Stories From Our 31st Journey
Welcome to the Holy Land
November 3rd, Day #2
1. Tour Old City of Jerusalem with Eliyahu MacLean
2. Shahad Al-Hamad and Elad Vezana, Israeli-Palestinian partners, Havayati/My Story, a dialogue approach to peace-building.
Elad and Shahad, by Dr. Joel Berman
It’s hard to believe that we arrived only yesterday. Today had so many rich and memorable moments that it feels like two days in one. The hour is late, so I’ll relate only one:
Tonight we had the enormous privilege of listening to the stories of Shahad, a young Arab Israeli woman whose father and grandparents were expelled from the city of Lod/Lydda in 1948, and Elad, her Mizrahi Jewish friend and colleague whose parents immigrated from Morocco when he was a child.
Both Shahad and Elad carry searing wounds from their childhood – related to their separation from their communities of origin (although Shahad’s father was eventually allowed to return to Lod as a farmer, his siblings were not, and he never saw them again); isolation from their respective mainstream cultures because of their “otherness”; and for Elad, the added burden of PTSD related to his military participation in the senseless violence of the most recent invasion of Lebanon, and his recent confrontations with Palestinian teenage rock throwers in the West Bank.
November 4th, Day #3
Political Tour of Jerusalem with Yaniv Mazor of Ir Amim (“City of Peoples”) – Israeli Civil Rights Organization.
“Let us make no mistake. Even if in a week, two weeks, a month, a year, the concrete barriers are removed that are now blocking the entrances and exits of the Palestinian neighborhoods and separating them from their Jewish neighbors and from the city that is their only home – we will no longer be able to erase the stinging memory of the concrete barriers that we set up between us and them, which turned their home in the heart of the city into a series of shunned and isolated ghettoes. These walls have already built unseen fences of hatred and will continue to live in our midst as a malignant poison. And where we have built walls, we will have to build even higher and higher walls. After all, a decade ago we already built a barrier and turned eight Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem into enclosures of humiliation and poverty, and rendered their residents displaced in their own city. Now we are building a barrier between one barrier and another, and between these barriers and the barriers to come, and in the end we will know only more and more fear.” – Yudith Oppenheimer, Executive Director, Ir Amim, Nov 4, 2015
Reflections from Joel Berman:
Yesterday’s highlight was our bus tour of East Jerusalem. What our 34 year old Sabra (native Israeli) guide Yaniv showed us was in large part why I came back to Israel – to see what I didn’t see on our 2014 trip – the real estate on the other side of the concrete walls and barbed wire that we passed on our way to Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Galilee – to see “the other” Jerusalem and “the other” Jerusalemites. For years, I’ve been reading about the ever-expanding Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that are crowding out Palestinians. But seeing it yesterday was worth a thousand newspaper articles. Unlike the photos I took on days 1 and 2, these pictures are not pretty.
Yaniv’s company, Ir Amim (City of Peoples), views the geopolitical realities of East Jerusalem as a microcosm of the larger Israel-Palestine dilemma. Read about its mission at www.ir-amim.org.il/en/about. Check out its staff, board, supporters, and maps.
As we entered East Jerusalem, Yaniv pointed out that although his Google Map showed us crossing the Green Line (the line separating Israel from the West Bank), there is nothing on the ground that acknowledges this – no sign, no landmark, no street marker – an investment in fulfilling the government’s vision of creating a Jerusalem that is “the eternal, undivided capital of Israel”. As to lines, some of you know of my late-in-life recognition that the map of Israel on the wall of my temple classroom, where I taught 6th graders about the history of the modern state of Israel, displays no Green Line, or any reference whatsoever to the existence of the West Bank as a separate entity. The Ir Amim map doesn’t make that error. It depicts not only the Green Line, but three others: the Jerusalem Municipal Boundary line, the current Security/Separation Wall line, and the planned Security/Separation Wall extension line. Each has geopolitical significance, but that’s beyond the scope of today’s log.
Our first stop was Gilo, an attractive East Jerusalem community of mostly secular and some Haredi Jews. From the prevailing Jewish perspective, there is nothing unusual about it. It’s a nice, clean residential neighborhood of about 4000 with a lovely view to the north overlooking the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa and beyond, West Jerusalem. In the eyes of most of its residents, and most Israeli citizens, it’s perfectly legal. In the eyes of the international community, including the United States, its existence is a violation of international law, as are all the Jewish communities on the West Bank side of the Green Line.
November 5th, Day #4
Ibrahim Issa, Director, Hope Flowers School (abridged transcript by Joel Berman and Helen Fitzgerald)
It has been a very unpredicted day here with our students – about half of them came this morning – but because of clashes, we decided to send them home. When we saw that the youths were starting to throw stones and soldiers were coming, we knew it was not safe to wait until things got worse. When you have 350 children, you don’t want to take any kind of risk.
How I ended up at Hope Flowers School: My plan was to continue my PhD in mechanical engineering in the Netherlands. Then my father, the founder of this school, died in 2000. I was in conflict: whether to continue my PhD or to return home to do this work. Then one day I met Leah Green [the founder of the Compassionate Listening Project]. I asked her – should I continue my PhD in mechanical engineering or should I return to do this work? And she told me something that keeps hitting me up to this moment. The world has many engineers but has very few people to work for peace. I said to her – I am not an educator. I don’t know anything about peace education. And she said, to do this work, you just need a good heart. And that’s true.
