They were an odd couple, these two middle-aged women—one in a black hijab and ankle-length dress, the other in tight-fitting jeans and colorful T-shirt—standing there in the middle of the room, locked in a tight embrace.
Later on, several people would point to that moment as the most jolting and unforgettable scene of the afternoon in Jaffa.
None of them could have been more astonished than I—the
woman in the jeans and colorful T-shirt.
I had gone to Jaffa that day with several other members of my Reform congregation in Modi’in to meet Muslim families from the town of Jaljulya in an effort to get to know each other. A simple act, but one that flies in the face of the growing alienation and animosity between Jews and Arabs in Israel today.
Over the course of the year, a mob of Jewish teenagers beat up an Arab youth, leaving him unconscious on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem; an Arab woman on a shiva visit to the capital was stoned by a group of yeshiva students. There had been other violent assaults, hateful graffiti, slashed tires, even calls by municipal chief rabbis not to rent homes to Arabs.
Some might ascribe these acts to a handful of extremists, but I knew that this climate affected more than just the lunatic fringe. When my son was in fifth grade, his class went on a school trip to Jaffa, a mixed city of Jews and Arabs. There, his Jewish classmates had run down the street yelling hysterically when they saw an Arab woman, with her head covered, walking in their direction. “Terrorist!” some had shouted.
That is one of the downsides of living in a middle-class suburban community like Modi’in where everyone looks more or less like you. At best, Jews here—and in many other parts of the country—never get a chance to meet Arabs and, at worst, they fear and dread them.
I did not want my children to grow up to be like those on the school trip, so I jumped at the chance to join Neighbors Encounter, a project initiated by Stanley Ringler, an American-born Reform rabbi who lives in Israel. His idea was enthusiastically adopted by YOZMA, the Reform congregation in Modi’in.
The “encounter” between six families from YOZMA and six families from Jaljulya, an Israeli Arab village of 9,000 located near Kfar Saba, was to consist of a series of meetings held alternately in Modi’in, Jaljulya and Jaffa.
The first meeting—for adults only—was held in Jaffa, where my son’s classmates had been spooked by the sight of a religious Arab woman. We Modi’in residents came to this first meeting armed with goodwill, but also with our own notions and, I suppose, prejudices. Not the overtly racist types that made headlines, ours was a subtle set of preconceptions that even we, with all our liberal pretensions, were not fully aware of.
Many Israeli Arabs are every bit as Western in outlook and lifestyle as your average Reform Jew (just read author and Ha’aretz columnist Sayed Kashua’s wry tales of hanging out in bars and mulling over where to live during his sabbatical abroad). But the people who showed up at this encounter were clearly not Kashua wannabes.
We soon found ourselves sitting in two rows in a large room, them on that side of the room, us on this side, staring at each other like teenagers at a school dance. What, many of us wondered, could progressive Jews have in common with these dark-bearded men and these women in hijabs and drab ankle-length dresses? My husband confessed that the sight of one woman, clad all in black, conjured up images of al-Qaeda.
As if to make us all feel even more out of place, the room in this community center—rented out to many different groups—was decorated with Santa Clauses, reindeer and a model of a baby Jesus in a manger, this being December. The whole scene, devout Muslims staring grimly at us too-scantily-clad Jews, while Jesus and Santa looked on, seemed unpromising if not utterly ridiculous.
It was now clear to me why the organizers had hired mediators. Left to our own devices, we might have taken one peek in the room and, like someone stepping into a bar for a blind date, just snuck right out.
Shimon, a white-haired social worker, and Kamal, a gruff bodybuilding champion and municipal activist, were the designated mediators (good cop/bad cop? I wondered). They worked for Merchavim–The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel based in Ramle.
After a few introductory words, they launched the first icebreaker—a sort of speed-dating exercise. The Arabs formed an inner circle, the Jews, an outer circle, and then after facing each other, we had three minutes to talk about a topic selected by mediators, before moving on to the next topic and next person.
“Ready, set, go,” said Shimon and Kamal. “Let’s begin with ‘work.’”
My first mini-encounter was with Mohammed, a cab driver in Petah Tikva. Lately, he has less work because passengers often call the station and specify that they don’t want an Arab driver, he told me and shrugged.
“Religion,” said the mediators as I faced Futna, the one my husband had dubbed the al-Qaeda lookalike. She began to tell me about Islam, while I explained to her what Reform Judaism was all about. “It sounds much like Islam,” she said to my surprise, but before I could question this further….
Next. New topic. Family.
Rada, a woman with a pale round moon of a face set off by her dark hijab, gestured to the young boy sitting alone in a corner of the room. “He’s mine,” she told me.
We had been asked not to bring children to this first meeting. I guessed that unlike the other participants she had no one to look after him.
“Does he have any older brothers and sisters?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “he is an only child.”
This was unusual for a not-so-young traditional Arab couple from a village, where large families are the norm. Hmm, fertility issues, I immediately thought. I, too, had had those.
“How many do you have?” she asked me.
“Two,” I said. “A boy of 14 and a girl of 8.”
Yes, it is a big age gap, I acknowledged. I thought to myself about how quickly—less than the time of a pregnancy—we had been able to adopt our first child, but how long it had taken my husband and me to adopt our second one. But why tell her that? I feel no desire to inform strangers how we came to be a family.
Once, for a journalism assignment, I interviewed a Yemenite man about the alleged kidnapping of Yemenite babies in Israel in the 1950s, babies rumored to have been adopted by Ashkenazim. “Adoptive parents can never be real parents. They stole their children,” he said, and then, practically yelling at me, added, “when it comes to families, only blood counts.” It was a piercing comment, but he was expressing a view that I found to be particularly widespread among traditional cultures where blood ties really are everything.
He could not understand how years of caring and cuddling, silliness and sacrifice, inside jokes and, above all, love, mold you into a real family. And in a three-minute round robin I had no intention of throwing this potential bombshell at a perfect stranger who was wearing her traditional values literally on her long black sleeves. No, I was not going to tell her….
Huh? I heard the words again, but they didn’t sound like mine.
The hijab-clad stranger repeated herself. “Our son,” she said, casting a glance at the small, dark-eyed boy in the corner of the room. “We adopted him.”
She was looking at me expectantly, waiting for a response.
I laughed. quietly at first, then more boisterously. I laughed at the coincidence, at myself and my narrow-minded generalizations, and I laughed out of relief because now I could blurt out, “Me, too.”
“What?” she asked.
“Me, too,” I repeated. “We also adopted our children.”
Now it was her turn. She slapped her hands on her lap, erupted in shrill laughter, then stood up just as I did. We hugged each other, still laughing, and held on to each other for a long time. Her big dark eyes looked teary.
As we stood there, facing each other, she told me how she was having difficulty adopting a second child, how she had been to Modi’in before because one of the women in her support group for adoptive parents lived there. While the other conversations in the room petered out, our voices grew louder. Soon there was near silence around us, as the Muslims from Jaljulya, the Jews from Modi’in and the two mediators stared at us chatting animatedly between hugs. Finally, someone asked hesitantly, “Do you two know each other?”
“No,” we shook our heads. But of course that wasn’t quite true. We had never met before, but Rada and I already understood a lot about each other. I no longer noticed what she wore because I was too focused on what she was saying. I was stunned by her openness and courage. It really wasn’t easy to be an adoptive parent in a small Muslim Arab village, but Rada had made dealing with that issue other people’s problem, not hers.
It turned out that I could understand this English teacher from Jaljulya—and she could understand me, a journalist from Modi’in—better than many friends and relatives who had known us for years.