Us vs. Them
By KEN WELLS, LPC
We can learn the art of fierce compassion by redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us-vs.-them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations.
My experience with Little League baseball taught me that winners were in and losers were out. I learned the us vs them mentality in every aspect of my life. In school “A” students were in and “C” students were out. About religion, I learned if you were “saved” or “born again” you were in and if you were not you were lost— definitely out. It’s a major contributing reason why I abandoned my evangelical emphasis of my Christian faith. I could no longer accept the focus of others being out just because they didn’t see spirituality in the way I did.
Zero sum living promotes have and have-nots; winners and losers; us and them mentality. This approach to living fractures communities and promotes a rule breaking mentality. Ultimately, when we teach kids in Little League a distorted value of being a winner versus the greater understandings of the components of teamwork and community building, it contributes to the break down of community on a more grand scale. It can become instrumental in promoting racial hatred and can fuel division and alienation throughout the world.
Most addicts who come to their first 12 step meeting are overwhelmingly aware of being rejected because they have been identified as a loser. It is the power of unconditional acceptance that becomes the breeding ground for hope and possibility where there had been only shattered dreams. In 12 step meetings there is no “us vs them” because there is only common shared brokenness that becomes the thread that connects all who ask for help.
Several years ago my son Jim and I visited the Middle East.I wanted to develop my own picture of the people, conflict and culture by interacting with the folk who live there. While there I engaged Israeli people and listened to their feelings about Palestinians. The majority of those that I interacted with shared feelings of hostility and frustration about Palestinian folk. Most did not personally know Palestinians and many indicated that they did not desire to know Palestinians better than they did. The majority of folk that I engaged had a definite opinion about their Palestinian counterpart. We were warned many times over to not go to Bethlehem, the West Bank or Ramallah. We were told that our safety would be jeopardized if we did.
Of course, the history of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is renown. One day my son, Jimmy, was driving our rental car with me in the rider’s seat through the city of Jerusalem. Carelessly, he ran over a sharp edge to a street curb and blew out the front right tire. We were close to an auto service station and we took the car there to have the tire replaced. While there, I told the service attendant that we really wanted to visit a refuge camp and travel to the West Bank. I told him that it was important to us to experience the Palestinian way of life. The attendant who nodded his head, smiled and said “I know who can help you”. He told us to walk two blocks to the Jerusalem Hotel which was Palestinian. We were to ask for a man named Abu Hassan and that he would help us.
We went to the hotel. Upon entry to the hotel, we inquired about Mr. Hassan. Hotel personnel knew who Mr.Hassan was and instructed us to go to the area of the hotel that was the restaurant. We went to the restaurant and sat down. In approximately fifteen minutes Mr. Hassan appeared and seemed a bit cautious as I shared our desire to visit the West Bank. Hassan was an averaged size Palestinian with deep black hair and black beady eyes. I guessed him to be in his early 40’s. He listened carefully to my request and then agreed to give us a political tour of the West Bank.
I asked him how much he would charge for the tour and I won’t forget his response, “Look, let me give you the tour and then you can pay me whatever you think it is worth. I’ll be satisfied with that.” So we agreed and drove off to the West Bank in his SUV.
Our first stop was only two doors down from the Jerusalem Hotel. He noted with us a very small nondescript building where a small group of people were standing in a line on the outside of the building. He described that these were people who would arrive very early every morning in an attempt to gain permission to visit family who lived in another part of Jerusalem. They were not allowed to travel freely back and forth because they were Palestinians. This was true even though they needed to do so because their work was located in another part of Jerusalem while their family lived in yet another part. Mr. Hassan informed that these people would wait in line for days just to gain permission to travel to the other side of Jerusalem. We then made our way to another part of Jerusalem identified as an occupied territory.
Along the way, Mr. Hassan stated that he is a journalist for the PLA. He shared that on one occasion he was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier while on his way to cover a story. While traveling he happened upon a street conflict in which a young boy had been shot and who was an apparent innocent bystander. When he got out of his vehicle to help the young boy he was shot in the leg by the Israeli soldier.
When we arrived at the West Bank occupied territory, Mr. Hassan pointed out the obvious. The residents were all Israeli settlers. The terrain and the homes made me think of where I once lived in Fountain Hills, Arizona. They were well built and seemed surprisingly affluent. They sat on the ridge of an arroyo. The climate and the terrain seemed surreal in some sense.
Mr. Hassan announced that the land we were standing on was an occupied territory.He informed that the land was taken from the Palestinians by force and then the Israelis wanted to sit down and create a peace agreement with the Palestinians. He then asked us to survey the horizon toward the next arroyo. He pointed out a refugee community in the valley where many refugees have lived for close to fifty years. The refugees camp had no running water or private plumbing for bathrooms. The filth and squalor of their condition was deplorable.
He asked “If someone comes to your house with guns and forced you out of your home and into a refugee camp just like the ones in the distance—then asked you to sit down and make peace with them, what would you want to do? He went on “Of course, you would want to say, ‘First give me back my house and then we can talk peace’. He then referenced the United Nations Resolution 242 which stated that Israel should return to the territorial boundaries of 1967. He reminded that the major countries of the world supported and passed the resolution as a key component that was fair and equitable in restoring peace to the Middle East. “Yet”, he said with his voice tone rising with intensity, “Your President and government has decided to support Israel in this matter and ignore Resolution 242, even though the United Nations resoundingly passed the initiative”. He then convincingly argued that if someone in a very hostile way kicked you out of your house and another bully supported the eviction, and you suffered in squalor like the people we are looking toward in the refuge camp, wouldn’t that trigger hatred in your heart. Does it make sense that after years of exasperation that even violence would be triggered? He reiterated that people in Palestine do not want violence. Nonetheless, given their disempowered position that forces people to wallow in extreme third world squalor, violence made sense as a result of radical frustration. It was hard to argue against his point. I thought to myself how important it is to walk in the reality of other community experience before judgment and conclusions are made by what has been reported from one side of the equation.
