Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians was dealt a big blow yesterday with the announcement that bitterlemons.org was shutting down after twelve years. For those who aren’t familiar with Bitter Lemons, it is a website that publishes Israeli and Palestinian views across the spectrum on the peace process and wider Middle East issues, and it was founded and run by Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib. In explaining why they are ending their website, Alpher and Khatib both emphasized that dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians are at their lowest ever point, and that not only is there no peace process at the moment but there is not even a prospect for one to emerge. More disturbingly, both asserted that this freeze at the top has filtered down to society. Khatib informed us that in the past, “despite the feeling among many in the Arab world that contact with Israelis is tantamount to accepting Israel’s occupation, seldom did authors decline an invitation. Lately, we have observed that this has changed, that even once-forthcoming Palestinians are less interested in sharing ideas with Israelis just across the way.” Alpher echoed this theme, writing, “Here and there, writers from the region who used to favor us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighborhood.” When an outlet dedicated to advancing a wide and diverse array of ideas and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels like it has reached a dead end, it is a terrible sign of things to come.
While the Israeli-Palestinian front grows increasingly dire, there are a couple of encouraging reasons for optimism when it comes to the polarized environment that exists between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Following the attempted lynching of Jamal Julani, an Israeli Arab teenager, last week, eight suspects have been indicted for racially motivated aggravated assault and a ninth suspect has been indicted for inciting violence. The indictments and investigations are important but are also the ordinary course of the justice system at work, so this is neither uncommon nor unprecedented. What is, however, is that Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar ordered all Israeli junior high schools and high schools to dedicate a special lesson on the first day of school yesterday to the Julani beating and to discuss racism and violence in Israeli society. The treatment of Israeli Arabs is an uncomfortable topic in Israel, as they enjoy full citizenship rights but are routinely discriminated against, and the attack on Julani in the heart of Jerusalem exposed a dark undercurrent of racial violence that exists in some quarters. Ordering a national discussion in schools about the incident is a small step but an important step nonetheless, and it shows a heartening willingness on the part of the Israeli state and society for introspection. Certainly this will not heal all wounds or eliminate the problem of racism and violence toward Israeli Arabs, but it is a start toward building a more tolerant and aware Israeli polity.
In this vein, a friend directed me toward this remarkable interview with Forsan Hussein, an Israeli Arab who is currently the CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA. Hussein grew up in Sha’ab a small Arab village near Acco, managed to win a full scholarship to Brandeis (where he was two years ahead of me, although I didn’t know him), and later got a masters from SAIS and an MBA from Harvard. It is mind-boggling that he accomplished all this despite the fact that Sha’ab had no high school and Hussein spoke almost no English when he came to the U.S. to start college, but that is not what is most remarkable. What is most remarkable is that despite growing up in Israel as a clearly disadvantaged minority and in a community that feels very little connection to the state, Hussein spent his teenage summers establishing and running a peace camp for Jews and Arabs and then returned to Israel after working for an investment fund in the U.S. and is emphatic about the need for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to work together to improve their country. Despite his background and growing up with what he describes as a one-sided narrative, he is proud to be an Israeli and wants to improve Israel rather than tear it down. He ends the interview as follows: “My dream and vision is to work on the business side of peace — to be an ambassador for Israel in the Arab countries, and for the Arab countries in Israel. One day.” That someone like this exists provides me with hope that Israel is not as lost as its detractors claim, and that there are many more Forsan Husseins out there who embrace their country despite its faults and are able to overcome their understandable resentments in working toward building a stronger and more integrated Israel.