This story is part of a series called “Israeli, Palestinian Women: The Only Way Forward Is Together.” The series highlights Israeli and Palestinian women about their connection to Israel/Palestine, and how they are working to improve relations, and promote equality and coexistence between both groups of people. See the links at the bottom of this article for each article of the series.
In the middle of May, Tami Hay-Sagiv was giving her 6-year-old daughter her nightly bath before bed.
Suddenly, she heard sirens. A rocket fired by Hamas, often referred to as “Palestinian freedom fighters,” but classified by the United States as a terrorist organization, was barreling towards her home in Tel Aviv, Israel. She had to think fast.
“We didn’t know what to do, so we took her with the towel, naked, and we went to the stairway,” Hay-Sagiv said.
This was just one of a multitude of times during the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas that Hay-Sagiv and her family had to sprint to the stairwell in their apartment building, hoping that they might be safe there if a rocket were to strike. Their apartment structure is old, and they don’t have a safe shelter, so the stairwell is their best bet for any protection. One night in May, she remembers, her family awoke four separate times to run to that stairwell because sirens wouldn’t stop blaring.
“We met there with other neighbors, and you could see the fear. When it starts, I’m in shock, you know, I don’t even know how to describe the feeling in my body,” Hay-Sagiv explained. “Especially when you have a kid, you feel the responsibility. So after a few nights like this, we moved to another flat, where our family has a safe room.”
“But this affects your home. You don’t sleep well; you don’t have an appetite. You’re so nervous.”
Growing up in fear of terror attacks was a reality for Hay-Sagiv, born and raised as a Jewish Israeli in Tel Aviv. And it was something she says her family often spoke about — especially since her grandparents and great grandparents on her mother’s side helped create the State Of Israel. Her family on her father’s side immigrated to Israel after the establishment of the state from Baghdad, Iraq.
Her mother’s family traveled to the land now known as Israel when it was still under Ottoman rule (The Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Middle East from 1517 to 1917) and when it was under British authority and called The British Mandate For Palestine. (The British ruled over the area from 1920 until 1948 — Israel’s independence.)
During the late 19th century, the Zionism movement began to take hold. The movement was a religious and political effort that worked for Jewish self-determination and to recreate the Jewish presence in Israel— considered Jewish people’s ancient homeland in the Middle East. Israel is the central location for Jewish identity. (The name comes from the word ‘Zion,’ which is a Hebrew term that refers to Jerusalem.)
The theories of Zionism have existed for hundreds of years. But modern-day Zionism, according to historians, began when Jews around the world faced rising antisemitism. Because of pogroms (an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, particularly that of Jewish people in Russia or eastern Europe) and brutal antisemitism, it is believed that oppressed Jews began promoting the idea of returning to their homeland and restoring their ancient culture.
Some of those Jews included Hay-Sagiv’s great-grandparents — her mother’s grandparents on both sides.
They traveled back and forth from the British Mandate for Palestine, intending to create a Jewish state. They believed it was their and the Jewish people’s only way to survive. And according to Hay-Sagiv, during their visits, they helped develop the land — her great grandparents paved roads, built infrastructure, and worked in agriculture around the country. Eventually, years before Israel’s independence, they made the pilgrimage when Hay-Sagiv’s grandfather was just one-year-old, and her grandmother was six-years-old.
Hay-Sagiv’s grandfather was raised in Jaffa, a city mixed with Jews and Arabs, and her grandmother was raised in Haifa, which was also mixed. Hay-Sagiv grew up hearing stories from both grandparents about tensions between Jews and Arabs in the region. When she didn’t hear stories about that, she was told stories about pogroms her family experienced in Europe; and she learned that members of her family died in the Holocaust. All of this led her grandparents to have strong right-wing views.
At 18, her grandfather enlisted in the British Armed Forces. He fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that resulted in Israel’s independence. He fought again in the 1967 Six-Day-War, and then in the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
“All of this fueled and strengthened their beliefs, and, you know, this kind of protective narrative,” Hay-Sagiv said. “And this is why I always say that those stories shaped my original political views, and I became super right-wing.”
“If I’m looking at my mother’s side, both my grandparents saw themselves as the pioneers of Israel, fighting in all the wars and, you know, they were the ones that made this dream come true without thinking ahead about the circumstances of what those wars will lead us to.”
For most of her life, Hay-Sagiv never questioned her family’s stories. And then, in the 1990s into the 2000s, after the first and second intifadas (or Palestinian uprising against Israel), her strong pro-Israel, anti-Arab views were even more solidified when the intifadas turned violent and resulted in suicide bombings by Hamas members around Israel.
“This strengthened my political views to believe what my grandfather said that the only way to win the situation is to fight and to defeat them,” Hay-Sagiv explained. “I had a strong belief that you never question what the political leaders and your state is asking you to do.”
It wasn’t until she was 22-years-old, and getting her education at Tel Aviv University, that Hay-Sagiv began to have a change of heart. While in college, Hay-Sagiv worked at a research institution and think tank organizing summits about peace-building and conflict resolution.
For the first time, she was exposed to the Palestinian narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. As a result, she said her heart and mind were opened, and her reality became more complicated.
“And suddenly it was changing me,” Hay-Sagiv said. “So later, when I was approached to join the Peres Center For Peace, it was already there bubbling.”
Hay-Sagiv joined the Peres Center For Peace and Innovation in 2007. The center was founded in 1996 by the late President of Israel, Shimon Peres. According to the website, the center “develops and implements impactful and meaningful programs with a focus on promoting a prosperous Israel, nurturing and highlighting Israeli innovation, and paving the way for shared-living between all of Israel’s citizens and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors.”
