“One state is impossible. They [the Israelis] will not accept it…[there will be] no peace solution while I’m still here [in the refugee camp]. Peace, peace – we just know the word.”
-Hamza, resident of Aduheisha Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine
“I think can live with them [the Palestinians], but I’m not sure they would want to live with me.”
-Maayan, resident of Be’er Sheva, Israel
Kadosh Cafe is buzzing with the evening rush, but waiters manage to be calm as they serve the deconstructed rhubarb latkes and pick pastries off trays hot from the oven. They’ve proudly been a Jerusalem institution “since 1967” (an auspicious year for a cafe near the once-border of East Jerusalem). Families are hugging and kissing, celebrating their children’s birthday. Couples canoodle over warm chocolate cake. Orthodox students in long skirts gossip while sipping foamy lattes. The sights and smells make me a little homesick for the Seattle cafe scene. The only thing that brings me back to reality is the sight of the man carefully adjusting his assault rifle as he retakes his lover’s hand for the walk home.
Finding a way to carry your gun everywhere you go is part of the experience of most Israelis at some point or another during their rite of passage: military service. I ask my Israeli friends why you would need to go to such great lengths to appear battle-ready, and they repeat the dogma they’ve been trained in: “Your gun is your baby. You wouldn’t leave your baby at home alone, would you?”
The analogy of killing machines and new life seems absurd at first. But this is a country of citizen-soldiers living in a perpetual state of fear. Fear of terrorism. Fear of invasion. Fear of being hated by the world. Fear of ceasing to exist. And most importantly, fear of the truth of their past – the forced removal and massacres of Palestinians during naqba - that they have tried so hard to erase. From fear, the formerly absurd becomes the new normal.
Ironically, as much as they restrict the freedoms of others, they have restricted themselves. My friends feared to travel to half of the planet, let alone traveling in their neighborhood. One spun a tale of traversing rural Jordan under the guise of being two young Mexican men. When they found themselves stranded in a small village and invited in by a family who recognized them for who they were, they thought they were finished. But they woke up to tea and pleasantries, surprised as they were to find themselves still alive at dawn in the house of an Arab.
They have built a wall to “protect” themselves from the Arab hordes to the east. But this wall serves more to jail in their spirits and inflict collective punishment on millions of Palestinians than it does to prevent entry by unwanted former residents of their lands. My Palestinian friends in Hebron jumped the wall regularly to look for work, pray in Al Quds (Jerusalem), and visit family in East Jerusalem – it’s not hard to climb a ladder, assuming you don’t get shot or arrested on the other side, they joked casually. (One must get used to seeing and hearing far more absurd things on the Palestinian side of the wall.)
But more than anything, they have built a military-industrial state. Every citizen must waste two to three years of their life in indoctrination, training, and occasionally, fighting a losing battle against an enemy which seems to gather more international support by the day. A few may join up hoping to “kick some terrorist ass,” as one new recruit described his goals to me, but they more often end up spending months traveling South America or South Asia trying to forget the horrors of what they were ordered to do in the name of the Jewish state. After chatting for a while with a bored and friendly soldier at a checkpoint in Hebron, I asked him if his grandchildren would be sitting in the same monotonous position as him, he shrugged and said, “Yeah, probably.”
Is it wrong to feel pity for him, and the nation of citizen soldiers trapped behind their own walls of oppression? Some of the international activists I met would shun me for such a thought– they get sick to their stomach just entering West Jersualem to renew visas, let alone talking to the same IDF soldiers who bulldoze their friends’ homes.
But I don’t let myself be deluded for too long – the fact that I am able to even stand in front of the soldier’s gun and walk by his checkpoint with immunity is due to being a transient outsider with an American passport who has no emotional attachment to the lands on either side of the wall. (That said, appearing “Arab” stopped me from entering a zone in Hebron I know is open to internationals.) I have lost no loved ones in house demolitions, night raids, or Hamas rockets. My grandfather was not killed in the Naqba or the Holocaust. I have never been tortured in Israeli prisons – or Palestinian Authority prisons for that matter. So I am free to dance across the wall and between the jails, making small talk with the oppressor and the oppressed.
But despite my desire to come to understand how otherwise normal, loving Israeli people can support such a vicious policy of hate, I am no “normalization” advocate. I do not think things will get better only if people know one another and go to summer camp together. The ingrained inequality in such a relationship is too great; as my friend Eva, an international activist, would say, “shit is way too fucked” for that. And as many argue, it may make the absurd situation seem even more “normal” than it already does.
That said, relationships and solidarity across the wall seem essential, given the deeply-rooted mythologies about one another each side seems to hold. The opening quotes are just two of dozens of examples of the ever-present pessimistic feeling that “we want peace, but they don’t.” But before these relationships can begin, just as with all solidarity work, we must start with an honest recognition of how the unequal situation came to be.
The work of organizations like Zochrot is thus essential in countering an education of indoctrination that makes the conflict seem like two equal parties fighting over land lost fair and square. As their education director described to me, the recognition of the Naqbacan be shameful for the Israelis learning their true history for the first time. But channeling that shame into action and honest solidarity is the crucial step. Only through the everyday Israeli’s recognition of how their present privileges came to be can a future together without a wall – or a border – be imagined.
And there’s little question left in my mind that it will be better for everyone. (Including the U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for Israeli bullets.)