A New Heroism in Israel and Palestine

A Mejdi tour group stops alongside the wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian territories. "The biggest problem we have is not just a physical wall or a checkpoint, but an emotional wall—it’s really the ignorance, fear, and hatred that separates the two sides," says tour guide Aziz Abu Sarah. / Photo Courtesy of Mejdi

On November 4, 1995, ten-year-old Liel Maghen went to bed early after celebrating his father’s birthday at a nearby diner in Tel Aviv. One hour later, his mother woke him.

“Someone shot Rabin,” she said.

“Yay!” Maghen cheered, having participated with his parents in the escalating Likud party protests against the Oslo Agreements.

“No, it’s not good,” she admonished.

His mother led him to the television where the boy saw a news broadcaster crying and images of shock and grief. What Maghen had perceived as “a fight for the good against the bad—someone wanting to give away land that belongs to us to the enemy” suddenly shifted.

Everything shifted for his family as well. His parents left the Likud party and ended their political activism. Maghen and his sisters’ education changed from a religious one emphasizing Jewish identity and history to a secular one focused on the contemporary battles and the need for a strong defense to prevent a second Holocaust. Ten years later, his parents were divorced and his mother would soon move back to her native Rome.

Maghen, on the other hand, was preparing to enter the army. He had grown up during the Second Intifada, afraid to ride buses and fearful of Palestinians. Like his classmates in secular school, he saw his “task in life” as playing a role in morak—the legacy of battle—following in the footsteps of generations of soldier-heroes who had protected the Jewish people from the kind of persecution his own ancestors had suffered in Italy and Libya.

A Dual Narrative Perspective

I met Maghen this past summer in Jerusalem when I traveled with a group of fourteen Jewish Americans on a “dual narrative” tour led jointly by Palestinians and Israelis. Maghen was one of our guides. The trip was organized by the Middle East Justice and Development Initiatives (Mejdi) and Rabbi David Shneyer, who leads two independent congregations in the Washington, D.C. area.  It was only the second time a Jewish American congregation had taken a tour with the company.

Mejdi is a tour company founded in 2010 by Dr. Marc Gopin, an orthodox rabbi and director of the Center for World Religions at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution; Scott Cooper, a former banker specializing in social investment; and Aziz Abu Sarah, a resident of both Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., who was also one of our tour guides.

The idea behind Mejdi is that Arabs and Jews doing peace and coexistence work through NGOs are notoriously under-funded; hundreds of them are literally poor. They also spend a disproportionate amount of time writing grants and fundraising rather than doing their critical on-the-ground work. It’s an unsustainable model, and the Mejdi co-founders felt they could create a business for peace-building that was also self-sustaining.

“If tourism is done well,” says Gopin, “it can be a vehicle of social change. We direct resources towards businesses and communities committed to equality, and we pay Israelis and Palestinians doing peace work living wages. As a tourist you are investing in peace and cutting edge work from the moment you land, and that’s rare.”

“A Land of Two Peoples”

It comes as little surprise that Shneyer would be the second American rabbi willing to try Mejdi’s new approach. A controversial figure in the Washington, D.C. Jewish community, he arrived in the city in 1970 after graduating from Rutgers University where he helped organize Jews in the Raritan Valley against the Vietnam War. It was an effort Shneyer now describes as an alternative to campus Hillel groups, which “weren’t involved in political action—the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, or any social change movement of the late 60s.”

Shneyer was drawn to the nation’s capital in part by Arthur Waskow’s 1969 Freedom Seder and the work of Jews for Urban Justice (JUJ) to “bring the social justice prophetic voice back into Judaism.” In 1971, Shneyer co-founded Fabrengen—which means “bringing together” in Yiddish—as a Jewish counterculture center with the aim of revitalizing Judaism through social action and music, in the manner of his mentor Schlomo Carlbach, the guitar-playing Hassidic rabbi.

