Whenever Dr. Saliba Sarsar returns to his native Jerusalem he makes a point of visiting the Liberty Bell Garden, built in 1976 in honor of the American bicentennial.
The spot is about five minutes from his parents’ house and was in the epicenter of the battle for control of the Old City during the 1967 Six-Day War. Now it is an oasis of peace in a region that has known little over the last six decades.
“It is a place where Arab and Jewish children feel free to play and interact,” said Sarsar, the associate vice president for global initiatives and professor of political science at Monmouth University. “It is what neighborhoods on opposing sides of the conflict ought to become.”
Sarsar spoke following the showing of the documentary Six Days in June in Wilson Hall on the West Long Branch campus. The June 5 program, coinciding with the 46th anniversary of the Six-Day War, was cosponsored by the university’s Jewish cultural studies program and office of global initiatives and the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County. It drew some 100 participants.
As an 11-year-old Christian living “in the shadow of no man’s land” separating the Arab neighborhood of Al-Thori and the Israeli neighborhood of Abu Tor, Sarsar and his 18-year-old brother were separated from their parents during the war, although they were reunited several days later.
“I saw barbed wire and the enemy on the other side,” he recalled. “The opposing armies stood eyeball to eyeball, waiting for the tiniest excuse to shoot and kill…. I felt the sound and saw the impact of explosions…. I experienced the wretchedness of homelessness and lost two neighbors in the conflict.”
However, once the fighting ended, Sarsar said, he and others rushed across the no-man’s land between east and west Jerusalem to make a startling discovery: “The supposed enemy we were told about was just like us.”
“The enemy was in our mind, our heart,” recounted Sarsar, “but is long gone from my mind, my heart.”
Sarsar came to New Jersey in 1974 on a student exchange and eventually earned degrees from what was then Monmouth College and from Rutgers University. Since joining the staff at Monmouth over 25 years ago, he has been honored for his activism in Arab-Jewish dialogue and peace building.
“I am proud to be Palestinian, I am proud to be Israeli, and I am proud to be human,” he said.
Unfortunately, he said, 46 years after that war, Palestinian and Israeli children still live with fears and misconceptions about those on the other side.
“Growing up in the grip of aggression and conflict has robbed them of their innocence and placed them in a circular trap of claims and counter-claims, of inherited agendas,” he said. “Bloody demonstrations, terrorism, and war dot the historical sacred landscape. Noncombatants caught in the crossfire usually pay the ultimate price.”
While borders enhance security, they have a “demoralizing” effect, said Sarsar, because “like fear, they distance people from each other, and from the past.”
He described peace negotiations at a standstill — with Palestinians divided among themselves and feeling disempowered, Israelis less willing to compromise in the face of security threats, the Middle East in disarray, and the United States and European nations too busy or inattentive to take a lead in moving the peace process forward.
To effect that movement, he said, both Palestinians and Israelis have to stop the “either/or” mentality, while the United States and others need to redouble efforts to bring both sides to the negotiating table.
Audience member David Tarrab of Holmdel recalled being caught up in the Israel-Arab conflict from the other side, in another place — as a Jewish child in Beirut.
“I lived through the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War,” said Taraab, whose family left Lebanon in 1975. “I remember we had to cover the windows.”
Another member of the audience, Dr. Saad Saad, a Palestinian-American pediatrician from Eatontown, said of Palestinians and Jews, “If you look at our DNA, we’re 99.9 percent the same.” On a recent medical mission he organized to the West Bank and Jerusalem, he told the gathering, he deliberately took a Jewish doctor to treat Palestinians.
Sarsar said he still hopes for a peace that will embrace a “shared concept of history, moderate action, and collaborative endeavors, making borders unnecessary.”