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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Ester Golan

As a young girl, Ester Golan escaped from Nazi Germany and lived in an orphanage in England. Her parents were killed in the Holocaust. In 1945 she immigrated to Palestine three years before the state of Israel was established. Ester first became involved in inter-religious meetings in Haifa in the 1970s. Now a great-grandmother living in Jerusalem, she actively continues to participate in interfaith dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian Muslims, Christians and Jews. One of her grandsons was killed as a soldier in Jenin in April 2002.

  • Please tell me about your background.

    I was born in Germany, in a small town in part of what is called Silesia, which today is Poland but in those days was part of greater Germany. At home we were three children, my grandmother lived with us, and we were pretty comfortably off. We had lived for several generations in the same town and there was a very nice synagogue there, so in my parents' home and in the synagogue I got my Jewish education. My mother, already in her young years, was a Zionist, as a result of the Balfour Declaration. I was 10 years old [when Hitler came to power],1 and although there was a big beautiful synagogue in the town there wasn't a Jewish school, so I went to a Christian school. One day the teacher came in, I sat in the front because I was so little, so he said, "There's no room for Jews to sit in the front, you have to sit in the back." That wasn't so bad, but I was 10 years old and children still played in the yard at the break, and nobody spoke to me anymore from that day on. The boys went to their Hitler Youth,2 and the girls to a different group. The Jewish community did all it could to compensate us for that by having more activities for youth in the synagogue, and we went to a Zionist youth movement, which my mother helped to set up. So from a very young age, I was engaged in preparing myself to come to Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and to Palestine. Things were really brewing up at the beginning, slowly but surely. In 1937, when it was forbidden for Jewish men to work, my father wasn't able to earn a living for us.3 But my mother, being over age 45, was allowed to work in a Jewish household.4 In a small town there were no such families, so we moved to Berlin where there were diplomats and foreign Jews, so that my mother could support the family. In the same year my brother was old enough to go with a group of youngsters on Youth Aliyah5 to come to Palestine and go to a kibbutz. I was very jealous because he was my only playmate, because the other kids didn't play with me. And not only that, soon after, my grandmother went to Portugal to live with her son, my uncle. He had been in a concentration camp already in '33 and [could only leave if he] left Germany. Then came the year 1938-- without going into detail now about the Kristallnacht,6 that was when all the Jewish synagogues were burned and Jewish shops were looted and the Jewish men were sent to concentration camps-- I myself didn't see the burning synagogues because I had turned 15 so I was allowed to be in a preparation camp to come with Youth Aliyah to Palestine. One day all the children, aged 15, were sort of locked in a room without being told what was happening. There was no radio, no telephone, no newspaper. After a couple of days we had to go back and carry on our agricultural work and at the end of the month of preparation we had to be accepted as being suitable to go to a kibbutz in Palestine. I had worked well and socially everything was fine, but the doctor said I was underweight and I could not go to Palestine. From November 1938 until the war started in December 1939, 10,000 children managed to come to England with a program called Kindertransport. One of the 10,000 was me. After I was turned down to come to Palestine because I was too skinny, and I'd been previously turned down from being adopted to come to America because I wasn't pretty enough, my mother managed to get me on a list for Kindertransport under the auspices of Youth Aliyah. We went as a group to Scotland to work on the land in preparation for later coming to Palestine.I was 15 when I left home, and it was on the last day of Pesach [Passover], so my father gave me a Haggadah7 that was used by my father's great-great-grandfather. So it's a family heirloom, which he gave me on that day. We read from it every year and I actually passed it on to my son when I visited Auschwitz. I left home in April '39 and my sister was still at home. A correspondence started between my mother and myself, and there's one particular letter which is a very moving letter where my mother writes that she had a very sad story to tell me because she had been told that they wouldn't be able to go to Palestine as they had hoped. When I left home, her parting words were "l'hitraot b'artzenu," which means "see you again in our homeland," which eventually became the title of a book that I wrote in German, "Aufweidersen in Unserland." Anyway, my mother started to write to me, and she only hoped that my sister could make it. My sister, aged 9, had left Germany a couple of weeks before the war started.

    • 1Hitler came to power in January 1933.
    • 2The Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend, HJ) was established by the Nazi party in 1926 to create a new youth-training system for young Germans to gain military training and develop their understanding of and obedience to Nazi ideology. The basic motivation of the Hitler Youth was to train future "Aryan supermen" and future soldiers who would serve the Third Reich faithfully. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitler_Youth)
    • 3Ester refers to a series of laws and orders enacted as of October 1933 that put harsh restrictions on Jewish labor. Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1982, p. 100.
    • 4"The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor" decreed: "3. Jews must not employ in their households female subjects of German or kindred blood who are under 45 years old." Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1982, p. 103
    • 5Ester is referring to an initiative that was originally founded in the early 1930s to save young Jews from Nazi Germany. While this program endeavored to bring young Jews to Palestine within a Zionist framework, it also resettled thousands of children, youth and adults in other countries between the years 1934-1948. For further information, see: http://sorrel.humboldt.edu/~rescuers/book/Pinkhof/mplinks/aliyah.html
    • 6Translated as the "Night of Broken Glass", occurred on November 9, 1938. Nazis destroyed or damaged thousands of synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses. At least 91 Jews were killed, and approximately 30,000 were arrested and transported to concentration camps. Many died within weeks. For more information, see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum .
    • 7The Haggadah is a book or manual read during the Jewish holiday of Passover. It commemorates and celebrates the Jewish people's freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt, and also includes prayers, songs, commentary by rabbinic sages, blessings and passages from the bible.

  • What happened to your parents while you lived in England?

    Well, they were living in Berlin. I got letters until they were sent to Theresienstadt in '42, and I got a couple of letters from Theresienstadt.1 My mother wrote that my father had died in Theresienstadt and then she sent a message that she would soon have a new address. They got there in 1942, my father died in '43, and in '44 she sent a message to say she would soon have a new address, and then I never heard any more. And then when the war was over, in 1945, I thought, "If I can only get to Palestine, maybe I can find my mother." I was on the first ship that sailed again from England through the Mediterranean to Palestine. We got 200 permits, certificates, to come to Israel. I had been on an agricultural training, so I was to go to Kibbutz Kfar Blum.2 I was pregnant, I had gotten married when I was seventeen-and-a-half to another refugee, and we came together to this country. My daughter was born in 1946, and around that time I found out through the Red Cross that my mother had been sent to Auschwitz. But I didn't know what Auschwitz was, or what Auschwitz meant. I couldn't cope with the thought, it might have flickered through, but it wasn't something that was talked about until Eichmann came to trial in '61, '62.3 Until then nobody talked about the death camps, about the terrible things.

    • 1A ghetto-like concentration camp in the Czech Republic, which deported over 83,000 inmates to Auschwitz. The Nazis used Theresiendstadt as a propaganda device to counter the spread abroad of information regarding the death camps, portraying it as a "model" ghetto in which Jews lived normal lives. (Source: Bauer, pp. 190-91)
    • 2Kibbutz founded in the 1940s, located at the foot of the Golan Heights and Mt. Hermon (source: http://www.net-travel.org/kibbutz/kibbutzhotels/kfarblum.htm).
    • 3Nazi war criminal Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann was apprehended on May 11, 1960 and brought to Israel to stand trial for committing crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity. His trial began on April 11, 1961; he was found guilty on December 11, 1961 and executed on May 31, 1962. (Arendt, p. 21, p. 244, p. 250).

  • You said that you didn't know what had happened in Auschwitz until the Eichmann trial. But all that time, what did you think had happened to your mother?

