The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic…John F. Kennedy
I spent last Saturday in Nablus. Not the prettified city in the link here but a small outlying village perched on a hillside right below Elon Moreh settlement. Elon Moreh is where, according to the Old Testament, God told Abraham he was giving “your descendants this land”. It’s why the Jewish settlers are there, for the most part, and it’s down the road from Yasuf Village, recently in the headlines when settlers set fire to the local mosque and burned holy books.
But I digress.
I went to the area with an Israeli who, after his son was killed in Lebanon, chose to dedicate his life to fostering understanding between Israelis & Palestinians. He works on projects like bringing Palestinian kids who have merely read about seashores to Tel Aviv’s beach – a half hour’s drive from their village. He hires clowns and entertainers for village events, helps re-plant old growth olive trees uprooted by…you know who… and this weekend, he dedicated a new playground built to replace the previous one destroyed by …you know.
To get to the village, we had to pass through three Israeli army checkpoints and sign a waiver. But it was a feel-good day and upwards of a hundred children, teens and Palestinian official types were there. I wasn’t nervous about violence.
After being there, the closest thing I can draw a comparison with in U.S. terms is inner city projects – just a lot greener and minus the dealers and drive-bys. The village countryside is beautiful – lush green, graduated craggy hills characteristic of this part of the world, olive groves stretching forever and partially built skeletons of homes awaiting further construction.
And yet, basic infrastructure was lacking. Trash was strewn by the roadsides and along the hills and raw sewage streamed between olive tree rows. As we approached, children swarmed, touched, patted, fired questions in Arabic and stared unabashedly, taking in every utterance and movement. Allah help me had I pulled a stick of gum from my backpack. Unless, of course, there had been enough to go around to all 4 dozen kids.
The dedication itself was run-of-the-mill: Clap clap. Smiles all around. Hand shaking. Photo opp.
What’s interesting is the response I got when relaying my plans for the day to friends. It’s been the same response for more than a decade whenever I announce I’ll be going into the West Bank or Gaza. That is, unless I’m talking to a journalist. “Why are you going there? Did you lose something? Aren’t you afraid? It’s dangerous! Are you crazy?”
I won’t downplay the serious nature of the political conflict nor will I make light of terrifying lynchings Israelis have fallen prey to in Palestinian areas. But most people on the Israel side of the Green Line haven’t crossed to the other side unless they’ve served there in the military or they’re journalists, settlers or peace activists. Ditto vis-a-vis Palestinians coming to the Israeli side of the line.
Both populations get most of their information about “the other” from what they see on the news: often frightening and violent depictions. Mainstreamers on both sides are scared and have no idea what life looks like “over there” beyond the lenses of extremism, suicide missions, military uniforms, rocket launches and bombing campaigns.
My strong sense after visiting this weekend is that there’s not a hope in hell for working anything out in the long-term between the parties until getting to know “the other” and moving beyond “Arab terrorists” and “military occupying Jews” stereotypes.
And for the record, I’m not trivializing the pain or suffering others have endured nor am I lightly suggesting a kumbaya-live-in-love-and-harmony approach. There’s no easy fix and it may never happen.
But I figure if the Israeli who devoted his life to reaching out can do it after his loss. . .