Exclusive Excerpt: Miko Peled’s ‘The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine’

Israel/Palestine
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Miko Peled is a Jewish Israeli, born in 1961 into the heart of the Zionist establishment in Jerusalem… who has traveled a long, long way since then. Three years ago, Miko started work on a memoir of the transformative journey he has taken in the course of his life; and this week, we received the first advance copies of his amazing, intimate, and thought-provoking memoir The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine. My company, Just World Books, has been proud to work with Miko to bring his important memoir-writing project to completion.

Miko back cover
Miko Peled (Photo: Just World Books)

To me, Miko’s book has many of the same qualities as My Traitor’s Heart — the gripping memoir by Rian Malan of his journey from being a boy who grew up in the bosom of the Afrikaner elite in South Africa to being someone who took risks to work alongside “Black” South Africans in their struggle for full equality in their country.

Miko’s memoir has already garnered plaudits and recognition from several significant sources. Alice Walker has contributed a lovely Foreword– and a poem– to The General’s Son. In the Foreword, Ms. Walker wrote, “There are few books on the Israel/Palestine issue that seem as hopeful to me as this one.” The renowned Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi has written of Miko’s memoir that, “We are privileged to accompany the author on his own fascinating internal odyssey—a journey of self-education and cumulative critique of Zionist premises and Israeli practices… ” Israeli historian Ilan Pappé wrote: “Out of personal pain and sober reflection on the past comes this powerful narrative of transformation, empowerment and commitment.”

Now, we are delighted that Mondoweiss is partnering with us to publish two key portions of Miko’s text: His Introduction, and the pivotal Chapter 7 from the book, that describes the beginning of his courageous journey into understanding– and realizing in his own life and actions– what it means to uphold the equality of all human persons, and to fight for the equal rights of all.

You can read these excerpts below– and you can even buy an advance copy of the book via our global webstore, though the book’s formal publication date is not until June 15. (If you buy two copies at the webstore, you’ll get free shipping… and if you buy five, you’ll get a sixth one free.)

Of course, it is our hope that after reading the two excerpts below, you will definitely want to read the whole of Miko’s unbelievably illuminating text. For his part, Miko is already launched on a series of speaking engagements that, over the months ahead, will take him to Canada, back home to Israel, to Switzerland, the U.K., and several portions of the United States… If you want to catch up with his itinerary, we’ll be charting it on this book blog. Miko is also very active on twitter (@mikopeled)– and we’ll be trying to keep up with him on our corporate Twitter feed (@justworldbooks.)

The General’s Son has the potential to touch a lot of hearts– and, I believe, to join with the whole present current of thought that’s transforming the dynamic of the encounter between Israelis and Palestinians. I urge you to read it, engage with it, recommend it to your friends, and do what what you can to support Miko and the very important work that he’s doing.

Here, then, are the excerpts:

INTRODUCTION

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On a quiet day in 1997, I sat watching the news from my home in southern California when the broadcast turned live to Jerusalem: Palestinian suicide bombers had struck the heart of the city once again. I caught a glimpse of a young woman’s body lying on a stretcher, but before I had time to call my family in Jerusalem and make sure everyone was OK, my phone rang. It was my mother, calling from Israel. “Miko,” she said, her voice tense, “there was a bombing on Ben Yehuda Street.” Smadar, my 13-year-old niece, was missing.

Smadar’s mother, my sister Nurit, is 12 years older than I am; my family always joked that I was her Bat Mitzvah present. As a child, I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, with beautiful chestnut hair, a habit of wearing large, shiny earrings, a perpetual tan, and a smile that lit up a room. She is the mother of three boys and a girl. She is honest, brave, forthright, and funny. The thought that she might have lost her only daughter was far too much to process on a peaceful day in southern California.

I had lived in Coronado with my wife and two children for nearly ten years, (my daughter Tali was not yet born), but still considered Jerusalem, where I was born and raised, home. The two cities could not be more different. Coronado is a picturesque, California beach community—spotless, manicured, and more than a little self-consciously glamorous. It is a place full of optimism and possibilities, a wonderful, safe place to raise children. My family and I lived a peaceful life in our newly purchased condo, within walking distance to beautiful beaches and just two miles from San Diego, across the gleaming Coronado Bay Bridge. I had established a successful karate studio in town, and the work kept me busy and happy in many respects.

But we were a long way from my home in one of the most ancient cities in the world. Coming from Jerusalem—a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds and religions, a city where every newsstand offers papers in five different languages and people passionately discuss politics and daily news—Coronado had always struck me as culturally and politically isolated, and lacking in diversity.

