ICCI’s newest project, Stories of Inspiration, will feature interviews with youth and young adults who are graduates of ICCI’ youth and young adult programs in recent years. We at ICCI hope that these stories inspire and motivate others to become involved in peace-building programs, whether through ICCI or in other relevant frameworks. We welcome your “comments” and your feedback to these interviews.
by Elana Lubka
I sat down with Rola, a 24 year old Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, at a small coffee shop in East Jerusalem on a late afternoon. Sitting across from her, I could not help but notice the strong sense of confidence she exuded and, as the time elapsed, her open smile. Rola is a social worker in East Jerusalem, working specifically with abused women and impoverished families in East Jerusalem.
I began by asking Rola about her childhood and her initial encounter with “the other.” She explained to me that she grew up in a very secular Muslim household. Her summers were spent in Tel Aviv and Tiberias, where she was very aware that she and her family were Palestinians, surrounded by a Jewish majority. Rola continued by noting that although she and her family swam in the same Mediterranean Sea as the other Jewish beach-goers, she would only speak to them in the direst of situations. She noted, “You have [this] idea that they hate you, so [we] don’t talk to them.” This fear, based only on the fear from other Palestinians, was what guided her adolescent years.
Growing up, this mindset was heavily enforced in all aspects of her daily life. She recalls being told by a Palestinian friend that it was explicitly written in the Torah, the holy Jewish book, that Jews must hate Palestinians. This baffled Rola, for, “why would God be so hateful to us?” This prompted Rola to ask further questions about the Torah to better understand this strange ‘commandment.’ However, her school could not provide any answers to her questions about the Torah, which only contributed to its obscurity.
However, one of the more prominent topics of our conversation was identity issues. Because her family lives in East Jerusalem and not the West Bank or other Israeli cities, Rola and her family were granted a Jerusalem ID card, a requirement for Palestinians who live and work in the city of Jerusalem. However, these ID’s are not Israeli passports and do not grant Rola citizenship or the right to vote. If Rola should wish to marry a Palestinian living in the West Bank, her husband would be prohibited from visiting her and if Rola should move to the West Bank, Israel would confiscate her Israeli ID and Israeli rights. However, Rola can travel freely in the West Bank and Jerusalem, a right that Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have. Rola continues to elaborate on her difficult situation. She notes that she has every opportunity to apply for Israeli citizenship, yet if she were granted citizenship, she would not be able to visit close family in Dubai, other Arabian countries or visit the West Bank. So, when asked what nationality she is, Rola says she halts and has to think before answering; for what really is she, technically?
As Rola grew up, she began to open her eyes a bit more. During a previous job, Rola reflected that she and her co-workers only spoke to each other when they had urgent questions for each other. Although she can read, write and speak comfortably in Hebrew, tensions still lingered. However one day, she recalls one of her male co-workers approaching her and speaking to her in Arabic. Taken aback, she responded in Arabic, shocked that not only would a Jew know Arabic, but that he would be interested in speaking with her. Rola recalled the situation being both nice and a bit weird at the same time. She noted that her co-worker told her he was afraid to talk to her for fear she would not respond.
This encounter made her a bit more receptive to a friend’s offer to join her on an ICCI program called Jerusalem Interreligious Young Adult Forum (JIYAF). Rola agreed, albeit a bit uncertain about what she was getting herself into. She recalled that when she arrived at the camp, where she would be spending the next four days with other Palestinians and Jews; she was told she would be sharing a room not with her Palestinian friend, but with a Jew. Rola recollected on the uncomfortable first thirty minutes of silence in which neither she, nor her roommate, spoke. Then, one of the two of them timidly asked the other a question, which instantly dissolved the tension. From that moment on, the two of them could not stop talking until the morning. Rola noted that they did not talk about the conflict or related politics, but rather, about their families, their jobs, friend issues and other topics that all university-age women deal with. When I asked Rola why she clicked so well with this other woman, she replied, “[She] was not religious, [so therefore,] she is nice… [Religion] ruins everything.” She elaborated on this point by noting, “A country based on religion won’t succeed,” meaning, a country that bases its laws on religion can have difficulty recognizing and handling social issues from a non-religious lens. However, both Rola and her Jewish roommate saw each other simply, as two women from the same city.
Over the course of the next four days, Rola focused on pushing herself out of her comfort zone. From sharing a room with a Jewish stranger, Rola progressed to joining the Jewish participants for Friday evening Shabbat services. It was during these days that she began asking questions about Judaism, with the hopes of dispelling stereotypes and better understanding these people she had grown to hate because of her circumstances. As the days progressed, Rola found herself feeling at peace and making true friends. In fact, these friends that she made were not only secular, but religious as well. One such friend was a Jew by the name of Gilad. A couple of years later, when Gilad got married, he invited Rola to his wedding. When the date arrived, Rola approached the wedding celebrations and was immediately welcomed by Gilad. He readily introduced her to his family and friends who were eagerly awaiting her arrival. All of Rola’s previous fears of being the only Palestinian at a Jewish wedding disappeared.
From Rola’s experience at ICCI, she now has more confidence to not only interact with Jewish Israelis, but talk to them as well. She noted that organizations like ICCI are needed so people can feel comfortable with the other and finally see eye to eye. Without ICCI, Rola could not have changed this drastically. From a young girl who avoided Jews on the street, Rola and a fellow ICCI participant are now planning discussion sessions for Arab and Israeli students to discuss problems in Jerusalem and how they can help better these problems – in terms of both a change in mindset and on-the-ground change. Recalling these many dips and spikes in her life, it is evident that Rola even amazes herself at how much she has grown.
*Any maluse of the information enclosed above could lead to a lawsuit*