“What? You’re Arab? What are you doing here? This is a Jewish school.” Cornered in a hallway by a group of Israeli students, Lisa Hananiya called it one of the most annoying experiences of her life.
“Since then, I decided I wanted to do something about it. I couldn’t take it. It was everywhere,” said the 19-year-old Palestinian peace activist from Jaffa, an ancient port city near Tel Aviv.
Hananiya did do something about it. Joining an Arab and Jewish youth movement called Sadaka Reut – meaning “friendship” in both Arabic and Hebrew – she strives for peace and co-existence in Israel everyday. For Hananiya, part of that movement is addressing international audiences. “That’s why we came here [to the U.S.],” she said. “To get people to open their eyes about what really happens.”
Speaking before a group of approximately 50 Temple students and faculty members, Hananiya, along with Jewish-Israeli Alex Cohn, spoke of the ongoing territorial conflict between Palestinians and Jews in Israel and the fermenting military crisis in the Middle East.
Sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, the event was coordinated by Temple Students for Justice in Palestine and was held last Tuesday in Anderson Hall.
Calling himself a “conscientious objector,” Cohn, 19, refused to serve in the Israel Defence Forces. Since national military service is compulsory for Jewish men and women over the age of 18, Cohn was jailed for five months. Speaking in thickly accented English, he said he made the decision to refuse after visiting the occupied Palestinian territories, which are segregated by Israeli-constructed barriers.
“I saw the wall in pictures before, but to see it in my own eyes was a big shock,” Cohn said, adding that the wall was more than nine meters tall. “After the people explained to me how it affects [and] destroys their lives, … just to look at the wall, and the people trying to get through had a big effect.”
Cohn and other conscientious objectors formed a youth organization. Together, they drafted a letter saying they refused to serve in the army. More than 250 people signed the letter.
Soon after, Cohn was arrested.
After he was released from jail, Cohn participated in peace demonstrations held in the Palestinian territories. He said the IDF often threw shock and tear gas grenades and shot rubber bullets at demonstrators.
Seeing an injured demonstrator being beaten by Israeli soldiers, Cohn tried to intervene.
“I wanted to go and say ‘Stop! Can’t you see he’s injured?’ And then I saw that the soldier [who] was beating him … used to be my friend in prison,” he said, drawing gasps from the audience.
“This was the worst experience I had in demonstrations in the occupied territories. To understand that it’s all the same people – the people who are beating you and the people who are your friends.”
Hananiya, an Arab-Christian, also expressed frustration at the lack of interaction between Palestinians and Israelis. Attending a Jewish school in northern Tel Aviv, she said most of her classmates had never met an Arab, adding that Jewish and Arab communities are only 10 minutes apart by car.
Hananiya is the editor of Sadaka Reut’s newspaper, which is printed in both Arabic and Hebrew. She said it was created to bridge the gap between the two communities.
“We took the newspaper as a source to make some connection between the Arab and Jewish communities living in Jaffa,” she said, “even if it’s to criticize one another.”
An audience member asked her if there was room for optimism about relations between Arabs and Jews. “If I wasn’t optimistic, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing,” Hananiya said.
“I was amazed because they were both 19 years old,” said freshman Joel Rosenblum of Hananiya and Cohn. “I asked Lisa, ‘What should I be doing as a young person?’ She said, ‘Think for yourself, try to find the truth and do what you can to change the world. It’s inspiring to see people like that.”
SJP hosted a second, similar event in Anderson Hall Thursday. This time, the guest speaker was Sulaiman Khatib, a Palestinian ex-combatant who is championing for peace.
Khatib, who was part of an anti-Israeli militant group as a child, was jailed at the age of 14 for stabbing two Israeli soldiers.
While in prison, his perception changed after he learned Hebrew and Jewish history. He was released after 10 years and he has devoted his life to reconciliatory work ever since.
Uniting with Palestinian and Israeli ex-combatants alike, Khatib, 33, helped create Combatants for Peace, an organization dedicated to ending the violence of the Israeli occupation
in a non-violent way.
“On the Palestinian side, historically, the two groups that are involved in the revolution are students or prisoners always,” Khatib said. “So we can be examples for the other youth to change their minds a bit.”
Khatib went on to say that the movement was gathering momentum within the Palestinian territories. “It was a something of a dream a few years ago to talk about [Nelson] Mandela or [Mohandas] Ghandi,” he said. “But now I know many, many people who do in Palestine.”
Temple Students for Israel, a pro-Israeli campus organization, was noticeably absent from both events.
“There isn’t really a relationship between us, but I’d rather not talk about it,” said Nehad Khader, an SJP member and a senior English and sociology double major.
“It’s a very sensitive subject obviously what we’re dealing with,” said Zakia Abukhdeir, another SJP member and a junior sociology major. “We have asked them to come out to our events. We went out to one of their events. We’re open to doing an event with them or talking with them. That’s one way to bring about change.”
Yosef Kalish, a junior Asian Studies major and vice president of TSI, said he did not attend the events because of alleged “racist and anti-Semitic remarks” made by SJP.
“When [SJP] calls us an apartheid state, they’re not interested in talking about peace,” said Kalish, who taught English and computers in Israel for two years. “We are two different peoples fighting. They have to accept that Israelis have every right to live on that land, just as Palestinians do. Both of us claim this land. Both of us call it home.”
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at email@example.com.