Brian E. Frydenborg
Starting in early 2011, I first came to the Middle East for a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, traveling all over Palestine and Israel, save for Gaza.
Yes, I said Palestine and Israel.
Disclaimer: I am religious zealot when it comes to being practical, but apart from that, I eschew endorsing any sort of claims about knowing the metaphysical or endorsing any sort of religious ownership to anything in the physical world.
In other words, if people think something about their religion gives them special claim to political sovereignty over one scrap of land or another, you won’t find a receptive audience in me.
It is a fact of history that very few modern states were founded in ways that would be considered “legitimate” by modern standards, modern standards that came into effect in an era in which virtually all states had already been established.
Prior to these more hypothetical modern standards, war and conquest, mass migration that violated the consent of one or more parties, and deals between despots, kings, emperors, and dictators more often than not established modern states, and borders were not decided by notions of justice or fairness, but by might makes right.
That’s not to say “Because the Mongols obliterated several central Asian states in the 1200s, who is anyone to criticize what happened in 1948 or 1967 between Israelis and Arabs (especially Palestinians);” far from it.
My only point is that the issues of conquest, occupation, and colonization, settlement, displacement are not unique to our time nor the sliver of land that was once known as Mandate Palestine and is now disputed, that the idea we should look to solutions of one side totally dominating the other, wiping another people out (both simple horrible), or of getting into a time machine and undoing decades of conclusive wars (getting back to my religion: highly impractical) are all nonsense for moving forward in the here and now (also known as “reality”).
I could write a whole column on this, but for now let’s just say that what I want is the best possible outcome for the most amount of people on both sides (it’s my inner Kantian), and for me that is two states, side by side living in peace, one Israel and one Palestine based more or less on 1967 borders.
This may seem increasingly impractical these days, but would still be far more practical than a one state solution that resembles apartheid or a time-machine-oriented approach that magically bestows Arabs with sovereignty over land Jews have fought for, taken, defended, and controlled for 70 years or more.
The Wall Israel built is a representation against a two-state solution (AFP File Photo)
In other words, the best solution is one that is going to allow the most freedom and coexistence.
And in the spirit of coexistence, I think Arabs and Jews need to talk, especially those living in the Middle East. I don’t mean official peace negotiations specifically with the point I am making now; I mean individuals: Israeli Jews and Palestinians Arabs, and also Jordanians, Syrians Iraqis, Egyptians, Saudis, you name it.
I am proud to have facilitated some similar actions before: I convinced three American Jews I met while in Israel after they had just finished their “Birthright” program (understandably a problematic name from an Arab perspective) to come back with me to Jordan for a bit, and they fell in love with the country and its people almost instantly.
I don’t think they knew what to expect, but Jordan and its people pleasantly exceeded their expectations and the whole experience was an exercise in breaking down misinformation and stereotypes (to be sure, these three American Jews were already skeptical of those and came with an open mind).
After my first visit to Israel and Palestine, and after relocating to Jordan in 2014, I have since been to Israel and sometimes Palestine another nine times. From my best understanding, this places me in a very unique position, as I have met very few people in these places who have been back and forth so much, or talked to many people on opposing sides of one of the great conflicts of the last half-century and then some.
I count among my friends and contacts Jews and Muslims and Christians: Jordanian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Israeli, American, Syrian, Yemeni, Lebanese, etc. And it kind of feels like I am back in college: I am friends with people in the Kappa Sig frat and the Sigma Nu frat, just a name two, but while I see them in their individual settings, getting them all together is pretty difficult.
Let’s just add to that with wars, occupations, and complicated religious disputes going back millennia, and you have an idea of what I am getting at.
Therefore, I was thrilled when an Israeli reporter contacted me—having been impressed by my very first Al Bawaba article, one on Jordan—that she wanted to come to Jordan, talk to some locals, learn about the economy here and what had happened with the recent protests. I knew it would be a special opportunity to bring Middle Eastern Arabs and Israeli Jews together in ways that were exceptionally rare and, for that reason among others, very important and very necessary.
Yes, you meet Jews and Arabs who talk regularly, are friends, even date, but it is very difficult and there is often a tremendous amount of pressure from their communities, families, and friends not to do this.
In most situations, you meet Jews and Arabs who have never had any serious social interactions with a member of the other group. So when you have an opportunity to introduce, say, a Syrian Muslim and an Israeli Arab, in your own small way you are literally making history.
