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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: This dreamer hopes for peace in Israel

Tali Zaid of the Beit Zaid community in

Tali Zaid of the Beit Zaid community in northern Israel in spring 2014. She shows photos of her grandfather, early Zionist Alexander Zaid, and his Bedouin friend. Credit: Cathy Young

Think of Israel, and one of the first things that comes to mind is ethnic and religious tensions -- the focus of Pope Francis' diplomacy this week as he unites the Israeli and Palestinian presidents in prayer in the Vatican's gardens.

In some ways, when traveling in Israel, such conflict seems remarkably absent: religious and secular Jews, Muslims, and Arab Christians mix peaceably in public places. Yet the tension is there.

When our small tour group visited the Arab quarter in old Nazareth during a recent eight-day visit to the Middle East, the local cultural center was hosting a collaborative exhibition of art by Israeli Arabs and Jews. Only a couple of blocks away, however, we spotted graffiti commemorating Nakba ("catastrophe"), the displacement of vast numbers of Arabs during Israel's founding in 1948.

At many sites linked to the history of the first Zionist settlers, Israeli guides mention violence by Arabs as part of that history.

Is this a tale of intractable crisis, or of hope against hope? No one has an answer. But one memorable moment from my trip encapsulates the paradox.

It was a visit to Beit Zaid, a settlement in northern Israel with a population of fewer than 250. Our guide took us there to see a place with a remarkable legacy and to meet a fascinating woman who is its present-day heir: Tali Zaid, granddaughter of Alexander Zaid, a Zionist settler and a founder of Hashomer in 1909, the first Jewish self-defense organization in what would later become Israel.

A small woman of about 70, Tali Zaid radiates strength -- perhaps inherited from her grandmother Tzippora, a pioneer who had four children and insisted on working and fighting on equal terms with the men. Today, Tali Zaid conducts personal tours in Beit Zaid, enthusiastically sharing her family's story with visitors.

That story includes a complicated relationship with the Arab population.

"My grandfather thought we had much to learn from the Arabs," says Tali Zaid. She shows a photo of a Bedouin in traditional garb who, she says, became a close friend to her grandfather -- once offering to shelter the Zaid children after he learned about a coming Bedouin attack on the settlement. She regards the Bedouin's descendants almost as family.

As we walk up the hill to where a statue of Alexander Zaid on horseback towers over the sparse landscape, Tali Zaid continues the story. In 1938, her grandfather was killed near his home. Later, a Jewish underground militia executed the Bedouin man identified as the killer, Kassem Tabash, with the blessing of Tzippora Zaid and the Zaids' eldest son, Giora.

But this tale does not end with revenge. After Israel gained statehood in 1948, Giora Zaid received a senior post in the military administration governing Israeli Arabs. Then, says Tali Zaid, he met with Tabash's relatives -- who feared further retribution -- to tell them he was not their enemy and to urge them to leave the past behind. Giora Zaid, who died 10 years ago, went on to recruit Bedouin and Druse men into the Israeli army. Remarkably, Tali Zaid says she and her cousins still have close friends in the Tabash family.

"That makes me hopeful," she says, standing under her grandfather's statue -- about a hundred feet away from the tomb of Sheik Abrek, a shrine visited by Muslim pilgrims. "If our families could forgive and forget, then perhaps so can the Israelis and Palestinians. Not in my lifetime, of course; perhaps in a hundred years or so."

She may sound like a dreamer. But then, it was people with an impossible dream who built the state of Israel.