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New children's book revives legacy of Jewish-Muslim coexistence

On the backdrop of rising discrimination and violence against Israel’s Arab citizens, a new children’s book invokes the spirit of friendship between Arabs and Jews, giving us at least one thing to look forward to in 2016. 

By Yoni Mendel (Translated from Hebrew by Ami Asher)

Sweet Mint Tea.

The cover of the new children’s book, ”Sweet Tea with Mint And Other Stories’

A new children’s book, “Sweet Tea with Mint And Other Stories” is being released in a climate of increasing discrimination. With the Education Ministry excluding books from its curriculum out of fear of “miscegenation,” at a time of record low of Arabic proficiency among Jews, and with the images of Jews dancing and stabbing photos of Palestinian babies still fresh in mind — this book is perhaps the only good reason to look forward to 2016.

Until this very moment, I have been struggling to understand why reading the book brought a tear to my eye. Was it because of one of the passages in the book? Because of the simple human gesture it describes? Or perhaps because of the Israeli reality into which it has been released? Either way, the birth of this book is nothing short of a miracle.

The reality in Israel of 2016 is a sea of hatred between Jews and Arabs, with attempts by demagogic politicians, researchers and “interpreters on Arab affairs” to prove that we are in the midst of a so-called “clash of civilizations” with Islam. It is a country that, since its very beginnings, has consistently sought to ignore the Arab-Jewish culture. A country run by a man who, just last March, encouraged Jews to vote in the elections because “Arab voters are heading to the polls in droves.” This is the dark reality in which a collection of stories and legends written and translated by Jews and Palestinians proud and courageous, a collection of stories and legends written and translated by both Jews and Palestinians is being published. Every story is published in Hebrew and Arabic.

What will Bennett say?

Sweet Tea with Mint And Other Stories is a collection of stories that invokes the Jewish-Islamic bond, and more generally the legacy and friendships between Arabs and Jews. It also includes the values shared by followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism; the social responsibility we have for all inhabitants living in the same country; the value of equality regardless of ethnicity and religious affiliation; the moral requirement and the obligation to protect and fight for the weak — those without status, language or a state. No less important, it evokes the power of religious faith, not as a blueprint for nationalism, but as a force of tolerance towards all humankind, and the role of Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions not in promoting hatred and separation, but as a moderating and reconciliatory force.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett will probably have to scratch his head a few times when perusing this book, if indeed it does make headlines. On the one hand it is a collection of stories in which the religious-traditional discourse so valued by Bennett is a leitmotif. Jewish religious references are central to it — including the revelation of Elijah and the origins of King David— stories related to the Jewish holidays and key religious values, be they prayer and giving charity in secret, or stories relating to the synagogue.

Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (Photo by Activestills.org)

Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (Photo by Activestills.org)

This may sound familiar enough to Bennett, but alas, the Jewish religion is mentioned in the book alongside Islam and Christianity, and verses from the Old Testament appear next to verses and stories from the New Testament and the Quran. Moreover, Judaism is referred to in the book mostly in the context of Jews of Mizrahi origin, for whom Arabic and Arab culture are not the enemy. Furthermore, the daily lives described in the book are those of Muslims, Christians and Jews living together in this country, as well as in other Middle Eastern countries, as true neighbors. Furthermore, the names of many of the book’s protagonists are both Jewish and Muslim – Na’im, Aziza, Sisou and Mimoun.

In the same vein, the underlying message of the Jewish holidays it talks about is neither “we will forever live by the sword,” as was recently promised by Prime Minister Netanyahu, nor that “in every generations the gentiles rise up against us.” Instead the book imbues us with a sense that equality is possible, and that the weak must be protected and fought for, and certainly not driven out of the country as so-called “infiltrators.” The moral of the stories is that mutual and community responsibility and solidarity cuts across religious and ethnic affiliations, and that joint struggle is one proven way of keeping evil at bay.

An alternative to nationalism

It appears there is a chasm between the book’s educational messages and the messages that Israeli decision makers — not to mention a great majority of local public officials, whether secular, traditionalist or national-religious — have been promulgating. Thus the book offers a sound and humane alternative — a traditionalist-Arab and traditionalist-Jewish alternative for the one-dimensional segregationist discourse that had become the default among Jewish Israeli society. Moreover, it forces us to think. It is not informed by an us-against-them or good-versus-evil mentality, but requires the reader to see the human in human beings.