I was born in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, but spent most of my youth in Motza Ellit, where my parents built a house when I was four. Motza is a quiet, unassuming community hidden in the Judean Hills on the city’s western edge. It is surrounded by nature, but not far from the conflict and violence that have come to characterize the city. About five miles away is the walled Old City, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is a city fiercely loved and just as fiercely disputed—it’s been captured and destroyed, rebuilt, captured and destroyed again, throughout history. I am a product of that troubled, painfully beautiful place. Its history, both ancient and modern, and the culture of the Jewish people are inseparable from my being.

The fact that I was living in Coronado did not change all of that. I spent hours on the phone with my family each week and stayed abreast of political and cultural developments back home; I even had subscriptions to Israeli newspapers. I faithfully searched TV channels for news about my homeland. And I always made sure to read the latest Hebrew novels and anything new that was published about the politics and history of the region, going as far back as King Herod and Jesus of Nazareth.

Many hours after the phone call from my mother, when it was close to midnight in Jerusalem, the police contacted Smadar’s parents. It was as if as if they wanted to allow Nurit and her husband Rami time to reach the inevitable conclusion on their own before escorting them to the morgue. When they returned from the morgue, my other sister, Ossi, called me right away.

“Miko….” I didn’t need to hear anything more. Her voice said it all. It was time to fly home. And so it became clear to me that the young woman I saw on the stretcher while watching the news was indeed my niece Smadar. She was dead, killed while shopping for schoolbooks on the streets of the city she called home.

This wrenching tragedy is the starting point of my personal journey, a journey that transformed my heart and ushered me into a life of activism and, some say, risk.

***

Dignitaries from Israel’s entire political spectrum attended the funeral of Matti Peled’s granddaughter. Matti Peled, my father, had died two years earlier. A man who had fought fiercely in Israel’s War for Independence, oversaw the capture of much of the land Israel now occupied, and then came to question his role as an overlord of the Palestinians, he was a general turned man of peace.

An urgent need to make sense of Smadar’s death gripped me. In Israel, war and the casualties of war were a part of life. As a child I had been to countless funerals of young people who were killed in wars or “military operations,” and I knew of people who were maimed and crippled as a result of terrorist attacks. But Smadar was my sister’s child. For years, I had been frustrated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I was deeply troubled by the lack of progress toward a peaceful solution. Still, the conflict had not become personal until my niece was murdered. Suddenly I needed to understand what brought those two young Palestinians to blow themselves up, taking her life just as it was beginning to blossom. Her death pushed me into a bold examination of my Zionist beliefs, my country’s history, and the political situation that fueled the suicide bombers who killed her.

I was born into a well-known Zionist family, which included my father, cabinet secretaries, judges, and even a president of the state of Israel. My maternal grandfather and namesake, Dr. Avraham Katznelson, was a Zionist leader. He signed Israel’s declaration of independence and later served as Israel’s first ambassador to Scandinavia. My father was 16 when he volunteered to serve in the Palmach, the strike force that fought for Israel’s independence. As a young officer, he commanded an infantry company that fought in the 1948 War, and by 1967 he was a general and a member of the Israeli army’s top brass. He was later elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

When I was a boy, military legends and dignitaries of all political persuasions passed through our home. But after Smadar’s death, I wanted to meet people on “the other side,” people who were considered my enemies.

I searched for Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups in California and made plans to attend. My wife Gila, raised in an Israeli kibbutz, was apprehensive; neither of us had ever been to the home of a Palestinian, and Gila feared for my life. “What if they do something to you? What if you don’t return?” she asked me as I prepared to leave for my first meeting with Palestinians. Although I was 39 and had grown up in the united city of Jerusalem, I never had any Arab friends. Now I faced Palestinians as equals for the first time in my life, and to my relief and amazement I found common ground. As expatriates we shared both good and bad memories of our homeland.

However, Palestinians told a far different version of our history than I had been taught as a young boy in Jerusalem. The history I knew painted Israel as a defenseless David fighting an Arab Goliath, a story that had compelled me as a young patriot to volunteer for an elite commando unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Sitting across from Palestinians in California, I learned of mass expulsions, massacres, and grave injustices. We proudly called the 1948 Arab-Israeli War the War of Independence. Palestinians called it Nakba, the “Catastrophe”. I found that hard to accept.

When other Jews and Israelis stormed out of the dialogue meetings, I chose to stay and listen, even though it pained me beyond words to accept that I was not in possession of the full truth. Coming from a family of political insiders, I thought I knew more than anyone.