No, this ain’t Rabin braking break with Arafat. But it still matters.
Simply put, there is so much misinformation and, pardon the term, crap, dominating conversations in the Middle East (and, to be fair, pretty much everywhere these days). If one group doesn’t like another, you can generally take anything someone from the one group says about the other with a truckload of salt.
And much of this “information” is based on misinformation and disinformation: hearsay, myths, legends, one-sided “news” reports, or the actions of extreme, non-representative minorities within the group being taken to represent the whole. This isn’t just about Arabs and Jews, and can easily extend to Sunnis vs. Shiites, for example.
Talking to each other
So if a big part of the problem, then, is that no one talks to each other and that that people often (willfully) have no clue about how the other side thinks and feels, small conversations are miracle opportunity that need to be taken seriously.
Hashim Fool and Falafel Restaurant in Downtown Amman (Migrationology.com)
So one night, I took my Israeli reporter and her editor and photographer (all Jewish) to a Palestinian-Jordanian’s Pizza place in a fashionable part of Amman. He is wise and grey-haired, has traveled much in Europe and the U.S., did business with Israelis for years, and regularly goes back and forth across Jordan’s border to the west. The conversation was freewheeling and grew to include several Jordanian and other visitors.
My reporter wanted to know about Jordan, its economy, and the protests. At no point did the conversation turn to recriminations about the faults of Israelis and Arabs in their conflict. She listened, learned, laughed, shared pizza, and listened some more. She took selfies with a Jordanian and he took selfies with her. They exchanged WhatsApps.
The next night, I introduced the Israel crew to a Syrian friend of mine at Hashem’s. They talked about mostly about the Syrian Civil War and geopolitics but also a little about his life and the situation in Jordan, too, and how good the falafel and hummus were at Hashem’s. They are also keeping in touch.
Establishing contact with one another
The point is, they established contacts with each other of their own free will. None of that means an endorsement of the worst aspects of Israeli or Arab societies or policies.
It doesn’t mean you stop believing in the Palestinian right to sovereignty over a homeland in at least part of the territories Israel controls or that you endorse occupation on one side, or that you renounce Israel’s right to exist or endorse terrorism on the other side.
In some circles, these simple exchanges would be deemed an outrage, even a betrayal of one’s cause and one’s people. I had an Arab Israeli (that is how he chose to identify himself, not as Palestinian) visit me with an Israeli Jewish friend. We were in a bar and the Jew wanted to talk to a group of Arabs. The Arab girls wanted to, but the Arab guy with them adamantly refused.
I’m not saying this to belittle that Arab guy, and I understand the sentiment; this time, with my Israeli reporter, a number of friends and contacts refused to meet her, did not answer my inquiries, or were hesitant.
Back in 1945, Orwell wrote: “By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” This seems to be the modus operandi between Arabs and Israelis, and that needs to change.
My reporter friend was not going to give my Syrian friend a deed to the Golan Heights. My Palestinian friend at the Pizza place was not going to speak for Fatah or Hamas.
But these interactions are crucial and must be multiplied greatly: because the only way we go from a despairing conflict in which neither side understands or humanizes the other much, in which there is very little interpersonal communication outside of top officials and security professionals, in which many on both sides needlessly and carelessly act in just the ways that will best perpetuate mistrust and hatred, the only way to get a point where these societies will support something better than the current horror that can at least reluctantly agree on is by little conversations, had over falafel or pizza, in which people can begin to form relationships, see each other as human, and begin to see small ways to accommodate these “others,” ways that won’t be giving up core concessions but that will change the dynamic of cycles of needless and/or deliberate provocation and willful lack of understanding.
Understanding can at least tone down this conflict, make it less vicious. Perhaps in such a climate, it will be easier to envision accommodation and compromise that are much harder to see now, perhaps just talking and interacting will not be so controversial, perhaps those in cribs or middle schools now will find new ways to live together in non-violence and shared sovereignty in ways that have eluded recent generations and that are immeasurably better than the horrid status quo.
Failing that, enjoying some good food and making new friends who can offer you perspectives you normally wouldn’t have access is hardly a loss.
But hey, I’m just an Irish-American whose grandparents fled imperialism and conflict to America after 800 years of misrule, occupation and displacement that only got better after another century of painful compromise and deeply-flawed deals and continuing, but vastly diminishing conflict…
Brian E. Frydenborg in an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News, only those of the author.
© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)