    The thing is when my mother wrote that my father died, I had something concrete. I had a letter, I cried. But because of not knowing about my mother, I sort of had visions that she might be with the partisans,1 that she might be in hiding or something. I gave birth to one child after another, and we were struggling to survive. There was no literature around [about the Holocaust], and nobody to talk to.2 It's very difficult to explain. There was a lot of sadness and I suffered from depression, but eventually, with the Eichmann trial, you couldn't escape listening because it was in the newspaper, it was on the radio, everyone talked about it, but it was very impersonal. It wasn't my mother, it was other people. So it took longer. I can't tell you what I did think because I don't know. Things which are not recorded, I can't recall. But I know that I cried a lot. That I do know. I had years of deep depressions, and getting better, taking medicines. [I had become] a tourist guide, so I encountered German pilgrims, and I had to decide whether I was willing to guide them. It wasn't an easy decision to make, but I thought that my mother wouldn't want me to think there was something I shouldn't do-- mustn't go here, mustn't go there-- and I did guide them, and they were very grateful. Then when I was a scoutmaster we had an international jamboree and we had to decide whether to invite German scouts or not. So I went on a mission to Germany to negotiate, and that was my first visit to Germany. I also went to Germany as part of my studies, which wasn't an easy decision to make, but eventually I did. When did you stop thinking of yourself as a refugee? When the British didn't call me a refugee anymore but an enemy alien. We came as refugees to England, and were not wanted, so they called us foreigners, strangers. And then when the war started they called us enemy aliens because we came from Germany.3 I was always made to feel what other people wanted me to feel, so there I was an enemy alien, whereas when I came to this country I was an immigrant and I lived together with immigrants. In Israel we didn't talk about refugees. We were refugees, but we talked about [ourselves] as immigrants. So being a refugee is one thing, and being called an immigrant is another thing. What's the difference between an immigrant and a refugee in your estimation? There is a big difference. It's a label. You are labeled by somebody else. My story is the story of a refugee girl who wandered around the world. I've lived in England; I've lived in 15 different places. That is being a refugee. But I was a foreigner, I was an enemy alien, that's why I had to live here and I had to live there, and I had to move somewhere else. So that was 15 places in England, and in this country I also lived in something like 15 different places. I was on one, and then another kibbutz, and then in the army and then in another place. Except for the 40 years in Haifa, I never lived for more than 5 years in one place. Now, I've lived 8 years in this flat so that feels like I've lived here for a lifetime. At one point you talked to me about feeling like a victim until you arrived here? No, I didn't use the word victim. I felt like a parcel being shipped around from one place to another, but not a victim. I might have... we were persecuted because we were Jews. I didn't do anything to anybody, but we were persecuted, we were shoved out of schools, my parents were killed because they were Jews. I didn't use the word victim. What did it mean to you to finally arrive here, to what is now Israel? It was where I had always wanted to be, because according to our Jewish tradition, the return to Zion was very strong in our prayers, in our Pesach saying,4 "Next year in Jerusalem," so it was a longing which eventually came true.5 The conditions here were very, very different, but it was somewhere that I wanted to be and I could participate in the up-building. I did my share, I was allowed to participate, whether it was building the tent cities, or moving out of tent cities and choosing a school and seeing to it that my children went to high school.6 Eventually I went to university; I founded a scout troupe in one of the developing cities. I participated in the developing of the country. I did my share by being in the army, working with immigrants, my children were in the army, they were officers. What I might have told you is what it feels like when in every decade there's a war, and how each of the wars affected me personally: my brother was a prisoner of war, my parents died because they were Jews, in the First World War my father and my uncles were soldiers in the German army--they fought for that country which later killed them because they were Jews, in the War of Independence a lot of my comrades fell. The '56 War was a very short one; I only encountered somebody recently when I was in Auschwitz whose father was one of 4 pilots who fell in '56 in the Sinai Campaign. And he grew up as an orphan, he never knew his father. He was a year old when his father was killed. That was the '56 war. And in the '67 War a lot of the graduates and leaders of my scout troupe fell, and we went to many funerals. And in the Yom Kippur war in '73, my sons were officers, and many of their schoolmates were killed. In the Lebanon War in the '80s, my grandchildren were already in the army. In the Yom Kippur War my son was wounded on the Golan, he was an officer. And more recently in the intifada, my grandson was killed. So every war affected me and my children very personally. That became very obvious at the funeral of my grandson. For my sons that was very difficult--it's the son of my daughter who fell--but for my sons, when they bury soldiers, they are burying a lot of soldiers. That is very typical for most Israeli families. One way or another they are very much affected. A couple of people from the Kindertransport-- we occasionally meet amongst ourselves-- were killed in terrorist attacks.

    • 1The people in the field who participated in the resistance movement against the Nazis, spanning several countries, and including thousands of Jews. (Bauer, p. 271)
    • 2As Norman Finkelstein documents, there was little interest in Holocaust scholarship before the late 1960s. "When Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963," he writes, "she could draw on only two scholarly studies on the subject." (Finkelstein, p. 12).
    • 3"Moving Here", on-line library of migration. http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/histories/jewish/settling/settling.htm
    • 4The Hebrew word for Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the freedom and exodus of the Israelites (Jewish slaves) from ancient Egypt. The observance lasts 8 days except in Israel where it lasts for 7 days.
    • 5Saying recited at the end of the Passover meal and for many centuries. Referring to the centuries-old Jewish desire to one day return from exodus to the land of Israel.
    • 6Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from European and, after the War of 1948, Arab countries lived in tent cities ("Maabarot") before being absorbed into Israeli society. In 1958, the last tent city was dismantled.

  • When did you first get involved in inter-religious work?

    In Haifa I belonged to the Interfaith Association. That was in the '70s and '80s. We had meetings, and visited each other and engaged in dialogue. I moved to Jerusalem--my husband was ill and eventually he died and that is when I moved to Jerusalem--and ever since I have been very intensively involved in interfaith work. The Ratisbonne1 is quite near here and I knew Petra Heldt,2 and I continued over from the Interfaith Association [in Haifa] to the local branch here, so I participated intensively in that, and when Yehuda Stolov3 founded the new group called Interfaith Encounter Association. I joined, and I joined the women's group and I've been very active in it. When I say active, I mean I often prepare the Jewish aspect of it. The scouts also [led me to get involved in inter-religious work]. There is a Jewish Scouts, but there is also Israeli Scouts. And the Israeli Scouts are Jewish ones and Muslim ones, and Orthodox and the various different Arab Scouts and Druze scouts are under the Federation of Israeli Scouts. And I was in the Executive Committee of the Scout Federation. So I had a lot of contact with different groups, religious and cultural groups. Also as a tourist guide, because I went to different parts of Judea and Samaria to visit holy sites, so this whole thing wasn't strange to me. And when I traveled to the Far East to encounter different cultures it was very natural to me.

    • 1An international Catholic center for Jewish studies in Jerusalem.
    • 2Lutheran minister, professor of Comparative Religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Executive Secretary of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel. (source: http://www.elijah.org.il/participants/lecturersh.shtml, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2001/3/Christians%20and%20Israel%20-%20Autumn%201999)
    • 3An Orthodox Jewish-Israeli, he is the founder and director of the Interfaith Encounter Association.

  • Why was it important to be involved in interfaith work?

    I started getting involved because it was natural to me. I was active in public spheres and I started to be interested in interfaith work, inter-religious work, because Haifa is a mixed city with Arabs and Jews and Ba'hai, and Ahmadim, and the Druze villages are nearby. Also, being a tourist guide, of course I studied different religions, I studied Christianity, Islam, and other religions. So that is really the background for my present day life.

  • What did you do in the interfaith group?

    We visited each other... when I studied at Haifa University there were Arabs who studied with me there, and they visited me at home, and I visited them. Being scouts, we also hiked a lot. We hiked through Arab villages and were invited in for coffee. There were quite a lot of connections in several Arab villages and Druze villages, they visited me and I visited them.

  • So when you came to Jerusalem, you started getting more involved?