I can tell you many stories about Hope Flowers School. Children have had one of their parents killed, or even both. Children’s parents do not have jobs or were shot and injured by the army. The majority of the children are traumatized. Many of them have severe learning disabilities.
Hope Flowers has been building our experience with learning disabilities since 2004. I’m proud to say that we are now the best in the West Bank in providing services for children with disabilities and special needs.
Our trauma support program came after a painful personal experience. In 2002, I was awakened at 2 am with loudspeakers around my home and many Israeli soldiers asking someone to give himself up. I was so scared I didn’t even look from the window. Our neighbor was working for security, so I thought the army was coming to arrest my neighbor. After an hour of this, the neighbors start to call me and say, ‘Ibrahim, give yourself up, otherwise they will demolish the homes.’ And I was like, I’ve never been involved in violence.
So I opened the door and gave myself up. Immediately soldiers grabbed me and put me on the ground and arrested me. One of the commanders said, ‘Where are the explosives?’ I said, ‘apparently you have made a mistake. I’m the director of a school. I am working for peace education.’ He said to me, ‘Bullshit! Tell me where are the explosives?’ I said, ‘I don’t have. Apparently there is a mistake here.’ He said to me, ‘If you don’t tell me where are the explosives, I will demolish the homes. You have ten seconds to tell me where are the explosives.’ He started to count. When he reached zero, he said, ‘You are stupid. Your home will be flattened.’ They started to demolish my home. I was arrested and taken to jail for a week. They tortured me badly. Trying to get to know where are the explosives. After one week, they released me. ‘It was a mistaken arrest’, they said.
When I got back, some worker friends from Holland and a psychologist friend came to help me and my family overcome my trauma. It’s not that you ever forget it, but you learn how to live with it.
I returned to the school and started to look for children who had trauma experiences. I found out that there were many, and they don’t speak about their wounds. I knew it before in theory that every act of violence is the result of unhealed wounds. But to live the trauma yourself was something very different. You don’t see how bad it is until you are in this.
I asked one psychologist, a friend of mine, let’s do some volunteer work with people who need your services. She agreed. The first year we had 14 families. We had to convince them to meet with her because, you know, if you are a hero, you should not speak about your wound. The second year, we had more families, and the third year we had 56 families, and we couldn’t do it volunteer anymore. So we started to look for support. We called our program Listen to My Voice because I and my friend agreed that the victim has an inner voice that warns you. You should listen to that voice, which says a lot.
We’re now doing it at 100 schools. We train over 200 teachers in the West Bank on how to support their children. The program is successful because it has been born from a wound. You feel why this program is here and you connect again; for myself, to meet again with that same wound, every time. I see it in a child or in families. It is a really beautiful program for me, and I’m committed – one of the things that gives my work meaning in Hope Flowers School.
Here’s a story that gives an idea how bad and difficult the situation is for children. Khamees is now 11 years old. He’s a child from the Jenin refugee camp. His father was involved in the Palestinian military resistance and was wanted by the Israelis. He escaped from one place to another. One day he came to visit his family and the Israelis attacked the home. The Israelis killed the father in front of the children. The Palestinian resistance thought, there must be a collaborator who informed the Israelis of the father’s presence. They suspected that the mother was the collaborator, so they attacked the home and killed the mother of Khamees in front of the children. It’s a very sad story.
Khamees was very violent and he didn’t speak. He attacked strangers. He couldn’t sit in a classroom. He was a danger to himself and others. His school finally decided they couldn’t keep him. So they consulted with us. Because I’m not an educator, it’s always easy to say yes. That was one of the blessings of being a mechanical engineer. So Khamees came here. The first few weeks he was very violent. He would go to the top of this five-story building and try to throw himself off. One day I heard our special needs education counselor discussing Khamees’ case. The conclusion was that we cannot help him. He shouldn’t be in Hope Flowers School. And that really hit me very hard. I said, listen, if we can’t help children like Khamees, it’s better for us all to go home. We have to find a solution for him. It took us a while to find a child psychiatrist. We helped Khamees. He spent two years here and then had to be transferred to another school because that’s all we could do here with our classes. But we managed to help him. For me, if we failed in that case, one of the most difficult ones, it’s better for us all to go home.
Eilda Zaghmout, Founder, Beit Ashams (House of the Sun), Bethlehem
Today we visited Beit Ashams (House of the Sun). Beit Ashams is run by two young Palestinian women as a place of healing. They offer yoga, meditation, aikido, sound healing, and other practices to individuals for the purpose of healing and bringing light and hope into their lives. Their watch words are “love and happiness are found inside us, not outside”. Eilda met with us in the Horizons Room which has a small library of books on the practices that are taught here. The name of the room is all about its intent to allow people to increase the horizons of what they consider possible. Another room is called Being and is where yoga, meditation, etc. are taught. While we were there, a mixed group of Muslim and Christian women were doing yoga. The final room is called Creative Exploration and is a kitchen that, when completed, children will create both edible and inedible items. It will contrast with their usual focus of being lost in the worlds of iPads and smart phones and will ground them in earthy connections. Eilda’s parents live on the second floor and have generously given her the opportunity to fulfill a dream of welcoming people to “come with an open heart, tell your stories and carry the light and love home.” In spite of the darkness that envelopes so many after decades of Occupation, she is totally focused on the healing that Palestinians need and can achieve.
