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Tower of Babel Redux: Beit Lehem or…Beit Lehem?

by Jesse Melman | Published on October 1, 2007

Bethlehem—Beit Lehem in both Arabic and Hebrew—lies just a few kilo­me­ters from southern Jerusalem and yet, phys­i­cally cut off from Israel proper by the Separation Barrier, the city feels as though in a completely different country. On a recent group trip to the Palestinian city run by Encounter Programs, which was geared towards bringing non-Israeli Jews currently living in Israel to meet with Palestinian moder­ates and non-violent activists, it became clear just how far apart the two sides are. Through expo­sure to moderate Palestinian views on how to both heal the situ­a­tion and the demor­al­izing results of Israeli policy in the region I left rent apart by the ever-widening chasm that divides even the peace activists on both sides. This discon­nect is best expressed through the all-too-fluid nature of language.

The names for Bethlehem in Arabic and Hebrew are decep­tively similar. Although they appear to be derived from the same Semitic root, they in fact have very dissim­ilar mean­ings. “Lehem” in Arabic means “meat” while the same word in Hebrew means “bread.” Therefore, while the names for the city are virtu­ally iden­tical, Palestinians and Israelis are not in fact saying the same thing when uttering the same sounds. This homonymic decep­tion perfectly epit­o­mizes the nuance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even within the peace camp. For while we in the West mean certain things by open society, peace, and non-violence, these Palestinian moder­ates mean some­thing intrin­si­cally different.

We met with a self-selected group of indi­vid­uals, many of whom run or are active in Palestinian non-violent orga­ni­za­tions. I expected these self-declared moder­ates to hold certain basic values, such as a general abhor­rence for violence and renun­ci­a­tion of suicide bomb­ings. However, it seems that “non-violence” in Palestinian English means some­thing quite distinct from that in American English.

One speaker to whom we had the priv­i­lege of listening is active in the dialogue group Former Combatants for Peace. This group is comprised of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian mili­tants who have put down their arms, osten­sibly disgusted with the continued blood­shed on both sides, to meet with each other in order to promote peace activ­i­ties. And yet, when asked by a partic­i­pant on the program what the respon­si­bility of Palestinians is in solving the conflict, he responded “What choice do they have? They must keep fighting!” How could it be that a non-violence worker, a former mili­tant, believes that the Palestinians must keep fighting? Non-violence, in his view, is an optional tool that he has now chosen since violence didn’t work for him. But heck, others might have more luck with bloodshed.

We also met with a woman on the local council of Al-Walaje, a Palestinian village completely encir­cled by the Security Barrier (here, as in the whole area of Bethlehem, the Barrier is in fact a solid concrete wall), who is active in efforts aimed at rerouting the wall by means of the Israeli court system and exposing the issue to inter­na­tional media. However, this non-violent worker, in recounting a harrowing personal expe­ri­ence at a check­point, told us with a glare in her eyes that had she a weapon at the time, she would have killed the Israeli soldier. She then said, in stead­fast seri­ous­ness, that if she ever were to come upon him again she would kill him. Imagine Rosa Parks declaring her intent to murder lest she ever come across the bus driver from that fateful day.

How can one recon­cile the paradox of non-violence workers giving a verbal carte blanche to their fellow people to continue fighting, to murder? Simply put, non-violence in the Palestinian English vernac­ular has a nuance that it lacks in Western circles. While tradi­tional Western non-violence move­ments have linked a moral abhor­rence to violence itself, these Palestinians merely seem to view non-violence in the same way that Hamas uses the term “hudna” (a limited cease­fire, whose basis is found in the Qur’an), namely, as a time-bound tool used to achieve the ends of Palestinian state­hood. And, much like a hudna, when non-violent methods outlast their useful­ness, other means become prac­tical. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the “cloak of non-violence” is currently being used in order to “cover impotence.”

Where is the Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Palestinians, who proclaimed that nonvi­o­lence means that “You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him”? Who is the West Bank Gandhi who declared “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only tempo­rary; the evil it does is perma­nent”? (Advocates of Israel should not gloat—the appalling lack of lead­er­ship is not a plague contracted by Palestinians alone.)

And yet, while the current state of the Palestinian peace move­ment seems so bleak, this is not a carte blanche for those on the other side of the secu­rity fence to throw up their hands in frus­tra­tion and blame their own inac­tion on the Palestinian paral­ysis. Israel still must move forward in constantly inquiring into its own proce­dures and polit­ical behavior, responding to the impli­ca­tions, both moral and prac­tical, of its current poli­cies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Corruption and violence within Palestinian society does not portend perfec­tion (or even effec­tive­ness) of Israeli policy. Trips such as Encounter expose future Jewish leaders to the real­i­ties on the ground and to the hard ques­tions such as the benefit of house demo­li­tions and seem­ingly ad hoc secu­rity raids. The Jewish state must constantly undergo its own cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of its soul, in order to main­tain a posi­tion of maximum morality in the face of a complex situ­a­tion. And who knows? Maybe a revised Israeli strategy will in turn provide for a reduc­tion in fric­tion, allowing for space in which this collec­tion of semi-non-violence workers can coalesce, grow, and blossom into a true peace movement.

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