The Paradox of Palestinian Culture.


The guy is big and tough looking—just at that age when young men are most prone to beating the crap out of people they do not know, and he is standing there with two grumpy looking friends. Palestine has felt remarkably safe but one does not want to try his luck. It is late, getting dark, the neighborhood here in Bethlehem is starting to look a little rough and someone has just told me to be careful.


I try to avoid eye contact for the most part, but as they walk by, I nod a gentle smile and the big guy asks, “Where are you from?” I say “America,” but I might as well say, “the country whose media has made you look like a terrorist and diminished your life prospects through tacit support for the Israeli occupation.” Not a moment passes before he sticks out his hand and there are smiles all around. In that warm and welcoming tone of Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island, he says, “Welcome, welcome to Bethlehem,” and everyone shakes my hand.

The word Palestinian has been criminalized in the minds of most Americans. It is often associated with irrationality and terrorism. Palestinians in the West Bank have been under Israeli occupation for almost half a century. They have been ruled by military decree, and their lands have slowly been confiscated and colonized. Their movement is stifled by checkpoints, and houses are often demolished for political activity. Their relationships are broken by informers to whom Israeli authorities promise the rewards of freedom, and peaceful protesters are often shot. Hence, resistance tends to be driven underground, and the whole culture takes on the appearance of criminality.

But while the Palestinians in the West Bank show me hard exteriors, they also exhibit warm interiors. The closer you get, the warmer the welcome. Everyone gives me coffee and sweets, extra food and discounts on rooms. It is often confusing as to which gifts are free and which come with an expectation of reciprocity, for it seems like an ingrained sense of kindness. But it lends to the experience a warm glow of welcoming from a culture vastly exceeding my highest expectations. My observations are far from unique: this is what most people coming to Palestine have to say.

Reporters in the West seem to miss this kindness, though, for several reasons. Reporters tend to stay in five-star hotels and usually cover political drama, not day-to-day life. They also come with their own prejudices, ingrained through focusing only on the violence. They must speak to the prejudices of their Western audiences, and focusing on the violence, they come to see more of it. Few mainstream reporters seem to have any idea what is happening here.

Meanwhile, audiences in the West tend to see only the worst parts of Arab culture, turning their ephemeral ideas into concrete facts in their minds. Poorly educated in this foreign culture, they then string together misplaced verses from the Qur’an, speculations of media pundits, pieces of pro-Israeli propaganda, and confused readings of Christian history into some vision of a clash of civilizations. The picture they create is a cartoonish caricature.

The sense of honor here is strong to be sure. And it accounts for the strength of the Palestinian resistance. It seems you can dishonor a man by looking the wrong way at his wife, by injuring a member of his tribe, and perhaps most importantly for Israel, by stealing his land. When you cross these lines of honor, apparently the aggression can be intense. Palestinian culture thus seems largely passive and warm, with the capacity for aggression should the kindness be taken for granted and the people dishonored.

There is also something surprisingly moderate about Palestinian culture. Palestinians do not debate much and often yield to opposing views. This lends to conversation a fluid flexibility that one does not find in the Jewish and American supporters of Palestinians. Those in the West Bank constantly sought to make their acceptance of my partial Jewish heritage clear. Even though it is not an important part of my own identity, and some were even atheists, they bent over backwards to show respect. It is the same moderation shown to me by Muslims the world over.

But it can often seem a highly formal and traditional sort of moderation. And it appears to stretch into romance as well, where Palestinian friends have told me the formalism can be heartbreaking and confusing. Under better circumstances, this formalism might result in the sort of everyday pressures that are part of life in any complex society. But coupled with the frustrations of daily life under occupation and the accompanying economic underdevelopment, it is easy to imagine how such pressure might become explosive.

These are speculations, to be sure, as they must be. For there is simply too much going on in any given culture to sum it up in such broad and sweeping strokes. But such speculations can open a window of understanding where before we had only a media constructed hall of mirrors. We need to look less to the violence and more to the everyday kindnesses. Otherwise we will miss the thousand little disagreements among Palestinians, which if we would only listen might signal a space for dialogue. And we will miss the open arms with which we might be greeted if only we would share in the sharing.

So many Palestinians want to open their homes and touch something of that ever tarnished but still shining American magic. When we fail to take up the offer, we lose something of our own humanity in the process, failing to grasp the way human goodness is manifested, and in the process dishonoring them for their kindness.

As the rise and fall of tensions in Israel and Palestine repeat themselves like some Myth of the Eternal Return, we would do well to pause and look deeper. Much is lost when we fail to respect the ordinary dignity of Palestinians. They will resist in whatever way they can, Israel will be less secure, and America will be continually drawn into the Middle East. A warm handshake and a smile might not stop a needless war and end the occupation, but it is a start to making peace and forging the kind of security that will allow all of us to see more deeply into one another’s hearts.

Theo Horesh-2181Theo Horesh is the author of Convergence: The Globalization of Mind. He is a former cooperative organizer and host of the Conscious Business podcast. Most recently, he co-founded, The One-Step Peace Solution, which would mandate fair and equal courts in areas under Israeli control. And he is the author of a forthcoming book of interviews, The Inner Climate: Global Warming From the Inside Out, with leading thinkers, like Frances Moore Lappe, George Lakoff, Paul Ehrlich, and Andrew Revkin. He has been meditating for 25-years and currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. You can connect with Theo on Facebook here