Learning from Acre

If neither side believes its claim to shared turf allows for the presence of the other, periods of peaceful coexistence can only be of finite duration.

October 25, 2008 18:42
4 minute read.
Learning from Acre

Acre wrecked car 224.88. (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)


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The Acre riots signaled a tipping point exacerbating the need to redefine the Jewish versus Arab rift within the overall Middle Eastern crises. The trigger point was an Arab driver entering a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur - the single day during which even Jews less than exacting in their religious observance forego use of motor vehicles. The act spurred reactions from attack to retaliation to gratuitous destruction - opening the floodgates to an onslaught of professional political coexistence-ists on hand for emergency meetings, public appeals and photo opportunities. But what about the back-to-back tractor rampages in Jerusalem? Do these acts - angrily derided as terror by Jews and indignantly defended as traffic mishaps by Arabs - figure into the Yom Kippur melee, either as encouragement or as condition precedent? And why did the drive-through on the Day of Atonement prompt passionate pleas for renewed coexistence while the prior pair of incidents provoked fresh calls for separation? Is it only in the aftermath of the last in this series of misadventures that a Jewish population markedly unnerved by the thought of homicide-by-vehicle becoming the successor strategy to the suicide bomb is recognizing symptoms of fatigue in the precarious truce that has been euphemistically labeled "coexistence" for 60 years? All of which begs the most crucial of questions: Will the photo ops and melodramatic rhetoric give way to ground-up soul-searching and top-down leadership hell-bent to avert a calamitous clash between uneasy partners in an asymmetrical civilization? In terms of Malcolm Gladwell's theory, will the looming tipping point be the threshold of concurring efforts by bordering societies to reassert rapprochement and return to cordial coexistence, or will it be the boiling point for unleashing hostility, Arab against Jew? WHEN DISCUSSING the present unrest and growing distrust, Israeli Jews and Arabs alike who are past middle age often conjure up visions of "better times" - for example, when the cafes of Jericho bustled with Jewish customers on Saturday nights and respect, if not affection, was the rule, not the exception. But the erosion of respect and the development of turf mentality during the past decade has readdressed that willingness to share, setting up instead an inevitable clash the likes of which was seen for consecutive nights in the streets of Acre. It now remains to be seen whether those who might influence the players will remain paralyzed, while hoping that calm will be restored through some sort of social inertia, or whether they will become proactive and aggressive in their attempts to redirect the angst that has all the earmarks of a turf war. THERE IS certainly no shortage of conferences dealing with "conflict resolution," "coexistence" or the preaching of the theory that "everyone wants peace" - especially in this region. But while such programs have run the gamut of political-social-economic issues for more than a decade, tensions have only risen during that time, giving rise to suspicion that answers more basic and individualistic might be in order. Legendary folksinger/humanitarian Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame recently explained to us his celebrated "Don't Laugh at Me" program that is now teaching children in 22,000 American schools not to scoff at or denigrate others: quite literally, a guide to living together for the bully and the nerd. Appreciating his desire to share the program's success with Israelis and Arabs, we quickly distinguished between the local bully-and-nerd - both of whom tenuously share a national identity, while both embrace conflicting nationalistic identities. Consistent with a study by the New England Complex Systems Institute on turf-based ethnic and sectarian violence, tension among the different groups - both of which in this case lay claim to the same land that the classroom is built upon - grows within a well-mixed community when borders become less defined and each group feels threatened regarding the security of its place. This mismatched imagery proved nevertheless enlightening, if only after-the-fact or after the Yom Kippur riots. The "turf-war mentality" is harmful in any context - whether between bully and nerd or between Arab and Israeli. Clearly, if neither side believes its claim to the shared turf allows ultimately for the presence of the other, periods of peaceful coexistence can only be of finite duration. Although efforts by political leaders to douse the flames are important, such periods will not be lengthened by politicians' rhetoric, conferences or social studies alone. Nor will they be increased by singing "Kumbaya" around a campfire. A multi-tiered approach is indispensable. True coexistence will emerge only when citizens on each side of the divide are sufficiently confident in their own security that they will not be displaced. Each side must know that the other wants no more than its share, but will not settle for less, either. The writer is president of the Media Line News Agency and founder of the Mideast Press Club. felice@themedialine.org

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