In the summer of 2000, a group of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers were invited to Switzerland. Despite many misunderstandings between the Jews and Muslims on the trip, tentative friendships were formed. However, just before the students returned home to Israel, the second Intifada broke out reminding each participant of their differences. Two young women on the trip who did become friends were Palestinian Amal Rifa'i and Israeli Odelia Ainbinder. Two years later, in June of 2002, journalist Sylke Tempel began looking for a young Israeli and a young Palestinian to exchange letters and ideas in order to create a book that would tell the story of Palestine, Israel and the Intifada in their own words. She found the ideal pair in Amal and Odelia. The result is WE JUST WANT TO LIVE HERE, a series of letters and conversations between Amal and Odelia.
Just 18 years old when they begin corresponding, the women are wise beyond their years and patient with each other's points of view. There is much potential for name-calling, disrespect and worse in such a dialogue, but Amal and Odelia behave with a restraint and open-mindedness often sorely lacking in regards to this difficult and delicate subject. Covering topics such as Jerusalem (where they both live, geographically close but socio-cultural worlds apart), school and the Israeli army, both women are not only quite honest and articulate about their feelings, but are also well versed in their cultural and religious history and tradition. To further illustrate certain points, each invites family members to share her story and thus we read about Odelia's parents and Amal's grandfather in their own words.
Even with such an open dialogue, Amal and Odelia realize there are some things they may never see eye to eye on --- each has a different interpretation of the formation history of the State of Israel, each interprets the plight of the Palestinians in a very different way. Yet they both agree that continued violence is not the answer and hope for strong leadership for the Israelis and the Palestinians. One major problem they both identify is the lack of knowledge about each other's culture, religion and history. Knowledge, they stress, is key to a sustainable peace.
As the book was being written, both Amal and Odelia faced adult life and responsibility --- Amal was engaged to be married and Odelia was preparing for her mandatory service in the Israeli army. Yet the tone of the book still reflected a youthful hopefulness and youthful frustration.
Poignant, brutally honest and sometimes heartbreaking, WE JUST WANT TO LIVE HERE is written with the idealism of youth and the cynicism of those who grow up amid war and violence. This is a book that puts a human face on the violence and destruction of the Israeli-Palestinian war and invites the reader to question her beliefs and opinions. Amal and Odelia are brave and admirable, willing to open their hearts and minds to each other.
WE JUST WANT TO LIVE HERE is not about solutions or roadmaps to peace. It is the tale of a friendship and intellectual exchange in spite of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. I highly recommend this book for those who want a glimpse of what life is like for teenagers in Israel.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 31, 2003