50-year friendship offers a close look at caring dialogue on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

50-year friendship offers a close look at caring dialogue on Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Violet Ikonomova
 USA TODAY NETWORKplayShow CaptionHide Caption#videoDetailsToggle{color:var( –color-dove-gray,rgba(0,0,0,.6));cursor:pointer;display:inline-block;font-family:var(–sans-serif,sans-serif);font-size:var(–type-7);font-weight:var( –font-weight-bold,900);line-height:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px);margin-bottom:-8px}#vdt_hide{margin-bottom:10px}.vdt-flex[hidden]{display:none}.vdt-svg{fill:var( –color-dove-gray,rgba(0,0,0,.6));height:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px);width:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px)}Officials: Death toll passes 20,000 in GazaThe Gaza Ministry of Health said the death toll has passed 20,000 since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th.

For any two other people, the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might have gotten ugly. 

He’s Jewish and supports a two-state solution. She’s Palestinian and wants one state with equal rights, which critics say would spell the end for a Jewish homeland.

He condemns the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. She says it was to be expected. Though she doesn’t want civilians killed, “violence,” she says, “breeds violence.” 

But these two are not enemies. They’re best friends, and have been close for more than 50 years. 

As the war in Gaza stokes and entrenches divisions around the world, metro Detroit lawyer Dick Soble, 80, and Arab American museum founder Anan Ameri, 79, represent an increasingly rare example of open inquiry and expression. Their discussion is probing, thoughtful, uncensored. On the big stuff, they tend to agree. Where they don’t, they listen, and even come to appreciate one another’s views.

“One of the things that runs through the world right now is we’ve become micro tribes and we talk about how we hate, dislike and want to fight the other,” Soble said. “I’m an American Jew and she’s a Muslim, Palestinian American, and neither one of us views each other as the other. And I think that’s one thing that’s different that allows that dialogue to continue, is it starts off with respect.”

Though they come to the conflict from opposing backgrounds — Soble was raised in a household where the prevailing view was “Israel, right or wrong,” and Ameri was born in British Mandate Palestine and relegated to refugee status by the creation of Israel — they’re united by justice-oriented values. 

Soble focused his career on civil rights law, helping win major settlements for victims of alleged systemic harassment by male guards at Michigan’s female prison and the disbandment of “red squad” political surveillance units in large Michigan police departments. Ameri, meanwhile, founded and directed both the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and the Palestine Aid Society of America, a nonprofit supporting Palestinians in refugee camps or the occupied territories, more broadly.

Over the years, they’ve witnessed one another’s marriages, comforted each other through divorce and traveled together around the world, cultivating a deep friendship that Soble says creates “the bridges for us to go back and forth.”

Catastrophe, setback and awakening

Ameri’s early childhood was shaped by war and instability. She recalls bombs dropping around her Jerusalem home as she lay on a mattress in the center of a living room floor, wrapped in her parents’ embrace. She was 3 years old then, and would soon be separated from them for the better part of a year, sent to live with relatives in Syria for safety.

Ameri never returned to that Jerusalem home. When Israel won its war of independence in 1948 and seized control of 80% of the land that made up British Mandate Palestine, she said her family was evicted in what’s known as the Nakba — or catastrophe, in Arabic. Her father’s family members, who lived in Jaffa at the time, were meanwhile scattered across the Arab world, kicking off a yearslong effort to reunite them.

After resettling in East Jerusalem for several years, Ameri’s family eventually moved to Jordan for greater opportunity, their lives profoundly altered by what they’d endured.

“At no time did we sit together and not talk about the life in Palestine,” she said of family gatherings. “At no time did people sit together and nobody cried.”

At least 700,000 Palestinians were displaced by the Nakba. But it was 1967 that inspired Ameri to devote her life to the Palestinian cause. 

That year, Israel captured the West Bank in the Six-Day War — what Palestinians call the Naksa, or “setback” — pushing another wave of refugees to Jordan and marking the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories whose borders remain today. Ameri, then a college student, volunteered at a refugee camp, turning tents into schools and helping reunite loved ones separated from one another. 

“You hear about your family trauma, but life goes on,” said Ameri. “It was not like seeing all these refugees coming and crying and children who’ve lost their parents — and they’re thirsty … and hungry.

“That was my awakening. ‘67 made me understand ‘48.”

She went to work at the Palestine Research Center, in Lebanon, collecting information on Palestinian history and political struggle. 

Soon, however, she’d be whisked from the Mideast to the U.S. by love — and Dick Soble.

Devotion to justice breeds friendship

Soble, who grew up in Massachusetts, met Ameri after his own political awakening, also in the late 1960s.

As a member of the Volunteers in Service to America, an anti-poverty program providing resources to nonprofits, he spent time in segregated Selma, Alabama — home of the famed civil rights marches — and witnessed the beatings of demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Eventually, he was assigned to Detroit, where he represented tenants as a recent law school graduate.

