In inspiring blog, unlikely friends grapple with Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Blog authors Noam Waksman '15, left, and Hani Azzam.
Blog authors Noam Waksman '15, left, and Hani Azzam.

Wellesley High school classmates Noam Waksman ’15, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, and Hani Azzam, whose father is Palestinian-American, are sparking conversation and challenging preconceived notions with their unique blog, “Until Next Year in Jerusalem.”

In an age when letter writing has largely become a thing of the past, the two unlikely friends are using modern technology to turn their regular correspondence into a remarkable public discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to regular commentary on current events, the blog features letters Waksman and Azzam write to each other. In the letters, which often feature beautiful prose, the men grapple with the history of the conflict, the role Americans play and the complicated path to peace.

“We have the ability to talk about the issues more openly because we aren’t entrenched in the everyday reality of it,” said Waksman, a Connecticut College sophomore who plans to major in English and psychology. “We know we can’t solve the conflict, but we hope to change perspectives.”

Growing up in Wellesley, Mass., Waksman and Azzam, who now studies international relations at Tufts University, never discussed the unusual nature of their friendship. While the conflict was a regular topic of discussion at home – both families have relatives living in areas affected by or close to the conflict – the two boys were actually drawn together by similarities in their heritages – food, culture and even the fact that their families escape the everyday realities of the conflict by living in America.

“In our town, there are few Jewish people and even fewer people of Palestinian descent,” Waksman said. “It kind of drew us together.”

Azzam began to reflect on their relationship when, following surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, Waksman was hospitalized for several months during their senior year. Waksman’s mother solicited contributions to a scrapbook to help him through the lonely recovery period, and Azzam decided to write a letter.

“I have always felt some connection to you, Noam, perhaps because of how similar our heritage actually is,” Azzam wrote. “The only barriers between Israelis and Arabs are abstract ones of religion and past events. In America, we carry the physical burdens of neither of those. We live in safe houses, we are religiously tolerant and we did not fight over land. With these abstract barriers removed, we realize that people are simply people, and animosity between them is not inherited but rather forced upon them by their geopolitical standing in the world.”

Last summer, Waksman and Azzam decided to continue the correspondence, and to do so publicly with the blog. Their letters reveal an intense respect for one another, even as they disagree and debate highly emotional issues.

“I’m genuinely interested in what he has to say,” Waksman said. “We definitely make each other angry sometimes, but that is kind of the point.”

Azzam said he has learned so much from his correspondence with Waksman, and hopes that others will, too.

“Our primary goal is informing a rethinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially in the eyes of Americans,” Azzam said. “The blog has really developed my personal views on listening to another point of view and learning from that to nuance your own.”

Waksman said he and Azzam are exploring the possibility of traveling to Israel and the West Bank together. In the meantime, both are busy college students. Azzam plays club soccer at Tufts, while Waksman performs in plays, sings with the Chamber Choir and is a member of the College’s Scuds improv comedy group.

But the blog, like the conflict, is never far from their minds.

“In the end, we both just want a peaceful resolution,” Waksman said. 

December 21, 2012