The Word Among Us

February 2004 Issue

A Tree Grows in Ramle

How one house has become a place of hope and unity between Jews and Palestinians.

By: Kevin Perrotta

As a girl, Dalia felt there was a mystery about her family's home. She loved the high ceilings and large windows, the stone facade, and the walled garden, where a lemon tree grew. Who had built this house? What had become of them?

Dalia's parents, the Ashkenazis, had come to Israel from Bulgaria in 1948, when she was an infant. The government placed them, along with other Jewish immigrants, in this house in Ramle, near Tel Aviv. After a while, the other families moved out, and Dalia's father, Moshe, bought the house from the government. In the garden, he planted a shady jacaranda—a tree with showy blue flowers.

Dalia's questions about the house unexpectedly received an answer one day in July 1967. A man in his mid-twenties named Bashir Al-Khayri and two other Arab men rang the bell at the front gate. When Dalia invited them in, Bashir explained that his father had built the house in 1930, but the family was forced to leave in July 1948 when the Israeli army forcibly removed the Arab population of Ramle. Since then the Al-Khayris had been living in exile in Ramallah, in an area of Palestine governed by Jordan. With the occupation of this area by Israel in June 1967, it became possible for the first time for him to return and see again the house he had known as a child.

Bashir invited Dalia to visit his family in Ramallah. After experiencing their hospitality, she invited the Al-Khayris to visit her family in Ramle. By this time, Bashir's father, Ahmed, had lost his sight. On his visit, he walked through the house, running his hand along its stone walls. Then he went out to the garden to touch the lemon tree that he had planted, and wept.

A House for Healing. In the years after Dalia met Bashir, her parents died, leaving the house to her. She married an American immigrant to Israel, Yehezkel Landau. Bashir took part in a Palestinian militant organization that sought to replace the Jewish state of Israel with a secular government for Jews and Arabs. Arrested in connection with a terrorist bombing, he went to prison.

Meanwhile, meeting the Al-Khayris had started Dalia on a personal journey. "Ever since I met you," Dalia wrote to Bashir some years later, "the feeling has been growing in me that the home was not just my home. The lemon tree which yielded so much fruit and gave us so much delight lived in other people's hearts too. The spacious house with its high ceilings, big windows, and large grounds was no longer just an 'Arab house,' a desirable form of architecture. It had faces behind it now. The walls evoked other people's memories and tears."

Dalia pondered the Al-Khayris' desire to return to their house. "Just as Jews had wanted to come back to this land, with hope and faith, for two thousand years, they surely wanted to come back here after nineteen years. I understood that very deeply," she says. Yet she felt that she also had a right to be in the land and in the house—a right that needed to be recognized.

Dalia and Yehezkel decided that the house that had been owned by the two families should be used somehow to build a relationship between the two peoples who claimed the right to live in the one land.

After Bashir's release, Dalia and Yehezkel discussed the future of the house with him. Bashir suggested that it be devoted to the educational needs of Arab children in Ramle, who generally began school less prepared than their Jewish peers and tended to fall behind and drop out at a higher rate. The Landaus accepted the suggestion, with the added concept of promoting contact between Jews and Arabs. Even in Ramle, one of only a handful of cities in Israel with a mixed population, Jews and Arabs had little social interaction.

Christians in the Holy Land. The Landau family is Jewish. The Al-Khayri family is Muslim. But in the planning for the house, an Arab Christian family also entered the picture.

Michail Fanous' family can trace its presence in Ramle more than eight hundred years. In 1948, when most of the Arab inhabitants were expelled, Michail's father refused to leave. For this, the Israeli authorities imprisoned him for several months. While he was in prison, the Israeli government seized his house; on his release, the family could repossess their home only by buying it back from the government.

After college Michail emigrated to the United States. But within a year he returned to Israel out of a desire to help Arabs in Israel achieve equality. "I knew I belonged among my people," he says.

When Dalia described to Michail the center that was to occupy her family home, he agreed to take the job of director.

"I feel that this house is a small story, but it tells the story of all of Israel and Palestine," Michail says. "In 1948 most of the Arabs of Ramle had to leave. The same year, Jewish families came to Ramle and the rest of Israel. So when Dalia told me she feels this house belongs to her and to the Al-Khayri family, for me it was a sign of reconciliation between Israel and Palestine."

