Ramle — The industrial zone of this working-class Jewish-Arab city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is home to numerous car-repair shops, gas stations and factories. The streets are lined with broken glass and litter, the sidewalks with fancy cars awaiting a muffler or tune-up.
With the noise, dirt and traffic in Ramle, it’s a relief to enter the Open House, a tidy stone structure sandwiched between a factory and an abandoned lot. Built long before Israel’s founding, the house’s high ceilings and shady gardens provide a refuge from the tumult outside.
But the house’s oasis-like atmosphere goes far beyond the cool stillness. It extends to the building’s very reason for being.
Inaugurated in 1991, the Open House serves as a child development center for Israeli-Arab children. The first Arabic-language preschool — there now are several — in this city of 12,000 Arabs and 43,000 Jews, it provides subsidized day care for one of Israel’s poorest ethnic groups.
Thanks to the vision of its founder, Dalia Ashkenazi Landau, the house is also a magnet for Jews and Arabs interested in coexistence. For the past several years it has run a summertime “peace camp” for youngsters ages 8 to 15, parenting workshops and family trips for Arab and Jewish families, as well as an assortment of classes. The families gather here during various religious holidays — and after terrorist attacks.
Although coexistence projects exist throughout Israel, few have as moving and morally nuanced a history as the Open House.
In 1948 the Ashkenazis, a Jewish family that had emigrated from Bulgaria, purchased the house from the newly established State of Israel. It was considered abandoned property. Its previous owners — the Arab Khayri family — fled during the War of Independence.
Dalia Ashkenazi Landau was just a year old when her parents moved into the house. She was there in 1967 when Bashir Khayri, who had left the house as a 6-year-old, knocked on her door right after the Six-Day War. He had come to see the place of his birth. Landau subsequently accepted an invitation to the family’s home in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and a relationship was born, one that seemed to mirror the wider relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
Six months after meeting Khayri, Landau learned that he had been arrested in connection with a lethal bomb explosion in a Jerusalem supermarket. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
During that period, Landau also learned that many of Ramle’s Arabs had been driven out of their homes by the Israeli army. Like other Israeli children, she had been taught the Arabs had left of their own accord.
These events sparked a personal crisis. In a 1988 Jerusalem Post article, Landau wrote, “My love for my country was losing its innocence.” The real turning point came when Khayri’s elderly blind father arrived at the Ramle house.
“He touched the rugged stones of the house. He asked if the lemon tree was still in the backyard. He was led to the abundant tree, which he had planted many years before. He caressed it and stood silent. Tears were rolling down his face.” From then on, she wrote, the house “had faces behind it. The walls evoked other people’s memories and tears.”
But at the same time, Landau questioned Khayri’s commitment to the “armed struggle” against Israel. “Despite the passage of time,” she wrote in her open letter, “your basic position has not changed — and this makes it impossible to find common ground. Perhaps some day, if we are both able to make sacrifices, some kind of mutual forgiveness may yet emerge. If you could dissociate yourself from your past terrorist actions, your commitment to your own people would gain true moral force.”
Upon inheriting the house after her parents’ death, Landau and her husband, Yehezkel, decided to dedicate it to “some healing purpose.”
Seated barefoot on the sofa of her Jerusalem living room, Landau says the house’s duel purpose — education and coexistence — evolved from conversations with both Jews and Arabs, including Bashir Khayri. Now a lecturer at a West Bank university, Khayri has been barred from entering Israel.
The decision to open the first Arabic preschool “was a vision for affirmative action for Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Landau says. “They’re legally equal [to Jewish Israelis] but not de facto. There is a tremendous discrepancy in the allocation of resources.”
The preschool, which is heavily subsidized, stresses coexistence. The children, who are either Muslim or Christian, celebrate Ramadan, Christmas. They also play Chanukah games and dress up for Purim.
Michail Fanous, the house’s executive director and one of the only Arab city councilmen in Ramle, says the preschool is about empowerment.
Looking in at the preschoolers romping around the classroom, he explains, “We believe that coexistence starts with existence.”
Fanous, who identifies himself as a “Palestinian Israeli,” is especially proud of the house’s peace camp, which is attended by more than 100 local Jewish and Arab youngsters for two to three weeks every summer. Funded by UJA-Federation of New York and other sources, the camp provides a unique opportunity for the two populations to spend some time together.
Ilan Halperin, an executive in UJA’s Overseas Affairs Division, says this type of serious contact is in short supply, partly because the two populations attend different schools. “Jewish and Arabs in Ramle live next to each other but often have very few opportunities to interact and get to know each other on more than a superficial basis.”
The $17,000 the camp receives from UJA-Federation is just a small part of the $7.5 million the Federation has given Ramle since 1987.
Though Landau has been interviewed scores of times, she seems genuinely surprised by a reporter’s parting question: “How do you think your parents would feel about the work you’re doing?”
“My parents always greeted every [Khayri family] visit with such generosity and caring. I remember how they served lemon juice from the lemon tree they planted,” she says. “It’s rare to find that kind of welcome anywhere.”
Since the lemon tree died two years ago, the preschoolers have draped ornaments on its bare branches to give it a living feeling.
“I think I have my parents’ support, even now,” Landau says with a catch in her throat. “This house is a gift. I received it from my family and am passing it on.”