Our final speaker of the day and of the trip came with some pre-advertising. One of our facilitators had met him before and heard him before and raved about him. They had become friends.
Osama began his talk by asking for a moment of silence for all the souls lost as a result of the violence.
After our moment of silence, he began by stating that there are two different narratives and both are true. In addition, neither side wants to accept the other’s. It was an interesting beginning as he was the first speaker we had who began by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist and historic ties to the land. He didn’t criticize Israel.
He told some of his family history. They left in 1967 for Jordan and couldn’t get back. His grandfather was passionate about Jerusalem and found a way to Jericho and then Jerusalem. The rest of the family stayed in Jordan.
His earliest memories were being taught ‘fear the black hat Jews’. In 1989 at age 12 he was harassed by soldiers for the first time and when he asked his mom she told him “We don’t call them solders. We call them “Yehud”. Yehud was meant as a racial slur. His hatred was stoked by his family and in 1990 when Saddam Hussain was bombing Tel Aviv, he and his friends would go to the roof of their building to celebrate. He thought that Tel Aviv was an army base, filled with soldiers, not where families lived. As he grew up, everything bad that happened was blamed on the “Yehud”.
His fear of the “Yehud” turned to hate when he was arrested for hanging a Palestinian Flag on a post and he was given a 6-month jail sentence. He ended up serving 9 months. HIs time in jail was where he learned all bad things about the Jews. He said jail is where they “learn the lies to breed hate of Jews.” At one point he was put in solitary confinement. Sitting in the dark, he had reached his lowest point of despair when he began hearing somebody singing a song. He couldn’t make out the words and didn’t know the tune but hearing that singing pulled him out of his darkest place.
Soon after he was released from jail, his best friend was killed by the army. Osama decided to join the Palestinian Police to fight and hurt the ‘Yehud’. He was given orders to protect the Alysha settlement where another of his friends was killed in the skirmish and he left. He left the Palestinian Police because he wanted to ‘do something big to get revenge.’
Doing something big meant he got very involved with the 2nd intifada. In his own words, during those 6 years he lost everything. He lost his “heart and soul and was filled with hate.” One day he needed a ride back to Jericho and asked a friend if he would take him. His friend said yes but he had to stop in Beit Jolla to talk to friends about peace and eat and then he could go home. When he walked into the room with his friend, he saw people with Yarmulkes on. He was confused and said to his friend, “they look like Jews.” His friend told him they are all Jews and they want to talk about peace. Osama couldn’t believe his friend and walked out of the room. While outside the room he began talking to one of the Jews who explained that they wanted peace and weren’t ok with Jews or Palestinians being killed. It was the first time that Osama thought there could be a good Jewish person. He thought perhaps there could be more than just the one. He gave her a hug and walked back into the meeting of Combatants for Peace with his friend, Ahmed, who we had met the day before!
Osama continued going to Combatants for Peace meetings and began to make some Jewish friends. In his own words, he ‘got to see the beauty of Judaism and that the army isn’t Judaism.’
He doesn’t reject his Palestinian narrative but understands there are other narratives and that all can be true. His work with Combatants for Peace, where former fighters from Palestine and Israel, has taught him that both people have a right to the land. He chooses not to look at States but at people. He does believe that the occupation needs to end.
He was asked the same question as his friend Ahmed about naming streets for terrorists. He was passionate that there should not be any streets, plazas or building named for terrorists. He pointed out that Israel has a few of these which I didn’t know. I’ll have to do further research on this to verify what he said and learn more, however there were others in the room who knew exactly what he was talking about.
When asked if there were Israeli citizens, he said yes. He went a step further and said that even soldiers shouldn’t be a target and that nobody deserves to die. He said he understands the soldier’s fear of Palestinians and that “I don’t think blood is justified. Killing people is not the answer.’
When asked about BDS, he said that BDS is done by the elite and wealthy who can have what they want. It’s not for him on the ground dealing with his life challenges. It doesn’t help him in what he wants to achieve. He said that boycotting products is an acceptable form of nonviolence but boycotting people is not ok. When I asked him about boycotting academics, artists and musicians, his reply was that ‘they are people’.
Osama finished his talk by telling us about the first Shabbat dinner he attended with his Jewish friends. They poured the Kiddush wine and gathered around the table where they sang Shalom Aleichem. He began to cry openly. This was the song that he heard in jail that touched him at his darkest time. He was proud to tell us that he now knows it by heart.
As we wrapped up with announcements, one of the staff told him he could go while they prayed Mincha (the afternoon service). He laughed and asked, “What? I can’t stay for Mincha?” He took a yarmulke out of his pocket, put it on and stayed for the service.
I was profoundly moved by Osama. He wasn’t afraid to admit that he was raised with hate and that he acted on that hate. He also wasn’t afraid to admit he was vulnerable and found a way to let go of that hate and find love. He joked with us that if he took a DNA test, he’d probably find out he was part Jewish. He keeps a yarmulke in his pocket in case he is asked to a Shabbat dinner or to join his Jewish friends for a meal.
Osama left me with hope. If somebody raised in uneducated hatred and had that validated around him for 2 decades can learn he was wrong and find a way beyond hate and into respect and dare I say love, then perhaps anybody can. Here is a picture of me with Osama – we exchanged contact information and I look forward to building a friendship with him.