I am not idealistic; I don’t hope for world peace or changing social fabrics. In fact, ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that I’m actually a pessimist disguised as a realist. And this is my reality:
I live in a country that has some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen.
I am near a city with an atmosphere that’s always buzzing and alive with youth and personality.
I get annoyed when the busses don’t run on Shabbat and I wish that everything wasn’t so damn expensive.
I laugh when elderly women at the grocery store offer to set me up with their grandsons.
As I stand on an abandoned street in the West Bank, I feel distressed watching a young boy with a wooden gun slung over his shoulder chatting with a group of IDF soldiers.
I feel frustrated when I hear stories from my Israeli friends of “that time in the army” when Arab children were throwing rocks at them, or when they had to stop a Jew from burning a Palestinian flag at a Muslim celebration.
I am baffled by the fact that I have to drive through a road surrounded on both sides by towering, cement walls just to get into Bethlehem, a city that, if it were in almost any other place in the world, would be brimming with energy and excited tourists lining up to see Rachel’s Tomb and the Church of the Nativity, but which in reality had fewer than 10,000 visitors last Christmas.
This country, Israel, may be one of the most complex places in the world, and therefore incites within its population a split personality. I love it and yet I am disappointed in it. I am grateful for it but I am angry at it. It can take my breath away or it can leave me feeling bitter. I am consumed by its intricacies and frustrated with its complications. I am dazed by its challenges, but sometimes I catch unexpected shadows resembling something like clarity.
For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the first thing on people’s minds when they hear “Israel”. Most thoughts aren’t even on common stereotypes like hummus and camels, they are on war. Attempts at peace processes have never yielded a successful, permanent solution, and to be honest, the two sides could probably keep on beating a dead horse until the sun sets on the world for the final time, there still would never be a resolution unless something changed fundamentally. It’s the over-recited definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Of course, I am not claiming any degree of likelihood that any of the necessary steps to begin a peaceful coexistence will take place in the near future. I will also not fool myself, or you, dear reader, into thinking that I have an objective viewpoint on this situation. Try as hard as we may, everyone inevitably comes with their own pre-packaged, subjective mindset. The best we can do is gather as many narratives as we can and use them to form our own, hopefully more well-rounded, points of view.
This one is mine that I have acquired after living in Israel for some time and managing to catch some of those rare glimpses of clarity. The way that I see it, the global scene would have to look a whole lot different in order for us to be able to plant the seed of hope for theoretical peace in the Middle East.
1. International media
A while ago I heard an Israeli Arab journalist named Khaled Abu Toameh speak about how the media portrays the conflict. Many of the things he said inspired me in writing this, but what struck me the most was what he said about the way the journalists he works with from around the world pick a story to pursue.
If fifty people die in Syria, if a Palestinian kid throws a pipe bomb at a checkpoint in the West Bank, if Hamas kills a dozen of its own people, nobody jumps on these stories. They don’t have time to write it because of a doctor’s appointment or their daughter’s piano recital. But if an IDF soldier yells at a Palestinian man at the end of a long day, journalists everywhere will fly out of their beds at 2 o’clock in the morning with pen and paper in hand. He called it, “No Jews, No News”, causing us listeners to burst into an inappropriate bout of chuckling.
This is not to say that no news outlets bash Palestinians, because of course many do. But that is exactly the problem. The international media has done both sides an enormous disservice by dedicating so much publicity to the situation. Radical Jews and Arabs alike read headlines about their brethren blowing themselves up or massacring fellow humans for the glory of whichever God they serve, and hasten to follow suit. The media is actually contributing to further radicalization, discouraging restraint because it’s not as good of a story. The opening of a coexistence school enrolling both Jews and Muslims will not receive as much attention as a terrorist driving a car into a bus station. Rather than promoting peace, the news is perpetuating violence. Not to mention that there are times that the media can be inexcusably misleading and even simply incorrect, and most people will never know the truth unless they dig for the real facts.
Not only that, but international media is shaping the very nature of how we think about this issue. It dictates the way we perceive events, even the terminology that we use. Do we call it the West Bank, or the “occupied territories”? Do we say “security fence” or “apartheid wall”? Do we talk about “illegal settlements”? “Palestine”, “Palestinian land”, or none of the above? Even without thinking about it, the phrases we use may give away our political positions, or they could merely be a reflection of what we happen to hear most; the media formulating our biases one little word at a time.
2. Reliable leadership
Both sides need a leader that they can trust and that they have willingly elected, because any peace agreement signed by someone that is not a true representative of the people may as well be invalid.
Benjamin Netanyahu has recently won his fourth election (third in-a-row) as Prime Minister of Israel. Even though it was a much more marginal victory than previous ones (due to diminishing approval among Israelis as well as the international community), his Likud party was once again elected fair-and-square.
With its intent of representing many different groups of people in Israeli society, the multiple party system makes national politics fairly complex, and it definitely has its drawbacks when you look at the complicated process of forming coalitions and establishing the government. However, the election process itself remains democratic and based directly on the people’s votes.
