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An Israeli and a Palestinian-American sit down together

On a Sunday morning a fortnight ago, Naomi, an Israeli student, met with Layla, a Palestinian-American student (both students’ names have been changed for this article). They sat down together, ate Purim cookies from a tupperware that Naomi had brought, and talked for nearly two hours. I separately interviewed Naomi and Layla before and after their meeting, but their actual discussion was private and unrecorded. Neither had met the other beforehand. 

“My mom’s side is just Western European,” Layla told me. “But on my dad's side we are from Haifa, which is now [a city in] Israel — it was Palestine when my family was there.” Layla’s grandfather was born in British-controlled Mandatory Palestine — a region which, in 1948, was split into Israel and (modern) Palestine. Layla’s grandfather grew up in Mandatory Palestine, but “left the house basically overnight, which is kind of the experience of a lot of Palestinians that were living in Palestine when the [1948 Arab-Israeli] War started — just picked up everything and left.”

Layla’s grandfather eventually settled in the United States, where he met Layla’s grandmother and started a family. “My grandfather has not been to Haifa since,” Layla said. “His American passport still says ‘Haifa, Palestine’ is his birthplace — he refuses to change it to ‘Haifa, Israel.’” Layla hasn’t visited Israel or Palestine either. “The Israeli forces in the airport are aware of your last name and everything,” she said. “They will make it hard for you to come back [...] even though my family has lived here for generations. I'm returning to a place that I had to leave.” Layla doesn’t have any family still living in Israel or Palestine: “My family no longer has any connection to Palestine anymore,” she said. “The house where my grandfather grew up is actually now an Airbnb in Israel.” 

Naomi was raised in a secular Jewish family in Tel Aviv, Israel. Two of her grandparents had been born and raised in British-controlled Mandatory Palestine; another grandparent fled there from Nazi Germany, and her fourth grandparent moved from Argentina after the state of Israel had been established. During the October 7 attacks in Israel last year, Naomi was already living in St Andrews. “A friend of mine was shot twice,” she said. “He's okay right now, but I did lose two friends [...] The first two weeks were extremely tough.” Naomi struggled with being abroad from Israel and her loved ones. “It took me around a week till I learned about the first person who died that I knew, because I wasn’t there [in Israel] physically,” she said. “It took around a month for me to know exactly who I know was killed and who I know was wounded.” She felt alone in St Andrews: “No one asked me if I was okay and if my family was okay except for the class representative — it just closed me off.”  

Naomi is an atheist, but since the October 7 attacks she’s started turning to the Jewish community in St Andrews — especially after she saw a swastika spray-painted onto a building on her way to class. “The first time I very much felt Jewish was after October 7, when I saw the swastika,” she said. “The only people who understood me here are the Jewish community.” She feels she’s gotten off lightly, though: “There’s a complete difference between seeing graffiti of something, and having someone attack you — which did happen to a few students here,” Naomi said. Last semester someone tried to rip off a Jewish student’s Star of David necklace, and a couple of other Jewish students wearing kippahs had eggs thrown at them, Naomi told me. “And they weren’t Israeli, they were just Jewish [...] As an Israeli, I don’t go around with a Star of David or anything. For years, I know that whenever I’m abroad, I don’t show my Jewishness and I don’t show my Israeli-ness [...] You are aware that with a small minority of the population, it can put you in danger.” 

I asked Naomi for her expectations of the meeting. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” Naomi said. She wanted to let Layla “take the conversation pretty much wherever she wants,” she told me. “I’m interested in hearing the other side, and seeing where we can find common ground, and showing her maybe a different aspect of our society than our leaders, [who] we currently don’t approve of.” 

For their Sunday-morning meetup, I introduced Naomi and Layla, then left the two of them to talk alone. Naomi had brought along a box of triangular-shaped cookies that she’d baked for Purim, a Jewish holiday. Quickly after they began talking, Layla told me, “we both knew that it wasn't going to be a heated discussion.” 

From the get-go, Naomi was “really validating” of Layla’s identity. “She genuinely was treating me like a Palestinian person,” Layla said. “That is not the experience that I have all the time.”

Layla sometimes struggles to connect to her Palestinian identity. “I never felt Arab enough,” she said. “I want to be — desperately, so badly.” Neither Layla nor her father are practising Muslims, but she grew up “being very knowledgeable of Islam and obviously everything that was happening in Palestine, in Israel,” she told me. “It's always just been a massive part of my life [...] we're always talking about it. [There’s] a lot of angry discussions with the older people in the family.” But she still had reservations agreeing to be interviewed. “Am I Arab enough to even represent my people? Am I even Palestinian enough?”

