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Creating a Pathway toward Reconciliation

The Middle East has often been synonymous with the metaphors of despair and angst. This story began about six years ago, when a young Israeli Arab law student and musician named George Khoury, was accidentally killed by a drive-by Palestinian terrorist, while jogging in East Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood. The terrorists exclaimed afterward, “Oops, we thought your son was Jewish. Sorry . . .”

To most people, a victim of terrorism is just a statistic–unless you happen to personally know who the victim was. George was an  Israeli who lived among Palestinians, in a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem. While he was a high school student, he participated in interfaith projects with fellow Christians, Muslims and Jews. His death was so tragic because it was so unnecessary.

George’s father, Elias, is a respectable attorney in Jerusalem, has fought for Palestinians clients that had their lands confiscated by the Israeli government. Elias Khoury believes violence is a poison that is harming the Palestinian people. In memory of his beloved son, he made an unusual decision that has stirred controversy among his fellow Palestinians and Arabs–both within Israel–and well beyond Israel’s borders.

Elias decided to pay for an Arabic translation of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s autobiography, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”Amos Oz is beloved as a moderate and a dove, and Elias wanted the Palestinian community to learn about a different kind of Israeli, whose vision might help co-create  a new and more tolerant peaceful co-existence for Israel and the Palestinian people. Perhaps this new literary project would also give redemptive meaning to his son’s tragic death so that other young people might be spared from the endless cycle of violence.

The Arabic version of the book, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” went on sale late last month in Beirut, Lebanon. So far it has received pretty favorable reviews–especially by Abdo Wazen, cultural editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. As to be expected, some have reacted critically toward the book’s publication as well. The book is due to be distributed more widely in the region in the coming weeks. The book will soon be released in Egypt and Jordan.

Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword.

You can be sure this literary work will send shock-waves throughout the Muslim world–from Algeria to Tehran.

Elias writes in his preface to the Arabic translation, “This book tells the history of the rebirth of the Jewish people,” he said as he sat in his law office. “We can learn from it how a people like the Jewish people emerged from the tragedy of the Holocaust and were able to reorganize themselves and build their country and become an independent people. If we can’t learn from that, we will not be able to do anything for our independence.” [1]

In light of his own family’s bitter history that resulted in ancestral lands being confiscated by the Israeli government for security reasons in 1948, Elias wants the Muslim world to understand what Jewish refugee life was like in the 1930s and ’40s, a time when Palestine was like one gigantic Jewish refugee camp for Jews seeking to find refuge from the death camps of Europe. Yes, Jews and Palestinian Arabs have much in common to remember–two peoples suffused with bitterness and tragedy.

One of the most important Palestinian moderates, Harvard-trained philosopher Sari Nusseibeh wrote about the hard times characterizing the historical changes of the Middle East,while charting his own political evolution and eventual and resolute insistence on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

After reading Oz’s book, he could not help but be moved by the parallel existences of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of the time. Nusseibeh observes, “Weren’t both sides of the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other?” he wrote. “Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the ‘other’ at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? . . . .Elias wants to build emotional bridges between our nations, and to do that you need to let each read the narrative of the other. Reading literature is like taking you into the bedroom of the other.” [2]

When one considers how easy it is to demonize the Other, it is refreshing to hear a new voice that hopefully, will strike a cord of hope in Jewish and Palestinian hearts. Suffering is an universal language that transcends dialects, religions, and ethnicities. Healing comes with understanding the pain of the Other. While I believe we are still a long way–perhaps even generations–from solving the Middle East problems, I admire Elias Khoury and Sari Nusseibeh’s willingness to change the emotional landscape of the Middle East, by providing a bridge where both peoples can meet and engage one another.

A year ago, at our synagogue center in the Quad-Cities, I was in charge of creating a special Israel Celebration Day in honor of  Israel’s 61st birthday. For one of my programs, I had a video presentation showing how Israeli and Palestinians were creating musical and cultural programs together. One outstanding group, named Buston Avaraham [3]  shows how something like music can transcend generations of animosity as Jewish and Palestinians attempt to make a statement that CNN and Fox News will never show because the Western media is invested in maintaining a cold war of hatred between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

In addition, we also showed some videos of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour [4] depicting how humor is not only universal, it is also healing as both communities engage in some self-deprecating and comedic introspectivity that is never heard or seen on television. For the last video program, we viewed the history of Hadassah Hospital to see an organization that is committed to literally healing the wounds of war and intolerance. Many Palestinians and Israelis owe their lives to an organization that often provides organ transplants from each other’s community, in an effort to make an important statement about the nature and hope for peace.

Lastly, more efforts need to be made to promote better Jewish and Islamic dialogue. In my own community, we have had considerable success in attempting to bridge some of the issues that have long divided us. We have found that true interfaith dialogue begins with a spirit of tolerance and respect. Seeing through the eyes of our neighbor does not mean we must accept the other’s view or belief system as our own—but it will give us insight into where our fellow co-religionist is coming from. It is essential that both communities make the effort to accept the differences within a “both-and” mindset, rather than a “right-wrong” kind of attitude.

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Notes:

[1] Ethan Bronner, Palestinian Sees Lesson Translating an Israeli’s Work (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/world/middleeast/07khoury.xml)

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.last.fm/listen/artist/Bustan%2BAbraham/similarartists

[4] http://www.ipcomedytour.com



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