I began traveling to the occupied Palestinian territories. Breaking the acceptable rules of my society, I ventured alone to meet with Palestinian peace activists in areas most Israelis consider dangerous. My sister Ossi was beside herself: “You mustn’t go,” she said. “It is dangerous and you are a father with responsibilities to your family and your children.” My mother, also sick with worry, said: “All it takes is one lunatic.”

During a trip to the West Bank, I confronted what emerged in my mind as the greatest obstacle to peace: fear of the “other,” a fear I had never realized I possessed. It was December 2005 when I drove from Jerusalem to the West Bank alone for the first time. I drove a rented car with Israeli license plates. As I passed the last Israeli checkpoint, left the wide, paved highway, I encountered the potholed streets and narrow winding roads that characterize the occupied territories. I was now in “enemy territory” and demons ran amok in my head. I imagined myself surrounded by hostile Arabs, waiting in ambush to kill me. As a child, I remembered, my father made sure we never traveled through the West Bank without a gun in the car, his AK-47 Kalashnikov. Hadn’t people warned me not to do this exactly?

When I arrived, I was greeted by activists—freedom fighters who refused to engage in violence and were intent on resolving the conflict peacefully. I experienced no antagonism at all as I spent the entire day there and then returned home to Jerusalem. I felt relieved, hopeful, and discouraged all at the same time. I knew if ever there were to be peace, the fear that ran inside me like a virus had to be conquered. Through centuries of experience and conditioning, fear had become almost inseparable from my culture. It had to be overcome and replaced by trust. This was an enormous task.

Mine is the tale of an Israeli boy, a Zionist, who realized that his side of the story was not the only side and chose to cultivate hope in a situation most call impossible. I feel that my travels and the political insights I gained at my father’s side may offer a model for reconciliation not only in the Middle East, but anywhere people look at the “other” and experience fear rather than our common humanity.

—-

Chapter 7: A Journey Begins

My journey into Palestine began in San Diego in 2000. I was 39 years old.

I used to think of Jerusalem as a “mixed” city because both Israelis and Palestinians live there. The sad reality is that Israeli and Palestinian communities in Jerusalem are completely segregated. As I look back on my childhood in Jerusalem, I realize that I never had an Arab friend, or even a close acquaintance. There was “us” and there was “the Arabs,” and we might as well have been living on different planets.

I assumed that we lived separate lives because we were so different: Arabs spoke a different language, they went to different schools, and it seemed to me that they even wore different clothes; their schools usually required uniforms and they generally dressed in a more formal and conservative manner than we did. Their food was different, and whereas the society I knew was very relaxed about mixing men and women, in Arab circles that was not common. All of this I somehow knew without ever meeting or speaking to Arabs. When, on a trip somewhere with family or friends, we would stop at an Arab town, it seemed dusty and backward, which reinforced my preconceived notion that Arabs were poor and less developed than us.

I was 10 or 11 when I began asking questions. I remember once during a trip we visited a very poor village somewhere in the Negev. The children did not look like us, and I asked my father why they were so dirty. He did not reply. I remember asking him once why it was that Arab men beat their wives, as though this was a fact that everyone knew. It was another stereotype I had picked up somewhere. He became very angry and once again he did not respond, which of course I did not understand. My mother tried to get him to engage and talk to me about this, but he was not willing to even acknowledge such questions. By then he was teaching Arabic literature, and I think he was angered by these characterizations, and by the fact that his own son was bringing them home. Not knowing how to deal with this other than through anger, he chose to say nothing.

As an adult, my more liberal views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict set me apart from other Israeli and Jewish friends, and I constantly felt conflicted and unsettled. Whenever I returned to Israel I found that my old friends, some of whom used to share my views, had moved toward the consensus, which in Israel was becoming more chauvinistic and constantly shifting to the right. When my best friend’s son was about to be drafted, I asked the boy where he was going to serve and he told me he wanted to join the Special Forces.

I looked at my friend in surprise.

“You know that what they do is wrong—didn’t you tell him?” I asked my friend later.

“You don’t understand,” my friend said. “You don’t care about my son, all you care about are your Palestinian friends.”

“Yes, I care about my Palestinian friends and what the Special Forces do to them, but this will backfire, and this will hurt your son, too. How could you not tell him?” That was the last time we spoke.

When I met Jewish Americans, my position on the Arab-Israeli conflict made them uncomfortable. American Jews for the most part wanted to believe that Israel was good and that Arabs were bad. I remember visiting a foot doctor who was Jewish. Once he realized I was Jewish and from Israel he allowed himself to unleash a few venomous anti-Arab remarks, thinking I must feel the same way about “these fucking Arabs.” At first I was so shocked I was speechless. Then I dropped off a brochure published by the Bereaved Families Forum, to give him some food for thought. I never went to see him after that.

