When we first moved to our yishuv we lived in a rented caravan. We were told that if there were repairs to be made, the handyman would be responsible for fixing them. This handyman was an Arab from the local village named Mohammed.
Speaking with one of the “veteran” families, we heard a bit of his history. He was hired very soon after the yishuv was established and at first had a regular “employee/employer” relationship with the residents. Then his son got sick and was put in a local (non-Jewish) hospital. The doctors there could not diagnose his condition, and M. became undertstandably concerned. M. mentioned this to one of the members of our yishuv – and he took action. Calling on some “protectzia”, he arranged for M’s son to be admitted to a Jewish hospital. Very soon after that the doctors figured out what was wrong and cured him.
M.’s relationship with the yishuv changed, and he became a friend.
This friendship was proven one winter Shabbat when the generator failed. (In the beginning the yishuv was dependent on its electricity from a generator. Only later was it connected to the grid of the electric company). Looking out of his window on Friday night, M. noticed that the houses, and the synagogue, were completely dark. Knowing that the residents were all Orthodox Jews who could not repair the generator on the Sabbath, he came over on his tractor and fixed it himself.
The children in our village had a special fondness for M. Sometimes he would scoop up a young boy and let him ride next to him on the tractor to the envy of his friends.
The trust they had in him once led to an embarrassing event. My son came home from gan (kindergarden) one day and told me a story. It seems that in the middle of playing one of his friends handed M. a stick, and solemnly asked him to “fix” it for him. When M. asked the child how he wanted him to fix it, the child responded that he needed him to make the stick into a gun.
“Why do you need a gun?” M. asked.
The kid’s response could have been taken out of a Middle Eastern version of “Kids Say the Darndest Things”. Looking straight at M. he replied, “I need it to kill the Arabs!” This elicited laughter by M. and from the kids who were savvy enough to see the irony of the situation, but my son also said that some of kids were embarrassed.
The younger children weren’t the only ones who looked to M. for help. One day the teenaged daughters of a friend of mine came home from school and discovered a snake in the house. Running out of the door and screaming hysterically, they ran straight for M. and told him about the snake. He took a gardening tool, went into the house and killed the snake, and became an instant hero to all of the girls.
One Friday morning there was a knock on our caravan door. M. came in, and over a cup of tea he explained to Westbankpapa that he needed a favor. It turned out that he need a short letter written in English. Westbankpapa wrote it for him and printed it out on the computer, and of course refused payment that M. tried to offer him.
A month later, when the olive picking season was over, M. knocked again on our caravan door. This time he came to give us two bottles of freshly pressed olive oil, a “payment” that we didn’t refuse. We used the oil in our Chanukah menorah a few weeks afterwards.
If I wanted to write an upbeat post this would be a good place to stop, leaving my readers with a happy ending. This would be nice - but not realistic.
Although there were families on the yishuv who trusted M. completely, there were those who were furious that we let an Arab walk around freely, and thought it was a huge security risk. The rest of us were in the middle, swinging ambivalently between the need to protect ourselves and our children, and our desire to give M. the trust that he had earned.
In the end we didn’t need to make a decision about how to deal with M.
It was done for us.
After the Olso “peace process” imploded on itself with the riots on Rosh Hashana in September 2000, the local “policemen” in M’s village came to arrest him. Beating him severely, they put him in prison for six months. His “crime”, of course, was working for Jews. The only thing keeping the thugs from killing him were his strong family connections.
We hired a Jewish worker to replace M., and even the families that trusted him agreed that he couldn’t come back to work for us again after his release. It would be too dangerous - for both of us.
Those of you with some knowledge of the Bible may think that my post title refers to the two sons of Abraham, Yitzchak and Yishmael, the ancestors of the Jews and the Moslems, respectively.
You would be mistaken, though. I am not referring to these two sons, but to two much closer to home.
The day before the blogging convention in Jerusalem I was tramping (hitchiking) home from work, and at my last place to wait for a ride I bumped into M. I hadn’t seen him since that September eight years ago. We exchanged greetings and caught up with what was happening with each others kids. He explained that he was waiting for a ride from another mutual acquaintance, who was taking him to make a condolence call to a third yishuv member.
When I made it home I told my oldest son who I met at the bus stop. A little while later It occurred to me that my sons were different than my neighbor’s, who were born after September 2000.
When her sons think of Arabs, they probably think of possible snipers or suicide bombers, or as the workers building the new houses on the yishuv under the watchful eye of an armed guard.
When my sons think of Arabs, they probably have these images in mind too. But in addition to these, they have the memory of a person that the adults trusted, and who once in a while would scoop them up and give them a ride on a tractor.
Some may say that my neighbor’s sons are better off. In a world where they may be asked to react immediately to either a terrorist or an enemy on the battlefield, they don’t have a reason to hesitate for even a second.
In the gentler world in which I grew up, it would be obvious that my sons are better off. Instead of the black and white world of “them” and “us”, they have a reason to see Arabs as individuals.
Given the reality of Israel today, I can’t be certain that my sons are better off. I wish I could say so, but I know too many people who have lost loved ones to terrorists to be sure.
On the other hand the I can’t help but recoil from the grim idea that in order to survive we must internalize stereotypes.
Like many Israelis, I am suspended between the bleak necessity for vigilance and the hope for co-existence.