Somewhere on A1A...

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Coffee with the enemy

Sarah Shapiro tells the story of a brief encounter with three Arab women in a Jerusalem cafe. These three Arab women, free to enter a cafe in Israel without fear of death, free to enjoy a cup of coffee in peace, yet the don't want to hear the other side of the story.

The three Arab women are glad to point out the hassle at the checkpoints, and to repeat the lies from their TV and newspapers. They still talk about the Jenin massacre, and how Israeli’s are killing their children, but the irony is completely missed. Sarah tells them:

If the terrorism would stop, Israelis would build a normal life together with you. It’s part of the Jewish character to want to make peace. We accept your presence here, and if you would accept ours” — here I take a cue from the taxi driver — “there’d be room enough for everyone in this beautiful little country. Look, you know very well what can happen if a Jew goes to one of your neighborhoods.” She peers at me with an expression I can’t quite identify — a mix of amused interest and reluctant agreement. “But you come here for lunch and know that nobody’s going to hurt you. Right?”

A little smile’s playing on her lips. “Yes. This is true.”
They don’t really want to see the other side of the story, and likely have never even considered it.

Israeli’s are hampered by their conscience, by their desire for justice and fairness. The Jews are almost obsessed with understanding and improving their lives while helping others. The Jewish need of self-criticism, both as individuals and as a nation, means constant questioning and evaluation of issues from every side in their efforts at making the world a little bit better. Debate is not only welcomed, it’s expected, it’s a part of the Jewish identity.

Every opinion has value in the Jewish tradition. (even though mine is right and yours is wrong.) When mistakes are made they are admitted, punished when necessary, and efforts are made to keep the mistake from happening again. There is a strong and sincere desire to make the world a better place. Questions, discussion, argument, debate, and self-criticism are at the essence of the Jewish character. The Arab side has no such mechanisms, no need to seek truth and Justice.

The Arab side seems content to believe what the TV and newspaper tells them. There is no free press to present different opinions and as Sarah’s conversation illustrates, there is not even any acknowledgement of the possibility of another view. These women, who were free to enjoy a cup of coffee in Israel, probably can’t notice the reality of the situation because they have never considered the possibility that what they know might be wrong.

With no tradition of open debate no tradition of questioning authority, and a strong tradition of looking to authority figures to take care of them, the Arabs seem remarkably united. That illusion is extremely harmful to well-intentioned people who impute the Arabs with Western values. Conversely the diversity of the Israeli debate is taken as a sign of weakness and uncertainty.

The chimera of Arab unity will always have the advantage over the Israeli need for analysis and debate and the Jewish desire for peace and justice. A real peace is extremely unlikely unless it is imposed upon the Arabs, or unless the Arabs develop the ability for open debate and self-criticism. As long as the Arabs remain incapable of admitting their own mistakes, and as long as they are incapable of facing their responsibilities, nothing will change.

Putting pressure on Israel to make concessions is exactly the wrong thing to be doing. It only makes matters worse. We should not reward Arab obstinacy. It only encourages them to be even more obstinate.


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