Who is my neighbor?
One of the most disturbing elements of the occupation of Palestine is the separation of Israeli Jews from Palestinians. Early in the trip we had an evening meeting with five students from Hebrew University who represented a broad spectrum of political views in Israeli society. The conversation was lively and there was plenty of respectful disagreement.
One thing they all agreed on, though, is that almost no Israeli Jews their age knew any Palestinians personally. They might have conversations in shops while trying to buy something, but had never in their lives sat down to have a substantive conversation.
As we continued the trip, I continued to ask this question of various people, whether they had ever had a real friend who was Palestinian, or a Jewish friend if they were Palestinian). Time and again I was met with confirmation of a staggering level of separation in Israeli society. Jimmy Carter caught a great deal of heat for using the word ‘apartheid’ in his recent book about Israel and Palestine, but it is at least technically defensible, given that apartheid is simply the word for “separation” in the language of Afrikaans, and there is no reasonable person who could deny a staggering level of separation in Israel and Palestine.
There are legal and logistical barriers to people knowing each other, as well as social, political and cultural divisions. Israeli citizens are legally prohibited from visiting Palestinian controlled areas, and Palestinians from the West Bank must obtain permits to visit Israeli controlled areas (these permits are frequently denied, and often not honored even after they are obtained. Checkpoints may or may not let them through, or even be open).
It seems to me that this kind of separation is almost guaranteed to thwart any efforts at building peace, which is necessarily predicated on a sense of knowing one another. If we can’t have our own personal experience of each other as human beings, we are left with the extremist versions of each other that the extremists on our own side of the issue feed us, and progress is nearly impossible.
We had a presentation and meeting with David Wilder, a representative of the Jewish ideological settlement in Hebron. He spoke with us for a little over an hour and a half and told a lot of stories, including one to illustrate his belief that the true goal of Muslims is to set up their international capitol city in Washington, DC. Yep, Washington, DC. As we left, it occurred to me that every story he told of a non-Jew, including Muslims and Christians, involved extremists — both real and imagined. It seemed to me that Mr. Wilder has no experience of or belief in the existence of moderate Muslims or sane Christians.
We heard a couple of voices from the Palestinian side that were almost as dismissive as Mr. Wilder, saying “We could live in peace with them again as we once did, but they will never live in peace with us.” Thankfully, we also heard much saner voices on the trip, from across the political spectrum. The pattern seemed to hold, though: the saner voices were voices of those who actually *knew* some people well from the other side of the divide.
Dialog isn’t enough, and it’s non-productive if it serves only to justify the status quo. It seems to me that it is an essential part of moving forward, though. The power structures on all sides will be reluctant to move toward peace until the civil societies on all sides demand it, which will only happen when we stop believing the extremist rhetoric. That will only happen when we come to know each other.