Imagine Peace and Work for It

 

“You have to start somewhere.” She told me.

She is a veteran female mediator I met in a national dialogue conference, organized by the Finnish Foreign Ministry, in Helsinki, November 2015. We were having our breakfast early in the morning, before the sessions started. She started sharing her mediation experiences in conflict areas 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. Look for 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 echoing 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’, others said. ‘I used to respect you; now I don’t’, one said. 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, one has to take the stones thrown at her 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 thousands Mizrahi Jews, many of which were forced to leave their homes in the MENA region after the creation of Israel. 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 in 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 did. I cannot even start to imagine how they feel, humiliated under occupation and settlements encroachment on their lands, farms and livelihood; 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, homeless, 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 felt tired of this conflict. Tired to an extent that I once said to a good friend, ‘let them destroy themselves. I do not care’. It 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 at the time in Washington DC on a Fulbright scholarship. Peruvian Sylvia, my first Jewish friend, and I, participated in a symbolic ceremony organized by the International Student House, where we lived. She and I shared a piece of bread. We divided it and ate it. Strange, how the bread holds this powerful meaning. In Egypt, there is a saying, which could be translated as follows ‘we shared bread and salt’, meaning we shared a bond that is stronger than friendship. Sharing that piece of bread with her meant just that for me. I think it was also the case for her. Overtime, we became disappointed 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 on my birthday with that 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 them 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, history books would tell you, nor was Israel’s Ashkansi 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’s territory. Our region is losing its diversity. Just as the Mizrahi Jews disappeared from Arab States so are the Christians and other minorities. We live in an age where extremism is loudest – one that insists on uniformity in religion and identity. Citizenship is only but a farce. Sadly, Israel is moving in our direction with its Nation State Law of 2018.

You mentioned the role of religion in your book and I think this is the key issue that our region has to deal with. We need a form of separation of state and religion in our states that allows for equal citizenship in law and reality. Isn’t it strange that no country in the region allows for civil marriage in 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 start somewhere. I suggest we start with a leap of faith, a trust in our shared humanity. Let us dare to dream and imagine how 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 chart that road less traveled.

Elham Manea

PD. Dr. Elham Manea is of dual nationalities, Yemeni and Swiss. She is a political scientist specialized on the Arab Middle East, a writer, and a human rights activist.