Blog Home » Voices from the Frontlines

Inside the Israeli Conundrum: Insights from Mati Milstein – Part 2

17 January 2013 2 Comments

A Palestinian boy offers his popsicle to an Israeli Border Police officer in the West Bank city of Hebron. (Photo by Mati Milstein)

Connection Point Director
Yasmina Mrabet interviewed writer and photojournalist Mati Milstein about his recent book, My New Middle East: Inside the Israeli Conundrum.

His responses are below. This is the second part of a two-part interview. Read part one here.


You mentioned that you wanted to remove readers from their comfort zone. Do you feel you have removed yourself from your comfort zone? And if so, in what ways?

I was terrified of Palestinians. I was terrified of entering the West Bank. It was a place I didn’t know and didn’t understand. It was a place where I was certain that Israelis, if they took a wrong turn and ended up there, would be lynched. It was a big black spot on my map.

But evolving circumstances led to changed situations, and I eventually ended up there myself. The first time I went to Ramallah, I was terrified. I almost turned back twice before crossing the Qalandiya checkpoint. But, to my shock, nothing happened. No one even looked at me twice. A friend showed me around the city, and the whole time I was certain at any moment I would be identified as Israeli and stoned to death on the spot. Obviously, I wasn’t. And eventually my perception of place and people changed. I no longer feared Ramallah.

The idea of “other” is a false construct. Because this or that person has a different ID card or speaks a different language or lives on the other side of a wall, they are the other? It makes no sense. I’ve found there are those amongst the ranks of the other who are, in fact, much closer to me than those who are supposed to be in my own camp. My presumed allies are often my enemies, and my presumed enemies are often my allies. The binary is a fiction.

In your book you wrote, “My personal walls, built up by years of education and socialization, began to crumble. I had friends on the other side.” Is it possible that that kind of human-to-human interaction between the two “sides” is the only thing that can lead to a shift in the conflict? Can you say more about the role of education – are you telling us here that what you were taught turned out to be incorrect?

I cannot say that what I was taught growing up in school and what I absorbed from my society as a child were incorrect. But it was certainly incomplete. It told only one part of a story, and told it in a way designed to provide comfort and ideological support to one “side” – to Diaspora Jewish communities and to Israel. On the one hand, this is entirely understandable; every nation has myths around which they construct a communal identity. This is essential to group cohesion, particular in the early stages of a community’s formation. Israelis (and Diaspora Jews) do this just as do Palestinians (and Diaspora Palestinians). But, on the other hand, these myths are only a very small part of the story and holding them up as a sole and incontrovertible truth in the context of a conflict is dangerous and short-sighted. The understandings provided by educational systems are no more “correct” or “true” than are understandings that come from alternative sources. Curricula are designed by states, and states have clear agendas. It is naïve to think otherwise.

I do think personal interaction is the best way to be exposed to and to internalize alternate narratives. This is an approach I first experienced in the context of Holocaust education. I was stuffed with Holocaust books, classes, films and museums as far back as the first grade and well into adulthood. But what truly made it real to me was meeting with survivors, actual people who had themselves survived ghettos and death camps, situations I only saw in movies or books.

I don’t know if human-to-human interaction between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to a shift in – let alone a resolution to – the conflict. But it certainly can’t hurt. During the course of the past decade, I read a lot about the military occupation and its effects on individual Palestinians. But it was only upon hearing firsthand stories from Palestinians and making new friends, only when I myself sat for hours at checkpoint traffic that I began to truly internalize the experience of the “other.” Only then did the experience of life under occupation begin to sink in and become more real and tangible to me.

I am not so obtuse as to claim that, just because I waited at a checkpoint, “I understand what its like to be a Palestinian under occupation.” I’m still an Israeli and there’s nothing to be done about that; I will always be on the strong side of the current power dynamic. But the ability and the willingness to hear are essential. Only by hearing and integrating the experience of “the other” can we create a climate in which resolution and reconciliation is a more feasible and realistic option.

I didn’t have a magical epiphany that in a puff of smoke and a flash of light suddenly altered my entire personal perspective and political approach, leading me to recognize the Palestinian people and their narrative. Reading blogs and newspaper articles didn’t cut it. This was a direct result of personal contact and interaction with Palestinian peers.

Israeli security forces gather to counter a Palestinian demonstration at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. (Photo by Mati Milstein)

Is there a vision for a resolution to the conflict that you support? And do you feel your answer to this question could be influenced by the fact that you are on a specific side of the power dynamic as an Israeli?

I am obviously on the stronger side in the very clearly-defined power dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this grants me certain advantages and privileges. But these advantages lose their relevance in the parallel context of an Israeli individual operating within his own society. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies have lots to reconcile internally before they can begin to seek reconciliation on a wider level.

