In mid-June I visited Israel for a week, spending one day of that time in Palestine. A year ago I visited Berlin for a week and on returning home sent some notes of the visit. Writing about Israel-Palestine is different. Berlin is a loaded topic, but in writing I felt no burden that I was speaking to how people would assess a conflict: who are the good guys, how bad are conditions there, should the reader really be worried or relaxed, are things getting better or worse?
I think of myself as a very minor participant in the conflict – whether as teacher, scholar, or activist. So the first thing to report is that peaceniks I met with, Jewish and Palestinian, some of them well known and politically active for decades, also feel “very minor,” indeed rather irrelevant. The conflict runs its course with no impact from them. Still, they go to anti-occupation demonstrations, formulate Arab- Jewish projects, and speculate about what the EU or Obama or someone will do. Meanwhile, the people I met with (and never lose sight of the hyper-selective nature of my “data base”) live what can only be called a good life: travel, eat in nice restaurants, have exciting ambitions. Even the self-described pessimists are buoyant in their pessimism.
That this is true among the Israelis is news available from many sources. There are construction cranes everywhere (well, everywhere in Tel Aviv), the restaurants and coffee shops are overflowing (my daughter who lives there complained that she couldn’t get a reservation at one place two weeks in advance), and the quality of cooking is very high. The annual Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv drew, it was said, over 100,000 people from Israel and elsewhere (who knows how many were gay participants, how many out to watch the fun; I was there.), and this in a country with a politically powerful, proudly intolerant, rightwing religious population. There is also an annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem; this generates more friction. The Tel Aviv government put up flags to celebrate the parade, and the police did a great job of traffic control. It ended with a huge party on the beach.
Ramallah is a city in Palestine. (Calling it Palestine is a politically hot move, as is every alternative. It can also be called Sameria and Judea, the occupied territories, or the West Bank, each generating its own conflict depending on the company you are keeping.) Here there are also good restaurants and cranes, but many fewer. Coffee shops and markets are colorful and overflowing. Palestinians are creating their own institutions. I was told of a lively, successful program for inducing students from fourth grade on up to go into science and technology, using the predictable range of encouragements including a robot competition. The art of navigating the Israeli bureaucracy, the press of the Israeli army and the widely discussed corruption of Palestinian government are essential skills for success.
There are checkpoints staffed by young Israeli Jews, though there are fewer than five years ago. The most dramatic are those that decide who can enter Israel from Palestine; these are often slow, sometimes involve standing in the heat in long lines, fenced in single file by iron-bars. The image of cattle is hard to ignore. Palestinians can leave Palestine into Jordan more easily, though also with some difficulty. If they enter or leave the region via Ben Gurion Airport they run the substantial risk of being taken out of line, questioned, searched (sometimes intimately), and delayed, perhaps missing their plane.
Israeli peaceniks and Palestinians tell many stories about the horrors of the occupation, and even in a region, and a conflict, not famous for meticulous truth telling, there is no reason to doubt their essential accuracy. I met with several Palestinian scholars of great professional accomplishment (many publications in world class academic journals, appointments at prestigious overseas universities) who have not received appointments to Israeli universities. It was said (often, but who knows?) that 1.4% of Israeli university faculty are Palestinians. Bitterness is sometimes on the surface, sometimes integrated with professional talk, sometimes invisible.
Of course everyone talks about the peace process, all despondently: disappointment with Obama/Kerry, fury at Netanyahu, resignation about Abbas. All governments are seen as weak, self absorbed, stuck. Each population lives in its own definition of a bubble. Optimism survives on what I am now calling the meteor-theory: something will come from the sky and change everything. If these peaceniks weren’t so militantly secular I would be very suspicious.
Netanyahu’s alleged weakness and incompetence notwithstanding, my impression is that his government’s twin policies are working: (a) allow just enough economic development to give Palestinians the sense that in an uprising they would have a lot to lose, while (b) making things grim enough to encourage many to leave. (And (c), invest heavily in “intelligence gathering” among the Palestinians.) One story says that 300 doctors and “many young people” have emigrated in the last ten years. How long can 375,000 Jewish settlers and an unknown number of soldiers control 2.5 million Palestinians in Palestine? No one knows. Peaceniks wonder about potential Palestinian uprisings, non-violent resistance, and whether “the world will continue to allow it.” I have my own meteors.
The disappearance recently of three young Orthodox Jewish settlers was a major topic of discussion, but the peaceniks didn’t know what to make of it. Only Netanyahu had a clear focus: he blamed Fatah, Hamas, and by inference the West. I like the view that since Netanyahu is the only beneficiary of the disappearance, he must be the one who did it. I liked this theory in part because I made it up.
Time to come home.