Visit any hospital NICU and there’s one thing you’re sure to find in abundance: vulnerability.

Post-birth mothers juggle their own recovery with being present at the NICU and involved in the details of their baby’s care (not to mention juggling the lactation marathon and taking care of their other children at home). Overtired fathers try desperately to hold it all together for the sake of their partner and family, without the luxury of paternity leave.

It’s not uncommon to receive some bad news or to break down in tears of exasperation, confusion, and helplessness. Yes, the NICU is a vulnerable place.

And where there’s vulnerability, there’s humanity, as I recently discovered during my son’s month-long NICU stay in Jerusalem.

Having been hospitalized in intensive care and separated from my son for the first 48+ hours of his life, I first arrived at the NICU with mixed emotions. My anticipation of the reunion and my gratitude for our both having survived the traumatic birth were marred by a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy at having been M.I.A. for the crucial first days of his life.

My husband led me to our incubator and I saw our baby, who was all of 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs), wearing a ridiculously gigantic diaper and an eye mask and sleeping under the blue phototherapy light. I had never seen a preemie before I gave birth to one, and the sight of his tiny body, that invasive blue light, and what seemed to me the most enormous mask in the world caused me to burst into tears. It all seemed so…unkind. So not what a newborn’s life was supposed to look like.

For the next few days, I could only muster the strength to visit for an hour here and there. But as the days went on and my health improved, I started to become a regular fixture among the NICU parents.

Everyone was drained. Everyone was overwhelmed, and it really didn’t matter whether you hailed from East Jerusalem or West.

From my “armchair”, I noticed which parents spoke to each other and which walked right by without so much as a glance in the others’ direction; I noticed how the norms around following the NICU rules changed depending who was on duty that shift; and I noticed the dynamics between the Jewish and Arab families and staff.

It was the Jewish-Arab dynamics that especially fascinated me. As a Canadian-born and Zionistically-raised immigrant to Israel, I haven’t had many opportunities to commune with Arabs. So, while I knew in my head that certain similarities united us (like the fact that we all have the same vital organs and call the Middle East our home), I never felt in my heart that we were actually similar in any way.

And suddenly, here we all were, Arab and Jewish moms alike, staying by our babies’ sides from morning until night with a few short breaks for eating, drinking, caffeinating, and pumping milk. Everyone was drained. Everyone was overwhelmed, and it really didn’t matter whether you hailed from East Jerusalem or West.

It was a setting that was heavily emotionally charged for both Jews and Arabs, yet had nothing to do with politics. No matter what our views on Israeli democracy, land-for-peace, the Temple Mount, or Hamas, we were all in the NICU with the common goal of healing our babies and going home. And that was all. We were so busy and so emotionally occupied that we had no time to worry about the mere “trivialities” that would otherwise separate us.

As the days turned into weeks and I got friendlier with some of the nurses and the other mothers, I was surprised to find myself starting to feel connected to some of the Arab women around me.

There was the young Arab nurse who took a special liking to my son. I was always excited when she was the one on duty with him, knowing he’d receive some extra love and affection that shift. On the day of his release, she even made sure to stop by numerous times to say goodbye and let him know how much she’d miss him.

There was the Arab woman whose baby was stationed next to mine for the majority of my stay in the NICU who hardly spoke a word of English or Hebrew but was proficient in the language of motherly love. I admired her devotion and her soft-spoken demeanor. And, as a religious woman myself, I even admired her modesty and her commitment to her religion.

Then, there was the young Arab mother of twins who stopped covering her hair halfway through our NICU stay. It wasn’t my place to speculate but as a hair-covering woman myself, I couldn’t help but conjure up potential explanations for this in my mind. I wondered if she was struggling with questions of faith as a result of the challenges she was experiencing, and I could relate to that. I even started toying with the question of whether there were circumstances that could also drive me to uncover my own hair.

They cooed at babies and struggled with hair covering and tried their best. These were people, just like me.

Slowly but surely, the message started moving from my head to my heart, seeping in on an emotional level. These were people, just like me. They were human, just like me. They cooed at babies and struggled with hair covering and tried their best. Just. Like. Me.

Social psychologists have found that throughout world history, genocide attempts have begun with dehumanizing the enemy. Whether that meant referring to the enemy as vermin, dogs, or as any other sub-human form, the separation and degradation is what provided the moral license to harm, torture, and destroy. It would be unthinkable to wish harm or death upon someone who was essentially like oneself. It would mean the perpetrator is immoral, wicked. The solution, then, is dehumanization.

And that’s why I think that world peace will begin in the NICU – or some similarly vulnerable setting, because this lesson really extends far beyond the confines of hospital walls. Imagine if bloodthirsty enemies were forced to sit together united in pain and vulnerability before acting on their hatred toward one another. If they were forced to recognize that their enemies were far more similar to them than different, the world would be transformed.

If we’re going to care enough about the lives of others to live peacefully with them, no matter what religion, ethnicity, or background, we have to really and truly believe in their humanity. We have to feel it in our gut. Because to the extent that we humanize “the other,” their “otherness” fades into oblivion.

I’m grateful to have benefited from my month in the NICU in many ways. And now if we can only get the rest of the world on board…