The dozen Israeli Jews make their way along the stalls of the “Ramadan” market, looking at the hummus, olives, fruit, pastries and other special treats for the daily “iftar,” or breakfast meal that Muslims eat at sunset after a day of fasting. One woman stands in front of a display of six different kinds of olives.
“Taste one,” the seller urges.
“But it’s Ramadan and it’s still fasting time,” she responds.
“Oh, go ahead,” he answers. “Just cover your mouth so people don’t see you eating.”
Traditional Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for 30 days during the holy month of Ramadan, which began earlier this month. A large majority of Arab Israeli Muslims fast, using the evening hours for large meals with their family.
The visit to Kafr Kassem was one of dozens of tours that bring Jewish Israelis to Arab towns and villages in northern and central Israel during the month of Ramadan. While 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, most Jews and Arabs live separately and go to different schools. Even at universities, while the two groups study together, there is limited social interaction.
Arab citizens of Israel all learn Hebrew, but few Jews learn more than a few words of Hebrew. The tensions of the past few years between Israelis and Palestinians, and especially a wave of stabbing attacks in Israel, have made Jews wary of venturing into Arab towns in Israel.
“The goal of these visits is to create social change using tourism,” Ilanit Haramati, the director of Via Maris, the NGO that organized the visit told The Media Line. “Tourism brings economic gain to the towns. It also brings Jews and Arabs together and it builds pride in the towns that are visited.”
The project is supported by USAID (the US governmental agency for international development) as well as Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality in Israel. This year, there are visits to five Arab towns – Nazareth, Sahnin, Tira, Taybe, and Kfar Kassem.
Along with the Ramadan market in Kafr Kassem, where they bought traditional Arab pastries of kata’if, syrup-soaked pastries with nuts or cheese inside, and awameh, little balls of fried dough, the tourists visited a local mosque. The women covered their heads with scarves, and both men and women took off their shoes.
“Welcome,” an imam named Ya’qub told the group. “As you can see, we have no pictures on the walls. We pray five times every day, and we fast on Ramadan.”
A few members of the group said they were disappointed that there was not more of an in-depth explanation of Islam.
The group heard about the history of the village, which is hundreds of years old. In 1949, after the War of Independence, the village was placed under Israeli control as part of the Rhodes cease-fire agreement.
“We have this crazy situation where people who were enemies of the state one day become citizens of the state the next day,” tour guide Joel Rosenfeld told them. All Arab citizens of Israel lived under martial law until 1966.
The group also toured the monument to the Kafr Kassem massacre of 1956, a seminal event in the village’s history. The village had become part of Israel in 1949, but the residents, like all Arab citizens of Israel, were still under military rule. On the eve of the Sinai war, Israel imposed a curfew for all Arab towns and villages. In Kfar Kassem, many of the farmers were out in the fields and did not get the news of the curfew. When they returned, Israeli soldiers shot and killed 48 civilians, including 29 women and children. The policemen involved were tried and found guilty, although all were released in a year. The incident is still taught in the Israeli army as an example of an illegal order that should have been disobeyed.
For most of the members of the group, it was their first visit to Kafr Kassem, which is just a few hundred yards away from the nearby Israeli town of Rosh Ha’ayin. From the park at the entrance Kafr Kassem, you can see the buildings of the Jewish town’s high-tech zone.
Tour guide Rosenfeld lives in Rosh Ha’ayin and says he has dovish politics as well.
“I walk this line between trying to sound objective and sounding like what my father-in-law would call a “bleeding heart liberal,” he told the Media Line. “The Jews who are here and open to the idea of living with our neighbors can never fully understand what it was like to live as citizens but be considered a fifth column, even though the Israeli Arab population has shown tremendous loyalty to the state.”
Several of the members of the group said they hoped to visit the village again.
“I am a tour guide and I usually stop with my groups at a rest stop on the nearby highway,” Rachel Perk told The Media Line. “But next time I”ll stop here.”
Several members of the group said they had dovish political ideas but did not have an opportunity to meet Arab citizens of Israel.
“Anyone who knows me hears about my political ideas day and night,” Jennie Levin, a writer and translator living in Tel Aviv told The Media Line. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud because it’s very hard to meet Arabs in Tel Aviv. I hoped to not only make some friends here but to be with like-minded people.”
As the sun began to set, the vendors in the market began to pack up their goods. Shawkat Amar, a teacher and local guide who was meeting with the group, got a call from his son, asking when he was coming home for the iftar meal.
As the muezzin in the mosque marked the end of the fast by broadcasting verses from the Qur’an, Amar accepts a pastry and gratefully takes a bite.
“The Islam that you see in the media like that guy in Orlando is not the real Islam,” he said before going home to eat with his family. “Islam is not a religious of violence, but of peace. Anyone who says differently is simply wrong.”