It is clear that the current trajectory of increased radicalization and extremism will get us nowhere. Segregation and separation – something that is being increasingly and often blindly promoted by both Israelis and Palestinians – serves only to widen both social and political gaps. There is a key need to recognize existing similarities, both on the micro level between individuals and on the macro level in terms of recognition and a coordination of joint strategy and goals. There are Israelis and Palestinians working towards solutions, but solutions cannot be reached unilaterally. I see a possible future in which a new, revolutionary infrastructure is formulated that accommodates all people living in this land with full and equal rights.

Can you talk more about the power asymmetry in this conflict, and how that impacts the possibility of reconciliation within and between Israeli and Palestinian societies?

Israel, as the reigning power in this land, has the ability to unilaterally open and close points of contact, freedom of movement and channels of communication between Palestinians in different areas (within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza) and between Israelis and Palestinians. At the moment, Israel is choosing actions that close rather than open these channels. This affects Palestinian social life and economy as well as political activity and organization.

These actions mostly affect Palestinian civilians but they also affect Israeli civilian interaction with Palestinians. For example, Israeli law forbids the entry of its citizens into cities under the control of the Palestinian Authority. This prevents contact, on the individual level, between most Israelis and Palestinians. There are very few locations in which both Israelis and Palestinians can legally meet; even in these locations, entry of Israeli civilians is often actively discouraged or prevented by the Israeli security forces.

There is also a movement initiated by activists from within Palestinian society to prevent what is known as “normalization.” Though the anti-normalization movement has specific guidelines and mainly targets Palestinian organizations, projects or events that collaborate with official or other institutional Israeli bodies, these guidelines seem to be sometimes interpreted much more loosely. As a result, there is sometimes pressure on Palestinian individuals to refrain from interaction with Jewish Israeli citizens, even when the latter don’t represent Israeli official bodies or other institutions or organizations in any way.

Both the Israeli state apparatuses and Palestinian political movements can choose – each in accordance with their own greatly-varied degree of power and control – to loosen or tighten limits on human interaction as they so choose. This statement I make, by the way, without drawing any parallel between the ability of Palestinian and Israeli authorities to make and implement decisions; the final word and total control is always in Israeli hands.

The Palestinian and Israeli political leaderships don’t require dialogue between their respective populations in order to impose a political settlement from above. But I see no evidence of any political leadership moving forward in any positive direction. In light of this vacuum, I see a need for civilian initiatives or alternative leaderships to move forward on their own. There are still, however, so many official and societal barriers preventing this from happening on any significant scale.

If there is one thing readers should take from your book – one message you want them to walk away with, what is it?

You might say that there are two kinds of people in the word: the kind that talks and the kind that listens. The Israeli-Palestinian situation is way more complex than you can even begin to imagine. Even those living here and dealing with it on an ongoing daily basis can always learn something new. Certainly overseas observers, so far distanced from the subtleties of our reality, would do best to keep their mouths closed and their ears open.

Listen to new information. Consider it. Keep an open mind. Allow yourself to go to places that make you uncomfortable, places that scare you. You can always reject later. But you do yourself a disservice if you reject someone’s story before he or she even gets the chance to tell it to you.

My New Middle East is available from Amazon in electronic and paperback print editions.


More from Mati Milstein:

Inside the Israeli Conundrum: Insights from Mati Milstein – Part 1

There are already Palestinian Gandhis — they’re women

Follow Peace X Peace on Twitter (@PeaceXPeace)

Join our mailing list for weekly peacebuilding stories.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading ... Loading ...
2 Comments to “Inside the Israeli Conundrum: Insights from Mati Milstein – Part 2”
  1. Daniel S. Moskowitz says:

    In Mati’s comments, I see an echo of Martin Buber, who said a lot of the same things over 70 years ago. Trying to Understand the Perspective of the “Other” is the Way to Achieve Spiritual Growth whether Peace is actually “Achieved” or not.”Ethnocentricity”, on the other hand, tends to lead to a Distorted Perspective and Abusive Behavior even if one is CONFORMING to all the Dictates prescribed by one’s own Religion. It is important that Mati RECOGNIZES that, whatever Traumas the Jewish People have Experienced, Israel and it’s ally, the United States have the “Upper Hand” in terms of POWER in Relation to the Palestinians. Some people on Facebook will tell me that Power itself is a Destructive Thing……that only Love is Pure and Power is Cruel and Abusive by Nature. This is not what the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has Tried to Teach People. Rather, Thich Nhat Hanh tries to teach people to use the Power they have in the World CONSTRUCTIVELY rather than DENYING that one has any power at all.

  2. interesting article, should be done more like this, keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply