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On Israel-Palestine, Restoring Human Worth Is a First Step to Peace

The link of empathy is how human beings transcend unending cycles of conflict and the ever-deafening drums of perpetual vengeance. It is how peace and reflection enter hearts -- and coexistence might be possible.
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The gunfire around us makes it hard to hear. But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it's not shouting. Even when it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard -- over armies -- when it's telling the truth. -- Edmond Zuwanie, The Interpreter


After the tragic death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir earlier this month, many good-willed Israelis stepped up with gestures of honor toward his family. Beneath my social media post strongly commending this, I was challenged to find the equitable "balance" within the Palestinian community, particularly from those who rightly condemned any public celebrations after the heinous kidnapping and death of the three Israeli teens.

There are plenty of Israelis and Palestinians who routinely work together in times of pain, among them members of The Parents Circle -- which draws together the mothers and fathers of both communities who have lost loved ones, most often sons and daughters, and who reject the cycle of violence. Palestinians are heavily involved in that initiative, among others. It is in fact a testament to the perseverance necessary for peace that as Hamas barrages civilian targets in southern Israel, as the Israel Defense Forces pummel Gaza with airstrikes and now another potential ground invasion, and as we sit on the sidelines and cheerlead one side or another without question, the families of the Palestinian teens and the Israeli teens who were killed and beaten last week are meeting in each others' homes and offering condolences and consolation to one another. In the shadows of vengeance, however, these facts often go underreported.

In a conflict as contentious as few others in recent history, it is critical to work unrelentingly to be both just and broad-minded, if just resolution is the goal. As the descendant of Middle Eastern immigrants to the United States who has visited both Israel and Palestine, I find the cyclical toll on Palestinians and Israelis abhorrent, and as an American of the Muslim faith I will continue to deconstruct the narrative of those who trivialize the human worth of the Jewish people or resort to Anti-Semitism in their criticism of Israeli policies.

I condemned the kidnappings of what amounted to Israeli children, yet unlike some my condemnation did not add caveats about their status as West Bank settlers, even while having qualms with the settler industry and its undoubted contribution to this conflict. I looked at the happening absent the surrounding details: that three children who could have been my cousins or brothers were taken from their families, and had their lives stolen at such a young age. They are sons of mothers who now need to grieve that loss. While understanding the complexity of the conflict, I did not need to go into further detail nor include caveats so as to grieve with them.

But now is the time to address the level of dehumanization of the Palestinian people in reaction to this happening, that can bring us further into the cyclical abyss. While every human being has the right to a self-defense built upon justice, if one believes, as I often hear, that a bombardment of military force whenever the conflict flares is a "lesson" to the Palestinians as a whole, these are not sheep that are tragically being violently and disrespectfully herded along, still largely unaware of what happens around them. These are proud human beings of dignity and worth. These are human beings with full awareness. Full awareness of the bombs and the planes. Of the death of a relative. Of the death of their sons, too. And as this question of "balance" that was posed to me emerges frequently in the media and elsewhere -- posited as though the Israeli and Palestinian experiences are identical in some third dimension -- it is critical to take a step back and look at the entire picture. Frankly, and truthfully.

And what I see is that when Palestinians die, excuses are often made, be they because Hamas uses them as human shields, because they deliberately threw themselves in the way, or because they were picking up stones and so posed a lethal threat to tanks. I do not often see a deep reflection on human life.

I am no friend to Hamas nor its track record of horrific tactics in combat, and consistent with any insistence on justice I of course accept that Israeli soldiers at times make mistakes. But what I refuse to accept is the idea that when Israelis die, "the Palestinians" as a whole are so often to blame. When it is the opposite, "well, Hamas."

I do not doubt that most Palestinians, and most Israelis, have justified grievances at their own leadership's inability to deliver peace for their children. That their primary goal is stability. Transcend politics and spend time in the region, and one will recognize with certainty that no child is born blind to the beauty in another child. Hatred is taught and absorbed through the fatal mixture of adverse experiences and half-truths. What many Palestinian children have come to know best with each escalation are Israeli tanks and soldiers, and the group that purports to defend their right to sovereignty will inevitably appear to some as heroic. Tanks and soldiers are what they define as controlling their families and their fate. Wounds between sides cannot be sealed when one feels that another force governs one's potential, or that initiatives to change that -- like the oft-stalled peace process -- cannot justly alter one's destiny. Even if most Palestinians show restraint and live their lives in the best ways that they can, that is not the experience of many others.

So to imagine that there will never be conflict, that there will never be crime, that there will never be tragedy as long as this conflict endures, is logically foolish. And while I believe that segments of Palestinian governmental leadership must be called to account for missing steps to forge the propensity for a just peace on the ground -- while funneling blatantly Anti-Semitic propaganda and false information through state-run media and educational systems -- it is the moral obligation and the interest of the more powerful force to insist on the humanity of the "other," and to look to its own steps to forge conditions that decimate much of the appeal of crimes committed, as well as its own proponents of propaganda, in the interim to conflict closure.

I can indeed endorse the call for social change. I can endorse the call for more actions for peace. Although I understand the odds and vast political corruption that changemakers are working against, I am frustrated by the lack of effective internal social movement in the West Bank and Gaza, as I am frustrated by the same in other parts of the region, including in Arab countries and in Israel. But I will never accept collective punishment. It is an impossibility for me to reconcile my humanity with collective punishment, be it economic or military.

