Us vs. Them

Parents driving their kids home are gunned down in front of their young children. A family sleeping peacefully at night is burned alive in their beds. Cars are pelted by rocks. People walking in the street scan for threats. Is she going to stab me? Is he going to run me over with that car? A citizens’ patrol scans the dark horizon: will the firebombs come tonight?

When in fear, it’s in our nature and physiology to quickly assess threats, erring on the side of “caution” in the short-term by over-generalizing, seeing threats in more places than they actually exist, falling back on “us” and “them.”

But fear and anger can distort reality, leading us to mis-identify our friends and foes. Near complete separation between Israelis and Palestinians allows stereotypes to reign and the most extreme characters to fill the stage.

In a moment of fear, statistics don’t matter. While most Israelis and Palestinians may be angry and scared by recent events, those who actually would resort to violence are a small fraction of each population. Yet the calls on the street seek not merely justice against perpetrators, but also blind revenge.

Blood boils. Fear spreads. Anger takes root. Hate-filled chants fill the streets. Otherwise decent people put forward a rationale for perpetuating — even expanding — the violence: “They” are barbarians. “They” won’t stop unless we make them pay a higher price. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of “them” hurt no one. “They” are an entire population — be it Israeli or Palestinian — people just trying to live a remotely normal life inside a crazy situation.

In defining “us” and “them,” it is easier and quicker to paint with such broad strokes. But, the more broadly we define “them,” the more people we have to fight. The more narrowly we define “us,” the fewer people are on our side.

It is an enduring truth that there are, indeed, two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they are not the ones depicted on TV. Rather, on one side are those who oppose violence and, even if skeptical, remain willing to make an historic compromise if it will save lives and bring lasting peace and security. On the other side are those who insist they must have it all and at all costs.

Making “them” pay merely continues the all-too-familiar cycle of violence. When you can’t walk or drive down the street or sleep in your bed without fear of death, assault, or arrest, what kind of life are you living? No person, people, or nation would accept such a life — not without a fight. Increasing violence and fear will make a whole new set of horrible actions and reactions seem justifiable, reasonable, and even necessary.

And yet, in these moments, when everything seems engulfed in growing flames, it is especially difficult and equally important to remember that more violence will not solve any of the current problems. It will not simplify or resolve this conflict.

When the most intense fear and anger dissipate — after more funerals, more widowed husbands and wives, more orphaned and traumatized children, and more parents weeping next to horrifically tiny graves — the fundamentals of the conflict and its solution will be the same: two victimized peoples each claiming one land, neither willing to disappear or forfeit, and with most on both sides willing to support a peaceful resolution, if only they think it possible. The solutions exist; only the political and public will are missing.

Today, through the fog and frenzy of fear and violence, these majorities see no partners on the “other side,” only threats. But, one day, hopefully soon, they will permit themselves to re-assess. When they do, with the help of the thousands of Israelis and Palestinians who are still working to build cooperation and coexistence, they will see that if only they join together, those who are ready to put an end to this madness will own a bright, secure, and peaceful future.

About the Author
Avi Meyerstein is the founder and president of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the coalition of 170 NGOs building people-to-people cooperation and partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.