A religious Jewish woman looked across the synagogue meeting room in Har Nof, Jerusalem, and addressed the Palestinian visitors from south of Hebron in the West Bank: Who is teaching Palestinian children to hate us and want to commit violence against us?
Ameen, from Refugee Camp Fawwar in South Hebron answered- I was one of those children. I grew up in a refugee camp- I am now raising my family there. I grew up thinking all Israelis were soldiers who wanted to kill us and that it was noble to throw rocks and show our resistance to their violence. A few years ago, through Nonviolent Communication, I was introduced to Israelis who were against violence and didn’t want to be my enemy. I was then invited to study Nonviolent Communication at Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, and since have attended many trainings, and I have learned that there is a language to use to learn about and understand each other. I want to teach that language to our children so we can all live in peace.
A Palestinian woman added, today too, my kids only know Israelis as soldiers who break into our houses and stop us at checkpoints and intimidate us with guns. Every family they know has lost someone to Israeli violence. When the children play games, they take cardboard and make tanks and play throwing stones at tanks.
A Jewish woman adds, my kids, too, this is how they play. I try to teach them that it is not good to kill, that killing isn not a game, but it is everywhere.
I first heard of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof in the early morning of November 18, 2014, when a violent tragedy there made the news. I was in the Palestinian West Bank town of Beit Jala with almost 100 Israelis, Palestinians and Internationals who had gathered for a 9 day Nonviolent Communication training, to meet and know and connect with each other.
As the morning news came in, we heard that two young Palestinian men who lived in East Jerusalem had burst into a synagogue in the religious Jewish religious neighborhood of Har Nof and brutally stabbed a dozen orthodox Jewish men as they were praying during the morning prayers. Four of the Jewish men, rabbis, fathers, husbands, and a Druze policeman, were killed. Many were wounded, and another Jewish man died from wounds many months later. The Palestinian men who attacked were caught and killed shortly after. This was my introduction to Har Nof.
Late that night, a young Palestinian participant in the Nonviolent Communication training approached me and asked to speak about what had happened. He told me he knew one of the young men who did the killing. He showed me a photo of that young man with the Palestinian bus driver who had been found hanging days earlier in the bus he drove throughout Jerusalem. He said his friend didn’t hate Jews, he knew this for sure, and that he had committed this violence after falling under the influence of “bad people.”
My friend left early the next morning for the funeral of the bus driver, whom he also knew and whom he believed had been lynched in his bus by a group of Jewish men.
For the next year, I periodically checked, without success, the news from Israel and the Arab world, looking to see if it was ever determined whether the young bus driver had hung himself, as the Israeli media said, or whether he was killed by a Jewish gang, as the Arab news reported.
A few months ago, I received an email from Karen, a religious Jewish woman who lives in Har Nof, inviting me to facilitate an evening encounter, in one of the synagogues there, between Palestinian Nonviolent Communication practitioners and Har Nof residents. I eagerly said yes, excited about the opportunity to contribute to healing and understanding between Jews and Palestinians.
After many attempts, most of the Palestinians who were eager to come were denied permits by the Israeli authorities. Three Palestinian friends came- two from the West Bank who don’t need permits because of their ages and work status, and one from East Jerusalem.
Fulla from East Jerusalem arranged to pick me up and then we drove together to the Bethlehem checkpoint to pick up Ameen and Fowzie who came from south of Hebron.
As we drove through Jerusalem, Fulla began singing a beautiful Arabic song. I don’t know what the words meant but it soothed us from the stress of driving through Jerusalem traffic not exactly knowing how to get where we were going and knowing that we were the featured guests in an unusual gathering – an Orthodox religious community hosting Palestinians in their synagogue.
We drove into the community and then weren’t sure which building it was. I remembered that Ester Karen had texted me that the synagogue building looks like it had wings. I looked up and saw ahead of us a building with wings and there we were.
As we were trying to figure out where it was legal to park, a man dressed in traditional Eastern European orthodox garb stopped to help us and showed us where it was legal to park.
We entered into the synagogue social hall where Karen and her young daughter Shoshana had already set up about 30 chairs and an inviting spread of sodas, coffee, teas and fruits, hummus and cheeses and a broad assortment of different kinds of sweets, crackers and breads.
