A Lebanese cedar takes root in Israel

A young man transplanted from a middle-class life in Lebanon has made his home in the Holy Land.

man 88 (photo credit: )
man 88
(photo credit: )
It may be hard to imagine today, but King Hiram of Lebanon and King Solomon of Israel once shared a friendship. Perhaps it was a rivalrous one and based on who could out-riddle whom, but it led to King Hiram's sending Lebanese cedar and craftsmen to help build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In turn, King Solomon gave King Hiram a parcel of land near the Kinneret, along with other gifts. The friendship was sealed. That was about 3,000 years ago, and as both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border take stock of damage and environmental destruction today, one wonders whether relations between these two countries will ever be peaceful again. A Lebanese refugee living in Israel thinks it is possible, but only under one condition: that Hizbullah be completely disarmed. "I really want there to be peace," says Sharbel Salameh, 24, a secular Maronite Catholic who fled to Israel with his family in 2000 after Israeli troops left their protective ring in south Lebanon. "I hope for us [in Israel] and for everyone that it will happen because every generation born during a war gives birth to another generation that continues to hate." Salameh and his peers in Lebanon grew up thinking that Israelis were the good guys. It was written so in their schoolbooks. Salameh's father, an officer in the South Lebanese Army (SLA), recounted that when the Israel Defense Forces went to Beirut in 1982 to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Lebanese people sang songs and threw flowers at the Israeli soldiers to express their joy and relief. Salameh's family eventually moved to south Lebanon, where his father worked at the SLA base in Marjayoun. Close by in their middle-class home in the village of Kleya, life was going according to plan for Salameh: At 18 he was studying for university entrance exams and hoped to follow the path of his peers who left the village for higher education. One morning in May 2000, a phone call from his father changed the family's world forever. With time to grab only the barest essentials, Salameh, his mother, brother and sister quickly said goodbye to their closest friends and raced away in a car driven by their father to the Israeli border, seeking immunity from Hizbullah. Imprisonment or worse punishment would have been imminent had they stayed. As allies to Israel seeking to destabilize Hizbullah operations in Lebanon, members of the SLA had to run for their lives. Some 7,000 refugees came to Israel at the time, says Salameh, and of them about 2,500 have remained. His first night in Israel he slept in grass "somewhere near Tiberias." The following day the Salamehs were brought to a room, where they stayed until more permanent housing was arranged. Despite the hardships in the beginning, Salameh prefers to count his blessings rather than dwell on what was lost due to leaving Lebanon. "I have accomplished in only six years in Israel what took me 18 years in Lebanon," he says after a day's work at the Weizmann Institute, where he is completing his second year toward a master's in molecular biology. He says that the growing pains of becoming a young adult in a foreign land and a foreign language were eased by a full scholarship - the Presidential Scholarship from Tel Aviv University (TAU) that he received during his undergraduate degree in biology. The Presidential Scholars program gives students from underprivileged backgrounds the chance to study at the best, most competitive departments at TAU. "It is a scholarship for people with the grades, smarts and ability but not the funds," says a university spokeswoman. Without his having any proper school documents, TAU took a chance on Salameh, accepting him to a one-year preparatory course and then to a degree track. Salameh dresses to fit among the trendy 20-somethings in Tel Aviv, where he did most of his "growing up in Israel." These days, he divides his time between Rehovot, where he studies during the week, and Hadera where his parents live. He is not shy to admit that as a newcomer he fitted smoothly and successfully into the fabric of Israeli life. "Over the six years that I have been here," he says in fluent Hebrew, "I have seen many new immigrants come from Russia. Many of them couldn't manage and went back." But Salameh has nowhere to run to. Even if given the chance and a full promise of peace in Lebanon, he wouldn't go back there to live, he says. "I would go to visit my friends and the land - Lebanon is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I think my life is already here. The last six years in Israel were meaningful to me." When not studying or in the lab, Salameh works as a part-time guide in a group home for developmentally challenged children. Normally, a student at the Weizmann Institute on a fellowship cannot work anywhere else. The school waived this clause when they saw how important the work is to Salameh and to the children he has been mentoring for the past few years. Being Lebanese in Israel is surprising for younger Israelis who don't yet know the history of the Lebanese allied with Israel, says Salameh. But being the same age of the boys who did army service at the Lebanese border in 2000 puts him on a par with his peers. And having a father who was a military man has helped Salameh form his own opinions about the conflict, which he has witnessed first-hand from both sides. "I don't think the cease-fire was a good idea," he says. "Israel should have kept advancing on the frontline until they knocked out Hizbullah. As long as Hizbullah has weapons, there won't be peace." Salameh refers to the death of Israeli soldiers as "our soldiers." He sympathizes for the loss of civilian life in Lebanon but holds no remorse for the "500 or 600 Hizbullah killed." "I hope the Lebanese army will be there to look after the borders. Hizbullah is not the army of Lebanon. My hope is small, but I hope." Salameh knows why Lebanese cedar was used for building the Jewish Temple. "The cedar can live for thousands of years and grow in extreme conditions, such as minus 20 in the snow. The meaning behind the cedar symbol is strength," he says. Living miles away from the ancient Lebanese cedar, Salameh has changed flags from a tree to a star. "Israel gave us a big chance," he says.