The book includes six stories. Three – by Hadil Nashif, Altayeb Ghanaim and Sheikha Hussein Hlewa – were written originally in Arabic, and three were written originally in Hebrew by Ronit Chacham. Every story is presented first in its original language, followed by its translation into Hebrew or Arabic, respectively (the translators from Arabic are Yehouda Shenhav-Shaharabani and Altayeb Ghanaim; the translators from Hebrew are Hussein Alghol and Altayeb Ghanaim).

The book’s characters and stories, interestingly, are situated in the socioeconomic and political margins, yet the reader quickly reveals that their first and most important struggle is not for money or prestige, but primarily for recognition, equality and justice. Accordingly, the stories unfold mainly far from the Israeli socio-geographic center — in the Tiberias market, in the Arab border town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, in desert dunes, in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, in the Jewish border town of Sderot, in Lod-Lydda, and even in a Jewish quarter in a Moroccan city. Its characters call upon us to look within ourselves and straight into the eyes of Israeli society and feel, above all, embarrassed. Embarrassed, first and foremost, for the painful lack of Israeli children’s book that take its readers through the alleyways of Wadi Nisnas and Sderot. Secondly, we are embarrassed by the lessons we learn from our society. This collection is mostly about characters who dare to be kind — in both thought and action — without any reward. They are willing to go out of their way because they see the Other.

A section of a separation wall, built between the Pardes Shanir Arab neighborhood in Lod and the Jewish moshav (a cooperative settlement) of Nir Tzvti, was destroyed a few day ago by an unknown source, Lod, May 12, 2013. The wall,1.5 km long and 4 m high, was built in 2003, creating a symbolic and territorial partition between the Arab and Jewish residents. Since about 50 meters of the wall were destroyed, police forces raided the Arab neighborhood, arresting a few residents. (Photo by: Yotam Ronen/ Activestills.org)

A section of a separation wall, built between the Pardes Shanir Arab neighborhood in Lod and the Jewish moshav (a cooperative settlement) of Nir Tzvti, May 12, 2013. (Photo by: Yotam Ronen/ Activestills.org)

The stories are about the transformation of individuals and society at large when they manage to see the Others and understand their plight. It is a book about courage, about the ability to make a difference. It is a book about poverty and richness and the boundaries between them. It is a book about social justice, but one that sets clear priorities in advance: not Tel Aviv’s middle class figures who profited from the 2011 social protest, such as Yair Lapid. It is about Arabs and Jews, mostly religious or traditional — including Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Arab countries — that have almost always been marginalized and rarely appear in children’s stories.

It is a courageous book, no less. Its power lies mainly in the ability to juxtapose members of different religions and write about them sincerely. There are not too many children’s books written in both Arabic and Hebrew, let alone books that bring together the wealthy Mimoun and the poor Sisou family in Morocco for a Passover seder, where the former finds out that even he can be their Elijah. Or take Maha in Wadi Nisnas who buys a raincoat for old Abu-‘Issa and explains to her son Fadi that she did it not so that the old man would give his coat to Jesus (Issa), but out of the hope that the old man’s “happiness would touch his heart.” The book’s ability to tell stories and legends centered on Jews, Muslims and Christians, in order to reveal the the human spirit in every person, in every society, in every religion — is so rare in these parts.

A response to Yinon Magal

In late November 2015, Yinon Magal, then a member of Knesset in the Jewish Home party — which controls the Education Ministry — gave his last speech in the Knesset. This was a few days before several women complained that he had sexually harassed them, eventually leading to his resignation. While reading Sweet Tea with Mint And Other Stories, I recalled this long forgotten speech, a well-planned, demagogic trick that Magal chose to deliver in lousy Arabic. Using “right-wing-Zionist-Arabic,” full of hatred for Arabic speakers, Magal hoped to “tell you (Arabs) the truth.” But truth was nowhere to be found, and instead Magal resorted to much of the cheap incitement we are so used to hearing from the Israeli political right and center. “You do not kill us because of the occupation or the settlements,” Magal said in his Arabic as he stared down the Arab MKs, “the truth is you kill and hate us because we are the landlords.”

He then proceeded to declare that “a Palestinian state will never be established,” and referred to Surah 7, verse 106 in the Quran, which supposedly proves that “this is our homeland.” The Arabic language stands in defiance to Magal, along with the message of the Sweet Tea with Mint And Other Stories, which is written in real Arabic and includes references to the holy scriptures of all three monotheistic religions. But unlike Magal, who represents the bankruptcy of Israeli society in more ways than one, this book charts the course our society could have taken.

