The Beautiful Educated Arab Women of Israel

My youngest son is one and a half and he goes to daycare at the “Peace Pre-school” at the YMCA in downtown Jerusalem. He is in the babies classroom, and the school goes up to kindergarten. It’s been a wonderful year – his caretakers are both Jewish and Arab and he is particularly close to Ola who comes from Abu Ghosh. All the families are very nice and the kids are very loved. Even though my son is too young to appreciate the uniqueness of this atmosphere, for me, especially during the troubling times in Jerusalem this year, it has felt like an oasis of sanity and a helpful daily reminder that most people in this city – both Jewish and Arab – are normal, loving people.

Alexandra, the director of the pre-school, invited my husband and I to join a fundraiser dinner yesterday evening at the YMCA, the keynote speaker being an Egyptian-born American man CPA-turned-marathon runner who runs marathons around the world holding the local flag on which is written “God is Love.” He was a bit of a character, but he seems like he has a big heart and an adventurous spirit.

The highlight for me, however, was talking with the people with whom we shared our table, a group of four Christian Arab 20-something women and one man. First of all, as we feel ourselves careening towards middle age, it was fun to be hanging out with a bunch of “young folk”! They were the family members of people who are on the board of the YMCA. My husband speaks Arabic, so there was some conversing in Arabic. But mainly the conversation was in English and Hebrew – I think partly because they felt considerate toward me and also because I think both languages are also pretty natural for them.

They are all well-educated beautiful girls. One (age 26) has a master’s degree from a London school in Art History and works in one of the two galleries in Jerusalem representing Arab/Palestinian art. One has completed studies in Biology and was just accepted to complete studies in Medicine at Hebrew University (age 23). One (age 28) has a master’s degree from Hebrew University in pharmaceuticals and manages a branch of a large drug store chain in Tel Aviv. When I said that I am a Reform rabbi, she talked about visiting New York many years ago and going to a Reform synagogue. All the people there thought she was Jewish because she could read the Hebrew in the prayerbook and they started trying to set her up with their sons!

We asked them about their social life – where do they go? The ones who live in Ramle go to Tel Aviv. The ones who live in Jerusalem go to a few places in Jerusalem but also to Ramallah. They admit that it is a problem to meet men (and goes to follow, to find a husband). As the 28-year-old explained, “In our culture, (as a woman) first of all if you have a bachelor’s degree that makes it difficult. On top of that, if you have a master’s degree, it makes it nearly impossible.” Meaning, being an educated woman is threatening for men in the Arab Israeli society.

In addition, it is important for these women and their families that they marry a Christian man. According to the Jerusalem Post, quoting the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2012 there were 126,400 Arab Christians in Israel which is 1.6% of the general population. Their dating pool is very small and oftentimes they feel like they already know each other. They joked, “Out of the five possibilities, this one is threatened by me, this one is ugly, this one is not nice, this one is not interested, and this one is boring!…Look at us, five girls here and only came here a boyfriend.” And they laugh.

As I think about the upcoming elections in Israel, as I think about the challenge of racism and of being a Jewish and democratic government, I think also about these women. These are the kind of people that I want in my society. I want to visit their art galleries, be their patient when I am sick, and have some good laughs with them over a girlfriend lunch. Are the leaders who are trying to marginalize Arabs thinking about these women and their families? What if our government empowered Arabs/Palestinians (the girls themselves used these labels interchangeably – as if they are not quite sure what they are themselves) – then we would have a society filled with educated Jews and Arabs working together to create comfortable lives and a modern, advanced society. We could do it together.

As we left the table, we said how lovely it was to sit with them. I said, “You are simply adorable!” I couldn’t help myself. In my heart, I said to myself that I do hope that I will see them again, perhaps we’ll run into each other around Jerusalem.

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