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This blog was published as a feature article in THE TIMES OF ISRAEL on March 28, 2016 and has been shared over 25,000 times around the world. It was also highlighted as one of the best stories of the week on NPR. Many thanks to Dov Lieber for encouraging me to write about my experience, Bradley Rosen for editing my story, and Miriam Herschlag for publishing it. You can read it in Arabic, French or Hungarian.
As a Lebanese woman who grew up in Beirut and made the move to the United States at age 22, I think it is fair to say it was an unusual choice to spend a 3-month sabbatical in Israel at the end of 2015. Add that my father was born in Haifa in 1948 and left with his family for Lebanon at that time, and my choice to live and work in Tel Aviv is even more interesting. To be honest, I had some misgivings and fear around this decision, but at the end of a 3-month working collaboration at Bar Ilan University, there was no doubt that this visit had been a very positive and eye opening experience for me on many levels. It is an experience that I wish were much more common amongst my fellow Lebanese because of the humanizing and understanding it added to my perspective on Israeli society and especially regarding Israelis themselves, who I grew up knowing only through the lens of news reports and conversations that were invariably unfavorable. I would like to share my story.
I have always been drawn to countercultural experiences, whether growing up in Beirut or living in California as an adult. However, as a proud Arab woman, nothing I have ever done was as profoundly countercultural as applying for an educational leave to work with an Israeli colleague for a semester at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. I wrestled with telling my family that I had made this decision. When I did, I was met with resistance at first, then reluctant encouragement, and many questions.
“Why, of all places, would you want to visit Israel?” I was asked more than once.
“You won’t be allowed into the country, or if you are it will be a very difficult, humiliating experience.”
That if people knew I visited Israel, I might never be allowed back into Lebanon.
“Don’t share photos of your trip on social media.”
“Don’t talk about politics with anyone!” (In Israel? Now that I have been there, I think that is a funny one!)
I was told not to let my own friends and extended family know I was going.
There was a lot to consider.
Before arriving, I also wondered whether it would be wise to let people in Israel know that I am Lebanese. After all, this was a country that had invaded Lebanon on more than one occasion, a fact that had made a big impression on me and my generation growing up. I was excited to see Israel for myself and to visit the Palestinian Territories about which I had heard so much. In the end, my curiosity outweighed my uncertainties and I traveled to Israel with a heart and mind full of both.
Because I work in a government-affiliated setting in Los Angeles, I traveled with a diplomatic passport. I can only assume this helped me when I landed at Ben Gurion airport and was permitted entry following a brief and I must say, pleasant, interview consisting of a few short questions and ending with a wish for a good stay. The ease of this process was the first surprise of my trip. My second surprise came when my taxi drove through Ramat Gan, where I initially stayed. I looked out the window and saw the striking resemblance the streets there had to Hadath, the Lebanese town where I was raised. I could have been in Lebanon as far as I could tell from the view. I am not sure how I imagined Israel would look. Very modern and powerful I supposed, but that a suburb of Tel Aviv resembled Lebanon so closely was not what I had expected.
For most of my first week or two, I kept to myself. Largely, this was due to anxiety on my part. Anxiety that told me “if I interacted with people, they would realize I was Lebanese and I might be discriminated against or possibly worse.” I interacted for directions and practical advice but little else. I am dark haired and olive skinned. Everyone who addressed me did so in Hebrew. When I responded with “Ani lo mevina ivrit” (I don’t understand Hebrew), I was met with surprise. Some Israelis told me, laughing, that I looked more Israeli than they did. Inevitably, the question “where are you from?” would come up. It turned out that I had no need to be anxious. I let people know that I was from Lebanon and was met with smiles. I let people know that my father was born in Haifa in 1948 and that same year his family took him to Lebanon where he lived most of his life. More smiles and friendly curiosity. I was welcomed “home”. I was invited into a variety of people’s homes for Shabbat dinners. This was not the reception I had expected at all.
My colleagues seemed delighted to be working with me, not only as fellow researchers but also as people with a genuine interest in knowing more about Lebanese culture and life in Lebanon. One of the most moving interactions came from an Israeli man who had served in the Army in Lebanon. Without talking about politics, without talking about right or wrong, he apologized to me personally for the damage that the incursions caused to the Lebanese people. Another Israeli man expressed his concern and empathy for the Arabs of ‘48 (of which my father was one of the youngest) and I understood that here was a man who very simply wanted good relations and who did not have ill will towards Arab people, or to me, in any detectable way.
