Jews, Arabs Haven’t Lost Compassion

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Voices of sympathy on both sides bring hope to a land fraught with conflict.

A week ago I returned from two intense weeks in Israel, a personal fact-finding tour combined with visits to old friends. I felt the tension, of course, but I also found sources of hope.

The first phone call I received was from a young Palestinian friend who works for a prominent figure in his people’s leadership. He is from a centuries-old Muslim family in Jerusalem, with homes in the Old City and in even more ancient Jericho. I saw their generations-old deed to land on the Mount of Olives, now occupied by a Jewish cemetery. I picked up the phone in my rented apartment to hear his remarkable first words: “Welcome home.” “How is this my home? You can welcome me to your home.” “You also have ancient roots here. It’s your home too.”

The next day I was with Louie Williams and Susan Lourenco, a formerly English couple who live in Jaffa, in a uniquely integrated Arab and Jewish community. Louie moved to Israel in 1950, fought in several of its wars, and served as a lifelong spokesman for the Israel Defense Force, even authoring its official English-language history. But now he and Susan spend their days fighting alongside their neighbors for Arab rights. They go to court and to demonstrations to end the unfair treatment—including summary arrests and police brutality—that since the start of the current troubles has blurred the distinction between Arabs in Israel and those outside. This threatens to destabilize the generations-long loyalty to Israel shown by its one and a half million Arab citizens.  I sat with Louie and his friend Omar, whose sons were wrongly arrested and detained, and heard about their common fight for equality under the law.

A day after that I was with other friends–sabras, or native Israelis—at their home in Binyamina. Michael, a software engineer and former helicopter pilot, told me that the Camp David offer made to Arafat by Israel was undignified and could not have been accepted. Pazit, a clinical psychologist, finds that almost all her patients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, lingering mental damage from past wars, constantly reactivated by new attacks and threats that rub salt in their hearts’ wounds. A combat veteran, she has them too. Yet she raised the shade and pointed just past her backyard, into the West Bank. This was Israel’s narrow waist before the 1967 war, five miles from the Arab artillery to the sea. “You see that?” she asked emphatically. “I am ready to give that back tomorrow, if we have peace.” “You are ready to have Palestinian guns in your backyard?” “Of course. What’s the matter, if we have peace? The French villages next to the German border aren’t worried. They were at war not so long ago, but now they have peace. That’s what peace means.” A few days later, after she and her son missed by a few minutes being killed by a suicide bomber, she repeated the same thing.

With David and Malka, I expected only intransigence. David and I went to high school together, but he became what most Jews would call ultra-Orthodox, and now has a grey beard that extends from his ready smile down to his waist. He teaches Greek but practices strict Jewish law. Malka is a convert, equally religious, a mathematician and novelist, who writes as Rachel Pomerantz. Her next book is on the social and cultural history of Israel, and she has studied with Arabs to learn their history. She too decries the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens and openly criticizes the national anthem—Hatikvah, “the hope,” which sings of the two-thousand-year yearning of Jews for their homeland. “I have said for twenty-five years that the anthem has to be changed,” she said. “I don’t see how anyone can expect an Arab citizen of Israel to sing that song.”

Even in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Michmash, viewed by many as an obstacle to peace, I found openness and sympathy. My host Elli Wertman, a brilliant, sensitive physician in his fifties, chanted the Sabbath morning services. In the mishebeyrach, a prayer for those who are in trouble, he listed the names of Israelis kidnapped from their border station by Hizbollah operatives in Lebanon. Among them was “Omar ben ?Nidraa,” a Bedouin Muslim enrolled in the Israeli army. Here in this synagogue in the embattled West Bank, Orthodox Jewish men swaying in prayer shawls asked God for the safe return of an Arab-Israeli soldier. Later I talked at length with a younger man in the settlement, a stockbroker and father of five small children. He said that the Jewish treatment of West Bank Arabs had been completely unacceptable. “As Torah Jews, we should never have allowed children to be sick and hungry in our midst. Of course they are angry. We committed a sin, and now we are paying the price.” The price, he estimated, is the death of one Jewish settler every day.

Of course, these are not the only kinds of voices. There is enough hatred on both sides to produce the current headlines. But these women and men showed compassion and understanding for the plight of those who are supposed to be their adversaries. My daughter Susanna, who works in preventive diplomacy and who guided me on a tour last year through the Palestinian world, has taught me that ethnic hatreds are based in large part on wounds. At the root of hatred, look for hurt, humiliation, grief.

But as Debbie Wertman, a wise psychotherapist who lives in Michmash, said, “Yes, there are wounds, but there are also goals.” And the goals are often in conflict. Can the voices of compassion be heard above the din? Can justice prevail over anger?

There are positive signs. Ariel Sharon, a lifelong warrior who some call a fascist, has resisted right-wing pressure and continues his policy of restraint. Naïve observers are appalled by helicopter gunships. But these have been used in exquisitely targeted retaliations based on superb intelligence, and have eliminated some of the worst Palestinian terror cells with minimal loss of innocent life. Yasir Arafat, for decades a terrorist himself, has decried suicide bombings and so far has refused to incite revolution. But more must be done on both sides.

In a despicable act of barbarism two weeks ago, Jewish terrorists murdered a Palestinian family, including a baby, in cold blood. Will Israel capture and punish these murderers, as it has long insisted Arafat must do with their more numerous Palestinian counterparts? Will Arafat, for his part, rouse himself from his slumber and take simple steps to end or at least diminish the growing terror from his side?

Israel is not alone. Hundreds of violent deaths have occurred recently in Kashmir, China, Jamaica, Algeria, Spain, Northern Ireland, and even Yorkshire, England. In all these cases ethnic hatreds played a role. But the Middle East gets disproportionate attention, and Israel exaggerated, reflexive condemnation. We need to have patience. And we need to remember that even among the Middle East’s embattled, wounded peoples, there remain many open minds, many voices of sympathy.