‘Abnormalization’ and the view from afar

“Things look worse from afar,” an Israeli colleague replied when I asked about the recent violence there.

Those with Israeli family and friends often hear that. Even during the second intifada, bad as the chaos and carnage were, the adage applied.

Today, as global terrorism intensifies, there is no “afar.” The same hatreds, which inspire social media-addled zealots to stab Israeli civilians, also pollute hearts and minds in Chicago, where I live.

At a recent security briefing for Jewish community professionals, I asked an official about hate chatter on the internet and the overall level of threat here. “It’s through the roof,” he said. “Like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

What’s to stop some fanatic from stabbing a Jew in Chicago in the name of Al Aqsa? No wonder I feel a twinge when I go to work.

My instinctive response to the intractable conflict always has been to reach out to Palestinians and Muslims; believing we have much in common, I prefer to see us as friends-in-waiting rather than eternal enemies, which we are not.

These days in Chicago plenty of people eagerly wage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on college campuses, in the media, and in the streets. Finding Arabs or Muslims willing to break bread with a Zionist? Not so much.

The atmosphere is so toxic that our counterparts at the city’s major Muslim umbrella organization refuse to meet with us Jewish federation professionals because we support Israel.

There was a time when people pooh-poohed dialog, saying “talk is cheap” and won’t lead to positive change. Now people refuse to talk because they think talk is dangerous. It can lead to mutual understanding and accommodation, derailing zero-sum aspirations.

So it was gratifying to engage recently in ‘abnormalization’ by having a cordial, heavy-on-the-dialog meal with a Palestinian American activist whose perspective is more nuanced and open than the anti-normalization norm.

We had met as participants in a mock mediation exercise concerning a dispute between an Israeli town and a Palestinian village. The exercise rapidly became a microcosm for the whole conflict as we failed—in front of a neutral American audience—to resolve anything.

Alas my Palestinian interlocutor had used the opportunity, I thought, to grandstand. He hauled out terms like “apartheid wall” and equated “price tag” attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers with Palestinian terror. We didn’t agree on much, but agreed to disagree in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

My response was to say, let’s get together. His response, surprising in today’s environment, was immediately to say yes.

After our first meeting but before we met for dinner, I discovered through Facebook that my new acquaintance had spoken passionately and unsparingly about the plight of Palestinians at an anti-Israel demonstration. I would have expected from his posts that he, like so many other Palestinians, would have refused to meet with me, a supporter of Israel if not all its policies.

What I learned from our meal together is that anti-normalization is not universally embraced. There are Palestinian (and pro-Israel) activists who reject the zero-sum paradigm. They reject anti-normalization and believe that by talking we might arrive at accommodation rather than more war.

“Something went wrong along the way,” my Palestinian acquaintance wrote to me. “Without putting blame on anyone—because each of us can point to atrocities committed by the other—we need to find common elements that bind us together. We can and should be able to find a solution to this mess but only if we leave our emotions at home or if we both understand each other’s emotions.  What is missing is the human element. Each side is not seeing the tragic divide from the other side’s eyes.”

I applaud him for his stance. Perhaps I’ll challenge him to post it on Facebook. Meanwhile, together with our mutual friend, the mediator who brought us together in the first place, we discussed the possibility of convening Palestinian Americans and Jewish Americans to draft a joint statement, deploring violence and calling for justice for both peoples.

Yes, the ultimate solution to the conflict lies afar, but for my Palestinian acquaintance and me “afar” is here in Chicago. The distance between “there” and “here” has shrunk; so too should the gulf between us.

About the Author
Aaron is Vice President at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
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