There are two pertinent observations that come out of the ongoing escalated conflict between Hamas and Israel. The first is that this is a deeply desperate situation. Regardless of Israel’s actions, there can be no doubt that having Hamas as the governing body of Gaza makes long-term peace, and prosperity for the Palestinian people as part of a two-state-solution, a less realistic proposition than if Fatah were in power. The second observation is that the world seems more polarized now than ever before when it comes to the Middle East, Israel, and the Palestinian people. Perhaps the ever-increasing methods with which everyday people can convey their message to the masses simply makes this polarization more apparent, more visible. Perhaps it was always there, we may never know. To be brutally honest, it just feels like everyone is mad about something, and they all want to tell us why.
Twelve years ago I visited the walled city of Acco in northern Israel for a weekend of sunshine, culture and exploration, with a small group of Jewish friends. We stayed in a magnificent hostel, full of stained glass and stone Ottoman architecture. Unbeknown to us, the weekend we chose to visit was a Muslim holiday, and as such the city was packed with thousands of Israeli Arabs taking boat rides, shopping in the vibrant and atmospheric markets, and smoking Shisha.
For anybody wondering, Israeli Arabs are essentially those who, upon the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, decided to stay in their homes, in their towns, and accept Israeli citizenship. The Proclamation of Independence of the State of Israel states “We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
In the midst of a wonderful weekend, absorbing Arabic culture in a city truly filled with character, we decided to take our Shisha pipe, and to find some shade and some hushed solace from the bustling alleyways and streets. Five of us, all teenage Jews from London, located a spot up on the city walls, and down we sat. Within a few moments we were approached by a group of about ten broad-shouldered local guys, Arab men looking for a lighter so they too could smoke the afternoon away and relax away from the crowds. We of course gave them a lighter, and conversation commenced.
One of these guys, who introduced himself as Ahmed, proceeded to ask us how our visit to the Holy Land was going. “So, are you enjoying your time in Israel?” Without a moment’s breath he then corrected himself, and what started out as an easy tone became somewhat flustered, almost aggressive, “I mean, Palestine, you know the Jews stole all our land, fucking Zionists. We hate all Jews!” We shuffled around, looking uneasily towards each other in the knowledge that we were thoroughly outnumbered, outmuscled, and high up on the city walls in the most precarious of positions should any kind of tension erupt. I replied “Yeah we’re having a great time thank you Ahmed, Acco is beautiful.”
A few uneasy moments later he delved deeper “So, have you been to Bethlehem yet? What about Nazareth?” It was imminently clear that Ahmed believed us to be one of thousands of Christian tourist groups who visit Israel every year to explore their own heritage. Out of nowhere, and with most of us feeling somewhere between anxious and petrified, one of my friends, Nick, addressed the proverbial elephant in the room, “Actually, we’re all Jewish”. Silence fell upon all of us, including Ahmed and his group of friends standing by him. The only sounds we could hear were the gusts of wind blowing in from the Mediterranean, and the distant gatherings of people enjoying themselves hundreds of feet below. In our minds, we envisaged headlines of British newspapers proclaiming that English youngsters had fell to their death over the high city walls of the ancient city of Acco in a mysterious accident. Our hearts pounded.
However, Ahmed’s demeanor changed as though a switch had been flicked. “Oh, ummmm, I didn’t mean we hate ALL Jews, and you know they didn’t steal ALL our land. Life here in Acco is pretty good for us, we’ve just had our difficulties in the past.” Cue a simultaneous yet somewhat cautious sigh of relief from five timid English teens in the Middle East. From that moment on, we exchanged small talk and Ahmed was truly pleasant to us, as were his friends. We left to head back to our hostel with friendly waves, congenial smiles and best wishes.
Fast forward twelve years to the middle of July 2014. Things are very different; we now live in a world of selfies, facebook, and Kim Kardashian. Unfortunately I’m not the tanned, multi-lingual Middle East dweller involved in political analysis and peace activism I believed I would be, instead I’m a pasty Londoner residing in the midst of suburbia, politically inactive and avoiding facebook like the plague. As the Yiddush saying tells us “We plan, God laughs”.
An old friend, let’s call her Sara, an enigmatic and intelligent girl who I’ve known for nearly ten years and been involved alongside in many creative projects in London, had gradually been taking a strong interest in the misfortune of the Palestinian people, since becoming involved in a relationship with a London-dwelling Palestinian guy. I’d seen from a distance her facebook statuses become increasingly centered around the situation in the Middle East, culminating in organizing fundraising projects for Gaza and flyering for these events at the numerous protests in London. At these protests in recent times, there have been individuals holding up placards with slogans such as “We Are All Hamas” and “Hitler Was Right”, but I knew Sara would only have attended with positive intentions and out of concern for the Palestinian people.
It is vital for me to unequivocally state at this point that everyone is welcome to their own political opinions but I do believe that those espousing them publically should be able and willing to substantiate them, publically. Sara had written a poem about the intense conflict in Gaza, a very humanist perspective on the situation, if not a practical one. It had received many comments and ‘Likes’. One of those comments, let’s call the commenter Mahmud, had said, “Zionists are not enemy of Palestinians or Muslims but the enemy of mankind and Mother Earth. To understand them you should understand fascism plus psycho ideologies all together.” I was shocked to read this, but even more aghast to see that my friend Sara had pushed the ‘Like’ button on this comment.