    Since I don't do anything else, I don't have a husband anymore, my children are not home, so I have more time on my hands. So I wouldn't say more, but more intensively. When I talk in Germany, I represent myself and my people. My people, my religion, my people. And being a tourist guide, I love my country and I share the love of my country with other people. But being a tourist guide and being a lecturer, I stick to the broad consensus. I'm not a political party person. Which doesn't mean I don't vote. When I vote, I know which party I want to vote for. But when I represent my religion, my country, my people, I represent the broad consensus, knowing that there is an extreme on this side, an extreme on that side, but the consensus is the broad middle way.Now, to me, it is quite clear that if I can be on talking terms with Germans after what they did to my people, and to my parents, on a personal level-- a new generation has grown up, and they are interested to get to know me, and I get to know them-- there is no reason why the same cannot happen with Palestinians. Because whatever we are accused of doing to the Palestinians, or the Palestinians do to us, none of it is to the extent that the Holocaust was, where we were killed not because we did anything, not because we fought anybody, but because we were Jews. So in my opinion, on a people-to-people level, there is no reason why we can't reach the same level of encounter with each other. Irrespective of what politicians do or say.

  • You said when you speak in Germany and when you were a tour guide you were representing the broad consensus. When you attend interfaith meetings do you do the same?

    Very much the same. I represent Judaism in the interfaith group, not my personal Judaism alone, but Judaism on a consensus level. Whether I do go to the mikvah or not is irrelevant to the fact that the mikvah1 is part of Judaism. Or when we talked about forgiveness, I looked at it from the Jewish point of view, not from Ester Golan's point of view. But Ester Golan's point of view is colored by the Jewish point of view. I tried to explain what forgiveness means by using the parashat hashavuah2 which happened to be at that time the story of Jacob, and immediately after, of Joseph.3 So that is what Judaism has to say about forgiveness. And yes, I accept that as being relevant for me, for my Jewish point of view. Whether I always succeed in acting accordingly, that's a personal matter, but [in the group, I talk about] what forgiveness means from the Jewish point of view. And we have talked about purity, what the mikvah means in the Jewish setting. Also about this exhibit in Sweden, I looked at it from the purely Jewish point of view, how I as a Jew in my Jewish culture, express color.4 White, as you know, is innocence in Judaism, and red is tame;5 blood that has been spilled is unclean. So of course to me, those two elements as seen from the Jewish point of view... if I were Chinese I would see it the other way around. For the Chinese, white is impurity and death, and red is joy. I can only interpret things like that from my Jewish point of view.

    • 1A Jewish ritual bath used for immersion in a purification ceremony. It is often frequented on a weekly basis to achieve ritual purity. It is used by men and women before marriage, and by women after menstruation or childbirth. Conversion to Judaism also requires Immersion in a mikvah.
    • 2The reading of the Torah, or Old Testament, in portions on a weekly basis, throughout the year.
    • 3In the biblical Book of Genesis, Joseph, son of Jacob, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and eventually finds himself in Egypt. He becomes a successful, esteemed advisor to the Pharaoh and successfully predicts future eras of famine and abundance in the region. When Joseph's brothers migrate to Egypt in search of food during a period of famine, Joseph has them arrested, reveals his true identity and forgives them for what they had done to him.
    • 4"Snow White and the Madness of Truth," by Swedish Israeli artist Dror Feiler. The controversial January 2004 exhibit depicted a photograph of Palestinian suicide bomber Hanadi Jaradat on a boat floating in red water.
    • 5The Hebrew word for unholy or impure.

  • Do you think of your interfaith work as peace work?

    I don't use that word. To me, there is a vast importance, a very great importance, to encounter the "other;" whoever the "other" is, whether within Judaism, or non-Jews or Germans, or Palestinians, or Muslims. To encounter the other... and that is why I am so taken with [Father Emile] Shoufani,1 because he is using the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas2 who talks about the encounter with the other.

    • 1Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel, Christian, Archimandrite of the Melkite Catholic Church in Israel. At the end of 2002, he launched a project called, "Memory for Peace" in Israel that involved a joint pilgrimage to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. (http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=18876&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html)
    • 2Jewish Lithuanian philosopher who achieved prominence in France following World War II. His work is based on the ethics of the Other. For Levinas, the face-to-face encounter with another human being is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person's proximity and distance are both strongly felt. The encounter makes clear the other person's unknowable difference, a fact which, for Levinas, compels us to respond to them: the encounter leads to a call of responsibility. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Other)

  • Can you tell me why those encounters with "the other" are so important?

    You have to be able to live with yourself and the other. The same way that I want to live with myself, he has to live with himself. So this encounter with the other enables us to see the other and to respect the other for what he is. He doesn't have to think the same way as I do, doesn't have to believe the same way as I do, but if I encounter him and I get to know him, I can respect him and hope that he does the same to me. And I think that the encounter with the other-- and living side by side-- is something that is irrespective of political decisions; whatever great hardships are caused by politicians should not prevent me from being able to encounter the other in his otherness. When you talk about peace activists, that's political. I am really far removed from political attitudes. If I want the other one to respect me as a Jew, and my religion as legitimate, I have to do the same to him. It's a mutual acceptance of being different. You see, if you use the word peace, war and peace stand opposite each other. But even in wartime I have to encounter the "other." So I don't use these terms. I'm very, very careful in choosing words. I don't use refugee, I don't use victim, I don't use peace, war I have used, that's true. But I try to see beyond those terms. I try to choose words that are neutral, which are not closing in, but opening out.

  • What does the word peace mean to you?

    Peace doesn't have any meaning to me, because it's not part of my vocabulary. The war is fought, and the war is won or lost, and there is an end to it. Throughout my life I have never encountered the [use of the] word peace which has any meaning to me. I've encountered wars, one war after another, but nothing else, so I really don't know, I can't tell you. It's something that doesn't belong to my repertoire. The nearest I can get is peaceful living, side by side, but peaceful is not peace. Maybe it's because it's part of the Hebrew thinking. Shalom. Shalom is something else. You say, "Shalom Aleichem," but you don't say, "peace unto you." Shalom has some connotation that is very unique to the word Shalom. And when I greet you and I say "Shalom," or in the prayer, Heveinu Shalom Aleichem "Grant us peace"1 -- Shalom is from the word "whole," shalem, and it's connected to the word Jerusalem2 , so it doesn't fit into the opposite of war. It's something in its own right. That's why I'm careful in using the term, because it has to have a meaning that also means something to me. And "Peace Movement" is a political term, it's been politicized. And since I'm not in the political scene, but in the human scene, and the word peace doesn't appear in Levinas, it's the encounter with the other. So I may not fit your image of peace workers. My daughter will never find peace in this life, having lost her son. It's just, it doesn't fit into... when she'll suffer for the rest of her life, just as I'll suffer for the rest of my life having lost my parents-- because what did they do to anybody? They weren't bad people... So it's a loss, a very great loss, a loss for their suffering. But you have to learn to live with losses. And throughout my life there were losses, and now being old there are losses that are connected with being old. So coping with losses is problematic; one needs a lot of support. But the word peace, where does it fit in?

    • 1Traditional Hebrew song of greeting, meaning "We bring peace to you."
    • 2The origin of the name Jerusalem remains unclear, but some connect it with the Hebrew word shalem, or "whole."

  • Can you talk about your various activities that you would describe as encounters with the "other"?

    There are several activities that I participate in that are different interfaith groups. One is the Ecumenical Fraternity. Another is Rainbow, which is mainly Jews and Christians, another is Women's Interfaith Encounter group, another is the general encounter group, the Interfaith Encounter Association. And occasionally when there are special events that Yehuda1 or Elana organizes, then I participate. [We also have meetings with] the Shoufani group.2 I participated in the Compassionate Listening Project, because I believe that listening is the basis for a quiet and peaceful encounter with the "other," it's not by arguing, but by listening and being listened to. If you argue with me, and say, "your feelings are wrong," then I can't express myself. Compassionate listening allows the other person to express himself freely without being judged.

