I was brought up in a big Muslim family, immersed in a Muslim community and culture. If you had told me then, a Palestinian kid from Gaza, that I would end up in the U.S. living with a Jewish family, who are just as concerned about the reality of my life in Gaza as me, I would’ve said you were fantasizing.
As a kid, I would accompany my dad to the mosque to pray. I loved the idea of praying with hundreds of people, but at the same time, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just imitated my dad and other worshippers. I was oblivious to the meaning of our prayers until primary school, when my religion teacher described the word "Islam" as "Salam," meaning peace in Arabic.
My teacher’s words about Islam stuck in my mind for a long time, and made me fall in love with my religion. However, I also wanted to know more about other religions. I'm a curious guy: my grandfather (God bless his soul) exclaimed to me on his deathbed – "You just want to know everything!")
In school I was taught that Islam came after two main religions, Christianity and Judaism, and all three are called the Abrahamic faiths. Later on, I learned these came from one God, whose word descended to messengers all related to the prophet Ibrahim.
Studying Christianity, and exposure to Christian practice, was easy for me. About 50,000 Christians live in Palestine, making them a big part of our community, sharing a collective identity and culture. I had the feeling Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters, but I always wondered: why aren’t Jews our brothers and sisters too?
What blurred my understanding of the relationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Palestine was the start of the second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. During that time, I understood and believed that our conflict was with "the Jews," an umbrella term we used to define Israelis. My generation knew nothing about the horror with which some Jews in Israel and many Jews around the world viewed the actions of the Israeli government and military.
I firmly believed that our fight was with Judaism.
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Clearly I was not alone. My school friend told me once that his mother used to tell him, "The Jews will come get you," whenever he misbehaved. She meant Israeli soldiers, who walked the streets of Gaza during the first Intifada.
My grandfather had a farm in the east of the Gaza Strip, and it’s close to the borders with the land that in 1948 became Israel. My cousin and I went there every Friday. When I stayed late, my cousin would tell me, "Let’s go home early or it will get late and the Jews will shoot us." He meant Israeli soldiers.
The Israeli army attacked several areas of Gaza and killed many in 2013 – and that was between the conflicts of 2012 and 2014. During that time, some Arab countries showed solidarity with us, and went out protesting. While watching the TV news, I saw Yemeni protesters raising Palestinian flags, calling for the death of Jews. I was sure they meant the Israeli army.
In our history books, we learned about the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. My history teacher, who was killed in an Israeli air strike during the 2014 war between Israel and Gaza, told us a few years before his death that every Israeli is Jewish (which I'm now aware is false) but not every Jew is Israeli. I think his words were the first step on my journey to get the answer to my question.
The widespread lack of education in the Arab world regarding the relationship between the three Abrahamic religions, especially Islam and Judaism, creates a huge challenge for Muslim-Jewish relations. When Muslims and Jews meet, even outside of the Middle East, they often feel insecure and suspicious. Even my desire to learn about Jews and Judaism, while living in Gaza, was something I was reluctant to share with others. And if I had never left, I would never have met Jews or Israelis outside of a military confrontation. I would always have been scared of them.
This is what I felt during my time at university in Gaza. I felt self-conscious watching social media clips in Hebrew because I didn’t want people surrounding me to think I was interested in Hebrew culture - Jewish culture. I felt uncomfortable even holding a book about Judaism. Somehow, I still felt that there was something disloyal about wanting to learn about a religion so closely related to mine, but one, I was constantly told, with which we were in conflict.
Then I moved to the U.S. to participate in a leadership program that brings Palestinians and Israelis to Washington D.C. to live together, work together on Capital Hill, and tell their stories to audiences throughout the region. Part of the program includes living with a host family.
It was my destiny to be placed with a Jewish host family. They now consider me their third son. I never in my wildest dreams expected it, but I am sure it was for a reason. I think part of that reason was for me to understand more about Judaism.
Once I found out that my host family would be Jewish, my first thought was how I would explain this to my friends and family. When I started the program and told a friend of mine that I live with Jews, he was surprised and didn’t believe me. "But Jews support the Israeli government that kills you guys."
My first response was that we should not judge people based on the actions of others. I also learned that not every Jew supports the Israeli government and its crimes. Most importantly, I learned that being Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-Palestinian, anti-us.
