Crossing the cultural divide between Arabs and Jews

I grew up in a home with socialist values. We were a secular family with a strong Jewish cultural upbringing. … Continued

I grew up in a home with socialist values. We were a secular family with a strong Jewish cultural upbringing. I was brought up to believe that Jewish values meant understanding the meaning of suffering and inequality and trying to change that in the world. In the 1960’s I moved to Israel to study at Hebrew University. Israel was a young country. There was one traffic light in Jerusalem and the Zionist culture of the time could have been more idealistic.

I saw Zionism as an enlightened, ethical culture. As a society that had risen from the ashes of the Holocaust to become a strong and independent nation, I believed in Israel’s aim to create a modern and inclusive society. We took pride in making Arabs citizens of Israel and shared democracy as a Jewish value.

In reality, Israeli culture was based mainly on western lifestyle and even the cuisine was dominated by European Ashkenazi-Jewish flavors. As Jews in Israel tried to shed their pale exteriors and memories of the past for a darker, more powerful image, ironically the Jewish-Arab culture was rejected as it was associated with “the Enemy.”

When I moved back to America in the late 1960s I witnessed American Jewish society stand up for civil rights. We took pride in caring for other minorities. We understood the pains of racial prejudices, being second-class citizens, and not feeling welcome or a part of mainstream society.

As I continued to visit Israel with my husband, Saul, I began to notice a departure from these core Jewish values that I was so proud of. Israel lost its empathy for its minority populations. More than that, it rejected the culture and flavors of diversity. The Arab culture had no place in this modern democracy.

Seven years ago, I established the Other Israel Film Festival in an attempt to bring stories and visions of Arab culture in Israel into the mainstream, and to foster peace and understanding between these cultures, which I feel can and must learn to live together. After founding the festival, I very quickly befriended Mohammad Bakri, Israel’s most celebrated Arab-Israeli actor who shared my vision and became a partner in the initiative. He immediately invited me to his village for a taste of real Arab hospitality.

The road to Be’ina village in the Galilee was filled with potholes, the streets has no signs, but when I arrived at his house, I was amazed at the beauty and grace of his home. His wife Laila opened the door and her heart at the same time. The moment we entered, inviting odors enveloped the room and soon we were seated at the big outdoor table in his large courtyard surround by his six children. On the table were salads of all kinds, hummus, baba ganoush, fatoush, olives and eggplants stuffed and not stuffed.

Bakri sternly instructed me to take some pita which is the only bread eaten in Arab homes and has to be freshly baked. It scoops up the salads and whatever else. I was stuffed and could barely eat a drop more, but Bakri and his wife kept filling my plate and guilted me over any bit of food I would not eat. I felt at home, and discovered that the concept of the Jewish mother is universal after all.

Over the next six years, I would eat many meals with his family. When he comes to New York we cook together and invite all of our friends. The part of his culture that I have embraced most is the concept of community that defines the family meal. Food, like film, embodies the triumph of the human spirit to share, to learn from each other and to blend and rejoice in the riches of different cultures. In the years we have cooked together I have learned much from Bakri, and although he won’t admit it I have taught him a thing or two. That’s the way it should work, two friends cooking talking, arguing and having a ball. I believe that sharing food, films and cultural experiences together can be a simple recipe for getting back to human understanding at the most basic level. Today, Israeli cuisine is a proud fusion of Arab and Jewish flavors – an example of successful coexistence of cultures.

My personal relationship with the Jewish faith embraces friendship, compassion, kindness and the sanctity of human life. These are the values I carry with me in my life – so does Bakri. I hope and trust that the tide of Israeli culture and politics will return home to these values which I cherish and on which the country was established, and which have brought me peace with my friends and global neighbors.

The Other Israel Film Festival opened in New York City on Thursday and ends Nov15. Films will screen at The JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave., and the Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St., in New York. The festival offers nationwide access to select films and conversations on its streaming site.

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