Talking to Naomi, Layla “felt a little bit silly” at times. “As a Palestinian-American who's never stepped foot in Palestine [or] Israel, sitting across from a girl who told me that she had lost two very close friends in the October 7 attacks. [...] I always feel very safe in St. Andrews, and I'm aware that that is not [Naomi’s] experience,” Layla said. 

During the meetup, Layla realised that neither she nor Naomi could represent the “extremities” of opinion from their respective sides. “I'm Palestinian-American — emphasis on the American,” Layla said. Layla identifies “very heavily with being Palestinian and being Arab,” — but she knew her perspective on the conflict was still “from a place of privilege, from a place of distance.”

Naomi said something similar about herself. She had never had any doubts about supporting a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state — growing up, the two-state solution was “something that was very obvious and kind of the only choice,” she told me. She grew up in a “very left-wing” family, and for a few years she’d lived abroad in Paris. “I do know I represent a specific fragment of Israeli society,” Naomi told me. But, she pointed out, “any Israeli and any Palestinian [sitting down together] would give you a completely different aspect of it.” 

I asked Layla how her upbringing affected her views on the conflict. “Both [my and Naomi’s] understandings of it are biased by how we're connected to it,” Layla said. “Do I sway a certain way based on my family? Yes, but also I read the news [...] I think that there is a perpetual, cruel, prolonged suffering that is happening to the Palestinian people right now [...] Palestinians are still suffering regardless of being connected to Hamas. Israel has not been very proactive in their alleged effort to open up airways, waterways, groundways to get aid [into the Gaza Strip]. These people are starving. The UN has repeatedly brought this up, about how the hunger levels in Gaza, I think, have actually breached famine level.” 

“All these efforts are being made to try and get food [into Gaza] that have been halted by Israel, on multiple occasions,” Layla said. “There’s all these civilians that are suffering [...] they’re all being crammed into one spot in the Gaza Strip, and then those crammed places are being attacked by Israel because [Layla used air quotes] ‘that’s Hamas, and Hamas is there,’” Layla said. “I think that people in Gaza have every right to be extremely angry and upset. And the fact that I'm not really matching their anger in the conversation I had with Naomi makes me feel like I'm a bit of a bad Palestinian.” 

Immediately after October 7, Naomi was consumed by the attack. “The first month was tough,” she said. “But afterwards, seeing what was happening in Gaza? I had to put some of my pain to the side and look at that as well. It’s tough to see it on both sides.”

“However flawed” American and Israeli democracies are, Naomi said, “we can elect leaders.” She contrasted that with the political situation in the West Bank and in Gaza. “They haven’t been able to elect leaders for 15 to 20 years,” Naomi added. “It’s horrific that they can’t do that. [...] The Palestinians can’t choose to get Hamas out of there, because they will just get shot.” 

Naomi emphasised that a lot of Israelis opposed the current government. “I'm anti Israeli government,” Naomi said. “Prior to October 7 for pretty much all year since the start of January, we were out on the street protesting the current government, which is the most right-wing government in the country's history.”

Naomi has hope for Israeli politics, at least after the next election. A centre-left coalition is leading in the polls, she said — and all sections of that coalition “support a two-state solution.” 

Alongside the current situation, Layla and Naomi had discussed the foundation of Israel in 1948. “There was a quota on the amount of Jewish people that could emigrate to certain places,” Layla said. “I understand they had nowhere to go [...] everywhere in the world, obviously, was inhabited by someone. They had to go somewhere, and Palestine is the Holy Land from the Bible, the Torah.” But Layla was conflicted. “Palestinian people were quite literally there first,” she said. “That's where a lot of that anger comes from. It's just this complete erasure of a people that had been happily living there for centuries [...] and suddenly it’s like, okay, we can’t happily live there anymore.”

“I don’t want there not to be an Israel, because I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Naomi said. “I have an Israeli passport. I don’t have anything except for that [...] No one has anywhere else to go. The Palestinians don’t either — I don’t want them to go anywhere.”

Layla also supported a two-state solution — “the part where things get hard for me,” she told me, “is people who can just move to Israel and label themselves as Israeli.” Israel’s Law of Return lets anyone with a single Jewish grandparent claim Israeli citizenship — no such Israeli law exists for people of Palestinian descent.

I asked Naomi about the Law of Return. “There is a reason why they chose the [Jewish] grandparent,” Naomi said. The law, she told me, was meant to apply to whomever the Nazis would have defined as a Jew. “The people who had been persecuted in the Holocaust — this is Israel’s way of being a sanctuary for [people like] them, if something like that happens again.”

