Building a new Middle East

May 9, 2002

SANA’A, YEMEN – Isaiah must have been crazy. The ancient prophet, a Shakespeare of Hebrew literature, predicted that someday the wolf would lay down with the lamb, and men would beat their swords into ploughshares. He wrote that almost 3,000 years ago.

We’re still waiting.

Looking at the furnace of Middle East politics, it doesn’t seem likely that the dusty prophecy is around the corner. Yemen in particular has been prodding its Arab neighbours to fight for the Palestinians. Indeed, President Ali Abdullah Saleh says he’s happy to send Islamic warriors, mujahedeen, into the besieged state.

The topic came up while I recently broke bread with 15 or so Arabs. It was the day before Israel’s Independence Day. Sitting on the floor, everyone dipping into communal dishes, my chat was with a Palestinian visiting from Jordan, the first Palestinian I’ve ever met.

It was the type of talk for which one is never ready. Westerners have views about Israel different from the folks here. You might be amazed that some Yemeni believe U.S. President George Bush conspired with Zionists to bomb the World Trade Center. That’s why 4,000 Jews didn’t show up for work there on Sept. 11. Hmm.

But my conversation with Ahmed, a 47-year-old pharmacist exiled in Jordan since 1973, was different in another way. He has known what most of us can only imagine. When modern Israel was birthed in 1948, his family, along with thousands of others, was forced from their home to make way for newcomers, in this case Jews from Iraq.

What if that happened to you, let’s say, at gunpoint? No questions. Just pack your memories, and don’t come back. Ahmed was born and grew up in Nablus, among the Palestinian cities recently under Israeli attack.

But even now, living with two million Palestinians in Jordan, he says he still longs for the old family-home in Haifa, and believes he will return “God willing.”

“The only solution now is military action,” he concludes. He’s a gentle spirit and that seems out of character. But I know the Arab adage: “I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my cousins against my tribe; I and my tribe against the world.”

In his book Blood Brothers, Elias Chacour, a Palestinian scholar and Christian minister, suggests a “demon of militarism” has infected modern Israel. Of interest to the West, he chafes at the long-time silence of the international community while his people live as orphans at home and lepers abroad.

Palestinians have typically responded in two ways. One is quiet resignation. The other, armed uprising. But, Chacour, whose parents actually put him in an orphanage so he could receive a good education in Haifa, shows a third way.

After studies in Europe, he returned home, and with volunteers from Germany and Holland, he built community centres, schools and libraries in Galilee. Peace centres were inaugurated with The Diary of Anne Frank, to show Anne could easily be a modern Palestinian girl. By the early ’80s, within three years of launching youth camps, 4,000 kids benefited. Jews and Palestinians were brought together for dialogue, and dignity was restored.

Chacour continues the work. That is brotherhood.

The bottom line is that building a new Middle East will take a different kind of politics. It will take time. And it will take serious soul-searching by a younger generation who must no longer accept the cruel state of the Arab world.

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May 9, 2002 • Posted in ,
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