Friday, 6 April 2012

I Know You (Really Well)

The less you know about someone the more certain you are…  that you understand them:

[They say] “You don’t know the Jews.  All they understand is force”, with as much conviction as their opposite numbers, who are equally certain that they “know the Arabs, who understand only force,” though they have never met any Arabs… (Sylvian Cypel, Walled

The relationships between the Jews and the Arabs are not equal though, as the author notes:

Almost all of them have no contact with Israelis other than soldiers or settlers, the two figures of the occupation.

Yet while Cypel is rightly critical of the anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism he is perhaps a little too keen to judge both camps equally.  For although he acknowledges the role of Israeli policy, and its devastating effects on Palestinian society, he overestimates the human tolerance for abuse – only a few people can emulate Jesus Christ and turn the other cheek; or reason out the differences between people they do not know; exempting the ignorant and well-meaning.  The anti-Semitism of a young Palestinian is a reaction to daily experiences, 40 years of occupation; while for the Israeli it arises from control of that occupation, and from a much smaller amount of contact; or just news reports and demagoguery. That is, we should criticise the anti-Semitism, but understand it and contextualise it to eventually place the blame where it belongs - on Israel for creating the circumstances that produce it.  By treating both side’s prejudice as commensurate we are in reality equating cause with effect; or even reversing them: a scream responsible for the punch that caused it.

The above quote is part of an interesting discussion that shows how Palestinian intolerance of the Israelis has grown with their isolation – their parents are much less aggressive and more understanding, having worked in Israel, and known Jews there; often on friendly terms.  The author extends the discussion to suggest that the increased awareness of democracy and human rights, as compared to other Arab countries, has made the Palestinians the most democratically inclined, the most western, of the Arab populations, and which may result from its close proximity to Israel, and its influence.  This is an interesting argument, and if correct suggests that if Israel were to integrate into the area it could help democratise the other regimes; through its example and through contact.[i]  Although a counter trend has been argued elsewhere: Israel is increasingly taking on the character of the dictatorships in the region; with the concomitant increase in violence and irrationality.

We create our identities of the other – the Roman, the German, the woman across the street - out of the limited knowledge that we own.  Often all we have is a small bag of second hand ideas, out of which we create a character type; little realising that this person only exists inside our heads.  But because they are ideas, and we have appropriated them, and they are not tested in the outside world, we can imbue them with certainty – there is no empirical reality to contradict their veracity; their truth thus remains unimpeachable; a fortress never to be raided.  They become self-enclosed theories, immune to criticism; a faith we preach mostly to ourselves, and a few others ignorant as we.  The danger of ideas!  How real they seem, but how little substance they may actually have; so easy to be believe a fiction when we have never seen the facts… And even if we do, often it is too late to change our minds – who doesn’t prefer their own creations, when given the choice?

Of course, just meeting people from the other side isn’t enough, witness the Palestinians’ response to the settlers – they only confirm the stereotype.  No, what is needed is a sense of equality each before the other, and where the generous and tolerant sides of individual personalities can meet and intermingle.[ii] Only then, perhaps, can the good impressions be made, and perspectives change. Although we have to be careful.  For one of the problems of Cypel’s important book is his tendency to depoliticise the conflict by psychologising it.  Yet real change can only occur if the politics is radically transformed, to give the Palestinians a real state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  This requires an understanding of the history, and the enormous imbalance of forces that has induced the Palestinians to make enormous compromises, and which has left them almost powerless – the real purpose behind the Oslo agreement; so misunderstood in the West; both at the time and since.

What of the future in Israel-Palestine where two ghettos are being created, ensuring the two sides never meet… Absolute faith in the evil of the other?  Perpetual hate… and war?

[i] This book was written many years before the Arab Spring.
[ii] The last chapter of Tanya Reinhart’s The Roadmap to Nowhere is a wonderful evocation of just such a meeting, to coordinate the non-violent resistance to the separation wall.

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