Layla and Naomi found a lot of common ground. They both agreed on the importance of differentiating between ordinary people, and Hamas or the Israeli government. “Palestinian people are suffering because they have come to be affiliated with Hamas,” Layla said. “The same way that what’s happening here — Jewish students are suffering because Judaism is affiliated with Israel. It’s not fair. That’s not fair,” Layla added. “Palestinians aren’t Hamas. Judaism isn’t [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu. You cannot equate those things. [...] I cannot stress that enough. If people, if readers, take one thing away from this article, I want it to be that.”

Naomi made the same point; she pointed to opinion polling within Israel: “15% approval rating for Netanyahu, I think it pretty [much] showcases what people think. [...] I don’t think most Jews who speak in favour of Israel are pro Israeli government,” Naomi said. “They're more pro Israel existence.”  

Layla and Naomi both supported calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. “Both of us just are like, alright, at some point something’s gotta give,” Layla said. “This is a humanitarian crisis. There's politics mired up in it, but this is humanitarian.” She and Naomi agreed that “differences have to be put aside in the name of humanitarian benefit. [...] The more that Israel and Hamas cannot seem to come to an agreement for any sort of ceasefire, any sort of ceasefire, any sort of respite, there’s civilians that are dying [...] The Gazan people at this point, there's a desperation there. Somebody has to do something to make sure that they all don't perish. I think that Israel has a part to play in that,” Layla said.

“What Israel has done has been horrific as well [as Hamas],” Naomi said. “I want a ceasefire.” Naomi also talked about Israeli hostages captured by Hamas on October 7. “The other thing is I want, for example, the hostages to be freed.” In order to free the hostages, Naomi would personally support a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. But she said that the last “major” hostage exchange in 2011 led to Yahya Sinwar, the current Hamas leader, being freed. “Sinwar is one of the masterminds behind October 7,” Naomi said. “So I also understand Israelis who are afraid of doing a hostage exchange.”

The “spokespeople” for Hamas and the Israeli government are not willing to “recognise that there is suffering,” Layla told me. “There's a lot of ego [...] it is not really about the innocent civilian.” Layla had an “unspoken agreement” with Naomi: “like, I perceive the history of this a different way than you do and we are not going to agree on it,” Layla said. “That is okay. Because I'm not going to say that your experience isn't true, and you're not going to tell me my experience of it isn't true. [...] That attitude has to start somewhere, even if it's from a lowly Palestinian-American who has never stepped foot in her place of origin across the sea. That attitude has to start with someone, and if it's going to be me then f*** it, I'll do it.”

“You see your own community’s suffering more than you see the other community’s suffering,” Naomi said. “I don’t think about it as two truths. I think about it as different narratives, and there is a narrative that is closer to the truth, and I guess it’s somewhere in between. And it’s just both accepting — maybe not accepting, even — even before accepting, it’s acknowledging that there are different narratives. Because if there isn’t an understanding between two sides, I don’t think you can reach something.”

Layla and Naomi both wished the University would do more. “Why is there no one teaching this insane conflict?” Layla said. 

Naomi agreed. “It’s been six months – like how has the University not been able to set anything up?” Naomi said. “Even just contacting a scholar from the West Bank and a scholar from Tel Aviv and just doing a Zoom talk with the two of them?” Naomi acknowledged the “inflammatory aspects” of that kind of event –  but she pointed to Dartmouth College, an American university that has uploaded moderated discussions between Israeli and Palestinian academics onto YouTube.“Something like Dartmouth,” Naomi said. “There is a different way.”

After Layla and Naomi’s meeting, I asked each interviewee to summarise how things had gone. “Initially,” Layla remembered, “we were being very tiptoe-y.” But the ice was quickly broken. “We immediately were like, ‘I'm not Hamas, and you're not Netanyahu,” Layla said. Naomi “actually represents a lot more of Israel than people think,” Layla told me. By the end of their talk, Naomi and Layla had exchanged numbers. “She was just like: ‘I want to keep talking with you about this. And I was like: ‘even though I am representative of the complete opposite side, I would also like to talk to you, too,’” Layla said.

The meetup was much easier than Naomi had anticipated. Her only reservation about the meeting had been about her own personal safety: “I don’t want to be targeted,” she told me. “I was especially surprised by how we didn’t get into any direct confrontations,” Naomi said. “It felt like [...] two people who knew each other even beforehand.” Naomi had never had a offline, one-to-one conversation with a Palestinian before: “That was the first time I talked with someone from the ‘other side.’” 

When I met Layla to debrief, we talked for about an hour. But before she said anything else, Layla mentioned one specific detail from meeting Naomi that had struck her. “First of all,” Layla said, “she offered me these cookies that she made.”

Illustration: Isabelle Holloway


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