Encouraging peace: Ramadan Kareem!

The paths to real peace and understanding are those paved with words in the languages we speak in this blessed land.

July 10, 2013 23:51
Muslims pray during Ramadan

Ramadan 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Kafr Kara, a Palestinian-Arab village in Israel, is a place where I lived for two years 34 years ago. I was a member of the first group of Interns for Peace.

Interns was the brain-child of the late Rabbi Bruce Cohen, who, in response to the tragic events of Land Day in March 1976 in which six Israeli Arab youth were killed by the Israeli police in demonstrations against land expropriations, decided to create a training program for developing professionals in the field of cross-cultural community relations between Jews and Arabs. I was the first person to join the program and ended up in Kafr Kara and worked with youth from there and from neighboring Jewish communities.

Over the past 34 years I have stayed in contact with many of the people I met there. During my two years in the village I visited more than 500 homes and was treated as a member of the family in more than 10 of them. I remember very vividly how, as I became closer to a family, I moved as an outsider guest from their Western style living room into the Eastern diwan with mattresses and pillows on the floor and shoes left outside the door, until finally being welcomed into the inner sanctum – the kitchen.

During the two years in Kafr Kara I tried to learn Arabic, but I was also learning Hebrew at the same time, having come on aliya six months before. My Hebrew was based on Hebrew school as a child and then ulpan on Young Judaea Year Course and other Hebrew studies.

My Arabic developed slowly by listening to people, but most of the villagers had little patience for my Arabic and very much wanted to speak to me, so I learned a lot more Hebrew in Kafr Kara than Arabic. Over the past 30+ years I have been working with Palestinians and although much of the work took place in English, my knowledge of Arabic grew and I can handle myself in discussions and even understand about 70 percent of the news on the radio and television. But I never really learned Arabic formally and although I taught myself the Arabic alphabet, I never really learned to read. literary Arabic, or fusha as it is called, is very much a different language than spoken Arabic.

After all these years, I have now returned to Kafr Kara, where I am living for three weeks while I study Arabic at the nearby Jewish Arab center Givat Haviva.

I am totally enjoying myself. I have been given the most wonderful hospitality by a family that I didn’t even know before coming this time. They are helping me with my studies by insisting to speak to me in Arabic and demanding that I don’t respond in Hebrew.

Tonight is the eve of Ramadan, which is a very special time in Arab villages. There is a unique feeling of anticipation.

As most people will begin their 30-day fast tomorrow, eating their last meal at about 4 a.m. and not drinking, eating or smoking until 8 p.m. At the break-fast meals the whole family gathers together to eat the very best that the Palestinian kitchen has to offer. The village is busy tonight, all of the shops are open late and people are out stocking up for the coming days with the ingredients that will make up the daily feasts. Gift shops thrive, as it is traditional to buy presents for relatives, new clothes for children, sweets for neighbors and decorations for the home.

I feel so lucky to have this opportunity, and I feel so welcome by everyone I meet here. Even though this is not my culture and not my society or my religious or national group, I feel blessed by the opportunity I have to celebrate the diversity that our land has to offer us.

It is so unfortunate that the average Israeli Jew does not seek to reach out and experience the culture and the civilization that is next door to us amongst hundreds of millions of our neighbors. It is an eye-opening experience from which, if approached with honest curiosity and appreciation, has the ability to positively influence the nature of all of the relations between Jews and Arabs in this land.

Studying Arabic for Hebrew speakers, or more precisely, for people who love the Hebrew language is enlightening. I am fascinated every day as I continue to discover the commonalities of our two sister languages.

Studying literary Arabic and seeing the three letter verbs, like in Hebrew, and then realizing the meaning of the Arabic words from words that I know from Hebrew, either spoken or biblical, is exciting. My love of Hebrew is now developing into a similar relationship with Arabic. It is simply amazing how much Arabic we as Hebrew speakers know, without even knowing how much we know. And as I realize more and more how much Arabic we all know, I understand even more what a crime we commit against ourselves by not really learning to communicate with our neighbors in their language. There is hardly a person amongst the 18,000 residents of this village who does not know Hebrew fluently. As a minority they have to become bilingual and bicultural. As the majority culture, we choose not to be bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) and bicultural. This is most definitely our loss.

We love when foreigners learn Hebrew and speak to us even with mistakes. We appreciate their efforts to understand us, to speak our language, and to delve into our culture. It makes us smile at them and we go out of our way to respond positively. That is exactly what happens when you begin to learn Arabic and show Arabs the appreciation you have for them and their language and culture. It is literally a door opener and if you seek to learn to communicate in Arabic you will find millions of doors in our neighborhood that will open before you with words of welcome. The paths to real peace and understanding (the paths unfortunately less traveled in our parts) are those paved with words in the languages we speak in this blessed land. Ramadan Kareem to our Muslim neighbors.

Gershon Baskin is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book, Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew.

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