Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Us and them

We don’t live in a world of clear contrasts, whether we call them blacks and whites, or good and evil. Israel’s relations with its neighbors have evolved over the course of 70 years to something that is far more subtle and nuanced than what is expressed by intense nationalists or far leftists here, Arabs or Palestinians of various shades, or by overseas friends and antagonists, each with their favorite solution.

We should start from the realization that there is no solution. Peace is not on our doorstep, no matter what we do. There is no chance that Israel will remove substantial numbers from the 800,000 or so Jews living over the lines of 1967, or that a Palestinian leadership will ratchet down significantly from demands dating to 1947, 1967, or the last meeting between Israel and Palestinian leaders.

Yet we’re getting along with our near neighbors. There are casualties, but nothing like what were experienced in the past, and even further from what other neighbors are doing to one another across the Middle East.

Living near Muslims has exposed us in recent years to a rate of casualties less than that of traffic accidents. We can’t do away with our neighbors any more than we can avoid transportation. Benefits and casualties come from both. We seek to limit the casualties, but should not expect to eliminate them entirely. 

Several items help to clarify and explain where we are. 

One is a long item on one of the prominent Hebrew language news sites. It describes the work of an IDF unit charged with ferreting out sources and individuals likely to be troublesome. A clip associated with the item shows a Palestinian flag close to where a soldier is being interviewed, suggesting that the unit is working close to and most likely among the Palestinians. 

If there is a systematic way they go about spotting terrorists, the item does not describe it. What it does indicate is a variety of ways in which the unit works, attuned to the Internet, schools, political movements, neighborhoods, and families. Participants describe the need to alert combat units to action when necessary, but realize that too much of a military presence is likely to provoke individuals to move from anger to the onset of violence that they had not been thinking about a few hours earlier. Members of the unit note cooperation with Palestinian security services, again without going too close to the details.

Another insight into our realities comes from a radio item presented by a Portuguese Jew who is a journalist with long residence in Israel and connections with Christian and Muslim sources. Henrique Cymerman reported conversations with Saudi, Qatari, and other Arabs prominent in their governments. They were respectful and even admiring of Israel, and wished that the various governments could deal appropriately with the Palestinian issue.

Their subtext was that if Israeli leaders took an initiative of offering something like the Saudi overture of 2002, there would be wide support throughout the Muslim world.

Maybe, but it is significant for the nuances in which we live that Cymerman did not report the names of these friendly Arabs.

A parallel insight comes from several conversations with intellectuals who are Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. With me they are open to discussion and reveal opinions or findings from their professional work indicating that there is considerable willingness among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to be accommodating with Israel. The picture described differs from the acerbic rhetoric of Arab Members of Knesset and various leaders of West Bank and Gazan Palestinians. Like Cymerman’s sources who prefer that he doesn’t mention their names, however, the Arab intellectuals who speak with me concede that there are few Arabs with whom they can have similar conversations. Moreover, they cannot bring themselves to publish findings that vary from the conventional Arab or Palestinian narratives.

We’re also exposed to clips of Arabs and other Muslims who speak in public in a matter that is sharply critical of prevailing Muslim culture. Often they compare their own closed society to what they know about the open and noisy willingness of Israelis to debate just about everything. Such individuals are also likely to link such differences to the economic and technological successes of Israel and the backwardness of Muslim education, economics, and individual opportunity.

The most outspoken and nasty opponent of the Israeli establishment among the Arab MKs, Haneen Zoabi, has relatives who have been proud to serve the Israeli state, and call shame on the more prominent Zoabi.

Also important is some 40 percent of the Jerusalem population that is Arab, can vote in municipal elections even though most are not Israeli citizens, but who refuse to do so. I hear from Arab friends that they recognize their potential to get a lot for their community by having a balance between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews who are contenders for municipal control, but they say that pressures from Palestinian nationalists keep them from voting or showing any other support for Israel’s “occupation.” 

How to function in this mix of pressures and opportunities is not a question for simpletons. Right- and left-wing Israelis find it easy to continue with their slogans that all the land should all be ours, and there is nothing to do with Arabs except to minimize contacts, or that it’s all our fault for not being more forthcoming. Somewhere between these polls is where the Israeli establishment tends to operate. That, too, may not be apparent to shrill critics who express themselves from near or far.

Among the guidelines that operate for military and governmental professionals, and politicians who reach the crucial offices are not to overreact to violence with excessive force in ways that make things worse, yet to react with impressive force when appropriate. 

The purpose of occasional Israeli outbursts of significant violence is to counter upticks in the violence against us, and to remind the waverers among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians about what can happen to them yet again if they lose control over their nationalist sentiments.

It isn’t easy, and there is nothing in the mix that promises a solution. What baffles Jews, even those who comprehend the problems, is the lack of symmetry between the cultures. Jews speak their minds, expect to hear contrary opinions from a variety of perspectives, and are—at least occasionally—open to persuasion. 

Arabs are less likely to be candid, and avoid dispute among themselves, even at the expense of losing personal opportunities. Insofar as they do not trust one another, we ask ourselves if we can trust them. What you hear may bear little resemblance to what is in their hearts, minds, and intentions. 

In such a situation, the ideal is to get along, without being sure, and without being able to articulate firm expectations about the present or near future.

If the Palestinians warrant some combination of kid gloves and an iron fist, with different proportions for West Bankers and Gazans, the subtleties relevant to Israeli Arabs are even more nuanced. There are differences between the cultures of Bedouin of the Negev and the Galilee, other Muslims and Christians, and the Arabs of East Jerusalem. Druze and Circassians are in a category of their own, with generations of their sons having served and died for the IDF.

Comments welcome. irashark@gmail.com.


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