In the fall of our senior year in high school, Noam underwent an intensive surgery to remove a benign tumor attached to the left side of his brain. The operation required months of recovery, during which friendly visits had to be limited in length and intermittent in frequency. In order to provide Noam with a constant connection to those outside his nuclear family during his recovery, his mom created a scrapbook to contain contributions from friends and family. For his page, Hani chose to write Noam this letter:
First, let me start off by congratulating you on a successful surgery, your courage is an inspiration for us all. You’ve had, and continue to have my thoughts and prayers for a positive surgery and speedy recovery.
Second, I’d like to tell you a story that I’ve shared with no one, perhaps because it only relates to you and our friendship. Talking to my cousins in Lebanon over the summer, they expressed great surprise when I mentioned in passing that I had an Israeli friend back home. They viewed it almost as a betrayal to the Palestinian cause. I dismissed them with claims that, “it’s different in America” without really providing any substance to my argument. Later, when reflecting on that moment, I wished that I could find the proper way to articulate how on one side of the Earth our peoples can fight a generations-long war without an end in sight, and in America, you and I can be close friends.
I have always felt some connection to you Noam, perhaps because of how similar our heritage actually is. We share similar foods, cultures, and some would even argue our ancestors have shared the same land. At no point did I feel this connection more than during the recent fighting in Gaza at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009. As we collaborated, discussed, and debated the causes and solutions to the conflict, it struck me what a beautiful paradox we were living. A war between our peoples in fact brought us here in America closer together. Perhaps if I had shared this with my cousins, it would have simply left them even more dumbfounded, for I doubt they could comprehend how such a thing could ever happen. However, for me, this anecdote provides the articulation necessary to explain the possibility of our friendship that I knew in my heart all along.
The only barriers between Israelis and Arabs are abstract ones of religion and past events. In America, we carry the physical burdens of neither of those. We live in safe houses, we are religiously tolerant, and we did not fight over land. With these abstract barriers removed, we realize that people are simply people, and animosity between them is not inherited but rather forced upon them by their geopolitical standing in the world. Israelis and Arabs are not inherent enemies doomed to grapple with each other until the end of time. In fact, our friendship represents the great possibility for two cultures’ compatibility and proof that conflict between the two can be solved.
I look forward to seeing you soon and hanging out with you more than before your surgery!
Hani Nicholas Azzam
Fall 2010 ”
This letter now serves as the inspiration for “Until Next Year in Jerusalem.” Through a public correspondence between an Israeli-American and a Palestinian-American, we intend to explore the possible roles for Israeli and Palestinian-Americans whose ancestors lived on opposite sides of the conflict. We have also included weekly news stories aimed at informing our readers (and ourselves) of the conflict as it develops. Obviously, the views expressed in the letters only represent our individual opinions and cannot alone solve the conflict. However, we hope that through our letters, we can examine the following:
a) The role that American citizens can and should play in resolving the conflict
b) The difference of historical narrative between Palestinians and Israelis
c) How removing the conflict from its geopolitical arena to a place with religious tolerance, economic and political parity, and geographic agreement can lead to more productive dialogue
d) Moments where we feel uncomfortable or enlightened; why do they happen, what do we learn from them, and how do they change our views moving forward?
e) A reconsideration of current wisdom concerning every aspect of the conflict, from its historical construction to its future implications
On top of examining the above, we hope our correspondence encourages open dialogue between individuals on both sides across America. People fear having this conversation for a multitude of reasons, probably immeasurable on any type of spectrum. While some may fear the uncertainty and self-reflection imperative when openly discussing Israel and Palestine, others may fear their portrayal as normalizers or as willing to compromise away Palestinian or Israeli rights. Those with direct, ground-level knowledge of the conflict may worry that dialogue between equals in the U.S. misrepresents the unequal power balance existing in the region today, while another subset may simply fear the social repercussions of expressing their personal views honestly and openly.
Until Next Year in Jerusalem aims to create that uncertainty and uncomfortability and to explore it, to find where we may have erred in our convictions or how to remodel them into a more substantial foundation. We also believe that conversation does not necessitate compromise. Sincere and honest, public conversation has the power not only to convey knowledge, emotion, and narrative to a reader, but also re-formulate beliefs of its writers by forcing them to engage new ideas. This does not require “compromise” as an end goal, nor does it betray the imparity of the current conflict. We choose to have this conversation precisely because of our relative equality. We have the great fortune of enjoying a privilege not afforded to many, thus we must take advantage of it to further a discussion largely impossible in Palestine / Israel itself. To not do so would be a disservice to the notion that Palestinians and Israelis can co-exist, as equals under conditions and protections similar to our rights as American citizens.
We understand firsthand the challenges of these types of discussions as they have led to arguments and harsh words amongst ourselves, but we know resolutions can only be reached and mutual understanding and respect and only be achieved through open communication. In this vein, we end each of our posts with “Until Next Year in Jerusalem” symbolizing our shared hope of visiting a Jerusalem free from tension and conflict, where we can walk side by side as friends and equals.
Please feel free to comment on our posts and contact us directly with your thoughts and opinions.
Noam and Hani