Dr. Ali Qleibo
This evening our guest was Dr. Ali Qleibo, artist, author and Professor of Anthropology at Al-Quds University. He provided us with a depthful analysis of the current situation from the viewpoint of a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem with deep roots here. We visited his home and saw his most recent paintings.
Ali reports that the Palestinian Authority is a mafia-like organization benefitting from the occupation economically in cahoots with Israel. I have been looking for who is benefitting economically from the occupation as I understand economics to usually be at the baseline of injustice. So there’s collusion here. Until the Israeli government recognizes the humanity of the Palestinians the oppression will continue. ~Yehudah Winter
November 6th, Day #5
Suleiman al-Hamri, West Bank, Palestinian co-founder, Combatants for Peace – former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian former prisoners
On the founding of Combatants for Peace: “The first meeting was held at my house in Bethlehem in 2005,” Al Hamri recalled. “It was a little bizarre. The Israelis had to go through settler roads, then walk to an olive grove, where cars would pick them up. The Palestinians thought it was a trap, and they would be arrested or killed.”
The Israelis feared for their own lives as well.
Al Hamri’s turn from violence to nonviolence occurred when he was being held under Israeli administrative detention in Ketziot Prison, a violent place. There, in 1993, the Palestinian political prisoners were paid a surprise visit by Prime Minister Rabin, who said he regarded them as the genuine Palestinian leadership on the ground and wanted to negotiate peace with them.
“Rabin was known for his violence against Palestinians during the first intifada, which was nonviolent,” Al Hamri noted. “I saw then that it was possible for an Israeli leader to change. It made me think that another way out of the conflict was possible, that dialogue with the Israelis was possible.”
November 7th, day #6
Home visit with Farhan Alqam in Beit Ummar, West Bank
“Other peoples live until they die. Palestinians are dying to live.”
~ Farhan Alqam
Editor’s note: Between October 1 – November 7, 69 Palestinians have been killed including 14 children, and over 7,200 injured – including 2,200 wounded from live ammunition. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the Israeli Army has “thrown away the rule-book.”
by Joel Berman, November 7, 2015
Hamas. The word evokes fear in so many of us who equate Hamas with terror and inhumanity. The word leads us to reflexively recite our familiar tropes: Hamas wants to drive the Jews into the sea. Members of Hamas don’t love their children the way we love ours. There’s an unbridgeable divide between Hamas’ values and our own. Any suggestion that Hamas might be human and rational like us is often a conversation ender.
These thoughts bounced through my brain as our bus approached Beit Ummar, a Palestinian town of 18,000 situated fifteen miles southwest of Jerusalem. Farhan Alqam, the Hamas former mayor of Beit Ummar, had invited our Compassionate Listening delegation to join him for a luncheon feast at his home with his wife, three children, and numerous extended family members.
Over the next three hours – to my astonishment – I discovered humanity in Farhan Alqam. Sitting in his living room, I witnessed his loving devotion to his wife and children, and they to him – communicated in the way his son looked at him as Farhan described one of his arrests by the Israeli authorities, and his son’s reactions – first anger at his father for suddenly disappearing, then anger in the dawning recognition that the Israelis imprisoned his father for publicly protesting yet another expansion of the separation wall that encroaches ever deeper into Beit Ummar.
[We later learned from Leah Green, the founder of the Compassionate Listening Project, that during several of these arrests, Israeli soldiers severely beat Farhan in front of his young children, ignoring his plea that they take him outside so his children wouldn’t have to see his humiliation.]
We witnessed Farhan’s passionate dedication to his people and to their land. He reminded us that his blood is red, just like ours. What motivates him, he insisted, is not hatred for Jews, but hunger for human dignity – for himself, his family, and his people.
How do I reconcile what I now know about Farhan with the reprehensible acts of terror that Hamas has perpetrated against Jews over the decades? Does Farhan’s willingness to talk with our delegation portend the possibility of future talks between Hamas and Israel?
Such seemingly impossible rapprochements have happened before. Who would have predicted that Yassir Arafat, the saber-rattling leader of the PLO, would shake hands with his arch-nemesis Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn? Or that 35 years after the “three no’s” of the Khartoum Declaration, all 22 members of the Arab League would offer Israel a peace plan that includes full diplomatic recognition and a formal end to all hostilities?
However I ultimately answer these questions, my encounter with Farhan makes it impossible for me to deny his humanity. There’s much about which he and I will never agree, but there’s no denying his humanity.
This is learning that’s foundational. It assaults my preconceptions like a bulldozer shifting the granite upon which my house is built. It shatters my stereotypes. It releases an enormous amount of pent-up energy which, I suspect, is why I – and a few of my fellow travelers – feel on the edge of tears so often during this journey. At the very least, I must acknowledge that energy. At the very best, I can harness it to transform my house into a more humane home.
