If they knew at my son's cheider (traditional elementary boys' school for the study of Torah) that I go to meetings with Arabs, it would seem strange to them; it might even harm my son's shidduch (traditional matchmaking process) when the day comes because people will say that "he has a strange Dad, who is a member of a Jewish-Palestinian forum".
I am an ultra-Orthodox man. My parents became religious when I was born. In Bayit VaGan, the Jerusalem neighborhood where I grew up, Arabs would walk around selling figs and grapes. Elderly Arab women used to clean staircases, and one such woman cleaned our own home. I wasn't very familiar with the Jewish-Arab conflict. All I knew was that they hated us and that we are supposed to hate them. When I saw an Arab I would feel frightened because of terror attacks. On the other hand, I was curious about them, and I had this dream of living with an Arab family for a week and observing their lifestyle.
At age 14 or 15, I walked around the Mahane Yehuda market. A friend of mine dragged me into a building across the street, where he signed me up for the Kahane Youth movement. We, the ultra-Orthodox, did not have youth movements, and there was no extra-curricular activity of any sort. Kahane Youth gave me the opportunity to get out and bond with other people; for this reason I loved it.
I would go out with them on their activities, like handing out flyers. One day, when walking to the Western Wall, they overturned stands belonging to Arabs, and were quite proud of it. The Arabs were scared of us and did not respond. I would never turn over stands like that personally, but I saw no problem at their doing it. Once a young Arab girl fell down, and one of our guys trampled on her. I asked: "What are you doing?" He replied: "When she grows up she will be a terrorist." It made me feel awful and so I left them.
A short time later I went out into the streets; in other words, into life in the city center. In order to better connect, I changed my style of clothing. I started wearing jeans and put on a smaller kippah (traditional Jewish skullcap), but continued living at my parents. My father stopped talking to me for a short period of time.
One day I came across a notice informing of a paramedic course for youth given by MADA (acronym for Magen David Adom - Israel's national medical emergency and ambulance service). I passed the course and started volunteering. MADA was my outlet. I volunteered by day and by night, and even started sleeping there. It was there that I got to know Arab drivers, especially from Abu Ghosh - "good Arabs". I would often ride with non-religious friends to Tel Aviv and go with them to the cinema. At some point we even rented an apartment there.
From the Dropout Gang to ZAKA
At age 17 I found myself in a Yeshiva for "Shababnikim" (an ultra-Orthodox dropouts) like myself. After two years, in which I became stronger in my religious beliefs, I was married to Bracha through a match. Bracha was the adopted child of American parents who immigrated to Israel. Her adoptive mother is a survivor of Auschwitz, where she was sterilized by Mengele in one of his experiments. When we were married, Bracha's parents bought us an apartment in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har-Nof, where we live till this day.
I learned in Kollel (house of Torah study for married men) for two years. I wanted to go out and work after completing a shortened military service and reserve duty. I started working as an ambulance driver for Ezer Mizion - an NGO that helps the sick and the disabled. Today I manage Ezer Mizion's medical equipment loan department in Jerusalem. I started volunteering in ZAKA (the ultra-Orthodox organization for disaster victim identification, which deals with bodies and body parts) a short time after its inception, and I was present in almost all the terror attacks. My father tried to dissuade me from joining, saying there was no need for me to see all such sights; however, I wanted to be at the center of action; wanted to feel like a "combat soldier"; wanted to feel that I was contributing somehow.
I saw it as a mission, a mitzvah, although I was also motivated by me need for adventure. Like any beginning volunteer, I would run to a newspaper stand the day following a terror attack and look for my picture, find it and cut it out. There was a hidden competition in ZAKA: who has seen the highest number of horrific sights and has dealt with the worst cases. Today I know that it does cause damage to the soul and desensitizes one. I remember that once I forced myself to cry when one of those injured in a terror attack in the pedestrian mall was somebody I knew well. The most difficult thing is to see a child.
The heads of the suicide bombers remain whole; even their hair isn't charred. Some even have a smile across their faces. With every terror attack my attitude towards Arabs became more extreme. I am not able to understand people who do such things; can't understand their mothers; can't understand how such people are later turned into shahids (martyrs).
"Esau hates Jacob"
A proposal somehow got to Zaka, requesting that somebody be sent on their behalf to meetings organized by the Parents Circle - Families Forum. Among the ultra-Orthodox, a person attending such meetings would be considered abnormal; but I have always had the inclination to be different. Loss and bereavement did not leave my own family untouched. My brother-in-law, Shlomo Miller, husband of my sister, was murdered five years ago by a terrorist who entered Itamar.
During that first meeting in Bet Jala it was nice to meet the enemy. After the meeting I asked one of the participants to take me on a tour of Bethlehem. I took off my skullcap and we drove around in his car. We also drove around the refugee camp of Dheisheh. I was pained to hear of their suffering and I understood their need to fight us. But I could not connect to the method they had chosen i.e. terrorism.
We toured Gush Etzion and saw an old Arab home; we were told that the Arabs were thrown out of it. But I didn't take it too much to heart because, as the French saying goes, "a la guerre comme a la guerre" (literally meaning "in war act like in war"). When the Arabs complained that they are stripped at the checkpoints, I said that every Arab is a potential terrorist. I told them I saw with my very eyes the repercussions of such terror attacks. In response, they invited me to see families whose children were killed by soldiers. That is how they turn us into terrorists as well.
You cannot be both religious and pro-Palestinian. Judaism has taught us that Jew and Arab cannot make peace, because by their very nature they cannot coexist - what is termed in religion "Esau hates Jacob".
I admit that the Arabs are more connected to the land than I am. They murder us and commit inhuman acts for a piece of land, although they have so much land all around. I see no reason for dying over a piece of land. As far as I am concerned, let them take this entire land. I am an ultra-Orthodox man and Zionism is not something I was taught. So why don't I leave this place? Well, because I have no courage. I also like it here and I don't live too close to Arabs. But if someone were to offer me a ticket to New York, let's say, I would have no problem emigrating. I am not willing to sacrifice myself for land.
If I truly believed that there would be peace if we gave them land, I would do it readily. I would give up my home as well. But I know they will always persecute us. "Esau hates Jacob" - and there is no escape from it.
Participating in this workshop with Arabs was not something I'd naturally be inclined to do. But these meetings gave me a lot. In wake of these meeting I do believe in personal Arab-Jewish ties. When we meet one-on-one we can bring about a change. I think it is possible for us to live in peace, one nation with the other, if we get rid of the leadership on both sides.
Am I being contradictory? Perhaps. I have no set opinion.
* Dan (Dano) Monkotowicz participated in the film group. The group was filmed during the workshop for "TWO SIDED STORY" by Tor Ben Mayor.