I grew up in Israel, born into an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish family, convinced that all Arabs desired my destruction, and totally unprepared for any genuine encounter with Muslims. So, my decision to participate in the seventh annual conference of AMP (American Muslims for Palestine) in Chicago was far from simple; and my anxiety soared when I saw the conference title: "Rising from the Ashes: Gaza Teaches Life." The violence of this last summer had inflicted new scars on my heart, etched on old pains. I felt a deep sense of frustration, fearing that those who had died on both sides had been mostly forgotten, and that neither side had done anything to prevent war from returning, adding more living to the dead.
I could feel my fears, like wild animals almost, pinning me down, trying to keep me from attending the conference. I feared that I would be "catalogued" as the Jewish Israeli who served in the I.D.F., and as someone who does not fit into the stock categories of supporters of Israel or of Palestine who "know" exactly how to solve the problem. I was afraid that no one at the conference would believe that I can feel the pain of every Palestinian who is hurt, as well as every Israeli. How could I explain who I really am?
I wondered how many Israelis and American pro-Israel activists might come to this conference, to see the face of "the others" and to hear their pain. Gradually we would admit, to ourselves and each other, that face-to-face meetings with Palestinians could transform our own stances in ways that our "media knowledge" never could.
How naïve. The few Jewish participants who had come were all strongly anti-Zionist. Why had not one supporter of Israel come to hear the Palestinian point of view? So many Americans are proud to support the Jewish State, by this token participating in the wounding of the Palestinians, for better or worse, justly or unjustly. How could they fail to even show up at a conference like this, missing this opportunity to learn about the consequences of their own convictions?
The second day of the conference was Friday, Yom E-Juma, the Muslim day of prayer, and also Erev Shabat, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath. At midday, I participated with thousands of Muslim attendees in the Juma prayer, falling to my face in the long chain of those who love God. That evening, I sat with a handful of Hasidic anti-Zionist participants at the holy table of Erev Shabat, and the sweet taste of Arabic tea mingled with our stories about the Jewish saints of the Hasidic tradition. Our Muslim colleagues watched with caressing eyes our Shabbat prayer in the midst of their conference on Palestine. How much sweetness there was in this Muslim hospitality toward us on that Shabbat Eve.
During the conference, as the speakers went on about ideologies, I kept my gaze on the faces of the older participants who had been exiled from their homes in Palestine in 1948. We Israelis always refused to take them into account, stifled the voices that tried to tell their story, carefully wiped out every memory of their homes and villages. And now, at this conference, these elders did not seem to understand exactly what the speeches were about, but they felt loved, and they knew that, here, they were believed and honored.
So I went to them, and I asked them, in my limping Arabic; I asked them to tell me. Where are they from? So they asked me back, did I know the names of their villages? I, the occupier, the conqueror, did I know the names of the places they called home? I wanted to say, "ana bahibak ya jeddi" -- Grandfather, I love you... " But all I could say was, "No, I don't know the name of your village. But I know the name of the kibbutz that stands there today. Does that help?" They smiled back, almost tenderly, embarrassed for me, as I stood there, trying to bridge between the narratives of enmity and loss.
I saw that it was no use; their memory and my reality could never touch. Then I remembered the tales of the Hasidic saints, and I tried to speak about divine love, the bridge of bridges. They understood me then, and told their stories. In my heart, in my Yiddish-Hebrew tongue, I prayed the Hasidic words: "beqedusha u-vetahara; in holiness and purity." And in that instant their words became the tales of new saints, the holy melodies of new prayers. I wanted to kiss their hands, as trembling and calloused as they were, as a disciple might kiss the hand of the Hasidic saint. I wanted to return with them, to make my home with them in their villages that we long ago destroyed, to live with them, finally, in peace.
But I saw that the light in their eyes was dimmed, their bodies bent by pain and shame, until they could barely move. Trembling a bit, like pious Hasidic elders at prayer, they listened to the young voices telling them how they would all march back to Palestine, and build a true democracy, in a Falastin made whole again. The elders knew that they had passed on something to the younger generation; but I could see that they wondered if the youngsters understood what they had received. Do they understand the fragrance of the villages long lost? Do they hear the true, sweet melody of home?
It seemed to me that they did not quite understand why the American Palestinian fighters of these days walked around in sharp modern suits, with smart phones. All they know is a lost place, somewhere near Al-Quds, or Nablus, or Jaffa; the sacred memory of home is all but gone. I could sense in the older Palestinians something like my own frustration with clean-cut American Jews who are so sure of their stand on Israel, that some of them even have the nerve to join the I.D.F. so they can stop Palestinians at the check points, humiliating them in shoddy Hebrew with annoying American accents.
These Palestinian elders have lost so much. But and this I felt deeply - I am myself now, somehow, their memory. I know where the sacred land is that they yearn for, and what is built upon it. And I am ashamed to say that there is a Jewish settlement there today, painted in cheerful colors and surrounded by a barbed wire fence. And no, that old soil is not tilled, and no one tends the olive trees. Instead, everyone works in high-tech.
There, at the conference, as I met the older generation of Palestine, I wanted, mostly, just to kiss their hands. Suddenly, I remembered how much I miss my father. And then, for the first time since that last cursed summer of violence, the scars on my heart stopped their screaming. I understood that now I am on my way home, back to Jerusalem, to struggle there for a true and holy change.