Talking with Arabs in Jerusalem/ Book of Mormon analogy? – written March 21, 2011

Our class just got back into the city today, and I am exhausted.  Israel is beautiful, and we all wish we could have stayed longer.  It was an amazing trip, with so much packed into such a short timeframe.

We each have to write a major feature story, and I’m writing about non-violent resistance.  Not about whether it’s good, bad, needed, or even helpful, but simply about how it’s being done and who’s doing it. [A reporter] from the Global Post had suggested to our class that someone write on that topic, so I decided to.

I wanted a variety of perspectives, and had already spoken with some Israeli Jews and some Palestinian Christians and Muslims.  Since we had free reporting time in Jerusalem this past Friday evening and Saturday during the day, I figured it would be a good time to interview Arabs, as most Jews would be observing Shabbat.

Friday night I walked along Salaheddin Street in East Jerusalem, where there were many Arab shopkeepers.  I met “Abdul,” who spoke a little English and when I told him what I was writing about, he took me driving with a few of his friends.  They took me to Sheikh Jarrah, where I had been last Friday for the protest, and showed me houses they said were “Arab houses, taken by Jews.”

As a journalist, I have to get each side’s perspective honestly and accurately, and of course, verify what people say, and still do my own research.  But my story isn’t going to discuss who is right or wrong (or half-right or half-wrong), but how is non-violent protest carried out, etc.

But more than trying to help me with my story, my new Arab friends told me that they wanted me to have fun here, my last Friday night in Jerusalem. They took me up to Mount Scopus to see the view of the city at night.  They showed me the BYU Jerusalem Center, since I told them I was Mormon.

Abdul and his friends kept asking me if I wanted to drink, and I would tell them no.  Since I’m Mormon, they asked if that’s why I don’t drink, and they said they are Muslim, but they still drink! But I told them I’ve never had any interest in drinking regardless of my religion.  They never pressured me to drink, but they said they didn’t want to be rude and drink in front of me, but I said it was fine, as long as the guy driving didn’t drink too much.

They wanted me to get the experience of Arabs in Israel, so they offered to show me around more neighborhoods, and they took me to get falafel sandwich. They wanted to pay for it and I thanked them but said that in journalism, I couldn’t accept free meals.  They said they would be offended if I didn’t accept it. I again said I wanted to be ethical, but they said they would be deeply offended, and so I accepted the falafel.

This reminded me of last summer in 2010 when I was getting acquainted with my class reporting beat, and met the Arab owners of a grocery store in a predominantly black and Jewish neighborhood.  The owners wanted to give me bottled water and make me a sandwich from their deli, and at first I thanked them but declined, then I finally accepted. I am aware of how hospitable are those in Arab lands, but I didn’t want to be unethical as a journalist. Each situation you have to just weigh.  The grocery store owners were such gracious hosts, as were my new Arab friends in East Jerusalem.

After we ate, Abdul and his friends took me to a hookah bar.  I was the only female in the entire place, but no one appeared bothered that I was there.  My friends sat and played cards and smoked hookah, offering me some, though I declined.  But I had fun just being around them.  The owners of the hookah bar were very respectful, allowing me to use their own restroom (there were living quarters behind the customer area) instead of the customer restroom, since there was only one public restroom and all the customers were men.

The next morning Abdul took me to breakfast with one of his friends, and again I accepted breakfast after first refusing it.  This friend, “Ahmad,” spoke very good English, so I was able to have more of a conversation with him.  My conversations Friday night were limited with almost everyone I met, and indeed with Abdul, who was introducing me to everyone, because their English wasn’t strong and my Arabic is non-existent, unfortunately.

Nearly all the Arabs I spoke with were Israeli citizens, most of whom had Jordanian passports, but they told me they identified as Palestinian.  Ahmad said flatly, “Palestinian in everything.”

I have studied but still don’t fully understand all of the dynamics, all the histories, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I know each side has its own narrative, and facts on the ground can get emphasized or diminished, depending on the objective.

However, in the simple part of my mind, I think that Arabs and Jews should most definitely be friends.  Not least because Abraham is their common ancestor, through Ishmael for the Arabs and Isaac for the Jews.  Though perhaps the close ties and diverging paths engender more enmity.

