In the last few months we were all influenced by a barrage of media regarding the elections. This is the third time in a year that an election has been held in Israel. For many there was hope that the result would determine where we are going as a country. As with many elections, when the true result came, some were happy and some were very disappointed, but in reality, the outcome means we’re right back to square one.
The elections were a reflection of the division and tribalism in the country. Mostly, within the Israeli Jewish side, we see this division between those who are for or against the prime minister, as well as those who are not happy that the prime minister is siding mostly with the religious parties. On the other hand, the incitement against the Palestinian Arab citizens of the state of Israel not only united the Arab parties, but also brought out a record number of Palestinians to the voting booths. The Joint List (Arab party) has gained 15 seats in parliament, this is a testament to the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel who want to engage in politics to influence and determine their future. However, at the same time, for the first time in a long while, no Arab candidates were part of any Israeli Jewish parties and many have objected to include them in a coalition government.
This leaves many Palestinians feeling rejected. “You have told us to vote, to be engaged, to integrate,” they say, “and now that we are doing it you don’t want us to be part of the government.” The level of racism and incitement in Israel has gone another level higher. How is this going to affect the relationships in the country? What is the future, especially of the relationships between different segments of our communities? Prolonging the decision of who will lead and form an Israeli government gives room for more negative statements of prejudice and labeling of ‘others’ to rise. The consequence of this is the further dehumanization and demonization of them, which we see especially within the rhetoric of Netanyahu’s camp. As we know from reconciliation efforts, people that have position and privilege do not let go of it easily. They will fight to keep the power.
Not having a government also affects many other sectors of the country. In our context where we are bringing groups together, we are seeing at a community-grassroots level that more and more people are wanting to engage with reconciliation efforts. Here, we are excited for it and there is momentum in planning different meetings and activities. But now these efforts are being halted as a result of the outbreak of the Coronavirus. It’s like driving the car in fifth gear when all of a sudden you have to pull the emergency brake. In reconciliation work, it’s not just a brake on one program, it’s the whole ministry in full speed from recruitment to hotel bookings, program meetings to transportation, all of this has to be brought to a halt. Many who have prioritized Musalaha events in their schedules and were looking forward to gathering with other like-minded people in the endeavor for peace are feeling disappointed and let down right now.
Like the recent elections, the Coronavirus is creating further division between people. At Musalaha, we talk about the four main obstacles that hinder reconciliation and catalyze the idea of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. One of these is physical obstacles; boundaries like the Separation Wall and violence as well as misinformation, disinformation and a lack of information about each other. While the consequence of Coronavirus is a physical obstacle to reconciliation, literally separating people through illness and quarantine, it is also a physiological one, which is any form of prejudice we hold, whether subconsciously or consciously, against other people that leads us to believe we’re better than them. We are witnessing that during this epidemic in Israel-Palestine, most often, people see ‘us’ as clean, good and healthy, while ‘they’ are primitive, uneducated and unhealthy. For example, though it is true that the virus was brought here by tourist pilgrimages, one of our own interns has been harassed daily when out in public for being from Asia. Our prejudice leads us to not want to meet people from the other side, whether they are from Palestine, Israel or elsewhere.
Others, however, are seeing the advantage of using the internet in this situation to hold meetings via social media, WhatsApp, Skype and find alternative ways we can unite together and help. Like how one of our reconciliation group leaders in Bethlehem, where there is a citywide lockdown due to the virus, is initiating a program to help her community with gel sanitizers. This is working most effectively right now. Musalaha participants’ disappointment is being channeled into innovative efforts and they are using their initiative to counter adversity with positive solutions to the situation. It gives us assurance and encouragement that the training and activities we do are bearing fruit.
Musalaha Executive Director — Salim J. Munayer