Poison in the air

From: Daoud Kuttab <dkuttab@alquds.net>

The Jerusalem Post June 4, 1998


(June 4) - One of the most difficult tasks journalists have to perform regularly is to attempt to reflect what the "public" thinks. Short of accurate public opinion polls, a good journalist has to master something intangible, "the feel of the street."

In order not to fall prey to unrepresentative opinions, I usually refrain from giving much weight to the opinions of relatives and friends who might not reflect an average Palestinian. But every now and then you hear something from someone close to you and you say to yourself: There is more to this than meets the eye.

This is what happened to me last Sunday. I was driving with my family and, as usual, I had the news on the car radio. The first report that day on Israel Radio concerned a scuffle in East Jerusalem. The news announcer read out the statistics as if they were sports scores: Four Israeli settlers, four Palestinians and two Israeli policemen were hurt, the announcer concluded.

My nine-year old son, Bishara, who normally hates to listen to the news, shouted out in happiness, as if his favorite basketball team had scored the winning basket.

Surprised by his reaction, I tried to find out from him why he reacted that way? "Well," he responded matter-of-factly, "normally it is only the Palestinians who are getting hurt or their homes being destroyed."

His response upset me, after all Bishara last year starred in the Palestinian version of Sesame Street with Israelis. The joint project was aimed at teaching tolerance and mutual respect.

But before I had a chance to speak, my oldest daughter Tamara retorted better than I could have. "Why do you say that, they are humans and many of them are nice, you shouldn't talk like that," she told him.

That was the end of the discussion, but while not an objective public opinion poll, my son's innocent utterance spoke volumes to me. My attempts to shelter my children and teach them tolerance seem to have failed. The political atmosphere has penetrated even to children and even to those children from whom one would expect a greater tolerance level.

Compared to the situation a few years ago, Palestinian confidence in the peace process has deteriorated to a very low and dangerous level.

If my unscientific poll is 50% accurate, then we are destined to face many more upsets before we can expect any long-term change in our situation and attitudes. The promises and goodwill of September 1993 seem so far behind us. In many ways, one can paint the situation now blacker than it was then.

True, we have no more curfews, and fewer Palestinian boys are being shot to death by Israeli soldiers, but the animosity that exists is very scary considering that many of us have said, and continue to say, that the peace process is irreversible.

My unscientific poll notwithstanding, proper research is being conducted as to the reaction of Palestinian and Israeli children to the Shara'a Simsim/Rehov Sumsum television program.

This local version of Sesame Street which was broadcast by Israel Educational Television and Al Quds Educational Television has shown the difficulties of Israeli and Palestinian children in accepting concepts of tolerance with the other.

Research done by Palestinian educator Dr. Cairo Arafat has shown that in all the Palestinian areas where children's attitudes were surveyed, the one Palestinian city where the least amount of tolerance to Israelis was registered was in Jerusalem.

So maybe the reaction of my son, who lives in Jerusalem, does not deviate so much from the other children with whom he goes to school.

What does all this mean? Should we stop peace education efforts? I don't think so. But we must understand that a serious attempt to remove hostile acts that poison the air is a prerequisite for a culture of peace.

Without an improvement in the political atmosphere, all the work for peace conducted by so many well-intentioned people, will unfortunately go to waste.