In Riverdale, Palestinians and Jews gather to banish hatred

Posted on March 1, 2009. Filed under: 0. Peace, 1, 1. World Peace, 3. Peace in Middle East |

Despite the overwhelming barrage of negative news, of more conflicts and cycle of hatred and violence in the world, there are ever present efforts to build bridges and close chasms between different groups in conflict, that tend to be under-reported.

The actions and efforts to build peace and re-conciliation, though under-reported in the traditional media,  are found in different places and carried out in creative ways. Such is the story of the Palestinians and Jews in Riverdale, who gather and break bread together to help banish hatred, and build understanding, tolerance and Peace. They are a part of a Peace movement called –  “World Peace, One Falafel at a Time.” that aims to break down walls and build peace in the World.

Peace with a side of Tahini By Kate Pastor

February 19, 2009 Edition

Palestinian-born Abed Isa Ibraham picked up a piece of pita bread in his hands, dipped it in hummus and brought it to his mouth. “We use our own fork. Personal fork. Nobody use it except me,” he quipped. Sitting across from him at the table, an American of Greek-Israeli descent gave him a knowing look. “My uncle does it the same way,” said George Nachum.

The exchange may sound like little more than breakfast banter. But subtle moments like these are powerful, and exactly why Khalid Isa, coowner with his wife of Sqweez Juice Bar & Grill on West 238th Street between Waldo and Greystone avenues, pushed the small tables in their storefront restaurant together on Sunday morning, to host members of “World Peace, One Falafel at a Time.”

Mr. Isa’s father, Mr. Ibraham, was born in Palestine and forced to leave what is now Israel, in 1948. “People left shoeless,” he said, “they left their homes still thinking they were going back.” When Mr. Isa started serving falafels in Riverdale two years ago, he didn’t even realize he was opening up shop in what he now calls “Little Israel.” But as he got to know his Jewish customers and became close with some of them, he was struck by how much (including falafel) they had in common.

A social movement The observation turned into a social movement in December, as the group’s founding members began holding monthly breakfasts in an effort to bring Jews and Arabs together over food. As they congregated around plates piled high with Middle Eastern breakfast — eggs with tomato, falafel balls, humus with tahini, pita covered with oregano, olive oil and sesame seeds, as well as strained yogurt called “lebneh” — each of the eight founding members got up to explain what had brought them together.

“When Khali approached me about this we kept taking about, we’re Semites,” said Steven Balicer, a Jewish Riverdalian, adding, “the border was only a border of geographical demarcation.” As the son of Holocaust survivors, he said his parents always encouraged him to speak out against injustice, and so he became active in the civil rights movement and other social and political causes throughout his life. For him, the peace-loving group probably wasn’t much of a leap. For others, sitting around the table was a step toward unlearning hatred they had been taught throughout their lives.

Growing up with hate (name taken out at request of person) was born in Pakistan. “I grew up with that typical understanding of this is us, and this is them. Kind of that dual mindset,” she told the group. “I had a lot of anger inside me and it really bothered me.” She said she knew people in Pakistan who hated both Jews and Hindus, but had never met a person from either background. And it was only when she started dating an Israeli man during her senior year at college that her mind began to change. “Getting to know them as people, slowly, slowly and slowly it started to melt away,” she said, making it impossible to “hate collectively.” When she first heard of the group, she said, “I literally started to cry…” She traveled from Queens to Riverdale for the meeting on Sunday.

David Osterczy, one of the founding members, told a similar tale. “I was raised a Jew and like S…,  I was raised that Arabs were a different kind of people,” he said. But focusing on commonalities helped cure Northern Ireland of its sectarian violence, he said, and the same idea could be applied to the Middle East. Though Riverdale is far away from the rockets and bombs that rattle what some participants apolitically called “the holy land,” family ties and spiritual connections seem to dwarf the distance.

Sahar Ferber grew up in Israel and only moved here about two years ago. He recounted a saying he used to hear when he was young. “By the time you get older the army will not be necessary,” he said. Still, he grew up to serve in an elite unit of the Israeli Army and it was only after he moved to the United States to go to college that, “All of a sudden I realized that not all Muslims are the same. I acquired three best friends that are Muslim,” he said.

Tearful discoveries

As participants spoke, some of them newcomers, Mr. Isa and Mr. Balister stood with their arms around each other, each story resonating deeply, and tears after appearing in Mr. Isa’s eyes. The nearly 20 attendees included founding member Leo Alkhatib, who considers himself a Palestinian-American, but was born in Jordan and has lived in this country for 28 years; Tony Schultz, a Riverdalian and a secular Jew who wanted to challenge notions in the media about Jews being a “monolithic entity”; and Joe Cutugno, a founding member and supersenior at Manhattan College, who, believes that his Italian-American ethnicity makes him an objective asset to the group.

Talking over food in Riverdale is at the group’s heart, but is not its ultimate goal. Founders hope to bring local imams and rabbis and eventually, Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, together over little fried balls of chickpeas at other tables.

For now, they have a growing contingent of participants at their monthly meetings, and a Facebook group boasting 116 members at press time, with a discussion question “What do you want for your grandkids?” No matter where people are from, “the answers,” said Mr. Osterczy, “are always the same.”

This is part of the February 19, 2009 online edition of The Riverdale Press.


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