    • 1Yehuda Stolov, founder of Interfaith Encounter Association and Elana Rozenman, co-director of the Women's Interfaith Encounter group.
    • 2Ester is referring to Father Emil Shoufani's project called, "Memory for Peace" in Israel that involved a joint pilgrimage that included Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

  • What do you do with the Compassionate Listening Project?

    We learn to be non-judgmental, and by learning to really compassionately listen, to try and hear the other person. We may not agree with him, but we learn to respect that he has a different view.

  • Who is active in the Compassionate Listening Project with you?

    There were workshops. It's not a permanent group. Leah Green started it as a mid-east compassionate listening group. She started it by bringing groups of Americans here to listen to groups of Palestinians and Israelis, various aspects on both sides. Very often when she brings such a group, she also asks me to tell my story to them. Which to most of them is entirely new territory, they never heard such a story. They heard many stories, but not that. So eventually she gave a workshop. The first one I participated in was Palestinians and Israelis in Bethlehem in Dheisheh refugee camp, where the Hope Flowers School is. That's where we had the workshop. But that was before the intifada. Then after the intifada, when she gave a workshop again, there were no Palestinians participating. The American groups do manage to go to the Palestinians to listen to them. Then at this last one, which took place this year, there were 3 workshops: one for only Palestinians, one for only Israelis, and then an advanced one where Israelis and Palestinians met. That was in Tantur, which is right next to the Bethlehem Checkpoint.1 During that workshop, there was a terror attack in Jerusalem while we were at the workshop. The minute there is a terror attack the checkpoint gets closed. There's no in and no out.

    • 1Also known as the "Tantur Checkpoint" and "Erez 2." Located near the city of Bethlehem and Tantur, in the West Bank.

  • Since the intifada have you gone to the West Bank?

    No, it's forbidden for us Israelis.1 Listen, I'm an Israeli. I stick to the rules and regulations.

    • 1In fact, Israelis can apply for permits under special circumstances. Windows, for example, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization dedicated to bringing youth together, received permission to bring its Israeli board members to a meeting near the West Bank city of Tulkarm in the winter of 2003-2004.

  • Aside from the restrictions prohibiting you from traveling to the West Bank, do you have any desire to go?

    If it's permissible, then I would go, but if it isn't I don't. It's not that I desire to go. What's forbidden is forbidden. I don't want to endanger anybody... soldiers have to come and rescue me because somebody shoots at me; it's ridiculous, if there's a law that Israelis are not allowed to go into the Palestinian Authority, I don't go. I stick to my government's decision, be they right, be they wrong. But they're my government, and my government said Israelis are not to go there. There was an opening of Abraham's Herberge in Beit Jala, which is the Lutheran Church.1 No, I didn't go. Somebody said, "But you've got a foreign passport, what does it matter?" But I'm an Israeli, and Israelis are not supposed to go.

    • 1Abraham's Herberge (House; Place to Rest) is a guest house on the church compound of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Beit Jala. Abraham's Herberge acts as a hope and reconciliation center intended for Jews, Christians, and Muslims wishing to meet and dialogue together. (source: http://www.holyland-lutherans.org/beitjala.htm)

  • Do you still feel like there is any possibility for continuing dialogue with the people you used to talk to?

    It's up to them. They can get permission to come here. I can't get permission to go there.1 So it's not a matter of my desire. It's up to them. One of them came here. When I tried to have a practice of compassionate listening here I invited the people from the course and one of the young men from Beit Jala, he came. He sat in the chair that I'm sitting in. He's welcome. But if I'm not welcome there, then I can't go there. It's not whether I have a desire. It's a question of whether I'm welcome.

    • 1While Israelis can travel freely to settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as well as to East Jerusalem, Israelis are generally barred from Palestinian population centers and Palestinians are barred from Israel by the Israeli authorities. However, both Palestinians and Israelis can apply for permits to reach one another. It is easier for Israelis and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem with East Jerusalem ID cards to travel into the West Bank than to Palestinian population centers in Gaza.

  • Do you feel he would welcome you still if you were allowed to go?

    Well apparently not, otherwise he'd see to it.

  • But he doesn't have control over whether the army allows you to go in.

    Now let's not get into this argument. This is taking me out of my sphere. As I say, I stick to, whether I like the politics or not, I stick to them [to consensus positions].

  • I'm not trying to ask about politics. You're talking about the importance of person-to-person encounters. I want to know whether you still think it's important or not to have person-to-person encounters with Palestinians.

    Of course it's important, but it has to be within the permissible setting. I would love to encounter people from Saudi Arabia or from Iran, but that's forbidden. I'm a Jew, I'm not allowed there.1 So to me, the Palestinian Authority is the same as any other setting; when I traveled to the Far East I could visit India but I couldn't visit Pakistan. I wasn't allowed in. So even if I have a desire to go to the Khyber Pass,2 or to Afghanistan, that's not within my reach, so I don't want to create false hope for anybody or myself. What's not allowed is not allowed. So within what is permissible, I act. That is why I put more energy into meeting with Israeli Arabs, because that's possible. Once it will be possible with Palestinians, I'll do that again. But I don't have any desires beyond what's possible. And Israeli non-Jewish groups call themselves Palestinians as well. I do encounter them. But that's permissible.

    • 1According to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, there is no official policy against allowing Jews to visit Saudi Arabia. The US State Department notes that: "In the past, American citizens have reported they were refused a Saudi visa because their passports reflected travel to Israel or indicated they were born in Israel, although this has not happened recently." (source: http://travel.state.gov/travel/saudi.html). Iran does not allow Israelis into the country.
    • 2The Khyber Pass is a 53-kilometer passage through the Hindu Kush mountain range. It connects the northern frontier of Pakistan with Afghanistan.

  • Let's talk about the trip to Auschwitz. When you first heard about it, what did you think of the idea?

    I first heard about it in an article in the newspaper-- that Father Shoufani was about to do such a thing. I knew Father Shoufani because I had met him ten years before. As I mentioned, I'm a tourist guide and I talk to German groups and German pupils and they complained that they only see the buses and the stones and they said that they'd like to meet their age counterparts, so I arranged for them to visit a Jewish school in Haifa, and I phoned Shoufani because I had heard about him from television, to ask whether we could visit his school, so we visited his school. The German pupils enjoyed that so I helped them make arrangements for a school exchange between Saint Joseph's Seminary in Nazareth, where there are Muslims and Christians. The students from Nazareth met the Jewish school kids from Haifa, and then the group together went to Berlin, and then students from there came and visited Nazareth and Haifa. And Father Shoufani, who is the headmaster of that school, also invited me a second time to come talk to all the ninth graders. I knew who he was, I knew his school, so I phoned his secretary and congratulated him that he intended to do that, whereupon he invited me to join the group. So it was on a mutual level, and I saw the importance of it. When I first heard about it I thought it was such an unusual idea. To me it wasn't unusual because there had always been encounters, with the scouts and as a tourist guide, I knew my way around Nazareth, I knew where each church was, and each restaurant and street, and it was only because of the intifada that it became unpleasant to visit Arab villages, and Arabs became less frequent visitors. While I was studying in the 70s, we visited each other, and it was only because of the intifada that we stopped. To me it wasn't at all unusual.

  • What was the goal of the trip to Auschwitz?

