First Impressions… a proud moment

First Impressions
By: Aimee Rubensteen
Posted: 2/11/10
She walks in with a disguised strut. Palestinian. Waiting to hear the “enemy’s” voice, we hold our breaths. Arab. Her hair, inked from our eager pens, borders her sunken eyes that seem to be all knowing. Muslim. She begins with explaining how it may be “harsh to hear” what she is about to say. I laugh it off. Sure, a room full of seminary girls studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem shouldn’t be ready to bolt as an Arab who supports Hamas begins to tell her story.

Nadia Harhash is like any other mother I know. A smile stretches her wrinkles of happiness when she tells us of her three children, the oldest my age, eighteen. It seems ironic that we’re her audience, nothing like her teenage daughter. She’s a ripe thirty-seven and an activist. Her foreign beauty is surprising with her cut up words. Her hollow cheeks tell the memories of Palestinian motherhood. As soon as words escape her mouth my eyes widen and undivided attention has invaded the room. In 2008, during my year of studies at Midreshet Lindenbaum, I decided to take part in a program funded by The David Project after feeling ignorant in my arrival to Israel.

The David Project supported an educational organization that promotes a fact-based understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, delivers a class once a week of factual information or abstract concepts. However, this Israel-Arab Studies program enables students to see both sides of the spectrum of beliefs, enabling them to make their own conclusions. This meeting with an Arab, in particular, couldn’t have been a better way to kick off the year and learn how wrong the preconceived notion that “all Arabs are terrorists” really is. Her presence was welcomed in our school for a peaceful discussion. Maybe we would be able to work together to eliminate the fear held inside each of us.

Of course, I know that, as Harhash proclaimed, “Jerusalem is a holy place.” However, I wasn’t expecting to hear the latter part of the sentence: “because of Muhammad.”

Beginning with the history of Islam, Harhash, a Palestinian professor, spoke with her obvious accent. The harsh way her tongue hit her mouth’s palate and the straining of her throat usually would have brought me anxiousness, but I tried not to judge her. She spoke of the history I have learned every year in school. But hearing it from her perspective seemed like she had been reading from a different textbook. She spoke of a different people. Yes, the Jews’ presence in the Koran is repeated as she asked, “Why would God mention the Jews so much?” She never once puts down the Jews’ importance, although not acknowledging us with the same status today. And the Koran speaks of killing non-believers she bluntly states, but it is almost always taken out of context, when used as propaganda. Just as Hashem commanded the Jews to wipe out Amalek, this can be perceived in the wrong eye. Neither religion can be based on one line. Her points were valid and seemed to burst the bubble some of us seem to live in. After she gave a summarized history, she confessed, “Maybe I’m not so good,” referring to her lack of religious ways. A brief giggle flooded the air. I think we all feel we could strive to be better and more observant in different ways serving God. The relief was the perfect segue from history to present.

Nadia then had an open floor of questions. Questions we’d all had in our heads but never had the opportunity to ask. Do you feel guilty? Do you agree with terrorism? Have you witnessed terror? Have you thought about being a terrorist? Have you been hurt by terror? Is peace possible? Luxury.

The way Nadia speaks of how she is lucky to be able to even come and talk to us after being shunned by certain people is the least of the surprises she has yet to unwrap. She lives in a town in Jerusalem called, Beit Chaninah, and she is clearly educated. As she begins to see our hopeful hearts opening to her, her thin, long piano-like fingers move in motions and sway with her words of her own fear and happiness. She feels a strong connection to the land we both dwell in. Especially Jerusalem, for it is the center of the land and serves as an attraction. Just as with Abraham, for Jesus it is a “holy country.” She fears that the separation between Jews and Palestinians will destroy the country and scares us with her words of voting for Hamas. She believed that neither party was offering a “normal life” and everyone just voted for fundamental reasons. She does not necessarily support Hamas, but she felt she was left with only one of two bad choices. She even understood suicide bombing-until it happened near her daughter’s school. She understands being humiliated to the point where you are nothing and you have nothing left to do in what she calls the “dirty political game.” However, after her own blood was in danger, she would never ever, she says, take part in that inhumane act.

Harhash visited our school for discussion a couple more times that year. Her stance had not changed, yet her voice became etched familiarly in my mind.
She began to be greeted with a “Hello!” from my fellow peers. Although she does not regret voting for Hamas, she is sorrowful about the present.

Having a relationship is the first step in every relationship. Now I correspond through email with Nadia, updating her on my activism as well as inquiring her about her “normal” life. “I don’t blame Israel…it’s only a component,” assures Nadia. The couple of hours that we spent together bonded us in an unimaginable way. Awareness is key now; in Israel; I do not ride public buses by myself or walk around my homeland completely free. The world needs to sit down and speak.

After living for nine months in Jerusalem, myself, I believe that my meetings with Nadia have definitely made the most impact on me. Touring and learning matured my knowledge but speaking freely with Nadia, an Arab woman, has broadened my horizons. As she constantly repeats, “We don’t know what will happen…what will be the end.”
We can only start here.
© Copyright 2010 Yeshiva University Observer


  1. A wonderful tribute, and, to me, not surprising at all that you were able to connect with your students. The words I read in all you have written has clearly demonstrated the strength and scope of your spirituality, intelligence, and compassion…. I hope you feel good about it, because every word is a testament to that spirit, with which I must completely agree….


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