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Photo by: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Terra Incognita: Coexistence of the blind
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
27/11/2012
In Israel almost every person who talks about coexistence presents a false and ill-conceived plan whose results will produce no change whatsoever.
 
In Israel almost every person who talks about coexistence presents a false and ill-conceived plan whose results will produce no change whatsoever. The reason that almost all coexistence programs are doomed to fail is that they are often predicated on creating a false reality for one half of the coexistence pie. This usually takes the form of mandating that Jewish people in Israel embrace coexistence, a rosy picture of the “other,” the Arabs, that rarely involves any immersion in the other’s society.

Consider Roger Cohen’s description of Parent’s Circle, which “brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family in the conflict.” Israeli Robi Damelin’s son, who was a soldier at the time, was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002. Her reaction was to say that Israel “may not kill anybody in the name of my son” and become involved in Parent’s Circle. According to Cohen, “Damelin has written to the imprisoned killer of her son...she plans to meet him through a mediator one day.” Parent’s Circle “gives talks to high school students, mainly Israelis. In general these Israeli kids have never met a Palestinian. They have no way to know the conflict is a two-sided story.”

A similar story was related by Douglas Alexander, the British Shadow Foreign Secretary for Labor in the UK. He writes about visiting the Eshkol regional council bordering the Gaza Strip and meeting a Jewish teacher who educates for coexistence.

“She told me that her job was to teach [Jewish] children the curriculum, but she felt impelled to try and teach them something else...her ambition was that no child leave her classroom believing that the Palestinian children on the other side of the border were the enemy.”

See, these Israeli children get the wrong idea from the missiles that fall on their kibbutzim – they feel Gaza is a place that breeds hatred and murder. But in fact, as the Israeli coexistence-monger wants to show, those on the other side are not enemies.

Many coexistence programs are predicated on a remarkably similar pattern. Some Israeli with a rose-colored view of the “other” decides to work on their own initiative, and sometimes with financial backing, to spread the word that the Palestinians are not the enemy.

Since most Israelis supposedly don’t meet Palestinians, the Israeli coexistence-expert must tell them the story of the “real Palestinians.” Even though the Israelis who preach coexistence may themselves never meet the Palestinians, they see themselves as the medium, communicating to the Israelis for the Arabs, because they “know the real Arab soul.”

In some cases, as with the Abraham Fund’s program Language as a Cultural Bridge, Arab teachers are brought to Jewish schools to teach Jewish students Arabic. The pattern is frequently the same; Jewish students learn about Arabs, there is rarely an attempt to have them go to an Arab school or have Arabs learn about Jews.

Behind this phenomenon lies the assumption that Arabs are not in need of coexistence messages. Sister Renee Sousa, head of a Catholic School in Kafr Kanna, told Pacific Standard Magazine, “our [Arab] students understand the language and culture of the Jews, but it’s not vice-versa.”

THE REASON the coexistence embodied by the actions of the teacher in the Eshkol regional council or Parents Circle doesn’t materialize is simple: it is based on nonsense, false analogies, misinformation, propaganda and naivete.

While Israeli children in the Eshkol Regional Council learn that Palestinian children “are not the enemy,” Palestinian children across the border in Gaza are raised on a program of intense nationalism, devotion to the “struggle” and to their religion.

There is a reason Parent’s Circle gives lectures “mainly” to Israelis – the Palestinians who participate evidently don’t take back the lessons they claim to learn at the meetings to their villages. For coexistence groups there are no lectures to Palestinian high school students about accepting the other. Damelin wants to visit the man who killed her son in prison, fine. But there is no Palestinian Damelin who desires to visit the Israeli who shot their cousin.

Damelin can do as she pleases, but to foist Parent’s Circle’s views onto Israeli high schoolers without telling them “Palestinians will never hear this” is to do them a disservice, by making them think that the Palestinians are also being taught to accept the “other.”

The reality of failure is manifested in every single facet of the coexistence movements. The One Voice movement, which claims to work for grass roots support of a two-state solution, includes local chapters in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In Palestine the groups engage in tree planting and “mobilizing the public behind Palestinian state building.” In Israel the group works to pressure Israelis to support the Arab Peace Initiative.

One faction doesn’t engage in national work, such as planting trees, while the other side does. The reason for the divergence is clear. One Voice Palestine is not actually called “One Voice Palestine” in Arabic, it is called “Palestinian Voice.” This provides a nationalist basis for a movement that, while it supports “moderation,” is much more nationalist than its Israeli counterpart.

By the same token the EU supports numerous programs in Israel and the West Bank. In Israel the programs target civil society initiatives, mostly providing support for groups that fight for minority rights. In Palestine, by contrast, the support is primarily for national goals.

During an EU COPPS-supported program this summer in a village near Nablus the EU police advisors helped support a summer camp for Palestinian children. The Palestinian police were brought in to teach the children about the police. As part of the program the students were encouraged to march in formation. Needless to say, the students loved it. Had the same program been carried out with EU funds in Israel, it would have been described as militaristic indoctrination.

THE PROBLEM isn’t the Palestinians, but the false perception that coexistence is a one-way street, where one side coexists and the other side is simply encouraged to be in love with itself. One way to correct this issue is to simply show Israeli children the truth. Rather than be told Palestinian children are not the enemy, Israeli children should visit Palestinian schools and learn for themselves.

Schools should be paired with one another. Children aren’t dumb. When the children see for themselves the glorification of the Hamas rockets in Gaza that are falling on their houses they might wonder why their teachers are misleading them.

Similarly, Israeli university students should visit Palestinian universities. They should see the type of patriotism that Palestinian students have and the way Israel is depicted. The fact that Palestinians are nationalists isn’t the only issue; the problem is that Israelis sometimes suffer from a nationalism deficit brought on by false notions of coexistence. Coexistence through nationalism, through truth rather than lies, will produce a much more robust future for both groups than will deception.
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