Al-Arroub Refugee Camp, West Bank, with host and peacemaker, Nidal al-Farajin
Nidal Alfarajin. Reflections on caring, compassion, and community
by Joel Berman, November 8, 2016
Consider this: I just met a man named Nidal Alfarajin who lives in a community where everyone watches out for each other; a community where there’s no homelessness, little drug addiction, and almost no internal crime; a community that heavily invests in higher education as a path to a brighter future for its youth.
Now consider this: Nidal’s community is the Palestinian refugee camp of al Arroub.
Al Arroub sits on a 0.35 square km plot of land halfway between the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. Although it’s only 12 air miles from West Jerusalem, it might as well be on a different planet. Ask Google Maps for driving directions from al Arroub to West Jerusalem and you’ll get this reply: “Sorry, we could not calculate directions from al Arroub to West Jerusalem”. Google gets it right – most Palestinians literally can’t get to West Jerusalem, or anywhere else in Israel, from al Arroub.
According to the most recent census of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 10,000 Palestinians live in al Arroub, giving it a population density of over 25,000 people per square km., four times that of Tel Aviv and seven times more than Los Angeles. If al Arroub were a city, its population density would rank it among the top ten in the world, in the company of such teeming metropolises as Calcutta, Mumbai, and Macao.
Nidal was born and raised in al Arroub. He lives on the third floor of an unadorned concrete house that he shares with his mother, father, nine siblings, and a gaggle of nieces and nephews. Although his father only completed second grade and his mother fifth grade, Nidal and his siblings have all earned college degrees, many in the human service professions. Nidal has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Bethlehem University, an M.A. in human rights and democratization from the University of Malta, and is working towards an advanced degree in gender equality at the University of Iceland. He credits his parents for sacrificing their own needs to invest in the futures of their children and grandchildren.
Soon after we met him, Nidal took us to his rooftop for a 360-degree view of al Arroub. On a high ridge a few kilometers to the east sits the Israeli settlement of Tekoa, gleaming in the sunset like a shining city on a hill. The architectural contrast between the two communities was striking. More striking was Nidal’s next observation: “Compared to the Lebanese refugee camps, al Arroub is heaven.”
Heaven! There are places on this planet that make a United Nations refugee camp seem like heaven?! Joel, you’re not in New Hampshire any more…
Our visit to al Arroub occurred during a brief window of tranquility. The day before we arrived, an unidentified sniper shot out the camp’s power lines, and Nidal’s family had to buy candles for the possibility that there might be no electricity for our visit. (To their great relief, the camp’s electricity was restored the morning of our arrival.) The day after we departed, an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) incursion into the camp precipitated rock throwing by Palestinian teens and retaliatory tear gas by the IDF.
As we stood on his roof watching the
sunset, Nidal shared the sobering statistic that by age 12, more than half of al Arroub’s boys have been arrested for throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. For many kids, that first incarceration begins a chain of events that determines the trajectory of their lives: a second jailing, a beating or two, a midnight IDF incursion into their homes during which Israeli soldiers interrogate and sometimes humiliate their parents. After witnessing such shaming, many of these kids seek alternative role models they believe to be more empowered than their parents – typically older teens who recruit them to Hamas and other groups that espouse violent resistance.
But in this refugee camp there are exceptions. Nidal has helped many al Arroub youth find their way out of the labyrinth of incarceration to finish high school, go to college, and even earn advanced degrees.
We met Nidal’s protege Issa, a man in his mid-twenties who was jailed as a teen for throwing rocks. Issa told us that he’s now in a master’s program in oncologic research, after which he hopes to obtain a PhD in the United States. Despite the many employment opportunities he’ll have in the US and Europe, he plans to return to Palestine after earning his doctorate.
Why? one of us asked.
“To see the pride in my parents’ eyes, and to feel that pride reflected back to me. This is my home. This is my community. These are my people. This is my land.”
Shortly before our departure the next morning, Nidal revealed one of the ingredients in his secret sauce:“Leah Green [the founder and director of the Compassionate Listening Project] changed my life. She gave me courage and hope. Her influence helped so many al Arroub youth turn from the negative to the positive. These students have become doctors, social workers, and peace makers. I hope she can join the next Compassionate Listening trip. And tell her that next time, everyone needs to stay here at least 3 days.”
From Joanie Levine, participant: “This map shows the changes in Palestinian land from 1946 to 2013 – and it continues to get worse with planned settlements. Palestinians are being squeezed out of their land – but they will not abandon their ancestral heritage, so they have no alternative except education. We are meeting highly educated Palestinians.”
November 8th, Day #7
Breaking the Silence, Israeli Soldiers Talk About the Occupied Territories, with Shay Davidovich
Verbatim Excerpt of Listening Session at Everest Hotel, Bethlehem, West Bank
What we are trying to do is to create a public discourse about the moral implications of the occupation. Here in Israel, we all have to serve in the military. I personally served from 2005 to 2008 in a unit called field intelligence. The last time I served as a reservist was in 2012 in Gaza, Right afterwards I joined Breaking The Silence….
I grew up in Ariel – one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank. Life there is very nice and very easy. Many Israelis don’t see it as a settlement. I grew up surrounded by Palestinians. But I never spoke with Palestinians. There were no interactions among us. The first time I actually met a Palestinian is when I’m wearing my uniform, holding my gun, and I’m a soldier in the occupied territories.
