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Co-Existence: Failed Term - Failed Policy

 

02 November 2008

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Words have meaning. They were also meant to deceive as the early 19th century French foreign minister Talleyrand pointed out with his famous statement, "Language was devised to conceal thought." When discussing peace or conflict resolution in the Middle East many consider themselves expert at attempting to use the correct terminology to commit oneself to a policy of peace and reconciliation while ensuring one's own interests. Each side understands the terminology from its own perspective and acts accordingly in the hope of there being enough overlap with one's adversary turned peace partner to guarantee an end to violence.

The problem is, sometimes the terms used have lost their meaning or are misinterpreted by one side or the other. This is particularly true in the internal discourse between Jewish and Arab citizens in the State of Israel. Recently inter-communal riots swept through Acco on Yom Kippur and immediately afterwards. Suddenly "co-existence" between Jews and Arabs was deemed to have failed. In particular the Zionist Left and moderate Israeli Arabs (some call themselves Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) are fond of living in "co-existence". Unfortunately such "co-existence" has led everyone to a Pandora's Box of misunderstandings.

Over ten years ago, when negotiating the municipal boundaries of the small community village where I live the issue of co-existence with the neighboring Beduin tribe was raised. Living in corrugated tin shacks and in virtual Third World conditions they wanted to plan and modernize their own community exactly where they lived – on the same hill as our town, Eshchar. In meeting with the Arab Al-Na'im council one of the first issues they raised was the need for "co-existence" between Jews and Beduins living in two separate communities but in close proximity to each other. Much to their immediate dismay it was made clear that I did not believe in "co-existence" since we all believe in our own existence first and only once our own essential needs are fulfilled will we then be willing to help "the other". They were given to understand that I fully expected that in any cooperation and/or negotiations with them as representatives of Arab Al-Na'im that they would put their own interests first and only secondly consider the needs of their Jewish neighbors in Eshchar. The point continued to be pressed that this reciprocal logic applied for both sides equally where we put our own community's interests first. Initially there was bewilderment but within a few moments a collective sigh of relief could be heard. A misleading term had been eliminated but the question remained as to what would replace it.

It was on this basis that a cooperative relationship was initiated and "co-existence" gave way to "good neighborly relations" (in Hebrew it sounds better and is more concise). We would help each other when we could and differences of opinion remained legitimate. Neither side was deceived by some false equality of being, need or existence. We did not just "co-exist" but would work towards positive behavior in our dealings, there would be no trampling of each other's rights and when our interests overlapped we would work together and if they did not, we worked separately. We also were not forced into a relationship of co-existence where your neighbor's existence was as significant as your own. The artificial pressure was off as we engaged in unforced voluntary mutual cooperation.

"Good neighborly relations" inferred we would extend aid to each other and in particular Eshchar would help in bringing about an improvement of the material well being for Arab Al-Na'im's residents. On the existential level there was full commitment to oneself but on the everyday level there were many more opportunities for cross community cooperation. The basis of a more honest relationship was formed by identifying the socio-political reality we wanted to create without pretending that we cared for the interests of the other as much as we sought out our own. Today Arab Al-Na'im will be constructing a modern village in the near future after years of bureaucratic planning. Eshchar and certain Jewish organizations lent a hand but the credit goes to the village leaders who realized their first responsibility was to themselves, acted accordingly and did not expect others to do the work for them.

On the one hand we cannot just co-exist, we must co-operate. We best recall the famous saying of Hillel the Elder from 2000 years ago, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what good am I?" When self-preservation is of primary concern each side engages in self-help and only then on such a sturdy foundation works with others to build an overall better society.

Co-existence implies living side by side and says nothing about the quality of the relationship. The Left side of the political map insists we have co-responsibility which to many not only appears forced, but causes resentment. Better we should understand that each group insists on ensuring its own vital interests while working to be "good neighbors".

(More on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and what took place in Acco in a future article.)