Fabrangen helped to house antiwar protesters for the 1971 May Days when 12,000 people were arrested. It was then placed on the House un-American Activities Committee list. It also rallied in support of Palestinians’ right to self-determination. A headline in the Washington Jewish Week read “Al Fatah Goes to Shul.” By 1973, major philanthropists threatened to withhold funding from the United Jewish Appeal if Fabrangen activities were supported, even though many in the Jewish community saw its efforts as vital to bringing alienated young Jews back into the fold. Funding dried up (though Fabrangen survived and is a thriving community in Washington, D.C. today).

Burnt out, Shneyer—who had never been to Israel—decided to go there to study Hebrew and live at the Kibbutz Yifat not too far from Nazareth. A month after he arrived at the Kibbutz, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Thirty volunteers left, but Shneyer and five others remained. “We were prepared to fight, to defend ourselves and the Kibbutz, and do whatever work was needed since many kibbutzniks were called up,” says Shneyer.

On the first night of the war, “huge explosions” shook Shneyer’s quarters. He looked outside and saw a sky exploding in red and orange, and ran to the bomb shelter, which hadn’t been used in years and was infested with mosquitoes. When the residents emerged they saw that the kibbutz had been hit by missiles, doors knocked off their hinges. The kibbutz across the street was severely damaged, and a pilot was killed at a nearby airbase. Days later, working in the cotton fields, Shneyer watched an F-16 flying back to Israeli airspace on fire. The pilot bailed and the plane crashed a quarter of a mile away.

Shneyer says experiencing war in a direct way “shifted” him. “It was the vulnerability of Israel that was so shocking,” he says. “There was so much damage, death, and social disruption. I had never been a pacifist, and I’m not an anti-Zionist. But security, it became clear to me, wouldn’t come from military power.”

Shneyer says the ideas Martin Buber had argued to no avail at the early Zionist Congresses—on the need to address the reality of Arabs already living on the land—began to deeply influence his peace work. “Buber talks about the importance of meeting the other, sitting down with your enemy, listening deeply, and understanding that the land is a land of two peoples,” Shneyer says.  “It’s the ground for the struggle of two peoples for self-determination, a land that was promised to the offspring of Abraham.”

More than thirty years later, Shneyer led a tour to Israel and visited East Jerusalem with Rabbi Arik Acherman of Rabbis for Human Rights. He also accompanied two busloads of Israelis to Budrus, where they joined Palestinian residents in non-violent resistance against the separation barrier being constructed through their town. He then began looking for a unique itinerary that would allow his congregants to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories, and hear the conflicting viewpoints without judgment. Mejdi’s dual narrative approach seemed the perfect fit.

As a ten-year-old, Liel Maghen cheered at the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. He's since devoted himself to the cause of "ordinary Palestinians and Israelis working together to create a better reality for our children." / Photo Courtesy of Mejdi

Mejdi took us to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at the height of the tent city economic protests; the Golan Heights and the remains of a Palestinian village once called Glory of the Springs, now a popular picnic area for Israelis; Bethlehem, the Dheisheh Camp for Palestinian refugees, and Ramallah in the West Bank; Tsfat and Beit Jan, a Druze town on the Lebanese border with the highest per capita number of soldiers killed anywhere in Israel (87 percent of Druze serve in the IDF); Haifa; and Shneyer’s Kibbutz Yifat.

The political and demographic diversity are striking and rarely shown by the Western media. We met with Palestinian and Israeli politicians, Mizrahi Jews (descended from the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus who make up 40 percent of Israelis), Bedouin, Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Druze, Christians, Muslims, nationalists, secularists, orthodox, musicians, artists, mystics, activists, students, and business people.

Everyone had a story, and every story revolved around life and death. To describe people’s experience as “intense” is like calling the Israel-Palestine conflict “a little complicated.” What remains with me more than the sites, the history, the geography, and the clashing political perspectives are the stories of the guides and Rabbi Shneyer—the transformations that occurred in each of their lives and led them to the non-violent, coexistence work they do today. 

