with Beth-Ann Kozlovich
There is no middle of the road position for journalist and author Barbara Sofer. The view of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that most Americans hear about is not the experience most of Israel’s middle class—Jewish and Palestinian—experience.
For 35 years, Sofer has lived in Israel. She now lives in Jerusalem and speaks about Israel, Judaism, women’s issues, and spirituality. Her byline has appeared in the New York Times, Woman’s Day, Reader’s Digest, Parents Magazine, The Boston Globe and other publications. She writes a Friday column for the Jerusalem Post about the “challenges and miracles of everyday life” in Israel; the slice of life media don’t cover.
“You have to be there to see that,” Sofer says, explaining that visitors are surprised by “the pleasantness of the texture of life in Israel. When people land in Israel, they expect to see an armed conflict on the streets. Instead they see people enjoying a good cup of coffee and interacting with each other and going out to concerts, a lively human interaction wherever they go. They look around and say, ‘Wow, Jews and Arabs and they’re living here together, where’s all that conflict?’”
Inside Hadassah Hospital, which is supported by the American women’s organization that will celebrate its 100 anniversary in 2012, anyone is treated regardless of faith. Sofer says it’s very easy to see those who are Jewish and Arab. Many wear traditional clothing and she says visitors often tap her on the shoulder and ask how everyone can be mixing and working.
“The first thing I tell them is that I didn’t order them from central casting,” Sofer says. “This is really how it is.”
Outside the hospital, Sofer believes people exaggerate the areas that are not integrated and perhaps do not talk enough about how the for most of the middle class, one of the additional tragedies of the last decade is the failure of the peace process to come to fruition.
“Before 2000, we thought we were just dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s of a peace accord and then it all fell apart,” Sofer says. “It’s hard for some people to agree on less that 100 percent.”
Sofer also says the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza carried out by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is still debated as a success or failure to move the peace process along, yet, the fact that they were once so close to peace still gives hope to the majority of Israelis.
“I think what people forget is that the ideal in democracy is the middle class,” Sofer says. “One of the issues we have in the world when we talk about developing democracy is that you really can’t have democracy unless you have middle class. Both the Jewish and Palestinian sectors have a growing middle class ... most people are middle class and you have tremendous economic achievement in the Palestinian sector.”
More of what Americans don’t hear, she says, is that there are malls opening in Gaza, and in Ramallah it’s very expensive to do shopping. With the enormous population growth, there is still room for everybody. And with the middle class enjoying the flush economic situation, there are more opportunities to mix.
“If you go into a pharmacy that’s having a special on cosmetics, the line is going to be mixed of Jewish and Palestinian women who want to try the newest product to deal with wrinkles,” Sofer says. “The woman behind the counter may be Jewish, may be Palestinian, it doesn’t matter ... Everyday life is mixed.”
In more rural areas, the integration may not flow as freely, but she says that happens in many small towns even in America. Citing a recent women’s basketball game she attended in the West Bank, she agrees it was a little uncomfortable at first, until the spectators settled into watching the game.
At a recent women-of-faith conference in Jordan, her roommate was Palestinian and they stayed up all night talking about how to solve the conflict. By early morning, they had come up with a solution.
“She was a more moderate person who identified with the Palestinian Authority,” Sofer says. “I could not have come to that same decision with someone who thinks that I should die and my whole country should be destroyed.”
Sofer encourages more women’s voices in diplomatic negotiations. Most women, she says, regard resources differently than do men.
But she has no illusions.
“We have a lot of wishful thinking in the world about this violence just disappearing,” Sofer says. “There is a lot of violence, the threat a lot of danger ... And there is a clash of culture. There are a lot of people who don’t like Israel and who don’t like the United States and they are not going away.”
That sentiment is especially difficult for Americans who have been raised to feel blessed to live in a place where until recently they did not have to confront larger scale international violence on American soil. But the fact that long term violence has peppered Israel since its creation has also led to the development of a state-of-the-art terrorist medicine training facility at Hadassah Hospital. Medical professionals from around the world come there, she says, to learn how to treat under terrorist and organizational challenges. The hospital staff would much rather have the only enemies they face to be the diseases they confront.
Although it may be part of her job as the PR Director for the hospital to paint a positive picture of Israel, the realities she describes are not far from some of those described by others in the middle class. (Hear the conversation with Palestinian filmmaker, Mohammed Alatar on www.hawaiiconversation.org). Whatever you may believe about life in Israel, Sofer says until you’ve been there, you don’t really know—and sometimes, you just have to be there. And if you do want to visit Israel, Sofer will be happy to show you around Jerusalem and Hadassah Hospital, Chagall windows and all.
The full interview with Barbara Sofer is on the Town Square archive on www.hawaiipublicradio.org. For a schedule of Ms. Sofer’s speaking engagements contact Hadassah’s Hawaii chapter or Temple Emanuel.