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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 14:53 GMT
Mid-East pen friends part 4: Shared land
Omneya al-Naggar, an Egyptian school teacher in the northern city of Alexandria, has begun an e-mail correspondence with Orly Noy, an Israeli journalist of Iranian origin, living and working in Jerusalem.

In this, their fourth exchange for BBCArabic.com, the two women try to get to the heart of the legitimacy of the opposing claims to the land Israelis and Palestinians share.

Hi Omneya,

Well, I see that you insist on the issue of legitimacy... alright then, legitimacy it is. I wasn't trying to avoid the issue, I just don't feel that discussing legitimacy will take us forward much.

Sure, I can accept the legitimacy of the Palestinian demand for a state, but I can also present you with very legitimate claims on the Israeli side, anchored in the history and the collective memory of the Jewish people, not to mention the Holocaust.

So, we are left, once again, with the same arguments and accusations over whose claim is more legitimate.

You know that in Israel there is a substantial number of people who believe that the Jews are the only legitimate owners of the Holy Land, because it says so in the bible. I don't want to get into a legitimacy discussion with these people, I want them to realise that the fact that the Palestinians themselves believe so firmly in their narrative is enough reason to compromise.

Judaism is not just a religion, it is a religion that forms a nation, it unites its members in a common aspiration for political self determination in a specific territory
I understand your desire to call things by their name. I agree that violence should be recognised as such and colonialism should be recognised as such and so on. There is a dimension of objectivity about these things, but I actually prefer in this case the subjectivity that might allow everyone to stick to their version of the story and still negotiate.

The term "narrative" is not merely an intellectual one, it acknowledges a certain reality. The idea is to say: "Look, I listen to your side of the story and I can hear how important and essential it is for you. I may not agree with you, I may even think that your claims are illegitimate, but you are a part of my reality and that's why I have to work things out with you".

This, of course, has a lot to do with the question of identity, since to me, identity is how you choose to define yourself and not how you're defined by others. You mentioned the religion as the only common denominator for Israelis, but I beg to differ. Judaism is not just a religion, it is a religion that forms a nation, it unites its members in a common aspiration for political self determination in a specific territory.

I can be secular or even completely atheist, but if I share the same traditions and historical heritage then I am a part of the Jewish people. You mentioned Arab as your identity, referring to history and language, and that's what Judaism is for us - Jews share history and language.

But I wasn't the only one to avoid a question - you haven't answered my question about what brought you to visit concentration camps in Europe. Speaking of legitimacy - did it shed new light on the Arab-Israeli conflict for you?

I hope you get over your flu soon. And don't fight nature - if you need to rest, rest!!

Take care,

Hello Orly,

I am glad that you see my point about naming things with their proper name before moving to listening to each other's narrative.

By the way, I did not avoid your question about Auschwitz. I felt my e-mail was already too long (there are other questions I did not get the chance to answer as well or even to ask).

Why did I visit Auschwitz? A curious question because it sounds as if I was not supposed to or expected to. I took it for granted that anybody with a minimum desire to understand world history would not miss the chance of visiting such a site.

What Auschwitz means to me is the atrocities of World War II, and the failure of European democracy and humanism at a certain stage of its historical development. How to relate this to the Arab-Israeli conflict? In terms of legitimacy, there is no connection. In terms of world history, I think it has a good lesson. Genocide is an evil machine, so there is no point of repeating the same history in Israel.

Today, 14 people were killed in Gaza, 3 houses were demolished by Israeli tanks, and a wall is being built despite all resistance to the idea which threatens the peace process. What do you think is a good proposal for peace in such circumstances?

I hope you did well in your Arabic exam.


Please send us your comments on Orly and Omneya's correspondence on the form below.

