Peace Needs More Than Talk

I live in a part of the world famous for many things. Israel is known as a country that excels in sciences, arts, and high-tech innovations. That being said, unless you have been living on the moon without a television for the last sixty years, you are aware that this is also a region of conflict. Even as I stare out my window upon Tel Aviv’s idyllic Mediterranean tranquility, I am reminded that I only need to travel a few hours in almost any direction to find many living without hope.

I am not an Israeli. I am a fourth-generation American, and I have no blood relations in this country. As a Jew who grew up in a committed, non-Orthodox Jewish family, the State of Israel has always been a central part of my identity. It might seem strange that I have a bond to a country where neither I, nor my family, was born, but for many Jews living all over the world this is very normal.

As part of my Jewish education in the United State I learned more about than Israel than Judaism itself. We learned about Jewish leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir. Above all, we learned that Israel needs our support because she has enemies that wish to do her harm.

I was taught about the Arab armies that invaded Israel after the UN partition and of every conflict that occurred during the subsequent decades. While the stories were noticeably one-sided, there was no denying that our Israeli brethren were living in a difficult part of the world, and that their lives were much harder than ours. It was clear that Israel needed our support.

That support generally came in two forms. We could make aliya (move to Israel) or, if we chose to stay in the country of our birth, we should do all we could to defend Israel from the world’s false perceptions of her. In being part of the army of amateur Israeli PR soldiers, a lot of us felt in a small way that we were doing our part to build and defend the Jewish state.

The election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 changed everything. The beginning of the Oslo Process was more than just the start of a path towards mutual recognition and peace; it changed the way the world saw Israel. The Arab boycott ended and foreign companies flooded into Israel. A generation of Israelis thought that the cycle of war leading to seven to ten years of calm, only to lead to another war, would finally come to an end. This hope did not reach every corner of Israel.

On November 5, 1995, a young religious university student named Yigal Amir pulled out a gun at a peace rally in Tel Aviv and changed the future of the State of Israel. I was in Tel Aviv that night and I can remember every detail from the moment my roommate came running into the apartment (he was at the rally) saying something had happened, to the announcement on the TV that Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel, was dead. I stepped out of my apartment to see hundreds of Israelis in groups huddled around car radios in total shock. Our world was going to change.

The process didn’t die overnight, but as of this writing the government of Benyamin Netanyahu, who was opposition leader when Rabin was Prime Minister in the 90s, has threatened to annul the Oslo Accords if the Palestinian Authority pushes ahead with its bit for an upgrade in their UN status. In reality, this is an unnecessary step on the part of the Israeli government because the process has already unraveled and few people hope to be able to stitch it together again.

There are millions of Palestinians and Israelis who believe that they will never have the freedom that all people deserve or the security that all people need. It is hard to believe that only fifteen years ago we all thought this might end and everyone’s lives would be “normal”. Hopes rise and fall, but people generally prepare themselves for more of the same.

It has become clear to me that we are not going to negotiate ourselves completely out of this conflict. Of course the government of Israel and representatives of the Palestinians need to keep trying to find acceptable accommodation, but a process of evolution needs to take place—and fast. Arabs and Israelis need to start seeing each other part of the same region with a shared future.

This conflict is more than just religion and politics. It is an example of how poverty, and the feeling that there is no way to ever come out of those conditions, can lead to extremism. Many people on all sides of the divide recognize that, without economic opportunities for all the peoples in the region, the marginalized on both sides will continue to fall pray to extreme voices urging violence.

King Abdulla of Jordan was frequently quoted saying that Israel, Jordan, and Palestine should become something analogous to Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg) for the good of their own economic futures. These are small countries with limited resources, but significant skills and advantages if they would work together. Ideas like this are often dismissed as pipe dreams on the level of Israeli president Shimon Peres’ “New Middle East” with highways from Tel Aviv to Damascus. No matter how far afield it might seem, we need to keep working for it.

In all of the comparisons made between Israel and the old Apartheid regime in South Africa, people seem to forget the most important part of the analogy: why it ended. There were many reasons why the old South African regime fell and a representative democracy that represented all the peoples of South Africa could be born. There was international pressure, like the boycott and divestment campaigns, and there was pressure from governments that had relations with South Africa. In spite of this, the white minority was able to maintain its rule for decades. The change that finally ended that system happened from within.

There came a moment in their history when a majority of the Afrikaners started to believe that minority rule was immoral, and that they had to share power. This was historic and difficult for Afrikaners who had lived as a privileged class in South Africa for generations, but even this was only part of the equation.

In addition to the change in mentality from many of the white South Africans, there was also a change in the way of thinking among most black South African groups and individuals. There was no longer the desire to push all the whites into the ocean, or have them sent back to Europe. They came to accept that for the Afrikaners there was no Europe for them to go back to, and the future of all the rainbow nation’s races were linked forever. They would rise and fall together, so there was no choice but coexistence.

This analogy might give the impression that I am calling for a “one state solution” or a bi-national state. That is not the case, and I am committed to the State of Israel maintaining its unique and imperfect Jewish character. I prefer to think of myself as one who sees the lasting solution for this conflict as a “one region solution”. Every group has the state and flag that represents its own national aspirations, but our futures are linked together just like the peoples of South Africa.

Almost 25 years since I first stepped foot on Israeli soil I am still here hoping that the country I love lives up to the ideals for which it was founded. I still believe that, as a Jew, it is my job to support Israel in becoming a free and fair democracy for Jews all over the world. We are still the same people that rebuilt our lives after the Holocaust and came back to a hostile land and made the desert bloom. Israel is strong and prosperous, and that should give us the confidence to imagine a future where peace is not simply defined as the absence of war.

Bethlehem is visible from the rooftops of many homes in Jerusalem, and that will never change. Without borders, Amman would be a ninety-minute drive from Jerusalem, and that distance is permanent. My own home in Tel Aviv might feel a lifetime away from the conflict, but the reality is history and provenance have linked the fates of Arabs and Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, to each other forever. We are different peoples but we are one region with one future, and we have to build this region together.