Today I was lucky enough to accompany Dr. Ron Kronish, the director of ICCI, on a program he led and organized in Abu Ghosh. For me this was an amazing and eye-opening experience, but for him it was just another day doing his job. As the new intern here the program that Dr. Kronish organized for the “Tikun Olam” group in Abu Ghosh was my first actual event of any kind sponsored, or organized by the ICCI.
We began our mini tour of the town by meeting with the town’s Director of Education, Issa Jaber. As I learned on the drive from Jerusalem to Abu Ghosh, Jaber is one of the four main families that make up the majority of the town’s population. Mr. Jaber talked mainly about what its like to be a member of the Arab minority in the state of Israel. He began by saying “It’s ok.” But he went on to explain that because of the larger conflict that exists between the Palestinian nation and the Jewish nation, he faces dilemmas every day. He spoke of the Nakba, which for Palestinians means the Catastrophe. From this discussion, I learned more about what happened to the Palestinians when the state of Israel was born in 1948. For them, it is a catastrophe because thousands of people were forced from their homes. Some even had families that had been living in the land for generations, yet they lost their homes and their heritage.
To me this seems like such a familiar story. Other people come in, be it by the effects of war or simply those in power allowing it to happen, and they kick all the Jews out of their homes. Throughout history this has been the story with the Jews, and it’s been hard. It really makes me wonder how we as Jews cannot empathize better with the Palestinians who also feel that they have a worthy claim to the land. We always quote how G-d told Abraham from his seed he would make a nation and give the land of Israel to them. However, I think that G-d has been misunderstood. Abraham had two children from his seed, and I wonder if G-d wouldn’t just prefer if all of Abraham’s children could get along better.
Issa supports the idea of two equal states coexisting side-by-side as equals. I too have grown to support the idea more and more. It would be much more productive if the Israelis and Palestinians could work together as a team and realize that our two Semitic nations have much more in common than generally realized. Which brings me to another question brought up in the discussion by a participant that I was wondering myself.
Issa and most of the inhabitants of Abu Ghosh and the surrounding Jewish Kibbutzim get along very well and even coexist in peace. However, the media never choose to write stories on these positive developments. Instead, it chooses to focus on the negatives and the violence that unfortunately dominate the reality here. I feel that if the media could show more of the good things happening, such as genuine efforts at coexistence between Jews and Arabs, that it would encourage others in the area to think more in terms of peaceful coexistence than confrontational war.
The last part of the program in Abu Ghosh was such an incredible experience. The “Tikun Olam” group met at the city’s community center where five years ago an amazing transition was initiated. This transition was a change throughout the community in the ways in which individuals view the women in the town, and the ways that the women view themselves.
We met with several of the twenty members of a women’s group that began meeting once a week on Mondays at the Center. Before they started this group, Muslim women were hardly seen outside of their own homes, and their lives often felt empty and monotonous. However, in this traditional Muslim community it was almost unheard of to even think about women leaving their houses with out men, and to be independent and productive.
However, these brave women decided to make a change. They did not wish to be too radical or ruffle too many feathers; so the group started off slow. They did not seek the attention of the media or anyone else and they even went so far as to seek outside help in integrating their new program into the community without causing unnecessary problems. The first major step they took was to begin getting involved in the previously all male-run PTA. They moved on to bigger things like walking for exercise as a group, learning about nutrition and beauty and even taking swimming lessons! Their newest quest is to learn English.
In the beginning the women said they were met with a lot of skepticism and uncertainty. The women were becoming more powerful and it was making the men a bit nervous. It wasn’t just the men that needed convincing; in many cases the women had to convince their mothers-in-law that what they were doing was ok and that they would still be excellent mothers and wives. Now, after five years of participating in the group, their husbands and children all accept and know that “Mondays are off-limits.” Even the mothers-in-law have come around and formed their own group for older women and attend some tiyulim together with the original group of 20.
The best thing about their presentations was how proud these women were. One mother of four spoke about “not being afraid or ashamed to be outside in public any more.” Looking at their faces and listening to them you knew they really felt different. They have given their lives more meaning. They feel closer with their children now and able to discuss many different matters when before they felt very disconnected. They have taken an active interest in education and the overall health of the community. They aren’t just learning for themselves, but for their families and friends. They are sharing the knowledge they have gained on things such as diseases and nutrition with others and as a result enriching their lives too. In fact, when one of the women was asked about her vision of Abu Ghosh for the future, she said that she wants to see a healthy community in the years ahead, especially for her children and grandchildren.
It was impossible to sit in the room with these women and not feel proud of them. As an American, it seemed to me that they were experiencing their own women’s liberation movement, since they were clearly keen to feel and be seen as equals to the men in the community. This was such a moving and amazing story happening not just in Israel, but in a Muslim community! I could not help but think about how the media could really do the world a favor and show more positive stories like this one about Muslims enriching their lives, rather than focusing on the negative things like violence or unequal gender rights.
Rachel Zakem is a 22 year old American from Cincinnati, Ohio. She recently graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs. Rachel is currently partaking in the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) study and internship program in Jerusalem, and is interning with ICCI as part of that program.