Overcoming fear of the Palestinians is no small matter for me as an Israeli born.
As far as I can remember I was scared of the Arab world. Growing up in a conflict zone shaped my views of ‘the other’. The fear penetrated my mind, heart and body. For years I had a visceral reaction when I met an Arab and wondered whether I would be hurt. My Palestinian friend would attest to it. When I first met him six years ago, he felt it.
My prejudices towards the Arabs were formed early on. At home and school, I don’t remember ever hearing a harsh comment against the Arabs, but out at large in the Israeli society I did pick up attitudes and fears. The Arabs surrounding Israel were our enemies who wanted to kill and annihilate us.
I remember the ’56 Suez Crisis. Israel was at war with the Arab world. As a 7-year-old, I remember watching in the middle of the night as my father was taken away by fellow soldiers to join the front. My mother, myself and my 2-year-old brother were left alone in our apartment along with the rest of the women and children in our five-family building. I helped my mother cover the windows with blackout paper. Several times, when the sirens sounded, we all went downstairs to a small cellar. I was scared but did not let it show. We all had to be strong for our mothers and country. This is the only war I experienced.
Generally, life was quiet in those days except for the northern and eastern borders with Lebanon and Syria. My extended family, grandparents, aunt and uncle and 4 cousins lived on a kibbutz close to the Syrian border. They experienced hostilities on a regular basis and we worried for their lives. It was there that I was first exposed to an underground shelter and when I visited the kibbutz I was aware of the adult men taking turns guarding us at night. They circled the area armed. At the time we did not know tragedy would hit our family at a future war. My oldest cousin, Ilan, grew up to be a tanker in the army and he was killed during the 1973 war. He was 28-years-old. He left behind 2 young children and a wife.
Most Israelis have lost members of their families in the conflict or know someone who has. Most have experienced more wars and intifadas than I have, and still, my fear is not minimal.
As unlikely as it seems, at some point I got interested in finding out more about the Palestinians and it led me to my January visit to the West Bank. I was definitely scared of the Palestinians. The weeks before the trip I had a recurrent dream I used to have years ago when I got anxious. In the dream I run as fast as I can to get away from Arab men who are chasing me over a hill.
I had several self-talks before departing. On my visits to Israel over the years, people on the streets there always identified me as an Israeli by my looks. I have always been proud of this. In calming myself before this trip, I told my brother that now that I am older I did not think people would recognize me as an Israeli in Palestine. My brother reminded me “the minute you open your mouth, Dorit, they will know.” On departure day I was very excited and somewhat nervous. As I was going through the security lines at the Minneapolis airport, the business man in front of me, turned around and asked me if I was an Israeli. My heart sank, “I am already recognizable.” It turned out that he traveled regularly to Israel and recognized my looks and accent. Flying over I was imagining what it would be like in Ramallah, being surrounded by Palestinians. My image was shaped by years of hostilities between us. Since I only spent my formative years in Israel, my image was emotional, somewhat childish and naïve. Nevertheless, it stirred my fear. I thought I would stick out like “the enemy” and would be a target of hate.
It all turned out differently when I actually visited Ramallah and other places in the West Bank. My excitement and curiosity got me there to experience something unforeseeable and unforgettable. ‘The other’ became human for me.
As I have written before, I am sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle and feel Israel needs to end the occupation. I also worry the world is forgetting Israel and is not attuned to our fears. I am concerned about the harshness of the world towards Israel, particularly the American far left and some young in our Jewish community. There is a difference between criticism and hostility. I would appreciate concern and acknowledgement of the horror of the stabbing attacks inside Israel and the incidences on the Syrian, Lebanese and Gaza borders. I don’t hear of pressure on the Palestinians to end terrorism and encourage non violent-resistance.
Stereotypes are formed as we experience life. I am embarrassed to state what I hear about the Palestinians in some circles. I am horrified at times to hear generalizations about Jews and plain ugly statements about Jews and Israelis. This will not go away automatically if the occupation were to end. We all need to own our fears, beliefs about the other and work towards decency in how we relate. This is true worldwide and here in the U.S. with increased Islamophobia, the ‘Trump phenomena’ and Black Lives Matter issues. I would like to see all of us do whatever we can individually, no matter how minute, towards a more peaceful world.