Don’t Walk Away: An Entreaty from Jewish and Arab Israelis

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Our message is as simple as the black letters, Hebrew and Arabic, on our plain white tee shirts:

“We walk together.”

Jews, Muslims, Christians.

Three hand-drawn birds flutter around those words printed on the front. Another bird flies through the same inscription on the back, adding these words in the two languages:

“Hand in hand.”

Since early July, Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel have been walking together twice a week along a converted railway path in Jerusalem lined with plane trees and yellow street lamps. We stroll on the promenade from Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood, to Gonen, a Jewish neighborhood. A slow night draws about 100 of us, better nights draw as many as 250. We are 70 to 80 percent Jewish Israelis and 20 to 30 percent Arab Israelis, including some Muslim walkers who gather their strength to join us after the 16-hour Ramadan fast. Some of us chat, sing, hold hands, even tell jokes. Others shuffle along, not talking much.

We meet at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School, a Jewish-Arab school, after the Iftar, the break-the-fast meal eaten during Ramadan. Then we head into the cool breeze, trickling down the school stairs onto the pedestrian walkway like passengers boarding a long train.

In June, three young Jewish Israelis were abducted from the West Bank and killed, and after a two-and-a-half-week search their bodies were found in a ditch. Days later, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem was abducted, beaten, and burned alive in an apparent act of revenge. Relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis deteriorated at an alarming pace, and the air grew thick with racism and aggression. Meanwhile, the rocket attacks on Israel kept coming, and combat in Gaza grew fiercer.

It is a sad reality that most Jewish and Arab Israelis have only superficial relationships with one another. They interact casually in public and commercial spaces, such as malls, hospitals, offices, universities, and parks, and sometimes at work. But they have little or no social interaction. Jewish Israelis are even less likely to know Palestinians who live in the West Bank or Gaza. And those kinds of friendships can be hard to come by. I only got to know Palestinian women who live on the other side of the separation barrier after I joined an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group. There I met Ibtisam Erekat of Abu Dis, whom I now call dear friend. Other friends from the group hail from Ramallah and from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

In the absence of firsthand knowledge, mutual trust, and meaningful connections, people tend to turn inward toward their own and away from those they perceive to be different. They go to a place where even talking about friendships with “those people” during wartime poses a threat to their sense of group cohesion. From that point, it is a short distance to travel to where Other equals Foe.

And so it happened this past July. Slogans such as “Death to Arabs” and “No Arabs, no terrorist attacks,” amid other hateful language, flooded Israeli social media sites. Over the course of two days, around 32,000 people, some of whom were Israeli soldiers, “liked” a Facebook page named “The people of Israel demand revenge.” Some members of the group shot selfies with racist mottos scrawled on their fingers, forearms, and torsos, toting guns pointed to shoot or smiling with arms around friends, holding sheets scrawled with racist slogans. Menacing postings to Arab members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, abounded. Organized groups of Jewish thugs started roaming the streets of downtown Jerusalem, hunting for Palestinian Israelis to harass and pound. The remarks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t help matters much. Shortly after the bodies of the three Israeli teens were found, he responded by quoting a line from Haim Nahman Bialik’s poem “On the Slaughter” at a government meeting: “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created.” He tweeted those same words, adding: “Neither has the vengeance for the blood of 3 pure youths who were on their way home to see their parents who will not see them anymore.”

I read Netanyahu’s response in horror. Bialik crafted that poem in response to the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in tsarist Russia, in which anti-Semitism led to three days of rioting and the murder of more than forty defenseless Jews. But we are not defenseless! I said to myself, so why is the prime minister of the state of Israel invoking a century-old instance of persecution and then granting backhanded legitimacy to the notion of vengeance, a form of violence imbued with biblical overtones?

Do most people not understand the vague complexity of our multi-ethnic reality? Or do they simply not care? I wondered.

“Arab citizens are citizens of this country!” I wanted to yell. “We are not at war with each other!”

