Yonatan Belik, born in Israel to Jewish Australian parents, met a girl and fell in love, just as his parents wanted for him. But then he told them his girlfriend, Heba, was U.S.-Palestinian, something his parents could not, at first, get past.
Belik, along with six others, told his very personal story to a filled back room of Busboys and Poets in the District of Columbia at “The Dove: Stories of Hope amidst Conflict,” a The Moth-like event sponsored by Americans for Peace Now, a liberal pro-Israel group, and New Story Leadership, a leadership training program for young Israelis and Palestinians.
The purpose of the July 20 event was to humanize those in the conflict, said Aaron Mann with Americans for Peace Now, and show how young people experience life in these areas.
“We want people to see there is hope for the future,” he said. “Israelis and Palestinians can’t just coexist, but want to coexist.”
Belik’s story has a mostly happy ending — his parents are adjusting and even invited his girlfriend to Shabbat dinner at their home in Israel while he is in Washington.
“I told her that, with time, my parents would see that everyone is human,” Belik said in describing the first meeting between Heba and his parents. “If I could love [her] as much as I do, they could too. After all, I am a product of them.”
But not everyone’s story ended on such a high note.
Khaled al-Ostath, a 22-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, has been trying for two years to come to Washington for the program with New Story Leadership. It wasn’t even guaranteed he would make it this year — his permits (he had to get five of them) came in at the last minute and he still arrived after the program had already started.
Al-Ostath’s story revolved around his work teaching English to young orphans in Gaza. Books are scarce, he said,
because libraries are crumbling and it is very difficult to bring books into the area.
“War steals the minds of children,” he said.
At one point, some friends of his brought English children’s books back from the United States and into Jerusalem. Al-Ostath had acquired a permit to go meet them and bring back the books. But when he arrived at the checkpoint, the Israeli soldier turned him away, threatening to detain him if he did not comply and suspicious of his intentions in teaching English to children.
And yet, he said, he sees hope for the future. He had a later run-in with that same Israeli soldier who had barred him from going to Jerusalem. This time, the soldier told him he would allow him to bring back some books to Gaza.
No matter the violence or discrimination each speaker had seen, they all said they were hopeful for the future. Hashem Sayed, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, was beaten by an Israeli soldier for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sapir Ifergan, an Israeli from Be’er Sheva, is fighting against the expectations placed on women in the region. Aia Khalaila, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, has lost jobs once employers found out she was Arab. Rawan Odeh, a Palestinian from Brooklyn and Nablus, had a young Jewish man, with whom she had spent several weeks, tell her his mother was scared for him because she thought everyone from Nablus was a terrorist.
Katya Lipovetsky, an Israeli from a Russian-speaking family in Ashdod, a city close to Gaza, spoke of the duality of living in a segregated Jerusalem, a city that, she said, is both beautiful and at war.
“How do you explain it to someone who hasn’t lived it?” she said, although she and her fellow speakers all did their best to do so anyway.
This was the second The Dove event. The first, held last April, featured Israeli, Palestinian and American journalists who were from, or had been stationed in, the region to cover the conflict.
The audience was responsive, gasping, clapping and asking follow-up questions. They asked Belik about how it went when he met his girlfriend’s parents. (It’s a long story, he said, but his relationship with her parents is a constantly improving work in progress.) They asked al-Ostath about how someone could send him books for his young English students, among other questions. (Answer: There isn’t a way yet, but he’s working on it.)
“I’ve learned so much,” said Kathy Baker, who is hosting Al-Ostath at her home while he is in Washington. The other members of the program also have host families. “It’s hard to have hope if you read the newspaper, but I appreciate Palestinians are able to tell their stories. And Israelis, too.”