I wanted to cry when I heard these men. The idea that such thoughts existed in Israel, especially by former soldiers, was something that never, ever would have occurred to me. The human element of the interactions I had in Israel as an Arab woman had broken through the rhetoric I have heard for years, and had touched me. I had no reason to fear telling people where I was from. Among the many complex feelings I felt in Israel, one of the most undeniable, surprising and important, was feeling absolutely “welcomed”.
A few weeks into my stay, I contacted a relative of my father, a man I had met once before at my uncle’s funeral. It turned out that there was going to be a memorial in Haifa for his mother who had recently passed away. He told me there would be other family members there, and to please come. I never could have guessed I had so much family in Israel, people who remembered my father and his parents, people who my brother and sister and I had no idea even existed. It is hard to describe what such a discovery is like. I met people from Nablus, from Nazareth, and from Haifa who shared stories with me of my father when he was a young man and had come to visit just before the 1967 war. During this reunion, I was overwhelmed in turns by warmth and sadness, meeting people I was related to and had never met before or in some cases even known of. I was treated like a long lost daughter, and felt like one too.
My family took me to see many areas: Akko, Ras an-Nakura, Tiberias, Nazareth, and the Druze village of Daliyat el-Carmel. We went up to the border between North Israel and Lebanon and took a group picture together that I sent home to my family. As we drove through Northern Israel, I realized how many Arabs live here, and that it would be possible for me to get along just fine in Israel speaking only Arabic. This was another surprise. In all of the conversations I had ever had or heard relating to the political situation surrounding Israel, the existence of Israeli Arabs was simply never acknowledged. All of a sudden, when listening to a Hezbollah threat to bomb Haifa, I realized that threats like these are ultimately threats to my own family members and many other Arab people. Now, knowing many Israeli Jews and Arabs personally, and understanding the fabric of Israeli society better, these threats sound indefensible from any perspective whatsoever and, despite the rhetoric, would be just as deadly to the Arabs as to the Jews living in Israel. Another insight I did not have before spending time in Israel.
I came to Israel with no political agenda, but given my background, I had a powerful desire to visit the West Bank and see it for myself. I talked to residents of Ramallah and heard about the challenges they encounter in their daily lives. I visited the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem and understood the serious effects that the circuitous separation wall has on economic infrastructure and the ability of Palestinians to engage in work, access water conveniently, and seek the closest healthcare and educational services. I also saw the interplay of religious differences within the Territories, where the Christian minority has the added difficulty of living within increasingly conservative Muslim communities in which religion and politics freely mix.
My sense of the injustice that Arabs living within the Territories face was never more acute than when I visited my family in Nablus and stayed in the same home where my father had stayed nearly 50 years earlier. This old house, which was once a place of happiness and gathering for my father’s family had now become a neglected, worn structure in a depressed community where the weight of oppression hangs in the air.
While I was there, my cousin pulled out a box of old black and white photos. This brought back to life lost days of a seemingly completely different world. I saw my young father and many relatives in their youth, all smiling and being together in celebration. The images moved me deeply. My family history was here. My father as a young man knew this home and knew these people as his own family. Aunts and uncles I had never met or even heard about were part of this story.
As I looked at the pictures and thought of my own life in California and my family’s life in Lebanon and in the US, I glanced at my cousins and their surroundings. They had minimal economic opportunities here and did not have the freedom to leave, nor was there much freedom in staying. Even for the Christmas holidays, my cousins required a permit to visit the rest of their family in North Israel and had to go through long waits and searches at the checkpoints. I felt suffocated for them. I felt despair for them. And both feelings were made much more poignant by knowing how gentle these people are, how decent. There is no denying the simple fact that just by virtue of being born where they were, they are living the lives of the stateless in an unforgiving political no man’s land with no end of difficulties in sight. I cried, and then I cried some more.
As a visitor, I was allowed to leave the area easily, which is what I did. I went back to the pleasant surroundings of Tel Aviv, where I had moved after a month in Ramat Gan. I found an apartment in the Shuk Ha-Carmel area. I was immediately struck that in the market there were Druze villagers and Arab women happily doing business alongside Jews wearing kippas. The intricacies of life in Israel and the many misconceptions held by people who have never visited were there for me to see once again. Just as if I were in Lebanon, I had a morning routine of enjoying freshly squeezed juices and eating hummus and tahini after work. My unbreakable belief that “no hummus in the world can compare with Lebanese hummus” was shaken. I later saw a T-shirt that said “Make Hummus, Not War” and I smiled recognizing not only the humor, but also deep truth in that. I felt a real connection to a place where people make such delicious food that I know anyone in my family would love and enjoy.
