THE BLOG

The Israeli in the Middle (East)

Middle of the night, Ben Gurion airport.

I handed my passport to the clerk at the Royal Jordanian Airline desk.

"Is Amman your final destination?" he asked, while tapping on his keyboard. 

"Yes," I answered. 

He paused, looked at me, suspicious, and asked, "What do you have to do in Amman?" 

"I am attending a conference," I said. 

It was a few hours later that day that I realized that what I had to do in Jordan was much more than just that.

As part of the Global Shapers network, I was invited to the World Economic Forum Middle East and North Africa event, which started with a Shapers-only conference in the Dead Sea, organized by the Amman hub. 

I was invited as the co-founder of a social organization. I am well practiced in playing this role. Yet, I am less practiced in playing the role that I was actually given without any notice -- representing my country, Israel. A country that, whether people acknowledge it or not, is a crucial part of the Middle East. 

When the conference started, I met entrepreneurs from Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and more. It wasn't a political event. It was all about entrepreneurship.

In the beginning I couldn't get used to the fact that I was meeting people that look similar to a lot of my friends, share the same interests, laugh from the same jokes -- but some of them are not allowed to upload pictures of us on Facebook. Politics has declared us enemies. 

I know that the next words I write will sound naive. Sometimes, naive voices represent the sane questions that are dodging the madness that many people have become used to. 

While you read this, try to dim your cynicism and bear with me:  

I am shouting this statement for the entire world to hear:

It is so bizarre to be declared the enemy of someone you have never met, just because of where he was born. 

Some of the people that I met did not feel comfortable talking to me. In their not talking to me, it meant maintaining the status quo. Actually, not speaking with your declared enemies is not only accepting, but preserving the situation the way it is and not creating opportunity for change. It was the open people that had the courage to hear the other side, and for the first time not through the media, that made the difference. 

In one of the conversations I had, a person I had just met told me: "I don't see you as your country, I see you as an individual person. And I would like to get to know you, and understand your perspective." So we started to speak, and exchange our opinions, our anger, our understanding. I tried to make him understand how Israelis can feel isolated and threatened in the middle of the region. He tried to make me understand the consequences of my government's policies on him and on his friends' lives. We understood some of each other's points. On others, we disagreed. But that was also fine.

These "behind the scenes" friendships are so important. It's about education. We are educated to be fearful of each other.  But when you meet like-minded people your age from other countries, the stigmas we have about each other start to shift.

The greatest value of these regional friendships, is the questions these interactions raise within you.

As an Israeli, you know your own story very well. When you meet people from the region, you get to hear their stories as well. And soon it's inevitable that you start uncomfortably doubting the existence of an ultimate true narrative that applies to all the people that live here.

I think the reason some people from both sides prefer not talking to each other at all, even when they have the opportunity to do so, is because they fear questioning their own stories. They have a stigma, an opinion that is very popular in their society, and they are afraid to pierce it, to hear about the other side.

I wasn't afraid. I asked the Palestinian delegates everything about their lives. I wanted to know it all. And in return, I did my best to represent all the main Israeli opinions I know: left, center and right.  

What was common to most of our conversations was that after presenting all the arguments, we all had the same closing sentence of the discussion: I don't know what the right solution is. This, along with a sigh of helplessness. Behind the scenes, we allowed ourselves to question what we have been taught to think, and could honestly pose one another with these basic questions. What is right? And what can we do with what we know is wrong? 

Often in discussions, when I try to explain each side of the conflict, and why we are all right and wrong at the same time, people just stop me and say, "you are actually not saying anything." Am I not saying anything? Isn't every conflict solved by a certain acknowledgment of the other side? Aren't conflicts only solved by acknowledging that the other views the reality in a different manner and that we both need to meet somewhere in the middle? 

Too often, when stating a position, people expect you to present black or white arguments. It seems as though we are all expected to play the game of always having one concrete answer. Politicians are expected to represent one story, and to never change or question it.

Luckily, some people in this region are brave enough to question their narrative. They question the legitimate actions they can take as citizens and ponder the possible ultimate solution for both sides. They wonder if it will ever be resolved.

Most of them don't know the answer. But at least they are raising these questions.

Questioning your narrative is not a weakness. It can come from a place of strength.  I wish some politicians in our region would do so more often. I wish leaders in this region would meet each other with a question mark instead of an exclamation point. I wish that they would respect the fact that we are all here, and we can learn to live here together.  Then, maybe their conversations with each other will look totally different, and have meaningful results. 

Until then, I need to continue shifting my stigmas, questioning my narrative, and understanding what the hell my role is in all of this.

Subscribe to the World Post email.