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Coexistence Was Once Possible. It Can Be Possible Again

This piece is one of a series of pieces commissioned from leaders to speak to their feelings about Israel at 70. You will find the others here.

My mother-in-law recently turned eighty. Born in Jerusalem to a Jewish family with deep roots in the city, she remembers her childhood in the pre-state days. Her father spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, and several other languages, and did business and socialized with Jews — both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi — and Palestinians alike. It was in no way a utopia, but it was a functional society.

The living memories of one person can help us recall what has been, and envision what could still be. While Jerusalem today is a divided, segregated city, it really was not so long ago — within some of our lifetimes — that a different world existed. And if it could exist then, it can exist again. It is also a reminder that the trope of an age-old, endless conflict is not, actually, an accurate reflection of reality before the Zionist movement gradually took hold among the Jews of Palestine.

There are almost endless reasons to feel bleak and even despairing about the current Israeli reality, and all the people — Jews, Palestinians, African refugees — whose lives are under its domain. But there are also reasons for hope. And just as I draw inspiration from vicariously remembering a different Jerusalem, I can also draw hope from moments of unity and transcendence that still occur.

One is the periodic conference put on by Zochrot in cooperation with Badil. Zochrot is an Israeli organization dedicated to educating Israelis about the Nakba (which means “disaster” in Arabic and is the commemoration of the Palestinians who lost their homes and lives in the course of Israel’s independence), and Badil is a resource center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. At this conference, where the right of return for Palestinians is taken as a point of departure, Jewish Israelis and Palestinians come together to explore the practicalities of the right of return for Palestinians. City planners, architects, lawyers and historians bring lessons from the past, from other countries and from their own experiences to break through Jewish fears and honor Palestinian hopes about return and envision a different future together.

My own small experience of tasting the world to come dates from when I lived in Israel and periodically traveled with Israeli activists to Bilin and other Palestinian villages that were resisting the expropriation of their lands and the building of the Separation Wall. As Israelis and internationals, we were consciously putting our bodies on the line because we knew that the Israeli Army would take more care with our lives than with those of the Palestinian protesters alongside us. There would be tear gas, occasionally skunk water, and sometimes live fire in response to the unarmed marchers.

But what I remember most (especially as someone who usually lagged in the back, pretty terrified) is the meals we would share afterward. Sitting around, laughing and joking, it was possible to imagine the world to come, one in which we all were invested in one another’s safety, where we are willing to act in solidarity with each others’ rights, and as a result build mutual trust and affection. I remember specifically once someone looking around during a lull in conversation and saying, “This place really could be pretty cool someday.”

Rebecca Vilkommerson is the founder and director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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