As U.S.-brokered negotiations begin–again–between Israelis and Palestinians, both sides want to know: Hey, America, whose side are you really on?
After living in Jerusalem for seven years and working in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I encountered that question on more than one occasion.
My answer came after an unexpected ride on a sherut, the 10-person van that shuttles passengers between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. One night out in Tel Aviv, it was well past midnight and I was ready to go home to Jerusalem. The regular buses had stopped running, so the only way to get home was via the Jerusalem sherut.
Haphazardly huddled by the side of the road where the sherut picks up its passengers just a few of us were waiting when I first arrived, but eventually a small crowd amassed. Thirty of us waiting for a 10-person van. We were a motley cast of characters, tired from a long night out and all eager to get home.
Of particular note was a, shall we say, somewhat unsavory character. He was probably middle-aged but looked worn well past his years, with an unkempt beard, long scraggly hair, disheveled clothes and a dirty kippah on his dirty head. Unfortunately, he started speaking to me. I backed away from the conversation, too tired to make the effort to talk with a strange man.
I viewed the other 29 waiting passengers with suspicion and a sense of competition. I knew that I had been among the first 10 to arrive at the bus stop, but there was no system in place to keep track of who had arrived first. The system is not “first come, first served” but more “survival of the fittest,” a competition of speed, wits and strength to get a seat.
Sure enough, when a van did pull into the station, chaos broke out and Olympic-speed sprint racing ensued to claim seats on the sherut. We shoved and pushed to get on. Luckily–or so I thought at the time–I got a seat. So did the scraggly bearded unkempt man. He was in the very first row on the right, across from the driver.
Just as I was beginning to feel grateful to be one of the lucky ten on the sherut, that odd man started yelling at the driver.
Wonderful, I thought sarcastically. He’s really going to cause trouble. Just what I need at two in the morning, I grumbled to myself.
But after a few moments, it became clear that Mr. Unsavory was yelling because the driver was falling asleep at the wheel, dangerously veering off the edge of the highway.
The 10 of us riders quickly turned from aggressive competitors for seats to passengers with a shared future. We offered the driver gum. We encouraged him to turn on the radio. We suggested he pull over to the side of the road. Someone offered to drive. We sang songs to keep him awake.
It was a long drive home, but thank God, we made it.
As the former Jerusalem director of Encounter, an Israeli-Palestinian conflict transformation organization, I was prompted by that evening’s events to think carefully about the question, Whose side are you on?
First, an unsavory character who I had previously not wanted to talk to may have saved my life. The same person I had spurned also happened to be the person who was paying attention to the dangerous driving–and nodding off–of the driver. Israelis and Palestinians may easily look across to the other side, see unsavory characters, decide to do as I had done that evening, and choose not to talk to someone. But the man I had spurned was the one, in the end, who took care of all of our safety. Israelis refuse to speak to Hamas. Palestinians refuse to speak to settlers. What if they turn out to be the ones who take care of everyone’s safety?
Second, the 10 riders in the van hadn’t chosen to be together. I was in this sherut because I wanted to go to a place I called home: Jerusalem. I didn’t choose my neighbors in the van and they didn’t choose me. Suddenly I found myself in a very dangerous situation with total strangers. I had to accept that reality and accept it fast if I wanted to survive through the evening.
Israelis and Palestinians didn’t choose each other as their neighbors. Everyone wants to be in a place called home, and most people probably wish it didn’t feel so dangerous to live in the home of the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians continue to act as if the other side might just go away, rather than accept that each side has a claim to the Holy Land as their group’s homeland. The sooner that both sides accept that everyone is there to stay, the sooner they can find ways to forge a better future.
Third, a group of people who were initially in fierce competition transformed from competitive jostling to creative, cooperative, problem-solving mode as soon as we realized that all of our lives were in danger. In one moment competition served to elicit the desired result, but in another moment, creative cooperative behavior quickly replaced competition as most fruitful for all of our well-being.
There are times for each side to hold their ground, literally and figuratively, and there are times to seek creative, cooperative problem solving. There is an excessive reliance on the former and a stark absence of the later, an approach that generally serves to exacerbate the conflict, not resolve it.
So whose side am I on? And more importantly for the future of the Middle East, whose side is America on?
In order for the U.S. administration to play a productive role in brokering these negotiations, they need to prove that they are on the side of the Israelis and on the side of the Palestinians. Whether they like it or not, Israelis and Palestinians are in a metaphorical sherut together: if the van drives off the edge of the highway, everyone goes down with it. Let’s hope that the U.S. can play a role of genuine peace-maker, encouraging the region’s political drivers to find a creative and cooperative way to get on a path of safe driving so that everyone can live in peace in a place they call home.
Ilana Sumka recently served as the co-executive director of Encounter in Jerusalem, an organization dedicated to Israeli-Palestinian conflict transformation. She is currently working on a book about her seven years in Israel.