Let me tell you about my first day as a soldier. We had our basic training for one month and afterwards we are sent on our first mission – to guard a settlement called Susya in the South Hebron hills, right next door to a Palestinian village also called Susya. We are given a short briefing from one of the settlers. He tells us where Palestinians are allowed to walk and where they are not allowed to walk; when we are supposed to shoot and when we are not supposed to shoot.
November 9, Day #8
Excerpted Transcript, Jamal Meqbil
My name is Jamal Meqbil; I was born to a family of refugees from 1948. We lost our town, Iraq al-Manshiyya, now called Kiryat Gat. My family travelled to many places, to the refugee camps in Jordan, also Saudi Arabia and other places. I ended up in the town of Beit Ummar, north of Hebron, at that time under Jordanian rule.
I was in Beit Ummar during the first intifada in 1988. I was 15 years old. I was very active. I threw stones, I participated in demonstrations. I was put in jail twice during the first intifada, four times altogether. In jail I learned a lot of Palestine history, violence and non-violence. I had to choose. Which way.
After the Oslo peace agreements of 1993, I opened my mind to the agreement, started to think about my life and my future in the West Bank. Instead of destroying, I decided to build. I built a house on land my father bought in 1965. We were a big family in a small house. When the soldiers came in 2000 with the first demolition order, many things changed. What should I do? I was between two ways. Occupation and throwing stones, or Oslo?
Then the second intifada came and our whole way of life changed: the roads; the checkpoints. All my energies turned to my family, to care for them. Then one day a friend from Jericho called asking me to come to a meeting with Israelis, just come and listen. I was shocked! Israelis! I thought: he is crazy! My friend said, “Jamal, just come and listen. You don’t need to touch any of them, just listen.” Not easy for me to meet the people who occupied us, injured me, jailed me, took my town. All I knew about Israelis was soldiers, checkpoints, guns, settlements, demolition orders.
I returned home to tell my wife and my son what my friend had told me. They didn’t believe me. My wife thought it was a joke. My son asked, “is it true?” I talked with myself: to go or not to go. I went. I met Israelis. All of us talked. I went back and told my wife. She said, “You are crazy, not normal.” It was the beginning. I continued. I noticed most Israelis don’t know enough about Palestinians from the West Bank, in the camps and the towns under occupation. I wanted to tell the Israelis about their soldiers and police, what they do in the West Bank and at the checkpoints. Many of them know nothing about Palestinians. For them, Palestinians are violent people who want to throw the Jews into the sea. For me that is not true. We have our history. We are human. I started to teach them about Palestinian life under the occupation.
Not easy. When I started to meet Israelis, I lost a lot of things. I lost my job. I am a barber, with a barbershop in Beit Ummar. I lost my customers. I lost my role in my family and in my wife’s family. I used to be a hero, but after my meetings with the Israelis, they would not even look at me. Some were against me in the mosque. They said, “You are not a Muslim. Do you not have eyes to see? The soldiers come every night, damage houses, arrest us!”
It is not easy. The situation is not normal. It is still the occupation; there is still blood flowing, more and more and more on our side. Farmers cannot go to their fields, children cannot go to their schools. Sometimes I think violence is easier. But I continue in this difficult way of non-violence.
One day, five years ago, an Israeli friend met me in Jerusalem and he hugged me. He said, “Today I will take you anywhere in Israel. Where do you want to go? Any restaurant you want. To Jaffa. To the sea. Al-Aqsa mosque. Any place,” he said. Today I’m here for you with my car”.
I said, “I heard about the Holocaust. About the Yad Vashem museum in Israel. Can you drive me there?” He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yes, I’m sure. I don’t need to go to the sea or to Al-Aqsa.”
We went to Yad Vashem. Because I believe that to deal with others, you need to try to know about them. If you don’t know about me then you can’t deal with me. People are not all the same. Some are against me. Others welcome me. Some are afraid. I am afraid when I am here now, especially these days. I am afraid but this does not mean I will close my doors. We continue to try. My courage comes from my pain. I think the pain must push us and teach us to end the conflict. If we know the pain, I think it is easy to find the medicine. To end the blood, to stop it. Our kids; our life. We need to look in the mirror. My mirror is my kids. When I see that my kid is afraid, this is one of reasons that opens my heart more and more.
I think now we need to buy small flowers, to give them to the soldiers at the checkpoints. To the soldiers who killed our kids, who closed the roads. Not as a gift, but to get them to think about stopping the killing. One soldier not so far from here was named hero of the week because he killed three Palestinians. If I meet him, it will not be easy, but I will give him some flowers. Not because he killed my people, but because maybe there is still a little in his heart. I need to help him open his eyes and his heart.
(Photos by Peter Hamon)
(Narrative transcribed by Joel Berman and Helen Fitzgerald)
My husband and I came to Israel in 1970. We met as students in a one-year program in Israel. I was straight out of high school and my husband had already finished two years in the university. We came as kibbutzniks. It was a program of education and work, trying to get to know Israel from the inside out.