He was not the only one to do that around me. More and more I could sense an anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment taking over what I had always thought was “moderate” America. If I had any regular contact with local Jewish people I could not talk about politics in the Middle East because it would get in the way of our friendship. Needless to say few of these friendships lasted very long. I remember thinking once that if I were to set the issue aside, stop talking and thinking about it, and move on with my life, then maybe I would just “get over it.”

But after Smadar died, I cared so much that it hurt and I realized that getting over it was not an option. The political reality in my homeland would continue to follow me, not to say haunt me, for as long as I lived, regardless of where I chose to make my home. I searched and searched for an outlet, for something I could do in southern California, and the final push to make me become more active came almost three years after Smadar was killed.

***

As always, the process was tied to internal Israeli politics. In 1999, Israel had elected Ehud Barak, who promised he would negotiate with the Palestinians and end the conflict once and for all. My mother was visiting us in Coronado right after the elections and we had dinner with Marshall Saunders, a good friend and mentor of mine. He asked my mother, “So Zika, what do you make of Mr. Barak, your new prime minister?”

“He is just another general like the rest of them,” my mother said. “I have no reason to believe that things will be any different.” I, on the other hand, was full of optimism, and I had no idea she felt that way.

In the summer of 2000, Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met at Camp David in Maryland at the invitation of President Bill Clinton to finalize and seal a peace agreement. Arafat insisted it was premature to hold a summit, but his opinion was ignored and the summit was convened on July 11. It gave rise to great expectations around the world. I, too, was buoyed: I really expected the leaders would finalize the process and it would result in peace; I chose to believe that Barak would pick up where Rabin left off before he was murdered and that he was serious about peace and compromise; and I chose to believe a peaceful resolution in the shape of a two-state solution was inevitable.

As the days went by, word was that all the parties had left to do was to sign on the dotted line. But the talks went on and on, with no sign of an agreement. I spoke to Rami constantly because he knew people that were on the Israeli delegation. “All that is left is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, the deal is done,” he kept saying. “I have it from people who are as close to the top as you can get.”

Then, on July 25, I felt the floor drop out from under me. It was announced that the delegates were leaving with no agreement. I was devastated, as were millions of other Israelis and Palestinians who were hoping for an end to the conflict. President Clinton emerged from the summit and said, “The prime minister moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat.” This was a serious accusation coming from the guy who was supposed to be the “honest broker.” He was blaming Yasser Arafat for not being flexible enough. Barak said, “We tore the mask off of Arafat’s face,” and now we know that Arafat did not want peace after all.

I felt that things did not add up. I had followed the process closely, and I knew that Yasser Arafat had been consistent for years. For the sake of peace he was willing to give up the dream of all Palestinians to return to their homes and their land in Palestine. He was willing to recognize Israel, the state that destroyed Palestine, took his people’s land, and turned them into a nation of refugees. He was ready to establish an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—which make up only 22 percent of the Palestinian homeland—with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.

He was ready to do all this, but he was not going to settle for anything less. He had always been clear about what he saw as the terms for peace.

In the end, it turned out that my gut feeling was right. As accounts of the negotiations began to surface—through articles, first hand accounts, and books like Harakiri: Ehud Barak: The Failure by journalist Raviv Druker—it was clear that what the Israelis had demanded at Camp David was tantamount to total Palestinian surrender. It also became clear that Ehud Barack himself was despised by his own aides and that none of his political allies remained with him due to trust issues. Barak demanded that Arafat sign an agreement to end the conflict forever and in return, he would be permitted to establish a Palestinian state on an area of land that could not be defined clearly because it was broken into pockets with no geographic continuity. Instead of Arab East Jerusalem, he would receive a small suburb of East Jerusalem as his capital. To that Yasser Arafat refused to agree.

In September 2000, frustration and disappointment ran high and the atmosphere was charged when Ariel Sharon who was opposed to the peace process from the beginning decided to march to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He did it surrounded by hundreds of fully armed police in riot gear. The Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif as it’s known to the Muslim world, is a 35-acre plaza that takes up one-sixth of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is home to the Dome of the Rock, the most iconic structure in Jerusalem, and the Al Aqsa Mosque. This mosque is believed to sit on the spot where patriarch Abraham was going to sacrifice his son. It is believed to be the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples, and it is the place from which the prophet Mohammed made his night journey into the heavens. It is so holy for Jews that observant Jews refrain from entering it for fear of defiling the Holy of Holies. For Muslims around the world, only Mecca and Medina are holier than Jerusalem.

