Coexistence and its Discontents
During my last week as a junior studying abroad in Haifa last spring, I took the bus down to Jerusalem to film and observe “Jerusalem Day.” I watched religious Jews marching through the Muslim quarter of the Old City celebrating the “reunification” of Jerusalem while the authorities blocked Palestinians from the streets with barricades and prevented an old man from taking the bus to his home. I witnessed police knocking a Palestinian man to the ground while hordes of young Yeshiva boys cheered and sang “Am Yisrael Chai!”
This incident felt like a culmination of the nationalism, racism, and contradicting narratives that drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forward. Most young American Jews are shielded from this side of Israel, instead learning about the country by touring kibbutzim, hiking through mountain springs, and enjoying the culture of Tel Aviv, accompanied by a group of friendly Israeli soldiers on their tour bus. Without exposure to other narratives, students have a major gap in their understanding of Israel/Palestine. That is why Open Hillel is so important for Jews on college campuses—it aims to promote inclusion of a diverse set of opinions into Jewish spaces.
I’ve been to Israel/Palestine twice. The first time, I left just as Secretary of State John Kerry was beginning to mediate peace negotiations. The second time, I left just before the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank that led to an Israeli campaign of collective punishment, retaliation by Hamas, and the massacre of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The news about Kerry’s peace negotiations stunned me more than the news about the kidnapping and retaliations. I had just finished a trip with Extend, a program that takes Jews into the West Bank to hear a broad range of Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. The message I heard over and over on this trip, from Jews and Palestinians alike, was that they stopped believing in the two-state solution five years ago. Ten years ago. Twenty years ago. The only exception to this came from a few politicians on both sides, who sounded idealistic and out of touch with reality.
The Impossibility of a Two-State Solution
The facts on the ground showed the truth. The separation wall sucked resources and land onto the Israeli side of the Green Line, and it seemed that every Palestinian village I visited was within clear sight of a settlement. Peaceful negotiation and violent retaliation alike made the situation worse, as Israelis gained control of more and more territory. The Palestinians I spoke to did not see this broken patchwork of land in the West Bank as their state; they longed for Al-Quds (Jerusalem), for Jaffa, for Haifa. They demanded human rights.
We visited Nabi Saleh, where locals told us about their weekly protests demanding the neighboring settlers give back the water spring they had taken over from the Palestinian village. But their real demand was an end to the occupation. On a farm outside of Bethlehem, an Israeli settler described his work developing coexistence programs with his Palestinian neighbors. He said the settlements are the “fingers of the conflict” and therefore the heart of the solution. He yearned for peace, but when we asked his preferred political resolution he had no answers, and he certainly had no intention of leaving. As he spoke, we strolled through rolling fields, crossing the Path of the Patriarchs, visiting an old Roman bath. I could see why people were fighting over this precious land. After these experiences, it was hard to believe that Kerry thought dividing the land into two states was possible.
The well-intentioned settler’s underdeveloped theory of conflict resolution shows exactly why proponents of “anti-normalization” have a problem with coexistence or “people-to-people” programs. Asking Palestinians to attend a weekly farming session or a women’s walk with their Jewish settler neighbors is problematic, as the invitation ignores the institutionalized, suffocating policies of the Occupation that restrict Palestinians’ access to water, freedom of movement, capacity to build and grow an economy, and fundamental right to live under a representative government. Travelling in the West Bank, it is easy to understand the Palestinian woman in Nabi Saleh who told me she refuses to speak with a settler woman who “does not believe Palestinians exist, does not see me as a human,” even though in my own heart I yearned for them to meet and reconcile.
Weighing the Pros and Cons of People-to-People Programs
After this tour, I spent five weeks volunteering at Project Harmony Israel, an integrated summer camp that brings Palestinian and Jewish children from Jerusalem together for an English immersion program. The staff discussed the critique that this program “normalizes” relations between Israelis and Palestinians without addressing the underlying problems of military occupation, human rights violations, and power imbalance. This imbalance makes Israeli culture, economic status, and political power dominant, even in an integrated setting.
We justified our participation in the program by recognizing that it would not solve the conflict, and that it was about doing the best we could as foreigners to promote individual development and teach children to understand each other as humans, purposely allowing them to interact safely together without thinking about “the conflict.” Moreover, the use of English removed the power dynamic brought by Hebrew’s dominance. But these problems could not be erased. At the camp, Hebrew still dominated over Arabic. The majority of the counselors and role models were white, American Jews, in many ways promoting Western values as well as language. Many children at the camp were the sons and daughters of peacemakers and diplomats, and the Palestinian children were privileged just to be living in Jerusalem, often as Israeli citizens, relative to their counterparts in refugee camps or in the slums of Gaza.
But the camp did fight racism and allow the children to humanize the opposing narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. An article in Haaretz entitled “Israeli teenagers: Racist and proud of it,” discusses how in segregated Israeli schools, racism is the norm for many children. No wonder it is easy for hordes of Yeshiva boys to march through the Muslim quarter of the Old City on Jerusalem Day (where on a normal day, Israelis outside of uniform are rarely seen) without noticing the Arabic words scrawled over barred shop doors, the abandoned market stalls, and the absence of a hub of culture they know little about.
The children at Project Harmony would never cheer for someone’s pain because of their ethnicity, but large-scale coexistence programs are unrealistic and unfeasible in the current political climate. Not only are there strong stigmas against normalization and cooperation, but geographic segregation is also enforced by Israeli law. Israelis cannot travel to Gaza or certain areas of the West Bank, while most Palestinians are barred from entering Israel proper. In the West Bank, Palestinians and Jews live under two entirely different legal systems; the settlers are treated as normal Israeli citizens while Palestinians live under military law. Mutual understanding of each other’s narratives and culture are necessary for peaceful reconciliation and coexistence, but it can never happen until the Occupation is broken down and Palestinians are given full human rights.
The Open Hillel Conference in October was the first place where I could engage in large-scale discussions of issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their interaction with Jewish identity openly, honestly, and with debate among people from a range of perspectives. The rooms were filled with passionate, intelligent people of all ages who cared deeply about Judaism and Israel but also recognized that the status quo in Israel is unsustainable, unjust, and against their values. The conference allowed for nuanced discussion of complicated, emotionally charged issues rather than painting them in black and white. Now is the time to stop delegitimizing these efforts by calling them anti-Semitic or naïve and to recognize that discourse, not denial, is the only way forward.
(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)