Curious about a Facebook link to a post by Ikhlas Ishtaya on the website “Two Sides”, promoting co-existence workshops, I began to read. Her story looked interesting and I was sure I would be moved; after all, they subtitled her piece: “An honest look which goes straight to the heart”.
Two Sides claims to open cracks in the “high walls of fear and hatred that separate the two nations” by having “Palestinians” and Jews listen to each other’s narratives. A noble goal (if we set aside for the moment the fact that there is no formal Palestinian nation as of yet). They set out to accomplish this by having Jews and Arabs listen to each other’s narratives, attempting to connect with the common humanity of us all.
Let’s see what this means by first looking at the summaries written by two participants, an Arab and a Jew, translated into English for foreign consumption.
An Arab on “Two Sides”
Ikhlas certainly did draw me into her story, but at the end of the third paragraph I was turned off by her words: “I believe that peace is the best solution to ending the occupation and obtaining freedom”. The “occupation” mantra irritates me more and more as time goes on.
It is understandable, I suppose, that an Arab living in the Palestinian Authority (PA) would claim to be living under an occupation. I kept reading. She talked about sharing her story about her father’s death, shot by a settler, and how she was surprised to see her pain reflected in the faces of the Jewish listeners. It helped turn the Jews into human beings for her: “they are people with feelings just like me”.
Finally, she described the two field trips arranged for the group: to Lifta, an Arab village, empty after all inhabitants fled in 1948, and to Yad VaShem. Ikhlas writes that the visit to Lifta taught her “an important part” of her own history and that the visit to Yad VaShem helped her understand the magnitude of the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people.
I guess that these two places, Lifta and Yad VaShem, represent the supposedly parallel tragedies of the Arabs and the Jews in this region. For me, there is absolutely no way that the Holocaust in Europe is parallel to goings on in the Middle East. Constantly taking people to Yad VaShem, whether these are Arabs or foreign dignitaries, perpetuates the untruth about the Holocaust being the reason for the establishment of the modern State of Israel. At most, it served as a catalyst and is relevant regarding timing but not rationale.
I wish that “Two Sides” participants could have been taken to see a village from which Jews were expelled in 1948, in, for example, Iraq or Syria or Yemen.
Or perhaps they could visit Hebron, the site of the 1929 pogrom that forced Jews to flee because their Arab neighbours were murdering them and destroying Jewish property — incited by a rumour, purposefully spread, claiming that the Jews were trying to gain control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (sound familiar?). Ikhlas states that she learned at Lifta “an important part” about the history of her people; I think Hebron could have taught her an important part of her history the Arabs do not want to acknowledge.
A Jew on “Two Sides”
Gili Meisler, whose brother was killed during the Yom Kippur War when Gili was only 12, was particularly moved by the story told by 40 year-old Jihad, a recently bereaved father, and the impact of his son’s death on him, his wife and his brother.
Gili described having changed over the years, from a stance of hate toward all Arabs and right-wing activism he grew more open to learning about those on the other side of the conflict.
Here we are treated to a feel-good story on the one hand, and a story that makes us angry on behalf of the “Palestinians”, on the other hand. Gili relates how Jihad is currently unemployed, no longer allowed to work in Israel as he did before his son’s death — because the security forces do not authorize entry into Israel or onto Jewish settlements for “those who have lost family members in the conflict”. Is this an instance of heavy handed Israeli oppression?
We are never told the circumstances surrounding Jihad’s son’s killing (nor about Ikhlas’ father either), only that he was shot at the entrance to their house. Did anyone ask? Was his son’s death an instance of accidental shooting – he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was his son actively involved in anti-Israel militant activities and if so, what does Jihad think about that? Can we claim to know all that is relevant to understanding the reason Jihad is not allowed into Israel without us knowing the background to his son’s death? If the purpose of these meetings is to ask the hard questions, why were these questions apparently not asked?
The Stories in Hebrew
About 700 people have so far taken part in the Narrative Project. From all of these only 6 stories were chosen for presentation on the website, 2 of these translated to English and these plus a further 2 Arabs and 2 Jews appeared in Hebrew and Arabic. There is no way to know if these 6 stories differ in any significant way from those that were not uploaded to the site.
The other two Arab commentaries also describe life under Israeli “occupation” and express hope generated by meeting Israelis who listened empathically to their stories of hardship. They write about the visit to Lifta as exemplifying the Arab-Palestinian tragedy and the visit to Yad VaShem as exemplifying Jewish suffering. One man even used the Holocaust in that time-worn cliché fashion: why, if the Jews suffered so much under the Nazis, do they now behave so cruelly to us? Not one of them hinted at the possibility that their own leadership might have anything to do with their difficult conditions. Not one of them hinted at the possibility that living under constant threat of missiles from Gaza and terror from the PA might have any impact on Israeli Jews.
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Until participating in the Narrative Project, Ziva had never given much thought to the conflict between Israelis and Arabs. Interestingly, hearing firsthand about the difficulties experienced by Arab women in the PA, she began to recall her own wartime memories, memories she had buried until that moment. She found the meetings positive and writes that forging connections among women on both sides of the border can be the single most promising approach to seeking peace.
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I found Alon’s story most upsetting. Identifying himself as a leftist, he writes about the easy friendliness of the personal interactions among individual Jews and Arabs – the smiles, the sharing of kids’ photos, the talk about wanting peace and just a normal life. Then he describes the sharp change in ambiance as soon as groups were set up in front of each other – Jews on one side and Arabs on the other.
.כבר מהמפגש הראשון הצד הפלסטיני זעם עלינו, הישראלים. לא עזר זה שכולנו בקבוצה הישראלית רוצים לסיים את הכיבוש; בקבוצות הדיון יצגנו את העם הישראלי כולו לדורותיו
Already from the first meeting, the Palestinian side was furious at us, the Israelis. It did not help that everyone in the Israeli group wants to end the occupation; in the discussion groups, we represented the entire Israeli people throughout all its generations.
Comment: Not long ago, I wrote about this phenomenon, that each and every Jew, regardless of political affiliation, is seen by non-Jews as a representative of the Jewish people. Even the Jew who defines Israel’s presence in Judea & Samaria as an “occupation” is not relieved of being the target for rage.
Alon goes on:
.צד אחד מספר על סיבלו ומטיח האשמות והצד השני, הישראלי, שותק
One side tells about its suffering and hurls blame, and the other side, the Israelis, are silent.
Comment: It is almost unbearable for me to learn that the Jews were silent. I can only assume that such silence was orchestrated by the organizers of the forum, since it is generally the facilitators of sessions such as these who set the tone.
Alon concludes by saying he always believed that Israel is legitimate within its present borders and that the settlements over the armistice line are immoral. This forum caused him to reassess his ideas:
.והנה בעקבות הסיור מוטלת בספק המוסריות של מדינת ישראל כולה – המדינה שבה נולדתי וגדלתי, ששני הסבים שלי נלחמו להקים
And now, after the trip [to Lifta], doubt has been cast on the morality of the entire State of Israel – the State in which I was born and raised, for which both my grandfathers fought to establish.
Comment: This, to me, is tragic. Is this what organizers of the “Narrative Project” seek to achieve? To undermine the Israeli identity and our pride in having returned to our ancient homeland? Reading Alon’s piece, I can see how supposedly peace-promoting activities can be a sham for manipulations that prepare us to give up our rights, to give them up to those who failed to oust us militarily and are now using our “humanitarian” nature as a weapon to encourage us eat ourselves alive.
This article first appeared on Israel Diaries.