Sharon claimed he was merely exercising his right to visit the place. It was more like an invasion than a visit. The response was immediate and entirely predictable. Palestinians from all walks of life saw this as desecration of holy ground, and massive protests began. Israel reacted with violent force. The unrest spiraled into ever-harsher Israeli repression and massive Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian-Israelis in northern Israel also protested and they too were met with violent response from the police, who shot and killed 13 civilians. Sharon lit the fuse over this barrel of explosives, and thus the second Intifada or Uprising was born.

Then the entire peace process came crashing down, as well as Barak’s government. He had serious internal political problems, and he had hoped that sealing a peace deal would save him politically, but in the end he was forced to call early elections. These were held in February 2001, and Barak suffered a humiliating defeat, making his period in office the shortest of any Israeli prime minister. Ariel Sharon, who ran against Barak, won in a landslide. All of Sharon’s shortcomings and past offenses were forgotten, and he was now at the helm in the prime minister’s seat.

To understand why Sharon was elected, we have to understand how Israel views its generals—and this general in particular. Ariel Sharon, or Arik as he is known in Israel, was larger than life. He was a war hero. He fought in 1948, he headed Commando Unit 101, he fought in 1956 in the Sinai Campaign, and he proved to be a brilliant commander in the 1967 War. He seemed destined to be the IDF chief of staff, but in early 1973 it became clear that he would not get the job, and he was forced to resign. IDF chief of staff is as much a political appointment as it is a military post. The public and the army would never accept another chief of staff as long as he was in uniform, so Arik was forced to end his military career and resign. Following his resignation, my father wrote an article lamenting the fact that the IDF lost “a military genius.” He said Arik Sharon would have been a brilliant chief of staff, that he “combined the unique quality of being a brilliant military man, an admired leader and he knew how to organize his command so as to achieve the best possible results on the battlefield.”

When the 1973 Mideast war broke out, the only war that was not initiated by Israel and where Israel was caught completely off guard, Sharon was immediately called back to the army. He commanded a reservist armored division and he saved the IDF from a humiliating defeat. He was fearless, and he represented the Israel in which Israelis wanted to live: strong, fearless, no-nonsense. He was the average man’s general, who grew up and lived on a farm—not one of those sophisticated generals who hobnobbed with the rich and powerful. The battles he commanded are taught at military colleges around the world, and many of Israel’s top commanders served under him as junior officers. Not unlike George Patton, the legendary World War II hero he was often compared to, Arik Sharon was both brilliant and dangerous. In Israel, the feeling was that no one else could bring the security people wanted, and certainly nobody could punish the Arabs as he could—on that he had a solid record.

I sensed disaster approaching and could no longer sit still. Compounded with Smadar’s death, these political developments were all too much for me. I had to do something.

The first step, I thought, was finding people with whom I could talk, but how? I placed a few ads in the San Diego Reader classified section asking about dialogue groups but got no reply. I searched the Internet, and finally I came across the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and they referred me to George Majeed Khoury, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who lived in San Diego. He and I communicated by e-mail and phone for several weeks, unable to get together because of our busy schedules, until finally we met at his office.

I will never forget his warm greeting: “At last we meet!” I’d been apprehensive to meet him, but his warmth put me at ease right away. We sat in the reception area at his office, and he told me about the San Diego Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group: “We meet once a month, and we are a young and very active and vigorous group of people. I will have to ask the members if you can join us, but I will recommend that they do.”

A few weeks went by, and I heard nothing. I sent Majeed another e-mail, and he invited me to a gathering in his home. When the day of my first meeting arrived, Gila worried that something bad would happen to me: “You don’t know these people. What if this is a trap? Be sure to call me and come home as soon as you can.” I promised that I would.

At that point, I had not acknowledged having such fears myself, and if I did they were overshadowed by anticipation and the sense that I was about to embark on something new and important. I was so excited driving there that I took a wrong turn, and the half-hour drive ended up taking over an hour.

When I finally reached their house, I saw a sign above the door that read: “Majeed and Haifa Khoury.” I stood for a while, looking at the name “Haifa.” It was the first time it ever occurred to me that “Haifa” was an Arabic name, and that perhaps the city of Haifa was an Arab city before it was Israeli.

I walked in hesitantly. About a dozen people were there, and I guessed that some were American Jews and others were Palestinian, but at first I couldn’t tell for sure who was who. They sat in the living room around a table with the usual Middle Eastern spread—hummus, falafel, tabouli—common to both Israelis and Palestinians. I heard a woman refer to one of the salads, made of diced cucumbers and tomatoes with olive oil and lemon juice, as an “Israeli salad.”

