“Falafel Liftawi” is a small falafel stand on the side of the road connecting student housing at the French Hill neighborhood to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A little behind it is the grandiose and luxurious Hyatt Hotel.
By its name, I assumed that its proprietor is probably a refugee from the Lifta village located at Jerusalem’s western entrance, and old Liftawi responded to my question with an affirmative and a smile. Yes, he’s a “Liftawi”.
“Would you be willing to tell your story to Jewish and Arab high school students?” I asked, and he agreed.
At the time, I taught a unique program that was developed at Hebrew University’s Gilo Center for Citizenship, Democracy and Civic Education. A group of high school students from all over Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious kids were studying together “expanded citizenship” at a program called: “Living in Jerusalem – Citizenship and Multi Cultures in Jerusalem,” and I was happy to have the opportunity to take my class to the small falafel place that they’d pass by every week on their way to university and to hear the story behind it. I took another two teachers with me –Aaladin from Abu Ghosh and Dudu who teaches at a religious high school. The three of us together led the classes in three languages, Arabic, Hebrew and ‘religious’…
Our day for going to see Liftawi had arrived, we sat close together in the small space immersed in the smell of frying, Liftawi sat next to his eldest son and he began his story about Lifta Village, its beauty and its inhabitants, and proceeded to 1948, the expulsion, becoming a refugee and his life since then.
The fire was lit surprisingly quickly. On the one side there were the Arab students from Beit Safafa and Abu Ghosh who were mesmerized by the old man’s story, some shedding tears, next to the Jewish students who’s tension noticeably rose during the telling, and a few minutes after Liftawi finished his narrative, started to angrily object to his accusations about the ‘Jews’, the ‘army’, and ‘Israel.’ To add fuel to the fire, Liftawi’s son joined the discussion, talking about his hardships at the barricades surrounding Jerusalem, and his rage at the confiscation of the village’s lands and houses. The discussion deteriorated into shouts that just got louder, and finally the teachers exchanged a look that said, “we’re done here and we’re returning to class,” not before old Liftawi handed us all servings of fresh falafel for the road that calmed things down a little while everyone was busy chewing.
Thankfully it was time for the students to go home, and there was a weeklong break until the next meeting.
After a week of indecision on how to handle the consequences of the previous charged meeting, it was time for class. We took our group outside and asked them to sit in an ‘aquarium’ formation: an inner circle of Jews and an outer circle of Arabs. The Jewish students would converse under my guidance and the Arab students would listen ‘from the outside,’ if anyone would want to ask anything or make a comment, they’d enter the inner circle, have their say and return to their seat.
I asked the Jewish students to describe their feelings from the meeting with Liftawi.
“After he started his story, when he was talking about the expulsion and destruction of the village, I felt like he was attacking me personally. I felt I must defend the IDF and Israelis in general, like I was taught – the best defense is a good offense,” said one of the students.
Another said, “we’ve always been told to stand together against our attackers. I must never ever keep silent when there are accusations against my country, my army. If I don’t respond immediately, it’s like I agree with the Palestinian claims against Zionism, and it undermines my right to exist here.”
One of the Abu Ghosh girls asked to enter the inner circle. “The man told you a true story,” she said. “Couldn’t you identify with his words on a basic human level and understand the man who became a refugee, without turning the issue into a battle of life or death?”
There was no answer for her.
The circles switched. The Jewish students move to the outer circle and listened to their Arab cohorts guided by my colleague Aladin, who translated their words into Hebrew so that they could express themselves freely and eloquently in Arabic. “I didn’t know where to place myself, what side I was on,” said one of the Arab students. We are called ‘the internal Arabs,’ those left in Palestine who did not become refugees. I am a citizen of this country and enjoy its existence, and the destroyed Lifta is five minutes away from my house by car, and old man Liftawi who’s my grandfather’s age, will never be able to return. At his falafel stand I’m a Palestinian like him and feel his pain, and here at university I’m an Israeli who has to go through a tougher security check at the entrance but sits with you in class on equal footing. I felt like I had to apologize to the Liftawi family, and to preserve and carry forward their legacy.”
The discussion continued, and the end of class was quiet like it has never been before. It seemed like the burden of all our thoughts and insights created the need for a long silence.