Peace in the Middle East
As I sat in a tour bus in Israel leaving from Jerusalem for Elat, I looked out the window to my right and I saw a barefoot, deeply tanned little Palestinian boy holding out his hand begging for a few coins. The child, in a way, reminded me of myself as a young boy: black hair, dark complexion, brown eyes, curious and hopeful. I will never forget the sudden urge I felt to ask the bus driver to open the door so I scoop up that child and bring him with me all the way back to the United States. I did not see him as an Arab. Just as a child in need.
That was exactly a half century ago in, 1959, when I was on a travel writers' tour for my newspaper, The New York World-Telegram & Sun. I am reminded of this experience and the epiphany I had at the time -- that there is no difference whatsoever between an Israeli and a Palestinian child -- when I read a front page story in The New York Times on this New Year's Eve, 50 years later.
The headline in last Thursday's paper: "A Mideast Bond, Stitched of Pain and Healing." It was a marvelous story by reporter Ethan Bronner of a warm friendship between two wounded 8-year-old children from opposing backgrounds -- one Israeli and one Palestinian -- recovering form serious injuries. The Israeli boy, Orel Elizarov, had been hit by a Hamas rocket destroying half of his brain; the girl, Marya Aman, a Palestinian Muslim from Gaza, was paralyzed as a result of her spinal cord being broken at the neck by an Israeli missile. Both are recovering in Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem.
"Someone forgot to tell them that they are enemies," the reporter wrote, compellingly. Indeed, his story went on: "In a way, a friendship between two wounded children from opposing backgrounds is not that surprising. Neither understands the prolonged fight over land and identity that so divides people here. They are kids. They play."
What's more, the story goes on, the parents of these two innocent children have developed "a kinship that defies national struggle," the reporter writes. "The wounds of our children, their pain, our pain, have connected us," he quotes the boy's mother, Angela Elizarov. In the adjoining room sits the girl's father, Hamdi Aman. Mrs. Elizarov continues: "Does it matter that he [Mr. Aman] is from Gaza and I am from Beersheba, that he is an Arab and I am a Jew? It has no meaning to me. He sees my child and I see his child."
The two children -- among hundreds of others -- were badly wounded in Israel's Gaza war last January. The girl's father, Mr. Aman, a 32-year-old construction worker, said: "I have never felt there was a difference among people -- Jews, Muslims, Christians -- we are all human beings. I worked in Israel for years and so did my father. We know that it is not about what you are but who you are. And that is what I have taught my children."
Another visitor to the hospital, Asher Franco, is an Israeli Jew from Beit Shemesh, who has been coming for his daughter's treatments for six months. A manual worker and former combat soldier, he struck up a friendship with Mr. Aman. "I wad raised as a complete Zionist rightist," Franco said. "The Arabs, we were told, were out to kill us. But I was living in some fantasy. Here in the hospital, all my friends are Arabs."
Meanwhile, Orel's mother, Mrs. Elizarov, told the reporter that in places like hospitals there is no friction between the two religions. "Do we need to suffer in order to learn that there is no difference between Jews and Arabs?" she asked the reporter, plaintively.
I cite this story as one of thousands that I believe may be happening, despite the seemingly endless war between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Unfortunately, in Palestine and Israel, and even in the United States, the raw hate that separates Arabs and Jews is taught during a child's early years. I recall hearing a friend, the wife of a longtime schoolmate of mine, sternly censure her little boy who had just told her there was an Arab on his Little League team. "Don't ever speak to that boy," his mother scolded him. "He is an Arab and they are out to kill Jews like us." I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but I kept quiet.
So, too, are many other Jews that I know, in Westport and elsewhere, so biased against Palestinians and Arabs that it is almost impossible to envision a time when the two nations will, at along last, be at peace as two separate countries, side by side -- the dream of many American presidents dating back many decades.
One U.S. president who is known for his peace-making, Jimmy Carter, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for, among other efforts, mediating the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Carter ran afoul of Jewish support, however, when he published his controversial 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Critics charged he wrongly compared Israeli treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to the legalized racial oppression that once existed in South Africa. Many Jews labeled him an "anti-Semite." Nothing could be further from the truth.
However, in an effort to repair the breach between himself and Jews, early last month Carter apologized for any "words or deeds" that may have upset the Jewish community. In an open letter meant to improve his image and his relationship with Jewish leaders worldwide, he stated: "We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel."
I hold both Israeli Jews and Palestinians responsible for the generations-old schism between them. Neither side can claim innocence. However, it is my sincere hope that more stories about the bonds between Jews and Palestinians, as exemplified in the Times piece last week, will help foster reconciliation, mutual understanding and peace.