Not every Arab living in the U.S. understands this distinction. I mentioned my living arrangement to an Arab-American friend, her response was: "I find it ironic looking at your circumstances." This made me realize that many people throughout the world struggle to differentiate between Judaism and the policies and atrocities committed by the Israeli government.
My host parents’ names are Barry and Wendy. They visited Palestine, and saw the separation wall. They visited a refugee camp in the West Bank. They saw Hebron from the Palestinian side and the Israeli side, comparing them, and hung out with Palestinians to hear about life under military occupation. Their visit was on a tour set up by their synagogue. The purpose was to better understand the conflict from all sides.
I know that there are many Jewish organizations that work for peace and for Palestinian self-determination. But listening to real stories from people you live with is different. Interacting with Barry and Wendy widened my understanding about the religion of Judaism and the wide variety of views held by Jewish people.
Every day, this American Jewish family and I sit and talk over food and drinks. In the beginning, we talked mostly about my life in Gaza and about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but recently we started talking about the relationship between Islam and Judaism, and between Muslims and Jews.
I had never read any parts of the Torah or any other Jewish book before I accompanied Barry and Wendy to the Shabbat service at their synagogue. It was my first time entering a synagogue, and my first time seeing Jews wearing kippot. It overwhelmed me in the beginning, until I listened to some verses the rabbi recited about peace, mercy and love. Everyone I met there greeted me with genuine warmth, and I started to feel surprisingly comfortable.
Pondering these experiences over the following days, a realization dawned: politics, not religion, is the true cause of the conflict – that was entirely contrary to the vision of a religious war that both Islamist groups and far right religious settlers both promote.
Being curious about the religion of my unique host family encouraged me to go to the same synagogue to attend a book discussion of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life - in Judaism, written by Sarah Hurwitz, speechwriter to former first lady Michelle Obama. The book seemed to me like a summary of Judaism and Jewish life.
Barry and I have gotten used to asking each other questions – he is as interested in learning about Islam as I am about Judaism. It was my turn to ask and my question was, "What are Jewish beliefs about the afterlife?"
After giving me his expected initial response: "There is a wide range of firmly held and hotly debated beliefs about this among Jews," he asked me to read a few specific pages in one of his books about Judaism. I opened the book and started reading. After a minute, I exclaimed, "We are the same!"
Barry didn’t know what I was talking about. I showed him that afterlife in Islam is described similarly as in Judaism, with slight differences. Even the terms and names used when talking about the afterlife are the same. For example, Ganet Aden is Paradise in Islam, and it’s pronounced almost the same in Arabic and Hebrew. Juhanam, meaning hellfire, is also the same. Massayah [messiah] is another example.
I have been living with Barry and Wendy since June. Every single day I learn something new about Jews and Judaism, and they learn new things about Muslims and Islam. Most often, I am stunned by their similarities. This makes me very sure that we should not judge a group of people based on preconceived notions.
For many people, it is easy and convenient to label the source of our oppression as "Jews," instead of the policies and actions of the Israeli government, because that's a term fundamental to the narrative some groups frequently cultivate. However that assumes that they are the same thing, and they are not.
Through my experiences in the U.S. and my time with Barry and Wendy, I have learned that many Jews, both Israeli and American, are wonderful people who believe in Palestinians’ right to be free. I have also learned that when it comes to religion, Islam and Judaism come from the same source and have more similarities than differences.
But most importantly, I learned to differentiate between the Jewish people and my occupiers.
The reality is that growing up in the open-air prison that is Gaza, witnessing unimaginable atrocities, losing family members and friends, and being stripped of freedom and basic human rights my whole life, has to an extent excused my ignorance of the Jewish people.
I was recently invited for the same Shabbat to two big synagogues, one in Virginia and one in Maryland, and I struggled to decide to which I should go. It was an ironic - and certainly unusual - dilemma for a Palestinian from Gaza.
I can’t help but think that if I had stayed in Gaza, and never met Wendy and Barry, I would still have the same mind-set I had, and many Gazans have, about Jews. I'd also like to think that, as the first Gazan, if not the first Palestinian, many Jews have met, I've managed to break down some of their preconceptions and stereotypes, too.
Mohammad M. is a Palestinian writer and peace activist from Gaza currently residing in the U.S.