Beyond Coexistence

To coexist and to talk are not the same as to act. Creating a shared society will require tremendous effort to break down the structural barriers that separate Jews and Arabs from participating as equals in economic and social life.

Israel/Palestine is, on the ground, a one state reality— a state that, while Jewish, is democratic in name only. After 47 years, the occupation is not a temporary endeavor but a permanent component of the Israeli state. There are now close to half a million Jewish settlers living over the Green Line, which demarcates the territory Israel conquered in 1967.

Since the start of the latest war in Gaza, the Israeli public has swung dramatically rightward. On numerous occasions, right-wing extremists have attacked leftists at peace rallies and protests against the war. Repression of peaceful protests in the West Bank has increased. Thirteen Palestinians have been killed in protests in West Bank cit- ies since the war began.

In the twenty years since the first Oslo Accords, intended to develop the frame- work for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has become more entrenched than ever before.

For decades, the notions of dialogue and coexistence have dominated the discussion of peace-making and conflict resolution in Israel/Palestine. But dialogue alone is inadequate. While it challenges the status quo by forcing us to consider new ways of approach- ing the conflict, dialogue cannot change the tangible facts of reality. Talking with the other is a first step to humanizing him, but mere listening cannot build institutions to support continued interaction between Arabs and Jews. Coexistence, while a politically charged concept, describes not a potential future, but the current reality—today, Jews and Arabs coexist, but they do so neither equally nor peacefully.

This summer, I facilitated a program called Through Others’ Eyes for Jewish and Arab youths from Israel. The program’s goal was not only to build a sustainable dialogue between two communities, but also to plant the seeds of social, cultural, and economic exchange and cooperation: the crucial components of a society shared equally by Jews and Arabs. The majority of the program’s participants were entering their last year of high school, and they were all from a part of Northern Israel known as the Sharon and Wadi Ara, where Jewish and Arab cities are clustered side by side. And yet, despite the closeness of their cities and towns (nearly all of the participants live a twenty minute’s drive away from one another), the young Jews and Arabs rarely interacted, and never as equals. In Israel, Jews and Arabs, with very few exceptions, learn in separate schools. They live, for the most part, in cities populated only by people who share their religious and ethnic backgrounds. Few Americans understand the extent of the de facto and de jure segregation in Israel, though they may glimpse the occa- sional outbursts of racism that result from this segregation.

The most recent war in Gaza, the rising tide of right-wing violence, and the Israeli government’s maintenance of the occupation formed the background for Through Others’ Eyes this summer. Amidst the violence, death, and despair, twenty Jewish and Arab youths flew to spend a few weeks in upstate New York. Their participation in the program— in which the Arab and Jewish teenagers slept in the same bunks, ate in the same dining hall, and spent the day talking, learn- ing, and working together—was itself a bold political statement. It was a tangible manifestation of the longstanding Israeli leftist slogan “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”

At a time when mobs of Jewish extremists run through Israeli cities shouting “Death to Arabs, Death to Leftists,” when the Prime Minister and Jewish Knesset members incite racist violence, and when peaceful Palestinian protesters face-off against heavily armed Israeli soldiers, insisting on the possibility of sharing the tiny sliver of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan constitutes a rejection of the mainstream discourse that portrays the conflict as inevitable and religious and ethnic differences as irreconcilable.

The program was meaningful and important not only because it brought Jewish and Arab youths together during a time of conflict, but also because by living communally for three weeks the twenty teens from Israel provided an example of what a shared society might like look—a picture of a future that ensures freedom and equality for all living in Israel/Palestine. Asked to break into groups to develop policy ideas that could go beyond the limited concepts of dialogue and coexistence, the teens proposed the creation of a joint Arab-Jewish organization to introduce the teaching of Arab-Palestinian history alongside the teaching of Jewish history in the Israeli education system, as well as a state-required sustained encounter program between Jewish and Arab schools. While just 16 and 17, they understood what many adults fail to comprehend: that neither side will ever agree to leave the land on which they live, that active coexistence is not an option but an imperative, and that a shared and mutually-beneficial society inclusive of both Arabs and Jews is the only possible future that offers both peoples a chance to live in peace and dignity.