A Calling: “To Avenge My Brother’s Death”

During his childhood, Abu Sarah would have seemed an even more unlikely candidate for coexistence work than Maghen. He was seven years old and living in Al-Eizariya outside of Jerusalem when the First Intifada broke out. He watched Palestinians throwing stones on television—it looked fun, especially since there was little for kids to do in his neighborhood other than play soccer in the streets. Abu Sarah and his friends ventured outside and pelted as many cars as they could.

That night, angry neighbors showed up at his home. Abu Sarah and his buddies had failed miserably to understand the conflict—all of their rocks had been directed at their neighbors’ cars. “Eventually we figured out which was the settlers’ road, and we went there and hit a bus,” he says. The bus stopped, and the driver got out and opened machine gun fire at Abu Sarah and his friends from 200 meters. Abu Sarah says the conflict “suddenly didn’t seem so fun anymore” and it “was the first of many times” he was fired upon.

But the moment that changed everything for him came two years later on a spring morning during Ramadan. Aziz, his six older siblings, and their parents were up at four o’clock to eat breakfast before fasting for the day. Soldiers entered his home and arrested his brother Tayseer under suspicion of throwing stones.

Abu Sarah says that, at that time, suspects faced eighteen days of interrogation, and if they didn’t confess they were released. Tayseer refused to confess. “That got his interrogators to make him confess by beating him, torturing him,” says Abu Sarah.

Tayseer was sentence to one year in jail. He was released before the full sentence was up because his health had deteriorated so severely since his interrogation. The family took him immediately to a hospital in East Jerusalem where he succumbed within days to “liver failure, spleen failure, and many other complications.”

For Abu Sarah this was particularly devastating. Tayseer was the sibling closest to him in age, nine years his senior. Abu Sarah says his parents charged Tayseer with raising him because “they were tired of bringing up children by then.” It was his brother who had taken him to his first day of school, his brother who intervened if he had a problem with a classmate or teacher, his brother who was his protector.

Abu Sarah had discovered his calling in life: “To avenge my brother’s death.”

Aziz Abu Sarah, shown here speaking to a Mejdi tour group, once believed that his calling in life was to avenge his brother's death. He recalls, "I was just very angry, very bitter, and very much wanting revenge, and those feelings are just destructive. I just couldn’t live like that anymore.” / Photo Courtesy of Mejdi

“The Heroism of Being a Soldier”

Before Maghen entered the army he had the opportunity to do a year of community service through the Israeli Scouts. He and some friends decided to move to Kibbutz Lotan, located in the desert in the Arava Valley. “Suddenly I worked with people from all over the world and was exposed to different nationalities and religions,” he says. “Speaking with an international community, my whole perspective on the Jewish state became wider.”

Maghen and his friends “still wanted to be combatants, to take our turn.”  Like most Israeli boys they had spent their high school years “talking about different units, different weapons, different battles, and the heroism of being a soldier.”

But questions about democracy and the draft were also on his mind now, and during six months of basic training, he engaged in debate with the soldier who bunked next to him, Johan Zarbib, who would also become his friend. A French citizen, Zarbib had moved to Israel solely to join the army. He spoke of anti-Semitism in France, the importance of a Jewish state as a refuge, and the need for a strong army to defend it. He told Maghen he wanted to do his fair share for the sake of the Jewish people, and that too many Israelis didn’t understand the threats the Diaspora still faces today.

It reminded Maghen of his childhood, listening to his Italian grandparents who were Holocaust survivors and his father who had emigrated from Libya speak about the need for an Israel to serve as a safe haven and prevent another Holocaust. But Maghen says there was another side of the story they weren’t looking at: the price Israelis pay living inside a conflict. “Living inside the conflict is scary as a kid—especially in the times of the Second Intifada when there was crazy violence everywhere and I was scared of going on buses,” says Maghen. “I think that’s why it was easy for me to connect with the army hero concept they taught us in secular school—because I felt in danger—I wanted to feel more secure.”

Maghen chose the Nahal unit so that part of his service would entail combat and part non-combat education in low-income communities. “During the time I was in combat, a few things happened that made me question our story of heroism,” says Maghen.

