When Dan Lang immigrated to Israel from Chicago in 1993, he had no idea that his closest colleague over the next 25 years would be an Arab from the Palestinian city of Yatta.
Lang attended a Jewish day school until eighth grade, and then a public high school with supplemental Jewish high school three afternoons a week. After graduation, he volunteered for four months on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, a religious kibbutz in southern Israel. His trip was sponsored by the now-defunct American Zionist Youth Foundation.
He remembers Israel being “very magical” back then.
“It was a lot different than it is now. Being in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was like you would see in old movies. Those two cities were very magical to me, seeing Jews doing Jewish things.” Lang worked as a truck mechanic on the kibbutz and saw his future wife in passing.
“Toward the end of my program, Claire was checking out the kibbutz. We had gone to the same grade school. I left and she came on her program. We didn’t get along in those years,” he smiled and said.
Lang earned a second trip to Israel during his college years by making two weeks of fund-raising calls on behalf of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.
Despite the earlier enmity between them, Dan and Claire married in 1982. Two years later, they came to Israel together, along with Oded, their first-born son, to visit Claire’s parents, who had recently made aliyah.
The following decade was filled with ups and downs. Lang broke his back several times and was temporarily paralyzed. The Langs had another child and then separated for close to a year. Reunited, but with no healthcare coverage, their medical bills were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Aliyah was the fresh start they needed. They brought their two sons, then 10 and seven, first to Jerusalem, then to Ma’aleh Adumim and eventually to Rimonim, 20 minutes east of Jerusalem. Eventually, a sabra daughter was born, rounding out the family.
After arriving in Israel, Lang worked as a commodities trader. In 1991, he switched focus and began a handyman business. That career shift evolved into him becoming a contractor and meeting his Arab partner, Essa Da’agneh.
While working as a handyman in the early ‘90s, Lang occasionally needed extra hands to complete a job. Initially, he hired Jewish helpers, but for one job in particular, he needed a skilled tile worker. In those days, Jewish employers would go to Sha’ar Shechem (Damascus Gate) in Jerusalem to pick up Arab day laborers who were allowed to cross into Israel without permits. Lang hired Da’agneh’s uncle to do some tile work.
Shortly thereafter, he needed help with a demolition job, and Da’agneh’s uncle recommended his nephew Essa. The two started working together in the summer of 1995 and have been together ever since.
DA’AGNEH, WHO speaks very little English, learned Hebrew by working around Jews. The pair communicate in Hebrew, which is neither man’s mother tongue.
Once upon a time, there were synagogues and a Jewish community in Da’agneh’s home town of Yatta, near Hebron. Born just before the Jews were exiled from Yatta in 1967, Da’agneh grew up exclusively with Arabs. Today, he lives between Yatta and Beersheba.
Da’agneh plainly expressed, “When Yatta was under Israeli control, my life was better than it is under Palestinian control.”
The Palestinian Authority has been in power there since 2002. When there’s a bombing, Da’agneh gets upset, “because it doesn’t help anyone’s cause.”
At the beginning of his career, Da’agneh worked with other Jews, but commented, “When I started working with Dan, I knew he would be the only one I would want to work with.” Lang explained, “He was a very hard worker. He already knew a lot about tile, concrete and cement. I taught him drywall, electricity and plumbing. He caught on very quickly. He was always a very conscientious worker. He is very honest and trustworthy. He even comes to my house to fix things when I’m away.” For example, during the Gulf War in 1991, Dan was in the US and Da’agneh came to help the Lang family build their sealed room.
Da’agneh shared that “Dan was one of the first Jews I had ever met. My feeling toward Jews and Israelis has always remained positive. When Dan is away, I work with another Jewish contractor.” Da’agneh has 10 brothers and sisters, 10 children and, at 54, he and his wife already have 21 grandchildren. Lang has subsequently hired many members of Da’agneh’s extended family – brothers, sons, uncles and nephews.
Some of Da’agneh’s sons have trained in the business. One studied to become an electrician, another became a tile layer. One started out as a manual laborer and now does drywall. Da’agneh’s brothers are also construction workers, as are a few of his nephews.
“It is extraordinary. I never heard of anyone having an employee for 25 years and hiring also from their family. The business has been fortunate that we’ve almost always had work. If they left, I would close my business,” Lang commented.
“I’ve never felt threatened. From the beginning, we had a very positive and cohesive relationship. I never questioned it. In the beginning, they were just going to be workers. [Nevertheless], I’m very grateful every day that we have the relationship that we do.
“In 25 years, we’ve had maybe two or three clients not work with us because I have Arab workers.”
On job sites, there is always a Jew with a gun. Usually it’s Lang. Da’agneh claims that it’s never bothered him and Lang said the only time he pulled out his gun, “was when there were Arabs stealing from a job site.” Da’agneh’s life has been notably enriched by being Lang’s chief employee.
“My life has gotten so much better financially. I meet decent people. All our customers are very nice to me and others workers who are in my family.”
DA’AGNEH CLAIMS he’s never had gotten pushback about working with and for Jews. He is adamant that he doesn’t care what others think about him or their working relationship. His family, which Lang refers to as a clan, and of which Da’agneh is now the head, is very powerful in his area. They don’t worry that others are going to talk badly about them.
Lang explained that in Arab culture, the family lives very close together. And working for Lang has enabled Da’agneh to help his children build their own homes on land Da’agneh’s father bought.
Da’agneh reported never feeling threated or negative about working with Lang.
“Dan pays on time. He’s honest.” In fact, Lang pays Israeli wages, which are three to four times more than most Palestinian wages, to all his Arab workers.
Da’agneh wants Jews to know, “It’s possible for Israelis and Palestinians to get along together without hating one another. I wish everyone would see it our way.”
He also wishes there would be peace between Arabs and Jews.
“Basically, we are one happy family. I wish that it continues with Langs in particular, but that the Palestinians and Israelis would learn from us. It’s not in our hands. We just keep working in our little world. I wish the leaders would learn something from us,” he expressed.
Lang, who was once the head of the Jewish Defense League when he was a student at the University of Illinois – Chicago, recalled, “The PLO had offices right next to JDL. We hated one another. Even on kibbutz, [I understood that if] you’re Jewish, you don’t like the Palestinians. Working with Essa and his family has changed that for me. Now I see that there are good Palestinians and good Jews and there are bad Palestinians and bad Jews.” Claire shares the same feelings.
“It’s not only that Dan has a relationship with his workers. We treat them how we hope someone would treat us. It’s not something that’s put on just because we have to get along.” A terrorist attack against Lang’s sons ended up targeting the Da’agneh family workers as well. According to Claire, the incident made “the relationship much stronger. The relationship collectively is very warm and mutual.” Da’agneh has been to a Lang family wedding.
“We’ve been invited to Essa’s family’s celebrations, but haven’t been allowed to go,” Lang shared. “We feel comfortable with his family, but it takes just one outsider who would feel differently. We can’t take that risk.” Lang characterizes their current relationship like this: “Besides being an excellent worker, he’s the most honest person I know outside of my own family. We trust one another.
“We’re almost like a husband and a wife. One starts talking and the other completes the sentence. We can tell each other that we’re idiots and get away with it. If he thinks I’m not acting right, he’ll call Claire and let her know,” he laughingly concluded.