Visiting Ramallah
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Visiting Ramallah

Recently a group of Harvard students, funded by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, were criticized all over social media for visiting the grave of Yasser Arafat, and for seeming, at least to some onlookers, to have turned the visit into a photo opportunity.

So I flash back to 2004, when my daughter DeDe was a student intern for something called the Sulha Festival. (The word “sulha” is the Arab equivalent of the Hebrew “slicha,” forgiveness.)

DeDe worked with Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, and Christians on the festival, which that year was held not far from Tel Aviv. The festival combined art, song, drama, and music, and most of all peaceful discussion among people of different backgrounds. Primarily it was people talking, focusing on peace and justice.

I remember being proud of DeDe for the work she was doing, and I also remember being able to view the festival streaming on the Internet.

A day or two after the festival concluded, my wife and I were on vacation at the ocean when my cellphone started ringing at about 6 a.m.

I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was DeDe’s phone number in Israel. Before I said hello, I asked, “Why are you calling so early?”

DeDe answered: “You’ll never believe where I’m sitting.” I told her to tell me, and after telling me not to worry, she said that she was in Ramallah, having tea in a cafe.

“Where?” I wanted to make sure I was hearing this right.

“Ramallah, dad,” she said. “I’m sitting in a café directly across the street form Yasser Arafat’s compound.”

I could feel my blood pressure rise a bit. I still have images of brutal killings of IDF soldiers who strayed into Ramallah in my head.

DeDe was with the Sulha organizers. It was past lunchtime, and they were hungry. Yes, they went through a checkpoint, and DeDe and another intern, a woman of Arabic background, stuck together like glue, following their older colleagues into Ramallah.

While they were in the café, everyone stood up and applauded, DeDe told me.

Why? At the entrance of a small group of people who had met with Arafat the day before and openly criticized him for trying to put all the blame on Israel for the average Palestinian’s economic misery. The corrupt Palestinian government was more to blame, they said.

So let’s get something clear about the Harvard students. They were not in Ramallah to pay homage to Arafat. They were there because at least some Jewish organizations take groups on trips through Israel and the West Bank; the trips’ unofficial name is “Israel, warts and all.”

It takes information-gathering to gain a perspective on what is happening in Israel, from the settlements being built in occupied territories to the struggles undertaken by those Israelis and Palestinians who do want peace and a two-state solution.

As Jews and Zionists, sometimes we’re loathe to see and admit that there are difficult stories connected with checkpoints and the wall separating Israel from the West Bank.

Those who criticize the Combined Jewish Philanthropies should do their homework on this organization. It does not need to defend its track record of support for Israel to anyone. Whatever they call the mission, Birthright or a student trek, CJP cannot be criticized if it offers students different ways to study an issue important to Israel.

Maybe it was unwise for the Harvard students to have their photograph taken in Ramallah. But there’s a heck of a lot worse going in this world than a bunch of Jewish students in a group picture at Arafat’s burial place.

Getting back to my daughter DeDe – I’m proud of her for opening up avenues of dialogue with people who didn’t grow up as she did or believe as she does.

The young Muslim woman who was working with DeDe is named Habiba. My daughter’s Hebrew name is Chaviva. In Arabic and in Hebrew, the name means “beloved.”

They were two young women with the same name – and with the same purpose.

Peace between their people, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or even Ramallah.

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