'Somebody has to start' - Sharaka seeks to build on push for peace

PHOTO: Sharaka panelists share their experiences and goals with attendees at their presentation Monday, Jan. 22 at Congregation Neveh Shalom. The group hopes to build on the sucess of the Abraham Accords to create a peaceful, prosperous Middle East. (Rockne Roll/The Jewish Review)

The Jewish Review
“You all know the joke: An Orthodox Jew, a Christian and three Arabs walk into a shul,” Dan Feferman, executive director of Sharaka started his remarks at Congregation Neveh Shalom with. “We’re the punch line.” 
The five panelists on Neveh Shalom’s bimah Monday, Jan. 22, fit the description Feferman provided, but their work is anything but a joke – it’s hope for a peaceful, harmonious future in the Middle East. 
All five are affiliated with Sharaka, a non-governmental organization whose name means “partnership” in Arabic and whose mission is to promote the Abraham Accords, normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and a number of Arab states.
Feferman, a policy expert and former security adviser for the Israel Defense Forces, started the story of how he found his way to the organization by illustrating the situation before the Abraham Accords were signed. 
“Imagine if we told you here in Oregon, ‘Guess what? You can’t talk to Canadians. They’re off limits. They’re forbidden,’” Feferman said. “What happens after seven decades of being off limits from your neighbors is they demonize you, you demonize them.”
Feferman was able to travel to Dubai shortly after normalization, using his American passport to reach the United Arab Emirates before many of his Israeli friends. He found a diversity of thought and opinion on all manner of subjects, something he did not expect after the decades of isolation between Israel and these countries. He made new friends, who invited him to join Sharaka months later. 
Feferman explained that while the diplomatic agreements are on paper, the reality of progress toward a harmonious, prosperous region are forged in interpersonal connection. 
“The connectivity is the collaborations, the conversations, the energy,” he said. “That’s what inspired me and many of my friends and the people who started Sharaka to join on this crazy journey. Let’s take these peace agreements on paper, let’s make them real and let’s try to popularize that across the region.”
That idea , put simply, is Sharaka’s slogan – “Shaping a new Middle East, together.”
Sometimes, the ideas that lead toward those goals come from unexpected sources. 
Naveen Elias, the Christian on the panel, is an ArameanIsraeli citizen from an Arab community in Northern Israel. She recalls when her child asked a teacher about the sirens he heard outside the school. He didn’t get an answer from the teacher, and Elias didn’t know what it was. Her son did his own research and found the sirens were for the national moment of silence on Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day. The next year, he stood in class when the siren sounded on Yom HaZikaron.
The teacher said, ‘You cannot stand. It’s a bad day for us,’” Elias recalled. “He said, ‘No, I am an Israeli citizen. I will stand.’”
He was thrown out of the school. The incident inspired Elias to take up her own study of the region’s history, both the Jewish people’s historical connection to the land and the massacre of more than 500 Maronite Christian civilians by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Damour, Lebanon in 1976. At age 39, Elias joined the IDF. Her brother is also serving. 
“We are very proud about that.” 
While Elias got to know Israel better from within, Youssef Elazhari took another path.
Elazhari, a Moroccan, comes from one of the few places in the Arab world that still has a sizable Jewish community. He joked that the primary differentiation between Jews and Muslims in Moroccan society is that you don’t see Jews out on Friday nights – they’re at home observing Shabbat. But he had still absorbed anti-Israeli and antisemitic propaganda from elsewhere in the Middle East. 
“A lot of things changed when I went to Israel. I went with a lot of misconceptions,” Elazhari explained. “I think I was huggied in Israel more than I was getting in Morocco. You see the warmth. You see the love. You see how people are very inclusive. I felt like I’m home.”
Like Elias, there were consequences from his embrace of the Jewish state. He had started a company with a colleague who was pro-Hamas and opposed to any engagement with Israel; the co-founder pulled out of the business rather than continue to work with Elazhari. 
Still, Elazhari sticks to the wisdom that his parents gave him. 
“Whenever you go to a foreign place and you don’t find a Muslim family, go to a Jewish family. At least the food is halal,” he jokingly shared from his parents’ wisdom. “But at the same time, they know that they will take care of me. These are the values I want to share.”
Elazhari continues to work in marketing, and sees cultural exchange as the key to opening relations between Israel and its neighbors. 
“I think that cinema is very important, culture in general is very important,” he said. “I can’t recall anyone hating Gal Gadot.”
Fatima Al Harbi also had a surprising experience her first time in Israel. She visited from Bahrain shortly after the accords were signed, wearing a black abaya as is traditional for Muslim women from Bahrain and other societies around the Persian Gulf. The group of women she was with, all similarly dressed, was stopped in the street by a man who wanted to ask a question. Al Harbi agreed, though she was nervous. The man asked if they were from Bahrain. When they replied they were, he welcomed them.