It was here where Hay-Sagiv’s views about Palestinians and the conflict officially changed.
“I began to understand where they’re [Palestinians] coming from and how they perceive the thing that we’re talking about,” Hay-Sagiv explained.
“Through the work at the Peres Center, I was always being challenged with my views. Working here taught me a lot, and not just in the context of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but I think it was also helping me to solve some issues that I had, for example between Israelis and Germans and Israelis and Polish people, [her issues with the German and Polish stemmed from the Holocaust] was also something that I was dealing with, since I was a really young child. Through the meetings with those people and confronting my feelings and confronting the past, I had a huge breakthrough.”
“And I believe that if I am able to do this with Germans, you know we have a heavy history between us, I can also do this with Palestinians, and with Muslims and Arabs and other people in the world. And it doesn’t mean that I’m giving up my narrative, I just live with an understanding that the picture is much more complicated.”
Hay-Sagiv works as the director for peace education at the Peres Center, fostering relationships between Israelis and Palestinians in the region through education and activities. At the Peres Center, their goal is for the people — Palestinians and Israelis — to build the connection and bridges between them, so the infrastructure is there when politicians decide to finally take the appropriate steps to peace and equality for both groups.
Hay-Sagiv refers to their work as a “do tank” versus a think tank where they create activities across borders in health and medicine, education, sports, agriculture, and business — areas that interest both groups and could potentially bring them together.
For example, one of their flagship programs started in 2002, brings Israeli and Palestinian youth together to learn and play soccer. (The Peres Center works with Palestinians and Israelis around Israel and in the West Bank. At one time, they worked with Palestinian children in Gaza too, but around 2007, Hamas stopped allowing Gazans to participate, resulting in Gazan children never meeting Israelis.)
“We created an after-school program in a Palestinian community, and also in an Israeli community— giving each community, twice a week training sessions, you know, it’s a social framework for the kids,” Hay-Sagiv said. “And the kids are getting a trainer from the community, which also creates jobs for the coaches. And the kids also get uniforms and equipment. So the uniforms allow the two communities, the kids to look alike, and they have a specific curriculum based on peace education through sport.”
“The program runs throughout the academic year, and every month, we bring them together, and they play in mixed teams, not against each other, and this is the uniqueness of the program.”
Hay-Sagiv’s work at the Peres Center fuels her optimism for the future. But that optimism quickly wanes during and after an escalation between Israel and Hamas. Right now, her team is still recovering from the latest round of fighting in May.
The coronavirus pandemic also took an immense toll on how the center operates. It stopped all group gatherings and even prevented Hay-Sagiv’s Palestinian colleagues from accessing permits to travel from their homes in the West Bank to Israel for work.
Both these situations continue to fuel what Hay-Sagiv calls a reality of despair for Israelis and Palestinians who are actively working for change.
The despair these peacemakers feel also stems from the uphill battle they fight daily; they are fighting against a system and two communities that are being groomed to view the other group in a negative light.
On the Israeli side, Hay-Sagiv said, there is little to no education about the Palestinian narrative or plight. Palestinians, she said, are often demonized in the media, and many Israelis go their entire lives without encountering a Palestinian person. She also said the situations in countries surrounding Israel, like Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Syria, sometimes leaves Israelis generalizing all Arabs.
Palestinians, Hay-Sagiv said, don’t learn about Israelis, and when they do encounter Israelis, it’s typically a soldier or Jewish settler. She said their media is also full of propaganda about Israel and Jewish people and they don’t learn about the Jewish connection to Israel, the Holocaust, or any Jewish history during their academic years.
There is also a stark contrast in how Israelis and Palestinians view the conflict and their perspective on what the word ‘peace’ means. According to Hay-Sagiv, the current Minister of Education in Israel, Yifat Shasha-Biton, who obtained her Ph.D. in peace education, tested how Israeli and Palestinian youth view the word “peace.”
“The results of the study was that when Israeli Jewish youth talk about peace, they talk about no violence and no war. And when you read what the Palestinian youth are saying, they talk about a much deeper understanding of the word peace. For them, peace means equal rights, reconciliation, compensation of what they lost, you know, things that an average Jewish Israeli would never even think about, so that the gap is huge,” Hay-Sagiv explained.
Another considerable problem she sees is the messaging from both sides.
Many Israelis, Hay-Sagiv said, refuse to recognize Palestinian pain. They won’t acknowledge their narratives or stories and downplay the Palestinian connection to the land. Meanwhile, some Palestinians, she says, use the messaging, “Free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
“I cannot relate to this because it’s at my expense as well, so this doesn’t lead us anywhere,” Hay-Sagiv explained. “I will only be able to discuss with people that understand that I’m here to stay, and they are here to stay. And we need to compromise.”
All of this leads Hay-Sagiv to live her life promoting coexistence and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. She says she tries to provide her young daughter with what she didn’t have growing up. Hay-Sagiv encourages her daughter to embrace diversity and multiculturalism. She urges her little girl to forge relationships with people different from her and encourages her to ask questions.
“In the end, people want to be seen and for others to say, ‘Yes, I see your frustration, your fear, and your pain.’ And once it’s said, maybe we can deepen the understanding between the sides,” Hay-Sagiv said.
“I want to be on the side that believes in the values of human rights and morality and seeing the good in people. I want to be on the side that is striving for a non-violence solution. And bring hope to people on both sides.”