A BRIDGE ACROSS THE RIVER
This article first appeared in The American Muslim and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), September 25, 2008, and distributed by CGNews with permission to publish.
Israel and Jordan co-exist side by side on the same, relatively small area of terrain, on either bank of one narrow river. However, despite being geographically contiguous neighbours, within the borders of Jordan, Israel seems very far away. Although the peace treaty signed between Jordan and Israel in 1994 officially permits Israelis to travel to Jordan, and vice versa, few do. Of the Jordanians who travel to Israel, few go beyond the Palestinian territories, and of the Israelis who travel to Jordan, few travel beyond Petra and Wadi Rum. Having little basis for associating with the other, Jordanians and Israelis are afforded few opportunities to dispel stereotypes or allay fears of each other. Their perceptions are often formed by images on television and stories in newspapers, which ˆ in Jordan in particular ˆ are frequently negative and politicised.
These two countries and peoples should be inseparable (if only by their geographic locations), and the existent cultural and political alienation presents a dangerous prospect for the future. In the region’s current political context, there is neither a foreseeable settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor much optimism that one will be reached in the near future. It would therefore be unrealistic to expect most Jordanians (approximately 70 percent of whom identify as Palestinian) to view Israelis favourably.
The notion of the State of Israel as a neighbour is in itself sparse, and Jordanians are largely unfamiliar with Jewish Israeli citizens as more than just faceless ‘others.’ So initiative must be taken to increase awareness and mutual understanding among all peoples.
Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians share common foods, common notions of hospitality; both exhibit strong commitments to national pride and religion, albeit for different national identities and religious beliefs. Environmental conditions ˆ including the lack of potable water and the rapid shrinking of the Dead Sea ˆ threaten peoples and places across Jordan and Israel˜indiscriminately.
Friday in Amman is much like Friday in West Jerusalem, though time progresses in opposite directions. In Amman, the city is quiet and shops are closed from the morning prior to the mid-day Friday prayer, until the afternoon, when many slowly open for the evening. Friends gather for late-morning brunches, and families gather for meals and picnics. In West Jerusalem, crowds fill the streets and stores in the morning, rushing to do all that needs to be done before mid-afternoon, when shops close and transportation stops prior to the entrance of the Sabbath, at sundown. In Amman, the adhan, or call to prayer echoes around the city in the middle of the day; in West Jerusalem, a siren sounds to mark the beginnings of the Sabbath approximately one hour before sundown, and Sabbath evening prayers can be heard wafting into the streets throughout the evening.
The Jordan-Israel peace treaty and the existence of Qualified Industrial Zones reflect the fact that politicians recognise the necessity of relations between the two countries, even if superficially. Nonetheless, relations between individual businesses within each country have wavered, and relations between citizens are lacking. If there is ever to be a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or improvement in broader Arab-Israeli relations, Jordan and Jordanians must be on board and involved. Despite the volatile and often hostile political context, businesses should be encouraged to actively cooperate and interact, and channels of communication should be opened between Israelis and Jordanians, even through tourism and informative educational initiatives.
Technology can now facilitate cross-border exchanges while participants sit in the comfort of their own homes. Although Israeli visas are sometimes difficult to obtain, the Jordan-Israel peace treaty legally enables cross-border excursions. Israelis and Palestinians have embarked on peace treks across North Africa and North America, so why not include Jordan on a journey to circumvent the Dead Sea, or through the southern deserts of one country to the other? Despite the physical and emotional challenges, Israeli and Palestinian youth co-publish magazines and articles across the divide between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. News outlets with worldwide circulation could commission articles by Jordanian students that address issues pertinent to youth across societies.
I do believe that cultural exchange is often the first step towards resolution and reconciliation. Each generation raised to hate without knowledge of, or exposure to, the other postpones the potential for future coexistence and understanding. Any initiative that encourages openness and understanding in such a tense political and social context could well bring about lofty hurdles and seemingly insurmountable challenges. However, this should not discourage us from trying∑before it comes too late.
*Rachel Brandenburg is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington DC, where she concentrates on foreign policy and international security. Rachel is a former intern at Search for Common Ground’s Middle East office, a Fulbright Scholar to Israel, and a recent recipient of the US Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship, which brought her to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan.