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Looking for Hope: A writer finds inspiration in Jewish-Palestinian friendship, especially now

Haviva Ner-David was just starting to promote her debut novel, about the intersecting lives of two Israeli women — one Jewish, one Palestinian — when last month’s military escalation with Gaza erupted, accompanied by the worst internecine fighting between Jewish and Arab citizens in recent memory.

Ner David, a rabbi, writer, and mother of seven, grew up in the United States and lives on a kibbutz in a part of the Galilee where Jews are the minority. The novel, “Hope Valley,” is set during an earlier period of upheaval, the eve of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2000. Inspired by the real lives and family stories of Palestinians and Israelis Ner David has met in dialogue groups, the book, which was published in April, is a rare look into a Jewish-Palestinian relationship, and how it evolves as the pair dig into the trauma, clashing narratives and personal secrets that initially separate and then connect them.

The protagonists are both artists, Tikvah, an American-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, and Ruby, whose father was expelled from his village in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s independence but that Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

Their initially fraught friendship begins with Ruby’s attempts to enter Tikvah’s home — which was the home her father had lived in, and within whose walls he had left behind a diary as he was forced to flee during the war.

As riots raged last month in mixed Arab-Jewish cities like Lod, Jaffa and Acco — and near her own home in the Galilee — Ner David, 52, felt as if time were collapsing. It resurfaced the scars of living through the intifada and other wars and crises since she made aliyah in 1996, as well as the historical accounts of loss and violence she had learned from Palestinian-Israeli neighbors over the past dozen years.

She reached out to Dina Awwad-Srour, 38, one of the women whose family stories helped shape Ruby’s character. Awwad-Srour reassured her that women like themselves who are fighting for equality and justice are on the right path.

“It was what I needed to hold on to the vision of sharing this land together,” Ner-David said. “I kept thinking that if she is telling me to hold on to this vision of hope, then that is what I need to do.”

But the scenes of Jewish and Arab neighbors brawling in the streets; setting fires to businesses and cars; and vandalizing homes, synagogues and Muslim cemeteries, were especially jarring to those trying to create a more integrated and fair society.

“On a personal level, I don’t think relationships are in danger,” Nadia Mahmud-Giol, another of the women on whom Ruby’s story is based, said in a recent interview. “But now that the violence has stopped we have to look at what happened to understand it,” she added. “What will be? How will this shared life we have built together work?”

Yad b’yad toward a shared society

Ner David’s younger children attend a bilingual Hebrew and Arabic school in Kibbutz Eshbal, part of a network of seven such schools in Israel called Yad B’Yad — Hand in Hand. Parents at the school see themselves as part of a struggle to create a “shared society,” a term that has replaced the term “coexistence” to express the goal of a fully equal and just society for Jewish and Palestinian citizens.

But the war and internal violence in May tested this community as well.

At an emotionally intense school meeting shortly after calm was restored, Ner-David said Jewish parents expressed newfound fears of traveling to Arab towns, Ner-David said that Palestinian-Israeli parents struggled with their own concerns of being targeted by racist civilians and by the Israeli police. The latter group felt angry at Israel’s government — “fed up,” Ner David said — and preferred to stay home to process the enormity of what was going on than to attend shared-society demonstrations.

“The main feeling was that the situation is at a crisis point here for Palestinian Israelis,” she added. “Everyone, whether Jewish or Palestinian, felt afraid of being targeted.

Jewish parents who shop in Arab villages said to Palestinian parents: “‘I know I’m your friend but will you stand up for me if people from your village try to attack me?’” Ner David recalled.

Arab parents appeared surprised by the question, asking: “‘Why do you need to hear that from us? Of course we are all against violence -why are you even asking that question?’” she said. “They did not seem to understand the Jewish fear that our safety was threatened, or the need to be reassured that the shared-society community that we had built together still stood intact.” Ner-David had confronted her own fear during the unrest in order to attend a shared-society dialogue group in Hararit, a Jewish village. She would have to pass through the Arab village of Arabeh to get there; one of the Palestinian-Israeli fathers from the school offered to escort her.

“In the end, I didn’t have to call him,” Ner David said. “But I did feel safer knowing that I could.”

She was heartened by the Hararit dialogue, and by the fact that many of her fellow kibbutz members participated in similar sessions, some for the first time.

“There are many more dialogue groups and gatherings than during the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel,” Ner David noted. “I went to things then, but they felt much more fringe, and I had to really seek things out. Now it feels like there has been much more, and it feels more mainstream.”

Learning — and writing — a new story

Ner David grew up in a Zionist home in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York, and attended Jewish day school. But she eventually realized that the idealistic narative she was raised on, of building an ancient-modern Jewish homeland, decidedly ignored the history of the Palestinian people who also view the land as theirs.

“I feel like I was not exactly duped, but things were much more complex,” she explained. “I do think Jews have a right to be here, but there were things that were covered up so that there could be a Jewish country with a Jewish majority, and we were all encouraged to come move here and make that happen without knowing what had been done.”