Another woman’s eyebrows shot up. “Israeli salad? What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked sharply. “Are you telling me that we have been eating an Israeli salad all these years?” I felt a bit uneasy by the exchange, but everyone else laughed. It was, in a way, a harbinger of things to come.

Another Jewish woman mentioned that she would soon be going home to visit. “Home? What country are you calling home? Let’s be clear about one thing, that country is my home.” This, too, did not cause any anger or antagonism, but laughter.

Soon we sat around a dining room table and began introducing ourselves. I was the only Israeli—I was almost always the only Israeli. I was quite nervous.

When it was my turn to introduce myself, I looked down and quickly told them who I was and what my views were. I told them about my family and my father, and about Smadar. “I am Zionist, and I believe in the Jewish state. I believe firmly that a Palestinian state should be established in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

“Wait a minute.” Doris Bittar, one of the group facilitators, pulled out a copy of Al Jadid, an English-language magazine covering Arab-American culture. “Are you Nurit’s brother?”

It so happened that about a month earlier, Al Jadid had published a story about a movie called The Bombing. The movie, by the French producer Simone Bitton, described the suicide attack in which Smadar was killed. Doris knew of Nurit because she had just read the story in Al Jadid.

I had no idea our story had been written about, but everyone in the room seemed to know about it. People were stunned when I said that I was the uncle of the little girl in the film. The fact that I just happened to be there at the meeting that day felt like serendipity.

This is the first time I am in a place where Jews and Palestinians exist as equals, I thought. There are no occupiers and occupied, we are all citizens with equal rights and protections under the law. The fact that we were able to talk and to look each other in the eye made a huge difference; in fact, it may be what made this possible. Had we been living back home, we would never have met like this.

It was also the first time I sat in a room with Palestinians of all ages and backgrounds to talk about our shared homeland. In many ways, I had more in common with the Palestinians than with many of the Jewish-Americans in the group. The things that characterize American Jewish culture—New York Jewish humor, Jewish delicatessen food—were completely alien to me. On the other hand, traditional Palestinian warmth and hospitality, Arabic food, and photos of our shared homeland put me completely at ease. I didn’t even mind seeing the map of Israel with Palestine written all over it, something I thought would trouble me since my people had fought so hard to win it back. Perhaps the fact that we—the Palestinians and the lone Israeli—had actually lived in the Middle East and had memories from the same land created an almost instant bond. I loved every minute of that evening. Nurit later said that meeting Palestinians gave me a taste of home. She was right. I finally found a piece of home in America.

The meeting had started at seven, and I expected it would last an hour or two at most. When I had not returned by ten, Gila became worried. Neither of us had been to the home of a Palestinian before, and we knew none of the people involved in the group. She was seriously afraid for my life, and she called my cell phone to make sure I was okay. I told her everything was fine.

The meetings of the San Diego Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group were held once a month, and everyone was polite and respectful as they told their stories. From the Palestinians, I heard stories of displacement and ruthlessness I had never imagined possible. However, we were not there to argue, we were there to listen and to share our experiences. As we became more comfortable with one another, we began approaching more dangerous ground and topics that went beyond the realm of “safe” dialogue.

Majeed referred to his life experience by saying, “I was ethnically cleansed twice!” First, when he was a child. “Because of the constant bombing of our neighborhood, we were forced to leave our home in West Jerusalem.” Then, while he was attending the American University in Beirut in 1967, the Six-Day War broke out and he was not permitted to return to his family, who now lived in East Jerusalem. His criticism of the top echelon of the PLO, many of whom he knew personally, was scathing. His “R”s rolled with rage: “They are corrupt crooks and criminals!”

One day, after attending meetings for several months, I got word that Manal Sawirjo, one of the women in the dialogue group, was going to speak at a local synagogue on Sunday morning. Rabbi Moshe Levin of Congregation Beth El, also a member of our group, had invited her to speak. It was a risky move by the rabbi. He headed one of San Diego’s most prominent synagogues, and to invite a Palestinian to speak while Sunday school was in session and so many people were present was no small matter. I later heard that he took some serious criticism for doing that.

Manal is a remarkably accomplished woman, a PhD, a world-renowned scientist, and a captivating speaker. She has a tremendous smile and beautiful brown eyes. “I was born and raised in Kuwait where my late father, a refugee from Majdal (now the Israeli city of Ashkelon), was a teacher,” she told those gathered. “My father was a young boy when the town was taken by Israel, and his family was forced to move to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.” I had not known this and, I am sure, neither did the predominantly Jewish audience.