The tragedy of the status quo is that programs like Through Others’ Eyes are tiny specks of hope in a very dark picture of the future. Twenty teenagers cannot solve a generations-long conflict, nor is it fair to burden people so young with the obligation of doing so. Still, there is something deeply moving about the fact that Arab and Jewish kids will have returned to their homes and communities knowing, for the first time in their lives, what the other side is truly like: that they are not like the stereotypes they have been taught by society, and that the other sides’ stories, hopes, and desires are not so different from their own. This will not lead to earth-shattering political changes. But by finding common social and economic interests, as the twenty Arab and Jewish youths did during the program, it is possible to build a foundation for mutual cooperation.

Creating a shared society is an exercise in democracy. It is an attempt to contain, within a single system, constituencies with disparate and often opposing priorities. But in a democracy, conflicts between inter- ests are solved not by force or violence but by negotiation and mediation—the process through which common interests are found and strengthened, and compromises are made.

Unfortunately, Israeli democracy, under pressure from the far right, is weaker than ever. Dissent is stifled, protests barred, and criticism of government policy during wartime has become taboo. The Knesset recently planned to raise the percentage of votes required for a party to obtain seats, lowering the likelihood of political representation of Israel’s Arab citizens. And while Jewish politicians, like Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman openly call for violence against Palestinians and suffer no consequences, the Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi was barred from all parliamentary activity after calling for “popular resistance” against the Is- raeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Under the guise of security concerns, the Israeli police barred peace activists from protesting against the war.

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On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced the founding of the state of Israel, claiming that it “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex: it will guarantee freedom of religion, con- science, language, education and culture. “We appeal,” Ben Gurion continued, “to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

Despite these words, Ben Gurion and subsequent Israeli heads of state kept Israel’s Arab population under martial law for twenty years. Nonetheless, the founda- tion for a shared society can be found even in the founding document of an unjust state. To strive for an inclusive society, based on co- operation between Jewish an Arab commu- nities, is not a deviation from Israel’s found- ers’ words. Instead, it is an affirmation of the prospect of peaceful and equal coexistence that, whether they meant to actualize it or not, Israel’s founders laid out in its Declaration of Independence.

Israel lacks a Constitution like that of the United States, but its Declaration of Independence contains undeniably egalitarian language. The dissonance between the document’s language and the brutality of the country’s founding does not make Israel exceptional. To the contrary, the formation of new states is rarely accomplished without violence or oppression. The U.S. is perhaps the best example of this, founded with an intensely, if not radically, democratic and egalitarian constitution that was signed by men who owned slaves. The words of the Constitution are still interpreted today by Americans who seek out justice, used as evidence of a latent kernel of aspiration towards a more equal society. Israel’s Declaration of Independence contains similar aspirational and emancipatory potential.

Since the start of this summer’s war in Gaza, which has not formally ended at the time of writing this article, the two-state solution imagined by Kerry and the Obama administration has looked increasingly im- possible. The future is terribly uncertain; it is difficult to say what the region may look like in five or ten years. But one thing is certain: any just and lasting solution to the conflict will require more than coexistence and dia- logue. Coexistence implies stasis and passivity, and dialogue requires neither cooperation nor action. To exist and to talk are not the same as to act. Creating a
shared society, whether parallel federations of autonomous Jewish and Arab communities or a single bi-national democratic state, will require tremendous effort to break down the structural barriers that separate Jews and Ar- abs from participating as equals in economic and social life.

The current political climate in Israel, where anti-Arab violence and racism has recently spiked, makes the prospect of a shared society seem like a hopeless endeavor. But it is the only option left for those who seek a just and equitable future for Israel/Palestine. Making it possible will require tireless activism, committed and sustained meetings between Jewish and Arab communities, and it will not be easy. But if twenty Jewish and Arab teenagers can learn to live and work together, maybe, just maybe, adults and their communities might be able to do the same.


Josh Leifer is a sophomore studying economic history. He is particularly interested in issues of class, labor, and economic justice. Before enrolling in Princeton, he lived, learned, and taught for a year in Israel, where he was a member of All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective. He continues to be involved in peace activism and recently ran a coexistence and dialogue program for Israeli Jewish and Arab youths. In his free time, Josh enjoys playing the bass.

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