Aziz Abu Sarah: Both sides see the opposite as "the other," creating bitterness and tension that erupts in unnecessary violence
Abu Sarah: Love, peace, and a commitment to nonviolence is the only way to "break the cycle of violence"
Editor’s Note: Aziz Abu Sarah works in Israel and Palestine and is the co-executive director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. He is a founding team member of I AM YOUR PROTECTOR, a community of people who are each other’s protectors across differences in religion, ethnicity, gender and beliefs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Almost always the news makes violence in Israel seem worse than the reality. This time the opposite is true, and the rage and fear go deeper than what the news cameras can capture. The problem is that dueling narratives are bringing out knives, and beliefs are causing bullets to fly.
Both sides are literally experiencing different realities, they each see the “other” as a monolithic bloc that is bent on doing them harm. And they have a list of events they use to justify their narrative. For Palestinians, they are the Al-Aqsa Mosque clashes and the growing settlements; for Israelis, the stabbing attacks and memories of suicide bombings.
While political solutions grow ever more complicated, the roots of violence and hatred can be addressed.
My childhood as a 10-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem was shattered when my brother died. He had been arrested for throwing stones during the Intifada and was later released from prison, where he had been mistreated. I was so bitter and angry all I could think about was revenge. As a teen, I spread the narratives of hate.
I even refused to learn Hebrew, the “language of the enemy.” But as I grew up I needed a job and needed Hebrew to get one. The only way to quickly acquire the Hebrew I needed was to join one of the Ulpan Hebrew immersion courses given to new Jewish immigrants to Israel. I would be with Israelis! New immigrants, but Israelis, nonetheless.
I was genuinely shocked to find they had their own narrative fueling them. Many had come from countries where being Jewish led to trauma for their families similar to what my own family had gone through. To them Israel was a last chance for safety. And they saw Arabs as a threat to their safety. That was a transformative realization for me.
After developing deep friendships and truly understanding that both my Palestinian friends and Israeli friends were coming from dueling narratives, I dedicated my life to helping others see beyond their own stories so we can find common ground.
Last week my nephew was attacked by Jewish extremists. They justified the attack on him because of the recent Palestinian attacks. He was moderately hurt. But because he grew up knowing Israelis and having many of them as friends, his immediate response was, “I don’t hate Jews, not a single one of them. I will resist occupation only in the ways of love and peace.” He is operating out of a completely different narrative. This is how we break the cycle of violence.
I’ve worked with bereaved families on both sides, founded a tour company that brings people to the region who want to experience a more nuanced understanding free of misperceptions in either direction, and am now in the process of bringing hard-won lessons from Israel and Palestine to the United States and Europe through the project I AM YOUR PROTECTOR. We hope the hard-won lessons that have given peace to some in Israel will help soothe racial and ethnic tensions abroad.
But as I watch my homeland spiral into violence, I cannot help but think the wrong solutions are being put forward. Prime Minister Netanyahu has put up metal detectors throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, but that is doomed to failure. You can set up all the metal detectors in the world, but if people are carrying the fear of “the other” in their hearts, no one will be safe for long.