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2019-2020 Binghamton University CAMERA Fellow Shiraz Otani

Peace. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many people have aspired to achieve it, but they all have yet to do so. There are also those, of course, who don’t want peace and prefer to vie with their neighbors, rather than achieve a just and viable solution.

For many years, I have discussed the prospect of peace through the eyes of Israelis and Palestinians, but never (at least, not comprehensively) from the vantage point of Israeli Arabs. They are the largest minority in Israel and loyal citizens. However, they are often marginalized by anti-Zionist voices because they cannot be categorized as an oppressed population. In this minority, stands Yoseph Haddad, an army veteran who is an outspoken advocate of peace and someone who provided me a firsthand account into the life of an Israeli-Arab.

I had the honor of speaking with Yoseph about his experience. As I awaited his phone call, thoughts raced through my mind. I anticipated a man who would be what so many peace-wishers seem to be these days: unpragmatic, biased, relentless. Moments later, the phone rang and a youthful voice, one full of elation, answered on the other end. Not a hint of resentment lingered in his voice; instead was a speck of hope and a dash of happiness. After hearing his story, I understood why.

Yoseph, an Israeli-Arab Christian, grew up in Haifa, a mixed city on the northwest coast of Israel. During his upbringing, he felt as Israeli as his Jewish peers, considering many of them his close friends. This sense of belonging ultimately led to his drafting into the Israeli Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade, arguably one of its most prestigious units. This is notable because when I asked him what prompted him to join, he responded, “I think that we are all Israelis. The IDF is not a JDF, it is an Israeli defense force—meaning defense for all Israelis, whether you are Druze, Arab or Christian.” He was absolutely correct, but his response speaks to his character and reiterates why his work is so important.

During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Yoseph lost a foot during an explosion. Israeli doctors were able to reattach it with much metal, but also told him that he’ll probably have trouble walking for the rest of his life. Within a year, session after session, Yoseph recovered to such an extent that he was able to play soccer, his favorite sport, once again.

After his military service, he founded his organization, Vouch for Each Other—a grassroots attempt to unite Israeli society. The organization boasts a membership of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze, and is creating an effective change in the way the world perceives the intercommunal relationships that exist in Israel. The organization also works with Palestinians across the Green Line, many of whom want a lasting peace with Israel. There are also those who want to perpetuate the conflict, and so silence peace activists by threats and intimidation, many of which have targeted Yoseph.

But if there is one thing most admirable about Yoseph, it’s his resilience. He aspires to see an Israel in which tolerance is systemic, fostering relationships between those who have disparate beliefs. His work is not only commendable; it is remarkable and brave. To continue fighting for your beliefs after being injured by your enemies and threatened by your community, one must be truly devoted to their mission. It is evident that Yoseph is.

This story is a personal one for me, specifically because I have a brother serving in the IDF at the moment in the Givati Brigade (another elite unit). The thought of Daniel being maimed in any shape or form strikes fear within my core daily and underscores why building bridges to create peace remains so important. While peers his age are studying in universities, Daniel is patrolling Nablus (also known as Shechem) to ensure that terror is not perpetrated within Israel’s border. This reality reminds me of the perils that Israelis face—more than that, the importance of these threats not being whitewashed by people who would prefer that a Jewish state cease to exist.

“But if there is one thing most admirable about Yoseph, it’s his resilience. He aspires to see an Israel in which tolerance is systemic, fostering relationships between those who have disparate beliefs.”

Yoseph speaks for the silent majority in Israel, but his voice should not stand alone. Being an outlier is no simple feat, but as more individuals rise up to make a difference, those who are afraid will emerge from the shadows to help rebuild a society fragmented by hate and ideological tensions. My only hope is that this emergence will come before our world is broken beyond repair.

Originally published in JNS.org.

Contributed by 2019-2020 Binghamton University CAMERA Fellow and president of CAMERA-supported Binghamton University Zionist Organization Shiraz Otani.

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