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The Long Road

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Barre Fitzpatrick writes:

We have to understand – not justify – what gives rise to this tragedy. It’s not because they’re looking for beautiful virgins in heaven, as Orientalists portray it. Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope – a political solution – they’ll stop killing themselves.
Mahmoud Darwish

Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.
Yehuda Amichai

The invitation came as a phone call on a January morning. Did I want to collaborate on an Arab-Israeli peace project? There was a minimum of background detail. A planning meeting was scheduled for London the following week. “Oh, and it’s pro bono,” he said. “No fee?” I asked, incredulously. “None.”

What is the definition of “adventure”? Something like this … An event or journey that takes one from one’s home ground, usually involving challenges, often of a physical nature, but promising excitement, perhaps of a life-changing kind. A pilgrim’s progress.

My “home ground” is dealing with business leaders. I work with the predictable conflict of old and new thinking, contending parties, and systems resisting innovation. So this invitation certainly promised something new and different from that. The event was to happen in Cyprus three months hence.

The planning meeting took place at a London university. My collaborator, an Englishman familiar as a colleague for eighteen months at this stage, met me off the Tube. We made our way to a cafe in the grounds of Somerset House, the old Admiralty building. In the bell-tower above our heads was a platform where, once upon a time, a naval rating would raise the flag every morning. We met the project sponsor who explained what she wanted. As the meeting progressed, I was aware of questions flocking like pigeons in my mind:

What would bring Arabs and Israelis together to seek peace? Was this project discreetly underwritten by some well-meaning church? How long had it been running for? How many were involved? Who were they? What kind of people were they… naive idealists, gnarled ex-prisoners, students gaining credits? And why me, and why my English colleague?

Most of these questions were going to be answered over the course of those planning meetings. And meanwhile I was going to have to do a great deal of research.

As I flew back to Dublin that evening, I asked myself how would I design an intervention to increase effective dialogue between Arabs and Israelis if I were given a free hand. I felt sure that I could not hope to improve on the “Fellowship” concept I had been shown that day. Fellows are selected from among the younger generation of leaders involved in media, politics and NGOs in the wider Middle East region. They are paired off, so everyone is face-to-face with a Fellow from the “other side”. The pair are set a task: to complete a project relating to peace in the region in a four-month period, basing themselves in London with a stipend to cover their expenses. The group consists of thirty-two Fellows, most of whom gather at least once a year for seminars covering a range of topics with the intention of building trust and mutual respect.

I was talking to A at the dinner following our workshop. “Why were you so quiet today?” I asked her, glad of the opportunity for a more personal conversation than had been possible in the large group all day. She patiently explained: “I am quiet. We are quiet. Do you see the colour of my skin? ... I am a Sephardic Jew.” “I see,” I said, not really seeing at all.

“Most of the others are Ashkenazi Jews. They come from all over, but originally from Germany and Eastern Europe. We come from the Middle East and North Africa. My grandfather came from Iraq. We are different from the Ashkenazi … we are not so … loud!” she explained, smiling. “Where do you live now?” I asked her. “In Jerusalem,” she replied. “My whole family live there.” “What is that like?” I asked. “Well, I sometimes worry about my mother’s security, when there is a bombing or stabbing incident. But mostly it is a good place to live.” “And what do you work at?” I asked, hoping that my curiosity didn’t appear rude: I was genuinely curious to uncover the point of difference she represented. I needed to break up the monolith of “Israel” that had formed in my mind. It was my first glimpse of unexpected diversity. “I am in insurance. For years I worked in the Knesset. But I became really disillusioned with politics. I am much happier now.” I realised that there was a lot more there for me to learn about her experience of the Knesset, but we were interrupted and I didn’t get a chance to find out.

So I began to explore this fascinating group of Arabs and Israelis that we had been asked to work with. They were to spend thirty-six hours together in Cyprus at a seminar led by my colleague and me.

B is an Arab woman in her early twenties I interviewed on the phone a month before the workshop. “I am so glad you are Irish,” she said. “My best friend in college in Edinburgh was Irish; we got on really well together.” She was passionate about photography. She came from a comfortable liberal background, where she was encouraged to question and debate everything when the family met around the dinner table. She had lived in East Jerusalem, but now lived in Haifa in a cosmopolitan quarter. “My project,” she said, “was on the art produced by Palestinian women in Lebanese camps … I believe it offers an important commentary on our political situation. But so few people are aware of it.” I told her my daughter is a sculptor. “O that is so exciting!” she responded.

I found myself wanting to impress her, because I might need friends in this group. So I told myself to back off. Perhaps I was looking for a comfort zone?

In the taxi that took us from Limassol airport to the hotel, I sat facing C, D and two others, as well as Michael Worrall, my co-facilitator on the workshop. The participants on the programme were familiar with each other, and quickly returned to a bantering style of conversation. When I asked some questions about the programme’s history since 2008, they were somewhat cynical, even dismissive of some of it. I formed the impression that these were intelligent and competitive individuals, but who were not sure at all about Michael and me. We were the unknown quantities in their eyes.

E was a criminologist with a PhD from a respected London university, where her thesis topic was on Palestinian terrorists. She teaches there, basing her course on the studies she has conducted in Israeli jails. Her research questions concern the motivation to commit violent acts: is it religious? or political? What part does economic status play? Once a year she invites a man over from Belfast who has a history in the Ulster Volunteer Force. “We don’t understand a word that he says,” she laughed, “because of his heavy accent.”

I wanted to ask her if she had ever thought of inviting a member or past member of the IRA to address the class. But I decided not to: I concentrated on listening. I would need to do a lot of listening over the coming thirty-six hours.

