“Hi B, I’ve been thinking about you during these difficult times and wanted to reach out and see how you were doing.”
“Hi Judy, I’ve been thinking about u. I miss you. I’m trying to manage. I mainly cry at least twice a day. My heart bleeds for Israelis and Palestinians.”
I recently exchanged these messages with my friend, B, who lives in one of the towns in the Israeli Arab Triangle. B and I met about seven years ago, bonding over our mutual love of the English language. We were both then graduate students in the English department at Bar Ilan University – she in literature and me in creative writing. After she sent me one of her papers on Paul Auster for editing, a light hand was required since her English is completely fluent, I invited her to visit me in Tel Aviv. After that visit, I accepted her offer to visit her in her hometown. One warm Spring day, she picked me up in Kfar Saba and we visited the local souk and high school where she teaches English. After admiring her spacious study where she displays the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austin, we sat in her living room and she plied me with the local delicacies.
“Help, B has kidnapped me and forced me to eat Shawarma and Kanafeh,” I wrote in a jokey text message to some mutual classmates.
I appreciated B for her candor in describing the difficulties navigating life as a highly educated secular Arab woman living in Israel. (This is why I am not using her real name). She was embarrassed by all the litter strewn around her hometown, chiding her fellow residents for being so careless. And she expressed frustration that she couldn’t exercise since there’s no available gym for women and she couldn’t lace up sneakers and hit the streets. When a local woman attempted to start a women’s-only jogging group her home was firebombed.
B, her husband and their children have a big foot in Israeli Jewish society. Both she and her husband studied in Jewish universities, her husband works as a manager at a major Jewish company and they send their son to a Jewish school. They feel like a minority there, but also among fellow Arabs. Several years ago, when B and her husband were abroad, an-Arab speaking tourist who heard them speaking his mother tongue asked where they were from. When they replied Israel, the tourist’s expression went from friendly to cold.
“What were we supposed to say?” B wondered.
B and her husband have periodically considered moving to the U.S where they have close relatives. But they don’t want to leave their family and also know that their professional opportunities abroad will be limited. So, they’re staying put.
While the physical distance between us is small, it has widened thanks to the recent spate of rioting in mixed Arab-Jewish areas.
“I really hope that I can visit you one day soon,” I told her.
“I would really love that,” she replied. “We will have to work together, Jews and Palestinians. I believe we will make a change.”
Her words left me feeling deeply frustrated that there was no better answer. I wanted there to be a plan, a specific way to make that change happen. But I couldn’t come up with anything on my end.
“I wish I knew how to start,” I said.
“We will find a way,” she responded.
But what is the way? I see friends posting about attending Jewish/Arab peace marches. But I fear these marches won’t change the needle one bit. And I can’t help but think what happened to Evan Fallenberg, an American-Israeli writer, translator and Bar Ilan professor who is also a friend. Evan took a rundown old building in the middle of the Akko’s Arab marketed and transformed it into Arabesque, a beautiful hotel and arts center. Akko became his home.
During several stays at Arabesque, I saw Evan’s son, Micha, who managed the hotel, playing soccer with the neighborhood boys. Meanwhile the mere mention of Evan’s name at a local Arab restaurant or the Turkish Hamman was met with a big smile. But all that wasn’t enough to protect Arabesque last week from an angry mob which battered down its front door and brutally ransacked the place.
How, I wonder, can Arabesque now reopen? And what is the lesson for those of us who, in much smaller ways than Evan, have been trying to bridge longstanding Arab/Jewish divisions?
I want to be optimistic. I want to imagine a day when I’ll return to B’s hometown and stuff my face with Kanafeh and talk with her about literature, her daily frustrations living in this country, and share some of my own. This seems like a modest desire that should be attainable. But I fear it will take years before I’ll feel safe enough to do that.