Two Meals, One Story: A Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from an American Abroad

The Jews have been pushed out of every country throughout history. No one wanted us. We were exiled from Egypt, run out of Germany, Russia, Austria, Sweden, France...even America refused to take Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. The world does not want us...and that is why we need Israel. Israel is the only place we can call home and I will fight to protect our home as long as I am able.

It is a difficult statement to argue with -- especially when the person making the argument is a 20-year old Israeli soldier who recently returned from two-weeks of fighting in Gaza.

It would be ridiculous to respond with an argument informed largely by my own historical interpretations and a smattering of op-ed articles and independent documentaries. How do you have a discussion about right or wrong, about peace with someone who has lived through suicide bombers, killed civilians and become accustomed to the pulsating hum of Hammas' rockets? Ultimately, I believe that President Obama was right when he said:

If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.

Obama's statement is the one of the most commonly repeated narratives in Israel. The problem is that it is the main narrative and the main argument for not just the Israelis, or Jews all over the world. It is also the story told by generations of Palestinians and Muslims.

I spent last Shabbat with an Orthodox Jewish family living in a very religious section of Jerusalem called Maalot Dafna. After we said the blessing of the wine and cut everyone's favorite Jewish bread, challah, the man of the house, Ilan, began recounting stories and lessons he had learned at his Yeshiva. He touched on everything from the believed phenomena of Torah codes to the concept of Nazi's as descendants from the Biblical family, Amalek.

There was no question he had a wide breadth of knowledge about Judaism, or at least a particular brand of Judaism. As I asked questions and struggled to find opportunities to identify with this warm Jewish family he consistently reminded me that questions, skepticism and analysis are always welcomed in the Jewish religion. He, and his wife, Yael, proudly explained how Judaism is different from so many other religions because of its high valuation of education and the search for sincere understanding and not simply blind faith. They stood by this proclaimed value as they responded to my endless, somewhat skeptical questions. This respect for knowledge and understanding, however, all but disappeared when the conversation transitioned from the Torah and Jewish life to life in general in Jerusalem and the political reality that surrounds them.

As Ilan explained to me that the wonderful thing about living in Maalot Dafna is that:

You don't have to go out in public. The community has everything you need right here - a school, grocery store, playground, synagogue. There is no reason to go outside.

His wife, Yael, continued:

I have no reason to go beyond our community and into the Arab sections of the city. It is sometimes hard for Americans to accept but the reality is that the Muslims hate us. They want to kill us. Why would I want to talk and visit the shops of the people who have been trying to destroy the Jews for centuries?

I stumbled to form any kind of sentence that would not be perceived as either combative and defensive to them or passively racist to me. It became even more impossible to either simply agree or disagree when Ilan added that:

Maybe there are some Muslims that are regular people but a lot of them are just crazy. A few weeks ago an Arab man came into our neighborhood and stabbed ten people. You want us to be friends with them?

These are the questions, these are the options for peace that you are given in Israel. Be friends with a terrorist who wants you dead or continue to live in an isolated world veiled in sentiments of hate.

Three days earlier and about a fifteen minute walk from Yael and Ilan's small apartment I was sitting in the home of a Palestinian man named Ahmed. In between persistent encouragement to finish all the maqlubbeh -- a traditional Palestinian dish consisting mainly of rice, vegetables and chicken - that his mother had put on my plate Ahmed and I had a parallel conversation. His recently married younger brother and pregnant wife sat nodding in silence as Ahmed recounted the story of the Second Intifada:

The Israeli soldiers came into our house in the middle of the night and took my brother, he was 13 years old at the time. They pulled him out from his bed, beat him and put him in jail for a week. Why?

The method was different. There were men in uniform instead of men with bombs strapped to their chests but the point and the consequences of the story were undeniably similar to the Jews that lived down the street from them. Ahmed continued:

Before Israel became Israel, we were living here. When the Jews came in we became refugees in our own country. We were pushed out, forced to leave our home.

His reason for anger was not very different from Amir's, the Israeli soldier. His story of violence and fear was not unlike the stories that Ilan and Yael relayed during Shabbat dinner. Nonetheless, Ahmed and his brother were sure that, "the Jews, they don't understand."

After Shabbat dinner I walked back to where I was staying in the Old City. I walked past the Orthodox Jews with their long curly pais peering out from under their kippas and the women in long black skirts pushing large strollers overflowing with babies. A few more minutes of walking and the whispers of "Shabbot Shalom" slowly became lingering greetings of "Asalamalaka." The men in kippas faded away and soon women in Hijabs rushing to get home for the evening surrounded me. As I watched the sea of people transition within the span of a short walk I realized that as much as Israel would like me to feel a connection and identification with the Jews living in Israel, it was clear to me that the Jews had more in common with their Muslim counterparts than I had in common with "my fellow" Jew.

From their merging of religious tradition with daily life to their personal and historical narratives, the similarities between Muslims and Jews living in Israel is almost tragically comical. It is not just their stories of death and violence, of hate and isolation that are so eerily parallel; it is their entire lifestyle and day-to-day existence that mirror each other. The Palestinians are bowing to Allah five times a day while the Jews are bending at the waste to Addoni at least three times a day. The women are covering their heads in modesty and deference while the men are empowered as the more external figures in society.

This is not only because we are all descendants of the same family, that we both come from Ishmael and Isaac. This is because the Jews and Muslims in Israel are living parallel daily lives as they go to the market to buy the same hummus, eat the same freshly baked pita and drink the same sweetly refreshing pomegranate juice. The Jews and Muslims here are far more connected and similar than any other groups I have ever lived among, yet they appear to be frighteningly unaware of any resemblance.

When I relayed President Obama's recent statement to Israelis and Palestinians who had not yet heard his comments this similarity among Jews and Muslims articulated itself in a new realm -- a political realm. As President, Obama was right to address the very real need to defend our family and our country. I agree with Obama and was proud to relay his statement. However, as someone who is not President, I have more leeway to look beyond the immediate reality, beyond political solutions and focus more directly on the possibilities for future generations. When you take advantage of this leeway, it is clear that the argument of defense is not, and cannot, be our only choice. It cannot be the only argument because it is everyone's argument.

The day before I visited Yael and Ilan for Shabbat dinner I sent Yael an email and asked if I could bring a friend with me to dinner. She said, "of course." When I replied and explained that my friend was a very kind and interesting Palestinian man who lived just a few minutes away she wrote back "I don't think it will work to have your friend for dinner this weekend."

Shabbat happens every week. There are many more Shabbats to come. I hope that one of these Shabbats we will find a good time to sit with Palestinians and not talk politics or religion but simply share and listen to each other's stories. If we don't, if there is never room at the Shabbat table, or around the plate of maqlubbeh, for our Jewish and Muslim neighbors to tell their stories than I fear that, regardless of how brilliant a political solution we construct, perpetual war in the Middle East will be the reality for generations to come.