Love is fragile. It can be broken by differences and conflicts. Love is also a deep, life-changing experience. But inter-racial love would be the most complicated form of love for a couple to sustain.
I studied at Carmel High School in Haifa. Carmel possibly has been one of the best high schools in the state since 1948. The State and every mayor of the city have been proud of saying the school as a place for the co-existence of Jews and Arabs. To me, it was just a lie. If Arabs were normal citizens of the state, why Jewish students would not be asked to learn Arabic there? If Arabs have equal citizenship as Jewish Israelis, why the state gives more money to Jews on teachers and spare time activities? If Arabs are also descendents of Jews, why they are considered second-class?
Dad and mom also told me not to mix with Arabs. I remember that when I was a child, on playgrounds, Jews only played with Jewish children. Arab children were totally perceived to be aliens. As I grew older, some Jewish kids shouted at Arabs and mocked them as dirty and uncivilized people, or pigs. I took a psychology class a few years ago. I finally realized that children learned from their parents and older. No wonder they would treat Arabs as inferior objects. History also explains. I guess that the support from Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, then the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the Second World War, to Hitler contributed to the hated towards Arabs among Jewish people.
During the four years at high school, I witnessed how different the future Arabs and Jews had had after they graduated. When I was with Jewish friends, they all expected to be doctors, engineers, politicians and businessmen. When I spent time with Arabs friends and asked about their future, I at no time afflicted wounds on their hearts. A few students were able to go to France, Germany and Netherlands to complete university education. Another few had parents paid to Russian immigrants for teaching them Russian in order to prepare to go to Moscow and St.Petersburg. One of them was lucky to receive scholarships to go to American University at Cairo. For the rest who could only stay at Israel, their choices would be limited to state colleges. As only a few of them were fortunate to be admitted by Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University to take degrees in Law, history and medicine eventually.
Preparing the university entrance exam, Arabs would have a hard time dealing with Hebrew. To add insult to their injuries, their Jewish classmates were not helpful. I also had hesitation to help them. At the end, I taught Abu to speed up his Hebrew to make sure that he got a passing grade in the common language of modern Jewish people.
Abu 's parents were retired after working as low-paid civil servants for three decades. His sister married to a Palestinian living in West Bank. They moved to Australia to avoid the purge of Hamas after her husband, who was an intellectual, criticized religious dogmatism in the territories. Among all Arab friends, Abu was the most ambitious. He was not afraid of speaking Hebrew and was always willing to make corrections in his speech and Grammar.
The high school took new immigrants every year. Hormones drove boys. They always stared at the girls. It was the last year for Abu and me to be at the school. On this day, the principal started to introduce new students," Yoel Levine from Paris... Martin Silverstone from London...Benito Greenberg from Sao Paulo..." The Principal read aloud their names. For most boys, they were most interested in knowing the girl standing next to Benito. The girl was a sex symbol and looked like Lolita. She had blond hair, crystal blue eyes and a tall figure. To boys, she was an angel.
" Irina Rosenfeld from St.Petersburg. Because of her good Hebrew, she only stays here for a year." The principal said. But for the boys, they could not wait any longer to meet her.
Irina was assigned to my class. Once she entered, she was treated like a celebrity. The class master ordered everyone to shut up. He asked Irina to tell about herself.
" I am Irina. I am from St.Petersburg. My mom works for Haifa Medical Center. My dad also works there as a doctor. So, if you have any illness, come to my place for free medicine."
Suddenly, Marias stood up, " Heal everyone, but let the Arab boy die if he is sick!". Mr.Rosenger, perhaps the most liberal teacher in the school, interrupted him. " Arabs are not necessarily terrorists. Does every Arab glorify suicide bombings? Do they desecrate Jewish graves in settlements? Be nice to Abu." He urged everyone to pay respect to the only Arab student in the class.
Mr.Rosenger was a member of Peacenow. He was a veteran in 1980s when Sharon decided to invade Lebanon to wipe Palestinian Liberation Authority and Palestinian refugees off the map. The war changed his life. He decided to be a teacher to help students know what was right and wrong. He arranged Irina to sit next to me. When Abu tried to shake hands with her, she ignored him.
