February 05, 2009

An Israeli Arab "Profile in Courage": Marwan Amer

With my "cousin" Marwan in Beersheba, in southern Israel
We met last spring at a celebration of families whose children attend the Hagar Arab-Jewish kindergarten in Beersheba. I traveled from Tel Aviv to meet the students, their parents, and community — an oasis of hope trumping ignorance, cynicism, and despair. My digital story Jewish-Arab Kindergarten relates part of their heroic tale.

Within minutes, Marwan and I discovered that we share a deep affection for my cousin Khanan, principal of Jerusalem's largest primary school. Marwan, an interfaith leader and trained facilitator for the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace, has worked with Khanan and other educators to break down stereotypes and teach nonviolent methods of conflict resolution in schools.

When Marwan introduced me to his wife, Sarah, she immediately said, "stay with us as long as you like" or to join them most weekends in Kafr Qasem, their hometown in northern Israel. We pledged to meet again.

Seven months later, Operation Cast Lead broke out
Beginning in December 2008 and ending in January 2009, Israel launched a military campaign in the Gaza Strip aimed to stop Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel and target Hamas members and infrastructure. It achieved little of value for anyone.

During the military campaign, I couldn't imagine life for Marwan and his family — dodging Hamas rockets while many fellow Jewish Israeli citizens are hostile toward Israeli Arab citizens. I was worried sick and called or emailed Israeli family and friends daily. At first, I hesitated calling Marwan, unsure whether a conversation might feel awkward for us or add to his stress.

Staying alive, together
Marwan's young daughter answered the phone. (He later told me that she watched on TV her school hit by a rocket.) When he came to the phone, he gasped. I stammered, weeping, "I am so terribly sad. For everyone. How are you?"

He explained that initially, he and Sarah brought their three young children to their grandparents in Kafr Qasem to escape Hamas rocket attacks in the south. Two weeks later, the children and parents missed each other terribly, so the children returned home to Beersheba. With local schools closed and rockets raining steadily, the family mostly stayed inside.

Peace work does not stop for war
"How are you, Marwan?" I pressed. "What about your peace work while escalating violence threatens the dream?"

And with his reply, Marwan, an unstoppable force for good, captured my Profile in Courage Award.

The Greater Beersheba Arab-Jewish teen group is continuing to meet. While the Jewish families would not allow their kids into Arab villages since the war, all the parents gave permission for the group to travel to Tel Aviv to meet [1.5 hours distance and requiring vehicles, fuel, and logistical arrangements]. There, in the Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Tel Aviv troop building, the teens are discussing the situation and how they feel and think about it. Our peace work has not stopped. And it will continue.

Related Post
Jewish-Arab Kindergarten


Dave said...

I guess it depends who’s being asked. In 1929, Arabs murdered 60 Jews in the city of Hebron, even though they knew them well. During WWII some Europeans hid Jews they’ve known and some handed them over to the Nazis. Wanna take the risk?

Tamar Orvell said...

Dave — You pose an excellent point: knowing someone does not prevent strife or betrayal. And, my concluding questions in the post might seem naïve ("If we knew everyone, would war stop? Or at least abate?").

Yet I think that, barring sociopaths and scoundrels, understanding the "other's" culture, background, and language predisposes us to see the same humanity in “them” as in ourselves.

Marwan, the teens in his group, and my cousin Khanan are breaking down stereotypes by being present and listening. So, among many reasons, Marwan gets my Profile in Courage Award for helping to "at least abate" war.

JeSais said...

Tamar, thank you for sharing this, and for putting faces to the horrible news. I too am a firm believer in grassroots, face to face, people meeting people democracy... sending my prayers to Marwan and all your friends and family.

Lirun said...

i think ur story embodies some of the mysteries of our conflict.. where do the solutions lie.. who knows..

Anonymous said...

Your story is very interesting. Our problem with the arabs is not with the people, but with their leaders. The leaders don't want peace, so they can rule, otherwise no body will need them. and the people are not strong enough to fight the leader's politics.

When our neighbors will agree that we have the right to live here and they will teach their children peace and not killing Israelis as they do (we saw it on the television) then will be the time to live in peace together.

Madeline said...

It is so good to know about this man and his fearless commitment.Thanks for sharing this beautifully written profile.