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Friendship Across Borders

By Michael S. Ladah

During the first few months of 1948, there was considerable debate among Palestinians about the safety of their families in Palestine. This debate was especially intense among members of my parents’ extended families. I remember my mother and my grandparents talking about leaving our house in Jafa and going to the mountains for a short while until the fighting stopped. My parents had done that once before during WWII. They had traveled to Jiffna, a small Christian village outside Ramallah, and stayed there for a few weeks until things cooled down (or until my parents got used to the idea of the war). My father was not interested in leaving Jafa again.

Members of my parents’ extended families constantly argued with my father that the situation was becoming unsafe for the entire population, but especially for children. Their argument was supported by random acts of violence committed by both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict where Zionist Jews exploded bombs in various business and residential districts of Arab towns, and Palestinian resistance groups exploded bombs in various business and residential districts of Jewish towns. The Zionists were anxious to motivate Palestinians to vacate their homeland to make way for Jewish immigrants from the west. Palestinians responded by trying to motivate the Jewish immigrants to return to where they had come from. The Government of Palestine, at that time administered by the British under the Mandate System, had lost its effectiveness and had virtually no control over the violence. Additionally, the British had very little incentive, if any, to control the situation, and were anxious to hand the area over to its local population, the Palestinians, as part of an agreement made by the British Government for Palestinian independence. The British Government had also promised a "homeland for the Jews in Palestine" through its vaguely worded Balfour Declaration. The Zionists, who extracted such a declaration from the British Government, intended and interpreted such a promise to mean, and felt justified in fighting for, a political presence in Palestine in the form of a state. The Palestinian population, on the other hand, felt betrayed by the British Government who had promised Palestinian independence ever since the British started their rule of Palestine under the Mandate System. The Palestinian population felt that the British gave the Jewish population a promise they had no legal, moral or ethical right to give. Therefore, both sides felt committed to their respective side of the argument and were ready to die to defend it by any means, including acts of violence against innocent civilians.

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Church of All Nations

Salim's Story

My father, Salim, was not agreeable to leaving Palestine and did not, at first, agree with the argument that it was unsafe for him or his family to stay in Jafa. He did not fear what was going on. He felt comfortable where he was and always felt that he was able to go anywhere in Arab Jafa, Jewish Tel Aviv and any other parts of Palestine and Trans-Jordan without anyone or anything bothering him. Salim had been an orphan when he was 8 years old and grew up with his older brother and sister in a Lutheran missionary orphanage and school, the Syrian Orphanage, otherwise known as the Schneller School, in Jerusalem. Father Schneller, who had come to Jerusalem from Southern Germany in 1854, had founded the Orphanage in 1860. The purpose of the Orphanage had been to give orphans from Greater Syria (today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) a home and a school, which would enable them to learn a trade. So many Palestinians of my father’s generation were graduates of the Syrian Orphanage (the Schneller School).

My father learned the trade of diesel mechanic during the four years he was at the Schneller School, and returned to live in Jafa with his aunt, his mother's sister, when he was 12 years old. After working for a couple of years in a Palestinian Arab's machine shop, Salim went to work in Tel Aviv in a shop owned by the Smerlings, a Jewish family who had been in Palestine for many years. Salim was a hard worker and his training at Schneller School prepared him for the hard work and high performance that was required of him in this new job. Salim felt very close to his new employer and his employer’s family. He learned Hebrew in no time and learned the Jewish customs and traditions out of respect for his friends, the Smerling’s sons. The Smerlings had three sons who were about Salim’s age. The three sons and Salim became very close and the four of them saw one another not only during work, but outside work as well. The old man Smerling was very fond of Salim and treated him like one of his sons. As a matter of fact, one of the Smerling boys often jokingly complained to his father that he treated the Arab (my father) better than he treated his own sons and was teaching him more of the trade secrets than he was teaching them.

