Two Israeli speakers came to campus on Tuesday to host an event titled “Striving for Peace: A Unique Perspective on Life in Israel.” Keren and Haitham, former IDF soldiers whose last names are concealed for security reasons, shared, with a room of about fifteen students, their perspectives on living in Israel.
Matthew Stein ’20 organized the event because he felt as though students on campus were being provided with a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, in his view, fails to take into account all the perspectives of people from the region.
“I decided to organize this event because I felt IDF soldiers, and Israel generally, are highly stigmatized on campus. I wanted to bring in speakers to humanize IDF soldiers and show that there are many different perspectives within Israeli society on life and on the conflict,” he said.
Through a fellowship at StandWithUs, Stein was able to connect with both Keren and Haitham and invite them to campus.
Keren, a 24-year-old from the city of Beersheba, spoke about her experience growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey and the anti-Semitism she experienced in school. She recounted a time when, in 8th grade, she found a swastika drawn on a locker in her school.
“I never took my freedom for granted,” she said.
Keren, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors, decided to move to Israel after her sophomore year of high school.
“I always felt that Israel was more my home, so when I was 16, I permanently moved to Israel,” she said.
After completing high school, she joined the IDF, and served for six months on the Gaza border. She noted that since 2005, over 11,000 rockets have been shot into Israel from the Gaza Strip, many of them made from supplies provided to Palestinians by Israel.
“Instead of using [Israeli] pipes for water, they use them against Israeli civilians,” she said.
Keren, after completing her IDF service, worked as a waitress at a restaurant in the vicinity of the Gaza border, and described her experiences of having to take shelter from incoming Hamas rockets.
“We had a minute and a half [from the start of the sirens] to find shelter,” she said.
Today, Keren is a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and she had the chance to attend Beersheba’s first Pride parade.
“To bring pride to a conservative area, it was really amazing,” she said.
She closed on a hopeful note for the region, pointing out the importance of education.
“Educating kids from a young age to be accepting of others is the only way we’re going to achieve peace,” she said.
Haitham, the second speaker, told of his experiences as an Israeli Arab. A 30-year-old Bedouin Muslim who goes by Tom, Haitham grew up in Bir-El Maksur, the largest Bedouin village in northern Israel.
“We like our freedom very much,” he said, noting that Bedouins are not obligated to serve in the IDF, but many, including himself, opt to do so anyways.
Bedouins are nomadic people native to the Middle East, and are a part of the nearly 20% of Israel’s population that is ethnically Arab.
“The Arab population in Israel is incredibly diverse, even in terms of ideology,” Haitham said. “It’s the great part of living in a democracy.”
Haitham also told stories of his experiences as a soldier in an anti-aircraft unit in the IDF. He related how he was the target of stones and Molotov cocktails on a regular basis and described one encounter with a Hamas terrorist in much detail.
After his unit caught wind of this particular young man planning a terrorist attack, they moved in to arrest him.
“We arrested him without a struggle,” Haitham said.
While on the way to the station, Haitham decided to inquire as to why a young man like him would plan such an attack.
“I asked him why he wanted to do this terrorist attack,” he said.
After Haitham asked multiple times, the young man decided to finally speak up.
“He looked back and said, ‘You’re free. You have a decent life in Israel, but we don’t enjoy that. We don’t have that [in Palestine]. The Palestinian government doesn’t care about us. If I commit a terror attack, I’ll become a hero back home, and the Palestinian government will give my family money for it. I know that at least in the Israeli jail, I will end up with a decent life.’,” Haitham said, pointing out that Palestinians are able to receive an education and earn a degree while in Israeli jail.
Haitham also lamented the leadership of the West Bank, which, in his view, incites terrorism and violence and prevents peace.
“Most of the Israeli people want peace, and most of the Palestinian people want peace,” he said.
Haitham is now a student at the Academic College for Science and Law, working towards a degree in Law, Government, and Management.
He also works part-time at a non-profit that primarily prepares teenagers for military service through physical training, but explained that the organization does more than just that.
“We teach them about equality and tolerance, and help them make something of themselves,” he said.
The event closed with an audience Q&A, followed by Keren and Haitham posing for a picture with the attendees.
Featured image courtesy of author.