November 26, 2006

Another perspective - from a friend


Liz David is the American wife of an Israeli citizen, a Christian Arab from the Galilee - they now live in Florida. While talking to her and her husband about my recent trip to Israel, I thought her perspective on things might be interesting. I have encouraged her to start her own blog - I hope she does. When she does, I'll publish the link to it.

She has - read it at Through American Eyes.

My first visit to Israel was a year after my Florida wedding, and I was still a new bride. I knew something of the Holy Land, but not much beyond the essentials of history of the country and the difference between Christian, Muslim, and Jew.

The intifadah, or uprising of the Palestinians in the West Bank had just begun. But all was quiet in the Northern Galilee.

NazarethGrowing up a Christian Arab in Israel, my husband attended the Baptist School in Nazareth and learned to read, write, and speak Arabic, Hebrew, and English fluently. His classmates were other Arab children - Christian and Muslim - from affluent families. My husband, a social, easy-going type of individual, had a variety of friends.

During my first visit, I met one such friend, Omar Toom. Omar was an aspiring businessman, who managed his in-laws' baklava bakery shop. Omar was also a Muslim. He did not have a beard, or flowing robes, and used to drink alcohol during his teenage years.

Omar was newly married as well, to a lovely young woman named Sue-Sue. She was pretty and well dressed in the latest styles. One afternoon my husband and I visited the Toom home, just furnished with gorgeous European furniture. Omar and Sue-Sue lived in a Muslim neighborhood, next door to immediate family. Later that evening, the four of us drove to Tiberias for a delicious dinner of St. Peter’s fish and appetizers. Afterward, we took a short sight-seeing cruise on the Sea of Galilee.

Those were happy days and we were two couples lucky in love.

At the end of my stay, Omar and Sue-Sue walked up the steep hill on a primarily Christian street and sat on my in-law’s porch with us. They gave us a gift of baklava from their store and we said a tearful goodbye.

Then came the Ayatollah Khomeini—a time of Islamic revival and influence.

During the last several years, I’ve returned to Israel for weddings, baptisms, or just to visit. Omar brought Sue-Sue and his two children to see me once since our first meeting in 1989.

Sue-Sue now covers her beautiful hair and wears the 'abayah (a robe, worn over her regular street clothes). She is no longer allowed to sit outside with our family and friends. During that brief visit, out of courtesy to Sue-Sue, I went inside the house and sat with her, admiring her blond-haired children. The Muslim women in Sue-Sue’s neighborhood are all covered now, even the little girls who skip together in the street. Some of their husbands have long beards, wear Muslim caps and long flowing traditional robes.


Before the 1990’s there was no cable television, no satellite dishes, no (rumor has it) money from Iran. Now, Arabic-language stations with conservative imams (religious Muslim leaders) are regularly seen on televisions in Muslim homes. The programming seen there incites Muslims to set themselves apart from their Jewish and Christian neighbors. They seek to define themselves as a culture within Israel that shows solidarity with the Islamic world.

There is also tremendous pressure to conform to society in the Middle East, especially within Islam. If the neighbor’s wife covers her hair and body, then so must you.

This ideology indeed sets the Muslim apart from the Christian. We do not think alike, nor do we look alike. Gone are the days when most Nazarenes had a similar appearance and lifestyle. Respect and friendship held peoples together.

Today, appearance - a cross worn around the neck, or a cover for the hair - is the deciding factor of whether one will be hated or accepted.

This problem is not just in the Middle East—it is found the world over.


Some background: Who am I - who are we?

As a child I was fascinated with exotic cultures, food, and traditions. Ideas that are strange to most Americans are considered intriguing and worth investigating for me. This has led to a harmonious relationship between my husband’s family and their foreign daughter-in-law.

In 1989 I made my first visit to Israel, wanting to soak up and view firsthand the subcultures of native Holy Land societies. One opportunity presented itself while traveling across the country from Nazareth to Haifa with my father-in-law, husband, and sister-in-law. I happened to see a Bedouin tent. Expressing my longing to perhaps meet Bedouin one day, my father-in-law (being the best guide in the Galilee) told my husband to pull off the road. The rectangular burlap type tent stood a quarter mile off the paved road in a green grassy field, with a small pickup truck and loose chickens scurrying about. Nervously I asked if Abu Ra'uf, my father-in-law, knew these people? No, he did not.

Somewhat shocked to see an American woman in white pants and red lipstick get out of the car, the traditionally hospitable nomads received us. After the headman of the family served us strong Turkish coffee in the main partition of the tent, he questioned my husband. Was I his wife? Where did he live? Was Ra’uf, my husband, proud to be an Arab?

Even the Bedouin found my husband to be rather perplexing. In the United States, the question Ra’uf always is asked is, “What are you?”

The Christians of the Holy Land define themselves as the descendants of the first community of believers who followed Jesus Christ. It is a notable fact that many of them have Biblical surnames: David, Gideon, Isaac, Abraham, Khuri (priest), Tuma (Thomas), Daniel, Najjar (carpenter).

The majority of these Christians are Roman Catholic, with accompanying denominations of Baptists, Maronites, Greek Melkites, Church of Christ, and my husband’s family, Greek Orthodox. They have kept and protected the Christian holy sites for 2,000 years throughout various incursions and occupations.

These Christians within the Green Line (Israel proper) are 120,000 in number, and another 42,000 live outside the line under the Palestinian Authority. Of that nunmber, some 2,000 are in Gaza and the remainder on the West Bank.

Those from both Palestine and Israel may refer to themselves as Palestinian, Arab, Christian Arab, or Christian Palestinian. The Israelis also may call themselves Israelis or Israeli Christian, depending on their point of view.

Christians from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries usually consider themselves to be Arabs, because they speak Arabic and follow Arabic cultural traditions. This is not synonymous with Islam. Perhaps they cook the same foods, wear similar styles of clothing, and dance the dabkah (a circular line dance).

Confusing it is! I suppose it’s like being a Native American in China!

Today most Americans assume that all Arabs are Muslim, and all Israelis are Jews. It amazes me to hear from American Jews that because my husband is a Christian and an Israeli, he must be a Christian convert from Judaism!

Christian Arabs are peaceful, educated people. They have been emigrating to the United States for over 100 years. Because of persecution, they have moved to almost every imaginable spot in the world. Our family alone has immediate relatives in Jordan, Israel, Palestine, England, Germany, Australia, Canada, South America, and the United States.

The numbers of Christians in the Middle East are dwindling - it is a dying culture. They have been pushed out by extremists and inhospitable governments. They extricate themselves for the sake of their children. Eventually, the only patrons the Holy Land churches will have will be the tourists.

At this time, Christians in Israel are of two minds: cut and run or hold our own and fight for our rights. Many walk the fence and hold a coveted second citizenship, reserved for an emergency flight. Those who must stay have recently begun a movement, declaring themselves to be a distinct people, separate from Muslim Arabs.

Increasingly, Palestinian Christians too are caught in a stranglehold between Islam and Israel. Their homes’ roofs are used by militants to shoot at Israelis, who in return fire tank shells back. A home I once visited had bullet holes in the front door and a baby inside. Desiring to keep terrorists out of Israel, a security wall has been built, which restricts families from crossing the street to school, work, or to see Grandma.

Because Christians have no country of their own, they are assimilating primarily into Western cultures. There is safety in the West. Someone recently told me, “Keep America safe for us!”