Here’s the problem: You can memorize all the terms, understand their origins, become conversant in the nuances, even know when not to use them. The Zionists and Palestinians. The settlers and the freedom fighters. Those who support Fatah or Hamas or Likud or Labor.
And then you meet the people and they confuse you. Like the proud Zionist who uses his brilliant legal mind to represent Palestinians. Or the Palestinian who studies Buddhism and pacifism and teaches peaceful resistance to his people. Or the settler who has come to love his Palestinian neighbor or the Christian Palestinian citizen of Israel who believes Jesus wants him to help all people. It never really adds up. The labels never really help define any of these people.
But Americans like labels. I like labels. It helps me sort people into good and bad. Saint and sinner. It makes sense of messiness and explains the reason why people act the way they do. Labels take away some of my discomfort and impotence.
I have written a book about Israelis and Palestinians. I have studied their history and politics and learned dual narratives on most subjects. But I have been undone by the people I have met. Good people. Loving people. People like you and me who simply want to live quiet lives with their families. And people who tell me stories of losses and agony I can barely stand to hear. I have wept with Israelis and Palestinians and I have laughed with them, too. I have been touched by their kindness and sometimes surprised by what they believe about the other. So often I wish I could take them by the hand and introduce them to one another. But there are walls, both physical and cultural, that too often prevent that.
Most Israelis have never met a Palestinian. It’s easier that way. You can believe Palestinians are different kinds of people if you don’t know any. Most Palestinians have only met Israeli soldiers. They see Israelis as occupiers and, too often, brutes.
But I know them both. I know that the labels are useful for slogans and sound bites and wars. But the names and the stories would undo all of that. Perhaps that’s why the political leaders work so hard to keep people apart. It would be harder to launch a missile toward the home of someone you might know. It would be harder to drop an explosive on an apartment where a friend might live.
I watch the images from Israel and Gaza and I look at the faces. I am reminded of Daniel and Sami and Jamal and Layla. I see fear on both sides and I wish they only knew each other. I wish they could see that fighting each other is the last thing they should be doing. But mostly I weep because the labels are winning and the names are too often appearing in obituaries.