Prologue: This narrative was written as part of an activity that emerged from a series of face-to-face meetings between Israeli and Palestinian women, mostly grannies, organized by the PCFF. We were each asked to write our personal histories in relation to our living in Israel/Palestine.
Part I: Roots and the Dream
Many people naturally ask me, "Why did you settle in Israel? What brought you here?" I'm not sure that I have a clear answer to these questions. The only way to attempt to understand why I immigrated to Israel from the U.S. at the age of 31 is to examine my family roots in Europe.
My connection to Israel must have developed from a very early age. It was 1945. My parents, my grandparents, my older sister, Lola, and I were living in Camp Fahrenwald, where we were classified by the Americans in post-war Germany as "displaced persons." For the three years that we were living there, I heard my parents discussing what they were going to do with the rest of their lives after having survived Hitler's war, as my mother called it. My father wanted to join his sister in Palestine; after all, his surviving parents and another sister had decided to immigrate there despite the rumors of an impending war to be waged by the Arab nations who rejected the establishment of a Jewish state. My mother desperately wanted to immigrate to the U.S. where two of her brothers had been living since before the war. She was tired of wars. She wanted a normal life. She wanted to raise her daughters in "Amerike," the land of the free where Jews could live in peace and maybe even prosperity.
We have to understand one more crucial fact. My parents were partisans during the war. They fled to the forests of Poland, today Belarus, when the Nazis invaded their village, and helped organize the Bielski Otriad, the largest Jewish partisan group in Poland. My mother's three brothers were the commanders of this family partisan group who defied the Nazis and not only refused to be herded into ghettos or concentration camps, but even committed sabotage acts against the invading armies. My parents survived the cold winters in the forests of Naliboka for nearly three years. Most of the time they were dressed in rags, food was scarce, they often had to move from place to place to avoid being discovered by the Nazis or Poles who were ready to inform on them. When they went to sleep at night, they could not be sure that they would wake up the next day!
It was natural for my mother to want to start a new life in a land that promised security, freedom and opportunities for the future. We arrived in New York in 1948 and began our new life in the U.S. We were reunited with family; my younger sister was born; my father found work; I went to school and life went on. But my parents never gave up the idea of Israel, the true home of the Jewish people. They talked about the family in Israel, they anxiously waited for letters from my grandparents and my aunt and uncle. They sent care packages when times were tough there. They mourned my grandparents' deaths, one after the other. They sang songs about Israel; they knew the national anthem; they went to a rally where Golda Meir appeared. Somehow this idea of Israel being our true home, seeped into my consciousness almost from birth. I always knew that I would get there at some point in my life.
The opportunity for me to go to Israel on a visit arose shortly after the Six Day War in 1967. I had just graduated from college and I heard that volunteers were needed to work in the kibbutzim. My friend and I decided to go and for the next several months I traveled around and worked in Israel. I met up with my family there-aunt and uncle, cousins my age. Everyone I met was friendly, especially to a young American tourist; strangers invited me into their home; I simply fell in love with the people, the country, the desert, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and yes, all the soldiers were handsome and smiling after the so-called victory. At the end of my journey I decided to go back to New York, work and save money for aliya (immigration). I had a goal and I attained it in late 1976 when I made aliya with my returning Israeli husband. Little did I know then that the Israel I had fallen in love with had disappeared, or maybe never existed.
Part II: Myths or Waking Up from the Dream
Life in Israel didn't always turn out to be what I had expected. Aside from the usual problems related to adjusting to a new culture and environment which would eventually be solved, one aspect of living in Israel was extremely difficult for me to accept. I often encountered negative attitudes of many Jewish Israelis openly expressed towards the Arab minorities and towards anyone who was not Jewish. There seemed to be no regard for "the other." And people weren't even ashamed of their prejudices. At a university where I first taught, some of the teachers would complain about the "women Arab cleaners" not being good enough; in my sons' schools there was practically no integration of children from different ethnic backgrounds; my neighbors complained about the Arab construction workers doing poor work. I didn't like these remarks then and I still don't accept them.
In my New York City education, I was taught to respect others and to appreciate their contribution to society. What would New York be like without the Italians, Chinese, Afro-Americans, and yes, the Jews? From my parents' experiences during the war, I also learned that racism was a dangerous phenomenon that had to be curbed.
How would I be able to live in Israel without compromising my values? I've asked myself this question many times. During all the years of the Intifadas and periods of peace-making attempts I thought about our future here in Israel. By "our" I meant Israelis and Palestinians. Would we ever be able to live in peace, each accepting the other's-language, customs, basic human rights to live on their own land, to educate their children, to develop a society based on tolerance and respect for the other?
About 3 years ago I began to get more involved in trying to better understand the plight of the Palestinians. I went out with Machsom Watch groups and observed what was happening at the checkpoints. I went on several trips to Hebron and other areas of conflict to meet face-to-face with Palestinians, Israeli soldiers and settlers who all told their side of the story. I visited Bedouin areas and discovered how these citizens of Israel were being discriminated against yet managed to maintain dignity and a strong identity.
These activities helped me become better informed but they did not truly contribute to changing the situation. So I decided to join the Narrative Project and to finally become better acquainted with who the Palestinians really are. I wanted to hear them tell their stories from their perspectives in a non-political setting. The "Grannies" group provided a forum for us, Israeli and Palestinian women, to sit together in face-to-face meetings over a period of time. We met at Bet Jolla, a Palestinian village near Jerusalem. Our group leaders engaged us in meaningful activities which helped us break through the language barrier and the cultural differences. Together we learned to listen to each other's personal narratives without making judgments or getting into political discussions. We learned to accept that there are different views about the same events in history (e.g., the Independence War) and that all perspectives should be acknowledged. But most of all we got to know one another on a personal level and found that we had so much in common: a common dream of reconciliation and peace.
Political processes have so far failed to bring us peace and tolerance of one another. Perhaps one-to-one meetings among small groups of people would be a more effective way of dealing with our differences of opinion over how to get along with each other. I am happy to be part of such a group where each person is committed to making an attempt to co-exist.
I have also decided to use the power of the camera as a tool that might bring us closer together and show outsiders who we are: Jewish Israeli women and Palestinian women seeking dialogue and friendship and peace. Seeing photos of ourselves interacting and bonding with each other might give us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Some of the photos reveal a sadness because they portray women's narratives often fraught with personal tragedies. Some of the photos reveal warmth and compassion among the women. Hopefully, taken together they comprise a portrait of a committed group of people who have not given up.
The photo was taken by my son, Shachar Rubin