Israel has been a very mind-opening experience. My first experience in Israel was being detained at the airport. It was a very shocking experience. Coming from America, I was aware and exposed to “random” security checks. But, my experience with Israeli security was mentally and emotionally overwhelming because it was unapologetic racial screening. I had never experienced that before, even though I have experienced American security checks. But American security is apologetic and technically not racially defined.
Another similar experience that played a huge role in my transition to society here was the security screening at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City. I was not comfortable with the security guards asking me about my religious, ethnic, and social backgrounds. I was asked to open my backpack and show what was inside. I was asked to show my passport once. But that wasn’t sufficient. So the security guard asked me to recite actual prayer lines. In my opinion, a place of worship should be open to all. Therefore, I don’t understand the purpose of this excessive nonsensical screening. But, maybe that is because I am more secular minded. Maybe it is just that this place is strongly defined and demarcated along religious/ethnic lines.
I also did not like how the mosque in Akko was only allowing Muslims to enter. I didn’t understand the charge of entry for non-Muslims into the place of worship. I thought Islam was about inclusiveness. But, maybe it was just because the place was fairly impoverished and the people just wanted another source of income.
The nationalist atmosphere is something that has greatly shocked and worried me. Nationalism, the idea of separate nations based on identity (whether religious or not), is a deadly and dangerous concept. Nationalism can unite people on very distant concepts. But, in the end, nationalism fails especially in the religious context. Pakistan is a perfect case study for the failure of religious nationalism.
Nationalism creates the image of the other in society who is almost always marginalized. The minority gets victimized in the end. And when minorities don’t get equal participation in state affairs, minorities gain deep resentment. This allows and fosters deep sentiments to solidify, which can be exploited by people with a mission.
Israel’s case of religious nationalism is in a sense failing because different ethnic groups are feeling more marginalized by society. Certain groups feel left out of state policy. These splits within society widen when certain groups are not treated equally. A prime example would be the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Jewish nationalism definitely played a significant role in the creation of the Israeli homeland. But, is this idea of a homeland viable? I don’t think any place that is found for a sole community will be successful. I believe that Israel’s insecurity on remaining a Jewish majority state is not justifiable. The state needs to adopt an open and inclusive agenda if it wants to prosper. It needs to understand that secularity is the best policy.
Nevertheless, I understand that it is very hard for a nation founded on the idea of a ‘refuge’ for a religious community to remain as a completely secular region. Following the Holocaust, the Jewish community was united by the religious identity of being a Jew. During the Holocaust, it had become a racial classification. But that racial classification is a weak and broad characterization. When the Jewish community got their homeland, splits within the Jewish community arose because it is not a homogenous community.
Following the Holocaust, I totally understand that the Jewish community wanted a secure, sovereign, and protective state. That is why Israel sounded like a necessary safe haven. It was even promised to the Jews in the Bible. When the community had been persecuted, the community’s focus was on its self-preservation and protection. Therefore, the community limited its world view on the Jewish population. The Jewish population focused on security and was united on the issue of security for its preservation on this earth.
But, how justifiable is this security obsession and threat for the occupation of Palestinian territory? They are humans as well and were on this land for generations. This land is as much theirs as it is for the Jews. Therefore, the two communities need to understand that this land belongs to both people. Palestinians are willing to make concessions for their own sovereign state or for their equal citizenship within the state of Israel. I believe that they just want the same protections that Jews are granted in the state of Israel.
When a community is greatly oppressed, “freedom fighters” rise up for their community. In the Holocaust museum, I saw a poster of a Jew who took up arms against the German treatment of Jews. To the player in power, such uprisings are seen as terrorist acts. In a similar way, Palestinians have risen up to claim their right to exist as equal citizens in the state of Israel. I am not supporting extremism, but it is necessary to understand the reasons behind such uprisings in order to resolve disputes.
The Holocaust was a horrible tragedy in human history. Hitler’s vision for Germany was being one reich or one realm for the superior Aryan race. He marginalized and victimized the entire Jewish community. Coming out of such a disaster, I believe that the Jewish community needs to understand that peace, discourse, understanding, and tolerance are utmost necessary for any civilization to prosper. Once a community that has been greatly victimized starts acting like the oppressor, a society or movement has failed.
I believe that the Jewish community needs to see and understand their inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people. Palestinians (whether Israeli citizens or not) have been greatly marginalized in the larger Israeli state. Israel needs to be more apologetic to the Palestinians that live in its land.
During the Holocaust, Jews were sent to ghettos in order to segregate the entire population. I saw a parallel between the treatment of Jews by Germany and the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. Palestinians were pushed out of their lands/homes in 1948. They were never given the right to return. As a result, Palestinian refugee camps formed. Also, Palestinian regions tend to be relatively impoverished. On the other hand, settlements in the West Bank are very well funded and look like actual developed cities.
There is an argument that justifies the existence of Israel by saying that the Palestinians did not own the land. The Palestinians were not the landholders during the Ottoman Empire. But, I find this statement as an outrageous and nonsensical argument. They had been on this land for generations, in the same way that Native Americans lived in the Americas. I find the idea of Manifest Destiny and the reasoning behind “civilizing” the Americas as exceptionally outrageous. The Americas were Native American land, even if the Europeans did not see it as legally their land. The Native Americans had a right to the land that they had been cultivating for generations. When Jews say that Palestinians did not own this land, then where is the Palestinian homeland? There are already Palestinian refuges in the West Bank. So where should they go?
