Who’s to Blame … in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Ripping down the Palestinian flag that hung from my wall was my first reaction to hearing the sirens in Jerusalem one day last summer. It was not out of hostility for Palestine or even for Hamas, for that matter, but for hearing the fireworks and cheers in the neighboring Palestinian Arab village of Isawiya, next door to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I was studying on the Mount Scopus Campus. As I watched the Iron Dome of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intercepting rockets fired at the Holy City, many of these residents flocked to the streets in celebration.

Who’s to blame in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? The Israelis? The Palestinians? The governments? The religions? Or people like me who irrationally react to uneducated feelings and uninformed beliefs. The Middle East is stricken with motivated violence, but who really is to blame? Where’s this motivation coming from?

I’ll tell you this much: after living as a student in Israel and Palestine for the past year, I’ve realized that people on the ground do not want peace; they want their own states. Westerners (myself included) want coexistence for the people living in that land, but people living there are already coexisting out of necessity. When will we “out-of-group” members even acknowledge the wants of the people living in this region?

I’m in no position, nor am I in any way warranted, to pass judgment on this issue. I’m neither Israeli nor Palestinian, let alone Jewish or Arab. Then why comment?

Throughout my time attempting to promote plurality and inclusive relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East and while interning with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), I have found that both sides want different things, but also the same things.

They both want chaos, suffering, and turmoil to end and to wake up each morning not fearing the day. They both want to go through their normal routines, just as we all do and take for granted each and every day.

Yes, this is too simple; it is not enough.

Of course, government policies need to be created and amended, fair borders drawn, and extremists silenced, but this is not the purpose of my writing. The ICCI, along with other interreligious and peace organizations in Israel and Palestine, believe that religion could be used as a weapon (yes, pun-intended) for peace and not destruction. Just as Desmond Tutu discusses, religion is a simple tool, like a knife: when it is used to cut bread, it is good; when it is used to cut someone’s throat, it is bad.

I suggest this:

Let us take a step-back and think about intercultural dialogue and forming interconnected webs of mutual recognition before focusing on religion. And we first need to target the places where many Israelis and Palestinians inhabit: community centers. There are over 30 community centers in Jerusalem and virtually none of them rely on intercultural work. Colin Hames, Director of the Jerusalem Suburbs Community Center, believes that it’s more useful to work on intercultural dialogue and from there slowly move into interreligious dialogue.

The simplest way to go about this is to get people together to become aware and learn about the other! Once you know the person, from an I-Thou Relationship and not merely an I-It Relationship (to use the words of Martin Buber), you begin to dialogue about intercultural relations. It is only when you look into the eyes of the other and acknowledge them for being from the same source that can interreligious dialogue become valuable. Creating intercultural programs in community centers can counter the prevailing attitudes of both Israelis and Palestinians against celebrating at the peril of the other. It is only by long-term intensive religious and cultural humanistic education that we can address the issues in the Middle East; the true way of doing this is to build infrastructure on the ground that will allow such to happen and not rely on Westerners coming into their land to find solutions for ‘peace.”

The mission of the ICCI is “to harness the teachings and values of the three Abrahamic faiths to transform religion’s role from a force of division and extremism into a source of reconciliation, coexistence, and understanding.” Quite simply, the ICCI aims to act as a support system for both Israelis and Palestinians, and all that seek their council. In 2011, my friend and mentor, Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish, Founder and Director of the ICCI, helped create a collation of more than 40 different organizations to express tolerance and unity against Tag Mechir (“price-tag”) with Tag Meir (“spreading the light”).

There has been much incitement due to Operation Protective Edge, and many houses, cars, mosques, synagogues, etc. have become vandalized. Common reflections from personal experiences have included the response (or lack thereof) of the local police, the role the Knesset must place to diminish such attacks, and how Tag Meir is indeed, “lighting” the way. Dr. Kronish states, “Fighting against price-tags brings people of good will together to combat xenophobia and insensitivity to fellow human beings. It reminds us that all human beings are created in the Divine Image.”

