By Hadassa, Musalaha Participant
Relationships don’t come easily to me. I’ve always been a bit of a loner, at times preferring fictional characters over real people, and women’s groups are not the comfy habitat they pose for most believers in Jesus. Not only because I’ve always preferred mixed groups but also because I connect to typically male topics like politics, soccer, science fiction and video games – some might label me a geek and girl geeks are rare even in the secular world.
Talking about labels, I do like to label myself a peace optimist. While I’ve been very good at voicing my opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how wrong it is to see every Arab as a potential terrorist, I’d never actually had a real conversation with one. I realized that in order to advocate for peace, you need to be willing to seek relationships, as I strongly believe that the only way to coexistence, and ultimately peace, is to get to know people that are different from you so you can start caring about their well-being without seeing it as a threat to your own. To sit with them, pray with them, identify with their personal experience, and out of love for them advocate for reconciliation and change.
There was just one problem with that: making friends with “the other side” is not as easy as I thought. The social separation in Israel is so entrenched that it takes effort to reach out to Arab citizens of Israel, not to mention Palestinians in the West Bank whose movement is restricted and Israelis are not allowed to visit. So when a friend asked me how I would feel to join a women’s group that connects Palestinian and Israeli believers, I jumped at the opportunity and a few months later was invited to participate in a Musalaha women’s group.
From the start, I connected with two Christian sisters from a little town in the north of Israel. Both are older than me and grandmothers already, so their daily lives are rather different from mine, but that never seemed to matter during our conversations. During a Musalaha weekend my friend and I shared a room and early in the morning, I awoke to the aroma of Arabic coffee she’d made with her little travel kettle. A bunch of ladies had come to visit in their pajamas and were chatting away on my bedside — we had gotten that comfortable with each other.
During our last school holiday, I made true on my promise to visit my friends in their home in Rameh. Our trip coincided with the Easter weekend so I was hesitant at first to even call them and ask if we could come by for coffee, but even with my limited cultural knowledge, I should have known that they would go out of their way to accommodate me and my family regardless of their many family obligations. Surely enough, after we’d talked about the possibilities for our visit on the phone, it didn’t take long for a text message to arrive: Ahlan Wa Sahlan, which means “Welcome” but also so much more. In fact, Arab hospitality is summed up perfectly in those words that loosely translate to, “You are welcome as part of the family to a grassy plain abundant with food to be shared.”
It was a blessing that was warmly repeated in person when we arrived in Rameh that late Good Friday afternoon, and, “We’ll just come by for coffee,” turned into a full blown meal with at least a dozen homemade dishes of a quality I’d never tasted before. Stuffed zucchini and vine leaves, different salads, cheese-filled mini pastries, olives, spreads- it was amazing. After the meal, we enjoyed sweet fellowship served with delicately crafted traditional Easter cookies, that are so tender they fall apart in your mouth and deep fried pastries with rich Arabic coffee. They kept saying that it’s nothing, that it took my friend no time to prepare and that next time we have to come for the whole weekend to have a “proper” together time.
This is the essence of Musalaha for me. Humans enjoying each other’s company that would never have met under normal Israeli circumstances. To pursue those friendships and build bridges across our cultural and political differences, I’ll gladly step out of my comfort zone. Again and again.