When I was a high school student in the late 1970s at Stuyvesant High School in New York, there was a girl in my class, Karimah, who wore a kafia each day, had a lovely voice and was one of the objects of my adolescent fascination.
When we took a history class together sophomore year, I discovered she was the daughter of the Palestinian representative to the United Nations. As the the son of Holocaust survivors, who considered Israel more than sacred ground, I couldn't have come from a more different place ideologically and demographically.
Nonetheless, I had empathy for the sad look on her face when she spoke of the dislocation of her people. I felt bad that she was the only Arab in our high school of more than 3,000, and felt that she was often unfairly maligned by many of my classmates. But she was brave and strong and had a quiet dignity.
One day in our history class with Mr. McGinn, a very acerbic Irishman, Karimah felt frustrated when she tried to speak openly about the political repression she felt her family had experienced. I recall that I stood up for her right to free expression and told my classmates that we should listen carefully because we could learn a lot from Karimah and her family's background.
My parents, too, were driven from their native land in Eastern Europe by the Nazis, and after an odyssey of almost a decade after World War II they settled in New York.
I will never equate the experiences of Holocaust survivors with those of any political refugees; it is like cheese and chalk, to borrow a British phrase.
There is a moral relativism to all suffering and repression and to acknowledge one ethnic group's experience should not negate the feelings of injustice by others.
But those who have been persecuted have an even greater obligation to show compassion for the plight of others, even those of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. To ignore this is to be less human and less holy.
The great irony of the Israeli-Palestinian 65-year struggle is that both nations arise from the same biblical father, Abraham. For those who believe in the lessons and spiritual teachings of the Old Testament, Abraham had two sons: Ishmael and Jacob (from two different wives, Hagar and Sarah) and from them two different ethnic groups and religions descended: Arabs and Israelis.
Why should the progeny of half-brothers become such fierce enemies? Well, it all boils down to two overriding reasons that usually cause nations to clash: land and historical enmity that is handed down from generation to generation.
But why would a nation of refugees, like Israel, not have sympathy for a nation of refugees like the Palestinians? Why would the Palestinians, who have suffered blind hatred for years, not be sympathetic to a people whose ancestors, just two generations ago, were almost annihilated? And why can't two semitic nations, descended from the same Biblical icon, Abraham, not realize that their economic and spiritual future could be much better as allies rather than foes?
Of course, this naive view of the world, ignores the cold reality of real politik. The Palestinians feel that much of the land of Israel should rightfully be Palestine and some Israelis, particularly the far right, believes that every inch of soil, including the West Bank and Gaza, is g-d-given land that Israel has a divine right to possess forever.
But back to my old friend, Karimah. We met at a public high school that was a melting pot of smart kids from the five boroughs of New York: Jews, Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, Eastern Europeans, Russians and many other ethnic groups and religions. We were united by one purpose: to learn as much as we could so that we would be prepared for college and then go on to make our mark on the world.
It worked beautifully. Many of my high school friends, like Karimah, had different backgrounds and different religious beliefs and we all learned a lot from each other. We were a melting pot of teenagers whose brains were on fire and to this day, some of the brightest people I have met, are those who went to Stuyvesant with me.
Karimah recently contacted me, 30 years after our graduation, via that great digital uniter, Facebook, to express support for my upcoming mayoral campaign. (See her lovely note below):
Tom Allon and I were classmates, myself being the only Arab and Palestinian at Stuyvesant HS led to quite a few controversial situations. When the controversies started, this is what I remember, regardless of his thoughts on the issue he defended MY RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH AND EXPRESSION. That was 1979, before the negotiations, before recognition, before we as Palestinians were given any benefits of Humanity in the eyes of the media. Therefore I can't think of a more capable and ethical man to run for the office of Mayor of the MELTING POT --- NYC. Tom I hope you will invite me to the inauguration, and I hope one day you will run for President of the USA.
She remembered that history class, more than three decades ago, when the son of Holocaust survivors stood up for a young Palestinian teenager. Now, she has proclaimed her support for my New York mayoral campaign. When I answered her on my Facebook wall thanking her for her support, she invited me to tour the historically-divided cities of Hebron, Jericho and Ramallah, as her guest, so I can see them through the eyes of a Palestinian woman who is still trying to reclaim her family's land.
Karimah has heard, through the wonders of Facebook, that I will be doing what many New York City mayoral candidates have done for decades: visiting the Western Wall, the holiest spot in the world for the Jewish people. She suggested I also see the sites that so many people ignore when they visit Israel: the cities that are home to many Palestinians.
I plan to take her up on her offer. If not this visit to Israel, then very soon. Most Israelis believe in a two-state solution, but right now there does not seem to be a moderate, unified voice for the Palestinians who can make a fair, peaceful deal. And the Israeli leaders do not seem to be making peace with the Palestinians a priority.
For too long, both sides have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace.
And with the winds of danger blowing Israel's way from a nuclear arms-coveting Iran, the Palestinian statehood question seems to be far off the radar screen.
But Karimah, that gentle soul from my teenage years, has put the Palestinian cause back in my consciousness. I will be thinking of her and her people this week when I thank g-d for liberating my ancestors from Egypt and for allowing Jews like me to live free and safe in America and visit our relatives in a relatively peaceful Israel.
For her, I say: next year in Hebron. Let's have a Seder that celebrates peace and statehood for all. Moses and the great prophets who animate the Old Testament said one thing very clearly: You shall pursue justice for all.
That should include our brethren from Abraham and Ishmael, the Palestinian people.
And my long-lost high school classmate, Karimah.
Tom Allon, a Democrat and Liberal candidate for Mayor of New York City in 2013, will be having his first seder in Israel this year.
Follow Tom's campaign on Twitter: @TomAllon4Mayor
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