In one incident, he was told to take his weapon and guard a “prisoner.” He felt important, but then saw it was a kid approximately thirteen years of age, tied up and blindfolded. “On the one hand I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s just a kid,’” says Maghen. “But on the other I was convinced he was a dangerous terrorist. Now I see it was a distorted perspective—to look at a thirteen-year-old kid who might have thrown some stones and see him as a dangerous terrorist.”

On another occasion he guarded a wounded Palestinian on an ambulance. The man was immobile, on a ventilator, but conscious. “When you’re on the road, and you don’t have a lot to do, no one to talk to—you look at him and he looks at you. You make eye contact, you see basically he’s just another human being,” says Maghen. “These two incidents made me really question—how did we get to this point where heroism means to guard people that you don’t have a clue what they did, and to guard little children?”

Despite Maghen’s doubts about the Palestinian conflict, when the 2006 Lebanon War broke out, he was in turmoil. His friends from basic training were in combat against Hizbollah, and he was working with kids in shelters in the Golan Heights. “I felt like a spoiled kid not being there,” says Maghen. “I felt someone else was doing my part.”

Rabbi David Shneyer, the leader of two independent congregations in the Washington, D.C. area, co-organized the author's Mejdi tour group. As a longtime activist and Jewish progressive, he seeks to “bring the social justice prophetic voice back into Judaism.” / Photo Courtesy of Mejdi

On the last day of the war a cease-fire was signed. Maghen’s unit enjoyed its first free-time in weeks over beers when there were news reports that a battle was continuing. Any levity vanished, and the unit participated in a ritual carried out all across Israel during a war or following a terrorist attack—watching the broadcast of the names and faces of soldiers killed in action that day.

When Maghen saw the face of Zarbib he broke down. “I hadn’t seen him in a year,” Maghen says.  “But five months going through training with someone, and sleeping next to him, he becomes like your brother.”

At Zarib’s funeral the next day Maghen saw that his entire unit had been injured—some came in wheelchairs, others were badly bruised or in casts. He felt so ashamed to have missed the battle that he just remained on the periphery as they buried his friend. “It’s like my past education came into the present and showed me that I hadn’t done my task,” he says. “This shame became a kind of bruise on my heart, and every time I spoke to someone from my unit, I felt that shame all over again.”

When his army service ended, Maghen went back to the desert.

“I Just Couldn’t Live Like that Anymore”

After the death of his brother, Abu Sarah became active within Fatah—his brother’s preferred political organization—led by Yasser Arafat at the time. He quickly realized his talent lay in writing and by age fourteen was close to the Fatah leadership. At sixteen he was named editor of the party’s youth magazine in Jerusalem, writing two or three anonymous articles every week—any one of which could land him in prison with a six-month sentence.

Abu Sarah liked the power. The magazines were published in a hidden, walled off location at the center of his high school. They would distribute thousands to every Palestinian school in East Jerusalem. He was also one of five youths empowered to call for student demonstrations on any given day. “We would go to a headmaster and say something like, ‘People were killed yesterday so we’re going out on a protest,’” says Abu Sarah. “He might say, ‘No, you’re not.’ But then we’d go to every classroom, read a statement encouraging the protest, say we’re leaving, and then 1000 students would leave the school at the exact same moment. Ridiculous power for a sixteen-year-old.” 

The whole time Abu Sarah hid his work from his parents. “A lot of people in the States and Israel think Palestinian parents send their kids to do these things—my parents didn’t know until I was seventeen about my involvement,” he says. “They were pissed, and most parents I know have similar reactions. On the other hand, if you asked them they would have said they were proud of me. That’s Arab culture—a difference between what you say to the world and what you say to your son.”

During sophomore year Abu Sarah was unable to get the ID required to attend school in Jerusalem. According to Israeli law, he was a West Bank resident since Al-Eizariya was ten minutes outside of the city. “We always considered it part of Jerusalem when my parents built the house, and there was a settlement five minutes away where tens of thousands of Jewish people were given the ID, but they told us we couldn’t get ours,” says Abu Sarah.

