Arabs and Jews speak up for Israel and foster coexistence

Despite the political posturing and schisms within Israeli and Arab society, there remain those on both sides whose consciences direct them to do good, bringing light where there is darkness.

“A” in his uniform during shooting practice in the IDF (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
“A” in his uniform during shooting practice in the IDF
Heavily embedded in the Jewish psyche is the predisposition toward empathy. After all, Jewish liturgical tradition is peppered with reminders that we were once slaves in Egypt, strangers in a strange land. Our cultural heritage and indeed our religion entreats us to show consideration toward others – including “the stranger within thy gates.”
Over the High Holy Days, Jews are encouraged to take stock of themselves, examine their relationships and seek ways to heal the hurt. This idea extends itself to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which continues to dominate the lives of the country’s inhabitants with no signs of abatement. The latest outrage occurred in the Arab town of Azun near Nablus, where an Israeli man and his son went to consult a Palestinian dentist.
Both were brutally attacked by a marauding teenager who confronted them after they had left the dental practice. The young terrorist wanted to know if they were Jews, and then began his frenzied knife attack. The dentist heard the commotion and came to the rescue of his patients, helping to save their lives. Latest indications are that the dentist is now being harassed by his fellow Palestinians for coming to the aid of his patients. This is not the first instance of a Palestinian rescuing terror victims.
At the Shurat HaDin Law of War conference held in June in Jerusalem, the organization awarded certificates of bravery to citizens who had intervened to save or rescue terror victims. One such individual was a young Palestinian man who helped to rescue members of the Mark family who were caught up in a horrific terror ambush earlier this year.
Rabbi Michael “Miki” Mark, 48 was killed in the shooting terror attack as he drove on Route 60, between the Otniel and the Beit Hagai settlements south of Hebron. The Palestinian and his pregnant wife stopped at the scene to help rescue the children and the rabbi’s wife from their crashed vehicle. But the backlash against them in their West Bank village and by the Palestinian Authority was so great that the man fled into sovereign Israel. He left his family behind and ended up homeless on the beach near Jaffa.
The campaign to help the man went viral on social media and in the mainstream media. Many thousands of people called TV stations and texted social media demanding that the man and his family be given help to rebuild their lives. Among the people who took up his cause was Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan and actress Gila Almagor. After several months he was given asylum, and the man, his wife and child were granted residency in Israel.
Israel is often accused by her enemies of being an apartheid state. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As one who grew up under the apartheid system in South Africa, I can attest to this. Arab citizens of Israel are accorded the same rights as any other citizen. They travel on our public transportation in safety without the fear of being attacked. They walk freely around our neighborhood streets, play with their children in the local parks, attend the local movie theaters, eat in Israeli restaurants, and are treated in all Israeli hospitals.
Until not long ago, some of the Hamas terrorist officials were sending their relatives to be treated in Israeli hospitals. The practice was stopped at the behest of the Hamas leadership, who forbade their citizens from seeking treatment in Israel – despite medical services in Gaza being woefully inadequate.
In Jerusalem, many of the main pharmacies are staffed and managed by Arab citizens. Arab women wear the Hijab and are often seen shopping in Israeli shopping malls and supermarkets with their husbands and families. Many of the doctors and specialists in Jerusalem are from the Arab sector. A friend’s daughter gave birth to her child at Hadassah-University Medical Center, on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus. She shared a ward with another expectant mother who also happened to be Arab. The obstetrician was a Muslim Arab from East Jerusalem.
“He was outstanding,” our friend told us. “Apart from being an excellent doctor, he was also so kind and considerate. In fact, my daughter was so impressed with him that she asked if she could come and see him at his consulting rooms in East Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, he advised against it. He told her that it would not be safe for her to come to the neighborhood where he worked.”
Many years ago, a few years after the Six Day War, I lived in Jerusalem for a short while. In those days relations between Jewish and Arab citizens were particularly cordial to the extent that we young people would patronize some of the Arab discotheques. This was before the days of fundamentalism (on both sides). We spent many Saturday nights learning the moves of the exotic oriental disco music. Both Arabs and Jews mingled on the dance floor and had a great time. We shopped in the Arab shuk, and would regularly visit the souvenir stores of Bethlehem and Beit Jala.
Despite the feeling of gloom and hopelessness, there are chinks of light. One of my first voluntary activities was to coach young Israelis. I ended up coaching two remarkable young people. One was an Israeli Arab from a virulently ant-Israeli town in the north, where “A” was brought up to hate Israelis and Jews. When the IDF offered young Arab youths the opportunity to attend an engineering course for free, A decided to sign up.
“After all,” he told me, “anything we could take from the Israelis for free was almost considered an obligation.”
A recounted his first encounter with Israelis. He was surprised and almost shocked to discover how friendly and “nice” the personnel were.
“They treated us well, and I soon realized that the narrative of hatred that I had learned at school and from the leaders of our community simply didn’t fit.”
A then decided to find a job washing dishes in a Tel Aviv restaurant. He’d had little exposure to Israeli Jews outside of his town in the north of Israel.
