Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Our Cousins

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 18 October 2000

I think most cultures must have slang terms for their enemies. Those terms serve as a sort of psychological defense; if you belittle your enemy, he is not so fearsome. As is all too obvious lately, Arabs are the enemy of Israel and the Jewish people (and vice versa). However, the most common terms that Israelis use when referring to their enemy are not like the terms most other cultures use. Israelis usually call Arabs "Yishmaelim" ("Ishmaelites") or, most often "b'nay dodeem" - "cousins."

These names, of course, originated with the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis. When Abraham's wife Sarah remained barren after many years of marriage, she offered her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham as a concubine. Hagar bore Abraham a son, who was named Ishmael. Thirteen years later, Sarah finally bore her husband a son, who was named Isaac. Although Ishmael was the older son, Isaac was the son of Abraham's beloved wife, and his father's favorite. Tradition has it that the Arab people are descended from Abraham and Ishmael, while the Jewish people are descended from Abraham and Isaac. Cousins.

It may seem strange to think that the events of the past several weeks can be traced back to the time of Abraham, yet I believe that is indeed the origin of the enmity between our two peoples. Of course, many things have happened since then to feed that hatred. But in a country where even something as mundane as the names of the days of the week are based on the biblical story of the creation of the universe, I do not find it odd to consider that this hostility has so ancient a foundation. Everyone has heard the saying about not being able to choose your relatives. And many people have found, sadly, that some of the most bitter resentment they have ever felt is reserved for their parents, siblings, or cousins.

There have been Jews and Arabs living on this land for thousands of years. During that time there have been countless acts of violence and rage. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 served to intensify that conflict. Many Arabs fled the newly created state, while others remained. Those who fled became refugees in any number of neighboring Arab countries, such as Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. They are known to us today as Palestinians. The Arabs who remained in Israel became citizens of the new state. But while there are Arab political parties in Israel, and Arabs serving in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Arab Israelis live in conditions that are far below the standard of most of the rest of the country. Arab Israelis do not serve in the army. On one hand, this protects them from potentially ending up in the position of fighting against their own family members in a war. On the other hand, it is part of what denies many Arabs access into the higher levels of society, where army service has an impact on your status. Many Arab Israelis work in menial jobs such as construction. Not exactly the most decent way to treat our cousins.

As I understand the religion of Islam (the religion practiced by most, though not all, Arabs) hatred of the Jews is an integral tenet. I have seen videotapes of news broadcasts from within the Palestinian Authority (areas in Gaza and the West Bank that have been turned over to the government headed by Yasser Arafat) of religious leaders standing in their pulpits preaching loathing and violence against Jews. Hanging in the classrooms in the Palestinian Authority are maps of the region that do not include the state of Israel. The school books distributed to students also disseminate the policy of hatred and violence agains Jews and Israel. I have seen young Palestinian children spewing the vicious, repugnant rhetoric of their elders, and seen young girls learning to assemble and load their assault rifles in less than a minute. If this is the education Palestinian children are receiving, how can we hope there will ever be peace with our cousins?

In his work, my husband has befriended several Israeli Arabs. He has joked with them, shared meals with them, worked alongside them. I, too, have come to know several Israeli Arabs. We have found, as so many others have before us, that once you get to know someone, it is hard to think of him as an enemy. Yet we are faced with new evidence every day that within many Palestinian and Arab Israelis lies as fierce a hatred as has ever been known. It is bewildering to feel both fear and kinship towards someone. Will we ever be at peace, my enemy, my cousin?

(c) Amy Samin

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