By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I’ve always avoided “peace” and “coexistence” groups because I think by their very nature they tend to be unbalanced and predicated on problematic concepts. Most of this comes from the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The groups tend to be financed and run by Israelis or Jewish activists, which makes some sense because that is the powerful party to the conflict. But as such they tend to be heavily Israelocentric, meaning that they kind of operate on Israeli time. When the Israeli NGO wants to go to the West Bank to meet the Palestinians, they go, and the Palestinians come. Then the NGO goes back to Israel, behind the fence and the Green Line, and Palestinians stay in the West Bank (or sometimes Jordan or Gaza). It’s a very privileged sense of coexistence.
Then there is the inherent racism involved. People who go to these events come away with exotic notions and they kind of “collect” members of the other as if they are collecting toys or something. “My Jewish” friend, my “Arab” becomes the talking point. That’s nice and all, but there is something a little gross and awkward about it. It’s dehumanizing. It comes from a heart of good, but like many roads of good intentions, leads to bad conclusions.
Then there is the cyclical nature of it all. The same people go to the same meetings, and groups multiply like the multiplication of the fishes. Each has its narrow agenda and some debate their concepts like communism or theology, nit-picking their agenda, and it becomes such minutae that nothing really matters in the end. The replication of the individuals involved leads to questions about what everyone is getting out of it. SOme burnish their liberal credentials. Some find it exotic. Some go for titilating sexual interest. Some go to make themselves feel good.
Increasingly these kinds of groups face pushback from rightists in both societies. In Israel the rightists attacked the group that memorializes Palestinians and Israelis who died in the conflict. In the Palestinian context the anti-normalization crowd sees these groups as low hanging fruit. They won’t attack wealthy Palestinians who profit off the occupation, but its easy to smash up a “Jerusalem hug,” as they did once (I was there). Low level threats, intimidation, violence, have caused most Palestinians to be wary of these groups.
But there is still an online and activist community. Recently activists went to support residents near Hebron. These kinds of things to have some affect. Depending on the context they can do some good, in a conflict in which people rarely meet one another and there are high barriers of separation.
But sooner or later a lot of people involved in these kinds of groups have to confront the elephant in the room. This is the fact that many, probably most, Palestinians support a “right of return” and many of them believe that all of Israel is “occupied.” This is expressed in twitter posts, on Facebook and also face to face. People talk a lot about “peace,” but it’s just a word. “Peace” means different things to different people, and no doubt at these coexistence meetings a lot of time is spent on “expressing” what it means. This is another reason I don’t go to these things, because I don’t care about expressing and “competing” with “my people’s suffering” and “your suffering.” I don’t think its appropriate to have one person share a story from the Nakba and another talks about the Holocaust and this is somehow “shared suffering.” These discussions lead to the wrong conclusions. They often reinforce stereotypes, they don’t actually break them down.
But let’s get back to the “right of return.” That’s not the reason there “will never be peace.” There are 1,000 reasons before that, that there won’t be “peace.” First and foremost because Israel controls the cards and levers of power, and Palestinians, for all their defeat on battlefield, are not defeated in their view that Israel is primarily an brutal country dispossessing them and that it is an artificial colonial structure that should be removed. Since the Oslo “peace” accords the number of Israeli communities in the West Bank keeps growing, so no wonder of course that few people believe in “peace.”
But when they talk about these “final status” issues such as Jerusalem, they miss the forest for the trees. Israel will always be entirely “occupied” in the minds of many. Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa, it’s all “occupied.” Sometimes pro-peace voices are surprised to see this in Arabic. If they read in Arabic “Israeli settlers in Tel Aviv…” they wonder “you mean settlers from the West Bank went to Tel Aviv.” To which the response is, “no, every Israeli Jew is a settler.” This is the reality of social and mass media in Arabic. When there are terror attacks in Tel Aviv, the press says that the “martyr carried out his action against settlers in occupied Tel Aviv.” And people celebrate. This isn’t marginal use of language, it’s deep thinking. ‘
When one confronts this reality, that Tel Aviv is seen as “occupied” by “settlers,” it’s hard to imagine what is “peace.” Peace is the absence of conflict. But for the mythmakers who say that removing settlements is the problem, which settlements. Start with the West Bank, but the demand is all of them. “But the kibbutzim can stay?” No.
It’s a catch-22 of the conflict. The most moderate peace loving Israeli can’t have a peace that requires them to deport themselves from Israel and close up the country. And one can’t really “coexist” when one is seen as a pariah and illegitimate “settler.” When people confront this reality of speech, they know there is no real peace and coexistence. Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel are called “48 Arabs” or just “48” as if their time stopped them. They didn’t become “Israeli” or “Israeli Arabs” as the Israeli press likes to call them. They stopped in 48. This is also a rhetorical and language device to deny that Israel came into existence. The idea is that the “48” word will stop being used when Israel stops existing. 48 is simply a way of saying “we stuck in the prison of Israel since 1948, but eventually we won’t be.” The strategies for resisting Israel today have become rhetorical in nature as well. Samud or steadfastness, “existence is resistance” and “birthing the nation”, are the methods.
Any peace and coexistence group should start from this starting point rather than arrive it. Often they arrive at this only after years. “I was shocked and surprised that she thinks I am a settler, a colonizer and a disease on this land.” Yes, well, that’s how people talk, but in private. In public they may sound like Jibril Rajoub with message discipline.
It is a bit sad to see people who believe in coexistence be shocked into realizing that their friends who they coexist with think they should be deported and removed and see them as colonizers, but it’s good to throw cold water on naive views. The reality is a janus faced one. People speak of peace, but don’t mean it. Their overall views of what “peace” entails overlap and in that sense they can only lay the foundation for more conflict.