A Canaanite in Brooklyn (first posted in The Norwalk Patch)

Canaan or ‘The Promised Land’ seemed to be a mirage to the Palestinian patient advocate. He had arrived as a starry-eyed child in the USA shortly after 9/11 in search of peace, freedom, and prosperity. As a young adult, his life as a student/waiter living in a poor area best known for inspiring Dog Day Afternoon, left him with mixed feelings. Today the Chase Manhattan Bank branch, site of the robbery depicted in the 1975 movie, was gone, along with the hopes and dreams of many under-employed first-generation immigrants like himself. Despite the surroundings, his faith propelled the young Christian man into applying his scientific knowledge to the benefit of his neighbors and family. The Samaritan had already provided much-needed information to his neighbor, Shireen, and the African-American woman (with questions about cholesterol) who lived a few blocks away from his home.

These charitable activities provided a welcome relief from being caught between the opposite opinions of his relatives and friends in the multi-ethnic, intergenerational neighborhood he called home. Conversations with one uncle would sometimes veer from ordinary day-to-day life to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The patient advocate was constantly reminded by his uncle that the creation of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of the Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the Nakba (catastrophe). The “sleepy Arab backwater of the Ottoman empire” had been transformed into a Jewish state at the expense of the life of the uncle’s wife, his favorite aunt. Moreover, the uncle had to flee Palestine and watch the struggles and dashed hopes of his former countrymen on several televisions across the globe as he searched for a new home. The patient advocate would quietly devour sour lentil and eggplant stew ( rumaniyya) and try to integrate his uncle’s tales with his own experiences.

Shadia Mansour, the British-born Palestinian singer also known as the “First Lady of Arabic hip hop”, echoed the patient advocate’s feelings towards Palestine with her song, Assalamu Aleikum(Peace be upon you). 5 Broken Cameras – the Emmy-award-winning 2011 documentary film co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi – might as well have been a Hollywood version of his conversations via Skype with relatives affected by the Israeli-West Bank barrier. In addition, he agreed with the opinions expressed by the Palestinian-American journalist, Ali Abunimah, in his book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. However, he understood the fear that the Zionist vision of a unified sense of Jewish peoplehood, heritage, and destiny might become lost in a one-state solution for his former homeland. According to Zarah, the need for Herzl’s antidote to anti-Semitism – a Jewish homeland – was compounded by the Holocaust. The patient advocate wanted to identify with the struggles of his people and also wished to co-exist peacefully with his American neighbors. Would voices urging peace ever be heard above the din of competing narratives of two displaced populations occupying the same land?

The patient advocate was not a Palestinian Gandhi. He decided to focus on renewing the bonds of trust with Zarah, who had recently been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. He emailed her an article elaborating on new therapies to treat the aggressive tumor. He was happy when she thanked him immediately and invited him to join her family for dinner. Members of her breast cancer support group would also be present, including a couple who had just returned from Israel. They brought news about the formation of the Parents Circle – Families Forum, a grassroots organization made up of more than 600 bereaved Palestinians and Israelis, all of whom had lost an immediate family member to the conflict. Zarah also mentioned that the couple wanted to discuss a new documentary, On the Side of the Road, with him. The film by Israeli journalist, Lia Tarachansky, combined the history of 1948 (as related by Israelis involved in the fighting) with Tarachansky’s personal story. He was curious to hear more details and accepted the invitation. It was the season of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation – at least in one neighborhood.

The life that a child deserves to live (First appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

We deserve to live a quiet life without anxiety and fear.

We deserve to know that we don’t need to come back to the shelters today, tomorrow, or next month.

We deserve to stop hearing voices of the missiles.

We deserve to live in our houses, not in the shelter nearby.

The words echoed by Israeli teenagers from the Eye2Israel project reflect their perspectives on an endless conflict that has stymied leaders on both sides of the political and religious divide. However, this post is not about politics or religion. It is about meeting children in Union Square, New York City, and seeing the world through their eyes. It is about hope and idealism, in spite of being faced with adversity. Last year, I was privileged to meet the bright scientific and technological minds that will continue to cement the reputation of Israel as a technology powerhouse. A group of ninth- through twelfth-graders from the Israel Scientific and Technological School network showcased inventions ranging from a mobile application (to alert smartphone users about food allergens) to a prototype for a wearable sensor designed to aid blind people. The high-technology inventions and expertise on display at the Union Square exhibit and the enthusiasm with which students freely shared their knowledge, speak volumes about the results of investing in the education of children. According to the nation’s research and development service, Israel has 135 academically educated engineers and scientists per 10,000 population compared to 81 per 10,000 in the US. Companies such as Intel, IBM, Motorola, Applied Materials, BMC, Creo, Marvell, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Nestlé have research and development centers in Israel.

Where are the future scientists and engineers of the USA? They are undoubtedly being cultivated in charter schools, STEM programs and other nationwide educational efforts. While the experts debate whether US teenagers are lagging in science, technology, and mathematics versus the rest of the world, it is also important to pay attention to theidea that teachers “ought to think in terms of working with – and learning from – their counterparts in other countries so that children everywhere will become more proficient and enthusiastic learners.”

Sometimes it may be as easy as crossing to the other side of Union Square to spread infectious enthusiasm about science and technology. The children I met on separate occasion at the same location reflected the largest untapped human resource in this country. They also felt that they “deserved” something. Unlike the children from Israel, they did not live in the shadows of war. Their war was one waged against poverty and hopelessness. They asked for something that many other children take for granted: love.

We Deserve Love Too!, a youth-led campaign in New York City, attracted my attention with the stories of teenagers who fell through societal cracks and still held out hope of finding a home. One teenager described living in the home of adoptive parents for years before being returned to the foster care system. Thanks to finding loving parents, he was able to complete high school and was accepted at a local university. Imagine if he was there on the same day as the Israeli inventors and had been inspired by their presence. Would it have changed the course of his life or others like him?Maybe Union Square would at the very least have been place where children learn from another under the guidance of adults who truly invest and believe in their futures.