I was born and raised in New York City, yet when I arrive at Ben Gurion airport I don’t feel protected by my American passport.
My heart pounds with anxiety and I feel literally sick to my stomach at the possibility of being interrogated and humiliated. The reason: My father was Palestinian. My Jewish colleagues are sympathetic, but they can’t relate viscerally to what I am subjected to as I enter and exit Israel.
So, why do I participate in this Dialogue? My Arab friends ask, “Will this group of yours end the occupation?” No, it won’t, and some days when a meeting is scheduled, I don’t feel like going. But I go because I believe it is my responsibility to make Palestine and Palestinian views, politics, and culture accessible to all who want to listen.
Sometimes I educate them; sometimes I learn from them. I remember one session that included a “show and tell.” Each of us was supposed to bring an object that symbolized our connection to Israel/Palestine. One of the Jewish women brought in a Jewish National Fund collection can from her childhood home, a blue and white tin she called a “ tzedakah box.” She told us that she and her family put coins in the box every week no matter what. “We did without, but money went into that box,” she said.
I was awed by that level of commitment and later mentioned it to some of my Palestinian friends and they concurred that we, too, needed to have collection boxes of our own.
Because I lived in Ramallah for a few years, I’m able to bring to the group some critical insights about life in a “five-star prison” with limited to no freedom of movement. To reach my father’s village, normally a 15-minute drive from Ramallah, we had to circumvent all the special roads that Israel built — mostly on confiscated Palestinian land — for settlers’ use only. Now the trip takes an hour and a half. Thankfully, my father’s village, unlike many, is not (yet) obstructed by a high concrete wall with a gate controlled by Israelis who decide whether and when to let schoolchildren and villagers pass in and out.
But today, as I ready myself for a trip to the region to help with the olive harvest, I’m angered by the news that Jewish settlers are poisoning Palestinian olive trees and preventing villagers from accessing their land. I know for certain that my Jewish Dialogue colleagues all agree that these actions are despicable and unacceptable. They understand the Palestinians’ connection to their land and their olive groves.
Nevertheless, there have been times when I was disappointed by the lack of reaction or empathy from our Jewish counterparts. During the Gaza war, my Palestinian sisters and I were all distraught — we expected some kind of outreach from them, and there was none. Occasionally, I’ve found Jewish ignorance of Palestinians quite shocking.
Such frustrations aside, what makes this Dialogue work is that for two-and-a-half years, we have listened to one another respectfully and challenged each other in good faith. This is what happens on a daily basis in Israel in a place special to me: Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, the cooperative village where Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis coexist on a daily basis. Once a month, here in New York City, we in our small group, are trying to do the same.
Jeanine Shama is affiliated with various Arab-American organizations and was formerly with the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.