At lunch, Irina complained about the existence of Arab students, " I can't understand why there are Arab students."
I was patient, " They are Israeli citizens. They obey laws and pay taxes. They have the right to come here to study."
Irina was irritated, " Why you are on their side?" " Did you remember the discrimination you had had in Russia? If you had ever faced the danger hatred presents, why you treat Abu in the same way some Russians took!" I was hoping that her attitude would chance. She just left the table without finishing the lunch. Abu sat at the next table and shook his head.
' Shabbat Shalom', for non-religious Jews, was a password to boredom. During Shabbat, many people from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv flocked to Haifa to visit the Baha'i Shrine and had a cup of coffee in Carmel Central. Some chose to visit the Museum of Japanese Art. For Arabs, it was a normal day.
Irina worked during Shabbat in a coffee shop in the Carmel Center to support her studies. At night, she walked downhill to her home in Allenby Street. However, one night, Irina was feeling tired. She decided to take a sherut (Service Taxi) to go home. Near the sherut station, three drunken teenagers approached her. Abu, who worked in a falafel store in the street next to the coffee shop, came to the rescue. He shouted at the teenagers, saying that Irina was his sister. The teenagers ran.
Abu calmed down Irina. He then took Irina to the falafel store and brought her a drink and hummus. She cried. She apologized for being mean to Abu at school. After finishing meal, they walked to Irina's home. On the way, Irina said, " Abu, the reason why I did not like you and have not chatted with you is because you are an Arab. My mother always told me that they supported Hitler during the Second World War. They wanted to destroy us in 1948 and 1967. They killed Israeli Athletes in Munich in 1972. They always want to kill us." Abu replied, " Now, at least you have met a great Arab guy!"
Irina's mother, Ella, was worried as minutes were passing. Her hands were shaken. She was very upset for nor having received calls from her daughter. After hearing footsteps, she jumped from the sofa and opened the door. She had her hands crosses when she saw a man escorting Irina. Irina said Good-bye to Abu and entered home. It was eleven-thirty.
Ella was a strong-willed woman. Having faced years of anti-Semitism and witnessed the imprisonment of her father who lost his job and was jailed for seeking permission to move to Israel, she did everything possible to sustain Jewish identity of her family. After the tragedy to her son, Irain was the only hope for her to maintain it. Her temper exploded like a volcano after Irina locked the door.
" Irina, where you went? Who was that guy? Why you didn't call home as dad and I were sitting at chairs to anxiously wait for you? I can't understand why he matters more to you than we do!" Ella yelled.
" No, mom, I was planning to take a sherut to go home. But there were three drunken boys approaching me! I didn't know what to do. The boy you just saw is Abu. He is my classmate. He was working at a falafel store. He saw me being harnessed. He came to the sherut station to claim that I am his sister. The youth left. I cried and he bought me drinks and food. Then, we walked together." Irina was puzzled by the hatred of her mother on Arabs.
" No. Don't mess up with that guy. You know who he is? He is an Arab. An Arab always wants to kill Jews, throwing us to the Mediterranean Sea. You know Hamas and Hezbollah? They are Muslims. They blow up themselves everywhere when they see Jews. Anyway, don't talk about that guy anymore." Ella ordered.
Irina was trying to explain. " You know what, Mom? I used to think like you when I saw Abu. But first, He is not a Muslim. He is a Christian. If you always trace back to wars in 1948 and 1967, why not doing the same to Christians who have had accused Jews of being Christ killers for thousands of years. Second, not every Arab is a bad guy. Don't be obsessed with Abu. He is a gentle guy. Instead, you should call him to express your appreciation." Elle was angry. " I never want any kinds of relationships with Arabs! They are bad!". She said. She ordered Irina not to meet Abu anymore.
Irina was trying to keep her patience. She told her mom, " You don't want to have any kinds of relationships with Arabs? Then, why working at the hospital? You take care of Arab patients every day. It is a relationship between a patient and a health official. Think twice before you say anything."
