Imagine you are among the first settler colonial humans to discover extraterrestrial life. You have landed somewhere in a distant planet, disembarked, and were going about your daily tasks as you encounter the first signs. Some seemingly sentient, intelligent creature approaches you. It looks different, nothing like you or anyone you’ve seen, not even like a reptile or sea creature. It approaches.
You might be afraid–you have no means of communicating with this creature. Your first thought is to reassure it: “I come in peace,” you could proclaim… not that it would understand.
When encountered with an unknown being, one that potentially has the ability to take your life, how do you behave?
I wager that most humans will translate their fear to violence.
Better be safe and kill the thing, right?
I often wonder why humans even bother to say they come in peace as the explore the cosmos. It often feels like we are setting ourselves up for an impossible feat, virtually guaranteeing that Time will judge us as hypocrites if the day comes when we meet extraterrestrials with whom we cannot communicate. Our fear of the unknown “other” often seems insurmountable.
Back on earth, our fear of the unknown other continues to harm us, robbing our humanity day by day. While we have the mans of communicating with other humans, our view of the “other” in military, political, and ideological conflict, is not too different from our view of an alien creature. Our ability to empathize with other humans diminishes as we convince ourselves of their otherness.
This is a problem that plagues every part of our human civilization, and is the root of racism, fanaticism, terrorism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, partisanship, and many, many political conflicts. One of these problems is particularly close to my heart: the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the fear of extraterrestrials though, this is a problem with a solution.
The solution is simple: engage in dialogue to achieve coexistence.
In regions plagued with conflict, the sides often mystify each other and refuse to interact. A 2007 study by the Center for Research on Peace Education at Haifa University reinforces this idea: less that 50% of Jewish high school students surveyed were willing to meet Arab students. The percentage of Arab students willing to meet Jewish students is about 75% according to the survey, also a low percentage (the increased percentage on the side of the Palestinian Arabs could be attributed to the fact that Palestinians do interact with Israelis more regularly, through the IDF’s presence in checkpoints, etc.).
Other questions still reveal a disconnect: 75% of Jewish high school students thought Arabs were uneducated, uncivilized, unclean, and violent. On the Palestinian side, 27% believe Jewish people are uneducated, 40% believe they are uncivilized, 57% believe they are unclean, and 64% believe they are violent.
In this part of the world, Jews and Arabs view each other as strange and exotic. With this strangeness comes fear, then hatred.
Many organizations try to solve this problem by bringing together teenagers from opposite sides of conflict-torn regions and getting them to engage in dialog. Prime among these initiatives is Seeds of Peace. Dialog and argumentation rarely changes anyone’s minds when it comes to the facts. Instead, through dialog and living in close quarters, we get a more valuable outcome: camaraderie.
I will continue to hope that the politicians of today miraculously put an end to the Middle East conflict, but I will not count on it, sitting and doing nothing. What I am counting on, however, is that 20 more years down the line, the leaders of the next generation will be empowered with a new perspective, an insight on the humanity of the Other.