The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Silent Majority

“Hamas!” “You terrorists! You should be ashamed of yourselves!” These were some of the angry cries thrown at myself and the other black-clad women who stood silently in the rain, in the centre of Jerusalem, protesting against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The women surrounding me were not Palestinians, or even Arab Israelis. They were staunchly religious Israeli Jews, who believe that what their country does in their name is wrong; and have kept weekly silent vigils of protest against the occupation since 1988.

In the ongoing conflict it becomes all too easy to focus on the injustices experienced by one side, and view the other as a tyrannical monster. The mantra I kept hearing during my trip was “when both sides are ‘right,’ how can there be compromise?” Of course, the conflict is anything but black and white, and from a foreign perspective, the pot-holed roadmap to peace and its depressing history can leave little room for sympathy.

But what must not be forgotten is that there are voices on both sides desperately working for greater peace and understanding. Galia Golan of Peace Now, Israel’s oldest peace movement, says polls show “a vast majority of Israelis (80%) agree with the idea of a two-state solution, a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel, and are willing to see a withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.” However, this silent majority is often publicly undercut by the forceful opinions of the few who do not accept this: and often, the same citizens who are desperate for peace do not believe the ‘other side’ shares that goal.

To combat this, groups have sprung up attempting to bridge the gap between Palestinians and Israelis, and actively demonstrate that not all Israelis are silent collaborators in injustice, challenging their government in the courts and on the ground. For some, their strong Zionist beliefs motivate them to do so: a concept that may sound strange to us, but is better explained by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the director of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), who I met in Jerusalem, fresh from a days work harvesting olives alongside Palestinian farmers in the West Bank, protecting them from settlers.

“The way to be pro-Israel is to work for a better Israel, and the real Zionism is to work for an Israel that is not only physically strong but morally strong,” he said. “There is a false equation that if you voice any criticism of Israel you are de-legitimising Israel at some level. I believe the opposite.” Rabbi Ascherman’s words are bolstered by a lifetime of action on behalf of the Palestinian people by himself and other Israeli Rabbis, whose organisation has stood against government bulldozers intent on destroying Arab homes, challenging them with religious and international law alike, and facing arrest for doing so.

For me, the work that RHR and other organisations like theirs do is valuable on many levels. Visiting Bethlehem, a town that has been turned into a virtual prison by the encircling ‘security’ wall, I experienced the deep sense of isolation felt by those living there. The director of a Christian Arab school confided “When the wall went up, we didn’t hear from our partners in Israeli schools. It was like they’d forgotten we existed.’ One of the more insidious aspects of the Wall, the intifada and wars before its erection is the wedge it has driven between neighbours. Arab and Jewish populations are divided not only physically, but economically and emotionally, though decades of misunderstanding and conflict.

And this is why the presence of people like Rabbi Ascherman is so essential to give this area a shot at a lasting peace. Years ago, Arik was arrested when he ran to help a terrified 13 year old boy who had been tied to the front of a jeep by Israeli security forces as a human shield against stone throwers. He was beaten by the sergeant, and handcuffed to the jeep next to the boy, where he talked to him, reassuring him that everything would be ok. Later when the boy was asked about what had happened, he recounted the event, but finished: ‘…and then a tall Jewish man in a kippah came and saved me!’ It is this recognition of the humanity of the ‘others’, this common identification as people, not forces, that will provide the understanding needed for the foundations of peace.


Blogger urban cowboy said...

we don't hear this on the news. these are the stories that show there is hope, rather than just the slowing down a lost cause.

silly really.

8:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No blog for a month? Are you still there?

Andrew (C)

10:09 am  

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