a Lebanese American psychologist and artist, completed a 3 month sabbatical in Israel
For the full article go to Times of Israel link http://tinyurl.com/hh6b8hy
As a Lebanese woman who grew up in Beirut and made the move to the United States at age 22, I think it is fair to say it was an unusual choice to spend a 3-month sabbatical in Israel at the end of 2015. Add that my father was born in Haifa in 1948 and left with his family for Lebanon at that time, and my choice to live and work in Tel Aviv is even more interesting. To be honest, I had some misgivings and fear around this decision, but at the end of a 3-month working collaboration at Bar Ilan University, there was no doubt that this visit had been a very positive and eye opening experience for me on many levels. It is an experience that I wish were much more common amongst my fellow Lebanese because of the humanizing and understanding it added to my perspective on Israeli society and especially regarding Israelis themselves, who I grew up knowing only through the lens of news reports and conversations that were invariably unfavorable. I would like to share my story.
However, as a proud Arab woman, nothing I have ever done was as profoundly countercultural as applying for an educational leave to work with an Israeli colleague for a semester at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. I wrestled with telling my family that I had made this decision. When I did, I was met with resistance at first, then reluctant encouragement, and many questions.
“Why, of all places, would you want to visit Israel?” I was asked more than once.
“You won’t be allowed into the country, or if you are it will be a very difficult, humiliating experience.”
I was told that if people knew I visited Israel, I might never be allowed back into Lebanon.
“Don’t talk about politics with anyone!” (In Israel? Now that I have been there, I think that is a funny one!)
I was told not to let my own friends and extended family know I was going.
There was a lot to consider.
Before arriving, I also wondered whether it would be wise to let people in Israel know that I am Lebanese. After all, this was a country that had invaded Lebanon on more than one occasion, a fact that had made a big impression on me and my generation growing up. In the end, my curiosity outweighed my uncertainties and I traveled to Israel with a heart and mind full of both.
My surprise came when my taxi drove through Ramat Gan, where I initially stayed. I looked out the window and saw the striking resemblance the streets there had to Hadath, the Lebanese town where I was raised. I could have been in Lebanon as far as I could tell from the view. I am not sure how I imagined Israel would look. Very modern and powerful I supposed, but that a suburb of Tel Aviv resembled Lebanon so closely was not what I had expected.
For most of my first week or two, I kept to myself. Largely, this was due to anxiety on my part. Anxiety that told me “if I interacted with people, they would realize I was Lebanese and I might be discriminated against or possibly worse. It turned out that I had no need to be anxious. I let people know that I was from Lebanon and was met with smiles. I let people know that my father was born in Haifa in 1948 and that same year his family took him to Lebanon where he lived most of his life. More smiles and friendly curiosity. I was welcomed “home”. I was invited into a variety of people’s homes for Shabbat dinners. This was not the reception I had expected at all.
One of the most moving interactions came from an Israeli man who had served in the Army in Lebanon. Without talking about politics, without talking about right or wrong, he apologized to me personally for the damage that the incursions caused to the Lebanese people. Another Israeli man expressed his concern and empathy for the Arabs of ‘48 (of which my father was one of the youngest) and I understood that here was a man who very simply wanted good relations and who did not have ill will towards Arab people, or to me, in any detectable way.
I wanted to cry when I heard these men. The idea that such thoughts existed in Israel, especially by former soldiers, was something that never, ever would have occurred to me. The human element of the interactions I had in Israel as an Arab woman had broken through the rhetoric I have heard for years, and had touched me. I had no reason to fear telling people where I was from. Among the many complex feelings I felt in Israel, one of the most undeniable, surprising and important, was feeling absolutely “welcomed”.
As a woman living in Tel Aviv, I felt safe and respected. I was never stared at or harassed. (I wish I could say the same thing about my experiences in Beirut.) Despite the fact that the right-leaning government tacitly endorses abysmal treatment of Arabs in the Territories, there is a stark contrast in the way other groups like gay people, Ethiopians, and women can thrive in Israel as compared to how they are treated elsewhere in the region. Tel Avivians, I realized by living here, are notably fair-minded, and in many ways not much different from my own friends at home.
Dreams of peace
My black and white image of Israel has been shattered. My understanding has increased. I am truly glad I visited. I am proud to have Israeli friends and I am grateful to my colleagues for their generosity and talent. I will never view that the Occupation is good for anybody, not even in the long run, for the settlers insisting on building there. But I see that there is tremendous decency in Israeli society, that there are people who I really, deeply like, with whom I have common interests and ideas. People who want to live peacefully, do their art, their science, their jobs, raise their children and see them happy. People I can genuinely relate to.
Friendship bridging political and religious divides
I am very proud to have taken the culturally bold step of crossing the bridge and experiencing Israel. I was moved deeply when I realized how many Israeli hands reached out to support me during my stay. My attachment to the region and my love for my family there shine as bright as ever but now, when I think of peace, I also wholeheartedly dream for the peace and well-being of Israel and its people.