February 17, 2009

Mt. Tabor, Israel — lessons and gifts

Last spring, I spent a day at Mt. Tabor, north of Tel Aviv. Something about this mound of earth at the junction of ancient strategic highways — "the battlefield of the nations" (Mark Twain) captured my imagination. And the months following the visit, I felt a compulsion to learn more...

Now that I'm back in Israel, I'm looking forward to catching up soon with many people you'll "meet" here (5 minutes).

February 05, 2009

Marwan Amer, an Israeli Arab "Profile in Courage" (and there are more)

With "my cousin" Marwan
in Be'erSheba, Israel

We met last spring at a celebration of families whose children attend the Hagar Arab-Jewish kindergarten in Be'erSheba, in Israel's Negev desert. I wanted to meet the young students, their parents, and community — an oasis of hope trumping ignorance, cynicism, and despair. My digital story Coexistence kindergarten relates part of their heroic tale.

Within minutes, Marwan Amer (an Israeli Arab) and I (an Israeli Jew) discovered that we share a deep affection for my wonderful 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 aiming at breaking down stereotypes and teaching non-violent methods of conflict resolution.

Our connection widened when Marwan introduced me to his wife, Sarah, who immediately invited me to return for a visit ("stay with us as long as you like") or to join them most weekends in Kafr Qasem, their hometown. We pledged to meet again — their place or mine in Tel Aviv.

Then, the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict broke out
Seven months later, Israel launched a military campaign in the Gaza Strip. The campaign (code-named Operation Cast Lead) aimed to stop Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel (containing Be'erSheba) and included the targeting of Hamas' members and infrastructure.

During the ensuing weeks, worried sick and wanting to reach out to Israeli family and friends, I was calling or emailing someone daily. I was a little hesitant to call Marwan, unsure whether a conversation might feel awkward to both of us or add to his stress. (It can't be easy for people like Marwan and his family — dodging Hamas rockets while fellow Israelis who are Jewish might hold unfriendly views toward Israeli Arab citizens.) Yet I had to show my support to people I knew and cared about.

Marwan's young daughter answered the phone. (He later told me that she saw her school hit by a rocket on TV news!) When Marwan took the call, he gasped and I started weeping, then stuttered, "I am so terribly sad for our people. How are you?"

Staying alive, body and soul
At the outset of the war, Marwan and Sarah brought their three young children to their grandparents in Kafr Qasem, north of Hamas rocket attacks. Yet within two weeks, the children and parents missed each other terribly, so Marwan and Sarah brought them home. (Leaving her workstation at the local hospital was not an option for Sarah, so the family has remained within rocket range.)

Back in Be'erSheba, with schools closed and rockets raining steadily, the family has stayed indoors to the extent possible.

Democracy and peace work do not stop for war
"And you, Marwan?" I pressed. "How are you? And how goes your work to forge a significant path to harmony while war locally and next door complicate the task and frustrate the effort?"

And then, for what he shared next, this unstoppable force for good captured my Profile in Courage Award.

The greater Be'erSheba Arab-Jewish teen group is continuing to meet, though the Jewish families would not allow their kids into Arab villages since the war. So, with all the parents' permission, the group started traveling to Tel Aviv [1.5 hours distance and requiring vehicles, fuel, and other logistical arrangements] where it has been meeting in the Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Tel Aviv troop building. There, the greater Be'erSheba Arab and Jewish teens are discussing the situation and what they feel and think about it. The work has not stopped. And it will continue.

Question: If we knew everyone, would war stop?
Or at least abate?