Peace, but Not Now

December 1, 2000
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Hephzibah Levine

The secretary laughed. “You want to study Ara-bic? Now?” The truth was I wasn’t sure I wanted to study Arabic anymore. Traveling to the Hebrew University campus involved taking busses, risking a suicide bombing. But more important, I had begun my study of Arabic before coming to Israel with utopian dreams of a “New Middle East,” one in which Israel would be integrated into a regional economy and cultural exchange between Israelis and Arabs would thrive. We would eat hummus and smoke nargila in Ramallah, Palestine. They would join us on the beaches of Tel Aviv.

But a few days was all it took to shatter that utopia. A few bullets shot from the Uzis of Palestinian police – established and armed by Israel during the optimistic period after Oslo – hit the spine of the Israeli left, leaving us in deep ideological crisis. The lynching in Ramallah brutalized not only two of our soldiers, but also the very concept of coexistence, the basic assumption on which Israeli peace activists rely: that most Palestinians want peace, too. At the funeral of one of the lynched soldiers, the brother stated that we cannot make peace, because lynching is animal behavior and peace can only be established with humans. A few weeks earlier, such a statement would have been smeared by the media as racist propaganda. Now – silence. The left’s great silence began. Where was the pro-peace party Meretz when thousands of angry settlers demonstrated on Succot outside the Prime Minister’s residence handing out “Kahane was Right” stickers and singing, “a day of happiness for Ishmael is a day of mourning for Israel” (and viceversa) to the tune of “David King of Israel”? The left was nowhere to be found.

Despite my hesitation, I decided to register for the Hebrew-Arabic Ulpan, where Israelis learn Arabic and Arabs learn Hebrew, and meet together to exchange some elementary dialogue. But the secretary informed me that the program, which ran through both the Gulf War and the Intifadah, was canceled until further notice. “The reason why is obvious,” she said. “No one registered.”

There is a sentiment in Israel that we have never – not once throughout our restless 52 years – been in such a situation, under such imminent threat.

I arrived in Israel in June after graduating from Brown University with a grant to establish a human rights education program for Israeli and Palestinian children in collaboration with Defense for Children International. I am an American-Israeli who grew up in the United States but returned to try out life in Israel. During the early days of violence, when it was unclear what we were heading into, I realized that I could leave like a tourist or stay like a resident.

Israel faces a tough dilemma. We could allow violence and the world’s opinion to scare us into unilateral compromises that our political peace process failed to establish, or we could say to the world: “We live here. This is our only home. We will do our part at the negotiating table, but we won’t give in to violence.”

A few weeks ago I would not have imagined taking such a “right wing” position. As a human rights activist, as an Israeli sensitive to the suffering of Palestinians and sympathetic to their wish for an independent state, I am deeply hurt by news of every Arab child wounded by our soldiers. I continue to oppose excessive use of violence by our military. But, in the final equation, when Israeli Arabs, who despite socioeconomic gaps enjoy full citizenship rights in Israel, join the Palestinian uprising in full force, like many Israelis I feel that we must do whatever it takes to protect ourselves.

Is this moral? The question is irrelevant, in my mind. Any student of history knows that morality is subjective, amorphous, hypocritical in the relations between states. Who is to tell Israel what’s “moral” – Europe with its blood-drenched history? The United States that “occupied” Mexican territories? Certainly Israel has committed crimes in its occupation. Certainly it has transcended the fine line between protecting state security and abusing human rights. But when Jews attack Israel for its current brutality, I believe these accusations become self-destructive. The “ethical” thing to do in this impossible situation may be to stand back and let the Jews become victims again so the world can pity us. This is exactly what Zionism fought against. Every state, including Israel, has the right to protect its citizens.

If we learn anything from our own history, aside from compassion for oppressed groups, it should be the harsh lesson of survival of the fittest. A Palestinian leader was recently quoted as saying, “We will win in the end because our willingness to die is greater than your willingness to kill.” The implied ‘compliment’ toward Israel’s higher morality does not console me. I take his words as a statement of intention, as a warning.

I have learned a few lessons from this historical moment:

  1. World Jews must be united in defending Israel. On today’s battlefield, the Palestinians have a clear advantage, not just because the world naturally favors the underdog but also because the Palestinians stand united for their cause, while we are torn. They enjoy the strength of desperation and absolute resolve we had in 1948 but lost.
  2. Education for peace must continue, even if the other side boycotts it (as it does). We must raise a new generation on mutual respect rather than hatred.
  3. Israel must maintain a strong stance in the face of violence but a willingness to compromise at the negotiating table. While we may be dragged into war, we cannot forget the time for peace. In this region torn between rationality and religion, tolerance and fundamentalism, pluralism and self-determination, history and modernity, hope and desperation, we know well that a few days can change our reality absolutely, in any direction.

My optimism has been completely depleted. While I have always believed that peace through coexistence would benefit all sides, I now feel sobered. There is no partner for peace at the moment, as the small Palestinian peace camp has been silenced. And yet, despite the situation, I still want to study Arabic. Hopefully others will register for the class as well.

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Hephzibah Levine, an American-Israeli, returned to Jerusalem this June after receiving a B.A. in International Relations from Brown University. She is currently working on peace education projects at the Truman Institute for the Study of Peace and Defense for Children International.

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