For months he smuggled himself across the border “because I needed to get to frickin’ school.”  He avoided checkpoints, getting shot at and beaten if he was caught. His grades slipped from stellar to barely passing. Finally, his parents were able to rent an apartment in Jerusalem, which they maintain to this day even though they own their home in nearby Al-Eizariya. The financial burden on his parents only increased Abu Sarah’s bitterness.

He continued his leadership role in Fatah until age eighteen when he burnt out. “I learned a lot about politics behind the scenes, and the whole Hamas and Fatah thing and how much peopled hated each other, and how much you have to lie in politics,” he explains.  “But even more I was just very angry, very bitter, and very much wanting revenge, and those feelings are just destructive. I just couldn’t live like that anymore.”

The Palestinian Authority offered him a job in the security forces. He turned it down.  He realized if he was going to make something of himself in Jerusalem, he needed to learn Hebrew. It had been mandatory in high school but out of stubbornness Abu Sarah “had “managed to learn not a single word.”

According to Abu Sarah, the best place to learn Hebrew in Jerusalem is Ilan, because it caters to new Jewish immigrants; so that’s where he went—the only Palestinian attending the school.

“A New Idea of Heroism”

At the Kibbutz Samar, Maghen was selected to help with a new environmental education program for teens. He found himself guiding a group of Arabs and Israelis studying grey water systems, mud buildings, and recycling, and fostering environmental awareness. “And suddenly you are joking with them, eating with them, dancing with them,” he says.  “You have feelings that go through this wall of separation, and fear, and disconnection, and conflict. You have faces. It’s not ‘the Palestinians’ anymore. It’s specific people and faces and friends, and you want them to have a better future.”

Maghen describes the experience as “confronting the nemesis”—his view that he developed during his childhood and in the army of  “Arabs as the enemy.” He says: “I was now asking myself, ‘What is this enemy?’ I was breaking down the problem—making it more complex and personal, understanding that there are different Arabs, different Palestinians, different Israelis, different ideas, and wide political perspectives.”

He returned to Tel Aviv and worked with friends who were organizing tours of the North and South of Israel for international tourists. They asked Maghen to develop a coexistence aspect of the trips. But when he tried to find organizations to work with, one of the groups was surprised to learn that Maghen himself had never participated in a dialogue group with Palestinians.

Combatants for Peace is comprised of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians who have fought in the Israeli army or used violence in the Palestinian struggle. They have now laid down their arms, and seek a two-state solution—with a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem—and use dialogue and reconciliation as a route towards achieving it.

Maghen was excited to “really talk about sensitive issues” with Palestinians.  But in the first meeting he found that the most powerful experience wasn’t the formal discussion, it was the coffee break. “I sat with a few Palestinians and we just laughed,” he says. “We were joking about different people who were there, and Tel Aviv in general.  It’s just having a personal experience with someone from the other side.  Lots of Israelis know Palestinian workers—in maintenance, agriculture, restaurants—but it’s not the right context.  You see them but you don’t get to know them.”

Maghen began organizing dialogue meetings and urged his friends to participate. He thought it would change their views of the conflict just as it was changing his own. He also began to feel that the shame he had carried with him since the Lebanon War was beginning to heal. “I felt good trying to confront a pain not many people try to confront,” he says. “Trying to build up a new reality for my children, so they don’t have the same experience that I had.  I could see clearly that on both sides there are people that want violence and war.  But there are so many people that want to be together peacefully.”

He also seemed to shed his old view of heroism once and for all. “I had a new idea of heroism,” says Maghen. “People involved in coexistence were real heroes. Take Combatants for Peace—the Palestinian side went to meet soldiers, the Israeli side to meet ex-terrorists—no weapons, no nothing, just meeting someone who’s your sworn enemy. You confront your pain, you give a second chance, you trust the other’s humanity. You create forgiveness. You don’t forget, but you understand that in order to really reconcile and live together you must forgive.”

