A Tale of Two Sons

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.

22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rickismom
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 08:17:36

    An excellent post. It is all too easy to demonize the other side. As much as we need to be carefull, for our soul’s sake, we need to remember that they are people. (Even though many have warped their “tzelem Elokim” pretty bad…

  2. AidelMaidel
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 08:26:03

    Great post. You should totally submit this to Havel Havelim.

  3. Ben-David
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 11:38:10

    Great post, mama.
    In addition to our sons, there are older boys – from the pioneering families of our yishuv – who have photos of Mohammed and his family attending their Bar-Mitzvah parties.

  4. aliyah06
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 13:21:34

    Excellent post! The day we forget the human face of those we’ve known and replace it with a generic Other is the day we lose a little of our own soul.

    Coming as a new immigrant, it is interesting to watch my own changes: the Arabs in Jerusalem are my green grocer, my pharmacist and my endocrinologist, as well as the many neighbors from Jebel Mukaber (yes, it’s really a normal neighborhood with a few fanatics in it) who wish me Shabbat Shalom, or who stop to ask if their kids can pet my dog, etc. “Arab” or “Palestinian” now has a different face than pre-aliyah, when the evening news equated those labels ONLY with terrorists.

    I follow Yossi’s advice here: enjoy your neighbors, always be respectful and polite, return courtesy for courtesy — but never turn your back. You don’t know what pressures are brought to bear or what can trigger an attack….

  5. tnspr569
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 13:46:47

    Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Jack
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 21:29:45

    You should totally submit this to Havel Havelim.

    Consider it submitted.

  7. منتديات شباب خليص
    Sep 24, 2008 @ 22:16:37


  8. Batya
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 03:52:02

    I think that every yishuv had an Arab like that. We sure did.

  9. Rob
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 15:13:04

    Great post. This piece of humanity that is lost on many raised in today’s unfortunate situation is perhaps the most tragic (non-human) loss of all. I think we, easy for me to say as an American not having to face the risk involved, must inculcate our children with this sense of humanity and kindness while remaining vigilant in protecting ourselves and our families. Must be a very tight rope to walk. Thanks for sharing.

  10. ilanadavita
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 15:41:11

    This is a very good post. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Trackback: Haveil Havalim #184 A Barbarian Roars Again « A Barbaric Yawp
  12. Gila
    Sep 29, 2008 @ 05:27:18

    Maybe someday we will get back to that….

    Lovely post.

  13. Frank
    Sep 30, 2008 @ 05:40:49

    It is interesting to watch my own changes: the Arabs in Jerusalem are my green grocer, my pharmacist and my endocrinologist, as well as the many neighbors from Jebel Mukaber (yes, it’s really a normal neighborhood with a few fanatics in it) who wish me Shabbat Shalom, or who stop to ask if their kids can pet my dog, etc. “Arab” or “Palestinian” now has a different face than pre-aliyah, when the evening news equated those labels ONLY with terrorists.

  14. David Tsal
    Sep 30, 2008 @ 06:10:54

    Please, please, please, leave all hope behind. I have no hope. I hate hope. Hope is what allowed over 4,000 people to be killed while Israelis were still hoping for peace in the middle of war. The price of hope is death and extermination. I hate hope.

    But I have no fear either. I’m beyond fear. When there is no hope, there is no fear.

    Youth is easily fooled because it is quick to hope.
    — Aristotle

    This is not just about youth, but all that have hope.

    “To cry peace, peace, when there is no peace… is not an expression of hope but a foolish and dangerous abrogation of reality.”
    (Victor Sharpe)

    But that’s what hope is: dangerous abrogation of reality.

  15. A Living Nadneyda
    Oct 02, 2008 @ 09:48:45

    Thank you for sharing. Really beautiful, and a poignant reminder that this conflict is never, ever black and white. Personal stories like this one add the depth and the humanity.

  16. Jameel @ The Muqata
    Oct 02, 2008 @ 10:15:47

    The Oslo Process is probably the #1 anti-coexistence program every created.

    Even with the security issues in Yesha from 1967-1993, they paled in comparison to the terror after Oslo. Jews and Arabs used to buy from each other freely, shopped in Ramalla, Beit Lechem, Kalkilya, Jenin, Tulkarem…even Hevron used to be more peaceful.

    With the onset of the second Intifada, I had to cease all business dealings with local Arabs…for my own security…and theirs too.

    Shana Tova!

  17. Trackback: A Postscript to “A Tale of Two Sons” « West Bank Mama
  18. Lady-Light
    Oct 02, 2008 @ 23:13:06

    Good post. I have mixed feelings about the subject, however; I want to have good relations with the Arabs (when we lived in Israel 31 years ago, we used to shop at the Arab market in Beit Tzefafa, right near Gilo, where we lived at the time), but historically, even Arabs who were considered friends of the Jewish settlers and were trusted by them, often ended up attacking them and brutally murdering them, case in point: the Hevron massacre of 1929. The Jews of Hevron refused aid because they trusted the Arabs. This was way before Oslo, before the creation of the State.
    Arabs who had befriended Jews, been treated by Jewish doctors, turned against the Jews. How can you trust anything like that?

  19. Frank, Andrew
    Nov 27, 2008 @ 12:07:21

    An excellent post. It is all too easy to demonize the other side. As much as we need to be carefull, for our soul’s sake, we need to remember that they are people. I have mixed feelings about the subject, however; I want to have good relations with the Arabs.

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