Peace in an Arab Village

BENNARD B. PERLMAN

November 22, 1990|By Bennard B. Perlman

TAMRA, ISRAEL — THE BRIGHT RED of the Fiat sedan, bearing two American Jewish tourists and four Israeli Jews, announced its arrival at this Arab village just as boldly as the four loudspeakers at a nearby mosque issued forth the Moslem call to prayer. As the visitors' car slowly wound its way through narrow streets in this all-Arab enclave in northern Israel, it passed mostly stuccoed homes, some obviously aged, where a second or third floor had been added to accommodate the family members of a married son or daughter.

The car stopped in front of a two-level edifice near the very top of this hillside town of 18,000, located in the western Galilee between Haifa and Akko. Ahmed Mustafa Diab, his wife Mofeedie and their daughter-in-law Najwah, cuddling her month-old son, were all smiles as they cordially exchanged the customary kisses on both cheeks with Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Be'er Sheba, formerly of Baltimore, his wife Dina, a native of western Pennsylvania, their two young sons, Yoel and Hanan, and his parents (my wife and myself) from Baltimore.

Ahmed directed his guests to the living room where all removed their shoes and sat like one large family on an area rug known as a frash arabi, drinking golden orange fruit juice. In a way the rabbi and his wife were family, for she had first come to this village 11 years ago as an Intern for Peace, had returned annually since then, and had even sought and received the usual permission from her Arab ''parents'' to marry her fiance.

Dina was among the initial group of Interns for Peace sent out in 1979 by the non-political, community-based organization to bridge the gap and challenge stereotypes between Israeli Arabs and Jews. Their successes, like hers, have helped chip away at the ignorance, hostility and fear which still grip the residents of the state of Israel. Though Israeli Arabs constitute about one-sixth of the country's population, many Israeli Jews fail to differentiate between them and Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza. Few Israeli Jews ever visit an Arab village such as Tamra, and American Jewish visitors here are practically unheard of.

Although perhaps 85 percent of Israeli Arabs understand and speak Hebrew, since, as citizens of the State of Israel, they learn it in school, at most only one-quarter of Israeli Jews can understand Arabic. Thus they are forever threatened by the ''foreign'' tongue which is heard in the streets, on radio and television.

When Dina first began working in Tamra, she was looked upon with a questioning eye by Jews and Arabs alike. Why had a then-single Jewish college graduate from the U.S. decided to come to an Arab village in Israel? But after she established the first day-care center, which eventually blossomed into a network, questioning from the Arabs ceased. For her part the going was tough, especially until she mastered Arabic. ''Sometimes similar-sounding words got mixed up, such as 'goat' and 'revered grandmother,' 'elder' and 'cucumber,' and 'bus' and 'underpants','' she laughingly recalled.

As we sat in Ahmed's comfortable home, my own thoughts drifted back to concerns by other family members and friends who had sought to dissuade us from making the trip to Israel less than two weeks after the invasion of Kuwait, when the entire region was initially poised for war. What would they think, I wondered, if they knew of our present whereabouts?

Soon the two families were on their way in two cars to Achziv, a Mediterranean seaside town, for lunch and swimming. The location was picturesque, dotted by the remains of a Phoenician port and a Roman fort. There were probably an equal number of Christians, Arabs and Jews enjoying the sun, sea and sand, but one could not be certain of the count as bathers, sitting in beach attire, looked so much alike.

Just three miles to the north, over a ridge of mountains, was the border of Lebanon, yet no one except the pair of Americans seemed to bother looking up when an Israeli gunboat came into view, moving lazily along the coast as it had for years, turning in a large, slow circle opposite the caves of Rosh Hanikra to head north again.

On the way back to Tamra, I was invited to ride in Ahmed's car, sitting beside him and freely discussing such subjects as the possibility of war with Iraq (he thought it was inevitable) and stories about his five generations of ancestors who had lived in the village. Ahmed, age 58, has retired both as a truck driver and as a farmer, preferring now to rent out his parcel of land to others.

As we spoke, his 3-year-old granddaughter, Sara, sitting in the seat behind me, rose and toyed with my hair and tickled my neck. When she cried a while later and could not be pacified by her grandparents, it was to the stranger from America that she ran. I picked her up and quelled the rush of tears.

By the time we returned to the village, night had fallen; the living-room door remained open and it was possible to look out into the mysterious darkness.

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