The experiences bookended a comfortable upbringing in a largely apolitical household (except on Israel), teaching Soble that the police, contrary to his early understanding, were, in fact, “not everyone’s friends” and prompting him to devote his own life to curbing what he saw as abuses in state power.

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By 1970, he was a partner at a law firm with civil rights attorney Abdeen Jabara, representing leftist causes including labor, minority interests and draft resistance

Soble and Jabara met Ameri that year during a trip to Lebanon, where Jabara had family. A freelance reporter on the side, Ameri was writing a profile on Jabara’s activism around Palestinian and Arab issues in the U.S.

The two fell in love, and, with Soble’s help obtaining a visa, eventually married in the U.S.

Soble and Ameri clicked too. With politics and a thirst for knowledge at the core of their identities, they forged a friendship that would outlast the marriage. 

“I wanted her in my orbit,” Soble said of the initial draw. “She enriched my life, I liked being with her — she was smarter than I was … who wouldn’t want that?”

Ameri hailed from what Soble called a “heady” political family, with a father who worked in the Jordanian government and highly educated siblings whose occupations include diplomat, activist, therapist and architect — a background with “enormous opportunity” for academic and political education that Soble said Ameri “brings to any friendship.”

Ameri deepened his understanding of the struggle for Palestinian justice and liberation and Soble deepened hers of the parallel struggle for African Americans.

For Ameri, whose family remained in the Mideast, Soble quickly became like kin. He was the only non-Muslim to witness she and Jabara’s wedding — which, much to their relief, did not present an issue for the imam who officiated the ceremony. When she and Soble separated from their respective partners in the 1980s, both lived in downtown Detroit. They provided each other support, rode bikes through Belle Isle and went to upscale restaurants like the Whitney with Soble’s holiday bonuses. 

She taught him to cook Arab food — a pastime they resurrected via Zoom during the pandemic — or tried, anyway. Soble said he set his sights too high, rolling grape leaves with “pudgy fingers” that left them looking as if they’d been “run over by a tractor-trailer.” 

When she moved to Washington D.C. to expand the Palestine Aid Society, Soble visited, and after she returned to Detroit for her now second husband, the couple elected to move to Ann Arbor to be near friends, including Soble. Ameri now stops by Soble’s home so frequently she keeps a pair of slippers there, and he brings with him sheepskin-lined Crocs to wear inside her home. An old photo of Soble — less gray — is framed in Ameri’s office, alongside images of her siblings.

“I call him my security blanket,” Ameri said. “I feel like whatever (the) situation is, I can call on Dick and I know he’ll be there, and I’ll always be for him.”

‘He always understood my pain’

Throughout their 50-plus-year relationship, conflicts in the Mideast have flared and ebbed. 

For Ameri, the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, during Lebanon’s civil war, was a particular low point. After Israel invaded the country with the stated aim of destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then based in Beirut and launching attacks on Israel, Israel’s military besieged the Palestinian Shatila refugee camp and its sister area of Sabra, allowing a right-wing Lebanese militia to kill an estimated 2,000-3,500 civilians (more, Ameri points out, than were killed in Israel on Oct. 7, and with vastly less attention). The PLO, however, had already been gone for weeks, with U.S. and other confirmation. 

Ameri had volunteered at the camps, and the dead included students and families she knew. She was devastated and, as tended to be the case, Soble was there for support.

“He always understood my pain,” she said. “He never argued with my pain. He never said what happened is OK. … I never heard a word of justification.”

Said Soble, “I’ve always been of the view that you can’t have a meaningful dialogue with anyone unless you try to listen.”

It never mattered to Ameri that Soble was Jewish. She said her father had instilled in her the belief that there were good people across all faiths; that the Israeli government, rather than Jewish people, was responsible for Palestinians’ plight, and that “there are Jews who were wonderful people and they don’t believe in what’s happening.”

Ameri, in fact, only learned Soble’s background after he wrote the U.S. Embassy to overturn its initial denial of her visa, due, she said, to her work at the Palestine Research Center. Jabara had enlisted Soble’s help, believing a letter of invitation from an American Jew would be better received than one from a Lebanese American.

“When people are asking if I have Jewish friends, I find the question absurd,” said Ameri, who is also a member of the progressive group Jewish Voice for Peace. “If (people are) good people, we share values, they’re kind … I love them.”

Friction

She and Soble’s father, however, had friction.

An American Jew born in the early 1900s, Herb Soble watched from the U.S. as antisemitism gave way to genocide in the continent his parents had left behind. Without Israel, the younger Soble said his father saw Jews thrown out of countries and persecuted, and eventually concluded that without a designated safe haven, they would become extinct. 

“My father thought Jews needed a homeland,” Soble said. “He never considered the Palestinians needing a homeland.”

