In late January, I had the privilege of spending two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian territories, helping Holy Land Trust with its brand and marketing strategy and web development with my business Bryt•Idea Consulting. Holy Land Trust is a prime example of a nonprofit working towards peace, understanding, and healing in the Holy Land. It was an honor to work with them and an incredible learning experience for this privileged American.
This was my second trip to the region. On my first trip back in 2017, we were with a small group, shuttled around in tour buses with guides, stayed in nice hotels, and all our meals were taken care of. You could say we were in a nice comfortable "tour bubble"… not that there's anything wrong with that! But the first trip did open my eyes to the Palestinian people's struggles, and their suffering became real to me. On this second trip, for the most part, I was on my own. In a small but profound way, I was able to experience what it's like to live under occupation; experience the intimidation, hopelessness, and fear that is pervasive in the Palestinian Territories, as well as Israel.
To understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it's important to note a few common misconceptions. One is that Palestinians and Jews have been fighting for thousands of years. In reality, the current conflict only goes back about 100 years. Another misconception is the conflict is about religion when, in fact, it's more to do with two people groups taking claim to the same real estate. This came to a head in 1948, with the United Nations partition of Palestine into two states, One for Israel and one for Palestinians. This led to a mass migration of European Jews settling and pushing hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Muslims and Christians out of the region. There was a great deal of violence on both sides, and many people were killed. The Palestinians call this time the great catastrophe. Since then, Palestinian land is but a small remnant of what it was before 1947. This is the essence of the conflict… land, but also dignity.
Below are a few observations I made getting to know the people (Palestinians and Jews) and their perspectives.
What I have learned over the last few years, especially with this most recent trip, is the situation on the ground is exceptionally complicated, with no clear solutions. Most disturbing is the misinformation communicated in the US about who the good guys and bad guys are. The narrative pretty much goes like this… "the Israelis are the good guys but are surrounded by enemies out to destroy them. The Palestinians are Islamic terrorists who want to see the destruction of Israel. Not only is this overtly simplistic and falsely dualistic, but it denies the historical and geopolitical complexity on the ground. We seem to want to oversimplify things, so they fit in our preconceived ideological narratives, but the reality is that there are a lot of bad players on both sides and good folks seeking peace on both sides. As usual, it's the people, both Arab and Jew, trying to find a better life for their families who get caught in the middle.
Although this conflict is extremely complex, and I don't want to minimize that, I believe there are underlying motives responsible for this conflict and perpetuate it.
In the evenings, while in Bethlehem, I would go out for dinner with my Palestinian colleagues and discuss branding and marketing strategies. We would also have long discussions about the history of the conflict, the current political challenges, and the overall sense of hopelessness experienced by the Palestinian people. I spent more than a few sleepless nights and anxious days thinking about the pain and suffering all around me, so different to my secure and privileged Midwest and now Rocky Mountain lifestyle. How did they get here, and what can be done?
It seems to me the reason for this conflict, and pretty much all others is our innate tendency as humans to group people not like us, in the category of "The Other." The Other, are people who are "different," who don't look like us, act like us, dress like us, or believe like us. It is the negative perception of "The Other" that I believe is the root of most, if not all, conflict.
When we begin to fear the other, it can lead to apathy, discrimination, racism, and dehumanization. When this takes hold in societies, it leads to the villainization and suspicion of the other, which ultimately leads to apartheid, war, slavery, genocide, and events like the Holocaust in Nazi Germany or the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia during the 1990s.
From a neuroscience perspective, this is an inherent human behavior. We naturally want to categorize stuff in our minds. There is nothing wrong with this. It's needed, and beneficial in helping us cognitively understand the world around us, know what to act on, and what not to. What to fear, and what's harmless. It's ok to eat those fresh blueberries in the fridge but not the 10-day old sushi. The danger of this naturally dualistic thinking is when we start sorting people in a way that makes them less than us. We fail to empathize with them. We see them as less enlightened, less intelligent… foreign. We begin to suspect their motives, or worse yet, see them as dangerous. Once we perceive the other as dangerous to us, our families, our communities, our way of life, and our beliefs, we begin to fear them, and fear leads to all kinds of bad mojo.
When the Jews left Europe after World War II and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, they were in a fight or flight mentality that never left their collective mindset. So what you have is a whole culture, an entire people, taught from a young age, to live in fear of the other. Some of the emotional effects of chronic fear are:
I believe this is what's happening in Israel/Palestine. Fear, and at times, hatred, of the other. For Israelis, fear and hate of Arabs out to destroy them. For Palestinians, fear, and hate of their oppressor who stole their land and their way of life.
So how do we respond? It would be effortless to shrug our shoulders and say it's hopeless. Most people have. When you get down to it, most people believe that love and peace are fine for Sunday mornings, but in reality, political power, brute force, money, and greed are the way of the world. Loving one another sounds nice, but fear is what really rules us.
Is this true? Is fear truly more powerful than love???
This journey of peacemaking for me has been tremendously inspiring. I've met incredible peacemakers all over the world who practice loving our enemies. But what holds us captive from doing this? I would say its fear. Fear of facing and experiencing another's trauma, thus interrupting our life of comfort and privilege.
I've heard it said that the definition of privilege is the ability to walk away. Could we be slaves to privilege and comfort, making us incapable of bringing life, peace, and hope into a violent and fearful world? As Americans, we have a life of great privilege that allows us to walk away or ignore the profound suffering in the world. There is nothing wrong with being privileged, but how can we use it to be peacemakers to the hurting world around us, including our homes, families, and communities? How can we bring reconciliation to a family member you've sworn never to talk to again. How can we develop relationships with people who belong to an ethnic or social group you're afraid to interact with.
My hope is that more of us would honor our life of privilege by sacrificing some of it to pursuing justice, peace, and giving hope to those who lack it.
- Tom Fellner, Bryt•Idea Consulting