'The whole country is a controlled experiment on humans'

By Etgar Keret, April 18, 2008

The writer reflects on his divided, conflicted homeland, where yet there is room still for hope

In the region I come from, every person you stop on the street will say the same thing: why has this place we live in, which could so easily have been heaven, turned into hell? Each of those people you stop might have a different explanation for the situation. Some will blame the Arab countries and others the occupation, and some will explain that we can only have peace if we observe the religious commandments. But no matter who shares his solutions with you, the bottom line will always be the same. Everything could have been wonderful here if it weren’t for “them”, and the “them” they are referring to can be right-wingers, left-wingers, Arabs, settlers, secular Jews, religious Jews, Islamic fundamentalists, corrupt politicians and dozens of other guilty parties. Their names in those derogatory monologues change, but they always have the same characteristics. The “guilty ones” are the root of all evil, the symbol of heartlessness, and they will forever be a model of wickedness, devoid of even one ounce of humanity. That’s just how it is. In a place where, for six decades, violence has been erupting like a boiling geyser, the springs of compassion and empathy dried up years ago.

Any child who’s laboured over a sandcastle can tell you how much harder it is to build something than to destroy it. In the Middle East, enormous efforts have been, and are still being, made to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. In slow, painstaking processes, people on both sides of the conflict have created social and business initiatives that try, wisely and sensitively, to intertwine the lives of the various groups who share this small piece of land. But whenever such an initiative begins to take shape, we are reminded how fragile those bridges are. One Kassam rocket or a missile launched from an unmanned aerial vehicle is enough to smash it to smithereens. And, gradually, many who once believed in those initiatives have come to see them as Sisyphean efforts doomed to failure from the outset.

Risking simplicity, I think that the difference between liberals and militants in any society is the difference between optimism and pessimism. The conflict at the heart of the debate between these two attitudes lies in the ability of both sides to imagine a better future in which neither one is forced to bury its children. Tragically, the good attempts to bridge the emotionally charged relations between these two peoples have not become etched in the collective consciousness in the same way the scars of mutual violence have. With every child who dies, whether in Jerusalem or Gaza, another fragment of the belief that still remains crumbles, belief not only in the other people, but in human nature in general. At the beginning of the second intifada, I remember travelling in a taxi that, surprisingly, had a Peace Now sticker on the dashboard. The radio was reporting on the lynching in Ramallah in which dozens of Palestinians killed two IDF reserve soldiers and mutilated their corpses. Waiting at a red light, the driver pulled a key out of his pocket and violently began trying to scrape off the sticker. When he looked in the rear-view mirror and saw me watching him from the back seat, he said: “That’s it. I’ve stopped believing.”

It is not only the belief in Israeli-Palestinian relations that has shattered. In the last 12 years, belief within each group has been undermined. Rabin’s assassination left Israeli society painfully wounded, creating hatred between left and right, between religious and secular. The maxim instilled in us in school, “All Jews are responsible for one another,” has proven false. That same unjustified hatred, which, according to biblical sources, led to the destruction of the Second Temple, has erupted again in the heart of Israeli society. The harshest expression of this polarisation occurred during the Gaza disengagement, when settlers and soldiers became bitter enemies fighting each other with a cruelty and violence that sometimes seemed to surprise even them. And at the same time, on the other side of the border, a violent polarisation has split Hamas and Fatah, threatening to tear the evolving Palestinian society to shreds.

A friend who lives in Germany once told me that Israel seems to him like a microcosm of the world, a piece of land that contains everything found on Earth: the snow-capped Golan and, not too far away, gorgeous Mediterranean beaches and the natural miracle of the Dead Sea; holy sites of the world’s religions; the most advanced westernisation blended with traditional, ethnic orientalism; pork-serving restaurants and synagogues; gay-pride parades and mosques — everything that nature and man have created coexisting on this single, minute piece of land. “Sometimes I can’t help thinking,” my friend said, “that the whole country is actually a kind of controlled experiment being conducted on humans by aliens or gods. That the entire place is a Petri dish meant to teach something about our world and people in general.”

If it really is an experiment, it would be interesting to learn the conclusions drawn by those conducting it. On the one hand, the dismal results must have thrown them into despair. But on the other, they must also have taken notice of the human miracle taking place here: despite the heavy, depressing cloud constantly hanging over us, some people on all sides of the divide still believe in a better future and, beyond that, in a different kind of humanity.

Even if those people are few in number, I have no doubt that their determination and faith have impressed all those scientists/gods/aliens performing the experiment. And who knows, maybe in the end, they will even succeed in changing the results.

Translated by Sondra Silverstone

Last updated: 4:43pm, April 22 2008