I stuggled with this overnight, not knowing what to do and feeling desperately upset at this statement. Somebody I had known for a long time, who I’d shared good times with, who I share mutual friends with, who I believed was balanced and moderate, had agreed with this sentiment enough to make a public statement by hitting ‘Like’. Unlike the many pieces of vitriol being indiscriminately hurled around facebook, twitter and anywhere else in our online, opinion-forming world, this action seemed deeply personal, it was not generic – it resonated with me. This prompted an end to my self-imposed facebook exile; I simply had to know if Sara actually believed this, I had to know if we were still friends. So I wrote a comment of my own, fully in the knowledge that most of Sara’s many friends viewing this thread would hold similar beliefs to those she holds…
“Sara your sentiments are admirable and powerfully written, I also call for an immediate end to human suffering in the Middle East, there’s a cycle of violence which simply must stop. I rarely use facebook and won’t enter a political discussion or disagree with a word you’ve said, but am personally affected by you liking (and I’m guessing agreeing with) Mahmud’s comment, which reads… ‘Zionists are not enemy of Palestinians or Muslims but the enemy of the mankind and Mother Earth. To understand them you should understand fascism plus psycho ideologies all together.’ Sara, I am a Zionist, as are numerous people who’ve had the pleasure of knowing you, working with you, and calling you a friend over the years. I’m not here to question your views on Gaza or Israel, but do want to ask whether you really think that to understand me, you should ‘understand facism plus psycho ideologies all together’? Are all Zionists facist and psychotic, regardless of how they express their Zionism, if they disagree with Israeli government policy, or if they actually support the creation of a Palestinian State? Am I facist and psychotic? If you actually think I am, that’s fine but I needed to check. If you don’t think I am, then these generalised statements do not help the situation move forward and foster understanding between peoples, they hinder it and demonise people. Please let me know, peace and love. X”
I waited, with baited breath, for a potential barrage of comments back, denouncing me for being a lone voice on a thread about Gaza, a divisive topic at the calmest of times. After five days, a response came from Sara, who wrote… “I can see that it was an extreme statement to agree with and I can see why it triggered you and it’s not a constructive course of action for me to ‘like’ such a post. I have ‘unliked’ the comment because I see that the language used is coming from a place of pain, it met my pain and triggered your pain and as you said, this is not helpful in terms of bringing more constructive communication to the table. I apologize for ‘liking’ the comment and for the pain it caused.” She also wrote two thousand other words as part of this post, denouncing Zionism and Israel, whilst at the end requesting that if I feel compelled to reply, I should do so not by commenting publically to that post, but by e-mail… effectively requesting that my own informed views are kept behind closed doors. I did not reply.
So there we have it, Ahmed claiming that he “Hates all Jews” and Sara, agreeing that “Zionists are the enemy of mankind.” Both of these statements are extreme, they will not be of any help in reducing the suffering felt by many people in the Middle East. They will not expedite the creation of a prosperous Palestinian State or help the people of Gaza to move forwards and live the lives they so richly deserve. They will not encourage Israel to feel secure that its existence is not perennially under threat. They will not bring people together to find middle ground, to open dialogue, to find basic tenets of agreement on difficult issues.
Without Nick’s forthright assertion that this small group of teenagers sitting on the walls of Acco’s Old City were all Jewish, or my public questioning of Sara’s agreement with an extreme statement denouncing me as the “enemy of mankind”, these individuals would not have had the opportunity to consider more deeply the words they are using. These statements would have gone unchallenged, and subsequently taken one step further towards becoming commonplace and an accepted truth amongst the masses. More pain, less understanding.
I attended the protest yesterday evening outside the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London, who have controversially singled out and shunned the UK Jewish Film Festival on account of receiving a small amount of funding from the Israeli Embassy. A few hundred impassioned people, mostly London Jews afraid of the direction in which our liberal society appears to be rapidly moving, lined Kilburn High Road shouting “No To Racism” and “Boycotts Divide, Culture Unites”. A small group of protestors relocated away from the main action, and crossed the road where numerous mainly Muslim residents of Kilburn stood, and they opened up dialogue. Despite an apparent seismic disparity in perspectives, it remained peaceful and calm.
I spoke to an eloquent young Muslim guy called Hassan. I believe we recognized in each other an ability to listen to opinions that oppose our own, so we stepped to the side of the crowds and engaged on-on-one. I truly believe that we both came away understanding more. I understood more about the difficulties that he and his wife face in modern-day Britain, with the rise of groups such as the English Defence League and British National Party, and much of our media seemingly determined to lay the blame on immigration for any issue in our society. Hassan began the conversation by claiming that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinians. I believe that by the end of our positive exchange, he understood that Israel can be accused of many things, that Israel is far from perfect, that the IDF do make mistakes, but also that Hamas are a truly poisonous organisation which is prompting Israel to make those mistakes on a more regular basis, and that Israel are not committing genocide at all. We exchanged details and I look forward to engaging further.
Friends, the situation in the Middle East is complicated enough without opening our mouths or tapping our keyboards to make extreme statements that, when questioned, we realize are not only incorrect but also inflammatory. It was the Dalai Lama who said “Where ignorance is our master, there is no chance of real peace.” It is the duty of everyone on any ‘side’ of this desperate situation to speak responsibly, to question our own beliefs as well as those of others, and to contribute to bringing people together, not driving them further apart. We MUST engage in personal one-on-one conversations as well as espousing public assertions. In other words, we must personalize, not polarize.