« Je donne mon avis non comme bon mais comme mien. » — Michel de Montaigne

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26 août 2019

Letter to an Egyptian friend

Classé dans : Actualité, Politique, Société — Miklos @ 10:47

Jewish scribe (source)


No, I was not mad at the first flurry of messages you had sent me, but sad. Sad that you speak of friendship between us – which I indeed thought there was – yet make totally unilateral assumptions about my “beliefs” (not to speak of my personal history) without having ever asked me or heard me say anything about them. This is definitely not my “belief” in what friendship (as you mention this word) is or should be. Or should have been. Friends, real friends, may have varying opinions on certain issues, without hampering mutual respect and communication.

I have long hesitated whether to answer at all. You had actually stopped responding to my emails since July of last year – more than one year ago –, after writing this last message: “There is something I would love to talk with you about , but maybe at a later time. I think I will need to go now. So, have a wonderful day , mi amigo!”. Had I not written again (and again), I wonder if you would have done so, and when you did, it was not to “talk with me”, but “talk to me” and prevent me from replying by putting an end to the conversation. Is that what an amigo is?

So now I wonder if you are at all in a position of hearing anything that I would say, or that my response would merely be an act of politeness to allow me to react, regardless of the content of my reaction, and that’s it. If this be the case, anything that follows below would be just noise. Is it worth that I tear all my insides in order to express this?

I don’t remember if I told you this: two years before we got in touch on the Couchsurfing site, I got in touch through the same site with M., a 23-year-old Egyptian guy. The initial contact, first in writing then by voice was so good that I asked him if he had noticed from my profile that I had lived in Israel (as I knew that the tension between our people might be resented by some on the personal level). The tone of his voice changed right away and he replied coldly: “So you are one of these Zionists?”, to which I asked: “What is a Zionist for you?”. His reply: “Those who want to throw us to the sea.” I couldn’t help bursting in laughter and say to him that for some Israelis, the Arabs are those who want to throw them to the sea… I then added two essential things (for me):

  1. Among the people who believe in most movements or ideologies – religious, political, social, cultural… – there is a whole spectrum which goes from one extreme to the other extreme (and luckily enough, many moderates in between). In Zionism (I defined it for M. and gave him a very brief history), there are people who believe that the land should be equally shared – i.e., one state – by Jews and Arabs alike, others that it should be split between two independent states, Israel and Palestine (which is what I happen to support), while others believe Israel should cover it all (and some even think it should extend from the Euphrates to the Nile, but luckily enough, very few).

  2. Any label – “Zionist” is a label, as well as “Arab”, “Jew”, “Muslim”, “Israeli”, “Black”, “Gay”, etc. – is so generic that it does not define individuals, i.e., people: it does not say what they really believe in (as I mentioned above for “Zionist”) nor, more importantly, how they behave towards other people. There are Jews who don’t believe in any aspect of Judaism (the Jewish religion) and may or may not hold onto some traditions, while there are many different (and conflicting on some issues) Jewish trends among believers. So the fact that M. views me as “Jew” and “Israeli” doesn’t mean he knows anything about my values in any of these domains or my social and political (and religious) beliefs. He would have to know me personally so as to get any idea about where I stand on all of this.

The miracle in this is that M. heard me. His tone became friendly again, and he expressed his wish to stay with me. Not only was that experience great (for each one of us), but he came back since twice; later, I was among the first ones to which he announced his engagement, and he wants me very much to come to Egypt for his wedding later this year. Moreover, his whole attitude towards people who happened to be Israelis has changed: he is interested in communicating with them now (while he avoided them earlier).

This issue of “labels” is actually reflecting the problem of “identity”: this idea (of an identity, a single identity) is tragic, because it views us (humans, but this is true also of all the other living creatures) as organized in antagonistic groups – people, or nations, or clans, or tribes, or herds, whatever goes along a presumed binary “identity” which is perforce in conflict with any other “identity” – rather than a multiplicity of identities which may overlap and should allow us to negotiate and cooperate in order to address problems that are too big for anyone to face singly. This is, by the way, also true of friendships: they require at times not just communications, but negotiations on conflicting issues.

