By Khaled Diab
JERUSALEM: It was not a good start to 2011. The massive explosion during midnight mass that tore through St. Mark and St. Peter’s Church in Alexandria, killing 21 worshippers and injuring dozens, marked a turn for the worse in the situation surrounding Egypt’s Coptic minority.
However, my despair was replaced with measured hope when a massive solidarity campaign was born online soon after the attacks and quickly spread to the real world. Drawing on an old symbol of national unity, many even changed their Facebook profile pictures to the crescent and cross banner of the 1919 revolution.
I recently moved to Jerusalem and the question, “Can Israelis and Palestinians draw lessons about building bridges between divided communities from the Egyptian experience?” is one that I have pondered, despite the fact that the divisions here are much starker and more bitter than in Egypt.
In Egypt, the virtual solidarity and activism between Muslims and Copts kick-started an even more impressive real-world equivalent when thousands of Muslims volunteered to form human shields around churches to protect worshippers celebrating the Coptic Christmas on the eve of Jan. 6-7, under the slogan: “We either live together or we die together.”
By contrast, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, although people on both sides may live in close physical proximity to one another, there is very little contact between them, at least of the positive variety. This situation creates, reinforces and perpetuates the mutual fear and distrust which fuel the conflict.
Deprived of venues where they could meet physically and agitate for change, Arab youth, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, used the power of social media to meet virtually before taking their actions to the streets. Likewise, new technologies offer a virtual and non-threatening world in which to meet, and are being used accordingly by some young Palestinians and Israelis (albeit on a small scale so far), where they can discover common causes and even organize for collective action.
On a personal level, I have experienced the potential of new technologies to bridge divides. Before I visited here, Israelis and Palestinians I met online helped deepen my understanding of the essential human aspect of the conflict.
But despite the unprecedented reach of today’s communication technologies, nothing beats direct human contact, as I learnt during my first visit to Jerusalem in 2007.
Older people recall a time, despite some tensions, when national identities had not yet hardened and when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side as friends and neighbors, as two octogenarians — a Palestinian and an Israeli —I met recounted.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have their own proud history of successful integration to draw upon.
For centuries, Palestine was a small land where a broad array of different religious and ethnic communities — Arabs, Jews, Turks, Europeans, Armenians, Persians, Assyrians and even Africans – lived together in relative tolerance, amid a dominant Islamic culture.
Long before Zionism ever reached Palestine, its status as the Holy Land attracted — with the encouragement of the Ottomans and some earlier rulers — Muslim, Christian and Jewish migrants of all stripes and colors into its melting pot of myriad sects and communities.
Israel has also been successful, despite the dominance of Ashkenazi culture, in integrating Jews from around the globe, as well as granting Palestinian Israelis equal legal and civil rights, at least in theory.
It is only one short logical step, albeit one giant leap of faith, to extend Palestinian and Israeli traditions of acceptance to the other side in this bitter conflict.
Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs should dare to gaze across ”enemy lines”, both online and, more importantly, in the real world and look towards an alternative future in which everyone living on this land can do so in dignity, equality and freedom.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist and writer living in Jerusalem. He writes about a wide range of subjects, including the EU, the Middle East, Islam and secularism, multiculturalism and human rights. His website is www.chronikler.com. This article is part of a series on globalization and religious pluralism written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.