Israel/Palestine, like any place, has people of varying backgrounds. Amid the talk there of not renting to Arabs and general discrimination against Palestinians, this story from the Oasis of Peace stands out.
Existence, not co-existence
Past the growing city of Modi'in, nestled in the hills over a charming landscape of olive trees, black grape vines march in undulating lines and yellow/green barley and wheat sprout in neat rows from the nearby moshavs. With the orange roofed Trapp Monastery topping a rolling hill, surrounded by Jewish National Fund forests and clusters of saber cactus marking the destroyed Palestinian villages of Beit Jiz and Beit Susin, a fascinating experiment in coexistence continues its work and struggle.
Noam, a dynamic and outspoken student at Brandeis, invites us to visit her home in Neve Shalom, Wahat al Salam, Oasis of Peace and to see this work in action. We are met at the train station by Bob, an American expat with a wry sense of humor, who decades ago was attracted to Israeli kibbutz life by the promise of “reading books and working with my hands.” His journey ultimately led him to join this community of Jews and Palestinians committed to living and working together, raising children who speak Hebrew and Arabic and who work on sharing a common history and world view. The community has grown from small bare caravan-like homes for 6 families (5 Jewish, 1 Palestinian Christian,) and 4 single people to a thriving community with a guest house, School for Peace, and international recognition.
I am curious: What happens to children who grow up in a community that is based on equality and reconciliation, in a country where Jews are the dominant power and own the national narrative, the educational, economic, and military systems? The children may learn Arabic in the schools, but the radio, TV, internet, and films are all in Hebrew. How do children living in this unique and complex bubble function in the world as adults?
Noam was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and came to Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam at the age of 7, the daughter of an Iranian mother and Eastern European father. In 1957 her mother Ruti left Iran “where life was good,” lured by promises of milk and honey and free transportation to the Holy Land. She lived with 8 brothers in one room in poverty and disappointment. “My grandfather cursed Israel until he died.” Noam's Rumanian grandmother survived the Nazi death camps and her father, Hezzi now teaches in the Peace School. A mild mannered man with a dry sense of humor, he has been imprisoned 3 times for refusing to fight in the Israeli Defense Force.
Noam considers her experiences in the community and the Peace School as “a privilege and a gift” and notes that children in the surrounding villages also come to the school to learn. She explains that she looks and feels Middle Eastern, speaks Arabic with a Palestinian accent and claims Palestinian history and heritage as her own as well. “The Nakba is my identity.” Her secondary school education was outside the village in an Israeli school where she was initially treated as “a traitor,” but then students began to listen. She found the educational system highly militarized, teachers were sometimes soldiers. Her junior year she attended Gadna, a week of army training where impressionable teenagers learn to shoot M-16s and play in military boot camp. Her Palestinian friends attended separate Arab schools where they too learned Zionist history and the teaching of the Nakba was forbidden. At 17 she recalls she received a scholarship for a popular trip that most Israeli high schools promote, a journey to Poland and the death camps that aims to inculcate Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Israeli youth, with a blind emotional connection to the Nazi Holocaust. (See the movie Defamation.) Noam states with a fierce sense of outrage that she understands “the abuse of the Holocaust.” She experienced tremendous social manipulation, Israeli boys carried enormous Israeli flags, parading through Dachau, “retraumatizing” the teenagers and pumping them up for military service. She worries that Israel has claimed the Nazi Holocaust as a “trophy” and ignores other genocides, owning victimhood and the need for endless military defense. She believes that “we are not victims anymore,” it is time to acknowledge the suffering of others. With the behavior of the Israeli government and defense forces, “Israelis will find ways to victimize themselves.”
When faced with mandatory military service, Noam joined the Shministim and applied as a conscientious objector. This required an interrogation by a committee where “they tried to break me, screaming, shouting,” the most sympathetic member was a religious man who felt women should not serve in the army at all. This determined and extraordinary young woman won her claim as a pacificist. Ironically, later she was invited to join the intelligence service because of her excellent Arabic.
Noam worries that most Israelis are “numb” to the occupation, believe “the wall has stopped suicide bombing,” the checkpoints are “necessary for security.” She recalls when she showed the film “Jenin, Jenin” at Brandeis, a student asked, “Where is my side? Where are the Israeli soldiers?” Noam remembers the reply, “I have seen 'my side' for 57 years, can I have 45 minutes?” While Israeli nationalism is arrogant and militaristic, Palestinian nationalism is part of a liberation movement, a call for resilience, respect, and dignity. She worries, “The seeds of hatred we are planting will kill my children. We are digging our own graves.” For Noam at this point in history, this struggle is not about co-existence, but rather existence, taking responsibility for the consequences of Zionism, recognizing, honoring and giving voice to the Palestinian experience.
But life is always complicated. Noam's brother Omar, who is now also doing national service after refusing to join the IDF, is home from a major alternative service ceremony that felt too militaristic for his youthful idealism. “We had to sing Hatikvah. I felt like part of the system.” He wants to continue his service work as an individual, not as part of the national machinery of the State, maybe work with unrecognized Bedouin villages. His father reminds him he will lose his benefits, asks who will hire him. Noam, who founded Students for Justice in Palestine at Brandeis University, argues, “Where do you think you live? How can you be anti-occupation if you live in Israel? The ginger is only from the settlements. Think about your decision.” The argument over purity continues as the family finishes dinner with an apricot tart and poppy cake, the TV blaring in the background. The former President of Israel has just been convicted after a long history of rapes which everyone agrees is justice in action, but he is an Iranian Jew, another blow for the reputation of Mizrachim in Israel.