A recipe that almost worked

Mixed up in the Middle East (BBC Monday 14 November) followed Reya El-Salahi, model and radio presenter, through Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Because she has a Jewish mother and Arab Muslim Father, Reya sees herself as both Jewish and Muslim and she was eager to learn where she might belong in the great melange that is the Middle East.

There was much to enjoy in the programme which was far more even-handed than the BBC often in over the subject. Reya’s immediate family seemed hostile to Israel – her Jewish mother’s cold rejection of Jewish aspirations to self determination in their ancient homeland would have done credit to any BBC reporter, and her brother travelled to support the Palestinian cause at the height of the second intifada. Despite this, Reya genuinely aspired to even-handedness, speaking admiringly of the dignified young Jewish woman injured in three – or was it four – Palestinian bomb attacks but who nevertheless wanted to live alongside her hostile neighbours in peace, trying to understand their hostility and anger towards Israelis.

Jewish Israelis from several different backgrounds were, unusually, permitted to speak for themselves; a leader from the settlement of Itamar spoke graphically about the slaughter of the Fogel family, giving us details that BBC News bulletins seemed to have gone out of their way not to report.

Palestinians too had the chance to speak for themselves without the medium of a translator. A young woman from Ramallah bluntly said that the Jews should ‘Go back where they came from’. If Americans liked Jews so much, she said, they should welcome them in the US. A Hamas ‘activist’ also rejected Israel’s very existence. Palestinian racism, hatred and rejectionism were not edited out as so often by the BBC.

Reya’s changing feelings were well documented too. She appeared fairly uninformed, unaware apparently of the ancient and continuous Jewish presence all across North Africa and the Middle East including the Holy Land. For her, like many who glean most of their information from the left wing media, Jewish history in the region began around 1948. Yet she seemed truly moved by the stories she heard from Jewish Israelis, including her own family, one of whose member, it turned out, was deeply involved in the development of the modern state of Israel.

Reya was, of course shocked to see the broken down infrastructure and poverty within the Palestinian territories. She was moved by the vibrant street life of Ramallah and intimidated by the security measures at checkpoints, particularly on the walkway into Gaza. The fearful excitement she admitted to as she anticipated attending a Palestinian demonstration at an Israeli checkpoint soon changed to anger and dismay as the stones thrown by Palestinians at Israeli soldiers were met with teargas which stung her skin and hurt her eyes.

And it’s here that my questions begin. Why, even after hearing Israeli eyewitnesses describing the terrorist atrocities they had experienced, couldn’t Reya make the connection between Palestinian behaviour and Israeli security measures such as the fence and the checkpoints? Did she really think that IDF soldiers should be able to distinguish terrorists from the ordinary people amongst whom they conceal themselves on sight and treat them differently?

Conversely, even after listening to the racist poison pouring from the Hamas supporter, Reya thought that if she lived ‘like this’ in Gaza she would grow up wanting to be a ‘fighter’. Didn’t it cross her mind that Hamas’ aggression is the reason why Israel maintains a blockade on Gaza, restricting terrorists’ movements and intercepting their weapons in order to keep ‘fighters’ like this from carrying out their dream of murdering Israeli citizens? Didn’t she ask why the Egyptian border with Gaza is closed? Perhaps she didn’t know there WAS an Egypt/Gaza border.

Her curious attitude to the ‘fighters’ on both sides was nowhere clearer than in contrasting reactions to the rather gung-ho female British Jew who joined the IDF and showed her round a training camp, and the Palestinian stone throwers and ‘fighters’. She reflected on the Israeli soldier’s enthusiasm for defending her country with puzzled distaste, whilst understanding the violence emanating from the Palestinians she spoke to, albeit rejecting with bafflement their racism towards Jews.

Reya left the Western Wall disgusted that Jewish tradition insists on men and women praying separately and missing out, by the way, on a great spiritual experience. Unsurprising, perhaps when she was clearly rattled by being closely questioned by security guards on the gate of the Western Wall plaza. Still, at least she could have worshipped there had she wanted to. Not so at the Al Aqsa mosque where she was turned away for not being Muslim enough. Who REALLY practices apartheid in Israel?

I admired Reya, whose closest relatives reject Israel and who has grown up in a society whose views on the Middle East conflict are grossly affected by partial and skewed reporting from much of the media. She was prepared to ask questions, although not always the correct ones (such as “What have the £billions of aid dollars poured into Palestinian coffers over decades been spent on?”). If her views vacillated according to the last speaker she heard, at least it showed she was listening to what they said.

However, there was a question nagging at the back of my mind throughout the programme. Did Reya’s Palestinian hosts – particularly in Gaza – know her mother was Jewish? And how might her experiences have been different if they had?

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