Mediator approaches Arab-Israeli peace from both sides
From the moment she was born, Mai Shbeta couldn’t escape a sort of responsibility to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There’s no other choice for me,” she said during a recent interview at the Jewish Journal office in Koreatown. “I was born to work for peace for as long as I live.”
Her maternal grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, while her father is a Palestinian Muslim. Since before she was born, she straddled the dividing lines in one of the world’s bitterest conflicts.
Shbeta, 25, recently visited Los Angeles as an emissary for the village known as Neve Shalom in Hebrew and Wahat al-Salam in Arabic, both of which translate to “Oasis of Peace” in English. Located about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it’s the only place in Israel that intentionally integrates Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, consisting of 50 families, with more slated to move in.
Even within the village, though, Shbeta is an exception: Hers is the only interfaith family there, a microcosm within a microcosm.
At the mixed Arab-Jewish primary school she attended, students learn together every day of the school year — except for one. On Israel Independence Day, Jewish students celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut while Arab students learn about the Nakba, or catastrophe, their term for the events of 1948 that resulted in the Jewish state. As a child, Shbeta was asked to choose which event she would attend.
“It was horrible for me, just impossible to choose,” she said. “Like choosing between Mom and Dad.”
In the end, she attended both ceremonies. And, in general, she remembers her childhood as an idyll of coexistence. But Neve Shalom lacks its own high school, so she was forced to leave the village and become part of a much more complicated reality.
“There it hit me. … It’s the first time I understood there’s a lot of hatred there,” she said.
From then on, Shbeta was an ambassador for peace. At 19, she presented at the World Economic Forum and continues to be involved with that body.
Shbeta went on to study law at Bar-Ilan University, a school founded on Jewish religious principles and still considered to be politically right of center. She found, though, that her experience growing up in Neve Shalom helped her navigate the complex politics of coming from both Jewish and Muslim backgrounds at a religious Zionist university. Today, she’s married to an Arab Israeli of mixed Muslim and Christian heritage.
Trained as an attorney, Shbeta now works as a professional mediator. She bristled when asked if she would go into politics, noting the acrimony of Israeli elections. But she said in the following interview, edited for length and clarity, that she would continue working for peace in every way she knows.
JEWISH JOURNAL: Do you find that you’re able to make a difference when speaking with people about the conflict?
MAI SHBETA: Meeting people already makes a difference. You can easily hate someone that you didn’t meet because you’ve heard this and that about him. But when you meet the person and he doesn’t have horns or he’s not the devil, then that already makes a difference. Israel’s very segregated. … People eat at the same restaurants or buy at the same shops, but they’re not really speaking.
JJ: Do you find that for religious Jews and religious Muslims, you’re a living example of everything they’re scared of — of intermarriage?
MS: Yeah. I’ve had it all. I’ve met people who — it’s really rare — but people who say, “Oh, your mom did the greatest mistake.”
JJ: People have said that to you to your face?
MS: Yeah. I can act as if I’m completely Israeli-Jewish. People will not notice if they don’t know my last name. I could be Arab and people won’t know it. But there’s also not being either. When I’m in my dad’s [Palestinian] village, they know, “Oh, the one with the Jewish mother.” People always tend to find what’s different, not what’s mutual and the same.
JJ: Can you talk to us about your experience at Bar-Ilan University?
MS: I found my friends. They were really right-wing, some of them. But that’s the beautiful thing about the village. You learn to understand and accept everyone. I could talk to settlers and understand them and feel with them. Even now with settlers, I feel them. I understand them. I can accept anybody because I know that people are not bad.
JJ: Do you think you might want to go into politics?
MS: I was thinking about it. I do want to do politics, but not as a proper politician. I don’t know. Israeli politics — it’s just horrible. I was thinking of working as an assistant [to a politician] and checking it out, but I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. Maybe one day.
JJ: You’re still very young.
MS: Yeah, well, I think that I want to open or start my own organization. That’s one of my goals, by the end of this year, to know what exactly is needed and what I have to do. And do it in the politics field, but maybe in a different way. I’m more into bringing people together and mediating and being a bridge.
JJ: So many great Israelis just don’t want to get involved because it’s such a cesspool.
MS: You have to play by their rules, that’s why. … I really think even if there is a peace agreement, that’s when the real work starts. Then Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom will be needed the most. It doesn’t matter what peace agreement it will be, people will still hate each other. And people have to get to know each other. They have to meet the enemy in order to achieve real peace.
JJ: When people ask if you’re a Zionist, what do you say?
MS: I wasn’t raised Zionist. My mom was. I’m sorry to say that for Palestinians, Zionist is like the worst. But you know, my grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. … I do believe Jewish people have to have a state. I wouldn’t say that I’m Zionist.
JJ: Have you noticed people moving further or closer to peace? Do you feel like there’s progress?
MS: It’s horrible. People are losing hope. It’s getting harder from year to year. I think that what’s happening is that my parents and the people from that generation, they used to go to Gaza to eat hummus. Now, the people my age, they never got the opportunity to do that. Things are getting worse, but maybe, I don’t know, if things are getting worse, that’s the place to go up. It can’t get worse. … No mom wants her son to go serve in the military. I think that when people understand that peace is for their own good [and] they don’t want their tax money to go for security, then maybe they’ll vote for someone who wants to make peace. Not for the sake of peace and love, but for their own good.