When I was 13 I told my parents that I didn't want to have the traditional big Bar Mitzvah
party, I wanted the family to come to Israel. In 1970 I got involved in the Zionist youth movement. I came back to Israel in 1972 and '73, and in '74-75 when I finished high school, I spent the year in Israel. In 1977 I led a leadership training group to Israel, and in '78 I moved here. When I had spent the year here in Israel, I lived half the year in a kibbutz
and half the year in Jerusalem
studying. I came back [to the US] to work in the Zionist youth movement camp that summer, and I had a big map of Israel on my wall next to my bed at the summer camp, and I had it marked in the different places that I had visited and things like that. One day I was looking at the map and I noticed that someone had come in and drawn the Green Line on the map, which hadn't been there. And then all of sudden I realized that I had spent almost a whole year in Israel, and not once during that whole year did I ever talk to an Arab. All of a sudden it made me aware that something was very wrong.I got back from the summer camp and started university and I immediately started eating up books that were the alternative to the books I was reading during the days of my involvement in the Zionist movement,
like, "What's Wrong with Zionism" and "Arabs and the State of Israel," and the "Arab Israeli conflict." I must have read a hundred books that first year.
In any event, I got very involved in Leftist Jewish politics. In my multiple visits to Israel, trying to talk to my relatives in Israel and other friends in Israel, I was always attacked by them telling me, you know, "You're some stupid naive American, you don't understand anything." The sentence that got me more than anything else, and I heard it hundreds of times, was, "You don't know them—" them of course being the Arabs. It didn't occur to me to ask them, at that time, "Well, do you know them? When was the last time you actually spoke to a Palestinian?" I wasn't knowledgeable or aware enough about Israeli society to be able to challenge them with that kind of a sentence. But it became clear to me that if I was going to do anything meaningful in Israel as an Israeli that I would have to gain the kind of credibility that could not be contested.When I finished by BA in September/October of '78 I came to Israel in the framework of Interns for Peace. I was in Kibbutz Barkai
for a six-month training program and then went to live in Kufur Kara
for two years. I finished Interns For Peace, and I came to the conclusion that the work of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel was something that had to be done at the governmental level, something that the state of Israel had to take responsibility for.
I had done a little study and found out that there wasn't a single civil servant in the entire civil service of Israel who was responsible for improving Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. So I convinced the government of Israel to hire me and I became the first employee in the state of Israel whose responsibility it was to work on the improvement of Jewish-Arab relations. I got a position in the Ministry of Education, which eventually led to the establishment of the Department for Democracy and Coexistence in the Ministry of Education. A year later, through the Ministry and the Prime Minister's office, I was asked to develop an educational institute for Jewish-Arab coexistence, which I directed. It was independent, but it was linked to the Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister's office.The first intifada broke out in the end of November of '87.
I, like most Israelis, was struck that something very different was happening. It took the Palestinians 25 years to create an uprising, and I had been doing teacher training on Jewish-Arab coexistence and of course had to confront the issue of the intifada. Even though it wasn't about Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, it was what the teachers were concerned about when we were doing these teacher-training programs, and I was struck by the tremendous lack of information and the tremendous ignorance that existed in the Israeli public. I was struck by the fact that something monumental was happening and I really wanted to understand it. I began reading the political leaflets that were being distributed by what was called the United Leadership of the intifada.
One Saturday morning I decided that I was going to go and meet Palestinians and find out first hand what was going on. I had a little motorcycle, a little Vespa, and I rode to Dheisheh Refugee Camp. These were the days when you could move around, even though they were throwing stones! I took the risk and I drove into the refugee camp. There's an UNRWA school at the entrance of the camp. I took off my helmet and these young people came up to me immediately, and with my minimal Arabic that I spoke then I told them that I was an Israeli and that I wanted to learn about the intifada from their eyes, from their perspective. We stood there talking for about 20 minutes and then one of the people invited us to go to his home and talk. About 30 other people joined along, I spent about 6 hours in Dheisheh. This was in the beginning of March 1988. I was buzzing with energy and excitement because I heard things there that I had never heard from Palestinians before.