The more significant issue arises on the Palestinian side. Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian National Authority, is technically exceeding his deadline in office for what is now the sixth year. Although the UN recognizes him as the Palestinian leader, his own people may not be totally in agreement. While some Palestinians may be happy with his leadership, others would say that he does not have a legitimate mandate with his people to make decisions or concessions to Israel. If all of his people do not acknowledge him as the rightful head of state, some may ask how valid his authority really is, and therefore question the weight of any agreements he comes to with Israel.
The real problem with leadership is lack of courage. That same journalist that I heard speak entertained us with his use of black humor when he mimicked the leader of Palestine getting up on Arabic television and declaring to the Arab world that it was time to lay down weapons and make peace with Israel, because the Jews have a right to live in their homeland. If anyone were to do this, he stated, they would find themselves in a grave or, at best, a prison cell. He’s probably right. No Palestinian leader has ever or most likely will ever say those words for fear of massive outrage from certain powerful factions. But if the so-called leader of the people doesn’t stand up, who will?
3. Internal Palestinian turmoil
The reason behind Abbas extending his elected term for a year, and then another and another, was the conflict between Hamas and Fatah (Palestinian Authority), which has been called by some as the Palestinian Civil War. The two opposing Palestinian parties split in 2007 after rising tensions following Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Hamas took control of Gaza while Abbas and the Palestinian Authority remained in power in the West Bank. Since the division, there has been intense hostility between the opposing parties and numerous deaths on both sides. Although several reconciliation agreements have been brought to the table, none have been fully followed through and the two factions remain antagonistic.
If such turmoil exists within Palestinian society before even bringing Israel into the mix, how can a successful resolution be reached between Israelis and Palestinians? Although many Israelis are now pro a two-state solution, for this seems to many like the best course of action in the direction of peace, what would happen to the brand new Palestinian state as soon as Israel stepped away like it did in Gaza? While some Palestinians may have viewed Israeli disengagement as a gesture of peace, the majority saw it as an act of weakness, and it only led to more conflict within the Palestinian government and with Israel.
If democratic elections were held in the new Palestinian state, who would the Palestinian people elect to lead? Radicals like Hamas? Abbas? Someone new entirely with an unknown agenda? Before a two-state solution can be considered as a viable option, the internal issues of the Palestinian parties must be resolved so that the Palestinian state does not crumble in continued violence.
Education may be the bedrock for establishing permanent change. No two groups of people will ever live in harmony side by side if they are taught to hate the other from a young age. If you tell a child that the boy a few miles away, who also goes to school, prefers soccer to math homework, and likes Nutella sandwiches, is actually the enemy, then that is what he or she will grow up to believe.
If Palestinian children are learning addition in their textbooks with pictures of machine guns instead of apples, they grow up with war on their minds. If they are taught that the Western Wall is actually an ancient Islamic site, and they aren’t being presented with any correct history, how will they ever discover the truth? That boy, no older than twelve, standing at an IDF outpost in Hebron with a fake gun, camouflage pants, and a kippah on his head, what is he being taught? If children on both sides aren’t learning to respect someone else’s holidays, customs, or beliefs, how could they grow up feeling anything but animosity?
Until a society begins teaching the young generations facts instead of hate, and starts promoting positive values like coexistence, kindness, and humanity, we will not see a change in the mentality of the public as a whole. People need to be prepared for peace, it cannot be suddenly thrust upon them when they have been brought up believing that the other side does not even deserve basic human rights.
The goal of education is tolerance. Only by becoming less ignorant of each other, learning each other’s narratives, and earning each other’s trust can we gain it. So many people, when they begin a conversation about the problems in the Middle East, do so with the goal of voicing their opinion as opposed to a desire to listen to what someone else has to say. Maybe we’re addicted to the drama of it. Maybe we just want our voice heard because we do not want to appear uninformed.
Few people will say that they desire ignorance, and yet many of us are comfortable settling in it. It’s often easier than the alternative of having to learn or experience, but maybe that is the root of so many of our problems. The most common opinion is that hate is the biggest enemy of peace, but does hate not stem from ignorance?
In theory, what needs to happen is for the entire framework of the situation to undergo a colossal shift not only in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis, but also in the minds of everyone judging the story from afar. The world needs to stop focusing on placing blame, digging for the best scoop, and picking a side to condemn, and instead concentrate on learning and understanding.
I am by no means declaring that Palestinians and Israelis all-of-a-sudden hold hands, braid each other’s hair, and give each other friendship bracelets. I am not demanding an end to all BDS movements in the States or calling for the formation of worldwide coexistence projects. All I would like to see is some open-mindedness, respect, and a conversation where someone actually wants to listen.
I struggle to unify the contradictions that shape my mentality; the realist who secretly longs for the ideal. Half of my mind sees through the lenses of an uncompromising cynic, but the other half begs to ask, for those of you who are reading this without a million tabs open, why? Why aren’t you fact checking, doing your own research, finding a different perspective? I get it, it’s hard. It’s time consuming. Maybe it’s boring. We all have our own lives to live, our own tangible problems to worry about. But how, then, can we expect change in the world? Knowledge is how we fight radicalism. It’s how we defy hate. Maybe the part of me that wrestles with the skeptic would like to think that the pen really is mightier than the sword.