Nor is the denial of another's pain worthy of those who seek peace. The truth is that after Mohammed Abu Khdeir was killed, many spent more time debating whether his death was an honor killing- - than actually expressing sincere and unconditional empathy with his family. So many rightly ask for unconditional empathy on one "side," but seldom offer it to the other. Then these same individuals spent time pushing the idea that the photos coming out of Gaza are re-circulations from Syria and other places. Yes, in some cases, that is the regrettable case per BBC. But where is the simultaneous empathy with those photos that may be real? If airstrikes are happening, there will be photos. There will be destruction. There will be human beings inevitably caught in the middle of the chaos of war. And it should be hard to see. Are these not human lives? "Well, Hamas."

A human life, let alone an unarmed one, let alone a child, is not Hamas personified. A human life is just that: a human life. I believe that is the appropriate point made by action-oriented peacemakers. We must stand by the insistence that humanization of the other is a necessity, that promoting unbigoted education and fighting demonization is critical, and that the quest for balance is pivotal. A sincere human balance; one that takes into account gut-wrenching stories of Palestinian struggle while in the same breath being repulsed by the unjust expulsion of over one million Jews -- formerly loyal citizens of Arab countries -- who found refuge in Israel in the early years of its founding. A balance that is just to all who wish to raise their families in peace and self-determination while sharing a strip of land smaller than the State of New Jersey, against the odds of political corruption, false information, and hardliners on both "sides."

The choice is ultimately ours as to whether we are going to continue cheerleading or actually step back, and without hesitation recognize the gaping wound that is conflict, and that might inevitably bring about tragic days for all "sides" until politicians, civic organizations, religious leaders, and others have the courage to address this situation head-on and solve it with the drive for a balanced justice and a sincere peace for all who have a stake. The good-willed exist. We have sufficient common sense to not utilize anecdotal evidence in media articles so as to blanket demonize others, or to need proof so as to not assume the worst of entire populations of people who have been pawns of politics and who have endured a long and destructive conflict. Let us be constructive, and stop speaking in "sides."

Indeed, with enduring trauma comes deep pain, anguish, and anger. None should remain silent in the wake of death and destruction -- on either "side" or across borders. The conflict is also undoubtedly an open wound that causes hatred and bigotry to fester elsewhere, around the world. But that is precisely why a constructive and lasting solution built on empathy and understanding of the other's historic and present circumstances must be sought, with a sense of urgency for those on the ground. This is not too high of a demand of those who genuinely want peace, which should be the ultimate goal of any human being of conscience.

I understand the narrative of Israel's existence as a safe haven for Jewish communities that were tragically persecuted -- most often outside of that particular land -- whether they were Ashkenazi communities in Europe or Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in the Middle East and North Africa. After centuries of Anti-Semitism which reared its repulsive face with an almost clockwork consistency at the hands of despots and propaganda, I comprehend the desire to fiercely defend Israel's existence.

But this understandable defense cannot be just and successful while simultaneously justifying rhetoric, conditions, alliances or collective punishment that ultimately dehumanizes and absolves an undeniably indigenous group of people of its own right to justice and self-determination. In maintaining itself as a progressive democracy -- ideologically separated from many of its neighbors -- the Israeli public should expect better of its own system. As White House Adviser Philip Gordon said last week in Tel Aviv: "Israel confronts an undeniable reality: it cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely. Doing so is not only wrong but a recipe for resentment and recurring instability. It will embolden extremists on both sides, tear at Israel's democratic fabric, and feed mutual dehumanization."

And in the process of defense, Israelis must ensure that corrupt leaders and criminals are taken to account, not civilians guilty by ethnic association, that defense is focused on the crime committed, and that Israeli media does not operate with token evidence that all is fine with the Palestinian condition -- when all is clearly not fine. That while defending a nation, attempts are not made to mitigate nor overlook the stories of tragedy that also bring tears to mothers' eyes -- simply because they happen on the other side of a barrier where we cannot see, where we choose not to, or where we choose to collectivize an entire society. "Well, Hamas."

The link of empathy is how human beings transcend unending cycles of conflict and the ever-deafening drums of perpetual vengeance. It is how peace and reflection enter hearts -- and coexistence might be possible. And we need to be mindful of how we collectivize or deconstruct the humanity of a people or belittle their own grief so as to justify our stand.

Those whose words and actions dehumanize the other or would cause the conflict to endure indefinitely must ask themselves this question: Are the families of Naftali Frenkel, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and others who participate in initiatives like The Parents Circle traitors to the cause for doing so? They lived these tragedies. It is their right to find peace with one another, and it is not our right to stifle their quest with our sideline bigotry, dehumanization or disturbing generalizations on either "side." If they who paid the ultimate sacrifice can find peace, you and I do not know any better than them on what is possible, even in the darkest moments.

There has been neighborly history for Jews, Christians, Muslims and others on that strip of land, in the past, so my hope for peace is not coming from an idealist stand. May peace, justice, empathy, and compromise be restored between hearts, that this may not be the future our children are forced to endure. When I read of the murders of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach compounded with the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, I did a great deal of contemplation, meditation, and prayer. As I finally laid my head down to rest from the comfort of our New Jersey home, I was thinking of every child who has slept in fear in the months and years of my brief existence.

I was thinking of the children of Palestine, the children of southern Israel, the children of Iraq, the children of Syria, the children of northern Nigeria, the children of Afghanistan, the children of Latin America who have left their families to flee brutal cartels -- across Mexican deserts in the heat of day and cold of night -- amassing upon our southern borders with little more than a prayer from the parents that they may never see again.

"Civilized" as we may be across the world in an age of awareness and alleged knowledge, our sunken humanity has brought them up into a world of conflict. These were never their battles to bear, and if we seek peace, we do so in apology to them for what we as human citizens have done to their innocence.

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