Dear Israeli citizen,
You are now celebrating the 66th birthday of Israel. On the other side of the border someone else is commemorating the same day but there the mood is gloomy. What you call the day of independence or “Yom Ha’atzmaut” he calls the day of catastrophe or “Yom al-Nakbah”. It is odd how one day can have such antagonistic meanings and evoke such opposite feelings.
I am not a Palestinian. I was not one of the 750,000 that had to leave their homes during those fateful weeks of 1948. I was not born in a refugee camp. I was not deprived of the most basic human services. I was not dispossessed of normal citizenship for the past 66 years. I was not chased from country to another. My life was not a card which Arab leaders played with. Nor was my existence a statistic in U.N. resolutions.
Nor am I Jewish. I didn’t come to Palestine looking for refuge from European anti-Semitism. My consciousness, priorities, morality, sense of right and wrong were not shaped by the experience of living in a hostile Europe and then by the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust.
But I grew up with pan-Arab sentiments. As a child I breathed hatred to anything Jewish. Palestine was mine. It was for all of the Arabs and not just the Palestinians. And you – the Jews – took it from us – from me. No… you robbed it. You raped me. You humiliated me. I grew up seeing this to be the greatest tragedy of all tragedies. And I was so stunned by those imperialist colonialists; those arrogant Europeans and Americans who could not see the matter as it really was. Hitler was our only hero.
Only he understood.
Direct and unmediated
I was living in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s. So my encounter with Jewish violence was direct and unmediated. I remember as a child scrambling down to shelters in fear of Israeli air strikes. I remember the blasting sound of a fighter jet as it breaks the sound barrier.
I was truly surprised then. I grew up believing that you were literally children of apes and pigs, and that you were the most despicable people on God’s earth, and that there will come a time when we would cleanse the earth from your vilenessAbdullah Hamidaddin
I remember watching Beirut’s sky as the Palestinians and Syrians tried to shoot down those enemy jets. I also remember when the Syrian air force was obliterated. And of course I remember the invasion of Beirut. I was from the lucky families who had the opportunity to leave Lebanon at the time. The airport was closed, so we had to leave by taxi through Syria and from there to Saudi Arabia: my mother, brothers, cousins, aunts, and I. I don’t remember the thoughts jumping in my head. But I remember the feeling of fear.
Most of all I remember when I saw a Jew for the first time.
Israel had withdrawn to the outskirts of Beirut, so we came back to Lebanon. My school was up in the mountains and to get there our bus had to cross an Israeli checkpoint in the Khalda intersection on Ouzai road. As the bus was crossing that checkpoint I saw an Israeli soldier. Only half his body was revealed. The other was inside his tank. And I clearly remember as the thought slowly; very slowly, crossed my mind: “they … look … like … us…”
Taking a toll
I was truly surprised then. I grew up believing that you were literally children of apes and pigs, and that you were the most despicable people on God’s earth, and that there will come a time when we would cleanse the earth from your vileness. All of that must have had a toll on how imagined you to look to like.
I’ve gone a long way from that surprise. But it didn’t happen overnight. It would take many many years, lots of thinking, reflecting, soul searching, and revisiting my whole worldview and moral system before my view towards you would change.
It went through stages. The first was to learn that there actually exists a good Jew! I think the first Jew I actually liked was Chomsky. And it was a feat to like a Jew then. I remember in a university class in Saudi Arabia our professor who was teaching Chomsky and trying to convince us that there are good Jews.
I visited him in his office and he gave me Chomsky’s “On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures”. I know you may not like Chomsky’s politics, but if breaking stereotypes matters to you; then you need to know that it was him more than anyone else that helped to shatter the stereotype on Jews amongst millions of Arabs.
Good and bad
From then on I would learn there are good Israelis and bad Israelis; Zionist and bad Zionists… of course the good ones were those who saw politics my way. And the bad ones were those who opposed my view of politics.
A turning point came when I befriended some Jewish Americans. The close and intimate encounter with them as persons, as individuals, as humans, as friends, demolished my neat division of people to good and bad.
But the dramatic shift in my views was only when I tried to look at matters from the view of the person on the other side. And the only reason for me to do what was friendship. I wanted to see how my friends saw things. And I tried, I sincerely did. Not that I agreed with the way they saw things.
I still hold many of my previous political views many of which my friends sharply disagreed with. I still believe in the right of return or compensation to the Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes. I still believe that the Israelis destroyed the Palestinian society.
But I took a different attitude to those beliefs. They were no longer articles of faith. Rather ideological positions that I am willing to criticize. Also I came to see that the Palestinians did not suffer mostly because of the Jews. Actually most of their suffering came from British colonialists and Arab nationalists. Finally I would start seeing the Jewish suffering in many Arab countries.
And in the same way I believed that Jews expelled Palestinians from their homes, so did the Arab armies want to exterminate the Jews in Palestine.
And I must tell you taking the perspective of someone on another side is liberating.
You and I have had our share of suffering. You and I have had our share of violence and aggression. You and I have had our share of living with hate and fear of each other… and much of all of that has to do with how much we have misunderstood each other.
So why don’t you and I try to see each other’s perspective? Why don’t we try to understand each other’s fears, pains, and memories?
It is not easy. But I believe we need it.
I hope you believe so too.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1
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