This story does not intend to choose sides, quite the opposite. Well aware of the complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this short story aims to add another perspective – to the other hundreds of already existing ones.
The story I am about to tell you happened during the summer of 2012, in a center called Givat Haviva, in Israel. Back then, I was participating in a five-month program in Israel with Jewish teenagers coming from Australia and England. That day, we had the opportunity to meet with an Arabic Muslim lawyer, who also happened to be an Israeli citizen. For about an hour, he talked to us about his life as a Muslim citizen of Israel. More specifically, he would tell us about the struggles he encountered while trying to combine such strong, and in many ways contradictory, identities.
Indeed, Muslims make up for about 20% of the Israeli population. Most of them come from families who lived in Palestine and acquired their Israeli citizenship in 1948. Now living under a Jewish State, they combine an Arab-Muslim identity while living in a State which considers itself Jewish, celebrates Jewish holidays, possesses a Jewish flag and a Jewish anthem – to name a few examples.
The man calmly told us about his life – a successful one, but also a frustrating one. As an Arab Israeli, he explained the difficulties he encountered when looking for a job; how all his Jewish colleagues had found one within one year of finishing university, while he was left aside.
It was then time for us to question him.
Sensitive questions were asked. Which side do you choose? Do you feel more Israeli or Palestinian? Would you choose to live in Israel or Palestine if the two States existed side-by-side?
The tone ascended. What do you think of terrorist attacks?
And quickly, the discussion went out of hand. Why don’t you condemn terrorist attacks? How are we supposed to trust you if you are killing us?
And here I was, quietly listening, in shock. Here I was, seeing one of the most lovely, understanding girls I ever met, screaming aggressively at this guy. The lack of compassion for this guy who had accepted to come talk to us saddened me deeply.
But most importantly, it made me realize how much more complex this conflict was. Because I could not divide people between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ anymore. This conversation did not fit the narrative I had told myself so many times: there are a few powerful people that ruin it for the rest who just seek peace. Because this girl – who openly disrespected this man – is truly a good person. At the end of our program, she would be rewarded ‘everyone’s favorite’. I also heard this lawyer who is seeking peace, say that he did not ‘condemn’ terrorist attacks against Israelis, but he only ‘disliked’ them.
It took me a while to make sense of what had happened that afternoon. Both the lawyer and this friend of mine believed – in their own rights – that they possessed the true narrative. Their vision of reality had been forged through their various experiences and their education.
We all believe that we fight for the right cause and we all believe that our narrative is the right one. But narratives are multiple and being exposed to opposite narratives can only challenge us and help us expand our understanding of the conflict. The narratives we live with are usually not wrong – but they are to a large extent, incomplete. Neither my friend, nor the lawyer changed their minds after this conversation. She could not understand how this man was so ignorant of the thousand-year long Jewish presence in Israel. He could not understand why she did not start Israel’s history in 1948 – which is, after all, the year of its creation.
No one can decide to erase the past and start anew. Our whole identities are based on the past – whether it includes decades or centuries of history. What we can do, however is to widen our narrative, so that maybe one day we will be able to create a common and more inclusive future.