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Overcoming the fear in Israeli society

If you’re looking for an explanation of why Israel acts the way it does, look no further than this quote by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

“We live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak and there aren’t second chances for those who don’t defend themselves,” he was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as saying.

For most people this is either an ideology you embrace (though, hopefully not) or one that simply causes you to look away in disgust. But such a polarizing stance deserves to be understood. What could possibly make someone think this? And more importantly, what can we do to change it?

A good answer to both questions can be found in a recent talk by Palestinian nonviolence leader Sami Awad produced by the Compassionate Listening Project. Awad, who is also the founding director of the Holy Land Trust—a Bethlehem based nonviolence organization—described a visit to Auschwitz, where he witnessed many Israeli youth on a government-funded trip become politicized by an ideology of fear that says, “if given the opportunity, the Muslims, the Palestinians, and the Arabs would do the same thing” to them as what happened to their grandparents. The only way to prevent this, they are told, is to join the Army and support the State.

While Awad does not discount the very real fear posed by what happened during the Holocaust, he is wary of leaders who exploit that fear and worse yet, the world at large, which has ignored it by giving Israel billions of dollars in military aid every year, plus a free-reign political mandate. He says, it’s up to the Palestinians to break Isreal from its culture of fear because “Palestinians are the closest thing to the Israeli Jewish community that can engage in actions and activities that provide an opportunity for healing.” This, he believes, is happening already, as more and more Palestinians embrace nonviolence.

Coincidentally, Awad published a piece in Foreign Policy magazine yesterday that explains the shift in attitude towards nonviolence among the Palestinian leadership.

We are now witnessing a rise in the choice of nonviolence. When the gap was created with the Israeli government refusing to engage in real negotiations, Palestinian leaders began to search for what options were available to them and their community. This is what the Palestinian community engages in on a daily bases, this is what keeps resiliency and steadfastness alive in a community that is literally facing destruction (most acutely suffered in the ongoing siege on Gaza). When leaders looked, they found this value being practiced in villages across the West Bank; they saw people from different political backgrounds unite together in order to save their villages; they saw men and women walk as equals; they saw communities that were empowered to stand and face the harshest of violent responses from the Israeli military; they saw Israelis and internationals join Palestinians in their struggle. As a result, these leaders began to see the value of nonviolence, not only for their limited political survival, but also for the nation of Palestine.

Beyond the mere strategic power of nonviolence, however, is its systemic culture-shifting potential, which going back to Awad’s talk, is ultimately what he’s after. As he put it, ever so bluntly, “Any political solution that doesn’t address the fear within Israeli society will not last.”