Your comments

I praise Orly and Omneya's courage and good will. They talk about legitimacy and naming things as they are. One thing to consider here is how far back in history do you go in establishing legitimacy. Do you think facts that are 10 years old can legitimize positions? 100 years? 10 centuries? I think this confrontation has been too much about the past and too little about the future.
Giorgi, Tbilisi, Georgia

It's good to know that amidst suicide bombings and ordered assassinations, people from both sides of the conflict are willing to discuss the peace process (or the absence of one). After a very good start, I sense political leanings beginning to creep in. Omneya is trying to score points in this discussion and this will make things difficult. Much time will be spent discussing the difference between narratives and legality, colonialism and occupation and this will not help the objectivity of this scheme. I hope people in the Middle East are reading their correspondence. Best of luck to the both of them.
Chinedu, London, UK

I think this discussion is mutually beneficial for both parties. They are both understanding, well-educated, moderates. I believe that the only way to peace is through communication and understanding. This is what is happening here. There is no reason for Jews, Christians, or Muslims, to vilify each other. I believe that there is real opportunity for peace, and hasty actions such as the killing of Yassin don't help at all. I just want to wish Omneya and Orly the best of luck. May they break down stereotypes and encourage others to undertake similar projects.
Patrick Elyas, Los Angeles, CA (Egyptian-American)

I would like to remind the commentators suggesting that the two correspondents should leave political debate for the moment that this is not possible. Simply because people are dying everyday and because there is an occupation that has been there for more than 50 years now. So you can only leave the hot issues aside if you are living thousands of kilometres away!
Ahmed, Munich, Germany (an Egyptian)

It is interesting that Orly associates the Holocaust that took place in Europe to the current Middle East conflict. Omneya is correct to highlight that though the Holocaust was a despicable black mark, it is a black mark in European history which the Arabs and particularly the Palestinians should not be held responsible for.
Sarah, London

I agree with Orly that instead of arguments about legitimacy, it may be more useful to acknowledge that both sides have a narrative which is equally meaningful to the respective parties. Part of negotiating conflict must be to create a 'space' for difference of opinion - and one where the underlying fears of both sides can really be addressed. As I think Omneya alludes to, this is understandably difficult in the ongoing context of violence and reprisal. Perhaps in this case the focus should no longer be on who is 'right' and who is 'wrong' but on how to secure the environment against continued human rights abuses on both sides - long enough the create the 'space' for the narratives to come together. I wish to thank both Orly and Omneya for their courage and integrity in sharing their thoughts with the rest of the world.
Pia, USA

I think this section is mistitled. Since the introductions, these two have not established a friendship. Although Orly has attempted to steer to conversation to a more personal level, Omneya seems so far intent on using the public forum as a debating ground. The result of these two different directions is a rising tone of veiled hostility. Sadly, Orly must now join the fray or again be accused of ducking another question. I hope these two can steer the conversation away from the building argument and onto more positive, connecting subjects. People don't communicate well through clenched teeth.
Daryl E., Chigago, IL, USA

You have started something, finish the journey
Sambhav, India
Omneya and Orly: You and all of us readers can already see the cracks in your communications. Please do not give up. You have started something, finish the journey. It can be brutal, but please don't make it so. Slowly - diplomatically carry on. Clearly both of you are erudite and have convictions but at the same time unsure of many areas - you have accepted it, and trying to understand it. If you find a wall ahead of you, avoid it for another day. Slowly progress, but make your understanding complete - for yours is the only open viewpoint we see and along with you, we will also come to understand. Give us an opportunity to complete that journey with you.
Sambhav, India

I find the discussion challenging. As a Persian that is familiar with Iran's Islamic history I find myself feeling immense prejudice against Arabs and Islam. Sometimes I would even call it hatred. I must say that I have never reached out to any Arab and I have now realised my mistake. I do not know what the "other" is like and this has inspired me to find an Arab pen-pal.
Schapur, Damstadt, Germany

It is a reason to hope and to believe to see the mature, considerate, intelligent exchange between Omneya and Orly. They are indeed a point of light in the darkness of the hour. The region deserve a more enlightened leadership on both sides rather than mutual hatred and mutual destruction as the only agenda. My heartfelt respect and appreciation to both. Thanks for making the world a better place.
Alain, Paris. France

