Dinner in Zalafi reflects human side of Arab-Israeli conflict

Dinner in Zalafi reflects human side of Arab-Israeli conflict

Asher  Wiseman
Asher Wiseman

KIBBUTZ KFAR RUPPIN, Israel — The detention and subsequent death of Arafat Jaradat Feb. 23 sparked a wave of Palestinian protests criticizing the methods of Israeli occupation.

Jaradat, an obscure gas station attendant and father, died after five days of custody in a Meggido prison. Following an autopsy, Palestinian officials claimed that he was subjected to torture during his interrogation by Israel’s General Security Service. While Israel has countered these accusations and urged for calm in “the territories,” the event reinforced fears of a third intifada.

All U.S. citizens received the usual disquieting email from the consulate, advising that they limit travel to the West Bank. The email explains that even peaceful demonstrations “can turn violent with little or no warning.” One need not be an Israeli to comprehend the impossibility of imminent peace under such hostile circumstances, but the human aspects of this conflict are only understood up close.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, undaunted by the deterioration of peace talks in 2010, sanctioned the political limbo of Palestine by systematically expanding Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Following January’s election, forthcoming compromise has become a pipedream. Domestic Israeli policy has taken center stage and ultra-nationalist parties are poised to join the next coalition.

If one dismisses arguments over the cultural superiority of either party, then the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes nothing more than two peoples fighting for resources and sovereignty. Both Palestinian nationalism and modern Zionism are young concepts and it would be childish to argue about which is more deserving of actualization. States are built with hard work and ultimately the better-equipped population succeeds.

To avoid discussing nationhood through a Darwinist lens, it is important to acknowledge the principle of self-determination, a right that was engrained into the Western psyche by Woodrow Wilson after World War I. On paper, self-determination has become a truism in diplomacy. The triumph of divestment in South Africa seemed to prove that the international community would no longer tolerate colonialism. However, in reality, the world often turns a blind eye to disadvantaged minorities.

Being that self-determination was a principle in the founding of the State of Israel, Knesset members dare not undermine it. It would be impractical and hypocritical to fully annex Arab lands. Furthermore, Israel’s precarious existence makes it irresponsible to provide statehood to weak, unstable Palestinian leadership. The Jewish state’s only choice is to improve her bargaining stance by slowly expanding her borders until the prospect of peace rears its head once again.

This is a decidedly bleak image for the future and it fails to explain the current impossibility of reconciliation between Israelis and Arabs. The sad truth is that religious convictions and the lack of communication between individual Jews and Arabs are the roots of this conflict.

Secular Jews and Arab-Israelis will never experience absolute democracy so long as a religious minority governs certain areas of public policy. Nor will Arabs fully understand liberty until radical Islamic groups are stripped of their legitimacy. Furthermore, religious Jews and Muslims possess doctrines that give them the right to control all of modern Israel. The wisdom and guidance of religion should have a place in any civilization, but its presence in government is certainly detrimental in this case.

The more compelling reason explaining the impossibility of peace is an unofficial segregation that permeates all levels of Israeli society. Arabs and Jews rarely attend the same schools, live in the same areas or work in the same professions. Most Israelis aren’t personally acquainted with Arabs and vice versa. This fundamental division spawns prejudice, discrimination, and allows for hate to flourish. Old wounds worsen in the absence of friendship and cooperation.

Two weeks before Purim, I had the pleasure of being hosted by an Arab family in Zalafi, a small village south of Nazareth. We dined on barbecued lamb, smoked hookah, and exchanged toothy smiles supplemented by anecdotes in broken Hebrew. Talk of politics was just as forbidden as the family’s beautiful 18-year-old daughter, but the house was warm and I felt welcome. They were real people not faces on a television.

The experience made me re-evaluate my nationalist tendencies; I was determined to be a friend and not a political counterpart.

The Israeli reactions to my story were even more intriguing. Those who knew nothing of our Semitic neighbors were curious. Others asked abrasively, “What were you doing in an Arab village?” A racist border patrolman justified his convictions by sharing horrifying personal stories and harsh stereotypes. He said, “Those Arabs would sell you for shekels if they had the chance.”

I shared their reactions with the stunning Arab daughter I had only just met. She replied, “You know, not all the fingers on your hand are alike.” and then I understood. No group of people is uniform and stereotypes are crude. We are only fingers of a hand much greater than ourselves. Then, I hoped for change to come, finger by finger. Maybe one day our two hands will shake.

(Asher Wiseman, 17, of Pittsburgh, is a Diller Fellow who now attends Gaon Hayarden High School and lives in Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel. He writes a monthly column on Israel for the Chronicle, from a young person’s perspective.)