Experience Reflection and Op-Ed by Max Lanosga
Arguably the biggest divide in the Middle East, the conflict between Israel and the rest of the Arab World, has manifested itself in threats, economic sanctions and armed conflict. These aspects of the Israeli-Arab divide are the ones that the rest of the world most often sees but do not make up the entire picture.
While there is a tentative peace between Israel and many Arab nations, the conflict still plays out every day in ways that many outside the region never get a chance to see. While living in Jordan, I was introduced to this side of the conflict, and I identified two main factors through which the Arab-Israeli divide is perpetuated on the ground: symbols and conspiracy theories.
Within the Arab-Israeli conflict, flags are used to show support, to intimidate and to remind people whose side they are on: either Israel or “occupied Palestine.” While living in Jordan, I studied at the University of Jordan in Amman. Every day, I walked from my apartment located next to the university to campus for class. Regardless of which gate I entered through, I always had to walk over a huge Star of David that was painted on the pavement of a courtyard in the middle of campus. Given the fact that I was living in Jordan, I always found it an odd place for the Star of David to be, and I always assumed it was graffiti, painted by some students as an act of defiance. It wasn’t until halfway through the semester that I realized it was not painted as a sign of support for Israel. To the contrary, it was put there specifically to be walked over. Now, it is blatantly obvious to me. At the time, however, as an American student out of the U.S. for the first time, the notion that an international conflict would play out every day in such petty terms simply did not occur to me.
Flags are also used more directly. Their display can be used to send a message or a threat to the perceived enemy. In Aqaba, a small port city on the Red Sea, inhabitants look across the water at the Israeli city of Eilat. When peering across the water, it is impossible to miss the billboard-sized slab of concrete with the Israeli flag painted on it facing Jordan. Similarly, on the Jordanian side, a humongous Palestinian flag aggressively waves in the direction of Israel, seemingly in contradiction of the peace agreement and ensuing diplomatic relations that were established between the two countries in 1994.
The second way that I came to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict while in Jordan was through conspiracy theories. I have lost count of the number of times that I heard “min al Yehud” or “ala yed al Yehud” which, in Arabic, assigns blame to the Jews for something. “Ala yed al Yehud” literally means “at the hands of the Jews.” Taxi drivers swore up and down that the Jews had something to do with their broken windows. Many others theorized that the shrinking of the Dead Sea was due to an elaborate plot by the Israelis to steal the water; some went so far as to claim that the Jews actually drink the same hypersaline water that prevents other living organisms from existing in the Dead Sea.
The means by which Jordanians displayed their disdain for Israel often devolved into outright anti-semitism. I recall one instance of this shameless hatred at the shawarma shop next to my apartment in Amman when a conversation with an employee about Europe and travel somehow regressed into the employee praising Hitler for his role in the holocaust. While it was clear that this man was attempting to make a casual joke, I honestly could not distinguish whether or not he was serious. The most disturbing part of this interaction was its level of normalcy.
All in all, official agreements and rhetoric have little influence over how everyday Jordanians understand and talk about the conflict. The conflict that takes place on the ground is, in some ways, much more ingrained and difficult to reconcile when compared to that which takes place at an official, national level. While officials establishing peace agreements and normalizing diplomatic relations are important steps in reconciling the Arab-Israeli conflict, the real obstacle to overcome will be the sentiments and lasting grievances of regular citizens.
Born and Raised in Indianapolis, Indiana with two younger brothers, Max is currently an undergraduate at American University pursuing a double major in Arabic and International Relations. Max spent five months in Amman, Jordan earlier in 2017 studying language at the University of Jordan, and hopes to return to the region after graduation.