Building Jewish/Arab harmony one-to-one

"Who is a hero?" asks an ancient Jewish proverb. Its answer: "The one who turns his enemy into his friend." Rachel Rosenzweig and Rushdi Fadila would not describe themselves as heroes. They are too realistic and much too busy for that. But these two visitors from Israel -- one a Jew, the other an Arab -- are traveling the United States these days on a mission that might well be described as heroic.

Representatives of the Israeli organization "Partnership," they are here seeking support for an idea that is both simple and profound: that Mideast harmony can be restored only when individual Jews and Arabs recognize their common interests and see that each one is responsible for developing mutual trust and respect. Until this happens, they insist, discussions about autonomy and settlements -- especially between governments -- are premature at best.

Rachel and Rushdi are teachers. Rachel, who emigrated from West Germany in 1964, has three children and is a lecturer at the Teachers' Training Institute in Tel Aviv. Rushdi has five children and teaches Arabic and Hebrew in the junior high school at Tira. His family has lived in this village in central Israel for seven generations and, like many other Palestinian families, lost its land when Israel was created in 1948.

Both helped found Partnership several years ago. The organization now has about 350 members and several thousand supporters in Israel. It conducts workshops in the kibbutzim (Jewish cooperative communities) and Arab villages, holding language classes for adults, classroom projects for young people, and cultural activities.

The organization also has sponsored seminars for educators and summer camps for children of both groups. It has proposed a model land-settlement solution for the village of Bir'am, just south of the Lebanese border, to which about 200 Arab families were forced to move in 1948. More recently, two kibbutzim were established there.

Rushdi and Rachel are spending the next month in the United States, meeting with Jewish and university groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Washington, and Philadelphia. "Time is running out," they say. They believe support from influential Americans, particularly Jews, will be essential if this first step toward true peace -- turning individual enemies into partners -- is to be realized.

Jonathan Jacoby, an American who has lived in Israel and is accompanying them in this country, says it is particularly important for Jews to meet Rushdi, to "see that he's a human being."

"The best thing is not to drive the Jews into the sea or destroy the Arabs, but to develop a process of mutual interests between them," says Rushdi. He likes to talk about the concept in the Koran of the "active listener," the idea of God as "the listener and the knower."

Even the these two friends, however, the old fears and prejudices have to be continually guarded against.

Talking with a reporter after a campus meeting recently, RAchel mentioned that she and Rushdi had an unplanned meeting with members of the United Americans-Arab Congress in Los Angeles. Rushdi became very upset and fearful, concerned for his family if the Israeli government should learn that he had been in contact with Arabs outside Israel. Rachel and Rushdi talked for three hours to re-establish their trust in one another.

"We have to work out our own partnership all the time," Rachel said later.

"Everybody has an interest -- not only Israel but the world -- to learn how to live without the sword and the spear, as it is written in Isaiah," she says.

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