No words can catch how deeply wounded my heart is from constantly seeing young children paying the price for the arrogance and violent nature of adults who have failed to find common ground for one reason or another. Innocent lives are lost in front of our own eyes, futures full of hate and misunderstanding are being shaped as these lines are written, and worst of all in my view, our common humanity continues to take the backseat to the ideological and political positions of this or that group, at a time when we have all the communication tools to build bridges of understanding.
I am not naive to the point of thinking that raising the banner of our common humanity is sufficient to open the doors to peace. The new wave of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly shows that the situation is almost hopeless. My comments here on that conflict are limited to general and broad observations that highlight my own interests and biases. I certainly have nothing to add to the tireless voices on each side who are trying to convince us, and more importantly convince themselves, that both the problem and the solution exclusively rest with the “enemy.”
I say this while stressing that I would never dismiss the efforts of sincere activists who are seeking justice, dignity, and peace for their people while moving beyond easy dichotomies and taking critical positions vis-à-vis their own communities. However, my sense is that they regrettably remain minorities within those who have power within each society and they thus face tremendous challenges to achieve concrete results. Unfortunately, every time some nuance is brought to the table, many are sure to quickly raise the banners of identity and survival in order to keep the faithful united around a simplified message of “us” versus “them.” And an important part of this frame is to make sure that “them” are vilified, and if possible dehumanized, as to facilitate the use of all means necessary to root out the “evil” that is allegedly inherent in the “other.”
Each side then becomes even more connected to its own constructed narrative of the past and of what that past means for the present and future of the group. Certainly, constructing narratives that maintain group cohesion and provide meaning to the members of the group is what human communities always do. What gets lost is that those narratives are highly selective and are marred with issues of power. Not surprisingly, the rightful claims of particular “subgroups” and/or “outsiders” are simply disregarded. In the case of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the challenge is amplified by the fact that the national narratives on each side lay exclusive claims to the same piece of land as to render the very existence of the other side highly problematic. As if this is not enough, at least two other elements take the conflict to higher levels of complexity.
One element is that there are also long-standing religious narratives that are intertwined with the modern nationalist narratives. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity contain within their traditions exclusivist theological claims that not only exclude the religious other from “salvation,” but also posit the inferiority of that religious other. I do not want to suggest that this is the only way these religions and their scriptural sources can be interpreted, but we have to face the reality that this is the dominant way in which they have been historically read. As a result, current political tensions become anachronistically connected in the minds of social actors to particular theological views. In the hands of the “fundamentalists” on each side, the dehumanization process is taken to another level since “God” is now invoked in support of the process. Significantly, the impact of the religious narratives spills beyond the geographical confines of the conflict. For instance, within the American scene, many Christians, Muslims, and Jews base their positions on the conflict on largely theological grounds. One would however need to be part of the internal discussions of a group to get the complete picture of that phenomenon because the claims are often, although not necessarily always, couched in a more secular political language when outsiders are the intended audience.
The second element concerns the geopolitical interests of world and regional powers in the area ever since the colonial period. Sir Marc Sykes and François George Picot might have left this world a long time ago, but the ramifications of the Western “zones of influence” that are connected to their names are still with us in many ways, creating chaos and strife. Today, the race to control natural resources and the drive to have strategic advantage continue to dictate what kind of “support” each Middle Eastern country gets from world powers like the United States, Britain, Russia, or China; a situation that also shapes the dynamics of regional competition between countries like Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. In addition, we must keep in mind the significant ways in which the internal political battles within each country, be it the United States, Israel, the various Arab countries, Iran, or others drive the timing and reach of particular actions.
All of these complexities have serious ramifications for populations on the ground and participate in the spread of despair within communities whose members generally seek little more than to live dignified and secure lives, but that are dragged into the messy politics of fear. Sadly, average people find themselves caught up in spirals of violence that lead to the hardening of the established national narratives. It takes no brain power to realize that what is needed is the loosening of those national narratives, so that they become more inclusive and integrative. If they do not become so, we will continue to see death, destruction, fear, mistrust, and hate in most interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. No ceasefires, no temporary truces, and no half-baked peace processes can undo the psychological harm of the violent events that regularly unfold in the area and that are amplified because of the quick spread of disturbing images, often shrewdly used by political actors eager to win the PR battle for their side. Unfortunately, this state of affairs does nothing but negatively feed the social memory of the new generations on each side, thus threatening to jeopardize all serious efforts of reconciliation for a long time to come.