Ella could not believe how rebellious her daughter has become. She cried, " Why you treat your mother this way?" Irina's dad, Ross, came out from the reading room and interrupted. He reduced the tension between his wife and daughter by saying, " Irina, I am happy that you are fine. Perhaps, next time, call me when you leave so that I can meet you in the street corner. It is a nice thing to call Abu. Ask his number, and then I call him. Perhaps, we can invite him to come here for a Shabbat dinner."
Ella was emotional, "Don't make any dirt in my house! Keep this guy out!" She went to bedroom and locked the door.
Two days later, everyone returned to school. Mr.Rosenger divided the class into different groups to study Romeo and Juliet and Othello . He asked us to discuss interracial marriages and the meaning between the suicide of Romeo and Juliet. Irina, Abu and I formed a group together.
After thirty minutes, each group had a representative come out for reflection. Abu represented us. When he illustrated the story of Abraham and Hagar and King Solomon to suggest how religions make inter-racial marriages hard for people to accept, Irina folded a piece of paper and asked me to give it to Abu. Inside the paper, Irina wrote, " Abu, can I meet you at 4:30 in Caf Greg, the coffee shop next to Bank Leumi, in Carmel Center. I am going to sit in table T2. Keep it secret! If you can come, pick vegetable salad for lunch. If you can't, pick fried chicken. I am going to wait behind Gustav to see what you order. "
They met in the coffee shop after school. They sat together. Abu ordered a cup of Espresso and a spicy chicken sandwich. Irina had a cup of iced chocolate coffee. Abu's heart was beating violently as he was having coffee with the most beautiful lady in the school. If he had told his classmates, they must be jealous to death. They gazed the eyes of each other and did not say anything for a few minutes. They just smiled.
Irina broke the ice, " Abu, the reason I asked you to come here today is because I would like dad and mom to call to say thanks to you. I also want to apologize for the bad attitude my mom had on you when she was standing outside the door. It was wrong for her to act like a mad woman when she saw an Arab.
The coffees came. Abu spooned some Espresso to the mouth of Irina. Irina led him drink-iced coffee chocolate as well. They also ate the sandwich. After all, Abu knew that he had been attracted to her, he said, "Irina, from the day I saw you, you are the angel in my eyes. I am attracted to you. I am not perfect. I can be quite intimidating. But if you give me a chance, I will protect you. "
Irina was confused. She liked having someone as brave as Abu to care for her. Yet, Abu was an Arab. How can a Jew and an Arab fall into love without controversy? They walked together to the bus stop. Suddenly, Abu invited her to watch a concert, " Irina, Gustav told me that you like classical music. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is going to stage an opera called Don Giovanni on Thursday. I have bought two tickets. I hope you will come. " Irina replied, OK, let's see what decision God made!" The bus came. Irina said Goodbye to Abu. But her feet were as heavy as stones. She felt as if she couldn't walk. She was embarrassed to tell the bus driver that she picked the wrong bus. Her heart was burning. She couldn't oppress her admiration and love for Abu. She kissed the creek of Abu and whispered, " Abu, I need your protection from day to night. There is no one as courageous as you. Be my love." Abu spoke with tenderness, " See you on Thursday." Irina entered the bus as it came.
Irina was struggling at home. She knew she couldn't live without him. He was the center of her life. Ella would see differently. Having spent few hours in her room, she talked to her dad about her relationship with the Arab boy. To her surprise. Ross was open to talk about her new love, " Irina, it is not a problem for you to date Abu. I would rather you to happily marry someone who is not Jewish than someone who is abusive to you. Of course, it is hard for mom to know that you fall in love with Abu. She always treats you a little kid. Let's see what I can do."
Ross called Abu to thank him for saving her daughter. He also invited Abu to come for the Shabbat dinner. On the next day, Irina and Abu attended the concert and had meal afterwards. Abu couldn't not stop looking at his beautiful mate who wore a white t-shirt and blue skirt. Irina was pleased that someone took her for a concert for the first time. She liked classical music. For her parents, they always fell asleep when they listened.
The next day was Shabbat. Irina cleaned the table for the arrival of Abu. Abu rang the bell at 6:45 with a bottle of red wine. Ella was shocked to see him. She yelled at him, " Who told you to come here?
" Irina stood in front of Abu, " Dad did it."