Thus in 1991 the Landau, Al-Khayri, and Fanous families became cofounders of Open House, an association to aid the educational development of Arab children and to further peace and coexistence between Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. With the blessings and continued participation of the Al-Khayri family, Dalia dedicated the house to be the home of the association.

Nothing Less Than a Miracle. Because of the anger between Jews and Arabs, Dalia explains, "in Open House we focus on working together—doing art, taking trips, celebrating the holidays, learning parenting skills. Then, within a context of living together, we can talk about the political issues."

The Open House young leadership training program demonstrates this living-together approach. Led by an Arab psychologist and a Jewish art therapist, the program brings Jewish and Arab teens together to explore their own and each other's identity.

The exploration takes place in the midst of ongoing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In this atmosphere, Dalia says, the young people engage in "absolutely heart-rending arguments about politics, about means and ends, about terror and counterterror, about who suffers more."

What makes such discussions possible, Dalia explains, is that these teens already know each other. "They have been seeing each other at summer camp year after year and in art programs or trips that they were doing together. That is why they can contain the turmoil, the confusion of their discussions, and stay together."

The teens have visited the United States, where they have given lectures, taken part in programs, and had fun together. "The absolute miracle," Dalia adds, "is that sometimes they can cry also for each other's pain and not only for their own. That is where you know a transformation has occurred."

Know Me, Know My People. In Dalia's view, many Jews and Arabs in Israel are locked into their own fear and anger. They do not know each other, or even wish to know each other. This is why she believes "the encounter of one to one is a matter of ultimate importance."

"It is through the individual that an openness is created toward the other, toward your enemy. When you know one person, this one person is a window to the poetry, to the music, the joys, the pain, the life force that pulsates in the people. When you come to like that person, through that person you reach out to their whole people. That's how we work in Open House. That is our basic concept."

People on both sides need to acknowledge each other, Dalia says. This means recognizing other's underlying fears and anger, acknowledging wrongs committed and pain inflicted. But what is needed, she insists, "is not only acknowledgment of the other's hurt but also of the value of the other. If we see the other only in terms of misery or victimization, we do not see them in their full human glory. We need an acknowledgement of each other's culture and roots and beauty. That can come only as we are exposed to the other. This needs some courage—an effort to cross psychological borders."

Making Room in the Heart. Dalia acknowledges the difficulty of Open House's approach. Many people are hostile to any attempt to form bonds between Jews and Arabs. Dalia recalls a phone call she received from a relative after news of a terrorist bombing. "People like you," the relative said, "through your misplaced trust have empowered these people to do these horrible things. They're out to destroy us. You cannot make peace with them."

But the greatest challenge, Dalia says, lies within oneself. "I have to work on opening the heart constantly."

"You can have pain and still have an open heart," she says. But after one particular terrorist attack, "something snapped in my heart. And when I felt this hardness, I was really worried. How can I continue doing my work if I feel that way?"

Change came through meeting a group of Palestinian women at a conference in Europe. "These women were very compassionate, full of emotional intelligence. I created a very deep friendship with one Palestinian woman who lives under the occupation. We felt that even though we disagreed profoundly, profoundly on the political issues, there was the human bond of womanhood, of commitment to life that united us. This was a great healing to me. Then I felt that my heart was released."

The basic challenge for Jews and Arabs, in Dalia's view, is to make room for each other in the heart, in order to make room for each other in the land.

"It has something to do with not being possessive," she says. "It is not the land that belongs to us, but we that belong to the land. If both look at it this way, we will see that we both have our roots here, that both peoples draw life from this land."

"This is also a biblical focus, because God says, 'the land is mine and all the people in it' (Leviticus 25:23; Psalm 24:1; 89:11). This is deeply true. If we feel that we belong here, and we certainly do, and the land belongs to God, then we can make space for each other. We can acknowledge the relationship that exists between each people and this land. God promised the land to Abraham—and we are all children of Abraham."

A New Tree Grows in Ramle. In 1995, families and friends of Open House gathered to plant another tree, this one an olive, symbol of peace and prosperity. In the garden of the house in Ramle, that tree stands as a silent witness to two people's sufferings and hopes. n

Kevin Perrotta lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His most recent book is Your Invitation to Scripture (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

For more information, contact Open House: Don Perlstein, executive director, P.O. Box 2918, Acton MA 01720 (978) 263-1737;