When her family moved to Hanaton 13 years ago, the only kibbutz founded by the Conservative movement, she noticed that the verdant landscape was surrounded by more Arab towns and villages than Jewish ones. Ner David’s need to know more grew. So she started attending a Palestinian-Jewish narrative-sharing group where members told stories related to the conflict and toured sites of what were once Palestinian villages demolished in the 1948-49 fighting.

“Hope Valley,” published by Bedazzled Ink Publishing in California, grew out of the stories she heard over the years in various Jewish-Palestinian dialgoue and narrative sharing groups. For the most part, Jewish and Palestinian Israelis live fairly segregated lives and the book is an attempt to bridge that divide and highlight in particular how little Jewish Israelis hear about their Palestinian counterparts’ personal, family and national stories.

“I wanted to wrestle with these issues, to tell the story of the meeting of these two women, which is also the story of the awakening of the Jewish woman,” she continued. “ I couldn’t remember reading a book that tells that story — of a coming to Israel out of Zionism and slowly understanding there is this whole other narrative you are not told.”

Truth in fiction

Nadia Mahmud-Giol in the ruins of the home where she grew up.

Nadia Mahmud-Giol in the ruins of the home where she grew up. Courtesy of Alba Giol

Among the stories that stayed with Ner-David over the years was the tale she heard Mahumud-Giol tell about her father and his family.

Mahmud-Giol’s father, Ibrahim, grew up in Saffuriya, a Palestinian village in the lower Gailee that pre-state Jewish forces attacked in December 1948, prompting villagers to flee. When some tried to return a month later, the army expelled them.

The moshav Zippori was built in 1949 on the same land. Mahmud-Giol’s father and his family ended up living in a cave and then in makeshift homes that before the war had been part of the family’s farmland, on the northern outskirts of what had once been Saffuriya. Other relatives fled to Lebanon and Syria.

About five years ago, Mahmud-Giol took Ner-David and one of Ner-David’s sons to see where her father’s family — and she herself — grew up. Ner-David’s son spoke about the experience at his bar mitzvah soon after.

Mahmud-Giol said she appreciated the sensitivity with which Hope Valley was written; she helped Ner David by reading a draft and offering feedback on cultural and linguistic accuracy.

“What’s important for people to know is that there are two sides here, not only one story, and the pain is the same pain,” she said. “Reading the book, people can see the entire reality, not just one side; it’s like opening a little window — to dare to see the other side.”

Ner-David, for her part, was taken aback by how much she did not know and how much her fellow Jewish Israelis still do not know about local Palestinian history. For example, about 400 Palestinian villages and towns that were still standing after the fighting that ended in 1949 were razed.

“I don’t think most people realize there was a whole village of Saffuriya under Tzipori and it wasn’t so long ago,” she said. “I don’t know if people who live there know what happened there.”

Another friend whose life and family story helped shape the novel Awwad-Srour, whom Ner David met at a music event several years ago in a deserted church in Eilabun, the Christian-Arab village where Awwad-Srour lives.

Dina Awwad-Srour

Dina Awwad-Srour Courtesy of Dina Kraft

Twelve men from the village were executed in 1948 in what has become known as “The Eilabun Massacre.” Benny Morris, an Israeli historian, has written that these killings were precipitated by the discovery of decapitated bodies of Israeli soldiers. Most of the Arab villagers were then expelled to the Lebanese border, but allowed to return months later. “Hope Valley” includes a massacre modeled on the one that took place in Eilabun.

Awwad-Srour hails from Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town in the West Bank that borders Bethlehem. Her husband is from Eilabun, and they have four children, but she has been unable to obtain Israeli citizenship. Like Ner David, she is a writer, who has documented her struggles with Israeli bureaucracy and motherhood in a private Facebook page. She and a Jewish Israeli friend also have a website that shares excerpts from the diary of a Dutch Jewish woman named Etty Heilsum killed in the Holocaust.

“I’m hoping this book inspires real contact with the ‘other,’” Awwad-Srour said of “Hope Valley.” “Many times we are raised on stereotypes,” she noted. “It’s important we question them. Most of the time we don’t.”

Friendships between Jewish and Arab Israelis are “very rare,” Awwad-Srour said. “Friendships mean you have a base of trust and can listen to one another,” she pointed out. “But sometimes that’s difficult because both sides are part of a wound.

“For a Jewish Israeli, it’s difficult to hear of wounds Arabs have experienced because of the occupation. It can be difficult for Arabs to hear the pain of the Holocaust, because many times its been misused and used to justify certain actions.”

Ner-David believes the power of telling narratives from both sides of the political divide is a major first step in repairing the inequities and trauma that are part of the Israeli-Palestinian story. Ruby, “has every right to be here,” she said, “and so does Alon,” the husband of the Jewish protagonist, Tikvah, who fought for Israel in all of its conflicts from the 1967 Six Day War through the first Lebanon War.

“I really did try to show the two narratives,” Ner-David said. “The leadership is educating people in a certain way on both sides. I don’t feel like I’m on this side or that side. I feel like I’m part of the group that wants to find a way to get along.”


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