“’We’ve been waiting to have peace with Arabs for a long time,’” she recalled the man saying. “I never dreamed that I would be welcomed this way in Israel. I’ve never thought that people would be opening their arms and being so friendly. I was invited to so many Shabbats by strangers the moment they saw me.”
She had been told she might be assaulted if she went to pray at the Al-Asqa mosque – she came and went without incident. The real issues came when she started posting on social media about her experience.
“People started attacking me,” Al Harbi said. “They wanted to silence me, they wanted to hack my account. They didn’t like the narrative that Israel is a beautiful country, and Israelis are amazing.”
Al Harbi was labeled a traitor. One commentor hoped for her plane to crash when she returned. Another told her to take off her abaya, saying she was no longer Muslim. 
“Even my mom and my sister back home in Bahrain received so much hate because of my trip,” she said. “I went to Israel with the goal of curiosity. I wanted to meet people and see the country. But I left Israel with a special agenda of advocating for peace. I want to build bridges. I want people to see the reality of the people of Israel.”
Ahmed Khuzaie is a Bahraini political consultant who also got quite the surprise when he visited Israel for the first time.
“I thought I was well versed in my field and what I do,” he explained. “Having lots of Jewish friends, I thought I knew all about Israel. I can’t deny that I was a little bit scared. Just like Fatima mentioned before, they hate us. They don’t like us.”
What surprised Khuzaie on arrival was the street signs. Israeli street signs are all trilingual, printed in Hebrew, English and – to Khuzaie’s surprise – Arabic. 
“We were taught that Israel is an apartheid state,” he said. “How would an apartheid state recognize the language of those people who it cleanses?”
Khuzaie said from the perspective of much of the Arab world, Israel has been “a ghost,” for all 75 years of its modern existence – existing but not existing. The beauty of the Abraham Accords is that they represent a new way of doing things after three-quarters of a century of the old way that didn’t work. 
“Wouldn’t it be stupid to try that all over again and expect different results out of that?” he said. ”Let’s try it over a Shabbat dinner where the Bahraini could gain five pounds because his friend is a good cook.”
He paused to let the moment of levity sink in, and added, “true story, by the way.”
An Orthodox Jew, a Christian, and three Arabs – but no Palestinians. There’s a reason for that, Al Harbi explained, and it’s not that they aren’t interested in working with Sharaka. 
It’s because openly doing so would put their lives in danger. An Israeli Arab from a Palestinian family had his car burnt because he was working with Israelis. An Iraqi activist wanted to work with Sharaka, but the organization had to turn him down because working with Israelis would get an Iraqi killed almost assuredly. 
“We have a few Palestinians that work with us, but behind the scenes,” she explained. “We don’t want them to endanger themselves.”
And while the Abraham Accords do not include the Palestinians, the subject of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian people naturally comes up in discussions of Israel’s diplomacy. It’s been widely conjectured that part of Hamas’ motivation for the attacks of Oct. 7 was to disrupt Israel’s progress toward diplomatic normalization in the broader region. 
Feferman lives an hour away from the Gaza border in southern Israel. He put Hamas’ attack in stark terms. 
“This is a full-frontal attack on the modern countries of the region,” he said. 
Feferman continued that the success of the Abraham Accords has added diplomatic relations with Israel to the list of criteria that differentiates successful, modern, future-oriented nations in the region from their neighbors; a reality Hamas has a natural interest in disrupting.
“Peace with Israel is the biggest sign that you are a forward-looking country that wants your country to prosper,” Feferman said. “Look at all the countries that have either signed or are looking to sign and look at all the countries that haven’t.”
While Arab communities in some countries – including people in Bahrain, as Al Harbi pointed out – were cheering Hamas’ terrorists on, the tide of public opinion has started to shift. Elazhari said that while there were, and are, Hamas supporters in Morocco, the experience of Oct. 7 was eye-opening for a lot of people in the country. 
“It really changed how they see the region,” he said. “What we are used to is that Israel is the bad guy according to the misinformation they have everyday. Right now, we see that Hamas is killing innocent people. That was new to them.”
“I knew immediately at that day, that what will happen next to Palestinians, that innocent people would die because of the acts of Hamas that they did towards Israel,” Al Harbi said. “Three days later, people started crying over the Palestinians.”
She had posted on social media in solidarity with Israel, and “when I shared also that I grieve for the Palestinian innocent life, they called me ‘double standards,’ because they want me to choose a side.”
Media outlets in the Arab world, and elsewhere, have provided a slanted view of events. 
“They have portrayed Hamas as the victims,” Khuzaie said. “They have been portraying Israelis as the reason why all that happened. Which makes no sense, but that’s reality.”
“Our effort today is to change that narrative,” he continued. “It’s not easy. It’s just few of us. But it takes a lot of time, lots of courage from these young people here to face their communities. It’s not easy to hear all those slurs or to receive death threats on an almost daily basis. But somebody has to start.”
Find more information online at sharakango.com. 


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