Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Middle East: 'The faces of 104 Arab prisoners released by Israel look like mine'

by Uri Rosenzweig

Tekoa, Gush Etzion – Many Israelis were outraged Sunday by the government's decision to release 104 Palestinian and Arab-Israeli prisoners as a gesture of good will before peace talks begin again.

As a farmer in the West Bank filing through the names of the 104 prisoners, I quickly noticed that quite a few of the soon-to-be-freed men were incarcerated for murdering their long time agricultural employers. Agriculture is unique from many other fields, generating intense feelings of camaraderie formed through mutual hard work. The relationships built between Israeli farmers and their employees often go much deeper than employer-employee.

I share as many meals with my Palestinian co-workers as I do my wife. We've eaten each other's birthday cakes, taught one another about prayer and ran together for cover as sirens rang and rockets fell during Operation Pillar of Defense in November of last year.

While reading the inmates' charges, I realised that terror is not always anonymous; its face can be a person you trust and consider to be your friend. It can be the face of someone real, who looks a lot like you.

In 1962, Bob Dylan wrote one of his most beautiful and painful protest songs called John Brown. He tells the story of an American youngster and his delighted mother who was gleaming with pride as her son went off to fight in Vietnam. When he returns — badly wounded — he retells his battle story to his now embarrassed mother:

“And I thought when I was there, ‘Lord, what am I doing here?
Tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin'.
But the thing that scared me most, when my enemy came close,
I saw that his face looked just like mine.”

One of my underlying beliefs, one that is challenged daily while living in the West Bank, is that human interaction, even at the most basic level, can bring peace.

But when a cautious mother squeezes her child’s hand a little tighter while passing a Palestinian shopper at a supermarket, or when a Palestinian contractor who has been working in a Jewish settlement for 20 years is chaperoned by an armed Israeli, I am forced to question that belief. Nevertheless, like the soldier in Dylan’s song, even through the deafening sounds of war our enmity is challenged by our shared humanity as we encounter one another in our daily lives.

The shocking realisation that "his face looked just like mine" is one that few Israelis or Palestinians have experienced, or if they have, masks of fear covered it long ago.

This morning I sat down as usual to drink a cup of coffee with one of my Palestinian co-workers. I searched for the tangible fear one might expect I would feel given the news I had read the day before. But I didn’t find it.

I recalled the time he invited me to visit his home, but advised me to take off my yarmulke before entering his village. It was clear that we both recognised the security risks taken by pushing the boundaries of our respective communities, yet the priority of building our friendship enabled us to overcome our fears. And when there is mutual trust, there is hope.

We cannot let our painful history alone define how we see each other today. We must always be willing to see with new eyes, to build and grow together even when terror sometimes has a familiar face. It is imperative for Israelis and Palestinians to seek forms of interaction that can create and nurture feelings of trust and amity, because peace is a social process not a political decision.

Unfortunately, this process is often slowed down by our own emotional checkpoints, but we must look beyond these if we hope to write our future differently than our past.

Israel boasts of its ingenuity in developing some of the most cutting edge advancements in the modern world, yet it seemingly lacks the creativity to advance one of the most basic principles of civilisation: neighbourly interaction. Developing new ways for Israeli citizens to interact with our neighbouring nation must be a new "startup" for Israel to invest in.

A Hasidic Master, a scholar of Jewish texts in Hasidic tradition, once said that he preferred to be a fool who believed everything than a cynic who believed nothing, not even the truth. When the other options are another violent war or the continuation of the status quo, I too prefer to be a fool who takes a risk for trust and goodwill, than a cynic who never takes a risk and will never live in peace.

* Uri Rosenzweig immigrated to Israel from Chicago at the age of 17. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces and completing a B.A. at Bar Ilan University, he became the Head Grower at an agricultural company in the West Bank. He lives in the settlement of Tekoa with his wife, Debbie. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 July 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.