Imagine Peace and Work for It

“You have to start somewhere”, she told me.

She was a veteran female mediator whom I met in a national dialogue conference in Helsinki, organized by the Finnish Foreign Ministry, in November 2015. We were having our breakfast early in the morning before the sessions began when she started sharing her mediation experiences in conflict zones with me. I listened while she persistently kept repeating that sentence.

“You have to start somewhere.”

In the midst of darkness, when hope is an illusion, when hate is the message, when politicians are cynical, interested only in their own survival, you need to start somewhere. Pick a point and start digging to build that common future you are dreaming of. Bullets won’t lead to peace. Hatred won’t build a common future. Seek that spark of humanity that we all share.

I recalled her sentence when reading your book, dear Yossi. It materialized in front of me with your words resounding in my soul. You too are dreaming of that common future.

I bet you were told “you are wasting your time, chasing delusional dreams”. I bet you were told “all is futile; this region is hopeless, intent on destroying itself in self-destructive suicidal cycles of mayhem”. I bet friends and foes criticized you. “They hate us; why even try?”.

I was told the same when I decided to travel to Israel in 2017 and wrote a series in Arabic about it. “Traitor”, some said. “Selling out to the enemy”, said others. “I used to respect you; now I don’t”, one said. And she meant it.  I kept silent and continued to write the articles. Let the storm wither. By the end of the series, the shouts were mute. I was not selling out. I was just seeking a way out. Sometimes, you have to take the stones thrown at you in order to chart that new road for a better future. And the beginnings, just like the endings, are always difficult.

Dear Yossi, I do not hate. I see an Israeli and/or an individual of Jewish faith and see the human in him and her. I do not question Israel’s rights to existence. Full stop. I see the two sides of the conflict and know that the narrators tell history differently. We talk about the Palestinian refugees and neglect to mention the 850,000 Mizrahi Jews who came to Israel in the State’s early years, many of whom were forced to leave their homes in the MENA region after Israel’s creation. I do not underestimate the fear and lack of trust you mentioned in your book. I know it’s genuine. I know it is based on a real foundation. Hatred of Israel and Jews in general is ingrained into our conscience in the MENA region.

Your book carries the title Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor. I am not a Palestinian. You know that and I do not pretend to speak for Palestinians. They can speak for themselves as some already have. I cannot even start to imagine how they feel, humiliated under occupation as settlements encroach on their land, farms and livelihoods; stuck between competing factions, corrupt officials, impotent authority and extremist groups. Their Arab neighbors, who pretend to be on their side, use their cause to mobilize hate and anger – a scapegoat for their own failure. But try to be a Palestinian and travel to the region, live in it. You will know what it means to live in exile; to be homeless and humiliated. Their pain is real. Their suffering is a fact. I cannot ignore it, put it aside and say, “let us move forward without resolving this conflict.” It has to be resolved.

Dear Yossi. There was a time when I was tired of this conflict. Tired to such an extent that I once said to a good friend, “let them destroy themselves. I do not care”. This was the language of frustration, disappointment and despair.

You see, when the official public ceremony of the Oslo agreement was held in Washington DC in September 1993, I was there at the time on a Fulbright scholarship. My first Jewish friend, Peruvian Sylvia, and I participated in a symbolic ceremony organized by the International Student House where we were living. She and I shared a piece of bread, dividing and eating it. It’s strange how bread possesses such a powerful meaning. 

In Egypt there is a saying which could be translated as follows, “we shared bread and salt”, meaning that we shared a bond that is stronger than friendship. Sharing that piece of bread with her meant just that for me and I think it was the same for her. Over time, we became disappointed and then disillusioned with the peace process. Yet, that piece of bread still holds us together. I carried for decades the key chain she gave me for my birthday with the simple sentence inscribed on it “there is nothing like a close friend”.

Dear Yossi, I said I was not a Palestinian. My roots are in Yemen and Egypt, and Switzerland is my home of choice. I love them all.

In Israel many thought I was Israeli and talked to me in Hebrew – maybe because I look like many Israeli Mizrahi Jews, especially Yemenis. You mentioned these Jews in your book. I was touched by how they kept and celebrated their Yemeni folklore songs, cuisine, and delicate jewellery alive. Yemen was not kind to them, as history books can tell you, and nor was Israel’s Ashkenazi political establishment when they first arrived after 1948. But they do not seem to care. They succeeded in establishing themselves as an integral part of Israeli society, vibrant and proud. No one questions their right to be there. I wish I could say the same about Israeli Arabs. Their situation is a real test to Israel’s democracy.

I told you I did not question Israel’s right to existence. It is here to stay and in fact, I want it to stay. But I want it to stay as a secular democratic state without occupying Palestinian territory. Our region is losing its diversity. Just as the Mizrahi Jews disappeared from Arab States so too are the Christians and other minorities. We live in an age in which extremism has the loudest voice – one that insists on uniformity in religion and identity. Citizenship is but a farce. Sadly, Israel is moving in our direction with its 2018 Nation State Law.

You mentioned the role of religion in your book and I think this is the main issue that our region must deal with. We need a form of separation of state and religion in our countries that allows equal citizenship, both legally and in reality. Isn’t it strange that no country in the region allows for civil marriage within its own borders? Only Israel and Lebanon accept civil marriages conducted outside their borders. It tells you something about the type of challenges that still lay ahead of us.

There is much to do, dear Yossi, much to transform and change. But we have to start somewhere. I suggest we start with a leap of faith, a trust in our shared humanity. Let us dare to dream and imagine what our shared future should look like. The irony of the current situation is that the status quo is a recipe for disaster. Our future has become so intertwined. We live or die together. Let us choose to live together. Let us be the light that charts that road less travelled.

Elham Manea

PD. Dr. Elham Manea, a Yemeni-Swiss dual national, a writer, human rights activist and political scientist specializing in the Arab Middle East,.