Maybe the Israeli side of the Gaza border is not where you'd think of going for inspiration on a sunny and mild autumn afternoon, but while sometimes difficult circumstances reduce us to the worst that is in us, sometimes it is in great trial that many find the better angels of their nature. Today we met two such people.
Michal teaches history in her local public high school. No one should be deceived by her diminutive stature (she's clearly under five feet tall)--this is a woman of uncommon strength and resolve. She and her family live on a kibbutz near the northern border of the Gaza Strip in a community that she describes as something of a paradise. But it's a paradise that has for the past ten years been threatened by missile fire from it's southern neighbors. In January 2009 Michal watched the last war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, not on CNN, but by looking out her living room window. From an early age, her children have known how to distinguish between an Apache and a Cobra helicopter, and between cannon and rocket fire. On the sounds of weaponry and explosions, she says sadly, that this is "the background music they've grown up with."
To see her idyllic communal life on the kibbutz so marred by threat and to be forced to live life in a state of constant insecurity is enough to breed hatred, resentment and a desire to punish all who might be complicit. Yet remarkably she has, as an educator, devoted herself helping young Israelis understand that to see history from another's eyes is not to diminish their own story. A couple of years back, Michal discovered a dual narrative history textbook which was jointly developed by an Israeli and a Palestinian professor along with a team of classroom teachers from both sides, and she began using it to teach a group of high school seniors the history of the past 100 years from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Her challenge to the status quo nearly resulted in her school losing government funding, and the book is now explicitly prohibited from use in the Israeli pubic schools (similarly, after a couple of schools in the West Bank agreed to use it, the Palestinian Authority banned it there as well--tragically, this may be the only thing the two governments have agreed to in years). Undeterred, and fully supported by her the leadership and parents in her school, Michal no longer distributes the textbook, but intends to still teach the class. She's convinced that both sides don't have to agree to a common narrative, but they do have to learn how to listen to the other and understand that while there may be only one truth, there are often different ways of looking at it.
Then on to they nearby agricultural community of Nativ HaA'sara where a kindly grandmother with a transfixing English accent welcomes us to her home with a fresh coffee cake. We sit under an awning on a perfect fall day and listen to the amazing adventure that is the story of her life. The British born Roni married an Sephardic Jew from Cairo whose family was expelled by Nassar in 1956 and found a home in Israel. Her husband became an expert in desert agriculture and after Israel's capture of the Sinai peninsula in 1967, the family helped establish a farming there. They enjoyed their new life in the northern Sinai beyond their wildest dreams, but when Israel and Egypt reached a peace agreement in 1979, the entire village was relocated some 30 miles north just north of Gaza City, but this time definitively inside the internationally recognized border of Israel. And here they began a second life, much like the first, but first her husband answered his country's call to move to Cairo to apply his expertise in modern farming methods to Egyptian farmers. This was obviously no easy thing for a man whose family's home and his father's business had been confiscated by a previous Egyptian government, and who had been forced to flee as a refugee some 25 years before. But in the end he returned and his family followed suit and they spent five years in Egypt where they learned just how difficult peace and reconciliation is at the level of personal relationships. Upon returning to Israel from their time in Cairo, Roni with no illusions about how difficult it is to achieve, sustain, and nurture peace, but she was more convinced than ever that the road to get there runs through dialogue and mutual respect, not through war and violence. She has a loving family but none quite agree with her approach, though all respect her commitment. Her son tells her she misreads the situation—that “this is war and we’ve got to hit them back until they give in. The other side only understands force. You’re dreaming, Mom, if you think anything else will work.” With her quiet resolve she responds that he’s the one who’s dreaming if he thinks the people of Gaza will just go away and likewise the militants in Gaza are dreaming if they think she’ll go away. The world of violence and retaliation is no doubt all too real, but she reminds us that there is another way. And the path to true and lasting peace begins by being willing to consider the humanity of the “other.” With a cool breeze blowing from the surrounding desert, Roni speaks to us form her home just 3km from Gaza and says about the people there: “I want to treat them like I treat my neighbors, because they too are my neighbors.”