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Meeting the Other in Israel and Palestine

One hesitates to criticize these enterprises. They’re so well meaning, and it seems so curmudgeonly. But the myriad efforts around the world to bring the children of political conflicts, most notably the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, together in some kind of forced intimacy — schools or camps or the like — so that they can get to know each other and learn that each is human, can and often do actually perpetuate the conflict. These well intentioned efforts ultimately divert attention from real problems, real grievances, and lull people into thinking that all this sweetness and light is some kind of progress toward resolving the conflict.

One of these camps for Israeli and Palestinian girls meets several times every summer at a mountain retreat near where we live in New Mexico. For the last several years, this camp has brought together teenage girls from both sides for two weeks of living together — sharing rooms, eating communally, doing crafts and musical activities together, and talking endlessly about themselves, their societies, their fears of each other. They leave with a new perspective, able to see each other as real people with similar concerns over boys, similar teenage angst, similar difficulties with parents. But, however equal they may be in the mountains of New Mexico, they do not return home as equals or return to a new and different set of circumstances in their daily lives.

There are other similar efforts in many places. Seeds of Peace has been bringing the children of conflict, particularly Arabs and Israelis, together in the Maine woods for decades. An international school, part of the United World College system established decades ago by Lord Mountbatten in the hope of bringing future world leaders together to learn of other cultures and foster civility at a young age, exists at another location not far from our hometown. There are schools in Israel and Palestine for the children of both sides, supposedly teaching them each other’s narratives. In Jerusalem a few nights ago, we met one of the lead promoters of the most recent attempt to establish schools for youngsters in Palestine-Israel. This man, an American with a new-found interest in the conflict, is gathering Israeli and Palestinian teachers to devise a curriculum that will teach the children of both sides that they can accomplish more through openness and friendship than through anger.

It is obviously never a bad idea for enemies to get to know each other, and it’s a great idea to train the young in opposing societies to look across the divide and see decent human beings rather than monsters. But unless there is some reasonable prospect that the circumstances to which these children return will change dramatically, the experience is more a diversion and a detriment than a step forward. The girls in the summer camp may gain a new perspective, but if they return to their separate existences as the daughters of an occupied population living under the domination of the daughters of an occupying power, nothing will have changed. The notion that these young people will grow up to be their countries’ leaders and, having had this heart-warming experience getting to know “the other,” will foster serious change when they grow up is not enough. For one thing, in a conflict like that in Palestine-Israel, too many people will die in the 20 or 30 or more years before these young people are in any position to assume power in their societies. For another, whatever changes in perspective and thinking they gain from what they learn about each other at age 15 or 16 are unlikely to endure unless the circumstances in which they live also change dramatically.

One would not expect a summer camp that brought together the daughters of slaves with the daughters of slave owners to have a lasting impact if at the end of two idyllic weeks they returned to a situation in which slavery endured and the slave daughters continued to live in submission to the daughters of slave owners. In exactly the same way, one cannot expect real change when the daughters of oppressed Palestinians continue to live under the domination of the daughters of their Israeli oppressors. At the end of these summer camps, at the end of each term in the schools that teach Palestinian and Israeli youth together, the Israeli young people inevitably return to their ordinary lives as Israelis — performing their mandatory military service, dominating and humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints throughout the West Bank, often residing in settlements on confiscated Palestinian land, imprisoning Palestinians in Gaza, in general living as the favored population in a Jewish-majority state that grants few rights to non-Jews, particularly Palestinians. The lessons in reconciliation and respecting each other’s humanity that are taught in these camps and schools are of no help and no lasting value.

It is almost always Israelis and Israeli supporters who initiate these cooperative schools and camps — soft Zionists whose desire to help end the conflict by ending the occupation is quite genuine but whose concern above all is to preserve Israel as a Jewish state and who therefore, most likely unconsciously but noticeably nonetheless, operate entirely on Israel’s terms. The effort is much less to teach Israeli children the Palestinian narrative than to try to bring Palestinian children to an understanding and acceptance of the Israeli perspective. A newsletter published by the organizers of the girls’ summer camp in New Mexico recently noted triumphantly that at the end of the sessions, the Palestinian girls had come to understand why the Israeli girls had to return to fulfill their military service to their nation. There is no thought in the minds of these organizers of inducing serious change in the situation on the ground in Palestine-Israel, of altering the Jews-over-Arabs hierarchy that defines Israel and the occupied territories.

Unlike most others, the school organizer whom we met in Jerusalem is a Palestinian American, but he too operates from an Israel-focused frame of reference. His talk was entirely of getting Palestinian children, including some of his own West Bank relatives, over their anger with Israel and of stopping rocket fire from Gaza. He has so bought into the Israeli perspective, and is so wrapped up in his optimistic belief that talking and learning together can solve all problems, that during a visit to Gaza he saw only sunshine. Everyone is happy in Gaza, he pronounced absurdly, because they are free people, delighting in their “independent state.” He could see nothing of the horrors of life under Israeli domination in Gaza, nothing of the continual Israeli killing, nothing of the horrific poverty or the devastated economy, nothing of the imprisonment of 1.4 million people, nothing of the reality that all of Gaza’s distress is politically caused by Israel’s oppressive domination. He was at pains to make excuses for every Israeli behavior. He is an American, by his own admission long divorced from Palestine, and this is the American viewpoint, which is the Israeli viewpoint.

He talked only of the future; the past, he said, is irrelevant. He would also not address the power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians; this too is irrelevant, he believes. These realities are obviously too uncomfortable for someone who believes only in the rightness of his own approach, who cannot change today’s realities, or tomorrow’s, and therefore sets out to divert attention, his own and everyone else’s, from what truly needs to be done.

True coexistence is different from simply getting along. Teaching children to get along, that their parents’ enemies are human beings who should not be dehumanized or demonized, is nice, but it is woefully insufficient and indeed fatally complacency-inducing. Unless their parents themselves learn to coexist, and to coexist in total equality, justice, and mutual dignity — unless their parents engage in a serious effort to alter the dismal reality on the ground of complete and perpetual Jewish domination over Palestinians — a few childhood lessons in civility will be useless.

Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at kathy.bill.christison@comcast.net.

Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence officer and as director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis.

They can be reached at kathy.bill.christison@comcast.net.

 

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