“Destroying that Wall”

Sitting in a classroom as the sole Palestinian amongst Jews was a shock to Abu Sarah’s system. Just 200 meters from his own high school had been a Jewish secular public school. “Two hundred meters,” Abu Sarah emphasizes.  “But we never met, never talked, just occasionally threw things at one another.”

Abu Sarah was determined to maintain his streak of non-interaction, but then the teacher broke them into groups of two and three and he had little choice. “You know those dumb games you play when you learn a second language?” he says. “Like, ‘Hello, who are you?’ and ‘What do you like?’ and stupid things like that? Well, I played those games, and a strange thing happened.”

Abu Sarah calls himself “the only Palestinian who listens to country music in this world, and there aren’t too many Jews who do either.” But he found a couple classmates who were big Johnny Cash fans, or could talk about Brad Paisley, and for the first time he had people to share his passion with.

Suddenly Abu Sarah realized he was developing friendships. “Everything was moving beyond the stereotypes, and you realize there is more to things than what you know,” he says.  “That experience of getting to know the other side was the first—and I say the first point of change—because it’s a process that never ends. It’s every morning when you wake up you make a decision: which direction am I going to take? The angry, reactionary—which is much easier. Or the harder way and say I’m not gonna let my anger control me?”

Even more importantly, Abu Sarah felt a new freedom and power over his life that he now knew had been lacking. “When I was ten years old I felt that there was no choice, but I was actually making the choice the soldier who killed my brother made for me,” he says. “Because I was living in reaction to what he did. I was in many ways being his slave, and when I decided to live my life differently I was finally free from this bondage of ‘he did this to me, so I must do this to him.’ That to me was the most important change in my life.”

As he developed friendships he came to believe that “the biggest problem we have is not just a physical wall or a checkpoint, but an emotional wall—it’s really the ignorance, fear, and hatred that separates the two sides.  Without bringing down that emotional wall there is no hope of bringing the two people together.  As long as you’re afraid of each other—that’s it.”

His work from then on would be about “destroying that wall.” And if he was going to do that—to empathize with the stories and history of “the other”—he felt he needed to learn something about the Holocaust.

At the age of twenty Abu Sarah was the first Palestinian he knew of to walk into the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. He says his “heart was racing” as he entered. “It was very hard because I never was taught anything about the Holocaust, the only thing I knew about it was that the Israeli government uses it against us,” he says. “So walking through that door was a very important and emotional moment.”

When he shared his experience at the museum with his Jewish friends—the shock he felt at the atrocities—he says “the walls between us continued to crumble.” His friends shared their own stories as survivors or about family members who had suffered. They took a greater interest in learning about Abu Sarah, his work, and the Palestinian struggle. He took them to 1948 Palestinian villages and refugee camps.

Abu Sarah became active in the Bereaved Families Forum—a group of 500 Israeli and Palestinians families that have all lost at least one immediate family member to the conflict—which promotes peace and reconciliation and a political settlement. He was elected Chairman on the Palestinian side, and organized a trip of 70 Palestinians from the West Bank to the Holocaust Museum. The Forum also took a group of Israelis to a former Palestinian village that had been destroyed in 1948. “Neither group knew a thing about the other’s narrative,” he says. “Palestinians knew nothing about the Holocaust, and Israelis thought Palestinians just ran away in 1948 and didn’t care about their land. We also learn it’s not about comparing pain—‘my pain is worse than yours.’ It’s about ‘I feel compassionate toward you and empathize with you—period.”

But Abu Sarah was also learning how hard it was to sustain an NGO. He started a small tour company on the side, running four or five “standard pilgrimage tours” per year.  He worked as a freelance journalist writing about his peace-building experiences for Al Quds, Ha’aretz, Jerusalem Post, 972 Magazine, and eventually the New York Times.  He co-hosted a bilingual radio show with an Israeli on Radio for Peace, interviewing two people per week about their personal stories. (The station was forced by the Netanyahu government to shutdown its airwaves in November but is still broadcasting online.)

