Ibtisam Erekat, a devout Muslim, and Ruth Ebenstein, a Modern Orthodox Jew, have much more than breast cancer survival in common.
Growing up in Southfield, Ruth Ebenstein always felt energized by the ethnic and religious diversity that characterizes Metro Detroit life.
So when Ebenstein, who moved to Israel in 1990, was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, it felt natural for her to join a Jerusalem breast cancer support group for Jewish and Palestinian women.
“When I found out about this breast cancer support group, I thought it would be a great way to forge a connection,” Ebenstein said. “Breast cancer is a huge thing to have in common.”
In addition to seeking the support group’s advice and reassurance, Ebenstein was hoping to find friendship.
“I was looking for someone going through the same experience to connect with. I felt lonely on this journey.”
The woman she connected with — to the point of feeling like sisters — is Ibtisam Erekat, a Palestinian breast cancer survivor who lives in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village on the other side of Israel’s soaring security barrier that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem.
As the political impasse and mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians has grown, so has their devotion to each other.
Erekat, a devout Muslim, and Ebenstein, a Modern Orthodox Jew, have much more than breast cancer survival in common.
Both were in their 30s when they married divorced men with children, and both gave birth to three children within three years. And they both believe that love can overcome hate.
“Ibtisam is so comfortable with herself, something we have in common,” Ebenstein said. “She’s strong-willed in the best sense; she has her own opinions. She’s warm, has a wonderful sense of humor and incredible faith.”
Soon, they began meeting outside the confines of the support group, woman-to-woman, and, later, family-to-family.
Their common language is English.
“We talk about everything,” Ebenstein said. When they talk about the “hard stuff” — terror attacks, wars — they discuss how these events relate to their personal lives.
During the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, for example, the friends leaned on each other for emotional support as Hamas launched thousands of mortars and rockets into Israel, and the IDF retaliated, decimating parts of Gaza.
On a day-to-day level, “if I hear of something that happened in Abu Dis, I’ll check in and see if she’s OK,” Ebenstein said. “Ibtisam does the same for me.”
Erekat initially joined a Palestinian support group, and then joined the Jewish Israeli-Palestinian group through the Patient’s Friends Association at Augusta Victoria Hospital in eastern Jerusalem.
“It was a beautiful experience where we got to know a group of Israeli and Arab women,” she said.
She was struck by Ebenstein’s warmth and desire to help Palestinian group members.
“She treated me with great respect and helped me in several situations,” Erekat said. The more time they spent together, the more their friendship blossomed.
“I got to know her family, her father, mother, sister and two brothers, and also her husband Yonatan. He is a very fun person and respects me, and I appreciate this about him. I respect them, and love them all,” Erekat said.
Eventually, the friendship evolved into speaking engagements in the U.S. and Israel. Erekat and Ebenstein addressed groups, large and small, about their unique relationship and the fact that individual Israelis and Palestinians have the power to overcome ingrained hatred by seeing each other as people. They’ve started giving talks over Zoom to groups near and far.
“We’re individuals,” Ebenstein said. “She’s not Palestine. I’m not Israel. She’s Ibtisam; I’m Ruth.”
Along the way, Ebenstein has learned about Palestinian culture — and suffering.
“Getting close to someone across the divide has taught me how much we don’t know about the ‘other.’ Getting close to someone makes you see how little you know. It really hammers it home.”
Erekat, who has asthma, lives close to the Separation Barrier. Sometimes there are skirmishes between Palestinians and Israeli military or border police, and the tear gas wafts into her home.
“She can be vomiting for hours from the tear gas, but if you don’t know anyone affected, you wouldn’t know that this is happening,” Ebenstein said. “You don’t realize an innocent person sitting on her couch will be sick for hours, or that many Palestinians who are sick can’t get an entry permit into Israel for much-needed medical treatment.
“As a cancer survivor the thought of not being able to get treatment is frightening,” both for herself and Erekat, Ebenstein said.
“We are an occupied people,” Erekat said. “At first, when I got to know Ruti, I could not visit her at her home except with a permit from the Israeli government. Then the laws changed, and I was allowed in without a permit because I’m over 50 years old. Now such a visit is forbidden, possibly related to the Coronavirus pandemic.”
For the vast majority of Israelis, Palestinians are “arbitrary concepts,” Ebenstein said. Having a dear friend who is Palestinian “changed so much for me.”
Erekat feels the same way.
“We have our own bodies but share one soul. We feel each other’s pain and help each other in many matters. Ruti is my sister and best friend,” Erekat said.