Diversity without adversity

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can Israelis and Palestinians learn something about building bridges between divided communities from the Egyptian revolution?

Wednesday 22 June 2011

It was not a good start to 2011. The massive explosion during midnight mass that tore through the al-Qidiseen church in Alexandria, killing 21 worshippers and injuring dozens, marked a turn for the worse in the situation surrounding Egypt’s Coptic minority.

However, my despair was replaced with measured hope when a massive solidarity campaign was born online soon after the attacks and quickly spread to the real world. Drawing on an old symbol of national unity, many even changed their Facebook profile pictures to the crescent and cross banner of the 1919 revolution.

I recently moved to Jerusalem and the question, “Can Israelis and Palestinians draw lessons about building bridges between divided communities from the Egyptian experience?” is one that I have pondered, despite the fact that the divisions here are much starker and more bitter than in Egypt.

In Egypt, the virtual solidarity and activism between Muslims and Copts kick-started an even more impressive real-world equivalent when thousands of Muslims volunteered to form human shields around churches to protect worshippers celebrating the Coptic Christmas on the eve of 6-7 January, under the slogan: “We either live together or we die together.”

This was a small foretaste of the rebirth of national unity that would accompany the Egyptian revolution later that same month during which tens of millions of Muslims and Christians stood shoulder to shoulder to brave the wrath and brutality of the dying monstrosity of the Mubarak regime.

Although Egypt is not yet out of the woods in terms of intercommunal relations, as demonstrated by the recent burning down of a Cairo church and the clashes it provoked, I and many other Egyptians are hopeful that a more democratic Egypt will be a better Egypt, for all Egyptians.

By contrast, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, although people on both sides may live in close physical proximity to one another, there is very little contact between them, at least of the positive variety. This situation creates, reinforces and perpetuates the mutual fear and distrust which fuel the conflict.

Deprived of venues where they could meet physically and agitate for change, Arab youth, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, used the power of social media to meet virtually before taking their actions to the streets. Likewise, new technologies offer a virtual and non-threatening world in which to meet, and are being used accordingly by some young Palestinians and Israelis (albeit on a small scale so far), where they can discover common causes and even organise for collective action.

On a personal level, I have experienced the potential of new technologies to bridge divides. Before I visited here, Israelis and Palestinians I met online helped deepen my understanding of the essential human aspect of the conflict.

But despite the unprecedented reach of today’s communication technologies, nothing beats direct human contact, as I learnt during my first visit to Jerusalem in 2007.

Older people recall a time, despite some tensions, when national identities had not yet hardened and when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side as friends and neighbours, as two octogenarians – a Palestinian and an Israeli – I met recounted.

The Israeli is a member of what is known as the ‘pioneer’ generation of left-wing kibbutzniks. He remembers the cordial ties his kibbutz enjoyed with the local Palestinian community and, as a teacher, he has taught thousands of Jewish and Arab children over the years.

The Palestinian, a sharp and lucid great-grandmother from a prominent Jerusalem family, reminisces fondly of a time in her former home in what is now Jewish West Jerusalem when they counted Jews not only as neighbours but also as good family friends.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have their own proud history of successful integration to draw upon.

For centuries, Palestine was a small land where a broad array of different religious and ethnic communities – Arabs, Jews, Turks, Europeans, Armenians, Persians, Assyrians and even Africans – lived together in relative tolerance, amid a dominant Islamic culture.

Long before Zionism ever reached Palestine, its status as the Holy Land attracted – with the encouragement of the Ottomans and some earlier rulers – Muslim, Christian and Jewish migrants of all stripes and colours into its melting pot of myriad sects and communities.

Israel has also been successful, despite the dominance of Ashkenazi culture, in integrating Jews from around the globe, as well as granting Palestinian Israelis equal legal and civil rights, at least in theory.

It is only one short logical step, albeit one giant leap of faith, to extend Palestinian and Israeli traditions of acceptance to the other side in this bitter conflict.

Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs should dare to gaze across ”enemy lines”, both online and, more importantly, in the real world and look towards an alternative future in which everyone living on this land can do so in dignity, equality and freedom.

This article was written for The Common Ground News Service. It was originally published on 21 June 2011.

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