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Freedom of Friendship – Can there be peace without normalisation?

11/12/2009

Normalisation is a political concept, which refers to the measures and acts committed by governments towards each other, such as the exchanging of ambassadors, other official contacts and conducting trade.

The main problem now in the Middle East is the different perception between Israel and the Arab world related to this issue of normalisation. While Israel wants normalisation to happen before returning land, on the other hand the Arab world insists that land must first be returned and that this will lead to the development of more normal relations.

Yesterday we – the ICSR Atkin Fellows - conducted a talk related to this subject, with a focus on normalisation among the people themselves. The aim was to try to understand whether or not there is normalisation between Israelis and Arabs on an individual level and what can be done about this.

Occasionally, we hear the argument that peace is different when it is conducted between people rather than between governments, and usually this is true. When people get to know each other on  a personal level, differences can be left behind and experiences common to all of us prevail, such as the love we hold for our families and the search for meaning in life.

I have met and interviewed some Arab Muslims, while in London for my research – usually students that came to London to study or their friends that have finished their studies and decided to stay. During these meetings I felt that even though they are intelligent, arrived some years ago from their countries and that they have a similar background, it was very difficult to conduct the discussions.

Though I didn’t expect it to be easy, I did not believe that I might be considered (to be) a recruiter of (a) dark Israeli intelligence agencies every time I  tried to get an Arab Muslim to talk to me or to introduce me to his friends. Even my colleague, who I find to be a very intelligent and open person, cannot really socialise with me after office hours because it is a crime to have Israeli friends in Syria; and as I found out lately this still applies even if you are not a Syrian resident, as you have to be careful not to upset anyone, and may even face some consequences.

Moreover, during the interviews that deal with life and thoughts, I had the feeling that there was some sort of barrier between us, one that I could not break, even after so many years of interview experience with tough criminals and terrorists.

I do not think this was a conscious decision on their part. They were all so nice and tried to answer my questions, but it seemed that they thought carefully about every word they used, to the point that it was sometimes hard to understand how they really felt about the issue.

In trying to cover this issue at the talk, I faced the extreme attitude of a Muslim participant that declared that all Muslims and Arabs hate Israel and therefore there will be no normalisation ever.

As I said in the beginning, I do believe that relationships between people are easier and more reliable then between governments, but on both sides much work needs to be done in order to get people to change their attitudes and prejudices towards each other, despite the influence of the media, occupation, mentality and history.