Whenever I think of Jews and Arabs, I’m reminded of the people in The Book of Mormon – the Nephites and the Lamanites.  Brothers Nephi and Laman, sons of Lehi, an Israelite.  They all emigrated from Jerusalem to “the promised land” – in the Americas.  Laman and his brother Lemuel resented Nephi, who was the good boy, and tried to kill him.  After their father died, Laman and Lemuel drove Nephi and their other brother Sam and their families out of “the land of their first inheritance.”

Thus the “Nephites” and “Lamanites” separated, and their descendants hated each other. Told from the Nephite perspective (and it would be interesting to read the Lamanite side), the Book of Mormon characters talk of the Lamanites believing the traditions of their fathers – that the Nephites hate the Lamanites, and so the Lamanites want to destroy the Nephites.  After hundreds of years, the Lamanites killed off all the Nephites (except Moroni, who wrote the final pages of the Book of Mormon).

I don’t suggest that The Book of Mormon is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s not.  For one thing, Nephi and Laman shared the same mother, but there are many more differences beyond that. And I’m not saying that one side represents the Jews and the other the Palestinians, or Arabs in general. But the similarity that always strikes me is that both sides, descendants of the same father, thought the other hated them.

Ahmad told me Saturday morning that “if you invite a Jewish person for coffee here, he would not come in.”  Is that really true, or is that what they’ve been taught to think?

In another conversation with Ahmad, he said that if Israel ended the occupation and there were two states, “Israel would be more happy.” Now, I know it’s not as simple as that, as there are many issues regarding borders, etc., and I want Israel to be secure, but if all of that could be agreed upon, I think Ahmad is right.

Just as it’s better for each person to be on friendly terms with his neighbor, and each of us has to compromise as we navigate this social world, the same goes for nations.  It’s in everyone’s interest and in every nation’s interest for all nations and people to be stable, secure, happy.  Both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people need to compromise, and it’s in their own best interests to do so.

Plus, in my own experience, I’ve found that the more I get to know someone, the more I care for them.  Yes, as we know people better we expose our deficiencies in a greater manner and we better know others’ quirks.  But this vulnerability also allows us to humanize each other.  To really want the best for each other.

I think most people are basically good, if flawed, people.  Last week on our trip a member of Hamas spoke to our class.  In his talk to us, he said he didn’t believe in killing innocent people, but reiterated the need for Palestinians to defend themselves from their enemy (Israel).  As one who remembers reading with horror about suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, which truly haunted and angers me to this day, even, I knew as a journalist I still needed to listen to all sides, even though I will never condone anyone encouraging someone to be a suicide bomber and kill innocent civilians.

I had a very good, rational, enjoyable conversation with him after his speech, and I got his contact information so I could meet with him for lunch next time I’m in Israel.  I recalled how, minutes earlier in his speech to our class, he had tried to deflect a question from one of my classmates about whether he thought the Holocaust happened or not, and finally admitted that he thought it did happen, but he didn’t know if 600 people or 6 million people were killed.  Somehow it seemed that it was preferable for him to ignore facts in order to keep his ideology strong.

Everyone on this trip has been a joy for me to speak with.  We met rabbis, Palestinian priests and nuns, Muslim Sheikhs, a Qadi (Sharia law judge – Israel has Sharia courts for Muslims) in Jerusalem, many everyday citizens in Israel, Jewish and Arab, many people in the West Bank, and a Palestinian Christian non-profit leader who is probably the most compassionate man I’ve ever met in my entire life.

I’m of many minds.  But I am not naïve and I know some people hate others simply because of their race or nationality or religion.  I know some countries hate other countries.  And I know fault is not equal in all situations – there are often truly aggressors and victims, and sometimes they switch places.

I don’t have any answers but I can honestly say I generally like most people (some people annoy me, and some people I like more than others!).  But even people I don’t like as much I don’t want bad things to happen to them.  I really want the best for everyone.  That includes me.

How does this end?  I don’t know, but I know how I don’t want it to.

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