People sometimes ask me if I've ever been to Israel - or to the Holy Land. And the answer is that I have, in 1966! That was before the Six Day War, when the political map so radically changed. As a family we did something which would be impossible nowadays, I suspect: drove overland across Europe, through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, in a black Ford Consul 375, spending a week in East Jerusalem (as it then was) before crossing through the Mandelbaum Gate into West Jerusalem (as it then was). The political arrangement seemed to be working quite peacefully, as far as I in my teenage years could tell. However the uneasy equilibrium was destroyed when less than a year later Israel launched preemptive strikes against the perceived threat of hostile forces gathering on all its borders.
I'm not one for pontificating on the rights and wrongs of the present situation in the Middle East. I do suspect that meddling by external "powers" only exacerbates the mess. The British establishment has not learned the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it seems, with its careless encouragement of the Syrian uprising over two years ago. I've just been listening to Katie Melua's thoughtful song:
"If a black man is racist, is it okay
if it's the white man's racism that made him that way,
'cause the bully's the victim, they say?
By some sense they're all the same,
'cause the line between wrong and right
is the width of a thread from a spider's web...". Apportioning blame is a mug's, or a thug's, game.
One thing I am certain of is that isolation and non-communication is not a productive policy. Which is why I am sorry that Stephen Hawking has decided not to attend a conference next month in Israel. At first it was announced "for health reasons"; then it was because of a boycott of Israel by British academics - New York Times report. It's sad, because dialogue is always more productive than silence. It's ironic, because the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem appears to be on the threshhold of a breakthrough in an ethical stem-cell treatment for ALS/MND (from which he and I suffer) and other neurodegenerative diseases, and I personally wouldn't want Israel to boycott me or fellow MND patients with the fruit of their research. A further irony is his nifty speech-generation device which is so well known as his "voice" has at its heart "a fiendishly clever silicon chip that was designed in . . . yes, Israel" (Rod Liddle, in The Sunday Times yesterday).
I much prefer the Jewish conductor, Daniel Barenboim's approach with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1999 with Palestinian American, Edward Said, which brings together musicians from all over the Middle East, including Israel and Iran. "The aim of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians and pave the way for a peaceful and fair solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Barenboim himself has spoken of the ensemble as follows:
'The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project (for) the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to - and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago - ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.'" (Wikipedia)
I was recently sent a link to this fascinating YouTube clip about Ulfat Khaider, an Arab-Israeli athlete. On Facebook, she's described as reaching high peaks "not only as a mountain climber, extreme sportswoman and volleyball player (she played for the Israeli national team), but as a remarkable woman striving for peace": YouTube Ulfat Khaider. This comment followed on Facebook: "Et on dit qu'il y a l'apartheid en Israel?! Pas seulement qu'il n'y a pas d'Apartheid, bien au contraire: dans quel pays arabe elle aurait pu devenir la champion qu'elle est? la femme libre et moderne qu'elle est? Bravo Ulfat et merci!" (And they say there's apartheid in Israel! Not only is there not apartheid - quite the contrary. In which Arab country could she have become the champion she is? The liberated modern woman that she is? Bravo and thanks!)
I try not to be naïve about the complexities of the Middle East and the Palestinian "question". Of course, I don't know the solution, but I would say, whether you're a scientist, musician or sportsman, that fighting ignorance is the better way than colluding with it. In Barenboim's words, "It is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it."