Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Rutie Atsmon: The shock of my life

In a cramped basement office in Tel Aviv, Rutie Atsmon curls up barefoot on a faded sofa, surrounded by stacks of freshly printed Windows magazines, the Italian and English edition.

In this latest issue, 1948 and Us, young Windows journalists unravel the stories of their grandparents from that fateful year into their own present. In Hebrew and Arabic they map out two deeply conflicting narratives: for the Jews, the gaining of a homeland; for the Palestinians, the loss of theirs. Everything that has followed appears to confirm that these two versions of history are fundamentally incompatible. Not so here at Windows.

Rutie Atsmon is director of Windows – Channels for Communications. Based on a similar ground-breaking project in apartheid South Africa, it’s rooted in the simple notion that if young people who have been segregated can communicate and get to know each other, learning how to express themselves honestly and to listen carefully, there is a chance they may be better equipped to co-exist as adults.

For many in the mid-1990s, the heady days of the Oslo Accords, co-existence and peace shifted for a moment from fantasy to possibility. But even then, the Windows concept wasn’t an easy sell. “When we started talking to people about this idea,” says Rutie, “most of them thought we were crazy. Why would anyone want to do such a thing, how could these kids possibly have any interest in each other? But you know, the more negative responses we got, the more we thought this project was needed.” She laughs quietly.

Born in the ninth year of the Israeli state, 1957, Rutie Atsmon grew up on a moshav, a farming community in the south. I asked her how her awareness of Palestinians had evolved there. Through childhood she remained aware only of their absence, she says. For example, she knew that her Jewish village was built of stones from an Arab village that was demolished in 1948. But in the triumphal spirit of the time, nothing about this seemed amiss. Palestinian migrant workers from Gaza came to pick tomatoes on the moshav, but Rutie saw them only as distant, hazy figures in the field. “So there were encounters with reality,” she says, “but no insight into what they meant.”

In 1973, Israel occupied the Sinai peninsula. Three years later, at age eighteen Rutie Atsmon went to the army for her compulsory military service. As it happened with other Israelis I met, the army offered her some insights that were entirely unintended.

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