By Hannah Tobin Cohen
Awaiting take-off on a flight from Los Angeles to London, I sit ensconced in the latest David Grossman novel, with mizrahi music blasting in my ears. Yet, even the dulcet tones of Moshe Peretz cannot obscure the phone conversation of my neighbor, conducted in the familiar – yet to me, incomprehensible – language of Arabic. With the sinking feeling that I am about to do something against my better judgement on the cusp of a wearisome transatlantic flight, I introduce myself. By chance or otherwise, Hannah the British Jew, and Sayyid the Palestinian Muslim, have been seated cosily – inescapably – next to each other, for eleven l-o-n-g hours.
Suffice to say, we managed to vacillate with relative civility between earnest conversation and ardent debate, but unfortunately (and not surprisingly) we did not succeed in solving the Middle East conflict. What I did realize, however, is that it is very easy to comfortably, smugly, immerse myself in my own narrative: to read articles that support my point of view, to surround myself with like-minded friends, to carefully cultivate an environment that shields me not only from dissenting ideas but from the people who voice them. In ignoring those with whom one disagrees – whether deliberately or unwittingly – half the story is lost, and the “other,” inevitably, is dehumanized.
As an Israel educator and researcher, it was a rude awakening. How could I profess to teach and write about Israel when I regarded Palestinians as I had Arabic: familiar, certainly, yet to some extent, incomprehensible. The realization propelled me to apply for Newground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a one-year, Los Angeles-based fellowship that brings together Jews and Muslims to engage in interfaith learning, dialogue and community action. In the other fellows I tentatively, curiously, delightedly, discovered interlocutors, empathizers, challengers, and friends. We shared commonalities and differences, hopes and fears, joy and sadness. I winced as my Arab roommate divulged the hardships her Palestinian cousins face under Israeli authority, and witnessed a Malaysian friend moved to tears by the Palestinian slaying of Jews immersed in prayer at a Jerusalem synagogue. Together, we collaborated to create “Two Faiths One Prayer,” an interfaith prayer project that garnered over 170,000 views on YouTube and worldwide press coverage.
Until today, when I’m thinking, writing, and teaching about Israel, I visualize Sayyid or one of my Newground friends sitting, inescapably, in the seat next to me. Would the claims I make stand in front of them? Are the articles I circulate thoughtful, justifiable, and most importantly, constructive? Are my words, and the words of my students, respectful, even when the content is difficult or painful?
We have a choice before us. In Israel, in Los Angeles, and around the world, Jews and Muslims have been seated cosily – inescapably – next to each other. Our approach to the “other” can be conveyed through violence, through silence, or through the same familiar-yet-foreign lens that Arabic and Palestinians evoked in me. My plane journey with Sayyid convinced me that we need to forge an alternative course. Our obligation is to turn towards each other and conduct a curious, messy, passionate, respectful conversation about our similarities, our differences, and how we can work together to create a better future for our children.
In a world fraught with discord, segregation and violence, it is easy to feel helpless, alienated and angry. Middle East leaders bluster and fester in their ivory towers, maintaining a fruitless stalemate of rhetoric and violence, while their peoples suffer. What would the world look like if parents and educators – the people truly responsible for shaping the next generation – made interfaith respect, familiarity and dialogue a priority for their children? It is our prerogative and imperative to find out.
Hannah Tobin Cohen, MAEd, is a freelance researcher and educator, specializing in Israel and Jewish education. She is a fellow of Newground, iCenter, and the Teaching Israel Fellowship.