Ella felt disrespected and would like to get Abu out of the house now. But she decided to pretend to receive a sudden guest, then asked Abu questions on Shabbat practice and the Bible to make him not to be here again in the future. She started looking at the wine, " Abu, is it approved by rabbis?"
Abu replied, " Yes, I checked the website of Rabbis of Soviet Jews before I bought it." She wanted to ask more, but had to stop when Ross took meals to the table.
After the dinner, Ella suggested having a discussion on the Bible. She looked at Abu, " Abu, for lots of Christians, Judaism is an incomplete form of Christianity. Do you think that Jews killed Jesus?"
It was a sensitive question. Abu just answered, " The purpose behind the murder of Jews was complicated. He was a radical rabbi who disagreed laws on Shabbats, divorce, adultery and motives of giving. He was in clash with leading rabbis at that time. Jesus had lots of followers. Their movement alarmed the Roman Empire. It worked together with some Rabbis to launch trials against Jesus and sentenced him to death penalty. It was unfair to suggest Jews killing Jesus. The death of Jesus was the result of Roman's fear over instability in the Holy Land. Jews should not carry the burden. For me, it is no need trying to convert Jews. There is religious freedom. If they want to be Christians, they will find a way."
After Abu left, Irina questioned her mother. Ella defended, " Irina, you know, I have lots of worries. Their boyfriends and husbands betrayed lots of Jewish women during the Second World War. I don't want you to have the same fate. Who can predict what is going to happen. People can lie. I was stunned by his presence. Anyway, take pleasure in your youth. Love him, but don't turn a blind eye in everything he does and says! Cry when you want to cry. Shout when you shout. Show your true self to him!" Ella smiled.
Irina had a charming face when she went to school. Again, she called me on to the Grey Coffee. But this time, she held the hand of Abu. I admired Abu's courage and promised to keep their secret affair.
I did not stay in Israel for university. My parents were disappointed as they thought that a young Jew should serve for the army. However, I hated spending three years learning how to shoot innocent people having been oppressed for forty years. They gave in. I returned to New York for my first degree. Abu was blessed to be admitted to take a degree in computer science by Technion. Irina chose to major in Law and Russian at University of Haifa after finishing her two-year term at the army. We spent the last summer working in Restaurant Italian. After I left, they continued working there to save money for trips to Egypt and Jordan before Irina was drafted to the station in Ramat Gan at the end of November. We swore that we were going to meet in the Statue of Liberty to celebrate the end of Irina's service, but the day had never come.
It was 21st,October 1998, the last day for Abu and Irina to work; I was sleeping at home after finishing a week of mid-term examination. It was 3a.m. in the morning. The phone was ringing. I picked it up. My mother was weeping uncontrollably, " Gustav, you must come back to Israel tomorrow! Abu and Irina were killed in the coffee shop by two suicide bombers from Jenin. The bombers are members of Hamas!" I couldn't believe what she said. " Don't I have to tell you again? Abu and Irina died! Two bombers from Jenin blown up themselves in a restaurant, killing your best friends. Abu's mother, Ella and Mr.Rosenger are coming home to discuss the funeral. Abu's sister and his brother-in-law are going to Haifa tomorrow from Sydney. Everyone needs you for the funeral. Book the ticket now! I can't talk to you anyone. They are knocking the door."
A newspaper reported how they became victims of the hatred:
" Two suicide bombers from Jenin detonated bombs in Restaurant Italian in Carmel Mount Center. Eleven people, including an Arab- Jewish couple, were murdered. The suicide bombing took place at 9:30 p.m.
... The Arab-Jewish people was Abu Hussein and Irina Rosenfeld, who met in Carmel High School, According to a witness, "when a suicide bomber, Ismail Arafat blown up himself after he failed to enter the restaurant, Abu immediately ran in front of Irina to block nails, bails and screws from entering her body." He was badly injured and died on the way to the hospital.
Another victim, Irina Rosenfeld, who is Abu's boyfriend, ran to the opposite street to call the police for rescue. She was killed when another suicide bomber, Abdullah Masaqui exploded him outside the telephone stand. Irina was badly mutilated.
