It’s been difficult for me to answer the simple question: How was it?
“Moving.” “Mindblowing.” “Disheartening.” “Emboldening.”
These are some of the contradictory words that immediately come to mind when describing our 10-day reporting trip in March to Jerusalem and the West Bank. None of them do justice to the complexity of what I experienced. I have barely begun to make sense of it all. We expect to create several shows from the encounters of those intense days on the road. And I suspect that creating them will be my way of working through what I learned and how it has imprinted me.
This complexity of Israeli-Palestinian realities — I can only use that word in the plural now — is precisely the challenge. Of course, I knew this intellectually, politically, and historically, but I am always interested in looking inside and beyond those categories for the human landscape of pain and joy, hope and fear, imagination and possibility.
Everything that I thought I grasped about these peoples revealed itself as far too simple. Familiar categories of identity like left, right, and center; Arab and Jew; religious and secular; Israeli and Palestinian do not suffice. Just as complex are sensitive designations such as “settler” and “refugee.”
This multiplicity of Israeli-Palestinian identities is a theme that will run through the shows we are producing from this trip in the coming months. We have, I think, a wonderful and fitting beginning in Mohammad Darawshe. He is a dignified and moving voice of one of the least-noticed groups of people who inhabit these ancient lands. His very being confounds familiar distinctions and necessitates daily coexistence. He is Israeli and Palestinian, like 20 percent of Israel’s population. It’s a both/and proposition, not an either/or. He speaks both Hebrew and Arabic. He is both Muslim and a citizen of the Jewish state.
I am a bit embarrassed to confess that I had never really grasped the story of Arab citizens of Israel even as I’ve delved into other more visible layers of history that have shaped the Israeli-Palestinian present. How many of us have heard the story of the approximately 150,000 Palestinians who, in 1948, stayed home?
Today, Mohammad Darawshe has about 6,500 relatives in his hometown of Iksal, located near the town of Nazareth. His children are the 28th generation of his family to live there. When Arab armies attacked the fledgling state of Israel in 1948, most of the inhabitants of his village did not become refugees but instead took refuge in nearby mountains. And when they returned to their homes after the last shot had fallen, they found themselves citizens, as he puts it, of a new sovereignty, fellow citizens with yesterday’s enemies.
Arab citizens of Israel have lived in an uncertain and tense relationship with larger Israeli culture, as a whole, ever since that time. As a collective, as Mohammad Darawshe points out, they are often viewed with suspicion, a suspicion in some cases deserved. But he represents another possibility entirely. He understands Arab citizens of Israel like himself as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians, and the larger Arab world. Interestingly, he asserts, the Arab world is largely unaware of the existence of Palestinians with Israeli passports, just like the rest of us.
And, in a very real sense, the ordinariness of Mohammad Darawshe’s pursuit of a constructive place in the ongoing drama of this region is what makes him, and others like him, so notable. As co-director of a civic organization called the Abraham Fund Initiatives, Mohammad Darawshe’s daily work revolves as much around getting more women from his community educated and employed as around navigating security issues with Israeli military officers.
The flip side of being what Mohammad Darawshe calls “children of both identities” in a land of conflict, after all, is the threat — and the very real recurring sense — of being politically orphaned. With the same passion with which he insists that he and his people stayed home and will remain home, Mohammad Darawshe insists that Israeli Jews have also come home, and that their children have a right to the same safety and prosperity he wishes for his own. These are simple human assumptions that have been impossible to reach in the multinational peace negotiations of the last three decades. Yet for Mohammad Darawshe, they are simply the shape of daily, civic survival.
In his presence, I recognize dignity, courage, and humility, qualities not much represented in the contentious narratives that emerge from this region. And if he can muster these qualities, surely we can meet them by paying attention to the quietly counterintuitive possibilities he and others embody.