Despite all its treasures, however, the book might cause its readers to feel helpless. Israeli schoolchildren would obviously benefit from it enormously. Surely if they read the letter written by Matilde to Maha and Fadi, or they smell the stones as they are heated up in Rouhama Sisou’s courtyard, or if they listen to Shlomi who fights against the expulsion of African refugees because “that’s the humane thing to do,” something will touch their hearts. They will be empowered to dare and see the Arab as they see the Jew, to protest against the expulsion of refugee children, to no longer consider Islam their enemy. But the helplessness lies in the feeling that while our children may be willing to listen, the Israeli adult world – from the Education Ministry to the great majority of school principals and teachers, and even parents – will not be willing to tell those stories to their children.

“Sweet Tea with Mint And Other Stories” is a collaboration of the Department of Education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, produced with support from the European Union. There will be a book launch on January 12, 2016, at 5:30 p.m., at the Ben-Gurion university. The public is invited.

Yoni Mendel is the projects manager of the Mediterranean Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and co-editor of the book review section of the Journal of Levantine Studies (JLS). This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Carmen

      This made me smile and feel sadness. It sounds like a truly wonderful book. I would imagine it would bring tears to many people, Muslims, Jews and Christians, who long for reconciliation and peace, one nation, one people, no lords and masters, to borrow a phrase – Liberté, égalité, fraternité

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        manic Marnie/Carmen

        You have never condemned the butcher of Israelis in the streets of Israel by your Muslim Arab brothers with meat cleavers and machetes, but instead call it legitimate resistance.

        On the other hand, you shed hypocritical tears blurting out hallucinatory nonsense about Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Have you taken a look at Palestinian children’s book? Are you aware that, while Jews teach their children about co-existence with Muslims, your Muslim Arabs brothers teach their kids raw anti-Semitism? Are you concerned about that? Of course not. Does that make you a treacherous hypocrite? You decide!

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXcQ892cKso

        BTW
        Remind us again which country you come from and why you were banned from this site and now re-emerge as “Carmen”.

        Reply to Comment
        • Israel

          Ginger LIES/Merkava,

          “…,but instead call it legitimate resistance.”

          HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

          And what would a filthy little Zionist mamzer like you know about “legitimate”?

          “Does that make you a treacherous hypocrite?”

          Nah, it makes YOU a mindless little Zionist Chihuahua dog.

          “Remind us again which country you come from and why you were banned from this site and now re-emerge as “Carmen”.”

          HAHAHAHAHAHA!

          Nah, YOU remind US again which part of the United States YOU come from, “Merkava” alias Merav alias ICat alias Big Cat alias Ginger LIES.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Merkava

      What Yoni Mendel ignores to the detriment of human rights, peace and justice for all, especially the Palestinians it purports to support:

      “The depth of the hatred of Jews and Israel taught to Palestinian children in the PA-ruled territories appears to eradicate any hope for a peaceful future in the region. A comprehensive report recently compiled by Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) reveals a well-known secret – that the official Palestinian Authority (PA) education system is teaching the next generation to hate Israel and Israelis, using the most virulent anti-Semitic concepts and materials to convey its messages and thus dashing any hopes for a peaceful future. The report documents in detail how hate, ant-Semitism and honoring murderers are fundamental elements of PA education”.

      Read more here: http://unitedwithisrael.org/the-palestinian-authority-education-system-a-recipe-for-hate-and-terror/

      Reply to Comment
      • Israel

        “The depth of the hatred of Jews and Israel taught to Palestinian children in the PA-ruled territories appears to eradicate any hope for a peaceful future in the region.”

        Nah, it’s “taught to Palestinian children” by your perverted Tzahal pedophiles, when they molest, humiliate and torture Palestinian children in Israeli cells, inside Israeli occupied Palestine, in the name of all “Jews” and “Israel”.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      Who’s surprised that Merkava apparently sees Yinon Magal as a behavioral role model? Anyone? A role model for Israelis. Someone to emulate. The Magal who reportedly likes to molest subordinates. Who takes pleasure in humiliating and dominating, grabbing and taking. Caught here on the Knesset camera saying he’s taking what he feels like taking. Because he can. Did Magal tell the women he groped that “you just don’t like it because I’m the landlord”? Does he walk around the West Bank saying to its Palestinian inhabitants “excuse me I’ve never told you this but your hills and valleys make me so horny, I’m going to declare them closed molestation zones”?