I do remember, when I was very little, vast orange groves where my parents used to take me and my sisters to the home of their friends for tea (in the English sense). I remember the pleasant smell of orange blossoms and the smell of the orange leaves, which my father used to rub in his hands and place under my nose for me to smell. He knew it was a favorite scent of mine. It is a smell that, even today, reminds me of those orange groves, especially when someone opens a bottle of rose water, or when I eat Arabic sweets made with rose water. In the orange groves, my two sisters and I had tea with milk, ate German cakes and cookies and played with little puppies in the afternoon sun. My parents and their host family would make fun of me; my father would tease my mother when my white neat shorts and nice yellow shirt would get muddy brown. My parents would later explain to me that the beautiful Sunday afternoons we used to spend at the orange groves were with the Smerlings at their country home.

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Birth Place of Christ - Church of The Nativity

Refugee? Once Is Enough

My father’s wishes about staying behind in 1948 notwithstanding, fate had it that he and his whole family left to settle in Ramallah in what became known as the West Bank starting that Palm Sunday in April 1948. After May 1948, all communications and transportation were cut off between the Arab world and what became Israel. Nineteen years after becoming a refugee for the first time in his life, my father and his family were about to become refugees again in 1967, during the second major conflict between Israel and the Arab countries. This time, however, many Palestinians decided not to leave voluntarily. My father was one of those Palestinians who decided to stay and continue working in his workshop in Ramallah and make the best of what God gave him and whatever He had in store for him and for all the other Palestinians.

The war was still raging and the Israeli forces had just entered Ramallah and started the occupation regime. The population was so scared that people would not venture outside their homes even when they were not under direct curfew. Those who did venture outside to see family, friends or neighbors during daylight made sure they returned to their homes through the side streets and back alleys well before dark. The Israeli soldiers were going around to certain homes to round up community leaders and warn them about any temptation to mount any resistance. They jailed those who did not show or promise cooperation. The Israeli soldiers were knocking on the doors of homes where they suspected young men and women were causing them problems in the form of mild nuisance resistance.

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The Olive Tree- Symbol of Peace

The Reunion

The next time I saw my father after the war, he told me a very touching story. Late one evening my father, my brother and my sisters were sitting home with little to do after dark, when they heard a loud knock at the door. Most doors in Ramallah and most Arab towns in the West Bank are made of steel, and a knock on a steel door with the butt of a machine gun made a very loud reverberating noise. The noise made everyone jump for it was very frightening. At first, everyone including my father just sat there with no reaction. They knew that this had to be the knock of Israeli occupation soldiers and wondered what the soldiers wanted at their house and at that time of night. My stepmother volunteered to answer the door. She thought that the soldiers might be kinder to a woman. But my father stopped her, told everyone to go all the way to the back of the house and went to answer the door. He asked who was at the door. The response was a question, first one voice asked in Hebrew and then another in Arabic, "Is this the house of Salim Abu Michael?" My father wondered who would know him by name and nom de guerre and would speak to him in Hebrew. Most, if not all, the Israeli soldiers who were stationed on the West Bank and who dealt with the Palestinian population spoke Arabic when they talked to Palestinians; most of them were Druze of Arab origin who spoke Arabic fluently. My father was less intimidated now that someone at the door knew him by name, but continued to be cautious. He opened the door while answering positively, in Arabic then in Hebrew, to the question and asked who was looking for him. As he opened the door, he saw in what little light was coming from the street two Israeli soldiers in army fatigues and two civilians standing behind them. The soldiers were carrying two machine guns pointed directly at his face and his abdomen. One of the soldiers asked my father again in Hebrew whether he was Salim Abu Michael, and my father acknowledged again in both languages and added quickly the question as to who was looking for him. The two civilians rushed from behind the soldiers toward my father. He could not understand what they were saying because the soldiers held the civilians back, turned my father around, pushed him against the wall and started to search him. The two civilians identified themselves. My father couldn’t believe his ears and when the strip search was over he couldn’t believe his eyes. He hugged each of the civilians one at a time and then both of them together.

