The world often criticizes the harshness of Israel’s actions, especially in terms of their military. For every instance of violence from either side, there is retaliation. For every bomb from Hamas, there is a missile sent to Gaza.
The conflict is unending because the animosity from either side has festered over too many years to simply go away, and the solution for this constant back-and-forth is much more complicated than any Western-thinking individual could possibly comprehend.
The Middle East is a land so distant and misunderstood by our cultures that the idea of people in America having such strong ideas and opinions about the conflict is laughable. Watching YouTube videos, reading Facebook articles, and gathering information from the countless other media sources that report issues from the Israeli/Palestinian territories is such an unbelievably insufficient way to understand what goes on, yet people in the US base their entire understanding in these reports.
Having gone to the land multiple times and formed relationships with these people who live in the land, I feel that I possess an understanding entirely different than if I were merely reading about it. I’ve experienced what it’s like to be in this place so rich with life and culture and history, and my experiences contribute to my overall understanding of this place wrought with conflict. The people I’ve spoken to have shared their testimonies and missions with me; people from all walks of life and nearly every country around the world come to this place. All who seek shelter in the land can find it, whether they be Muslim, Christian, Jewish, secular or otherwise.
While most interactions I had in Israel were good and most people were entirely open to sharing their stories and families’ histories, one particular experience I had while painting in the Dead Sea was not so positive. This was an encounter I had alone with an Arab man. I do not know where he was from, who he was, or how many other women he had treated similarly. I did not even learn his name.
He made me feel completely unsafe, violating my privacy and overall maintaining an apparent disinterest in my well-being. Without going into immense detail, I will say that he inappropriately exposed himself to me when I was completely alone and without defense.
I would have remembered this day as one of my most outstanding accomplishments: my first international art project, permanently installed in an outdoor gallery beside the Dead Sea. My art, in the Holy Land! I am extremely proud and inexpressibly fortunate to have participated in this project, but my memory of it will forever be tainted by the presence of that man.
Could have been worse, I keep telling myself. I was picked back up by the kind Palestinian man charged with helping me, and he was infuriated when I recalled the story in choking tears. Knowing there was nothing he could do to pursue this man who drove a white car with an indistinct license plate, he did what he could to cheer me up for the rest of the time. I spent that night in a Kibbutz with a generous formerly American woman named Linda, and on my way there I discussed the instance with my Israeli driver. “Oh, that’s pretty normal,” he said.
Since he worked on the beach, he could recall for me many instances in the past (before there were so many restrictions on who was allowed to enter the beach) when Arab men would come to the beach alone; only for the chance to grab and grope women in swimsuits, or worse. Since it happened so often, he explained, they had to start refusing entry to Arab men who came to the beach without their families. “I think it is because of their religion,” he explained cooly, clearly having thought over the subject. “Since they cover their women, you know, to only show their hands and faces.”
I was amazed at the way this young man seemed to justify and almost excuse the unthinkable actions of the man who was still fresh in my memory. I wanted everyone to be angry; I wanted blood, I wanted sympathy, I wanted to know that my feelings of absolute and intolerable violation were legitimate.
I spoke to my hostess Linda about it later, over some leftovers she heated up for us. Her reply was not unlike the driver’s: “That’s normal, typical of Arab men, it’s happened to me…” She told me a story of when she was still very new to Israel (by the time I met her, she’d been there about 40 years). When she was on the beach in Tel Aviv with her husband one day, she was suddenly grabbed from behind, a man’s hand clasped around one of her breasts. Thinking it was her husband, she turned to see the face of a strange man.
She recalled this instance with the calmness of a memory long past as I sat there in utter shock. She also shared with me that a waterpark built in the 90’s was closed down not long after it opened, simply for the reason that Arab men were harassing and touching women wearing Western-style swimsuits. “It’s not unheard of here,” she said matter-of-factly. “The culture here is just very progressive and modern while the countries around us…aren’t.”
It occurred to me that this was more than merely excusing the people committing such atrocious actions against women–they were explaining to me the fragile position that the State of Israel exists in today. Although the cultures differ vastly, accommodations must be made both in systematic functioning and in the thought processes of each person in order for Israel to exist in harmony with its neighbors. What that man did to me was absolutely wrong, but he was not condemned by either of the Israelis that I met because it is so normalized and almost expected by now.
That is what it means to be an Israeli. It means that you always expect ill intentions to be lurking around the corner, so you must be armed with hostility. Thankfully, more populated areas are always accompanied by armed IDF soldiers ready to confront potential threats at any moment. Gun laws are extremely strict in the land of Israel, so having the protection of an ever-present military is invaluable. In addition to that, the mandatory enlistment of all Israeli citizens who have turned eighteen ensures that each person is equipped with the skills required to defend and protect themselves and the people around them.
I do not say this to make an overall assessment of the Arab peoples. Like I mentioned before, the man who checked up on me through the process—the only one who responded to the strange man’s actions with anger—was a Palestinian man. Living in Jericho but working in Israel, this man was one willing to utilize the benefits of the system while still dwelling among his own peoples. He spoke Arabic, Hebrew, and English quite well, having adapted in order to survive as best he could in the present situation. The West Bank is an extremely large portion of land that is entirely run by the Palestinian Authority, yet this man chooses to work in the land of Israel.
Numerous different people we met and had the pleasure of speaking to were first or second generation immigrants from Arab cultures such as Syria and Lebanon, and Israel was a safe place for them to escape from oppression and violence. Even Palestinian peoples wish to come instead to Israel in order to escape their government and oppressive culture. Many female Palestinian artists use their work to speak on the topics of women’s roles in Arab cultures. Making feminist art and exposing the oppression of women is looked down upon by their families and communities, but these women feel the need to say these things and speak out against their oppressors. Often times, these artists show work in Tel Aviv so that they might avoid persecution in their own towns and cities.
To offer just a couple different contrasts between Israel and it’s neighbors, I will share that every year in Tel Aviv, the pride parade takes place and is a massive week-long event that celebrates LGBTQ culture; meanwhile in Gaza, same-sex intercourse is punishable with up to 10 years in prison and torture. Progressive actions taken by the Israeli government in 2018 included massively cutting carbon emissions while the Palestinian Authority (finally) prohibited the “honor killings” of women.
All cultures should be understood for what they are and how they have come to be, and the Arab cultures that surround Israel are no exception. If Israel has acted cruelly in military affairs, it has been in response to cruelty. If Israel is a world power that seems unsympathetic and cold, it has become that way as a defensive mechanism. When Israel, as a nation and people, has confronted violence and hatred from various cultures throughout all of its history, how else might it be expected to evolve?
I can only speak from my own experiences, interactions, and research. But the people of Israel are many and vary immensely in terms of background, religious practices, sexual orientation, outlook on life, and past experiences. When Israel is a place for people to live safely and without fear, the consideration of who they might need safety from is essential to the overall understanding of what really goes on there.
-Christina J Moore