We began with a socializing hour with people introducing themselves and chatting over the food. Most of the men entering, except for the Palestinians, were bearded and wearing kippot (yarmulkes) And almost all the women except for me and Fulla and one or two others were in the type of modest dress associated with traditional Ashkenazi Jewish religious women.
We opened the evening by inviting everyone to look around and silently acknowledge and appreciate each other for showing up, for willingness to participate in a listening circle between religious Jews and Palestinians in a synagogue in the heart of Jewish Jerusalem.
We then began a circle of introductions, each person sharing something about themselves that they wanted the rest of us to hear in that moment.
A Jewish woman began sharing that this was not the first time she had sat with Palestinians. In fact she works in an Israeli hospital and has many Palestinian coworkers.
She came, she said, feeling conflicted because she wonders what good does this do. She appreciates that Palestinians have come all the way here to get to know them and yet she wonders, how many other Palestinians feel as they do?
Fowzie replied to her and said that 90% of the Palestinian people want peace. Just as he does. He wants safety for his son and children, just as the Jewish people and the Palestinian people want. He said all of the cycles of retaliation and violence are never going to bring any of us what we really want.
Another Jewish woman who works in a hospital said that she thought hospitals are microcosms of how the world could be -of how Jews and Palestinians do get along. She is a psychologist and says that most of the people she works with are Palestinians, and that everyone is treated and cared for, and that she wishes everybody could spend time in the hospital to see how everyone can get along. There was some nervous laughter at that point, understanding that her wish that everyone could spend time in the hospital was her way of expressing what we all were yearning for – places of peace where people can meet each other as human beings.
Fulla shared that although she works in Jewish hospitals as a medical clown, including in this very neighborhood, this was her first time in a synagogue. She spoke about a painful experience she had recently when she was offering her clowning to a little religious boy and his family said they didn’t want her in the room because she was Arab.
Another man spoke out and said he was disturbed to hear that ; in his experience it was very unusual to hear of religious people expressing attitudes like that toward Palestinians. He said that he hears fewer and fewer racist comments – that years ago it was common to hear people saying things like, “death to the Arabs,“ but that now if someone spoke like that they would be called out.
Another man, Michael , from across the room became agitated when he heard that, and said this man was living in a bubble; that it was unacceptable for Jews to be complacent about the growing racism in Jerusalem. He said he goes every Friday afternoon to a vigil in Sheikh Jarrah ( East Jerusalem neighborhood), where Jewish settlers are taking advantage of ways to evict Palestinian families from their houses and that the situation is getting worse.
Another man from the neighborhood spoke next, apologizing for coming in a bit late because he had been putting his kids to bed. He shared that he worked for the Jerusalem Parents Council and that they had helped organize 5000 Jewish and Palestinian school children in a joint effort of understanding and reconciliation. He detailed numbers of other such efforts that he is involved in.
Another woman from the community, speaking in Hebrew, shared that she knows of Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who started a group in the settlements bringing together Palestinian and Jewish youth and how that is the future. That we cannot wait for the leaders to make peace, we must do it ourselves.
After everyone shared in the going-around, Karen and Ameen began an open dialogue in the center of the room. It was at that point that Karen asked Ameen about children being taught to hate Jews and throw rocks at them. And if it’s true, what can be done?
Ameen replied, I was a child just like that. Palestinian children, including me, think that Israelis are only soldiers. They don’t know them as human beings, only as soldiers.When I see my sons playing, they play soldiers and children, switching roles.
A Jewish parent interrupted and shared it’s the same thing with their sons.
And then asked, but what can we do?
And Ameen shared how he came to a nonviolent communication training for Palestinians and started trying out nonviolent communication within his family and everything changed. His relations with his wife and with his children completely changed. So then he thought maybe he can start talking to Jewish people and things will change. And he started going to nvc trainings and to other peace gatherings like Sulha, And brought his wife and children. And now he sees that this is how things can change. By getting to know each other and being together.
These are just a few highlights of the evening. There is so much more. I want to celebrate that the evening ended with almost everyone there agreeing to continue doing this once a month, to bring more people, and also with setting up a little committee from the neighborhood to assist in the set up,hosting and organizing. Several local NVC trainers have already agreed to continue supporting this group.