Sunday, June 19, 2011

Love thy Neighbor as Thyself? On a Cab Ride to Eilat

Over the last academic year I have taught three courses each semester at the Ben Gurion Campus in Eilat: two in the Masters Program for Conflict Management and one research course in the Social Work department for undergraduates. Every Thursday, for 28 weeks I traveled by a cab sent by the university, back and forth, leaving home around 8:00 am and getting back around 22:00. Six hours of teaching, between 7 - 8 hours of travel time.

This is a lot of time to spend in taxi cabs, getting to know the cab drivers that work for the university and bring the lecturers back and forth to that southern campus. (The picture is of a yellow cab, but ours are white)

I've had many conversations with the drivers - Dudu, Shlomo, Ovadia, Amnon 1 and Amnon 2, Ya'acov, Alon, Chanan, and Rami. We often talk about what is new at the Eilat campus, gossiping a bit about the staff. Every now and then, when I am emotionally up for an argument, and I am not too nervous that a vocal argument will put us in danger as we drive quickly on very turny and twisty roads to Eilat, we talk about my joint Israeli-Palestinian work and other political issues, such as the siege on Gaza.

Last week, during the first leg of the trip, I told Dudu about a friend of mine who is depressed about the stalemate in our Gaza-Negev region, her fear that the siege will continue, harming so many innocent people there, that the rockets will then resume, harming innocent people here, and that we won't find our way out of this constant conflict situation.

Dudu began quietly, but quickly got worked up: "I've been driving you for a year and you only talk about the Palestinians and their suffering. Why don't you ever talk about our suffering? About our rights? I know that you are left-wing, and I don't have a problem with that, but why don't you ever say anything about how they harm us? About their terror attacks against us? It sounds like you only care about them, but don't care about us. If you want to convince me that you are right, that we should end the siege, you have to say something about us, not only them. They have everything they need; they aren't suffering, but we will if we lift the blockade. Why don't I hear that you love your country and your people?"

It was hard for me to get in a word edgewise; Dudu was on a roll and he wanted to get his point across; he was much less interested in hearing my response. It seemed to me that Dudu missed the points that I made about non-acceptance of any violence - not from our side, not from their side. He seemed to never hear my sharp criticism and anger when the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, or another splinter group in Gaza shot Qassam or longer range rockets into Israel. He seemed to miss my emotional speech about the Hamas targeting of an Israeli school bus a few months ago, a few kilometers from my home, a cowardly terror act that was carried out against a school bus (thankfully the bus driver had left off the children a few minutes before the attack, but one young teen who remained on the bus was killed by the direct hit).

I wondered:
How could he have missed so many obvious points that I made over the year?
What in our discussions led him to perceive me as someone who supported terror attacks against Israeli citizens?
What led him to the impression that I cared more for my neighbors, the Palestinians, then I did for 'my people' - the Jewish-Israelis?

I cannot put the full blame for this misunderstanding on Dudu's (and others') inability/ unwillingness to hear the nuances of my talk. I cannot fault Dudu for his feeling that we Jewish-Israelis need to stick together. If he did not hear my statements of repulsion and non-acceptance of all violence, from the Palestinian side as well, then I should work on clarifying my stance when speaking to others, especially those who do not agree with me.

But I cannot take the full blame for Dudu's (and others) inability/unwillingness to hear what I am saying. And this is because the mere mention of Palestinians having rights immediately blocks his (and others') ability to hear the complexity of the story, the rest of the argument. As we have learned over the decades, many Jewish-Israelis can only hear about their suffering and victimhood. Mention of the other's (that is Palestinian) suffering immediately becomes translated into the simplistic mantra: "You love them more than you love us..."

In order to clarify, let me state:

In order to be clear, let me reiterate:

In order to be clear, let me say:

Just in case the above message still remains unclear, I will turn to Rabbi Hillel, whose words of insight and eloquence have guided Jewish thought through the ages:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when? 

Hillel also remined us:
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn 

It is not a matter of loving 'them' more than 'us.'

It is a matter of caring for one another, in Gaza, in Israel, in the West Bank, in a taxi cab to and from Eilat, wherever...

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