Abu Sarah came to the United States to look at alternative models for peace work. That’s when he met Gopin at George Mason University and began splitting his time between Washington, D.C. and Jerusalem.

Creating a “Real Coexistence”

Maghen wanted to move beyond dialogue to create real projects with Palestinians—“to create a shared living, a real coexistence.”

He studied for one year at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). The highly acclaimed school brings Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, and students from abroad together to study an array of environmental challenges. The underlying philosophy is that in living and working together the individuals will develop vital friendships and critical peace-building and leadership skills.

It was a rigorous program of ethics, anthropology, sociology, economics, politics and public policy, and environmental sciences. The students studied and worked together, lived together, and ate three meals a day together.  But Maghen also felt if they were really going to build the kinds of deep bonds needed to sustain their work and friendships they needed to engage in dialogue too. So he and a friend initiated movie screenings about the conflict followed by discussions, and also sharing circles where participants could tell their own stories without judgment or reaction.

That summer the Arava Institute placed Maghen in an internship that brought him to Washington, D.C.   He attended the New Story Leadership program and interned for the late New Jersey Democratic Congressman Donald Payne. New Story brings Israelis and Palestinians together and aims to do three things: make politics personal so it’s about people, not abstract concepts; create a situation where both sides are open to the other’s narrative, values, and questions; create a new story of young Palestinians and Israelis working for peace because of their personal friendships and mutual understanding, rather than vague principles.

Maghen had an opportunity to address a Congressional forum and he criticized a media that only tells a story of “terror, occupation, and suffering,” not the “many people from both sides [who] are basically on the same side, the side that wants peace.”  He described peace-builders as understanding that achieving a lasting solution “requires communication, compromise and reconciliation.”  Maghen says he and his colleagues are trying to follow Mahatma Ghandi’s adage: “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” One week later Congressman Payne stood on the House floor and read Maghen’s speech into the Congressional Record.  He congratulated him and called him “an inspiration to all that know him.”

The same day he spoke at the Congressional forum, Maghen headed over to the Palestine Center to hear a presentation on non-violence work. That’s where he met Abu Sarah and got involved with Mejdi.

The Media Must Change the Discussion”

In less than two years, Mejdi is self-sustaining. Abu Sarah was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2011, awarded to “fourteen visionary, young trailblazers from around the world.” He will travel as a National Geographic expert on expeditions later this year. In December, Mejdi won the first “Award for Intercultural Innovation” presented by the UN and the BMW Group. There were more than 400 proposals from 70 countries considered and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was on hand to congratulate the winners.

Still, Mejdi guides and their colleagues in the coexistence movement are sometimes labeled traitors, derided as naïve, dismissed, or rejected by family and old friends.

Meanwhile, in the United States, media coverage continues to focus on whether there will be peace talks, a military strike against Iran, and whether President Obama is a strong enough defender of Israel. Too often, those who are “pro-Palestinian” are portrayed as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, and those who are “pro-Israel” are portrayed as anti-Arab or racist.  This is the exact kind of black-and-white thinking and lack of understanding that Abu Sarah, Maghen, Rabbi Shneyer, and so many others have devoted themselves to changing. “If Americans and American Jews were much better informed than some of our Jewish leaders, elected officials, and opinion makers,” says Shneyer, “we would be in a better position to help those powers in the Middle East realize the aspirations of both peoples.”

Maghen agrees that the media—as well as political leaders and educators—need to move beyond a woefully limited understanding and presentation of the conflict in order to “create a sustainable, democratic future for Israeli and Palestinian children.” He says: “The media must change the discussion: let’s not just talk about terrorism, security, and the Holocaust—let’s talk about the price we are paying as two peoples living inside this conflict? And instead of focusing always on the peace agreement, let’s think about peace-building—ordinary Palestinians and Israelis working together to create a better reality for our children. Without this work, no agreement will be sustainable.”