Maybe we should stop playing the blame game. Maybe we should stop posting hateful, bigoted, and ignorant comments on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe my religion isn’t better than your religion, my God isn’t better than your God…or maybe we are all to blame: especially people like me who reacted so unresponsively Pavlovian for something I barely understood and continue to barely understand.

Rather than blaming each other, we ought to accept responsibility for each other’s fate. All of us as human beings are inextricably intertwined. Instead of blame, let’s try a new game: act for peace, and encourage those on the ground in both Israel and Palestine who are doing so.

The People Demand Falafel!

September 29, 2014

A few days ago, my wife and I took a drive east of Jerusalem to show a friend from Boston some of the complicated geography in areas C and E of the West Bank. Most people in the world, of course, have no real idea of where those areas are really located, and neither did our friend, so it was an enlightening little tour.

First we drove to Mt. Scopus, and overlooked area “E”, which stretches from Mount Scopus going east through the Judean Desert to the city of Ma’aleh Adumim – an area which many Israeli politicians would like to annex to Israel and make part of greater Jerusalem. Then we drove into one of the nearby hilltop settlements. It was a beautiful quiet day, and the scenery was magnificent. Very pastoral, and very suburban-only 15 minutes from Jerusalem. A genuine bedroom community, not far from the Big City.

As we were strolling around, we noticed a strange sign on the nearby kiosk. It said in Hebrew: Am Shalem Doresh Falafel, which we can translate as “The people demand falafel.” This was a play on a previous slogan of a few years ago: Am Shalem Doresh Shalom -“The people demand Peace.” At first I thought it was funny, and then I realized what it really meant.

The people”, apparently, are not interested in Peace any more. They don’t believe in it. There is no partner for it, they say (as if we ourselves were a serious partner for peace!). And even if there was a serious partner, it is not achievable since the gaps between the sides are simply too wide.

Instead, the people want falafel! In other words, they simply want to eat and drink and be happy! They don’t want to worry all the time about issues of war and peace. They just want “normal” life!

I explained to my friend some of the background for this feeling. Many Israelis have given up on the “Peace Process”. It is boring. It never really leads anywhere, so why continue to discuss it.

Apathy and denial have set in very deeply. “The People” (whoever they are) simply want falafel or pizza or some humus. Wars and violence? Well, I guess that they will just fade away! Or we will have to tolerate them every other year, as part of the natural cycle of life in this area.

My friend from Boston was aghast! “But what will be?”, she asked.” What is the solution? Are Israelis really not thinking about the solution anymore?”

I responded despondently and said that unfortunately this is all too true. It seems that liberal Jews in Boston, New York and San Francisco worry more about “the solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the people of Israel who are just trying to get on with normal life!

So what’s to be done? Give up? Resign ourselves to an endless ongoing unresolvable conflict? Continue ignoring the problem and just worrying about the price of cottage cheese, tomatoes and apartments? (which was the focus of the big social protest movement of 2011 which brought out into the streets hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators for so-called “social issues” but not for peace!).

My answer is a resounded “no”! We must not allow ourselves to bury our heads in the sands, and wallow in apathy and despair.
If we learn anything else from the Jewish Holiday season now upon us, it is the mighty mitzvah of teshuvah, or “returning” to what we really believe and acting upon our beliefs.

So, let me state my belief clearly: I believe that peace is an imperative, not just a luxury. It will allow us to focus our energies not only on grossly inflated budgets for “defense” and “security” but on pressing social, educational and religious needs that have been neglected for too long. Only a genuine peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians in the form of a two state solution will provide security and rights to both sides. Only a real peace agreement will end the hopeless cycles of wars with Gaza and Lebanon, which cause so much death and destruction rather than enabling life and development.

So, I say: let us return to the old slogan Am Shalem Doresh Shalom -“The People Want Peace!” Let’s see what we can do to reinvigorate not only the political peace process but also the Civil Society one of Peacebuilding which engages people in necessary and fruitful dialogue towards the goal of learning to live in peaceful coexistence.

By the way, I stopped eating falafel a long time ago.

Read more: “The People Demand Falafel” | Ron Kronish | The Blogs | The Times of Israel http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-people-demand-falafel/#ixzz3EmwJX2iI