We lived on the kibbutz; we also experienced the six-day war. All of a sudden, the kibbutz was almost empty of the male population and the older high school students and us became very important people because a lot of the functions that had to continue were put on us. For Israel in general and for us, it was a very, very moving and important experience. (more…)
November 10th, Day #9
Hagar School, Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, Bilingual School, Beer Sheva
Welcome to Hagar School. We’re sitting in what used to be a rundown bomb shelter that has been renovated. It’s a ship – an oasis in the middle of the desert. It was very important for us to have a library that contains Hebrew and Arabic books. While the children are in here, they can continue with their lessons. It’s very calming. It’s a sad reality but – while we are in here, they’re allowed to continue being normal.
Hagar is eight years old. We were started by four sets of Jewish and Arab parents who were doctors and professors at Ben-Gurion University and Siroka hospital. They were friends, and they wanted their children to go to school together.
In Israel, there are three kinds of state education. Secular Jewish, religious Jewish, and Arab. There are a lot of options for Jewish children. Arab children can go to a Jewish school and many do. But there are no Arab schools in Beersheva. There are Arab schools on the periphery and in Bedouin villages, but they are grossly underfunded. The teaching quality is poor. Arab parents have to choose between their children retaining their culture and enjoying being with other Arab children, or compromising this and sending them to Jewish secular schools, where their narratives are completely and utterly ignored.
So these four Arab and Jewish professional couples decided that they wanted a good level of education and they wanted their children to grow up in an atmosphere where they could continue to be Arab or Jewish. They could continue with their own identity but side-by-side.
Today we have a daycare for 1 to 3-year-olds, two kindergarten classes, an early childhood learning center, and elementary classes up to sixth-grade. We are currently teaching 240 children. And we’re still growing.
We partner with the Ministry of education, which means we’re a public state school. Our founders could have created a private school that would be self-sustaining. But because the area we’re in is very poor, our board wanted to accept local kids from Beersheva, both Arab and Jewish. The state gave us the building, teachers, the Ministry of education curriculum, everything.
We took it and said, thanks very much. Now we’re going to make it equal. So we hired a second teacher for every class. There is an Arab and Jewish teacher side-by-side in each class. They each teach in their own language. The idea is that the children will grow up to be bilingual. We are pioneers, just like Yad b‘Yad [Hand in Hand]. They and we are the only ones doing this in Israel.
The classes are 50-50, Jewish and Arab. In the beginning, it was hard to get Jewish students. That was unsurprising. But there were no good Arab schools for Arab students, so Hagar was a very good solution to their problems. Whereas Jewish parents had to have a good reason to want to come here. In the beginning, the classes were small and there were more Arabs than Jews. Today we have waiting lists on both sides.
We looked at the curriculum from the education ministry and said, okay, we will make sure our kids pass your tests. But the kids are from such different levels with such different backgrounds that this curriculum doesn’t apply to all of them. We need to find a new model. Most of all, for gender studies. We have big challenges with gender issues here. We really wanted to make that a part of our curriculum.
There are no exams other than the state-imposed tests, which are important to evaluate our success in teaching the children mathematics, science, and English and the things their parents are worried about. The children score very well in these tests. But the children know that these tests are of little importance other than to mark the school, not them.
I made Aliyah to Israel with a very naïve Zionist view. My husband is from Sweden. We met in England. We came to Beersheva because we wanted to contribute to the development of the Negev desert. We sent our children to a secular Jewish kindergarten.
I had heard about Hagar from a friend who worked here. I said, it sounds lovely. But I’ll bet it’s all about peace, peace, peace and it forgets about the education. Then I started to work here and get to know the school. I went home to my husband and said, how can I talk about how wonderful it is and not move the children? He was more nervous than me. He probably never had a meaningful conversation with an Arab in his life. I was having daily relationships with Arabs.
One day when my six-year-old Rafael was three, he came home holding a toy gun. He was crying. I asked, why are you crying? He said, “because I was at a friend’s birthday party and they gave all the girls fairy wands and all the boys guns. I wanted the fairy wand, and they told me I couldn’t have a fairy wand because I’m a boy.” I looked at my husband and said, final straw, that’s it! He said okay, fine – I don’t stand a chance now. I took Raphael to the shop and said, I’m going to buy you the biggest fairy wand in Beersheva. You can wave gender equality on everyone.
Now both my children are here. They’re speaking really good Arabic, fluent Hebrew, and Swedish and English.
In the first week my kids are in Hagar, it’s Eīd al-aḍḥā, the Muslim sacrifice feast. Jews and Muslims have a different take on the story of the sacrifice. For Muslims, Abraham was to sacrifice Ishmael, and for Jews it was Isaac. I said – okay, my husband is going to love this. It’s a huge celebration. Unlike Jews, Muslims don’t have a lot of religious holidays.
There’s lot of dancing, a lot of food. All the Arab children are wearing white gowns and all the Jewish children have white flowers in their hair. The children don’t end up confused. They know who they are, but they do know about the other celebration.
The Arab teacher takes center stage. The kids are singing in Arabic. I asked my husband, how are you? When we walked out, he said, I don’t know about this. I said, I understand, let’s just see.
The next celebration was Chanukah. The Jewish teacher took the lead. They invited my husband to light the Chanukah candles and he felt better. Everything was in Hebrew, and he heard the teacher telling the story of Chanukah, and all the kids were interested. When he walked out he said, you know, Hannah – if they did Eīd al-aḍḥā now, I would probably enjoy it. Because now I know that they’re also doing my narrative. I wouldn’t be so scared. I wouldn’t feel marginalized and ignored.