    According to what [Father Emile] Shoufani says, if you want to know the other person, you have to know all of the other person, and if you want to know the Jew, my identity has several components, as everybody's identity has several components, and my components are: Zionism, Judaism, Israel and the Shoah [Holocaust]. So if you want to know me, you have to know also me and the Shoah, not just me and Israel, not just me and Judaism, not just me and Zionism, but me and Shoah, Israel, Judaism and Zionism. And he said quite rightly that the Shoah took place in Europe in a Christian Europe, but it bypassed the Middle East. The Middle East was not involved. Greece was.1 Even Turkey was not involved in it, so they really didn't encounter at the time, as Poland did, and Hungary did, and Belgium and Holland, and Greece, where the Jews had disappeared. Nobody had disappeared from the Middle East. So he considered it something that had by-passed them, that they had not experienced. But living with so many people who were directly impacted by it, and because it has become part of Judaism at large, he had to know it. That is what made him decide that Auschwitz stands for something which is not Jewish, it's inter-religious, it's inter-national, it's inter-disciplinary; it represents something which humanity did, humanity in its darkest and most dreadful situation, and that is why he chose to experience something which... I mean if he wanted to just get to know Judaism, he could have come to synagogues, but that wasn't the point because that he has [access to] here. But to encounter that extra element that encompasses my identity and every other Jew as well. And I think that is exactly what happened. To the majority of participants it was a first experience. So Jews and Christians and Muslims alike were shocked to hear, to experience, to see... because you can't really imagine it. Some people imagine Auschwitz to be something like a local prison, with a fence around it. But the majority of the people who have not been there, who have not taken an active interest, the vastness of it and the finality of it was very unique, and it was an experience which I don't think anybody will forget. And, for instance, as you know there have been cases where Israel and the Palestinian issue has been compared to the Holocaust. But there is no comparison. If you really get to know Auschwitz you see that there is no comparison; this was something which was very unique, and this is something quite different, which is not to be compared. It has to be resolved, but not to be compared.

    • 1The Nazis occupied Greece from 1941 to 1944, killing over 65,000 Jews of Greece's 75,000 Jews. (Bauer, p. 305; "The Holocaust in Greece" , http://www.ushmm.org/greece/eng/intro.htm).

  • Did you have any doubts before you went on the trip to Auschwitz with Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel?

    I wouldn't have gone. I wouldn't have gone because why should I burden myself with something I don't believe in. I believe... I admit that, I consider it very possible that the fact that I'd been there with another Jewish group and with my son enabled me to take it upon myself to go there [with this group]. I knew that if I went I would be able to come back and talk to my son about it. That helped me, but then I was the oldest one in the group. It must have been different for every person. For some people it was a very direct personal connection but for the majority (both Jews and Arabs) it wasn't. This was a very unique experience which cannot be experienced anywhere else in the world.

  • Did the group get close personally?

    We split up into six buses, because 250-300 is too big a group to become personal. But within a bus, which is 30-40 people, you'd get to know each other. And we were together throughout, whether it was visiting a site or listening to a testimony, and with the people in my bus, yes I did get very much closer. And last Sunday when Father Shoufani was given the award, a lot of people came, and it's a pity, you should have been there to see how we greeted each other on a completely personal basis. Not as an Arab and a Jew, but whether it was a Jew and a Jew or an Arab and an Arab, or an Arab and a Jew, we cared for each other, we looked each other in the eye. It was something which... in the encounter it's very important to speak on eye level, as you say, on equal standing, not one up and one down. And I think this common visit achieved that, that we feel equal. With different political views, different religious views, with different everything, but still equals in encountering humanity at its darkest hour. And that is the point where we connected.

  • Can you tell me about one person you had a significant moment with during that trip?

    Well, first of all [Father Emile] Shoufani. You know there were two weekend seminars before, in preparation. If I went to the first weekend seminar with some doubts in my mind, the minute he embraced me I had no doubt that that was the right thing to do to join the group. So with Shoufani himself, yes I have that personal feeling; I feel comfortable with him. He is a very religious person, and he respects my being religious. We don't try to convince each other of who's right. My religion is right for me and his is right for him, and on being convinced of my own, and him of his own, we can encounter as equals. He is very tall and I am very small, but still. Yes, I had the same sort of thing with a couple of the men, one of them a Bedouin, one of them a Muslim, I think. And with a couple of women. We all got on well, we all like each other, they like me and I like them, but with some of them it was more deep, more intense. But you saw at the meeting of the women's group how intensely we greeted each other as equals and the same with that group. If you share your inner feelings, by encountering humanity, it brings you close, there's no doubt about it.

  • Did anyone in your family or among your friends think you shouldn't go on this trip?

    Those that did think so didn't tell me because they know me well enough not to interfere with what I want to do. My family was very encouraging. I do encounter many different groups. Among the Jewish groups there are very great differences. From the settlers on the one end and from the very Left on the other hand, I have them within my own family; I just don't talk politics with them. We just encounter each other on a purely, either personal level, or religious level, but not on a political level. Because if I was very politically oriented, whichever way, it doesn't matter which way, it would automatically cut me off from another great sector of the population. So by not being politically oriented, I also don't talk with everybody about everything. If I am with the settlers, some of them are my relatives, what should I tell them, that "you are wrong," then they say, "don't come and visit me"? Where do they live? No, I'm just telling you [some of my relatives live in settlements]. On the other hand I have very strong... my sister is very active, on the very Left, and so is my grandson, and we don't... politics is just not a subject which is ever brought up in my place. Not amongst the family, not amongst the friends. And I move in different circles, I move amongst the super-religious, and I move amongst the anti-religious, and I am who I am irrespective of whom I encounter.

  • How does your religiousness affect your involvement?

    My Jewishness affects my thinking, there is absolutely no doubt about it. I am very concerned about my Jewishness. It's something that I inherited, and what you inherit is sacred; you have to pass it on the same as you received it, and that's what I try to do. I live my Jewishness in the traditional ways-- same as I was brought up at home-- as I try to convey to the coming generation.

  • How do you describe yourself religiously?

    As I said, traditional. I go to a Conservative synagogue because that's the nearest one; it's the one that suits me. But I also try not to categorize Judaism, as I said, because with some of the things I'm more on this side; with some of the things I'm less on that side. I feel very, very deeply, consciously Jewish-- Zionist Jewish. A combination of Zionism and Judaism, which is different from the Haredim1 , who have no Zionist feelings. I certainly believe in having to defend my being Jewish. That's why I was in the army, my children were in the army, my grandchildren are in the army. Because I have a right to live and I defend that right to live.

    • 1The term refers to ultra-Orthodox Jews. Until the Holocaust, the vast majority of Haredi Jews rejected Zionism for a number of reasons, including the belief that Jewish political independence could only be obtained through Divine intervention, with the coming of the Messiah. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haredi)

  • If you could reach one international audience, which would be the most important in terms of a group that could be influential or helpful here?

    The majority of people who come here don't understand what is going on here.

  • What do you think are the biggest misconceptions held by people who come here from abroad?

    The biggest misconceptions are that nobody knows me. When I say nobody knows me, I have a lot of young people coming here, German volunteers. They come here with such misconceptions, you can't imagine. There are a lot of Americans who come here with a lot of misconceptions. Like what? I don't know what they think, but once they've heard me they don't think the same as they thought before, because the feedback that I get from email after somebody has listened to my story is that they're actually amazed because somehow the misconception is that we are all warriors. I'm not a warrior. Well, I was, but I'm not a warrior. Leah [Green] brings groups here for Compassionate Listening, not for the workshop but for the tour. They're all amazed when they hear me and my story, but you can multiply it by hundreds of thousands. It's not a very unique story. What amazes them most about your story? That we are not all extremists. We are seen as extremists. It doesn't matter what extremists, on the one side or on the other side. And I think the greatest misconception is yes that... Whether it is in Europe, where I can mainly speak for Germany and a little bit of England and a bit of America, but that we're seen as all Reform Judaism, or all Leftists, or all extreme Orthodox, or all extreme settlers, or all extreme peace activists, or all.... but there's seldom anybody who sees the broad middle, which is neither this nor that, and I think that is a misconception. An international audience, anybody who would like to listen, I'm willing to speak to. But you have to pay my fare. [laughs] We're hoping our website will reach a lot of people. Well my website has already reached a lot of people.