      How’s that persuasion strategy working for you now, Magal? Got any data on the results?

      Reply to Comment
      • Merkava

        jihadi-Ben alias “Israel” alias “Bruce Gould” alias “Eliza” alias etc. asks:

        “Who’s surprised that Merkava apparently sees Yinon Magal as a behavioral role model? Anyone?”

        No one, not even me, moron! You just made the point that Yoni Mendel is NOT a “behavioral role model”!, butyour attempt at distraction is rather childish and silly.

        BTW, Ben,
        Why is this lunatic obsession you have with Ginger Eis? You created the alias “Israel” just for Ginger Eis?! What exactly is YOUR problem with her? You can’t debate me and Gustav mano-a-mano, you lose debates, run away and you take out your anger on a Lady who ignores you, called you “a pig” and told you that you are not worth talking to? You think Marnie/Carmen does not know that and that you are trying to use her as a cover to continue your obsession with Ginger Eis? You are seriously ill, Ben, and in need of professional help. Folks like you either go for treatment or end up in jail or deep underground.

        Seek professional help, Ben: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11577176/Stalking-Rejected-obsessed-and-mentally-ill.-How-stalkers-think.html

        No, jihadi-Ben, roll “israel” out and show the world what a lunatic old turd you really are. Here comes Ben alias “israel” ……

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Doubling down on your strategy? Displaying your Israeliness in all its ugliness? That’ll work. Sure. Why not? You’re Israeli and Jewish. The rules are for other people. “Is there anything else?”

          We’re quite used to it by now. And then you’ll the first one to have conniption fits when someone reminds you of the American official who said “You can’t embarrass an Israeli.”

          <>

          It doesn’t bother you that, as an ambassador of Israeliness, you suggest in every post of yours that there is something pathologically obnoxious and entitled about Israeli culture? Something sick? That there’s something about you that defines the attitude behind the occupation? That you sit around whining about how they hate you and yet can’t make the connection to your utter cruelty to them and their children in the West Bank? And your pervasive discrimination against them everywhere? Pathological narcissism personified. You don’t get that?

          Of course you don’t! You’re Israeli!

          Reply to Comment
          • Merkava

            Yet another gibberish, scurrilous anti-Semitic screed from jihadi-Ben who, this time, replaces “Jewishness” with “Israeliness”. This jihadi-loon ignores the fact Muslim Arabs are the ones teaching their children that Jews are descendants of apes and how to kill Jews (see the video above). Here is what jihadi-Ben posted when he was posting as “Brian” where he used “Jewishness” instead of “Israeliness”:

            Brian
            Wednesday
            October 29, 2014

            Again, Jewishness as a kind of mafia, ruled by a code of omertà!

            Reply to Comment

            Frank
            Wednesday
            October 29, 2014

            NOT Jewishness!!! Some Israelis, just like some Italians.

            Reply to Comment

            Brian
            Wednesday
            October 29, 2014

            Unfortunately it’s not just some individuals. It’s a whole entrenched racist system, a system of Jewish superiority and Arab inferiority. On many overlapping levels. With a code of silence enveloping it. Why do you think a certain organization calls itself “Breaking The Silence”?
            Reply to Comment

            Samba
            Friday
            October 31, 2014

            Jewish …Maffia ??jajaja more Christans _Maffia. you are stupide to insinate religion.
            http://972mag.com/photographed-punching-an-arab-woman-sue-the-photographer/98152/

            You are a deranged anti-Semite, jihadi-Ben! Now, we know that you are sickly obsessed with Ginger Eis and looking for every excuse to start going all cucu and wild about her, but she was not even part of that discussion. YOUR debate is with ME – your fellow MAN! Let’s roll, or, perhaps now you want to roll out “israel” to show the world what a deranged lunatic you are?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I considered the possibility that discussing Magal’s problems might arouse you. Please discuss your sexual interests elsewhere, however. It grosses me out. If you want to call yourself a man, however, that’s ok with me. Nothing wrong with that.

            Reply to Comment
    4. I would also appreciate the info on any other Hebrew-Arabic books for children. Thank you in advance.

      Reply to Comment