Stories coming out of the Middle East most often tell tales of conflict and violence. That is, indeed, the reality people there are facing, especially Christians. Church leaders are calling the world’s attention to this reality.
However, that’s not the whole picture. We are happy to provide another slice of life in the Holy Land, a picture of co-operation and harmony amid diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. This used to be the pattern of life for Christians, Jews and Muslims in many communities, but fundamentalist terrorist groups are breaking it up.
Some restaurant owners in Haifa, Israel have shared their business for several decades and generations. The seaside restaurant is called Maxim and is owned by the Mattar and Tayar families. The Mattar family is Israeli Arab and Maronite Catholic. The Tayar family is Jewish. Both have roots in Lebanon.
While tensions among Arabs and Jews have resurfaced across Israel recently, the two families have succeeded in a business partnership that began with a friendship among Shabtai Tayar and brothers Salim and George Mattar a half-century ago.
Tony Mattar said his family's ties to the Tayars allow both to demonstrate the importance of coexistence and tolerance. He said his family's Catholic faith has taught them forgiveness and respect for people without regard to race, religion or creed.
"We see this place like an island of life in coexistence, something really special," said Orly Nir, 63, Shabtai Tayar's daughter and restaurant co-owner. A silent partner in the restaurant, she is a retired school principal.
"We have total trust in one another,” she said. “We have never, never fought. We have the same sense of humour."
"No power in the world can separate us or divide us," Mattar said. "When people learn to get to know each other's traditions and culture, when they become friends, it is hard to see them as enemies. Our recipe for coexistence is very simple. Our relationship is the way it is because we look at each other as equals. Our two families have lived together in love and peace. This gives us quality of life. It is real and it is natural for us."
The families’ relationship was severely tested in 2003. In one of Israel's worst terrorist attacks, a woman suicide bomber set off explosives in the packed restaurant, killing 21 people and injuring 100. Five employees and a member of the Mattar family were killed in the attack.
Tony Mattar, working in the restaurant's kitchen, recalled how the shop filled with thick, dark smoke. Survivors scrambled out of the wreckage as best they could. The restaurant was closed for a month, and the families contemplated closing permanently, but customers urged them not to let the forces of evil win.
"If we who have gone through such an attack are able to continue, then other people can't give up either," Mattar told Catholic News Service. Both families feel they have something to teach others — how to live in peace and tolerance even in times of tension.
The families grew up together and they still share holidays, birthdays, weddings and deaths. When Tayar's only son died in 1969 during the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel, both families mourned his death. The Mattars did not leave the Tayars' side. The families also have travelled together. When a Mattar grandchild recently lost his first tooth, the families celebrated with traditional foods.
Food has a way of bringing people together. In this case, a restaurant is the catalyst.