  • Within Israeli society, what do you think are some misconceptions about the kind of encounters you participate in?

    Israelis are just the same as everybody else in the world. Also within Israel you've got misconceptions. You have many children who have never encountered an Arab. Well, you can't blame them for it, this is the situation. In the '70s, or even going further back after the Six Day War when Samaria and Judea were opened, you should have seen the crowds that visited there. There was an encounter [between Israeli Jews and Palestinians]. But it stopped with the Yom Kippur War, when the same people that talked to us shot at us. So you know, it doesn't always depend on us, there are always two sides to a coin, and what I most certainly would emphasize is that you can't blame just one side for everything. The two sides.

  • Do you think you'll see an end to this situation in your lifetime?

    Everything ends one way or another. Situations have changed, sometimes they change for the better, sometimes they change for the worse. From the Israeli point of view, the Six Day War changed for the better, the Yom Kippur War changed for the worse. So they're two wars within six years and they completely overturned what happened before. From the Six Day War, when the Fedayeen from the Golan Heights were shooting into the kibbutzim... things do keep changing, but as long as the outside is trying to put the blame on either the one or the other, blaming does not help.

  • What do you think will help end the conflict?

    Only mediating, not blaming. Telling me that Israel is all wrong doesn't help me in the least, and the same the other way round. But that both sides have to realize that this is no way to carry on over a long period of time, and both sides have to be active in [resolving] it. Israel should not be blamed for causing all the hardships of the Palestinians. There are certain things that Israel causes. But the fact that they are kept as refugees in refugee camps has nothing to do with Israel. They were not allowed to integrate.1 I was given a chance to integrate. They were not given a chance of integrating into their country. Growing old, a lot of the issues of losses come up in old age, but I've got Amcha2 that can help me, and I've got the open telephone line at the trauma center. They don't have such help. I think Palestinians need to be helped to help themselves. Israel is much more oriented toward helping itself and helping its people, and I think what could help to ease the situation is to help the Palestinians to help themselves to deal with traumatization, not by sending another suicide bomber. That only causes more trauma for them. But somehow their frustration needs to be addressed. But since we can't go there, it has to be addressed by somebody else.

    • 1Following the War of 1948, whereby the State of Israel was established in what had been Palestine, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted and became refugees. A very limited number were able to return to their homes within the new State of Israel. According to UNWRA, "the number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than four million in 2002, and continues to rise due to natural population growth." Most of the refugees are dispersed in camps across the West Bank (654,971), Gaza (907,221), Lebanon (391,679), Syia (409,662) and Jordan (1,718,767), (source: UNRWA)
    • 2The National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation

  • When you say someone should help the Palestinians, do you mean international groups?

    That's up to the Palestinians, who they accept to allow in to help them. It may be international, it may be Germany... this latest exchange, the Germans took a very active part in it. Because the Palestinians don't see in Germans the same warmongers as they see in Americans, therefore an American could never have brokered this exchange. On the other hand Germany is still history burdened and doesn't quite know where to fit in, and England can't do anything because they're to blame for what's happening here and France is busy with North Africa, with Algiers, and Morocco1 and on and on. So international? Who is international? Sweden, where you had this exhibit? Taking sides is no good. Helping each side, for itself, by itself, within itself, to stand on its own feet and to lessen their frustration, which causes them not to function properly. Not by giving money. They've been fed by UNRWA for 60 years. It's not a question of money. There are many other things.

    • 1Algiers and Morroco are both former French protectorates.

  • In the work that you do, what do you consider a small victory?

    I don't talk about victories. Achievements yes, not victories. The fact that I helped many non-Jewish persons to see me as a human being, because I can help them feel comfortable in my home by accepting them as they are and not accusing them, I think that that is a certain achievement. And the fact that I do get invited to speak to groups; Leah invites me to nearly every group. In other words there is something that I manage to get through to people in my way, in my manner, which is something that not every politician does. He only gets sort of into one corner. I sit more centrally, more consensuses like. I represent the ordinary people, not the politicians. I think that my poems speak to people, because they can identify with them. Also with my story. They can identify with a mother who has to send three children away so that they can live [she is referencing her mother, not herself]. That's something that few mothers can cope with, and also young people can't cope with it. Ask them, how would you feel if you had to send your children away. They don't even want to think about it. So in spite of all that has happened to me, I remain who I am. To some people, also the fact that I am 80 and that I am active in all that, is some inspiration. My mother wrote to me, "as long as there is a future, there is hope," and I've taken that very seriously, so that I have a positive outlook towards life. Life carries on no matter what happens, you have to find the positive aspects in life. Apparently that is an inspiration to some people. I don't see just the black side of it.

  • For someone who doesn't understand much about this conflict, why are you doing what you are doing?

    My involvement in interfaith today is very much based on my personal history, having lived in Germany, and what happened during the Holocaust when my parents perished, and it took me some 30 years before I managed to go back to Germany, and what I found out when eventually in '88-- that is, 50 years after Kristallnacht, when I was invited to the schools-- I realized that they knew that they had killed 6 million Jews, but they had no idea who those Jews were. So eventually I taught much more about Judaism than about the Holocaust. That made me understand that because they didn't know them [Jews], it was comparatively much easier to kill them, and when they realized what they'd done and tried to find out who it was, there was nobody there even to tell them. But they did take a very great interest in Judaism. So for 15 years, I have been going around to various types of schools and universities, trying to explain who I am. Altogether, that took over 65 years, so to me it became quite clear that whatever is happening between Palestinians and Israelis, it's something quite different, not comparable to what Germans did to Jews, but they also don't know each other. My contribution really is trying to present myself as being Jewish and Israeli-- in an encounter with the other, in the hopes that the other is willing to share with me who he or she is. A good framework for that is the Interfaith Encounter Association, where we meet, and where there is an earnest attempt to get to know each other in our otherness, not to try and persuade, but to accept each other in our otherness. That is what's behind my involvement not only in the Interfaith Encounter Association, but the Ecumenical Fraternity,1 and Rainbow, and with Father Shoufani, going together with Muslims, Christians and Jews to Auschwitz. It is all based on more or less the same idea.

    • 1Founded in Jerusalem in February 1966 by a group of clergy and theologians in Israel, the Ecumenical Fraternity encourages Jewish-Christian dialogue, reconciliation and relationship-building within a theological framework. (Source: http://www.etrfi.org/)

  • Do you ever have any doubts that what you are doing is effective?

    No, because if I did I wouldn't stick to it for so many years. I've been involved in it--I'm also a tourist guide so I know quite a lot about Islam and Christianity and the various Christian churches. I do know that they don't know much about each other or about us. This is where I can contribute. If I stand in a demonstration, I am just a number or something. But here in the face to face, there is a much deeper involvement, and when we meet again, we meet as friends. We are no longer strangers. We may have different opinions on many things including politics, but we do realize who we are.

  • Has your involvement in interfaith work changed your relationship with your community?

    Which community?

  • How would you define your community?

    I think community is a very American expression. In Israel we are all Israelis. On the other hand, I can say that my larger family... I have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren--yes they are influenced by it. Whether they themselves are involved in it or not, I don't know, but they do respect me for it. In other words, apparently it does have an impact on the people around me. And also other people, who themselves do not do it; some of them admire me even for the fact that I can do it. Not everybody can, because it's not easy if you have to present your Judaism; you have to know about yourself before you can say who you are. And many people may be very religious, and they're involved in other kinds of things. After all, I am a sociologist and an educational counselor, so if I can't say what I want to say, then who can?

  • Do you think there's some kind of emotional strength that you need, in addition to knowledge, in order to do interfaith work?

