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Celebrating Life in a Melting Pot

Lela Gilbert

This year, summer arrived in Jerusalem on literal waves of heat. Fortunately – unlike in most of the sweltering Middle East – afternoon breezes cooled the air considerably. So one evening, I bravely stepped away from my apartment’s air conditioner and took a 15-minute walk to the Mamilla Mall.

Once I got there, I was reminded that despite the warm temperatures, the tourist season brings with it a bustling scene, as colorful crowds wend their way along Mamilla’s lively pedestrian shopping street, ascending and descending a flight of stairs to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.

In addition to the mall’s very appealing collection of stores and boutiques, one of Mamilla’s attractions – at least for me – is the exceptionally varied array of shoppers. Unlike any other places I have ever visited, in Israel, even the most casual observer can make a fairly accurate guess about what people believe in, based on what they wear.

The shopping throngs at Mamilla comprise a casually defined religious mixture, with Muslim women in hijabs’ shopping shoulder-to-shoulder with Orthodox Jewish mothers, fathers and children. At the same time, clergy in clerical frocks representing the most venerable church traditions mingle with American Christian youth groups wearing matching T-shirts.

This kaleidoscopic scene always reminds me of the absurd accusation that Israel is an “apartheid state,” a label that was first popularized in Jimmy Carter’s infamous book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Carter’s accusation was particularly ridiculous to the South Africans who actually experienced apartheid.

Even the notorious South African judge Richard Goldstone, who trashed Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in a United Nations report, later decried the “apartheid” accusation in a New York Times op-ed.

“In Israel, there is no apartheid,” he wrote. “Nothing there comes close. Israeli Arabs – 20 percent of Israel’s population – vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including in its supreme court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.”

Goldstone was correct (at least about that). Israeli Arabs are judges, army officers, lawyers and business people. Even diplomats.

Take, for example, George Deek, Israel’s vice-ambassador to Norway. An outspoken critic of what he describes as a “culture of victimhood,” he claims that this philosophy robs Israeli Arabs of their dignity. Of his upbringing, he has said, “I was a Christian Orthodox kid in a French Catholic school with a majority of Muslim students, in the Jewish country in the Arab Middle East. And nothing seemed more normal.”

Deek also pointed out that, while Arabs in Israel experience one of the “best qualities of life for Arabs in the region,” these people are surrounded by the ever-growing persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“Outside Israel, Easter celebrations have become a rare sight. Christians were driven out of Mosul in Iraq. [They were] put to flight in Syria. The last church in Afghanistan was destroyed in 2010. Thirty Christians were beheaded in Libya. And in Gaza, bishops are beaten up and Christian symbols are forbidden.”

Deek could not be more correct. In the Middle East, persecution against the region’s ancient churches continues to smolder, flare and rage out of control. Inflamed by Islamist ideology and targeting minorities (particularly Christians), the brutal acts – including torture, beheadings, enslavement and other atrocities – have escalated to unprecedented levels.

The cradle of Christianity is all but going up in flames – most notably in Iraq and Syria, but also in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Israel is the only country in the Middle East in which the Christian population is growing.

It is no wonder that some Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel have noted that they live in the region’s sole safe haven for their faith. And they have decided to do more than give thanks.

An increasing number of Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Assyrian and other Christian communities want to defend their homeland – and many of them have chosen to take action. Not only are they choosing to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces, but they are also forming political parties and seeking reforms in Israel’s educational system, insisting that the country’s officially sanctioned curriculum includes Christian history alongside that of Judaism and Islam.

A young Arab-speaking Christian man put it this way: “I will continue to defend and protect the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. I have no other country.”

As Goldstone pointed out, Arab-Israelis – both Christian and Muslim – serve essential roles in the country’s leadership.

For instance, Judge George Karra, an Arab from Jaffa, presided over the judicial panel that sentenced former Israeli President Moshe Katsav to a seven-year prison term for rape. Meanwhile, another leading Israeli jurist, Salim Joubran from Haifa, is the first Arab judge to receive a permanent appointment to the Israeli Supreme Court.

None of this should imply that the relationship between Arab and Jewish Israelis is trouble-free. It is not. There are debates, declarations and discussions, public and private, which include everything from infinitesimal woes to hugely significant issues affecting both populations. These involve matters like income and educational equality, construction permits, trash collection, bureaucratic impartiality and innumerable other issues involving alleged discrimination.

Nonetheless, Newsweek magazine claimed that “the real Arab Spring is blooming in Israel”.

Arab activists are using the Jewish State’s robust democracy and independent institutions to push their agenda of radical, but peaceful, political change. A rainbow coalition of nationalists, Islamists, feminists, socialists and supporters of Jewish-Arab co-operation stood in [the recent] election. The Joint List won 13 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, making it the third largest party.

Recently, a surprising and unexpected defense of Israel’s melting pot came from a young man who just graduated from Tel Aviv University and was awarded the role of valedictorian for his class.

Haisam Hassanein grew up in Egypt, in a rural area that was a hot-bed of anti-Semitism and fear of Israel.

“If you think you heard a million reasons why not to come to Israel,” he told the university’s appreciative graduation audience, “I heard a million and a half. Growing up in Egypt, the entire country had opinions about Israel, and none of them were positive. All we knew was that we had fought bloody wars, and that they were not like us.”

He went on to describe his first impressions:

On my very first day here at the university, I saw men in kippas [and] women in head scarfs and hijabs. I saw soldiers walking peacefully among crowds of lively students. I learned there were people of every kind in the university, and the university had a place for all of them: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins and even international students.

How fascinating is it to be in a city where you can to go a beach in central Tel Aviv and see a Muslim woman, a couple of gays kissing, and a Hasid sharing the same small space? Where else can you find a Christian Arab whose apartment is decorated with posters of Mao and Lenin? Where else can you see a Bedouin IDF soldier reading the Quran on the train during Ramadan? Where else can you see Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews arguing about whether or not Ashkenazi families had kidnapped Yemenite babies in the 1950s?

In a video that has been widely viewed, Hassanein related other insights that he had gleaned from his experience in Israel. “Perhaps the greatest revelation of my being here was that in spite of all the conflicting histories and identities, people are still able to live their daily lives in a spirit of cooperation,” he said. “We must always question our assumptions. Being here in Israel has taught me that life is full of paradoxes and complexities – that nothing is straightforward, and that things are often not as they are made to seem.”

As for me, I have lived in Jerusalem for more than nine years. And my own view of life in Israel largely mirrors Hassanein’s. There are complexities that mock simple explanations or pat answers. As the overused saying goes, “It’s complicated.” There are puzzles without solutions. There are disagreements that defy negotiation. Mistrust surges beneath the surface – more deeply than anger, resentment or hatred.

But above all else, the ebullient and brilliant Israelis are the beating pulse of the country. Like people everywhere, they have their problems, and they struggle and worry and fret.

But they are exceptionally courageous – insolent in the face of danger, and mockers of death. As a people they are optimistic, quick to laugh, sing and applaud. And when life goes wrong, they weep their tears, sweep up the remains of the day, and go out to face tomorrow.

I believe this, in large part, is because the people of Israel – despite all that threatens them – embody an ancient commandment:

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.
That’s exactly what the Israelis have done.

And, in fact, they do more than choose life. They celebrate it!

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