Now back in Bloomington, Indiana, I’m teaching a class to undergraduate college students about “Images of War and Peace in Israeli Public Culture.” As part of their learning about the history of the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism, I devised a simple role play to try to convey a little about how it all stated. Half the class was told on green cards that they belonged to a group of people who were being persecuted in their current homes and felt the need to flee, and believed they had a former home elsewhere. The other group, located in a square of tables, were told on their orange cards that this was their home, and that some other people might want to come too. Each group had to decide what to do, but not necessarily as a single body.
It turned out that the Greens were all Zionists – they all wanted to go back to their old home, rather than stay in Russia, or find their America. But these were Zionists with a very different approach. First, they selected several delegates to meet and negotiate with the leaders of the Oranges. They brought coffee, expressed their fondness for the Oranges, their desire to learn the Oranges’ cultural customs, and asked if they had room to take in the persecuted Greens. The Oranges first of all denied they had leaders, asking the Green delegation to address the whole group. They were unsure of the Greens, wanting to know how many of them there were, expressing unease about letting others into their home. But they suggested they could take some of them, following some sort of application process. Between themselves, they’d wondered why the Greens were disliked by other people in their current home, and if they’d bring trouble and danger with them. Once the Green delegation had gone back home, some of the Oranges were suspicious that the visitors had been too nice and friendly. But the majority thought that in any case they needed to get to know the Greens better before they decided what to do. Being American college students, speed-dating seemed like the best way to go about that. When the Greens came back over, their leader was careful to ask the Oranges to run the process. After a couple of rounds of getting to know each other, the Oranges opened the gates, admitting all the Greens without delay or conditions. And once they all got in the space, it seemed cozy rather than crowded.
The role play, of course, does not simulate the complexities and messiness of the historical events. There was nobody representing the Ottoman or British empires, no external power controlling the space of the Oranges, or serving as an address for the Greens to turn to. Instead, the Greens and Oranges were positioned as equals, each in control of their destiny. The situation didn’t begin with a few Greens already living in the Orange space, then being joined by a few more, and then by many more – instead, they all came at once. Beyond the dictates of the game, there was no urgency or deep emotion to the process, no sentiments of nationalism, no scars of persecution and domination. So, this role play was a long way from the actuality of the Zionist movement to settle in Palestine.
Yet, a direct match with reality matters less than the principles which these students brought to bear on the situation. They may not know that much about world affairs, but they have been educated to approach other people through a prism of cultural respect. They recognize that when meeting new people, it takes time to learn about them, and it helps to be friendly. They understand the importance of communication, both as a group that can build consensus about how to act, and as a group that needs to build a bridge to another group. And if speed-dating works for them, why not try that? After all, it’s an approach that’s close to the straightforward sentiment of the Israel loves Palestine and Palestine loves Israel Facebook communities. Communication and culture, working in tandem to bring people together.
How different would the tragic history and present of these two people be if communication and culture had been their guiding principles? Imagine a Zionist movement that sent delegates to the towns and villages of Palestine with a request to come and settle instead of seeking favour with colonial powers or distant Arab autocrats. Imagine a Zionist movement that sent envoys back to the old homeland to find out about its current inhabitants, learning their language, their recipes, their way of life. Imagine a Palestinian people in charge of its land and borders, hearing of the plight of strangers, opening its doors to them and welcoming them into their homes. Imagine the two peoples communicating with each other, and sharing each other’s cultures as equals. That would be to imagine peace.