I reaffirmed some of my preconceptions of Israeli ideologies. Nationalism exists behind basically all of the ideologies. All sides tend to believe that a state of Israel as a Jewish homeland deserves to exist and needs to exist. There are Left Zionists, who are unapologetic to Israeli acts and the existence of an Israeli state. But those Left Jewish nationalists want to end the Israeli occupation of West Bank and would probably prefer land swaps for Palestinians. On the other end, there are unapologetic rightist nationalists who are unapologetic for the occupation of Palestinian land. Their reasoning would be backed by either the security concerns of the Israeli state or by religious beliefs that this is their promised land.
Different groups within Israeli society have various backgrounds that play a role in their ideologies. For example, the Russian Jewish population comes from a socialist/communist background. Therefore, they arguably play a significant role in the question of land concessions. They already see Israel as a tiny homeland for the Jews. So they argue against why Israel should give into land concessions for the Palestinians. This 20% character of the Israeli state is a part of the reason why there is an unwillingness to make land concessions for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Palestine amazed me because I initially had the conception that all Palestinians don’t have actual residences and live in refugee camps. I was very impressed by the entrepreneurs in the region. For example, I was mind-blown by the image of Rawwabi, which is the first planned Palestinian city. I see a great Palestinian future with people like Bashar Al-Masri. I particularly liked how he said that Rawwabi will prosper as a city regardless of whether Palestine forms or they remain in the larger Israeli state. I was also amazed by the fact that the housing will be very affordable. It is great to see that Palestinians are trying to better and progress their position in society.
I was shocked by the image of Hebron. It was a very saddening experience. Seeing how H1 was essentially cleared of its Muslim presence was heart touching. Seeing how Israel encroached into the West Bank (which should be Palestinian land), I understood the injustices of the state. It was very hard hearing about how the settlers treated their Arab neighbors. Then in retaliation to the intifada, the army came in to H1 and occupied the area. Therefore, the majority of Arabs had to flee. The ones that stayed back were very impoverished so they weren’t able to move. Hebron is still a majority Palestinian city in the West Bank. But since the city plays a huge role in the religious identity of Jews, Israel allowed settlers to settle in H1. Also, many restrictions have been placed on the Palestinians of Hebron, such as not being able to drive inside the city. Is this really justifiable for a potential security threat?
But I do understand the Jewish perspective on the issue. When rockets were hitting Tel Aviv during the intifada, Israelis didn’t see the Palestinians as acting rationally. Rockets had been normalized in society as a daily occurrence. Such occurrences really affect society. The people being attacked tend to feel victimized and see the other group as the enemy. The newer generations of Israelis are becoming more radicalized because their perception of Palestinians is biased on recent occurrences, i.e. being attacked with rockets. And when the state education only displays one side of the narrative, the Israeli public feels like it has been vicitimized and continues to be victimized.
The security barrier or apartheid wall is another case of controversy. The border is said to be between Israel and Palestine. In the Holocaust Museum, I heard about a wall that had been drawn within Poland during the Holocaust. The tour guide specifically pointed out that the wall was not the same as this Israeli security barrier. The Nazi drawn border separated Poles from Poles [on religious lines]. She had said that the barrier in Israel separates Israeli from Palestinian [on ethnic and religious lines]. However, pockets of Arabs and Jews live on the other side of the barrier. And the border actually includes a small part of Palestine. So it could be seen as a border that separates Palestinians in the West Bank from Palestinians in Israel.
I couldn’t believe that there have been attempts to segregate buses. The railway delineating East and West Jerusalem is another case of controversy. Arabs have started to boycott the train. The invisible barrier between Jews and Palestinians was very sad. Not only was there a line between Jerusalem, but Palestinians and Jews tend to live in segregated communities. Even in the Old City, Palestinians and Jews would walk next to each other. But, I would rarely see them converse with each other. I would only see shopkeepers trying to attract different groups to their shops.
Being exposed to both sides has been very enlightening for me. I understand that neither side is innocent. It is hard to find the truth when both sides have deep resentment against the other. This sense of victimization is real and plays a huge role in relations and politics.
The Israeli emphasis on security has been very mind opening. I feel like it is an excessive fear. When Palestinians are only exposed to the security officer or settler, then they will develop a biased perspective over the overwhelming Jewish population. This probably adds to their conception of the oppressive, occupying, and unapologetic Jew.
I believe that secularism is the best state policy. Religion needs to be privatized from society. Religion and politics can not and should not mix. For example, India has been regressing because it has been moving towards religious nationalism, away from being founded as a secular state. When religion is mixed with society, there is a polarization between the religious group in power and the other groups. Minorities are always more willing to compromise with the majority power than the ruling power is.
Both Israelis and Palestinians feel like the other side victimizes them. Israel’s agenda is focused on security, while Palestinian agenda is focused on the right to return and equal civilian rights. Relations between the two sides have been deteriorating. It has gone to the extent that no compromises seem possible in the near future. The two groups have been polarized in two very different directions. They see their interests as distinct. They have separate parties. Stereotypes of the other exist on both sides. And they don’t have or facilitate open dialogue. Third parties have actually been brought in to facilitate the treaty-making process (for example America). This case seems exactly like the case during India’s partition. Both sides were very uncompromising and felt that the other side victimized the other. Partition may have become inevitable in the end. I see that there are two options for resolving this conflict: by either giving Palestinians equal citizenship in the state of Israel or the creation of two separate states. Although, I really dislike the idea and image of two separate states, I feel like there is no better resolution.
Akber Sheikh is a member of the 2015 Ibrahim cohort.