By Doni Cohen
Yishai Fleisher and Walid Shantur discuss seeing eye to eye on a statehood solution in Israel and how Israel already has the government and infrastructure to support both Jews and Arabs. They discuss the ramifications of the Arab Spring for Arabs in Israel and end by talking about the role of the U.S. in the Middle East and how Americans truly do not understand the region.
Yishai Fleisher: Welcome to the Yishai Fleisher Show Walid. What brings you here to Jerusalem when you could be sitting in Ithaca?
Walid Shantur: I’m here visiting family in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
YF: I hear that you speak a perfect English. Where are you from originally and do you speak Arabic?
WS: My father came over in 1948, and was originally from a small town near Ramallah. I was born in Chicago, and stayed in Ithaca while attending Cornell. I do speak fluent Arabic.
YF: What is life like in your small town near Ramallah?
WS: My father built a house right across the street from a mosque. So at 3:45 in the morning, I would hear the “Allahu Akhbars” blaring right into my bedroom window. It was quite a culture shock coming from a secular place like Ithaca. My family does want me to be what they consider a “good Muslim” but I want to be what I consider a “good person.” However, my family accepts me nonetheless.
YF: I was sitting at a dinner earlier this evening, and I kept hearing this new term that was being thrown around called “inclusive nationalism.” I think you and I see eye to eye on this point. This is a Jewish State. We don’t deny that. We want to include our minorities. We want them to have fruitful successful lives with upward mobility, with a sense of empowerment and belonging without giving up their national identity. But at the same time they need to respect that this is an ethnic country called Israel. It was created primarily and originally as a safe haven for the Jewish people, and continues to be a homeland for the Jewish people. At the same time though, there are minorities, some who even predated the Jewish influx and return to the land of Israel, and many who have come afterwards. However, the situation in which we have a nation behind a wall living a kind of regressive and repressive life is not a situation which Israel should want. We want to see a situation in which Arabs would respect Jewish sovereignty but would also gain from that respect a normal life. There are Arabs right now on Ben Yehuda Street where we are sitting right now feeling very comfortable walking around and shopping.
WS: And they do look very comfortable. They really don’t look out of place at all. I recall in Genesis where Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury their father. I feel we kind of need another Ishmael and Isaac now. My dream utopia would be no wall with Arabs and Jews respecting each other’s existence and living together as brothers.
YF: One of the biggest obstacles to this movement is the need for the extremist Arab Jihadists to be reigned in so that this process can move along.
WS: Absolutely. That has been nothing but a hindrance for Palestinians.
YF: If we could rein these Jihadists in, this movement could move forward. A lot of these walls that were erected because of the terrorism that these Jihadists encourage. Israel really only put up these walls when it started feeling threatened. My friend Yehuda Cohen and I do believe thought that the walls say that we cannot control the bad guys, and that we don’t believe fully that this is our land. And in that way we sort of offered up our Arab brothers to the Jihadists to swallow up, because the walls say in a sense that Jihad has won, and that is very destructive for Israel. To reverse that feeling is not so simple.
YF: Let me ask you about your family. Are you able to say these kinds of things to them?
WS: Well, I do speak to them about this, but more in general terms. I do speak to them about the most ideal situation of Jews and Arabs being able to live together as brothers. I do tell them that Israel has a more ideal political structure and infrastructure such as hospitals and schools etc. that Arabs could benefit quite a bit from. There are a lot of Arab leaders that are still tied to 14th century Islam.
YF: As we are sitting here and you talk about this, I sense a tremendous amount of pain on your face. Tell me about this pain
WS: Well yes. There is pain. When I talk to my family about this, they don’t really understand why I would talk like this and how they could benefit more from an Israeli government than from the governments that they have had. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Netanyahu can be counted on to look after Israel’s best interests. However, we have never had a government that has looked after out best interests. There is a lot of money that comes from the United States to the Palestinian Authority, and most of it does not go where it should be going and where it is the most needed. A lot of it ends up in Swiss bank accounts.