Professionally, my work was high level and very satisfying. I made new friendships that will last a lifetime. As a fan of the arts, I was blown away by the dynamism of Israeli culture. From avant-garde experimental and jazz performances, to the Batsheva dance company’s brilliance, the great street art scene, and compelling interactive plays at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv and a large unoccupied building in Haifa.
As a woman living in Tel Aviv, I felt safe and respected. I was never stared at or harassed. (I wish I could say the same thing about my experiences in Beirut.) Despite the fact that the right-leaning government tacitly endorses abysmal treatment of Arabs in the Territories, there is a stark contrast in the way other groups like gay people, Ethiopians, and women can thrive in Israel as compared to how they are treated elsewhere in the region. Tel Avivians, I realized by living here, are notably fair-minded, and in many ways not much different from my own friends at home.
Among the non-Jewish population in Israel, I was fascinated to learn of so many groups, within each of which appears a diverse range of opinions. I had once heard a humorous anecdote from a Jewish friend to the effect that for every 2 Jewish people you will find at least 4 opinions. The same it seems can be said for most everyone else in Israel, starting with my own Arab Israeli family. There was agreement that they would not want under any circumstances to be ruled by either the PA or Hamas. There were family members who felt that Israeli Arabs are not treated equally and have a harder time advancing economically and socially as a result, and others who were very proud of their Israeli citizenship and of Israel. As I would expect in any country, especially within a minority group, there were a variety of opinions on the current political situation, on ways to integrate the West Bank and Gaza into some form of peace arrangement, on the intentions of various political leaders et cetera.
And there were the Druze. I was surprised to learn that the Druze are considered and relied upon as a major asset to Israel’s armed service. Their role and dedication in the military led me to realize that not only do the Druze feel at home in Israel, they are willing to fight for the country. Again, this is something I would never have guessed before my trip even though my own mother is of Druze background. I had never heard of the Baha’i or many other groups that live in Israel. So, the Jewish and non-Jewish segments of Israeli society are not in any way the monolithic entities I had imagined. It is, in fact, quite complex.
The Israeli political spectrum is wide, with zealots on the right and dreamers on the left and everything in between. There is a huge divide among Israelis on the issue of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I was surprised to realize that there are so many Israelis who strongly oppose the indefinite continuation of the Occupation, and who enjoy good relationships and true friendships with Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. But the government’s position remains strongly in favor of the Occupation, which based on my experience in Lebanon, plays directly into the hands of activists enrolling moderate people into a hateful position regarding Israel and adding to the burden of future generations. Not only do I believe an agreement between the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is an ethical imperative, I also believe that in practical terms ending the Occupation will go a long way to undermining the political attacks on Israel into which otherwise moderate Arabs are drawn. Of course anti-Semitism and Israel hatred will continue. I am not naïve enough to believe that attacks driven by this will stop. But I do think they can be diminished over time, and if there is going to be a successful peace process, however imperfect, it will be hard to start while so many Palestinians remain hopeless for their own future and their children’s future.
My black and white image of Israel has been shattered. My understanding has increased. I am truly glad I visited. I am proud to have Israeli friends and I am grateful to my colleagues for their generosity and talent. I will never view that the Occupation is good for anybody, not even in the long run, for the settlers insisting on building there. But I see that there is tremendous decency in Israeli society, that there are people who I really, deeply like, with whom I have common interests and ideas. People who want to live peacefully, do their art, their science, their jobs, raise their children and see them happy. People I can genuinely relate to.
Some Arabs may view me as a traitor and in fact, I have already been called one. But my loyalty is to decency and to people living the best lives they possibly can, rather than to being on one side or another of a fight. I am grateful for the experience I had and am a better informed person as a result. I am very proud to have taken the culturally bold step of crossing the bridge and experiencing Israel. I was moved deeply when I realized how many Israeli hands reached out to support me during my stay.
My attachment to the region and my love for my family there shine as bright as ever but now, when I think of peace, I also wholeheartedly dream for the peace and well-being of Israel and its people.