Abu Sarah is interested in continuing to create the kind of real power-sharing between Israelis and Palestinians that they have already achieved with Mejdi. “Arabs and Jews have to start doing more work together instead of two sides meeting just to have the same old arguments,” says Abu Sarah. “We need actions creating facts on the ground; that’s what changes reality. That’s where I hope the peace and reconciliation movement goes from here.”

Greg Kaufmann is a freelance reporter living in Washington, D.C.  He has a weekly blog at The Nation called “This Week in Poverty.”


2 thoughts on “A New Heroism in Israel and Palestine

  1. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall see God. Amen.

    Please also gain historical understanding with a look at “The Blood Of The Moon” by George Grant. The masks of Islam are able to deceive the elect. Or one can say “Israel shall win wars by guile…”

    Truly a dangerous place for citizens and outside peacemakers alike. It appears the time for war is upon us, and maybe, the concern for saving lives must also include provision for exiting the contested land.

    Solomon’s baby decision allowed the true mother ultimate care of the disputed child. It appears outside meddling may determine an interim status for Jerusalem, even as scripture warns against this very thing. The greatest sorrow here will go beyond the Palestinians; Jews and many millions of so-called “negotiating nations” ultimately are victims of defying God’s warnings.

    Russian tampering with Israel will have a bad end, and Putin might cut his losses and save face by limiting the Rhodina’s involvement as the conflict moves out of control. We shall see. Turkey is still able to back away from harm’s way.

    Not so for Syria, first in prophecy to get slammed, with destruction of Damascus clearly at hand. Iranian lack of nuclear discipline and threatening talk against Israel is a biblical set-up for unanticipated consequences, believing Jews are liars… But God is not.

    The think tank “Institute for Strategic and International Studies” has published articles for over a decade on the subject of possible war and aftermath scenarios. Unfortunate for Iran, they insist on pursuing their death wish. The saying “Jesus Loves Them More Than They Know” certainly proved true for the Iranians, as they jumped the US Embassy in Tehran during a Carter not a Reagan or Bush (or Obama!) presidency.

    Reality can be delayed if not prevented, and we have offered in other places some civil engineering elements to help the situation in and around Palestine. Specifically, it makes historical as well as contemporary sense to fully implement the Ottoman’s railway scheme (Hejaz Railway), updated as a tool for defusing the Palestinian problems.

    Railway lines offer original Islamic use as conduit for the Haj, but why not emplace new cities enroute for new Palestinian families no longer interested in war zone living? This approach allows both Israel and Palestinians a path to more defensible borders and sensible logistics for their respective economies. Tony Blair has recently presented a railway solution for the Palestinian/Lebanon/West Bank solution set. The railways would be Islamic owned and operated (The Pilgrim Railway component) and it would simply come down to Muslims taking care of Muslims aboard the trains.

    Haiti is another place suitable for railway solution, and it begs mention, the original Hejaz/Pilgrim railway was demolished in the British/French quest to control the oilfields. Oil is a wonderful thing, but now figures prominently in the Military-Industrial role in the rubber tire kingdom. Deja Vu, now watch off shore oil again driving the dogs of war in this sad place.

    American peace groups should zero on balanced transport policy, something overlooked in the VietNam discourse (Straits of Malacca / Royal Dutch Shell)… See “ELECTRIC WATER” by Christopher C. Swan (New Society, 2007). Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

  2. I would like to share an excellent resource re dual historical narraatives> New book (circa March 2012) entitled “Side by Side Parallel Histories of Isreal-Palestine” by Adwan, Bar-On and Naveh. The book treats about 10 key events or eras (eg event 1967 War, era 1931 to 1947) starting in late 1800s. The book presents the Israeli and Palestinain narratives side-by-side for each. The book has been in the works for 10 years and was written by team of Israeli and Palestinian teachers. The ultimate objective is for this to become a history textbook in both the Israeli and Palestinian school systems. This continues to be a struggle. I had the good fortune to meet Adwan and Bar On when they were at Monmouth U (NJ) for a semester on a Fulbright grant. Their personal stories and their product were inspirational to MANY. A tryly powerful yet simple tool to create understanding and compassion for the Other.

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