Learn and question together

By Miryam Sivan, February 25, 2011
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When I moved to Israel from New York City 13 years ago, one reason I chose to live in the Galilee was demography. With its high percentage of Arab residents, this area enjoys a high degree of co-existence.

I teach English literature at the University of Haifa. My classes are evenly split between Arab and Jewish students. Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, Africans, Russians, and Europeans sit side-by-side. Literature provides an opportunity to question everything.

Last April, on Yom Hashoah - Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day - I was driving to the university when the two-minute siren sounded. People stopped what they were doing to stand silently. Drivers pulled over and got out of their cars.

The passengers in a pick-up truck near to where I was standing by my car were laughing and talking noisily in Arabic. The music from their radio competed with the sirens. Their disregard for the wounds of the Holocaust was offensive. But I overcame my disgust, closed my eyes and wished for all people to learn to understand the stories and traumas of the other side.

Continual cycles of mutual recrimination lead nowhere

Later, some of my European and American students told me about the elderly man who had come to share his story at the Holocaust memorial ceremony on campus. Because it was in Hebrew, and because after nine months in the country they could finally understand, they felt closer to the experience. One young woman said hearing about Auschwitz in Hebrew made her want to live here.

The next morning, there was a flyer on my car about a meeting to discuss "the demographic future of the neighbourhood". An Arab family had bought a house down the street and others had expressed interest. The flyer declared "due respect" to the Arab community in Israel and to "our Bedouin neighbours in particular".

Then came the litany of middle-class home-owning anxiety: a mixed neighbourhood would threaten our quality of life; property values would go down; confrontations related to the Arab-Israeli conflict would ensue. An urgent meeting of residents was necessary.

Coming one day after Yom Hashoah, this was surreal. My neighbourhood is sited amid three Bedouin villages; we shop in one another's stores, work together, maintain a Jewish-Bedouin kindergarten and Jewish-Bedouin friendships. But I soon discovered that, while a polyglot humanity might be normal for a former New Yorker, for others it is anathema for Jews and Arabs to learn together, shop and drink together and, yes, sometimes fall in love, marry, and have children together.

A few friends and I drafted a response to the flyer, calling it racist, shameful, immoral and illegal. As a people that has suffered so much from discrimination, shouldn't we know better? To my great pleasure, we gathered support from all quarters, including Jews born and raised in Israel, retired army officers among them.

When the second Intifada broke out in 2001, my friend's window was broken by stones thrown by teenagers from the neighbouring village.

She said her chalom, or dream of peace, was wrecked by her shattered chalon - window. Within days, many of the Bedouin residents of the village, including the mayor, sought her out to apologise in the name of the village. They said they were shamed by the behaviour of the boys. Cycles of mutual recrimination - Arabs who show no sympathy for the Shoah, claiming it led to the Naqba; Jews who say Arab pressure on the British to bar entry to refugees condemned millions to the Nazi death camps; Arabs who describe Zionism as racism; Jews who describe Israeli Arabs as a fifth column, even those who, like my Bedouin neighbours, serve in the IDF - lead nowhere.

Too many of us in Israel fail to look beyond stereotypes, to know people's names, to make face-to-face contact. My students know that Nardeen's English is accentless and that Eliyana also speaks French, that Ariel is at ease analysing poetry and Hanin fiction.

And two young men called Amir, one an Arab, one a Jew, share not only a name but also a country and a future.

Sitting next to one another, listening and talking about literary works that open up the world, seems to me to be a way out of the comfortable habits of fear and hatred.

    Last updated: 11:17am, February 25 2011