    Well, the emotional strength comes from the people I encounter. For instance in Germany, very often I am asked by school children, but also by grownups, "Isn't it difficult to tell the story again and again?" So I look at them and I say, "Did it sound like that?" And they say, "No," and they smile, and I say, "That's why I can carry on, because you smile at me." The emotional involvement, yes it is a very deep emotional involvement, on both sides of the encounter. Once you get over the initial cultural shock of meeting the "other," once we start smiling at each other, that gives us emotional strength. Yes we do share our joys and our sorrows, personal ones and other ones, but to me personally the smile of the other person is a very important factor, as a source of emotional strength that I need.

  • Can you tell me about some of the cultural differences you mentioned?

    The cultural differences are basic, from one religion to another and from one cultural background to another. Not all Jews come from the same cultural background, and not all Arabs come from the same cultural background. But I think probably I meet mainly with people who, at least on the intellectual level, are somewhat similar. And that similarity makes things easier. When we do talk, we understand each other. I suppose I would say that doesn't go for everybody in the street.

  • What language do you speak together in the Interfaith Encounter group?

    In the Interfaith Encounter, English is the common language. Although the majority of the Arabs speak Hebrew, but not all of them, and most of the Jews don't know Arabic. The thing is the Arabs living in Israel, they work in Israel, and they need it as a daily language, whereas I came here as a grown up person and [Arabic] would have been a totally foreign language, which I wouldn't have been able to make much use of except for social encounters. And the other thing is that Hebrew is easier than Arabic, so the Arabs who know Arabic well, it is quite easy for them to learn Hebrew. But Arabic being more complicated grammatically, it is even more difficult. But my children and my grandchildren know Arabic. Where did [your children and grandchildren] learn Arabic? Well in school, and when they went on hikes and when they met people and in the scouts. But I was too old to pick up yet another language. I speak German, English, Hebrew and Yiddish.

  • Do you think it's rare for you to be involved in these kinds of groups and encounters?

    Well it can't be so rare, otherwise I wouldn't encounter so many people. I'm involved in different groups, and even though some of the same people appear again in different groups, on the other hand, I met so many Arabs in these group settings. It can't be that rare, otherwise there would be only one such group. But there are dozens of them. And there are over a hundred groups between Israeli Jews and Israeli Christians and Muslims. Most of them are much younger than I. In the schools among students, and also on the professional level. No, I don't think it's rare. But it's not interesting for the newspapers, because when we meet it's not a conflict, so why write about it? When we shoot each other it immediately gets into the news.

  • Do you give up anything to do this?

    Well, I think the most fascinating encounter was really with Father Shoufani and Nazeer Majali.1 They are the two driving forces behind the voyage to Auschwitz of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and Bedouin. I had met Father Shoufani ten years ago, and I was very impressed by his style of life and his way of teaching- he is the headmaster of a school. But this encounter, there is much more depth to it now that we have been together on that voyage. He could put into words what's behind it. His teaching of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, the Encounter with the Other, and you also take responsibility for the other. That really was a new way of putting it into words. I had encountered others, but for me it was sort of a natural behavior, but he could put a philosophy behind it.

    • 1One of the organizers behind the Memory for Peace trip to Auschwitz.

  • Do you remember a time when somebody said something or did something that changed the way you thought?

    The other one who was part of the original team that got this going, Nazeer Majali, is today an Arab correspondent for Arab newspapers throughout the world. And he also told his story, he was a Bedouin boy. His father is a Bedouin, and who is he today? There is a vast change in his life to have become who he is, and he thinks, together with Father Shoufani, how important it is that we get to know each other and take responsibility for each other, because we live in the same country, go to the same schools, go to the same university, the same places of work, and don't know anything about each other. And the less you know about each other the easier it is to hate each other. But once you get to know each other there is no room for hate. Hate dissolves, and there is a possibility of respecting each other. The respect for the other grows and gets deeper when you encounter the other, when it's not something theoretical but practical. Actually, while we were in Auschwitz, Nazeer Najali and I were both a little tired so we sat out a session and had a cup of tea together and talked, on a one-to-one level. The depth of respect and love for each other reached an additional dimension when Father Shoufani got an award from an organization called Tolerance at the house of the President of the State of Israel, and I was present. It was a very moving ceremony. His whole family came, his brother, and Father Shoufani himself is also a refugee. He was born in one village and his uncle and his brother died in the fighting in '47 or '48. But his mother said there is a future and you have to work towards the future, and there is no room for hate, get on with life. I met his mother as well, a remarkable woman, although I couldn't communicate with her verbally because she only speaks Arabic, but somebody translated for us. This took on a depth that I even dreamed about it afterwards. I dreamed that if, God forbid, I had to flee, I was sure in my dream I was sure if had knocked on Father Shoufani's door, he'd let me in and he'd even give me clothes of his mother's and that I could be hidden in his brother's place. It's a weird story that will never happen, but this just shows that it really goes very deep if both sides believe in it. As far as Nazeer Majali is concerned, a couple of weeks later, there was an American group here and they visited all sorts of places, and among other things, Yad Vashem. And because I work in a group that is trying to find out about Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, we were invited to that talk. It was Professor Bauer who gave an excellent talk,1 and then Nazeer Majali, in Yad Vashem, an Arab speaking in Yad Vashem-- that was really a very rare experience. He didn't know anybody there except me. It was a wintry day, and although he had to go back to Nazareth that day, he brought me home first, and he came to see my home. So I felt very honored by that. So that's from the Auschwitz trip. I also feel very close to some of the women from the Interfaith Encounter. One of the Jewish girls, Inbal, she's a young girl, but we got very close to each other because we prepared talks a couple of times. But also with the Muslim women and the Christian women, I feel that there is a mutual respect for each other. We are no longer strangers. True that the trip to Auschwitz was much more intense. We had three weekend seminars together and a week in Auschwitz. It was much more intense. But I think in both cases there is quite a lot that has happened. The other one who was part of the original team that got this going, Nazeer Majali, is today an Arab correspondent for Arab newspapers throughout the world. And he also told his story, he was a Bedouin boy. His father is a Bedouin, and who is he today? There is a vast change in his life to have become who he is, and he thinks, together with Father Shoufani, how important it is that we get to know each other and take responsibility for each other, because we live in the same country, go to the same schools, go to the same university, the same places of work, and don't know anything about each other. And the less you know about each other the easier it is to hate each other. But once you get to know each other there is no room for hate. Hate dissolves, and there is a possibility of respecting each other. The respect for the other grows and gets deeper when you encounter the other, when it's not something theoretical but practical. Actually, while we were in Auschwitz, Nazeer Najali and I were both a little tired so we sat out a session and had a cup of tea together and talked, on a one-to-one level. The depth of respect and love for each other reached an additional dimension when Father Shoufani got an award from an organization called Tolerance at the house of the President of the State of Israel, and I was present. It was a very moving ceremony. His whole family came, his brother, and Father Shoufani himself is also a refugee. He was born in one village and his uncle and his brother died in the fighting in '47 or '48. But his mother said there is a future and you have to work towards the future, and there is no room for hate, get on with life. I met his mother as well, a remarkable woman, although I couldn't communicate with her verbally because she only speaks Arabic, but somebody translated for us. This took on a depth that I even dreamed about it afterwards. I dreamed that if, God forbid, I had to flee, I was sure in my dream I was sure if had knocked on Father Shoufani's door, he'd let me in and he'd even give me clothes of his mother's and that I could be hidden in his brother's place. It's a weird story that will never happen, but this just shows that it really goes very deep if both sides believe in it. As far as Nazeer Majali is concerned, a couple of weeks later, there was an American group here and they visited all sorts of places, and among other things, Yad Vashem. And because I work in a group that is trying to find out about Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, we were invited to that talk. It was Professor Bauer who gave an excellent talk, and then Nazeer Majali, in Yad Vashem, an Arab speaking in Yad Vashem-- that was really a very rare experience. He didn't know anybody there except me. It was a wintry day, and although he had to go back to Nazareth that day, he brought me home first, and he came to see my home. So I felt very honored by that. So that's from the Auschwitz trip. I also feel very close to some of the women from the Interfaith Encounter. One of the Jewish girls, Inbal, she's a young girl, but we got very close to each other because we prepared talks a couple of times. But also with the Muslim women and the Christian women, I feel that there is a mutual respect for each other. We are no longer strangers. True that the trip to Auschwitz was much more intense. We had three weekend seminars together and a week in Auschwitz. It was much more intense. But I think in both cases there is quite a lot that has happened.

