Once upon a time on a spring day a young-woman took a ride on a bus and arrived into Jerusalem. She got off, walked through the central bus-station, and hoped that everything would be peaceful, not like it used to be when she was a child. She exited the station to the other side of the street and tried to decide whether to ride the Light Rail. Busy roads, people were yelling in every possible language, and in her mind the picture of the young Israeli woman who was stabbed there a couple weeks earlier was still alive. She chose the “safer” but more expensive way to travel – a cab. She arrived to the International YMCA building, where she met a crazy Australian who believed he had found a method that could help her make her life a little better.
In that meeting, at that moment, she, I, understood how abnormal my life is, and the fact that I’ve gotten used to it – is the most abnormal thing about it.
שלום (“Shalom”), my name is אור, Or, and I am an ordinary Israeli, I’m not special at all.
In Israel I’m mature enough to join the army, work, be a wife, be a mother, adopt or get pregnant, drive and drink alcohol… but I am too young to know how I want my future to be.
I have never met a Palestinian in a personal way without being afraid. I have never shared a meal or discussed my daily life and dreams with a Palestinian. I have never identified with a Palestinian. I have never said “good morning” or “good night” or ever thought about sharing a house with a Palestinian.
When I first arrived to the States, I went with a good friend of mine to buy shoes in a local mall outside of DC. Apparently wearing flip-flops to the office is unacceptable in the States. When we went to check out, the old woman at the cash register who was wearing a Hijab looked straight into my eyes without hesitation. I felt something weird, and not because of her veil. She looked into my eyes and said: “I know you”. I told her politely, “I am sorry ma’am, but I don’t think we’ve ever met”, but she repeated her sentence, “I know you”. She kept asking if I work in the mall, or in the hair salon next door, or in the grocery store. I finally told her that I’m not from here, “I’m from Israel”. The lady got quiet, and her eyes filled up with tears. She put her hand over her heart and said: “I’m from Palestine”. I didn’t know what to expect from her – hate or friendliness. She reached to my hands and squeezed them tight. At that moment she looked like my grandmother. She said: “My heart knows your heart”. I told her about my Moroccan origins and she smiled. She said: “We are family, and I hate to see us fighting all the time”. I told her, “It’s so nice to meet you, my name is Or”. She didn’t seem to understand, so I grabbed a pen and wrote on a piece of paper my name in Arabic, Noor. The lady started tearing up again, so I reached out to her and gave her a hug. She said that her granddaughter’s name is Noor. I told her why I came to D.C, and about the dream I share with all of you today, to create a better future for my home, and she just smiled again and said how proud she is of the young generation. Then, she gave me a hug and I left. This woman stayed in my memory since then. First we hugged as strangers, and later as two women who share a dream and a hope.
“You must do the thing you cannot do”, a great first lady once said. With that lady, the one in the shoe store and everything I told you earlier, in my mind and my heart I came to NSL – where 9 people are supposed to create a new story for the Middle East. Can you imagine 9 leaders, from my region, sitting in a room and trying to solve problems? Well, throughout history it hasn’t been a success with only 2. Now, what about stories? Really, stories? How can a story change the world? These questions walked with me for the past 6 weeks, and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I have the complete answer yet.
We’ve been taught here that each story has a beginning, middle and an end. We all now know a part of my beginning. The middle is a little bit more confusing. We come from complicated places, and we are complicated. However, the life there is usual; waking up in the morning, going to work or school, enjoying the company of our family and friends, laundry, cooking, taking care of a pet and going back to sleep. In between we have security alerts and threats against Israel, rockets and terrorism attacks, checkpoints in the West Bank, targeted killing and bombing in Gaza. What’s so unusual about that?
Here in DC we are disconnected from that existential fear that surrounds us, that kicks in at most uncomfortable moment. Here we can discuss our narratives, some of us may say not enough, and we have built a team spirit. Here we are able to humanize each other. Here we work together for a common goal, though I’m not yet sure we know what it is.
We travel on long rocky roads, soaking wet from the rain and burned from the sun. We share highs and lows, and yes, we have had some lows, and I’m sure we will have more. But the difference between us and others, the thing that makes us special, while we are not special at all, is that we are willing to not give up. We are not willing to accept the reality as it is, we are not willing to be silent, we are not willing to go back home and to live in the past.
Another part of my experience in NSL is a work-placement where I have the opportunity to understand better the daily life of Washington DC. I am currently working with the American Task Force on Palestine, a Pro-Palestinian organization. People ask me: “Or, you, a Jewish Secular Zionist, IDF Officer who still serves in Reserve, you – How can you work for a pro-Palestinian organization?” Well, I must tell them and tell you all, I don’t understand the confusion. Even though, as I said, we are complicated, in some level everything is pretty simple. To be a pro-Palestinian doesn’t mean that I’m anti-Israeli.
Israel and Palestine are both misrepresented. Most Israelis are not numb-mean-soldiers who try to scare little children and kill people, and the majority of Palestinians are not terrorists who try to destroy Israel. For example, as a combat medic and later as an officer I was trained to treat everyone equally, regardless where they are from or what they have done, and to help coordinate between the rescue forces of both sides. All you hear and see in the media is the abnormal, and it is reflected to you as normal. All you see is the different, while the peaceful compassionate majority is silent, because no one is willing to give them the stage, because a hug is not as profitable as blood.
I can link the past with the present and give it it’s place in eternity. But every moment in life is a moment of choice. And today I’m choosing otherwise. Although we have more than one past, more than one present, we can have one future- because our destinies are tied.
When I will return home I will say: I have met a Palestinian in a personal way without being afraid – he’s pretty short. I have shared a meal and discussed my daily life and dreams with a Palestinian – between me bossing him around the house. I have identified with a Palestinian – he is originally from Haifa. And I have said “good morning” and “good night” and shared a house with a Palestinian. And you know what? Dia, my host brother, you are family.
We all deserve to have hopes and dreams, downs and lows, happy moments and tears. We all deserve to live in safety and security with self-determination. We all deserve to be independent and accountable for our actions. We all deserve to be free, liberated and with the ability to pursue our happiness. We all deserve it – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, French and all humanity.
We have a long way ahead of us, and it is going to be hard, but it is alright. Don’t expect less of us because of our tough reality; don’t feel sorry for us – that will make us give up. Help us demand more from ourselves. Let us live our dreams, and wear our passion. Empower us, give us strength, that one day, in the end of this story, and in the beginning on a new one – we will be the new leadership for the Middle East.
תודה רבה (“Toda Raba”) and Thank you very much.
by Or Amir