As a second grader, I broke the color barrier at a white private school in Apartheid-era Johannesburg, South Africa. On the first day of school, my mom gave me some motherly advice: Find the smartest kid and befriend him. That smartest kid happened to be Marc Weinberg, a Jewish bloke with brown hair and freckles whose parents were involved in the Johannesburg theatre scene.
Marc and I even collaborated on a small stage production of our own. We put on a play for our class that re-enacted a battle in the Crusades. I wrote a script, and Marc made costumes with his dad's help. I think I played Salahuddin to Marc's Richard the Lion-Hearted; we ended with a mock swordfight for Jerusalem. The gentile kids loved it, even though our acting was atrocious and we hadn't completely memorized our badly written lines.
Soon, our mothers became friends. One day Marc's mom gave mine a manual on raising kids compiled by a South African Zionist women's group. My mom claims she heeded the book's advice in raising me--and so I can claim that my mom raised me as a Zionist.
No, she didn't teach me to sing "Hatikvah," and I can't read Hebrew, but I do like bagels and lox, I can pronounce "Hanukkah" correctly, and I once painted stage backdrops for a "Fiddler on the Roof" production.
More important, for my mother, the Zionist womens' manual embodied Jewish values that Muslims in my family and community admired: an emphasis on education and the quest for learning, strong family ties and community networks, mutual assistance, and discipline.
Muslims respected Jews for the way they helped each other, stuck together, got educated, and were paragons of success. Indeed, Muslims yearned for the day when our community could achieve the same.
In South Africa, unrest was growing in the townships. Stone-throwing black kids our age were being killed in the streets or detained and tortured. The guns used to kill them included Galil assault rifles, licensed to South Africa by Israel. Just as in the Occupied Territories today, the funerals for those killed became mass protests that resulted in more killing. Funerals thus came to sustain the unrest, as a new mass movement emerged out of cemeteries, community halls, churches, and mosques. Amazingly, the white students at the school I attended were oblivious to the rising tide of struggle against apartheid. Marc and I spoke neither about the color divide that separated us under apartheid nor about our religious identities. He knew that I was Muslim and non-white, and I knew that he was Jewish and white.
My mother, for her part, continued to raise me like a good Zionist Jewish mother.
When I was 10 years old, my family immigrated to the United States. Following my mom's wisdom, I befriended the smartest kid again: a Jewish boy named Elie Finegold.
Once, I spent a Shabbat with Elie and his family. At the Friday dinner, Elie recited prayers in Hebrew, and we broke challah and had some good chow. We prayed for peace in the Middle East; Leon Klinghoffer had just been killed by Palestinian hijackers on the Achille Lauro. After dinner, all the Finegold kids put on a talent show. Elie and I did a hard-rock air-guitar version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."
The next morning, I accompanied the Finegolds to the Shabbat service at the Herzl Ner Tamid synagogue in an affluent suburb of Seattle, Washington.
The rabbi spoke about Abraham and his two sons, Ismail and Isaac. I don't know if the rabbi knew that a little Muslim boy was sitting in the temple pews that day, because he laid it out. There was a simple biblical explanation to the conflict in the Middle East. The Arabs, descendents of Ismail, were cursed and cunning. Being labelled cursed and cunning by the Torah is big stuff; you obviously can't have peace with such a people.
I think the Finegolds pretended not to hear what their rabbi was saying, because we didn't bring it up afterward. I was unsettled and scarred, of course. I had an epiphany of sorts" I had been "Othered" royally.
The Israelis, with their Bell AH-1 Cobra and McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships firing Hughes Tow anti-tank missiles at Palestinians with stones and 1950s rifles, may have an overwhelming asymmetry in their weapons. But, judging from their rhetoric, rabbis and imams share an eerie symmetry in their pulpit demagoguery.
Breakthroughs on the spiritual and theological fronts by Muslims and Jews need to be achieved before peace can be had and violence quelled. Political handshakes and deals in the absence of serious spiritual dialogue and an earnest quest for justice will be meaningless.
Until a mode of peace and understanding between religious Jews and religious Muslims of all stripes can be brokered, peace will be no more substantive than a mirage in the Negev desert.
I know real peace is possible, because I know that Muslims and Jews have lived together in peace for centuries before, and because many of my own best memories of my childhood were spent with my Jewish friends.
Today, however, real peace will be attained only through atonement, reconciliation, and--above all--through the brave leadership and scholarship of wise and sincere Jews and Muslims.
Real peace will come, then, when the recognition of the dispossession of 1948, respect for the sacred geography of Jerusalem and other sites, and the right of return of the refugees are accepted and reconciled.
Real peace will come when the arrogant, demonic dimensions of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are forever exorcised.
Real peace will come when the Qur'an and Hadith, and Torah and Talmud, become the blueprints of peace and coexistence that they are.
Until then, Israeli violence, Palestinian blood, a phony peace process, and sermons about the cursed and the cunning will prevail.
I know; I was raised as a Zionist. Allahu `Alam. And God knows best.