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Eyesight for Israel’s Blind

PARIS – To find a glimmer of hope on the Israel-Palestine question has become difficult, if not impossible. Most Israelis now believe that a peaceful solution will not come in their generation. As for the Palestinians, the political stalemate, and ongoing Israeli occupation, has led to radicalization: if they cannot have “something,” they want it all.

And many believe that whatever their weakness today, time is on the Palestinians’ side. Even the most moderate Palestinians now reject Israeli leftists’ offers of help in terms of human support against the actions of Israeli settlers or police. The political dialogue between moderates of both camps is mostly dead, and personal contact has become minimal. In the streets of Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians give the impression of deliberately trying not to see each other.

Moreover, as Israel increasingly resembles a successful developed country, its Jewish citizens tend to ignore its Arab citizens, just as the rich elsewhere often do not see the poor in their midst. But, unlike the poor in many emerging and developed countries, who can hope for social mobility, Israeli Arabs are second-class citizens, even if their living standards remain higher than those of most Arabs in the region. As we know from Deuteronomy, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

This distrustful ignorance of the other can be found everywhere in Israel. Or almost everywhere, for there is a place that escapes this reality: the hospital. Because of an urgent eye problem upon my arrival in Israel in late June, I had to spend seven hours in the ophthalmology department of the Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, which is the main center of treatment, teaching, and research in Jerusalem.

What I saw during those hours were, despite my personal condition, the most comforting and hopeful signs that I have encountered in the entire region in many years. Arab citizens of Israel – that is, Palestinian doctors and nurses – were treating Jewish and Arab patients. Israeli doctors and nurses attended to Arabs’ needs. I even saw some interaction among patients themselves. Old Israelis who had clearly come from Eastern Europe before World War II were playing with very young Palestinian children. There was an atmosphere of reassuring tolerance of the other.

In the highly professional, well-organized, and yet very relaxed (if not slightly confused) atmosphere of the hospital, one could glimpse what the future might hold with different political leadership on both sides. It was as if the ill were behaving in a healthy way, whereas, outside of the hospital, the healthy were behaving pathologically. In the hospital, patients’ only choice was to place themselves in the hands of the other.

What I encountered that day in Ein Kerem was the best of Israel – and a direct rebuttal to the frequent accusation that Israel is an “apartheid state.” And it was fitting that this token of a possible future should be found in an ophthalmology department, an enterprise devoted to restoring vision. Arab citizens of Israel and Jewish citizens of Israel interact with each other as equals when they are placed in a situation in which they can and must. Might all Israelis and Palestinians find themselves in such a position one day?

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I am not naïve. I understand that what I saw that day (with one eye) in the Hadassah Hospital cannot easily be replicated elsewhere. Two days after my hospital experience, a tour of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem – surrounded or divided by the security wall – served as a reminder of the region’s harsh and sobering realities.

But the lessons from the Hadassah Hospital remain alive in my heart as much as my head. When people have no other choice but to trust each other, they will be able to do so and feel better for it. It is a question of balance, competence, and respect.

Can the reality of the hospital be transferred to the reality outside? Probably not. But that should not prevent people from reflecting on what a different world could look like one day – or from working to bring about that world now.

Dominique Moisi is the founder of the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI) and a professor at Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). He is the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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