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June 1, 2016

The youths stopped to read the leaflet I offered in downtown Zion Square, as I put in a couple of hours with “Talking in the Square,” the committed group of activists who show up every Thursday night for the past two years to reach out to passing Israelis with a message of tolerance in Jerusalem. Our leaflet challenges the passers-by: “DON’T BE NAÏVE! REALITY IS NOT BLACK AND WHITE…..Rightists are not racists, Leftists are not traitors, Arabs are not terrorists, Ultra-orthodox are not parasites, Refugees are not criminals…. A strong society is an open one. We all live in Jerusalem, the city belongs to us all! We can all live here together. Let’s talk about it!”

There were five of them. 18 years old, about to join the army, brimming with health, trim and strong, crew-cuts crowned with knitted yamulkas, fringed “tsitsis” waving from under their shirts. As they looked up from the leaflet, I asked where they were from. “Ras el-Amud,” they jubilantly shouted, using the Arabic name for their neighborhood where the American bingo czar, Irving Moskowitz, financed the building of an enclave for some 100 families, provocatively positioned in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem. (More than 2,000 settlers now live in similar enclaves throughout East Jerusalem, where providing security for them, in 2012, cost $18 million.) “Twenty years ago I demonstrated with Peace Now against the building of your homes,” I informed them, hoping to engage them in conversation. They took the bait, and we plunged into it, proclaiming the God-given right of Jews to settle all parts of the Land of Israel.  I detailed my opposition to their living where they live, explaining that, even if the government had legalized their settlement, it is an obstacle to achieving peace in Jerusalem. They were boisterous and aggressive, laughing at the wise-cracks of their ringleader. They were on a roll, having a good time with this old lefty.

In the midst of the debate, the ringleader proclaimed that we had to be strong, and we would have to show the Arabs who’s boss and probably kill a bunch of them. I reminded him that King David, finding the Jebusites living in Jerusalem when he conquered the city 3,000 years ago, used force just as we overcame the Palestinians when we established Israel. However, David understood that partnering with the Jebusites made more sense than killing them. He recruited Jebusite artisans, making them part of the building of the new Jerusalem, and Solomon continued this policy later. “Even King David understood that we have to find a way to get along with the people who live here,” I said, hoping that speaking into their study of Jewish history might arouse their willingness to engage.

It didn’t work. They were getting uncomfortable with a reasoned discussion with this guy from the other side. Ultimately, the leader pulled out the provocative cliché that we often hear at these sessions, shouting: “The Arabs all hate us and they all want to kill us!” “You know,” I retorted, “that kind of generalization is no different from the way the Nazis generalized about Jews.”

During the conversation, I noticed that one of the youths was deliberately separating himself from his pals, and at this point he took me aside and quietly said, “I don’t agree with everything these guys are saying. I don’t generalize, and I don’t hate Arabs. I even have Arab friends in our neighborhood.” He was slimmer than the others, and his eyes shone with intelligence and curiosity. As his pals carried on their banter, I focused on this guy, asked his name, and told him about my concern that my grandchildren not join the endless cycle of violence, that we find a way to offer them an alternate future. “What about you?” I asked, “What do you see in the future?” “I don’t know,” he admitted, “but I know we have to find a way out of this situation.”

His friends had had enough, they saw that something beyond slogans was happening between me and their colleague. They turned to continue on their way, grabbing him by the sleeve to get him away. Not so fast….I accompanied them down the street, and said, “If you guys are as sure of yourselves as you seem, then maybe you’re brave enough to continue this discussion at one of our Sulha gatherings. I’ll introduce you to Palestinians who will want to talk with you.” They upped their pace, dismissing my invitation. But my new friend, Abraham, looked interested. I pulled out my card and promised to be in touch with details if he contacted me, leaving him the initiative. We shook hands and parted.

Abraham, the father of our people. Maybe this young Abraham would take up the challenge and, like his namesake, cross over into the Promised Land. To the promised land of dialogue, of working it out together, of creating a sustainable life for our people, for all the people here. Not only to settle the land, but to help settle the people, to be part of working out a negotiated settlement with us, to join us in figuring out how we are going to build our future.

Abraham has not contacted me, yet.


Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist,  is director of the Sulha Peace Project,  bringing together Palestinians and  Israelis for person-to-person contact                                                                                                                                                                                          



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One Comment
  1. Jeff Goldstein permalink

    great article! thanks for the peace work you do. I go to the USA and will present at several Spiritual Peace gatherings. I will mention the Sulha Peace Project and her need for funding if the occasion arises. hugs of light Jeff ​

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