London, Asharq Al-Awsat-They say, “A week is a long time in Palestine.” The hope that the Israeli disengagement of the Gaza Strip, and the withdrawal of troops and settlers might bring to an end the cycle of violence and suffering that has gripped the Palestinian territories since 2000 and the second intifada, has now been replaced by death, destruction, and the fear of a Palestinian civil war.
Will peace ever become a reality or will hate and mutual distrust continue to grip each side in the conflict? Will the situation in Palestine ever change?
In an attempt to understand the intractable faces of the conflict, and how attitudes and judgments can have long-lasting effects on politics and human suffering, I attended the Fear of the Other Conference at SOAS, School of Oriental and African Studies, in London on September 23, 2005.
Organized by the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace UK, which is part of an international network that spans Palestine, Israel, the United States, and Europe, the conference sought to address “the role of racism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially attitudes and practices that are anti-Arab, anti-Islamic, and anti-Semitic, and ways of overcoming them,” according to a statement distributed to participants.
In his keynote address, Palestinian political activist and member of the Israel Knesset since 1996, Azmi Bishara discussed, “Anti-Semitism and Orientalism in Modernity”, examining each term and drawing a general picture of how Orientalism came into existence and its socio-political significance.
Orientalism, as Edward Said brilliantly exposed it in his book of the same name, was “a European method and an attempt to classify and categorize the Orient as the Other, an image in contrast to Europe.”
Defined by Bishara as “a political movement against Jews”, anti-Semitism emerged from the 18 th century Enlightenment period and the corresponding fervor to classify the world into races and hierarchies, and to categorize people according to groups inspired by Biology and Darwinism.
This, Bishara continued, included both the Arabs and the Jews in the “Orientalist project”. Both Jews living in Europe, and Muslims in the Arab world were considered the other. “The first were the internal other, as they were physically present in Europe. However, Islam was the external other and the only tangible threat to European domination which also looked different,” he added.
Therefore, according to Bishara”s argument, the common roots of Orientalism and Anti-Semitism meant that contrary to widespread ideas, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not a war between civilizations. Instead, in agreement with Said, he rejected “the essentializing premise” of Samuel Huntington in his book, ”The Clash of Civilizations” as “dangerous and stupid”.
Instead of an “unending, implacable, irremediable” conflict between two fixed social groups, as Huntington suggested, Bishara argued that the war was a civil war. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism he said, were part of the same civilization. Each saw the others in mirrors and displayed a pathological hatred and fear.” It was not difference that created conflict but similarity.
Bishara argued that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a civil war, a confrontation between groups who belong to the same civilization, which explains its cruel violent nature.
On the following panels, speakers from around the world, including John Strawson, who teaches Law at the University of East London, Samir El Youssef, a Palestinian writer living in London, and Sami Chakribati, the Director of Liberty, a human rights organization, explored the more practical effects of racist attitudes. Included in their discussions were anti-Arab and anti-Islamic beliefs and the possible avenues that can be taken to counteract such sentiments in order to achieve a just and peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In the aftermath of September 11 attacks and the London bombings, the resulting anti-Muslim backlash has raised fears that the fabric of British and Western societies and their emphasis on respect of the other were in danger.
Once more, elements in society, although extreme and outnumbered have been known to say, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.” Clearly, some have sought to hurt others for being Muslim and Arab. Mosques have been targeted, veiled women intimidated, and innocent civilians attacked.
Yet, panelist Sharif Nashashibi asked, “What does an Arab look like?” In his view, racism is not exclusively targeted at Arabs and Muslims. “It does not follow an exclusive category but incorporated fear and hatred of other foreign and different elements such as Jews”, the chairman and co-founder of Arab Media Watch said.
In fact, he added, “racism is based on a single ignorant belief and is related to power.”
Returning to a theme explored by Bishara, Nashashibi argued, “no inherent opposition existed between Islam and Judaism or between the Palestinian and Israeli”.
Nashashibi drew his conclusions from the work of Israeli human rights activists and revealed, “familiarity and interaction between the two people melted away with preconceptions and broken down barriers.” He explained how at the start of a visit to Germany , many journalists and activists from the Palestinian territories and Israel were apprehensive about meeting people “from the other side”. For some Palestinians, the only Israeli they might have ever encountered was a soldier at a checkpoint. Working together for a common goal dissipated fears on both sides and dissolved tensions to the extent that by the end of the week, “friendships had been forged and relationships formed”.
He concluded that, if personal animosity could be overcome, a political solution would be found. His optimistic vision, however, did not examine inter-communal differences or address power disparities.
Continuing to demystify racism in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Daniel Dor, differentiated between legitimate criticism of the occupation and bigoted racism.
After all, Israel is still flaunting UN resolutions, building illegal settlements and a wall of separation, as well as killing Palestinians.
Dor, a professor at the department of Communication at Tel Aviv University, differentiated between two dominant types of language used in the conflict from both sides: a guilt-oriented language and a solution-oriented language.
The guilt-oriented language analyzes reality and highlights arguments that refute or prove its position. “Mostly, the language used is legalistic. It makes statements such as, “we didn’t do it.” or “we were forced to do it.” It searches for a plan, a purpose to justify its actions, and evidence to illustrate it,” he said.
As this type of language “focuses firmly on highlighting victim status and denouncing the other side as vicious”, according to Dor, it is “fixed firmly on the past.”
On the contrary, a solution-oriented language is not concerned with “whom to blame” but rather with “what to do”. Dor argued that everyday life would be examined for signs of improvement and change. In this language, shades of grey appear repeatedly.
In over fifty years of conflict, Dor argued, “the Palestinians and Israelis had adopted a guilt-oriented language and placed blame on the other side while working to inflict harm.” By doing so, he added, each party had reinforced the other and has become part of a cycle that produces and reinforces a guilt-oriented identity, as Nashashibi had demonstrated earlier.
A solution, the Israeli academic believes, is not wholly impossible. Crucially, the conflict has to be addressed in a radically different manner. The language used should not refute history and ignore past grievances but “focus firmly on reality and adopt an optimistic view.”
In this sense, Dor added, present suffering had to take precedence over the injuries of the past and “become more important than the memory of suffering.” The focus ought to be on “communality and finding a solution”, without completely forgetting ones identity. The academic proposed that a new frame of responsibility emerge from both sides.
Despite some divergences amongst panelists, they concurred with El Youssef who argued that the fight against racism should be universal and applicable to all as, in his words, one “cannot protest against Palestinian injustice while believing Jews rule the world”.
Only then, despite the tragic news headlines and the violence in the region, will a true and just solution become possible.
As Strawson told Asharq al Awsat, “the wall in Palestine, like the Berlin wall, can be pulled down.”