Now to the “issue at hand”. It is so complex that I won’t write here a whole book about it, but try to lay a few points. First off, I don’t believe in “being right or wrong”: both “sides” can be right – each according to its own arguments – yet in conflict. This is why the approach at addressing a conflict (this is true between two people too as well as between two groups or nations) is communication, pragmatism and mutual respect. The alternative is one-sided power aimed at making “the other” feel wrong, lower in position, or even totally eliminate him from the area or from the surface of the earth.

History is also a complex issue: Jews have lived in the area for over 2,500 years. At some points they ruled, and later were occupied and ruled by a variety of nations (Persia, Rome, Christians, the Ottomans, the British, and more in between), and partially exiled out of the country (but not totally: some Jews remained at every period) of the area. Even when they ruled, the borders of the area they ruled changed with time (and at one period, the Jewish Kingdom split in two different ones!). They were obviously not the only ones to live there, and when Islam appeared, obviously Muslims started appearing there too and developed their own sense of identity. After Jews started returning to the area (end of 19th century), conflicts developed which turned vicious. Yes, Arabs were chased out of some villages (and even killed), ironically as Jews had been chased out and killed in the past. History repeats itself in tragic ways.

An additional tragic dimension is the intermix of the sense of “national identity” (for Israelis, for Palestinians) and religion. According to Yeshayahu Leibowitch, a major Israeli thinker (who influenced my thoughts), they should totally be distinct, i.e., religion should not have any role in the politics of a state (in this case of Israel), which is sadly (in my mind) not the case, on the contrary: there is a confusion between Jews as a people (or nation) and Jews as a religion, and there is a radicalization, and far-right nationalist ultra religious Jews are increasing in number (as it happens these days also in other religions and countries). For this thinker, the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian problem should be viewed as a national issue, and both, legitimate nations, should have their own independent state, side by side (which I believe in). I believe in negotiations, not in power conflicts, which requires from both sides to be open and willing to give up too on their absolute positions.

Also, for this thinker, there is no such thing as a “holy place” in Judaism: nothing material can be holy, only God is holy. So the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall should not be an issue in the political decisions to come. It is however ironic and sad that both religions claim the same place and fight about it, while religions should encourage love between people (but the more radical any religion becomes, the less respectful it is of other humans). So personally, I don’t care where these sites end up being (in Palestine? In Israel?), but hope that regardless of where they are, they should be open to any respectful visitor.

This brings us to the issue of territory. As borders (of the Jewish Kingdom in the past, of the territories more recently) have kept changing, which are the “right” borders? This question, in and of itself, could be true of any country: those of France had changed during the centuries, as those of many other countries: for instance, Al-Andalus, a large area of Spain and Southern France, was dominated for close to 800 years (from 711 to 1492) by Muslims. I think the approach to the Israel-Palestine issue should not rely that much on history (because then: which history, the one told by Jews or the one told by Muslims? How far back?), but be pragmatic. The pre-1967 borders provided each nation with a clear majority on its territory, so why not declare these (maybe with minimal adjustments) as the borders of the two states? This is what I think and hope might help solve the larger problems. It won’t necessarily bring immediate love between the neighbors, but if you see the situation between France and Germany, which had been at war on and off for more than 150 years and now live peacefully side by side, I think there is hope. In the not so far past there was almost an agreement achieved, but the Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was murdered – by a radical Jewish Israeli (as Sadat had been murdered by a radical Muslim Egyptian). At times, I think the worst enemy is inside, not outside.

In summary: I tried to express some of my views on this complex issue. I was not trying to prove anything. I don’t think I am “right” or “wrong” (nor think that you are), I don’t believe in “black and white” situations, and think that in view of the major global problems we all face (global earth warming, diminishing of resources, etc.) people should cooperate rather than fight to attempt to keep control of “their” resources. That’s why I also hope that our differences won’t destroy our previous friendship.

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