks (as well as possibly every other trick Hamas has in its bag), we have a ground invasion of Gaza and all of the carnage, the pain and suffering on both sides that that will bring, to look forward to. It’s been a tough month, and there’s more nastiness ahead.

With all of the negativity, there’s an air of despair. Even generally optimistic people, people committed to making a positive difference, are concerned. The status quo is unacceptable; perhaps that’s the one point that people on all sides of this, from all different political backgrounds, can agree upon. But how to change it is unclear; whether the political will and leadership to do so exists is uncertain. The more I talk about these issues, the more pessimism I hear. People who can’t think of a brighter future, or if they can, are skeptical about how or whether we can get there.

I confess to believing that the vast majority are not that different from one another. Most of us would like to live in peace, to work, to raise families. It is a minority, albeit a politically active, often well-armed, minority of extremists that ruin it for the rest of us. But unfortunately, this minority gets all of the news and all of the attention. We forget that the rest of us are perfectly capable of living in peace, in harmony. We may not all love one another, but we can coexist with all but the most extreme. Most of us can work with, purchase from, travel with, live next to, people with different viewpoints, backgrounds, cultures, and even different values. We forget these points because they don’t make noise and they don’t catch our attention. But with the focus on conflict, on intolerance, with the question and challenge of how to find a way to peacefully coexist in this land and in this region, I’d like to focus on some positives, some extraordinary and some ordinary interactions. Some are unique, others banal. Most of us go through these regularly, but when a few extremists commit the most heinous of offenses, we forget the banal, remembering only the bloodshed. So it’s important to refocus on what unites us, what allows us to live in general peace and quiet, and what we need to look to in order to resume living that peaceful life.

I remember my first Iftaar- the festive break-fast that Muslims eat each night during Ramadan. An Israeli all of 3 months, traveling in Cairo, on Friday afternoon I found myself invited to break the fast with the proprietor of the store I’d been perusing. After a brief hesitation I accepted the invitation, then went to my hostel to pray. When I returned, I found the man and his family in their courtyard. Joining them I gave a brief explanation of being Jewish and being limited to bread, fruits and vegetables. This had an unexpected result. My host called two nephews over to speak to me; it turned out that they had worked in the Sinai, picked up a fair amount of Hebrew and were happy to practice their language skills.

I remember the man who sold tea and snacks on the roof of my hostel, who told me that he didn’t like Israel, that he had fought against Israel in 1973. I couldn’t argue with that, just tried to be courteous to him. With limited communication, we found an unusual bonding point. When the call to prayer was heard, we found ourselves alone on the roof, each praying in a different direction. By the end of the week, the ice had been broken. When I asked to take a picture with him, he put his arm around me, surprising me by telling me conclusively that “Jews are good, Muslims are good, Israelis are good, only the governments are bad.” He may not be the world’s biggest Zionist. But meeting a Jew who supports Israel changed his views, just as I now picture him when I think of the Yom Kippur war, just as mention of the Egyptian army now conjures up images of a friendly face in the Sinai, a young fitness trainer we met the summer before he enlisted who was going to become a paratrooper, and who was excited to meet someone his age from Israel.

I remember praying in the Adly Street Synagogue in downtown Cairo, having the (secular,) Jewish caretaker approach me mid-prayer and ask me to make a donation. My explanations about Shabbat, which had gotten me past the guards, failed on her, but the Muslim man who cleaned the building understood and put up a valiant defense on my behalf, allowing me to finish praying.

Most shocking of all, I remember sitting in a conference room on my second trip to Cairo, with representatives of 4-5 Egyptian NGOs present, as the girl in hijab sitting next to me struggled to translate the speeches made into English. After the first speaker, we took the requisite coffee and tea break. I surreptitiously palmed my kippa and held it over my head long enough to make a blessing, ensuring that no one noticed. My translator of course noticed. When I began to explain to her, her eyes lit up at the mention of “Jewish”. Apparently of the 3 languages she’d studied in college, Hebrew was her favorite. For the next two hours she translated for me in rapid-fire Hebrew, with her friends and colleagues looking as shocked as I felt.

There’s the Palestinian family from East Jerusalem, who rode the miserable bus from Taba to Cairo and back with me, who looked on with pride as I taught their two young sons the Hebrew alphabet, which they took to with gusto. We exchanged phone numbers, and they surprised me a year later when the father called up, telling me shyly that his sons had asked about me. A few weeks later we were guests in their home. A picture of Arafat hung on the wall; I’m certain that we would not see eye to eye on many political issues regarding Israel. But the respect and the appreciation for such a small gesture was genuine, as was the pride in his children for learning another alphabet so quickly.

