Sunday, November 26, 2006

Inside Israel: Part 1

When sworn enemies rock 'n' roll together
The New Paper, 15/11/2006
(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited

She was one against 12 in a group of 33 teenagers from as many countries. She was a Jewish Israeli, representing Israel. The 12 were from Arab or Islamic countries, or Muslims from other nations. When they first met in New York in the winter of 1956/57, she tried to make friends with the 12. They refused to even acknowledge her greetings. But she had no problems making friends with the others attending the New York Herald Tribune youth forum. I was the delegate from Singapore.

I watched as the lanky Daphna took the rejection from the 12 in her stride. Even though she understood the reasons for their hostility, it was clear that she was hurt. The main reason, which persists to this day, is that the Arabs are angry that their Palestinian brothers and sisters have been driven from much of their motherland by the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel. Non-Arab Muslims share in the pain of the dispossessed, refugees in their own territory or in other peoples', victims of big-power politics. The Jewish Israelis feel that they are the true victims, dispersed and persecuted for thousands of years in many countries, who have finally come home. And they are not safe at home because of constant attacks by enemies who want to delete Israel from the world map.

As an 18-year-old from colonial Singapore , I was shocked by the depth of the animosity between the Jews and the Arabs, and by the unconditional support given to the Arabs by the other Muslims in the group. Then, over the three months of the youth forum when the delegates stayed together or separately with American families, I learnt an abiding lesson in human relations: Even the worst of enemies can become friends when they see each other as fellow human beings.

Before the end of the forum, Daphna was treated as a friendly delegate by all of the 12 who had spurned her.

The most heartwarming sight: Moroccan delegate Mohd Amine, who is much shorter than Daphna, dancing the rock 'n' roll with her and repeatedly swinging her over his shoulder! In Israel during the last two weeks, from what I saw and heard as a first-timer in the country, I came to the sad conclusion that there is probably no solution to the Israel-Palestine problem for so long as both states want to exist.

To so many of the protagonists on both sides, co-existence itself is a no-go word. I was one of 30 members of the Singapore Press Club on a 'sightseeing and seek understanding' visit facilitated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry but paid for by club members themselves.

It was heart-wrenching hearing the Holocaust stories again and seeing the memorials and the museums of a people who not only survived their diaspora, but who have also hung on to their identity and thrived to the extent that many others feel threatened or, at best, envious. What was heartwarming, though, was to hear a few Jewish Israelis telling us that it was time for the Jews to drop their victim syndrome and help alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians, their fellow human beings.

The writer is the former editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay Newspapers Division.

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