    • 1Likely a reference to Yehuda Bauer, one of the world's top experts on the Holocaust.

  • What do you think it will take to achieve a state of "live and let live"?

    Encouragement from the rest of the world; not to try and judge who is right and who is wrong. Everybody's right and everybody's wrong. But to find a way, in spite of wrongs, to be respectful. There are wrongs being done to us and wrongs being done by us, and that's part of being human. The human being has a choice to choose between good and evil and I think seeing other people with respect and being respected helps a person in his choice between good and evil to choose the good.

  • Do you see signs of hope?

    My mother said, "As long as there is a future there is hope." So that's what I live by. Look, France and England were arch-enemies, and they fought one war after another for hundreds of years. Nobody ever believed there would be peace; in the First World War they ate each other up. And look at it after the Second World War. And the same with Germany and Poland. So there are things on a wider geo-political level that have changed in a way that nobody would have predicted could happen. So if it happens there, why shouldn't it happen here?

  • What are some of the most important things you've learned in these groups?

    How necessary it is to have them. That's really the most impressive, that where there's a will there's a way, that if both sides want to, it can be done.

  • What do you think are the biggest misconceptions from outside about what is happening here?

    Trying to judge. Because from far away you can't really judge other people. Nobody really has the right to judge other people anyway, but if people a long way away, abroad, are being fed only what television wants to convey or some politicians want to convey... The whole of the country are not politicians, and the whole of the country, no matter what politicians decide, the people still have to live their daily lives, and they should be allowed to live their daily lives in respect. In respect for each other. The politicians don't respect each other; they're on opposing sides. But not everybody is a politician, and I think it is important that people should realize the difference between the political rights and wrongs and the daily life rights and wrongs.

  • When you talk about the Levinas philosophy of taking responsibility for the Other, what does that mean?

    Sharing a certain part of accepting his pains, accepting his joys, caring for the other person, respecting the other person. To see the humanity in the other, as a person in his own right, with his own views, not trying to convince the other, but to accept the other in his otherness.

  • What do you think are the roots of the conflict?

    Politicians. Because they make decisions. I don't make decisions that cause the conflict. I make decisions in just the opposite direction. So yes, misconceptions, promises that are not being held, other people deciding over other people. Anyway I don't really think in terms of conflict. I think in terms of human beings. So it's a question that I don't really have to delve into. I really think that what is causing the misconception about what's going on is that every [shocking event] politically or physically gets blown up [metaphorically] in the media to the extent that the rest of life, just windows away, is not seen. Of course it's very difficult to live... throughout my life, every decade there has been a war. But wars usually have a beginning and an end. The present war seems to have had a definite beginning but so far hasn't had an end. But there were wars that were fought for more years than the present war. We're used to having comparatively short wars. This one appears to be endless, but it's not endless. There will have to come a point where people on both sides say "enough." But I'm not involved in that aspect of it. Because no matter what the outcome will be, some people will be hurt on both sides. So, okay, that's a political decision and they have to somehow abide by it. But no matter what the outcome, there are human beings all around me, and to foster the humanity in human beings, that's not a politician's work, that's people's work. And I think if more people would be involved, then people would be better off.

  • How do you think fear impacts these encounters?

    I'm not quite with the question. Because in these settings that I work in, fear isn't really a major issue at all. If it is in some people, it is very quickly overcome. The minute you look another person in the eye and you don't see hatred in their eyes, because hate can be seen, not only felt it can also be seen, but the minute you encounter the other, there is no entry for fear.

  • But in the broader conflict, what role do you think fear plays?

    Listen, well... fear and being scared, there is a mixture of the two. Some people fear the unknown. Even a small child being taken by his mother to nursery school, to a new surrounding, will fear. Or a small child will fear an animal he doesn't know. Fear is something that some people cannot overcome and other people can-- fear of heights, all sorts of fears... So I think it's a part of a person's character, which perhaps to some extent gets fortified by religious beliefs, because in Christianity there is fear of hell as opposed to going to heaven, and I think it's the same in Islam. But it's not as distinct in Judaism, which doesn't mean that Jews don't fear. But I personally don't have this feeling of fear. I'm scared I might fall, so I am cautious, but if you stay within what is allowed, you know, if you don't go against the law, there is nothing I have to fear.

  • Can you tell me what happened when your grandson was killed, and how some of your friends from the interfaith groups responded?

    Only very briefly because I don't want to keep going back to that because it happened two years ago and it really has affected our family so deeply that I can't really tell you in detail how deep and what destruction it caused within the family setting. What is true, that when people I got to know through the Interfaith Encounter, also where I paint or the synagogue that I go to, when they shared in what happened to us, that helped me personally to carry on with life. Because life carries on no matter what hardships happen. For me on a very personal level, it was very difficult because it was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I was at Yad Vashem going to present a workshop on how to preserve memory, the memory of my parents, and then my grandson got killed so I went to the funeral instead of giving the workshop, so there is a great personal involvement which I am trying to learn to live with. My son and my grandchildren, everybody who cares about me helped. I don't withhold it when I meet other people, I talk about it. It's a part of my life, it affected me deeply and people understand that it affected me deeply, and with that we let it rest.

  • What do you think is the most important thing to achieve here for the future?

    To be able to live and let live, in respect. I don't want to say in peace, because that is an empty word and there is nothing behind it. But to be allowed to live as I want to live; to allow the other to live as he wants to live and to respect that the differences in our ways of life and our beliefs should not come between us.

  • Did your grandson's death ever make you think it was useless to go on doing the interfaith work?

    No, no. no. That's not part of my way of thinking. I mean it was difficult for the first few weeks to get back to day-to-day life, but that's something that is understandable. It took me some time to go out to do the shopping and to do the cooking and to leave the house, but step-by-step I had to carry on with life.

  • Is there anything else that you want to talk about?

    I wish people from abroad would see us in the light of a human being rather than a political entity. Because we are first and foremost and right at the bottom and right at the top, human beings. I think that anyone who has been here to Israel begins to realize that they didn't understand what it's all about from far away. And anybody who enters my home realizes who I am, and I'm no longer an anonymous number. So I think people who think they know the answer to all of our troubles, they should come first and meet us, and then maybe they'll be able to help us cope better with life. Because there is no one answer.

  • With all the troubles here, would you ever think of living anywhere else?

    Are you joking! Never in my life. I told you that my parents in desperation were even willing to send me to America to be adopted, and it didn't work out. So eventually I came to England with the Kindertransport, and I came here with the first opportunity in June '45. A couple of days ago I got documents that said eventually they had found a place that would adopt me in America. And I didn't really react. The woman who had discovered them through research was so excited about finding my name, and she said, "Aren't you sorry that you didn't go to America?" and I said, "A hundred horses wouldn't bring me to America." Even if I had gone to America, I already knew then that I wanted to come to Israel, Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel]. I was a Zionist, I was in a Zionist youth movement. And as a young girl, I realized that this was where I could live my Judaism. When I first came to the Land of Israel in 1945, which was in those days the British Mandate called Palestine, we lived next to Arab villages, to Arab towns, and there was communication, they sold us things, and we sold them things, and there was quite a lot of mutuality. I am grateful to say that all of my children and grandchildren live here and hopefully will carry on doing so for many more generations.