Why can’t Israeli Jews and Arabs live peacefully? How do these two religions and cultures interact within the State of Israel? This is a different problem from that experienced by the West Bank Palestinians who are within the occupied West Bank, where the majority population is Muslim. In Israel, Arabic-speaking Muslims are in the minority, participate in the State of Israel government, and have the same rights as Israeli Jews.
Israeli families have the option to place their children in either Hebrew or Arabic schools. This is where the divide begins, as almost all Arabic and Hebrew children do not attend school together. Their families do not mix or associate except for commercial transactions. For example, an Arabic speaking driver transported my wife and I to the King Hussain Bridge border crossing into Jordan. We needed transportation and our driver was Arabic-speaking because we traveled to an Arabic-speaking country. Our driver lived in East Jerusalem which is populated by Israeli Muslims.
Our last two days of the Friendship Tour was spent in Tel Aviv, located on the western Israel Mediterranean Sea coastline. This is the largest Israeli city and a modern city because its growth occurred after World War II when millions of Jews immigrated into Israel. There are less conservative Jews and Arabs in Tel Aviv than in Jerusalem. Most people dress in secular clothing, although the dress varies, depending on the individual’s ethnicity.
Tel Aviv traffic is heavy at rush hour along streets lined with fashionable hotels and office buildings. We visited Old Jaffa, the site where Jonah fled by ship to Tarshish to escape God (Jonah 1:3). It is a bustling mixed Arab-Jew area. We stopped for lunch at an Arab bakery to sample their sweet breads. Nearby were Rothschild Boulevard and Independence Trail where David Ben Gurion declared Israel a state in 1948. This caused many Palestinian-Jew conflicts which killed thousands on both sides.
Our bus picked us up and drove us to a nearby residential center where we walked to the home of Ihab and Ora Balha. Our group of 50 were welcomed into their living room where we sat closely together. Ihab sat crossed legged on the floor. He is a middled aged Palestinian man with long greying hair reminiscent of a mystical sage. His English was excellent, but he occasionally spoke in Hebrew to our tour guide to make sure his English words were correct. I was impressed given that his birth language was Arabic. Ihab’s relaxed posture and mannerisms complemented his talk on achieving peaceful relations between all religions. His gentle voice and laughter made this difficult topic more palatable.
Ihab told the story of his life. He was raised in Jaffa where his family lived for 600 years and remained after the Jewish war of independence. He was born into a family of Jewish hatred. Ihab had physical clashes with Jews because his father owned a restaurant that served Jews. Eventually, through clashes with a Jewish customer, he was able to see his Jewish tormentor’s humanity when the man told Ihab that his wife had left him. Instead of gloating over the Jew’s suffering, Ihab listened and comforted him. Change began to take place within him that eventually began to transform Ihab. His life would be about love for all. “You see, every religion has big love, but we must remember that love has no religion. And really, your real identity is not your religion: it is in your deeds. It’s in love.”
Arabs are family-centric; one is very careful not to upset one’s family. After remaining unmarried into his 30s, Ihab was pushed by his mother to marry a Palestinian woman. He took a vacation to the Sinai Peninsula and met an Israeli woman, Ora, who soon became his wife. This led to great tension within Ihab’s Arab family that took years to work through. Ihab loved his family and wanted to see them, despite their rejection of his wife. Reconciliation is hard work, especially in a culture of generational hatred. But reconciliation did happen.
When their son, Nur, was born in 2008, Ihab and Ora faced a dilemma. How would they raise Nur: Hebrew or Arab? There were no dual track options in Jaffa since mixed marriages were uncommon. In 2010, a unique kindergarten for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim children was started by the couple. Starting with 2 children, it grew to 20,000 children. The Orchard of Abraham’s Children is a foundation of coexistence amongst different Israeli cultures. Their small beginning later blossomed into a Human First Education Center, a multicultural community center offering workshops, courses, and spiritual education. Ora is the manager of the foundation.
As I listened to Ihab’s story, I thought about my life compared with Ihab’s life. My parents would not have rejected me for marrying a woman of a different faith. They did not raise me in an atmosphere of hate. We lived in Texas prior to the passage of civil rights legislation, yet I was raised to treat all humans with respect and equality. I did not live in a land of wars and religious conflicts. I admired Ihab and Ora because they sought peace and love in a region filled with so much violence and hatred. While they are not Christian, their actions align with Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors (Matthew 19:19). Our neighbors include those of different faiths and those of no faith. I did not need to travel to Tel Aviv to grasp this basic tenet of humanity, but I am glad that I witnessed our common humanity within the ancient city of Jaffa. God was there with Jonah and is still there today.