I said to him, you feel like that – you’re 35! Imagine how a five-year-old feels in class. Sitting there and everything is not about him or her. Over the last four years that we’ve been at Hagar, my husband absolutely loves it.
How do we cope with the holidays? [What Jews celebrate as Israel Independence Day, Arabs mourn as “the Nakba”, the Catastrophe.] Commemoration of the Nakba by more than five people is illegal in Israel. You can be arrested. It’s very difficult to talk only about one side’s narrative. We sing the national anthem and completely ignore the Arab perspective.
We came to an agreement with the Ministry of Education. We can’t acknowledge Nakba Day outside of school, but we can acknowledge it in the classroom. In every classroom on Nakba day, we have a picture, a poem, and a story. The teachers use it as part of their daily lesson. Then comes Yom Ha-zicharon (Memorial Day) or Yom Ha-shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and in that corner we have a picture, a poem, story. The reason is to say, when it’s Holocaust day, as a Jew, I look at this board, the people there look like my family. This poem is familiar to me, this narrative is familiar to me, and I feel sad. When it’s Nakba Day – different people, different narrative. I might not even agree with it, but I remember the feeling I had when my holiday was on the board. I know that some of my friends in the class might be feeling sad today. I need to give them the space to have their own feelings.
We think we really do this well. We have 1000 members supporting our school. All across the political and economic spectrum. Political views are set aside. Everybody wants the same thing in the long run. There’s no hatred here.
Lakia, Israeli Negev, Homestays with Bedouin Families
Our Bedouin hosts are gracious and welcoming. I’m surprised by the spaciousness of their lovely home. Split level, with porches and balconies. But what they don’t have, based on the consistent narrative of our host and hostess, is basic human respect from many people in the larger Israeli society with whom they have
chance encounters – checkpoint guards, policemen, and fellow citizens they randomly interact with throughout each day. They also don’t have their traditional way of life and the centuries-old roles that formed the fabric of their society. We learned a little yesterday about the effect of the eradication of their culture on everyone in their village. It’s apparent that no amount of financial compensation can make up for that.
(Photo: Joanie Levine with her Bedouin host family. )
November 11th, Day #10
For too long, the Gaza-Sderot region has known war and despair. Other Voice – a grassroots volunteer initiative comprised of citizens from the communities bordering the Gaza border – knows that our violent reality can and must be altered.
“Open the borders with Gaza. Some will tell me, ‘I don’t want to be at risk.’ I say, ‘I am already at risk. At least this risk has a chance for peace.” ~ Roni Keidar
Excerpted Transcription by Joel Berman and Helen Fitzgeraldat Nativ Ha-Asara
My name is Roni Keidar and I would like to tell you how I got to this place: to this moshav, or agricultural community, Nativ Ha-asara, and to this place of my perspective and commitment to peace. This moshav did not always sit where it is now, right on the border with northern Gaza. Nativ Ha-asara was first established in 1972, in the Sinai desert, across from Gaza’s southern border.
Our village was a fantastic success story. The sand was good to us, the climate was good to us. We managed to grow and pick crops when they couldn’t pick them anywhere else in the country. This meant that our produce got extremely high prices. We were doing so well for ourselves that most of us enlarged our homes, enlarged our families. We went into more and more sophisticated and modern types of agriculture.
We were a little far out and detached from anywhere else. So we had to create our own quality of life, emphasizing what we thought was important to our way of living and to our specific community. There was also a very normal, natural, good relationship with all our neighbors in the northern Sinai. Our nearest town was Rafah, and we went to visit Palestinians, do business with them and many of them came to work with us in the fields. Really a very normal and good relationship, as neighbors should be.
Then one day, the totally unexpected happened – an Arab leader offered his hand in peace. This is something we never, ever thought could happen. When you say “never say never”, this is what they meant. But there we were. 1979, Anwar Sadat offers his hand in peace. The condition for this peace is that we leave the northern Sinai. And the whole area is returned to Egypt.
This created a very strong conflict within each and every one of us. On the one hand, the longings for peace which we all had, on the other hand, our concept of peace didn’t go together with having to be evacuated from our homes, having to uproot our plantations. Some protested, some cried out. We tried to put over a message that there must be another way. But when we realized that it was either peace or staying in northern Sinai, it was obvious what we should do.
So we chose a group of people to look across the country and choose a place for us to live. And this is the place they chose, right on the border of the Gaza Strip. You might very well ask, what on earth made you do a thing like that? The thing was, we wanted to be as close as we could to our original village, knowing the agricultural advantages we had there, without being on negotiable land ever again. So we are within the internationally recognized borders of Israel. 66 families came here, right across the border from the Gaza Strip. We built a new village. Today we are 230 families. And we’re already talking of the next expansion.
When we first came here, everything was very normal. Many of the people from Gaza came to work with us. We used to go to visit them, and they came to visit us. A normal neighborly relationship until the mid-nineties. Then things started changing. Palestinian suicide bombers with explosive trucks, blowing up in the middle of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and many other parts of the country, coming out of Gaza. Every time this happened, the border would be closed. No one was allowed in or out. Things went from bad to worse: Hamas rockets, missiles, mortar shells on a daily basis, several times a day. You never know when. Even now when I’m talking to you, I can’t be 100% sure that there won’t be an alert at a certain point in our meeting.
