Siege mentality leads to self-inflicted isolation

An enlightened swap of ideas between factions from the Middle East and North has lost its gleam to rigid mindsets in the IRISH TIMES JUNE 29 2010

DAVID HAD just finished his three years of military service in the Israeli army when we first met about 10 years ago at a reconciliation centre on the Falls Road in west Belfast. A European Union youth programme had gathered 30 young Israeli, Palestinian and Irish people in their early 20s for a residential conference on peace.

It was an emotionally raw week. When David finished introducing himself to the group, Ahmed told us that he was Palestinian, living in Ramallah and had recently been released from an Israeli jail. He said this directly looking at David, from Jerusalem, the neighbouring town. David probably knew the soldiers who manned the contentious Qalandia checkpoint, the only exit from Ramallah into Jerusalem that had made Ahmed’s life so difficult.

After that taut exchange, it was then my turn to say something about myself. In the intimidating silence and feeling very awkward and on the spot, the only thing I could come up with was that I was from the Wicklow/Carlow border and that goat’s cheese made me pass wind.

It was probably the most inappropriate and insensitive thing to say after a hostile unspoken exchange between two young men diametrically opposed to one another. Both of them had personally witnessed immense violent trauma. But because they both laughed, the group did too. For the rest of that week David, Ahmed and the group bonded together by trading in black humour. It became a language of its own with invented phrases which united those who spoke it. And in this world that we conceived for ourselves we forgot about many things and remembered that we were the same age.

When the conference was over, we rented cars and stayed in the hostels dotted on the north Antrim coastline. Then we decided to go to my home. The Jews and Muslims enjoyed the mischief of asking my reticent Catholic and Protestant neighbours in our pub to explain the distinctions between their religious beliefs.

David asked me to be his chief witness at his wedding a couple of years ago and this was the story I told about our first encounter during the “best man” speech.

Most of those Israelis and Palestinians are now in their early 30s. Some are elected political representatives and others are employed as ministerial advisers and apparatchiks in political parties and civic society organisations across the region. Many in that group never met again after leaving Ireland, despite living only a few miles apart. The friendships went underground and, for a limited time, were nourished through e-mail contact.

I still have the photograph somewhere of when we all linked arms and pointed, in tears of falling-down laughter, to the corrugated sign on my family’s hayshed. Who would have thought that the simple notice stating “erected by JM Murphy” could excite so thoroughly. Apparently, the Arabic and Hebrew languages both share a narrow understanding of the verb “erect” and this therefore evokes a hysterical response by native speakers.

But David does not laugh as much anymore.

Our Skype conversations usually begin with chats on the struggles of the recession, how our families are doing, what work is like and updates on the group.

“But how do you change the mindset of a country?” he asked during the week in a very resigned tone.

He talked about life in Israel as a young Israeli. The suffocating siege mentality that he sees all around him. The slide towards a country’s self-inflicted isolation. The narrowing of perspective. The insecurity, vulnerability and fear. The frustration of living with the results of other people’s thinking.

Peter Beinart wrote about this in the June edition of the New York Review of Books . In a piece called “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, he outlines how voices from Israel’s left and centre “warn in increasingly urgent tones about threats to Israeli democracy” when the state perpetrates acts contrary to the moral and intellectual values expected and assumed of a liberal democracy.

Sometimes David talks about that time in Ireland when we laughed about silly things with people who had lived such serious lives by their 21st birthdays.

He says it’s getting harder all the time for moderates to sit in the centre. He sees how extremism breeds extremism. David’s entire professional life has been dedicated to reconciliation and his voice has access to the ears of those with the power to transform public opinion.

But his tone is weary and disillusioned in the absence of any answer to his question.

I told him about the power of what had happened in Derry recently. This cathartic healing process and the righting of a terrible wrong.

I sent him an e-mail package of links to David Cameron’s unambiguous speech, the RTÉ news clip which showed the spontaneous applause in Guildhall Square and the commentary by Denis Bradley, Eamon McCann and others.

“How many were killed and how long did it take?” he asked.

“Fourteen people and 38 years,” I replied.

“That’s something, I suppose,” he said. There was no trace of black humour.

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