In an answer to a question she said, “In Kuwait, we were taught Hebrew, and we were told that we had to learn it because Hebrew was the language of the enemy.” Hearing that sent chills down my spine. “We even learned to say it in Hebrew: Ivrit hee sfat ha’oyev.” When she repeated those words in Hebrew, spoken with an Arabic accent, I did not know what to do with myself. I was flooded with thoughts and emotions, a combination of pain and surprise. Frankly, I was deeply insulted. She was drawing a connection between my language, this language that like a thread links me to the Hebrew culture, the language of the great Hebrew writers, both ancient and modern, and her fate as a Palestinian. Immediately, I thought of the poets Bialik and Lea Goldberg, the prophets of the Old Testament, and the immortal author of the Song of Songs. How could my language be associated with any enemy? Soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank I can see as enemies of the Palestinians, along with a few Israeli politicians. The Hebrew language was the very heart and soul of Hebrew culture. Did that mean that I, too, was the enemy? I felt that I was suddenly associated with things I thought I was detached from. This was not the last time someone said something that shook me to my core, but it was the first real kick in the gut.

I wrote to Manal immediately, not to argue so much but to express the strength of the thoughts and emotions I experienced when I heard those words. She said she had no idea her words would have such an effect.

Years later, after Manal’s daughter was born, her father came to San Diego to visit. Gila and I went to see her, and when Gila met Manal’s father it was an emotionally charged moment. They both realized they came from the same place; Majdal, now the city of Ashkelon, just a few kilometers north of Kibbutz Zikim, where Gila was born and raised. They had grown up seeing and loving the same landscape, and it affected them both deeply. Manal’s father kept saying through his tears that we “were good people” and that he felt no resentment toward us. “This was not your fault.”

Some time later Manal and I talked about it. “This was the first time I ever saw my father cry for Palestine,” she said.

***

My journey and my transformation were becoming more intense. Soon I had to face my moment of truth—although it turned out to be the first of many such moments, moments without which dialogue is just plain talk.

We were at a dialogue meeting at Majeed’s house. Majeed was explaining a point when he said, “The Palestinians had barely ten thousand fighters, but the Haganah and the other Jewish militias combined were triple that number if not more. So when the Jews attacked, the Palestinians never had a chance.” That was the most outrageous version of history I had ever heard: that the fighting forces of the Jewish militias in 1948 were superior to the Arabs’ and that the Jews attacked.

My father and all of his friends had fought in that war. I’d heard first-hand stories about the sieges, the fierce attacks, and the touch-and-go battles where our forces were outnumbered and won only because they had the wits and the moral high ground. My mother had told me that during the siege of Jerusalem, they’d had to share half a tomato for meals and dash to the wells to get water while bombs fell and snipers shot at them. In the Negev where my father fought, it was the few Israelis fighting the huge Egyptian army.

I was fully convinced that with my background I knew more than anyone else about this aspect of the conflict and that what Majeed was saying made no sense. In a way it even dishonored the story of the creation of the Jewish state, a story in which the few defeating the many is a crucial element. If what he said was true, then it de-glorified much of the story.

That could easily have been my breaking point. I could not explain why Majeed would be perpetuating this insane notion that Israel was not a “David” defending itself against the Arab “Goliath,” but I wasn’t ready to dismiss him as a liar.

I could not dismiss him because by now trust had been built between us. This trust allowed me to let go of the safe comfort of “knowing” so that I could explore the unknown territory of the “other.” This was very difficult, but I felt that even if what he said was not the truth that I knew, I would have to explore it.

I didn’t say anything right away because I didn’t want to start arguing. Instead, when I got home that night I called my brother Yoav, who taught political science at Tel Aviv University.

“Yes, what your friend said has merit. If you want to know more, read a few books by Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and Avi Shlaim.” These three “New Israeli Historians” had all recently rewritten the history of the establishment of Israel. I did exactly as Yoav advised. Over the following weeks and months I read all the books by these authors. And the more I read, the more I wanted to know. They had corroborated what Palestinians had been saying for decades. In fact, they corroborated what most of the world had known for years: that Israel was created after Jewish militias destroyed Palestine and forcibly exiled its people. This was a rude awakening for me. I recalled watching the Israeli TV series Tkuma, or Rebirth, that came out in 1998 to commemorate Israel’s 50th independence day. In one chapter dealing with Israel’s War of Independence, a veteran commander of 1948 was asked if it was true that the Haganah forces burned down Arab villages. He slowly looked up at the camera, waited a while, and then said, “Like bonfires.” This meant a whole new paradigm through which to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The purpose of dialogue is to eliminate the barriers between two sides through listening and empathy—which, I’ve learned, is easier said than done. The willingness to accept another’s truth is a huge step to take. It is such a powerful gesture, in fact, that contemplating it can make you want to throw up.

