I am bound to those I love by reckless determination. Which might explain why my Palestinian sister and I were heading off to swim at the West Bank Islamic Fundamentalist swim club. She’s a communist, I’m Jewish/Israeli/American, but they had the best pool in town. She cautioned me: “don’t speak Arabic.” I speak Hebrew with an American accent and Arabic with a distinct hint of Hebrew. We didn’t need to press our luck.
Back in 1993, the heyday of hope, we had celebrated at the twinkly Darna restaurant in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The Maitre d’ seated us in full view of the Palestinian negotiating team, giddy over the generous spread of the delectable Oslo Peace Accords, holding out the promise of peace and autonomy. Thus, relieved of my peace-making obligations, I’d returned to the US to create a therapeutic arts program for young women surviving traumatic experience in Greater Boston.
Until those celebrated pictures (had we really danced in the streets?) of the handshake on the White House lawn bled into 9/11, the US invasion of Afghanistan, Israel’s peace-seeking prime minister assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Descent into uprising. Heyday of hate. I couldn’t afford the plane ticket neither could I afford what the Israeli author David Grossman calls the “luxury of despair.”
To offset the horror, I had returned to Ramallah to volunteer for my friend’s youth empowerment program. She sent me to a girls’ school in ‘Azmut, a remote 600-year-old village perched on a precipice overlooking a limestone quarry. One misstep and I’d plunge over the edge onto the freshly hewn stones. My driver negotiated rough streets to circumvent potholes and Israeli army checkpoints.
At the school, the community room was equipped with rolls of paper, markers, crayons and colored pencils. I asked the girls to divide the paper in half. On one side, I asked them to show themselves in the present and on the other to draw a picture of something they hoped for in the future.
Two pictures stand out in my mind to this day. One is a picture of an airplane that would take the young woman to see other lands to learn other languages. The second is a picture of ‘Azmut with an ambulance and a well-stocked clinic. This student said she would be a doctor and tend to the most vulnerable.
I told the girls I admired their future-vision, and that I would teach them a song my mother taught me. In any other setting, it would have been corny, but in that moment, it made sense. I told them that this was a song that gave oppressed people hope. One of the students raised her hand. “You mean there are other people who are oppressed, not just the Palestinians.”
“Yes,” I said, “there’s oppression all over the world. But our desire for fairness and equality for all people is the fuel for peace. Just like the fuel for that plane in the drawing can take you across the world,” I pointed to her drawing now taped to the wall.
I taught the girls to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and as we said goodbye they kept on singing.
Back in the car, I rolled down the window and looked up at the old stone houses built into the hillside and the newer houses with their white and pink plaster facades. As we left the village, everywhere I looked there were girls holding hands and singing we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday.
How can reckless love persevere against a backdrop of cascading fear and retribution? Can friends across divides transcend the vicissitudes of hate? Picture those girls in ‘Azmut, making their way over boulders and scraggly brush, singing. My Palestinian sister and me pulling through these hardest of days, one lap at a time. Then stand up for love. Sometimes that’s all you can do.