F is a nineteen-year-old Palestinian, and the youngest ever Fellow in the programme. He has the smiling, large and bouncing presence of everyone’s favourite younger brother.

“I am the first Palestinian to study at an Israeli university at undergraduate level, and I have had to sacrifice a lot. I cross between the two countries three days a week, because I was refused a residential permit to live and study in Israel … for half the university day, I’m in a third-world area among Palestinians, speaking Arabic and hearing the various political perspectives of the people. For the other half of a university day I’m in a first-world country among Israeli and Jewish individuals, speaking English and hearing the various political perspectives of Israelis and Jews … I made myself a connection-point between two sides that don’t even know each other. Next year, when I graduate, I will have spent more than 1,260 hours commuting from Ramallah to Tel Aviv University ... I know that even the top Palestinian leaders never had the experience I am having, and, to be honest, they need it … the Israeli side also needs it.”

His submission to become a Fellow of the programme, he said, made the point that “I am an ideal candidate for this programme because I am attempting to bridge the two cultures every day!”

I imagine F, apart from being warm and sociable, is also enormously resilient. But at some point on the second day he makes a comment that is interpreted as sexist, causing a Palestinian woman to shout at him. Another layer of possible conflict.

G, a bearded young Israeli web developer, had worked in Dublin at some stage. He had some questions for me about economic and business conditions in Ireland since the crash of 2008. He was half-thinking of returning.

H was an Israeli journalist of about thirty-two years of age. Smiling, affable, socially confident, he was the one who initiated the Shabbat celebration over dinner on day two. At least I believe it was he. He certainly led the singing. The Israeli Fellows joined in. The Palestinians remained silent. I was too embarrassed to take note of everyone else’s reaction. To this day I find it the most shocking thing that happened at the meeting. But which shocked me more, the fact of celebrating the ritual itself, or the fact that there was no comment on it whatsoever from anyone? I criticise myself for my timidity over this too. Professionalism should not be taken too far. The cup of wine came around and I found myself as if back at Mass in Ireland, drinking the wine. I almost said “Blood of Christ”. I knew that my co-facilitator, Michael, was raised a Catholic as well. He had the same reaction as mine … but remained as mute as I.

I found myself beside the journalist after the meal. I asked him what he thought about Israeli-Irish relations (as he told me he had visited my country on a couple of occasions).

“I think our two countries were once friendlier than we are now.” “Why do you think that is?” I asked. “There was fellow-feeling I think about being young nations. But that seems to have leaked away.” “Yes,” I agreed.

The fact that Michael, my co-facilitator, was English added an extra dimension to the event for me. Without formally incorporating any reference to Anglo-Irish relations into the programme, there were some passing references to it. On one occasion it came up in a planning meeting in London. The sponsor referred to the mix of Arab and Israeli in the group of Fellows, and said that the Palestinians see the conflict very differently, then turning to me, said, “But you will understand that as an Irishman, I would imagine.” This revealing aside surprised me because, while I felt it might be true, I wondered to what extent this was a deliberate policy on her part in choosing me to work alongside Michael. Perhaps our Anglo-Irish double-hander was a clever device to make successful cross-cultural dialogue more likely.

Michael, on the other hand, coming from a long line of British army officers, had his own twist in the tale. His mother had been Irish, or Anglo-Irish, and brought him, as a child, on holidays to Ireland every year. On arrival by boat she would cast off her British demeanour, light a “Craven A” and drink bottles of Guinness by the neck. This meant that, for the rest of his life, Michael reserved a special place for Ireland. He even slipped into a different, more relaxed, “holiday” gear with me.

I had made a point of asking Department of Foreign Affairs people in Dublin for their views, as well as a senior diplomat who had been active in the Northern Ireland peace process. “There are two schools of thought about how comparable the two conflicts are,” I was told. “There are those who say there is no comparison, that the two situations are incommensurable because each is unique.” “And the other school of thought?” I inquired. “They say that one car crash is pretty much like another.”

Senator George Mitchell was in a unique position to comment on this, having served the US administration in both places. He recounts an incident in his autobiography, The Negotiator, which took place when he first arrived in Israel and was asked to give a presentation on the Northern Ireland peace process. When he had finished, a hand went up at the back of the hall. “Excuse me,” asked an elderly man. “Yes?” George replied. “How long did you say the conflict went on for in Northern Ireland?” the man asked. “Eight hundred years,” George replied. “How long?” the man repeated. “Eight hundred years,” George replied patiently. The man seemed to ponder this fact for a while. Then he said: “Well no wonder it was resolved so quickly then, if it only went on for eight hundred years!”

This was no Camp David. We were not waiting for white smoke. In fact, it emerged that the Fellowship Programme was in need of a boost, and had suffered from the stalemate that had settled over the peace efforts in the region. How to keep believing, in the teeth of repeated evidence to the contrary, that progress was possible? This short workshop – consisting of a dinner presentation and discussion, some “homework”, a day’s workshop, and a final dinner – made sufficient impact to rekindle enthusiasm for the Fellowship. Such was the tone of the feedback, and of the discussions among the Fellows over the subsequent weeks and months.

I remember often feeling through the long ’70s and ’80s in Ireland a similar sense of hopelessness about the future of our island. It seemed the unavoidable truth that reconciliation was impossible. The only attitude for sensible people was one close to despair.

The Belfast Peace Agreement challenged our familiar pessimism. Who is to say the voices of despair will not one day be proven wrong in the Middle East?

1/3/2017