Conflict and narrative

It's being painted in small, nervous brushstrokes now, but if the 3,000 or so people in attendance at the Combatants for Peace Memorial Day ceremony are any indication, it seems there is a new complicated narrative being written.

26 April 2013

Consider the desert cactus. It grows where little else can. Its fruit, (the prickly pear) in Hebrew, the sabra, is a common self-identifying metaphor for Israelis: rough and thick-skinned (and prickly) on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. Consider that the sabra is the fruit of the same cactus which is used as a perimeter for Palestinian olive groves. Consider the olive, for that matter, in whose oil David was annointed and whose leaves and branches have become synonymous with peace in both cultures. Consider now a group called Olives for Peace, who use olive growing and oil production as an avenue to bridge gaps between Israeli and Palestinian olive oil production. Or the Good Neighbors Water Project, who use the shared need for water as their avenue for developing projects that foster and depend on cooperation. But that's just one way of constructing a narrative.

Another way, the one of separatist antagonism, focused on identity, takes for its starting point an opposition to they-who-are-not-us. The problem with this method of constructing narratives about enemies is it has a habit of making abstractions out of human beings: a person with a name and a family is reduced to that broad, static category of ‘enemy’. 65 years is a long time for conversations like this to go on. The symmetry of mistrust and mirror images is tragic in the very classic sense: it justifies racist paranoia in the name of ‘personal security’, violence in the name of ‘defense’, and separatism in the name of ‘coexistence’. The status quo is becoming fundamentalist. It is, as Howard Zinn might have said, a moving train.

There is, of course, the contradiction of living overlapping lives while using separatist language, and when the language of separatism becomes inescapable, the counter-current becomes inevitable. But the truth is, I think, that despite all this there have been stories of interdependence all along. Autonomy is proving a difficult, stubborn fallacy. Israel declares itself a Jewish state while touting its religious minorities for diversity. There's the older Jewish man who became eyes on the streets, watching out for the safety of Palestinian children. There are the former violent activists who boldly put down their weapons to hear stories of their now-former oppositions: their own mirror images. This is another way to construct a narrative.

"We, Palestinians and Israelis, are as if we are in a boat in the middle of the sea. So we have the responsibility to protect this boat, to reach the beach. And we cannot reach this beach by hating each other, by killing each other. We can reach this beach if we feel deeply our humanity, if we believe that we have to live together and we both have the same right to be alive."

- Mustafa Shawkat Samha, a Palestinian activist speaking to the author and activist Maxine Kaufman Lacusta (as quoted in her book Refusing to be Enemies.)

It's being painted in small, nervous brushstrokes now, but if the 3,000 or so people in attendance at the Combatants for Peace Memorial Day ceremony are any indication, it seems there is a new complicated narrative being written, appearing like sweet prickly pears on the cactus.

It was April 14 at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds when thousands of Israelis and some 44 Palestinians converged at Combatants for Peace's 8th annual 'alternative' ceremony, larger than its predecessors. Combatants for Peace are the bereaved family members and former violent opponents who choose to instead construct dialogue, otherwise blocked off by restricted freedoms of movement between the West Bank and Israel-proper. In fact, 65 Palestinian members and activists were denied entry into Israel to take part in this particular experiment in building a collective imagination. I'll admit, sometimes it seems like the separatists might be winning. But I won't soon forget the courage we saw on April 14, which somehow seems more powerful.

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