At first I felt like a baby learning to walk, realizing little by little that it was OK to let go of the comfort of holding onto what I “knew” to be true. It opened the door to a discussion most Israelis are fiercely protective about—which is, what did the Zionist forces really do in 1948? Once I had taken a few steps into that unknown, I found confidence, and to my surprise I found that there was something even more secure to rely on than the myths of heroism and redemption I’d heard during my childhood. Many if not all of these myths were created and perpetuated by the new Jewish state, which wanted to substantiate the David vs. Goliath image and painted my people as heroes who rose from the ashes to reclaim their historic homeland. For me, the only thing stronger than that myth was trust—the trust that was already in place between members of the dialogue group. Without that there could have been no progress. The group was not about accusing but listening and telling personal stories, and that was what allowed me, for the first time in my life, to learn that the Palestinians had a narrative of their own and that it was different from the narrative I had been taught. In fact it was 180 degrees different.

This was an excruciatingly painful thing to learn, and it was possible only because Doris and her husband Jim Rauch were brilliant facilitators. Doris is an Arab-American artist of Palestinian and Lebanese descent. Born in Baghdad, she grew up in New York and picked up quite a bit of the Jewish-infused culture of that city. She has dark hair and warm dark eyes. There is a constant expression of motherly concern on her face, and when she laughs or smiles she lights up the room.

Jim is Jewish-American, and an accomplished economics professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He is quiet and methodical and sharp as a razor. Everyone felt comfortable with Doris and Jim because they clearly respected both cultures and possessed a unique ability to bring people together. They were excellent facilitators who didn’t interject their own issues. Many of the meetings took place at their beautiful home in San Diego, and it was mainly their dedication that allowed the group to thrive as, month after month, they put their heart into the difficult task of making the dialogue work. From my perspective, it was a tremendous success.

Over time, the dialogue phenomenon grew and San Diego had three or four active groups that emerged out of our group, including one that I initiated. I received addresses and names of people who might be interested from Doris, and I called them to see if they were serious about participating in a dialogue group. It turned out to be another dedicated group. Before long, however, I realized that I made a better participant than facilitator: I wanted to be an active contributor to the conversations and to express myself fully—not to be unbiased and somewhat colorless, which was what a good moderator needed to be. So I relied on others in the group to facilitate the meeting.

Pretty soon word got out that there were Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups that were active in and around San Diego and that they had something positive to say. This excited some people and alienated others. The local papers and TV stations took an interest in us, and The Christian Science Monitor did a major story about us.

But crossing the line to understand the “other” point of view was not seen as a positive step by everyone. Jewish and Palestinian members talked with great pain about people in their respective communities, sometimes even close friends, who had shunned them because they were meeting with “the other side.”

“They told us we are not welcome anymore, because we meet with terrorists,” said one elderly Jewish lady.

“We were told we should be ashamed of ourselves,” said one Palestinian.

I was asked to participate in panel discussions with other members of the group. We were invited to speak at synagogues, mosques, and churches. Civic organizations and service clubs asked us to speak. We would sit together on the stage and take turns telling our stories. That was when I realized I had to learn to hold back my tears when talking about Smadar. Then we would take questions from the audience. From time to time, two of us would be invited to speak, and so I had opportunities to share a podium with Majeed, Doris, and Manal. I noticed that we gradually moved from representing opposing points of view to presenting a shared vision.

In 2002, Israeli television’s Channel 10 decided to produce a documentary on Israelis living abroad. Yehuda Litani, a friend of Nurit and Rami, came to San Diego to interview a Palestinian doctor who lived there. When Nurit heard that Yehuda was coming to San Diego she told him that I lived there too, and he decided to do a chapter about me as well.

Gila was pregnant with Tali when he came, and we all became very good friends. He and his cameraman followed me around for about a week, shooting scenes of me teaching classes at the dojo and on the beach in Coronado. He came to a meeting of the dialogue group and he conducted extensive interviews with Nurit and my mother. The result was a 40-minute documentary about me that touched on my family, my father, and Smadar, plus my work with Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups and my karate training. At the end of the documentary, Litani commented that I made an effective goodwill ambassador for Israel, and he lamented the fact that I no longer lived in Israel.

Indeed I felt I was finally doing something—but it was just the beginning.

About Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the owner of Just World Books. She’s been blogging since 2003 at JustWorldNews.org. Her 1984 book The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power, and Politics, was published by Cambridge University Press and is still in print. Her early-1990 study “The PLO and the Intifada” was published in The Middle East Journal (Spring 1990).

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