London - “Let me tell you something Simon; people round here are kinda ignorant - ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds violence - so watch your ass.”
This was the parting shot from a kindly truck driver as he dropped me in a small Texas town, when hitchhiking from Houston to Austin 25 years ago. It was amusing at the time but the phrase stuck. As I began to travel in countries that had been torn apart by violent conflict I realised how profound this stranger’s advice to a stranger in a strange land really was.
Ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds violence – this is the first thought that came to me as I started to consider the impact of fear on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I have made two working visits to Israel and the West Bank in recent years, to run production workshops for MAAN, a Palestinian television network. Through many conversations I had with Israelis and Palestinians the relationship between ignorance and fear was brought sharply into focus.
I noticed a difference in attitudes to ‘the other’ expressed by both Palestinians and Israelis who had experienced adult life before the first Intifada and those who had been too young to remember much before then.
What was the difference? Most people over 40, had friends or business associates from the ‘other side’ before the Intifada. The very phrase –Before Intifada or B.I. - came to seem to me like a modern equivalent of BC and AD.
Sallah, a potter in Hebron, said that B.I. he had exported pots to Europe with his Israeli friend Shlomo. They dined in each other’s houses and did business together for years. But now his only contact with his old friend in Israel was the occasional telephone call.
Sallah has no fear of Jews or Israelis as people; he knows the common ground between the two outweighs their differences – but that the politicians have messed this up.
My Aunt Zelda in Tel Aviv emigrated from England 30 years ago. She told me that B.I. she enjoyed dining with Arab friends in Arab restaurants – something unthinkable today. Zelda has no fear of Muslims or Palestinians, but she fears zealots of all persuasions, and for Israel if it stays on the same path.
These examples typify attitudes of the B.I. generation. They do not fear ‘the other’; they know they share not just the common interests of humanity – but also much of their cultural heritage.
Contrast this with the ignorance of the Post Intifada – P.I. – generation. Young Israelis and Palestinians, through no fault of their own, have little knowledge of ‘the other’. If they encounter each other at all it is across a check-point or during a military operation – situations that don’t illuminate their common humanity, but re-enforce ignorance, prejudice and fear.
There are hundreds of tourists at Mount Gerizim for the celebration of the Samaritan Passover, a joyous, largely family, affair. A group of young Israelis stands out amongst the mixed crowd. The young men are carrying machine guns. I ask one why he is carrying a weapon. “To protect ourselves”, he says, “we have to drive through the West Bank to get here and you never know when these people (Palestinians) will attack us.” He was fearful of people he didn’t know or understand – his fear led him to carry a weapon and to be prepared for violence.
Students at the Al Aqsa University in Ramallah are campaigning vigorously for their student union elections. A Hamas supporter puts a garland around my neck declaring: “You love Hamas, you hate Israel, you hate Jews – yes!” It wasn’t a question. “Well no, actually” was my response, as I took the garland from around my neck. This young man had never met a Jew before, not one that wasn’t armed anyway, and certainly not a British half Jewish non-Zionist like me. All he knew of Jews was that Israel was the self-declared Jewish state that occupied his country. Like his Israeli counterpart he was fearful of people he didn’t know and just as ready for violent retaliation.
With these perspectives people do indeed have reason to be afraid of each other, because, as we know all too well, violence is the day-to-day outcome of these fears.
What hope then of a solution? Not much - unless some real change is brought about.
Youth in Ramallah, Hebron, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem will never get to know ‘the other’ as individuals, and discover their commonalities, as long as the barriers between them continue to be built and re-enforced.
I and some of my B.I. friends believe that the only viable solution will be one in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and others live together as equals, seeing each other as neighbours, acting on their commonalties and celebrating their differences.
But one thing is certain, a sustainable solution necessitates continued efforts to dispel ignorance of ‘the other’ – like this news service.
* Simon Lawson is the head of Nomad Productions (www.nomadproductions.co.uk) a London based Production Company that specialises in the use of media for education, development and peace-building. He is a former Country Director of Search for Common Ground in D.R. Congo. This article is part of a special series on the impact of fear on the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 02 July 2009, www.commongroundnews.org.
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