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Returning from Israel Believing That Peace Is Possible

I’ve just returned home from spending nearly two weeks in Israel, thanks to the Once in a Lifetime project by Stand With Us and the wonderful students at Hebrew University who made it happen. While I was there, rockets were fired from Gaza, prompting retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. The worst violence on the Israeli-Lebanese border since 2006 happened. Yet I come home believing more than ever that peace can be achieved.

It is too often stated that Israeli Jews cannot live with Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims. I have no illusions about the uncompromising nature of radical Islam, or the tub of mass hatred that young children are forced to bathe in. Until the forces spreading this extremism are stopped, peace is impossible. But I saw very inspiring signs while in Israel.

One of the most common things I hear on talk radio — and at colleges — is that both sides just hate each other too much and are equally guilty. On the Israeli side, I never heard one negative generalization about Palestinians or Arabs. In fact, they are crying out to define themselves outside of the conflict. They express their frustration at terms like “pro-Palestinian” that make it sound as if one can only care for one side. It was repeatedly stated to me that they are fighting radical Islam, not the Muslim world, and not the Palestinians as a people. No discussion of the hardships they face went without the Israeli participant decrying the Palestinians’ own hardships.

In Jerusalem, which stands at the heart of the conflict, I saw Jews and Muslims buying and selling from one another in the friendliest of manners. City officials told the Once in a Lifetime group of bloggers that the vast majority of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem are carried out by those outside of the city. The biggest conflict Jerusalem is having is between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, not between Jews and Muslims. Culturally, it can be difficult to distinguish between the secular Jews and the Muslims, as they dress and joke around the same way. Those that live closest to the Jews are the least inclined to hate them.

It is inaccurate to say Jews and non-Jews can’t live peacefully and respectfully together in Israel, because it is already happening. We visited a Muslim village named Abu Ghosh that is excitedly visited by Israeli Jews for its hummus and houses Roman Catholic monks. An outside observer unfamiliar with the conflict would be unable to tell that a conflict existed.

Peace is increasingly possible because extremist propaganda cannot survive exposure and reality. As globalization increases, cultures and peoples interact more, and as we saw in Jerusalem, this creates bonds. There is a huge amount of tension over Israel’s security measures, but the truth is that peace for Israelis is good for Palestinians. After the so-called “Apartheid Wall” was erected, suicide bombings dropped over 90 percent. This led to economic growth and peace for both sides.

Last year the West Bank economy grew between 7 and 11 percent, “helped along by strong economic performances in neighboring Israel.” The progress is visible with restaurants, movie theaters, and small businesses being created — with Israeli help. The Jewish National Fund has planted 3,000 trees in a new city north of Ramallah, and Israelis are actively involved in community planning and agricultural efforts. Ironically, if a Palestinian state is to be created, it will be done with Israeli partnership.

The other hopeful trend is that Palestinians are looking for alternatives. I often say: to know radical Islam is to hate radical Islam. Only 37 percent of those in Gaza view Hamas positively, and 52 percent view the terror group negatively. A full 10 percent more in the West Bank view Hamas positively, at 47 percent. Hamas is more popular where it doesn’t govern than where it does! Less than one-quarter of Israeli Arabs support Hamas or Hezbollah, and 35 percent of Israeli Arabs express a negative attitude towards Jews in general, a sharp contrast to the astronomically high numbers elsewhere in the Arab world.

These statistics tell us that those who are the most exposed to radical Islam and Israeli Jews are most likely to be inoculated against extremism. The solution, therefore, cannot be to create two homogeneous states with little interaction between the two, as if they are rabid bulldogs waiting to tear each other apart. Free flow of information and commerce will be essential.

The biggest obstacle to peace isn’t the settlements or any other land dispute. It is the lack of integration with the world that allows extremist forces to poison minds. As the lines of support from the state sponsors of terrorism are severed, you will see things rapidly change as the truth comes to light. The ideology of radical Islam cannot survive without outside subsidies.

There may be no peace process in the traditional sense of the term, as you cannot accommodate those seeking your destruction, but a process towards peace outside of the official negotiating table is underway. The Israelis I hung out with during my stay, the ones who should be most pessimistic about the prospect for peace, are the most optimistic. And now I see why.