What should we do? My bomb shelter in my house is very small. We have 15 seconds to get there. All we can do is lie on the ground, cover our heads with our hands, and count up to 40 50 60, until we hear an explosion somewhere, hopefully far away in the sea, but we never know. We know these rockets are very primitive. They can’t accurately target. Usually it’s like – ah, weren’t we lucky, they landed in an open field. We were luckier still when they fell into the sea. Lucky lucky lucky – but sometimes luck runs out. We do know that if a rocket hits, there’s no hope. One day one of the girls in our village was coming home. She got out of the car, heard an alert. She started running into the house, and on the doorstep, she was hit directly by a rocket. She happened to be my daughter’s best friend.
Now I’m talking of day-to-day life, I’m not talking about wars. Where are we today? The same place. Talking of the next round. Anyone you speak to both here in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, they’re all talking of the next round. There’s going to be the next round. It’s bound to happen. Why? Why don’t we do anything, really do anything, to stop that next round? Not to reach that next round? I don’t want a next round. And I’ll do anything in my power to stop that next round.
We’ve all got to realize that we are both here to stay, so we had better start learning to live side by side, because it’s never going to be one instead of the other. I so wish we could realize this. Most people do. But leadership – nothing is further from their mind. At least that’s how it looks at the moment. I believe, although many don’t, but I believe this is possible. When people call me a dreamer, I say I’m not the dreamer. The dreamers are those Palestinians who say that they want to abolish Israel and throw the Jewish people into the sea. That’s not going to happen. They are dreaming! The dreamers are those Israelis who think they can bomb Gaza again and again and again, and eventually the Palestinians will come on their knees and beg for peace. It’s not that way. That’s how we’re going to get 11 and 13 year olds knifing people in the streets. They’re not going to come on their knees and beg for peace. Not like that. So they’re dreaming. What I say can be a reality. What I say is, wake up, people! Wake up, leadership! And understand that we’ve got to live here together, side by side, and we can have a beautiful life.
Tsameret Zamir, founder of Nativ Shalom, arts and peace education.
By Joel Berman:
We met Tsameret Zamir, ceramic artist and founder of Nativ Shalom, an arts and peace education project. Tsameret lives with her husband and children in Nativ Ha-Asara, a moshav (cooperative agricultural community) as close as you can get to the Gaza border. It’s an idyllic setting with lovely homes, luxuriant gardens, and an expansive view of the Mediterranean to the west.
The beauty ends abruptly when one looks to the south. Several hundred meters from Tsameret’s front porch rises the 25-foot high concrete security wall that separates Israel from Gaza.
To the residents of the moshav and the nearby city of Sderot, the wall is the reason they’re able to live here. It’s also an everpresent reminder of the dangerous neighborhood they live in. When the rockets are flying from Gaza, parents have one minute to get their children and themselves to the nearest bomb shelter. “I never know how fast I can run until I need to save my life,” she told us.
As a mother, she worries constantly about her children’s physical safety and their emotional well-being. She tries hard to help them regain their equanimity as quickly as possible after the sirens stop wailing, to impart a sense of “normalcy”, as crazy as that sounds. “OK, kids, time to get on the school bus,” she’ll tell them matter-of-factly. “See you this afternoon.”
This is their life. This is the price they pay to live here.
Last year during Operation Protective Edge, the sirens went off as many as 35 times a day. One day a neighbor of Tsameret, a 23 year old woman, was blown to pieces. “You never get used to it,” she told us.
How could anyone?
Why does she continue to live here? “It’s my home. I grew up here. It’s such a beautiful place. This is where I want to raise my kids.”
Tsameret can see the wall from almost every window of her house. “The wall protects me, but it also reminds me of the danger and the fear. So after the 2012 Gaza war, I decided to change the atmosphere for the people of this village. I wanted to make them feel better”.
She came up with a plan to transform the wall from a reminder of violence to a symbol of hope. Her efforts evolved into Path to Peace, an initiative that infuses the security wall with the age-old aspirations and evocations of the Western Wall. She does this by inviting visitors to choose one of her ceramics – a flower, a hamsa, a dove – and write a prayer for peace on the back of it. The visitors then take their ceramic objects to the wall and glue them onto the concrete. Over the course of three years, the process has transformed one small section of the wall into a work of art.
For my ceramic, I chose a hamsa. On the back I wrote a prayer for peace for my wife Mary, our girls Laura, Julie, and Cory, and my 3 year old grandson Caleb. As I glued it to the wall, my eyes welled up. I glanced over at the two IDF soldiers watching me from their sentry tower a few meters away. The eyes of the younger one were brimming and his lower lip was quivering.
“This is brilliant!” I said to myself. “Just brilliant!”
(photo, right: Israeli soldiers on the edge of Netiv HaAsara, on the Gaza border – their outpost is a part of her art project. The Gaza Separation Wall is visible in the background)
Transforming fear to hope. Delegation members placing prayerful ceramic symbols on the Gaza perimeter wall on the edge of Tsameret’s village (Joel, Leah and Laurie).
Don’t miss Rabbi Arik Ascherman and Dr. Alon Liel! Click the “older entries” link below.