Do Arabs and Jews realize how much they look alike?
Artist's project asks: Can 2 people who look so similar really be enemies?
A new coexistence project entitled Enemies by Swiss artist Olivier Suter seeks to show how people define the "other." Suter noticed that in many conflicts people come to hate and stereotype an "other" and ascribe all sorts of differences, particularly ethnic ones, to their enemy. He believes that if he can show that most people locked in deadly conflict look alike they will have no reason to be enemies.
Towards that end he received backing from Charlatan, a Swiss-based artists collective, to publish an advertisement in March 2008 showing eight unidentified people and asking readers to submit photos of anyone who looked like them. He had chosen eight Palestinians and by publishing his "wanted" ad in Haaretz he was hoping to get pictures of Israeli Jews. Sure enough he received many of them. His final selection included a picture of an Israeli girl who remarkably resembles, almost identically, a Palestinian boy from Beit Hanina. The project is not limited to Israel. He intends to embark on a similar stunt in Belgium, showing that Flemish and French speakers look alike. Next he is going to Africa and will prove that Hutus and Tutsis, the latter the victim of the Rwandan genocide, look alike.
The implication is clear: Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, look alike. Since we look alike there is no reason for a conflict. Suter asks, "Can two people who look so similar that they could be mistaken for identical twins really be enemies?" The project also seeks to show that by hating the other we are in affect hating ourselves since we are all the same. Those campaigning for a color-blind world have long championed this tune in their statement "one race: human." But while this project theoretically should make us think twice about the way we view the Palestinian "other," it also has a lot to say about accusations of Israeli racism and apartheid.
ANTI-ISRAEL ACTIVISTS and extremists who write about Israel in the West tend to portray its Jews as white and European, and Arabs as dark and "indigenous." This is part of the rhetoric that wants to connect Israel to the policies of apartheid South Africa. The overtones of this racial lens of the conflict can often be found in anti-Israel material, such as Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children. It is perpetuated in more obscure ways by media outlets that often include pictures of headscarf-clad Palestinian women and very light skinned, even blond, Israelis. It is more blatant among fringe extremist groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Review, where Lauren Ray wrote in the fall of 2003 that they were "organizing and educating about the nature of Israel's white supremacy and colonialism."
Tal Nitzan, a Hebrew University M.A. student, authored a 2008 thesis, supported by sociology professor Eyal Ben-Arie, in which she claimed that IDF soldiers don't rape Arab women because they are racist.
Olivier Suter's project deserves attention for this reason. It shows the degree to which the "racist" and "apartheid" slur aimed at Israel is a myth. There are great differences between Jews and Arabs and Palestinians and Israelis, just as there are great differences within the two groups: between Yemenite and Persian Jews, between Hebronite and Jerusalemite Arabs, between Beduin and Druse. There are certainly elements of racism within Israel's multicultured society, such as that which sometimes is felt between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, or even between Beduin with African ancestry and Beduin with Arab ancestry in the town of Rahat. But it is very far from a racial conflict.
In a 2003 article in the Gotham Gazette, an on-line magazine focusing on New York, J.E. Safa noted that "Arabs come in all shapes and sizes and colors; they are not all dark haired and dark eyed." The same might be said of Jews. Surely Suter's project reminds us of this. If only the Israel- and Jew-hating activists who recently assaulted Israel's ambassadors to Spain and Argentina, barricaded Jews in Hillel at York University and rioted over tennis star Andy Ram in Sweden, all in the name of "anti-racism," could see behind their own myths of Israel and the Jewish other.
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog. email@example.com