Something strange happened to the way I understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since I started teaching a group of students – Palestinians, Israelis and American Jews, as part of the Paths to Peace project headed by NYU Prof. Ronald Zweig. Unlike similar gatherings, which usually take place between elite students from both nationalities (who can afford to study overseas, and in any case have a cosmopolitan orientation), the students chosen for this project are those who excel academically, but who represent the socioeconomically average level of society.
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The first thing that stood out in class was that even though the Israelis and Palestinians live in a single apartment and are partners in the experience of their first encounter with the Big Apple, they divided up at the beginning of the course into two camps: The Israelis and the American Jews opposite the Palestinians.
It is not just the religious issue that played a role. As part of the “Israelization” of the Jews in the Diaspora – in other words, the fact that the attitude towards Israel, positive or negative, is the principle characterization of Jewish identity – the bridge between the Israelis and Jews is automatic. The absurd situation in which the Palestinians and Israelis cannot communicate between themselves in either of their native languages also contributes to the separation.
The class also exposed how the conflict leads to misunderstandings of the identities of those involved in it. Except for the political dispute, the Israelis and Palestinians discovered – to the amazed eyes of the American Jews, too – that they were a rather homogeneous group, starting with their manner of speech in English through their ways of thinking and views of life. Almost five decades of occupation may have created a conscious barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, but the forced integration has produced a joint identity too, which has yet to receive an explicit name, but actually outside of Israel the conflict is noticeable in how alike we are. A sort of Israeli-Palestinian identity.
As opposed to the term “Israeli Arabs,” and whose usage was forced on Israeli Arabs – who see themselves as Palestinians living in Israel – the Israeli-Palestinian identity was created on its own, and it has been exposed in the face of the Jewish-American identity in the background. This is true for the superficial layers of identity, such as musical, culinary and fashion tastes – though also for much deeper layers of identity: When the term “respect” comes up in class, it has one meaning in the eyes of Israelis and Palestinians, and another in the eyes of the Americans. The shared Middle Eastern dimension is so conspicuous that even the reports from Israel on Ehud Olmert’s entering prison could be understood for a moment as part of the influence of the new regional energy, which aims for regional reform.
The thought of the crystallization of a joint Israeli-Palestinian identity is different than the proposals of Sami Shalom Chetrit and others, who want to promote a Jewish-Arab identity. Such an identity, which from a historical perspective existed anyway, in a limited fashion, only in the pre-nationalist period, will collapse in the face of the extensive importance of Judaism, which has held on as a religion and ethnicity for thousands of years.
In comparison, the Israeli-Palestinian identity is a civil and cultural component, whose recognition does not threaten the fundamental identities, which both parties have the right to preserve, and so the Israeli-Palestinian identity would be easier to accept.
If we can formulate a concrete political conclusion from this, then nothing is worse for the peace option than the idea of separation proposed by Isaac Herzog. After all, if the generous division of the land has a future, it stems from the recognition that the principle obstacle, the fight for a separate cultural identity, fades away all on its own.