What a love story!
We visited the “Orchard of Abraham’s Children,” which is located in Jaffa, a mixed Arab-Jewish town, alongside Tel Aviv. We were greeted so warmly by Ihab Balha who was very excited to be surrounded by 40 women! His charm along with his height and long black-gray hair coupled with a long white robe made a lasting impression. He spoke Hebrew beautifully and he told us his unusual story about the creation of the school, “Orchards of Abraham”.
We gathered in the school’s backyard garden surrounded by active goats and rowdy chickens. Ihab grew up in the house in which the school is located. He is one of five children of a loving Palestinian Arab Muslim family. However, his father’s love only went so far. He hated Jews and he taught his children the same hate. Ihab worked in a restaurant where he encountered several negative interactions with a Jewish customer, but strangely enough, this turned into a lasting dialogue between the two of them. His view of Jewish/Arab relationships slowly started to change, but never shared these views with his family in order to preserve his relationship with them. Ihab had a serious fall-out with his father when they got wind of his changing attitude towards the Jews. They did not speak nor see one another for the next five years, a painful time for the entire family. For comfort, Ihab turned to Islam and the Quran, and he became a Sufi mystic. In 2008, Ihab reunited with his family and made pilgrimage to Mecca.
At the age of 35, Ihab attended a retreat at Sinai where Ora, who was an Israeli Jewish woman, was dancing around the fire. He met Ora and fell madly in love with her. They married two days after they met, and he struggled with how to tell his parents.
Ihab decided to introduce her to the family without revealing that they were, in truth, married. He brought her home along with a group of Jewish and Palestinian Arab “friends,” the first time Jews had ever set foot in the Balha home. Ihab’s father told Ora and the other Jews how he hated and resented Jews who he believed had stolen so much from the Palestinians during the 1948.
When Ihab’s dad was alerted about Ora through a cousin, he exploded and said “You Jews have stolen everything from us, and now you steal from me my son!?” Ora said, “I love your son.”
Ora was soon pregnant with their first child, and she and Ihab decided that they wanted to raise their son with Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslim Arabs. They had the vision of starting a nursery school but needed a building. Ihab’s parents volunteered their house, in which the school is today located. They call the school “The Orchard Of Abraham’s Children.” Ihab’s father visits the children each day and is a loving “grandfather” to them all, Arab and Jew.
We were then invited to go to Ihab and Ora’s home where we were treated to a very authentic Palestinian meal as we engaged in further conversation.
What a heart wrenching and beautiful story! The transformation of intense hatred to love and mutual understanding.
It was a beautiful afternoon!