I experience the same positive response at least once a week. The last 6 months I’ve been studying (formal) Arabic in my spare time, taking my textbook with me on my daily commute to and from the army. Inevitably, someone notices the only guy in a green uniform practicing tenses and conjugations in Arabic, and each time I’m surprised at the variety of responses, all positive: the Iraqi woman who tells me she wishes her grandchildren knew to speak, read and write Arabic, the sanitation worker on break who picked up my book to practice reading, recalling when he’d been in the army and studied Arabic to complete his exit exams, the Arab worker on his own daily commute who saves me a spot next to him so that he can patiently help me practice speaking for the 25 minutes we travel together. In the army it’s the same story; the standard response from officers who see me studying Arabic is “כל הכבוד” – “respect”. Almost never have I heard criticism or been asked “why”, instead it is praise, reinforcement, “that’s the first thing we should be teaching our children” or “the most important language for you to study if you live here”. They understand that to understand, one must understand. The ones who have made a career of serving in the armed forces understand better than anyone the price to be paid for our misunderstandings.

Just a few weeks ago, as Jerusalem was lost to marauding mobs, as a young boy was being kidnapped, burned alive on the sole basis of his ethnicity and mother tongue, as our seemingly always tenuous world began to fall apart, we sat obliviously at an Idan Raichel concert in Tel Aviv’s main park, a special “only for soldiers” production. The main performer himself broke down in tears at one point, so overcome with emotion was he at the chance to perform before thousands of young soldiers. But I was inspired by another moment—from the opening act, when the Yemenite singer began with that Middle Eastern classic, Enta Omri. With thousands of Israeli army soldiers cheering, clapping and singing along to Umm Kulthum, I found myself thinking of what life might be like if the Egyptian army would play Ofra Haza, if the Syrian army listened to Shlomi Shabat—and thinking how remarkable it was that with all of the tension, there was still an appreciation for Arabic music, classical Middle Eastern culture, that which so many Israelis have in their heritage and bloodline but which they so often forget.

But of course it’s normal to hear Arabic music in Israel. Some of the most popular Jewish Israeli singers still use Arabic; it appeals to the younger generation just as it proves nostalgic for their grandparents. Ironically, the only time I’ve personally witnessed experienced racism here was when an irate woman confronted the Arab driver for playing Arabic music (“we don’t want to hear your music”); there the outlier was the racism, not the appreciation for the music. When I responded by confronting the woman, by reassuring the driver that he should by no means give up his rights because of one bigot, I did so out of shock and disgust. A few weeks later, returning home late at night I saw the bus I needed fly by me—and then stop abruptly. It was the same driver. I was out of uniform, but he refused payment, reminding me that “I was a soldier”.

It’s good that these little things aren’t remarkable until your world turns ugly, until you’re confronted with the outlier that is extremism, manifest racism in its most brutal form. The Arab taxi driver in Akko who found the phone that I left in his car, and refused to take any payment when I came back to pick it up from him the next day. The Muslim woman who happily greets me every morning as I head to the army and she walks up the block to the old age home. All of the workers at all of the age homes in fact, Jews caring for Arabs, Arabs for Jews; all of the doctors and nurses in our hospitals, saving lives of Syrian refugees, of Jewish women and Arab children. The answer to misunderstanding and lack of respect has to be more integration, better education, not fear and prejudice.
For the most part, we have a foundation of respect.

A few nights ago, Israel was home to not one or two, but a whole chain of interfaith breakfasts, as Jews and Muslims each ended their respective fasts. There was tension around us, but within the garden that I sat in, and within the various other circles of peace, there was understanding, respect, the knowledge that we didn’t have to agree on religion or politics, just respect one another for being human.

There is respect for many parts of each culture, there is the implicit understanding, as we each go about our lives, that we may have gaping political divides in this country but we can shop, do business, ride a bus together, we can agree to disagree, respectfully. It’s extremism that threatens all of us; more than thousands of Hamas rockets, it was a small number of vicious, homicidal extremists who played catalyst and trigger to the war that now engulfs us, one which has already taken hundreds of lives and raised costs in the tens of millions. It’s those extremists, the ones who take to the streets, yelling, screaming and throwing, their ideological backers who take to social media to spew their virulent nastiness, fueling and fanning the hatred. But they’re outnumbered by the rest of us, whether we love one another or not, who are perfectly capable of living in coexistence, who in fact do so, day in and day out, rarely noticing it. Only when it goes wrong do we stop and think, do we appreciate, that moderation is banal and that extremism is unusual. Let’s make sure it stays that way, and take small solace in knowing that we can each play a part in that on a daily basis.

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at