“I was walking to work one morning when two black hatted men came toward me. They were waving something. It turns out that they wanted me to make a blessing on a palm branch and a citron. I told them that I was a Muslim Arab and that I did not celebrate the Jewish festival of Sukkot. They just smiled and said that it was OK, that I looked like a good natured nice guy and that I was deserving of a blessing. They wished me well and went on their way.”
Experiences like this made A begin to wonder and question everything that he had been taught about Jewish people and Israel. He decided to do something about it and ended up making contact with an Israeli advocacy organization that supports Jewish students around the world against anti-Israel and antisemitic activists. One such group of activists is the notorious BDS movement that operates on campuses in many countries throughout the Western world. Their mission is to distort the facts and spread lies about the Jewish State.
A went on to become one of their top speakers. At the tender age of 22, he was sent across the globe to universities in the US, Canada and South Africa. I am proud to say that I had a small part in helping him deliver his message. My wife and I were almost moved to tears when we watched the YouTube clips of this courageous young man dispelling the myths and denouncing the Israel haters. Like the brave Palestinian who tried to save the Jewish family, A ended up having to leave his town in the north. The advocacy organization helped him find accommodation in Jerusalem. His next move was to enlist in the Israeli army, where he is currently serving.
Another individual with whom I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting was Mark Halawa. He too was raised in an environment filled with hostility toward Israel.
Mark was born a Muslim in Kuwait. As a young boy he discovered that his maternal grandmother was a Jewish woman raised in Jerusalem during the time of the British Mandate. In her youth she had met and fallen in love with a young Jordanian soldier. She eloped with him to Jordan, where she converted to Islam and where they were married.
Soon after King Hussein’s Black September purge of Palestinians in Jordan in 1970, the family moved to Kuwait. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Halawa family moved to the USA and Mark was sent to study in London, Ontario. It was there that he had a chance encounter with the late Dr. Irving Block, a Chabadnik who explained to Mark that according to Jewish Law, he was considered Jewish. Thus began a long and arduous spiritual journey.
Suffice it to say, Mark is now an Orthodox Jew living with his beautiful wife, Linda, and their two daughters in Jerusalem. He too has worked with advocacy organizations, and travels the world to speak up for Israel. Mark is a talented writer, blogger and video maker. He posts his material on YouTube and other social media outlets. Much of his material is in Arabic. Often using satirical humor, he fearlessly exposes the corrupt practices of the Palestinian leadership and confronts the distorted propaganda that is circulated in the Middle East about Israel.
“Over time, the response from the Arab world is amazing,” Mark tells me. “You cannot imagine the numbers of young people who contact me. They want to know more about Israel. They want to be in touch with Israelis but they are afraid.”
Mark believes that there is hope for the future. He understands both sides and believes that one day the rift can be healed.
“The two cultures have more in common than most people realize,” he tells me enthusiastically. “There is huge potential to build a brilliant future for both peoples through economic, scientific and educational collaboration.”
Amazingly, Mark was talking about this at least four years ago, long before the Israeli government began their forays into meeting with Saudi and Bahraini officials.
But what of the day-to-day relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel? Outside of Jerusalem things are a lot better. In Jerusalem and the neighboring territories there is still a high degree of tension, suspicion and mistrust. I believe that many of the Arab residents do want a quiet life and a better future for their children and grandchildren, and everyday acts of kindness continue to occur.
One indication of this took place only a short time ago, when I found myself in a relatively Haredi neighborhood. I was at a bus stop waiting for my bus when I noticed a middle-age blind Arab man walking with a white stick. He seemed to be struggling to find the bus stop. The cynical part of me was ready to believe that the local haredim (ultra-Orthodox) would not help him. I was just about to get up when a young fellow with peyot (sidelocks), black kippah and white shirt gently took the man’s arm and guided him to the bus stop, where he sat down on the bench next to me. The young man waited for the bus to arrive and only left when he had helped the passenger onto the bus.
So perhaps this was a one-off, I thought. But again I was wrong. Having traveled on the same bus, the man alighted at Agrippas Street where he needed to change buses. I too got off to make a few quick purchases at the market. I returned about 10 minutes later to find the Arab fellow still waiting for the bus. This time he had been chaperoned by another haredi young fellow who helped him onto the next bus that was making its way to the Old City. I was left feeling rather humbled by these two incidents, my prejudices somewhat dispelled and with a feeling of optimism and hopefulness.
Ever since the First Lebanon War, when ordinary Israelis reached out to their Lebanese neighbors in what was known as the Good Fence, citizens of Israel demonstrated their willingness to show kindness to those in distress, even if they were officially their enemies. More recently the IDF together with medical volunteers, doctors and nurses set up field hospitals and mobile ambulances to treat wounded Syrians, most of whom were victims of the murderous Assad regime. Not much of this was reported by the foreign press, which generally tends to ignore anything good that Israel does.
Despite the political posturing and schisms within Israeli and Arab society, there remain those on both sides whose consciences direct them to do good, bringing light where there is darkness and helping to heal the hurt.