Those beliefs gave rise to a tense and illuminating exchange for Ameri, shortly after she moved to the U.S.

She was wearing a Palestinian dress she dons for special occasions when she met Herb Soble at a birthday party for Dick. As their conversation veered to the Mideast, Soble’s father threw a rhetorical grenade — telling her peace in the region would come only “when the Palestinians become educated and civilized.”

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Ameri was stunned; she said she’d never before been confronted by that sort of dehumanizing rhetoric. 

Her shock manifested in a series of sharp retorts.

“My father and mother both have degrees,” she said. When the elder Soble called them the exception, she said “I don’t think they built universities just for my father and mother.”

Then, in a move she quickly regretted, Ameri invoked the Holocaust. 

Germany, she said, was seen as “one of the most civilized countries in the world … with music, art, universities and science, when they massacred the Jews.”

Though she walked away feeling guilty for having been “cruel” to an elder — no less the father of a close friend — it was a teaching moment. For the first time, she had been exposed to the mentality her cause was up against.

Herb Soble never provided his son with details of the conversation. Reflecting on his exchange with Ameri later that day, Dick Soble recalled that all his father said was, “she’s a very nice person.” 

The tunnel

They hadn’t discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for several years before Oct. 7. 

As the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank grew, further impeding the prospect of a Palestinian state, and Israel-Hamas wars came and went with lopsided death tolls that took far more Palestinians, the subject became too painful for Ameri.

“Every time I talk about it, I go into depression,” she said. “It hurts because you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. You don’t see the tunnel to start with.”

But Hamas’ attack, and Israel’s retaliatory war, opened the floodgates: “In these last two months, I cannot not talk about it,” she said.

Soble has honored both postures — silence, and now, loquaciousness. 

On a recent Tuesday at Ameri’s home in Ann Arbor, the pair spoke at length over coffee as the death toll in Gaza approached 20,000 — or 1 in every 200 Gazans killed.

Evidence of a life of political struggle dotted the house. Photos showed a younger Ameri in a Che Guevara shirt, and handcuffed at a federal building in Washington after what she said she believes was an anti-apartheid demonstration, though couldn’t quite recall because she’s been arrested at so many protests. A thank-you card for a donation to Rashida Tlaib — the lone Palestinian American in Congress — was affixed to the refrigerator.

Though Soble and Ameri both identify as progressives, they didn’t always agree. And though the conversation could at times get charged — particularly for Ameri, whose sister remains in the West Bank and for whom the conflict is more personal — they were open and explorative when they diverged. Nothing was off the table.

Ameri expressed deep frustration with mainstream U.S. media coverage of the Hamas attack. She recently canceled her New York Times subscription because of what she saw as the outsized attention the paper devoted to it over past Israeli attacks — like settler violence and bombings of Gaza.

Soble pushed back. “The image I have when I look at the Times today is of destruction, is of Palestinian babies, of the suffering, and it’s in graphic form. I think that the horrific nature of what Israel is doing is forcing the media to say to its readership, this is a monstrosity … they’re killing people indiscriminately.”

Maybe, she concedes — but she dropped the subscription before she could tell.

President Joe Biden was a sorer subject. Ameri’s voice grew pitched and she started to swear. “Trump is awful, but Biden is awful, so I’m not voting for either one,” she said, folding her arms across her chest in a note of finality. 

Soble said he sees why — Biden, in both their views, has given Israel free rein to commit war crimes, providing the country military aid without conditions. But Soble struggles with what to do in 2024, believing Biden the lesser of two evils when compared with Trump.

On a one- versus two-state solution, Ameri supports one, covering the area of Israel and the Palestinian territories. She previously supported two, but now sees the more than 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as an insurmountable barrier and doesn’t believe a nation of Palestine would be permitted to arm itself.

Soble supports two states, in part to maintain a Jewish homeland in the event global antisemitism again rises near the extremes of the Holocaust.

But on an overarching point, they agree: Both want an immediate end to the war.

“There are those who believe in one-state, two-state, and there are now 17,000 people who have no state,” Soble said, referring to the number of Palestinians killed by the time they spoke. “So we have to prioritize what we put our political efforts behind, and any other discussion sidetracks us from (the cease-fire being) critical to getting to any other solution.”

Interviewed separately, Ameri and Soble both spoke to the shared values and principles they say make their open dialogue possible.

“When you’re with someone for 50 years (with a different background than you), you learn a lot,” said Ameri. “You open your horizons … and Dick was very instrumental in that. I can ask him any question and he won’t make me feel stupid for asking.”

“She has an enormous capacity to listen,” said Soble. “She has strong political views and a rational basis for those views, but she’s one of these friends I’m not afraid of asking stupid questions to help me formulate my own approach.”

They’ll meet again this winter in Spain, for a trip with their respective spouses. Both hope the war will, by then, be over.

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