Irina Rosenfeld moved from St.Petersburg with her family a year ago after her brother was badly injured in an anti-Semitic attack outside a Hebrew day school. Her teacher, Mr.Ronald Rosenger, who also taught Abu, described Irina as a hard-working student while Abu was a determined student who was happy with helping anybody. However, he does not know they have dated for a while."
I was speechless. My heart was shedding tears. My soul was torn apart. I gazed at the photos we took in Tel Aviv before I left for New York. " Why it happened to them? Why it came to pass to my beloved friends? Why the bomber quoted the word of Allah to blow up himself into pieces in a restaurant? Why the terrorist didn't just kill Jews, but also Arabs who have the same blood and DNA? How Abu and Irina died? Why their lives ended in the last day they work? Why life was unfair to people whom deeply care about each other?
After the funeral, Abu's mother invited me to come to her house. She found the letter from a cabinet of his desk. I opened it. Abu and Irina wrote,
" Gustav, we are planning to give the letter to you if you are still single at the age of 30. You are smart, creative and helpful. But when it comes to love and dating, we believe we are better than you. Remember you keeping saying things like, " It is not the right time to date a woman.", " I am not mature yet.", " I need to make money first since girls always leave for richer men.", or " I don't know what my future hold when I am with someone."... Of course, most people have a plan and want to be financially successfully. Yet, are you pessimistic in love? You always look at the dark side. Actions speak louder than words. While you encourage people to take risk in everything they do, you seem to show an opposite example when it comes to love.
From the beginning, we made out how difficult it would be for us. What were challenging was to gain trust from our parents and help overcome Ella's fear on Arabs and fears on seeing her daughter hurt. Her family was tragic enough. We don't know what future holds for us. But clearly, we will not rise above eyebrows of others her if we don't risk. Gustav, life is not easy and you need money to feed and clothe a family. I understand your desire to be a computer scientist. But, should life have more than bread and butter?
You are worried about getting hurt in love? Surely, you will encounter wounds and harsh words from your mate from time to time. Sometimes, you are oil; she is water. Sometimes, you may see each other as a perfect match in heaven No gain becomes without pain. If you don't try, you will never know why you like or hate someone. If you don't want to be alone in Valentine Day or New Year's eve, stand up and be courageous to date the girl you like.
Abu & Irina
P.S: We hope we will trash the letter in a rubbish bin by the time you reach 30."
The classroom was no longer the same for Mr.Rosenger. When he taught Romeo and Juliet again, he couldn't forget Abu and Irina and everything they said. The pain was unbearable. A year later, Mr.Rosenger moved to New York to study peace and conflict at City University of New York. We met in a caf shop in Greenwich Village. He looked much older, had gray hair and was still mourning the loss of Abu and Irina.
He told me, " I have had crisis of faith since they died. No pain is more devastating than self-doubt. I still believe in peace between two peoples. Yet, I have different feelings now. In the old days, the people killed were not my friends. But Irina and Abu were my friends. It was easy for me to speak for peace when no friends or loved ones were blown up into pieces by religious fundamentalists. To be honest, I am now in favor of the building the security fence, but not fully like it, as lots of olive trees will be cut off. People lose their living. Children will have to walk a long way to go to schools under the shadow of bullets. I am not sure what view I should hold. Anyway, things will be different than before." Upon graduation, He still envisions people to live peacefully side-by-side, but supports the idea of constructing the fence by buying land from Palestinians for the project.
In today's morning, I visited the cemetery for non-religious people. I finally found the graves of Irina and Abu. The graves were beautifully crafted with:
Irina Rosenfeld & Abu Hussein
A couple sent to heaven on October, 21,1998
I looked at their graves. My mind couldn't stop thinking about what their relatives said about their romance after they were killed.
" Why God allowed them to be together and had them murdered? It must be his wrath again them!"
" Why God did not give Abu an Arab girlfriend? "
" Why God did not give Irina a Jewish guy?"
These questions often come to mind. I don't know how to answer. Perhaps, for God, it is the best plan. I am proud to say that they lived, they knew what the meaning of life was and they loved each other. Alfred Lord Tennyson, a novelist, wrote:
" It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."