The Closer You Are, The Less You See

It took a Protestant pastor from Reston, Virginia to introduce me to my Palestinian neighbors. It happened two years ago, and it changed my life.

It took a Protestant pastor from Reston, Virginia to introduce me to my Palestinian neighbors. It happened two years ago, but being that it changed my life, I’ll never forget the sequence of events. For 33 years I had lived in Gush Etzion where there are probably nine Palestinians for each Israeli settler, but I had never met a single Palestinian. Of course, I had had workers in my home – gardeners, plumbers, electricians – and I had arrested a fair number of Palestinians when I used to do army reserve duty. But I had never actually met one in a setting that would put us on a equal footing. I had certainly never had any type of serious conversation with one of them, and knew almost nothing about them.

In the local magazine of Gush Etzion I read an article about a guy who had had some contact with local Palestinians and I gave him a call. One of the many things that grew out of that call was an email from Pastor John Moyle. Within a few weeks John was sitting in my living room with me in Alon Shvut, hearing the story of my life. He told me that he had been coming to the Holy Land twice annually for the last two years, meeting Palestinians, meeting local Israelis settlers and introducing them to each other.

What John had done for others he did for me as well. I have never been the same since that fateful day when I met the Palestinians who are today my friends, partners and life guides.

It is painful to admit, but true. What John did for us – Palestinians and Israelis – we could not have done ourselves. We needed a third party to bring together neighbors who live so near to each other and are yet so far apart.

Since then I’ve seen this phenomena again and again. Since that fateful day two years ago I have been deeply involved in Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation and have organized and participated in many workshops, dialogues and training sessions. The majority have been conducted by guests from overseas or by Israelis or Palestinians whose roots are in the USA. At least at this stage, more often than not we can only go so far on our own and require some outside intervention.

A related phenomena is this: The amazing work that myself and my colleagues are doing in building bridges of understanding between local Israeli settlers and Palestinians has deeply resonated with thousands upon thousands of American Jews and Christians who have visited the peace center we have built near the Gush Etzion juncture, or who have heard us speak in the USA. Our efforts resonate less among the population towards whom they are directed. We are making headway in helping the two sides to sit together, to see each other, to recognize the humanity and – as the process progresses – the legitimacy of the identity of the other, but it is slow and painstaking.

Outsiders immediately see the importance and transformative power of breaking down barriers and of meeting the other side. Israelis and Palestinians less so – they are generally wary, skeptical and terribly afraid. The people who need it most are the slowest to see its value.

It is not difficult to understand why. Those of us who are at the heart of the conflict are most invested and entrenched in our own narratives — of ourselves and of the other — and most scarred by the violence that engulfs us. We tend to have no trust of the other and no hope than anything can be done to improve the situation. We all see ourselves as victims of the other and place all the blame for the past and responsibility for the future on the other side. The accepted wisdom is that dialogue is fruitless and naive until the enemy on the other side sees the light and changes his tune. We are traumatized and trapped in our tunnel vision.

Outsiders are not caught in this web. They can be objective. Furthermore, Americans know what it is like to live in an open society in harmony with the other. Having experienced it firsthand and having tasted of its blessings, they know it is possible.

I have heard many Israelis say that until you come here and experience the Arab-Israel conflict firsthand, you cannot understand anything and have no right to voice an opinion. The truth may be exactly the opposite!

(Photo courtesy of Bruce Shaffer)

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