Lessons From My Jewish Mother & Palestinian Father

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Claire Hajaj's parents, Deanne and Mahmoud Hajaj, in Israel for their honeymoon in 1969. (courtesy Claire Hajaj)

In recent weeks, The Takeaway's coverage of the mideast has highlighted the perspective of diplomats, historians, journalists, and policy analysts.

But as the daughter of a Palestinian father and a pro-Israel Jewish mother, Claire Hajaj's expertise on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is more personal.

On her mother's side, the shadow of Russian pogroms and Auschwitz's death camps fell over family history. Her father's family was in Jaffa when Zionist paramilitary groups arrived with tanks and mortars.

They eventually fled the region, losing their family home.

Her new novel, "Ishmael's Oranges," is based on the story of her parents, who met and fell in love at at British university in the summer of 1967 as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians raged on.

"They met in the U.K. during the summer of love in 1967—by then we'd already had the Suez crisis, we'd already had the Six-Day War, and the memory of '48 was still incredibly fresh," Claire says. "But for these two people, they didn't see the conflict in each other. They just saw two people who understood each other fundamentally in ways that other people didn't."

Claire says that both her father and mother's families were shocked and confused by their relationship at first, even though both families were not very religious. 

"For the Muslims, Muhammad himself had a Jewish wife, so it wasn't completely unheard of that Muslim might marry a Jew," says Claire. "For them, I think they eventually came to think after the initial shock, 'Well, maybe she will be absorbed into our society and the children will, by default, be Muslim—they will be Palestinian because their father is.' For my mother's side, I think it was more difficult."

Claire says that her father had stayed in Israel after 1948, and adopted many aspects of Israeli culture—he had an Israeli passport and even spoke Hebrew.

"He probably was about as Jewish as a Palestinian could be," says Claire.

Though her parents did unite in love, both still had deep-seated stances on this conflict, something that reached into Claire's own world.

"For as long as I can remember, I've been on the front line of seeing these two communities tearing themselves apart," she says. "I have the curse, if you like, of being able to empathize with both perspectives. That's a very, very confusing place to be."

Claire says that in many ways, both narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are incredibly similar.

"We have two people who are both obsessed with a story of loss, a story of conflict, of hate, of being drive out of homes, of having families scattered to the winds, of trying to rebuild their lives, and of looking back in pain and fear," she says. "This is the story of the Palestinians and the story of the Jews. I've heard both stories bitterly, angrily told to me throughout my childhood. How on Earth is a person supposed to choose between these stories?"

Claire says she cannot choose.

When Claire was five-years-old, her mother explained the divide within her family, and the huge issues that separated her mother and father.

"Since then, I have asked myself who is right and who is wrong and what does justice mean—what would be the right thing to do?" she says. "I'm not sure that now I have an answer."

Claire says that finding resolution and peace should not focus on righting all of the wrongs of the past and starting over from the beginning.

"That is simply not a possibility," says Claire. "I would prefer, rather than to talk about justice or about what we can do now not to make sure that our ancestors get justice, that our children have peace, freedom, and security."

Though Claire would like both parties to find a middle ground, her own parents could not resolve their differences in the end. They divorced after 25 years.

"Their identities certainly played a role—they were two people who drifted further apart in their political identities the longer they were married rather than closer together," she says. "Maybe that was inevitable, given the horrendous attrition that has surrounded both societies from '67 to today. Obviously there were personal reasons too—the end of a marriage is never, ever simple."

While her parents' marriage did not work out, Claire says she does believe there is still hope for the Israelis and Palestinians, something that she is trying to convey in her new book.

"It's a cliché to say, but there is always hope," she says. "If there is hope for these two peoples, it exists in the will of two societies to live in peace."


Claire Hajaj

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson and Mythili Rao


T.J. Raphael

Comments [7]

Chaim from Dallas

Absolutely beautiful! I love seeing our jewish princesses so happy in the manly hands of superior Arab men. It's nice to see them happy for once. I'm glad to know that they are finally sexually satisfied.

Sep. 30 2014 03:17 AM
Andrew Johnston from Cambridge, MA

The whole basis of this "discussion" is completely: I should have thought Todd Zwillich intelligent enough to have cleared the matter up. "Palestinian father, Jewish mother" is utterly meaningless. Miss Hajaj states her father's nationality and ethnicity, and then her mother's religion. "Jewish" is not a nationality. Miss Hajaj talked of "Russian" pogroms suffered by her mother's family, which suggests her mother is Russian, but she may, of course, be of one of the other sub-sets of ethnic Slav, --- Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish....... but the mother is ethnically Slav, and nationally? ----- certainly not "Jewish".

Incidentally, why do you never comment about the fact that all Israelis are descended from converts, that the only Semites in Israel are the Palestinians.

Please tell Mr Zwillich that Hajaj pere was born in Jaffa, not "Joppa". Was it not somewhat arrogant as well as not true that he should name the city by its Hebrew name?

Aug. 08 2014 10:43 AM
Fouad el haj


Aug. 05 2014 04:55 AM
Eli from NY

It is unfortunate that this story has romanticized historic errors. The Jews and Israelis did not force out anyone. Instead, Arabs came to Israel for jobs developed by the incoming Jews. The Jews cleaned out malaria infested swamps, and many died in so doing. in the 1930's and 40's, it was due to Jewish efforts that Arabs had schools, hospitals and clean water. The conflict is due to money being poured into really bad propaganda, including through the "Palestinian" schools. Meanwhile Jewish children continue to be raised to want peace, while they are under siege by Hamas terrorists.

Jul. 31 2014 01:23 AM
Anon from NJ

Except that, in one story of loss, the answer wasn't to declare a country based on religious text within an existing ethnic territory and then run the current group from their homes with guns and trap the remaining ones in an open air cage. It's very obvious who is at fault from the start.

Jul. 30 2014 07:33 PM
Caroline from NJ/USA

The Middle East is full up with cousins who can't get along.
For the most part their stories are the same, some worse some better - unfortunately, I guess, their culture is one to never forgive, but get even if you can.

Some very smart person said: What goes around, comes around.

Jul. 30 2014 12:59 PM
Donna from Portland


Jul. 30 2014 12:28 PM

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