YF: Walid, has the Arab Spring meant anything to your family. Do they see any opportunities in it? Do they see anything that they may not want to be part of? Are they shocked at all about what is going on in Egypt and Syria? Is there any voice that says “let’s move away from that and look for something better?”
WS: It’s a very unpopular thing to say in the Arab world that we should move away from the Arab Spring, because often times there are ramifications. You had mentioned that Palestinians their selves are in Hamas’s crosshairs.
YF: Do you mean that it is hard to have freedom of speech in extremist controlled areas many times because the extremists target moderate voices?
WS: Yes, that is very well put. I may be guarded a lot of times in what I say. You may have to read between the lines a lot because I do have interests in the West Bank. The world is not a totally safe place.
YF: No it’s not. And a lot of times I’ve spoken with Muslims who have left the Orthodox area of Islam. They may go to mosque from time to time with their parents, but they won’t go up to the Temple Mount. They don’t want a portion of that fight anymore. They want to live normally, and are educated, and are constantly asking themselves what the best way to live is. The Arabs in my neighborhood on the Mountain of Olives often are the exact opposite. They don’t see any benefit to having me as their neighbor even though I try to live with them in peace as much as possible, and are often very hostile toward me.
WS: Many times Islam is not progressive in government, and in freedom of speech or choice.
YF: As we are sitting here an Israeli Police motorcycle just passed us, and you see within that the two different sides of Israeli culture. Sure, the policeman has an M16 strapped around him, and we are a nation with a lot of guns that looks many times like an embattled nation. However, you look at the Israeli who are passing him that are the flip side of the coin, relaxed strolling in their shorts and sandals with a fun atmosphere.
YF: You have had a lot of interaction with Jews and are blogging as well. Tell me about that.
WS: Well, today I blogged about the light rail. I blogged about how the building of the light rail says a lot about Israeli culture. The tracks run directly parallel to the sidewalk, and there are no guardrails. In the United States, that would never fly. In the United States, they rely on Uncle Sam to kind of look out for their own personal safety. Here, Israelis know they are responsible for their own safety. They don’t need signs telling them to stay back, and I respect that aspect of self-responsibility in Israeli culture.
YF: I think that’s true. An Israeli definitely needs to be more informed and in the know in this country that survives the kind of way that it does. It’s a country in which you definitely need to learn about things.
YF: Let’s ask you the million dollar question Walid. What do you think is the future of Israel and the Palestinians?
WS: Do you want my ideal circumstances? Or do you want what I think is actually going to happen?
YF: Let’s hear both.
WS: My ideal would be no wall, integration, and living as brothers. It’s not impossible. However, if the extremists continue, it won’t happen. But there are also quite a few Israeli radicals in settlements that would not want this to happen.
I think what will ideally happen is the two-state solution. There is a lot of pressure from the world to make that happen. I don’t think that it’s in the best interest of either side though.
YF: We feel that way as well. I hope that we do hold out against the two-state solution, my one consolation is that it hasn’t been done yet though. I hope that people like you influence the Arabs to think about Israel a little differently. We are brothers and we should be able to get along. Israel should have respect for the other Arab countries, and they should respect Israel back. I still hold out hope that the Arab Spring could change the thinking of many Arabs toward Israel.
WS: I want to talk about the United State’s role in all of this. I’m frustrated that one of the biggest powers in the world does not understand this region at all. I voted for Obama, but was very surprised to hear him talk about Israel going back to the 1967 border without any ramifications. To put it frankly, its ignorance.
YF: I really want to thank you and tell you that I appreciate you reaching out to me while you were in Israel. This dialogue is important, and I think a lot of people want to shut it down. I think that people like you are a window to the soul of the Arabs. I hope that you come back to talk to us, and thank you for being on the Yishai Fleisher Show.
WS: Thank You
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