Unfortunately their leaders have chosen to take a different road
Charles Brue, Braine l'Alleud - Belgium
Both girls take a very reasonable stand in this never ending tragedy that is tearing their people apart more and more each day. Unfortunately their leaders have chosen to take a different road. Arafat preferred to launch another intifada rather than continue to work for peace. Sharon has no idea what the word means and yet Shalom is a Hebrew word but not his.
Charles Brue, Braine l'Alleud - Belgium

A Native American saying: "Inside of me there are two dogs, one evil and one good. The evil dog and good dog fight all the time. Which dog wins? The one I feed the most." Leaders of nations retain power by dividing people, and violence thrives on separation.
Marek, Warsaw Poland

There's a wall of misinformation to overcome. I'm sceptical, but want to be hopeful, that a citizen of a country like Egypt can ignore pervasive misinformation from the state and the non-free press. I'm curious to know how citizens from undemocratic countries are able, if at all, to find out what really is happening in the world. I agree with other commentators that the two correspondents should leave political debate for the moment, at least until a degree of trust and familiarity have been established by focusing on what you have in common rather than what divides you.
Anon, Italy

To Anon, Italy: You stated that there's a wall of misinformation to overcome and that you're sceptical that a citizen of a country like Egypt can ignore pervasive misinformation from the state and the non-free press. Do not be so naiive to assume that the misinformation is only on the Egyptian side. There is censorship and propoganda in media in all states, including democratic one. For example, why doesn't the US media give as much attention to the thousands of Palestinian civilians that have been killed by Israel as it gives to the extremist suicide bombers? Furthermore, it is somewhat insulting to question if people in nondemocratic countries have access to free media. Just because these are people who do not enjoy all the freedoms that we do does not mean that they are not intelligent people with analytical abilities.
Lillian, San Diego, USA

Anon, Italy - In Egypt you may have a non-free press, this is less harmful as it is known. The problem with Western media is that the governments manipulated it. This can be proved by the lies told about the Iraqi threat. The amount of lies spread about Israel and Palestine are even worse.
Shah, Spain

To discuss non-issues such as "Israel's legitimacy?" Israel is a bone fide state! I don't hear people talking about the US leaving for the native American Indians. So why not talk about how and when much needed peace will come about?
M.L., Chicago, USA

Omneya, I think is missing the point of the exercise. Even IF your point of view is right, you still need to first establish trust, listen to the arguments on the other side and then offer your opinions in ways that are least likely to offend so that they can most likely convince. I know for many of us in the Arab world the plight of the Palestinians is frustrating, but anger and emotions are not going to solve anything.

Orly I can tell is trying to be diplomatic and seems to sympathize with the Palestinians, which is highly commendable. However, I still felt she didn't get what Omneya was trying to get at. Perhaps I can give it a shot in the form of a question: Without questioning Israel's right to exist and understanding the necessity of a Jewish homeland following the atrocities perpetrated in Europe in the last century, is it unreasonable to understand why Arabs in general and Palestinians in specific might view Israelis as a colonizing force that is taking away land from a people that has made it their home for generations?
Ahmed, Dubai/Egyptian

Very interesting, my wife is of Jewish origin, and I am an ardent reader of History, especially the second world war, with the persecution of the Jews. My personal opinion, this matter will never ever be resolved, because we have two nations that are particularly hard headed and pragmatic, and both sides believe that historically the land belongs to them. They both have a point, but there has been too many generations of conflict, and it will continue and I am afraid many thousands of innocent people will lose their lives for a cause that I think many of the people do not truly understand.
Garry Fielding, Pretoria, South Africa

After a warm and open start Orly and Omneya are falling into understandable aggressive/defensive patterns. I wish them luck in navigating this minefield.
Scott, UK

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