Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jewish-Arab Coexistence in the Midst of Conflict

Sunday morning. In Israel, it's the first day of a new week. Just a few minutes ago, I arrived on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, just a short walk down from the Mount of Olives. Before beginning a day of studying and writing, I went to the cafeteria to buy an orange juice. I greeted with a smile the Arab girl working at the counter, ordered, paid, and then said "shukran" (thank you) in Arabic. I then sat down and read the headlines in the Hebrew daily newspaper "Israel HaYom" (Israel Today). It was a quiet Shabbat in Jerusalem, but not in southern Israel, where thousands of residents were forced to spend the weekend in bomb shelters. Over the weekend, Islamic factions in the Gaza strip fired some 120 rockets and mortars onto the neighboring Israeli communities. The newly deployed "Iron Dome" missile system intercepted about eight Grad rockets that were heading for the civilian populations in the coastal city of Ashkelon and the biblical city of Beer Sheva in the Negev Desert. Last week, an anti-tank missile was fired at a school bus, critically injuring a teen and prompting a harsh Israeli response which led to the killing of several Hamas commanders.

With all the grim headlines and the seemingly endless conflict, I could not help thinking about how different my daily life is. In the last post, I posted a video showing examples of tolerance and kindness in Israeli society towards Arabs. I personally see similar situations every day around me. Earlier this morning I had breakfast at the Christian guest house in the old city where I usually eat, greeting Charlie, the Arab Christian receptionist, with a friendly "sabbah el'kheir" (good morning) in Arabic. In a couple of hours I will go to my Arabic class, continuing my study of literary Arabic along with some 20 enthusiastic Israeli Jewish students. Perhaps after class a group of us will head to the library together to do our homework, as it has become our custom. Last week, as we were all struggling with Arabic verbs, Shoshanat, one of the Israeli students, calls out a passing young female Muslim student friend, gives her a hug, and after a bit of friendly chitchat proceeds to grill her on the correct way to conjugate the verb "to prepare" in Arabic. Another time, it was Elisha, a young kippa-wearing religious Israeli Jew who lives in one of the Jewish settlements in Samaria, who chats, smiles and jokes around in Arabic with the veiled Muslim girl for several minutes as she kindly helps him do his homework.

Despite the undeniable fears and tensions in the country, such beautiful examples of friendly coexistence between Jews and Arabs abound, not only here at Hebrew University, but all over pluralistic and multi-ethnic Israel.