Despairing, my husband and I attended a brainstorming session in the library of the Hand in Hand Bilingual School with school parents and community members who sought ways to challenge the racism and violence. We were relieved that the school opened its doors to folks like us who do not send their children there and do not live in the surrounding neighborhood. What could we do to model something else for our children? A participant proposed something simple: Let’s walk together and reclaim our joint public space.

And so the together-we-stand walks were born.

Each week, we hoped that the violence would abate. But it didn’t. It just got worse. So we kept walking.

There were rockets fired. Targets struck by air. Tunnels discovered. Ground operation launched. The tally of terrible casualties ever rising.

We kept walking.

Tonight in late July is our fourth walk, the last one before we break for Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday to mark the end of Ramadan. Moms push babies in strollers. Dads cup the hands of their little curly-haired girls, skipping along in white tee shirts reaching to their knees. Teenagers coast on bikes, racing their friends on skateboards. Colored lights decorate an outdoor patio to celebrate Ramadan. They blink as we walk by, lighting up a cool night.

“We are family,” belt out four sassy teenage girls, their arms interlocked. I remember myself at that age in the 1970s, when the song by Sister Sledge hit the charts. Their singing in English blends in with the muezzin’s call to prayer.

Some dogs are regulars, pulling their owners along. Fast walkers power ahead, moving their hands as they chat, slowing down every so often to allow the group to catch up.

And to stay apace with the security officers.

Yes, we need police protection. Even though we carry no placards or flags and do not make noise or chant, even though we are just a family of marchers demonstrating our togetherness, our Jewish-Arab walk elicits heckles and strong cursing.

The officers, muscular men in their thirties, shield us as we cross the street. One stares at us, his mouth a straight line.

“Whores! Bitches!” Angry onlookers glare at us and look curiously at the police officers.

Recent peace demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa ended up with right-wing extremists beating up left-wing demonstrators. Victims included Dr. Suhail Assad, the deputy mayor of Haifa, and his son.

Some people cannot accept the statement that we are making with our feet, a statement that should be no statement at all: that we acknowledge the humanity in everyone.

Some deem us traitors. Palestinian voices cry out, How can you walk together when their army is killing so many of our people? Man the barricades in Ramallah instead!

Some Jewish Israelis say, This is not the right time to talk of humanity and solidarity, when young soldiers are risking their lives to battle Hamas in Gaza some fifty miles away.

I have friends, parents of soldiers, who fear that seeing Arabs as anything but the enemy, or aligned with the enemy, will weaken our army’s resolve to fight.

But I fear just the opposite. I fear that losing our ability to differentiate between those who are different from us and those whom we must fight weakens our moral fiber and pollutes our already ailing democracy. Worse yet, it could destroy us from within.

Because what is under attack is moderation, tolerance, a willingness to talk and to listen.

Strolling side by side, Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, bolsters me. Chatting together through the night confirms that when the dust settles, we will talk to each other, and we will listen. 

I do not have an answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I don’t feel I have to have one now.

So I grab too many tee shirts. I take children’s sizes for my three little boys. And then some. I want to wrap my body and theirs in this silent expression of hope. I push away the thought that in ten years, my eight-year-old will be inducted into the Israel Defense Forces. And his two younger brothers soon thereafter.

Toward the end of our walk, a car with four young men in it zigzags dangerously close to the intersection we stand to cross.

“Shame on you! Are you Arabs?” they rage in Hebrew. In their question lies a threat.

“Why don’t you go to Gaza!” yell two women, their faces hidden in the darkness on the sidelines of the walkway.

Others, driving by in their cars, honk their horns to show support.

Parents hold their small children close to them. Our eyes fix on the light turning green at the crosswalk.

A police officer blocks the crosswalk with his scooter and acknowledges our thank-yous with a nod.

Eid al-Fitr falls on the first day of Av, the Jewish month in which both the First and Second Temple were destroyed. According to the Jewish Sages, the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred of one’s own people.

I think of those seething strangers in the car who demanded that we identify ourselves. Arab . . . or Jew?

No. We are neither Arabs nor Jews.

We are people.

And we are not your enemies.

We are your hope.

So we keep walking . . .