Abdallah’s childhood in Haifa defied many preconceptions about interactions between Jews and Arabs in Israel. She said that her Jewish neighbor, a Holocaust survivor, was “more motherly to me than my mother.” This woman played an important part in Abdallah’s childhood, constantly looking out for her and her siblings. She said that in this protective environment, she had no conception of being any different or any less Israeli than her neighbors. “As I got older, I understood that we were supposed to be enemies, yet she would protect us more than anyone,” she said.
Abdallah did not get her first impression of antagonism between Jews and Arabs until she moved to another neighborhood, but even this antagonism was not extreme. “It wasn’t until we moved into another neighborhood, that’s when I was introduced to this whole ‘Jewish-Arab’ thing, but it wasn’t a big deal,” Abdallah said. “Kids would call each other names when they were upset, but that was about it.” Overall, she said that relations between Jews and Arabs there were still good.
However, Abdallah’s self-identity soon changed. “As I got older, I started to get an identity evolving in me. I learned I was Palestinian,” she said. Despite this discovery, she emphasized that this Palestinian identity did not conflict with her identity as an Israeli.
Abdallah also spoke about the extensive freedom in Israeli society, including the freedom to learn about and express her own cultural identity. “The idea that Israel tried to brainwash us is totally incorrect,” she said. “We can read whatever we want from wherever we want.” She also recalled how readily available media and information from Arab countries were, even items that were criticized by the Israeli government. Religious expression and discussion was also very open. “Arguments were out in the open. To have a discussion between a Muslim and a Christian and a Jew about theology was just fine,” she said.
Her experience of tolerance was contrasted by her experience in the United States. Abdallah found Arab-Americans to be a far more insulated and intolerant group, and said they were put off by her fondness of Israel. “I was surprised to find out that I was a Zionist,” she said, explaining that many Muslims equated her stance with Zionism. She said that such views were unexpected, considering that Arab-Americans were a minority themselves. She thought perhaps that these Arabs, many of them recent immigrants from Middle Eastern countries where they constituted the majority, simply were not adjusting well to minority status in a multicultural country.
Abdallah’s conclusion emphasized her message of hope. She related a story that had recently been in the news-a Palestinian boy was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers while playing with a toy gun, and the father donated the boy’s heart, which saved the life of an Israeli child.
Where many outside observers see only conflict, Abdallah sees a sense of community and a desire for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. “Most people want peace, but the minority that wants to yell and scream is the minority that gets heard,” she said.
Abdallah said that her ultimate message for students was “not to lose hope, not to turn their back and not to be biased. Remember, at the end of the day, we’re all human.”
Hillel Co-President Justin Epner ’08 thought it was important that Abdallah’s message be heard. He said the lecture was politically neutral and more cultural, in contrast to many politically charged Israel-related events that Hillel had sponsored in the past. Epner felt this was a change for the better because with many prior events, “everyone came in with their mind set.”
Students were happy to hear Abdallah’s perspective on life in Israel. “I found the fact that Israelis and Arabs can and do live together peaceably someplace in the world very heartening,” said Chase Tanenbaum ’09. “Hearing about Salma’s genuine affection for her Israeli friends and neighbors was such a refreshing and, sadly, a very novel experience.”
Nick Avila ’08, was surprised by her treatment of the subject. “I came in to Ms. Abdallah’s lecture expecting the talk to be the same old talk about Israel, dealing with terrorism, politics, religion, etcetera,” he said. “However, I was pleasantly surprised that the talk was more of an autobiography.” Avila found her passion for correcting misconceptions about relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel to be inspiring. “With all the things going on in the world today, I wish there were more Salma Abdallahs out there,” he said.