The two civilians had thought about my father during the Six-Day War, nineteen years after the last time they saw my father in 1948, were concerned about his safety and his welfare and came to offer whatever assistance he needed. They had heard that he was living in Ramallah and they could not get in touch with him, nor he with them, since 1948. Because of their concerns, they violated their own safety as civilians and came from Tel Aviv, where they always lived, crossing military lines to Ramallah which was now an Israeli military zone prohibited to Israeli civilians. They were picked up at the first checkpoint and knew the commander through their prior service in the Israeli Army and were escorted by army soldiers, as a favor from the commander, to Ramallah to look up my father. They explained that they were at the first checkpoint that afternoon and it took them most of the day to locate my father. They had almost given up on finding my father when they were able to convince someone in Ramallah to identify my father's house for them and that they meant him no harm. The civilians were two of the Smerling brothers with whom my father had practically grown up and worked since he was 14 years old in Tel Aviv.

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Dome of the Rock

Arab and Jew

My father explained that identifying someone's house was not normally a very patriotic thing for a Palestinian to do when dealing with a couple of men escorted by Israeli occupation soldiers. He and the two Smerling brothers were very happy to see each other again after 19 years of separation; they had gotten a lot older but did not look much different, my father told them. That evening, my father felt his misery go away, at least temporarily. He was so proud to see his closest friends remember him after 19 years and come rushing to his aid. He called my stepmother, asked her to prepare dinner and maza. He told my younger brother to bring the arak and whiskey and to pour two glasses of arak for my father and one of the brothers, and a glass of whiskey for the other brother. He told my stepmother to give my brother some food and water to take to the soldiers outside; he did not invite them into the house. After a long evening of breaking bread, my father thanked the Smerling brothers for their gesture and told them that he would go to Tel Aviv to see them if and when the occupation authorities allowed him. He told them, however, not to venture again to come see him. He explained that he loved them as his own brothers, but the symbolism of their helping him in any way was not favorable to his honor as a member of the Palestinian Arab community. With tears starting to show in his eyes, he told them how valuable their friendship was and that he would make sure it continued to be for as long as he lived and that he would see them as civilians, but not escorted with soldiers. They hugged him and they went on their way. My father has since passed many years ago, but I can still see his face telling the story and crying intermittently. I could feel his pain, but I could do nothing to comfort him other than to say that one day we may be able to live together again. Maybe we will be able to go, like in the days when I was very little, to those vast orange groves where my parents used to take me to the home of their friends for tea.

My father later visited the Smerlings in their homes in Jafa and Tel Aviv. He continued to see them regularly and would even do work in their machine shop on occasion when his shop in Ramallah was not equipped for work he needed to do. In 1976, nine years after the war, I visited my father in Ramallah and he took me with him on one of his trips to the Smerling's machine shop. Whenever he visited them in their machine shop in Tel Aviv, my father would carry with him raw kabob made of lamb, one bottle of Ramallah arak and a bunch of other side dishes. He knew that his Jewish friends loved Arabic food and he was always willing to share it with them. As soon as he got to the Smerling’s machine shop he would send one of the helpers there to take the kabob to the bakery a couple of blocks away and have it cooked. When I went with him, he followed the same routine and around noon the kabob was ready with the salads and the steamed rice, the hummos, the tabbouleh and the arak. My father and I sat with the Smerling sons and had the most wonderful bread breaking that any two peoples could ever have. My father continued to travel to Tel Aviv to visit the Smerlings until he died in 1991. The Smerlings always respected his wishes and, as long as he was living under Israeli occupation, they would not go to his home. That very first time they came with the two soldiers was the only exception. The Arab-Israeli conflict caused a lot of hatred for the two peoples. The Palestinians in general and my family in particular had to go through a lot of pain and misery. Yet, my father's story with the Smerlings gave a glimmer of hope that the two peoples would recognize each other's misery and find peace for all with dignity for everyone.

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New Gate

2000 Michael S. Ladah - All Rights Reserved

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