Hope in Jerusalem—by Ayala Emmett

Vigil for Peace in Jerusalem October 17 2015
Vigil for Peace in Jerusalem
October 17, 2015

In the midst of tragedy, fear and despair, voices for hope came last night from Israeli Jewish and Arab citizens in a peace vigil in Jerusalem. While citizens called for peace in Jerusalem, the United States has been taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude after the efforts made by Secretary Kerry failed to move Israeli Palestinian negotiations.

On the ground, however, as the vigil reveals, it is an entirely different matter, since Jewish and Arab citizens who live their daily lives side by side are deeply concerned; they want to see a policy shift from settlements and violence to engagement, peace and a two states’ agreement.

The fact that Israeli Jews and Arabs live side by side is brought sharply into focus in friendships forged, in shared political interests and in joint commercial enterprises. We were reminded last week of a jointly owned Jewish-Arab restaurant, Maxim, in Haifa, a popular place that saw tragedy of a terror attack in the past and has not given up. The son of the original Arab partner, Tony Mattar, spoke at the onset of the current violence, recalling the suicide bomber attack on the restaurant, “A month after the terror attack, we were really tempted not to reopen. But we understood that if we put our hands up in defeat that would be a victory for hate and evil. We have long been regarded as a symbol of Jewish-Arab coexistence in this country.” Orly Nir, a member of the Jewish family of the partnership emphasized that “at times like this, when things are so bad in the country, we feel the need to get together more often.” Israeli Arab-Jewish daily life is not just about deep differences and inequalities, it also about encounters of commercial interests, of friendships, loyalties and politics, a fact that is often absent from the American discourse that is more focused on the official political leadership.

Last night’s vigil in Jerusalem highlighted the simple fact that while from the American side of the ocean, a two-state solution seems more and more complicated if not impossible, for Israeli Jews and 20% of the state’s Arab citizens who share daily life, for them a wait and see attitude is just not an option. The vigil drew attention to what the media fails to report, and many Americans are unaware of, that there are citizens in Israel who disagree with the government position of occupation and no negotiation, and that on the Palestinian side as well, there is a people’s desire for peace.

Combatants for Peace, for example, one of participating groups in last night vigil, is an organization that crosses borders and “is a bi-national peace activist movement of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants who were once part of the cycle of violence and today are working together towards peace and coexistence using non-violent methods.” The group speaks from experience on the ground of the battlefield and military experience. Combatants for peace have concluded that they “no longer believe that it is possible to resolve the conflict between the two peoples through violent means; therefore we declare that we refuse to take part in the mutual bloodletting any more. We will act only by non-violent means so that each side will come to understand the national aspirations of the other side,” and moreover, “to demonstrate that Israelis and Palestinians can work and live together.”

Some two thousand citizens affiliated with groups who work together for peace and refuse the politics of fear, racism, and hatred made their statement in the streets of Jerusalem last night. Combatants for Peace offered their position, “We came to Jerusalem tonight, 2500 Arabs and Jews, in order to protest against the fear, the occupation and for a just future for both people. We will not give up, there is another way.”

The peace vigil in Jerusalem was organized according to Haaretz, by a new joint Jewish-Arab group called “Omdim Beyachad” (“Standing Together”), which was formed in response to the current wave of violence. Among the speakers at the rally were Knesset members and representatives from Jerusalem’s Max Rayne Hand in Hand Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school. The Standing Together group emphasized that having the vigil in Jerusalem was a powerful statement of solidarity at a time when people were fearful of going to the city, when people retreated to the home and when the streets were empty. The group stated that, “It is important to stand together, right now  in Jerusalem. It means to refuse fear; we must all go to Jerusalem so the citizens there don’t feel alone.”

In the reality of daily life, it is useful for Americans to know that it is not just the self-declared left that seeks an agreement. Orly Nir, the woman from the Tayar Jewish partner family of the Maxim restaurant says that, politically, her family members lean more to the center and would never define themselves as leftists. However, since the war in Gaza last summer, she has become involved in the new movement Women Wage Peace. “I know it doesn’t sound logical, but I’m actually optimistic about the future here,” she says.

Like everything political in Israel, it is quite knotty to identify those who reject the right wing government’s blatant racism as leftist. I recall asking a woman in a kibbutz in Northern Israel, which has a large Israeli Arab population, whether she was a peace activist. She thought for a moment and said, “I would not call myself a peace activist. However, whenever I see a hate graffiti by the right that says, “Transfer,” or “Death to Arabs,” I take graffiti remover spray, a sponge and an old towel and I go and wipe it off.”

The vigil in Jerusalem stated clearly that life require a politics of peace and Orly Nir words reflected it, “To this day, the two families celebrate each other’s religious holidays and life-cycle events together, and often take joint vacations.” Tony Mattar said, “Many people warned us at the time that it wouldn’t work out, but we proved them wrong.”

The power of social media to disseminate information on the politics of peace has been in evidence in the Jerusalem vigil and The Jewish Pluralist has been sharing it on its facebook. Orli Nir spoke last week of the power of social media, “When I read my Facebook feed these days, I see more and more initiatives all over the country to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence. There were times when initiatives like these would come mainly from the Jews. But now I’m seeing more and more Arabs involved, and that gives me hope.” Her hope was the hope of thousand of people who collectively displayed enormous courage in the midst of great turmoil and stood for life, peace and hope at the Jerusalem vigil.