We then drove to a checkpoint. He advised that he had a number of identification forms that would help us gain speedy entrance into the West Bank. He told us to tell the soldiers at the checkpoint that we were Canadian guests, desiring to visit the West Bank, if asked. However, when we engaged the soldiers at the checkpoint, no one ever asked. It still took about fifteen minutes to get through the checkpoint.
As we drove through, Mr. Hassan reflected in conversation saying that most normal Palestinians must wait 45 minutes to 2 hours to get through on an average day. While passing through, I noticed the long lines of Palestinians walking and waiting to get through the checkpoint. Many looked like they were trying to get to work.
Recently, Hassan reported, a pregnant woman in labor who was trying to get through the checkpoint and rush to a hospital was delayed and conditions forced her to deliver the baby while waiting in line! The fire and anger was understandable in his voice as he shared.
This story was very different from the view I had heard while interviewing Israelis in Tel Aviv.
We then traveled to Ramallah located in the center of the West Bank. Ramallah” is composed of “Ram”, an Aramaic word that means “high place or mountain”, and “Allah”, the Arabic word for God, or “the Hill of God Ramallah serves as the de facto administrative capital of the State of Palestine.Ramallah was historically a Christian town, but today Muslims form the majority of the population, with Christians still making up a significant minority.
As we entered the city, I told Mr. Hassan that Israelis in Tel Aviv told me that I would be foolish to go to Ramallah or Bethlehem because it was so dangerous. He acknowledged that there were unsafe places in the West Bank and in Ramallah itself, just as there is in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. However, he said Israelis want to frighten visitors from traveling to Ramallah because they know to do otherwise would promote Palestinian economy and well being.
Once arriving in Ramallah, Mr. Hassan parked his SUV and took us on a foot journey through downtown Ramallah. Mr. Hassan warned that we should put our money clips,ID and watches in our front pockets because there will be pick pockets. He said the pickpockets will be similar to the ones experienced on streets in America, like Chicago. The streets of Ramallah were teaming with people going everywhere. There were vendors tugging at our arms and aggressively trying to hawk their wares for us to buy. At one point, he seemed very stern toward one man and they had an intense discussion in Arabic. He later mentioned that the man was a pick pocket and he had targeted me and my son. I was very thankful that Mr. Hassan intervened in the midst of our lack of knowledge of what was going on. Overall, the experience seemed very safe, like many other cities that I have visited.
We then walked back to his SUV and he drove us through the streets of Ramallah, commenting on the struggle for children to get a good education because of the turmoil and chaos generated by the conflict with Israelis. As he drove he spoke highly of Yasser Arafat. He identified that Arafat had many shortcomings and was both hated and loved by many Palestinians. As he talked we approached the compound where Arafat lived. Arafat died in November 2004 from what was officially announced as the result of a stroke, though many people theorize he was poisoned.
All around the compound were soldiers with machine guns and masks over their faces. They were not friendly in the least but nor were they hostile. I was glad Mr. Hassan was with us. They seemed to know him and quickly allowed us to pass through the entry way and into the compound.
Once inside we parked. Mr. Hassan took us over to an apartment that had obviously been bombed. He stated that this was where Arafat lived until the compound was bombed. Arafat had always preferred to live humbly and to identify with the rank and file of every day Palestinians, is what Hassan said.
We then walked over to a tent like structure that had become Arafat’s “temporary tomb”. It had lots of flowers, a picture of Arafat and a checkered turban gracefully draped on the memorial. Mr. Hassan stated that Arafat’s desire is to be buried inside Jerusalem. Hassan shared that there were rumors that indicated a secret deal had been made and Arafat’s remains had been already secretly taken and buried inside Jerusalem. Just more lore for the story.
On the way back to Jerusalem, we stopped at a house restaurant for lunch. We were told that the restaurant owner had been a war hero and had become good friends with our guide. I wrote down what I ate. It was Mansaf which is lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice. I added a little hummus and fattoush which is a mixed leaf vegetable salad with pita bread pieces and sumac. To drink, I enjoyed a carob juice called Kharroub. The conversation was engaging and ended far too soon. On the way back to Jerusalem we traveled next to the Wall that was then being constructed by the Israeli government reportedly for their safety. It was clearly imposing and very oppressive. Mr. Hassan stated that the wall had added unprecedented difficulty and frustration to Palestinian people who already had a difficult way of life. He pointed out that the Palestinian people must travel through the checkpoints to get to work or to hospitals for care. When we reached the checkpoint it took about an hour to get through. Mr. Hassan told us this was an average wait time. I observed Palestinians needing to get out of their vehicles to be searched and others being detained. The look on their face was one of clear exasperation. When we returned to our hotel that night, we had a clear understanding that our views of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was much different than what we learned through the US newspapers or the CNN newscasts. I returned home but Jimmy stayed an extra 3 weeks in the West Bank. He engaged Palestinian folk who shared their struggle.
When we both returned neither of us thought in terms that we had the answer for the resolution of the Israeli- Arab conflict. Rather, as it as always been, when you engage with the every day struggles that people endure, you walk away and understand the struggle from a heart perspective. Somehow who they are is who you are. Embracing other people’s struggle makes the the issue of “Us and them” go away.
I am challenged to raise the issue of rule breakers and the attitude of winners and losers that promotes an “us vs. them” mentality. When you play baseball long enough you will have experienced both winning and losing. Issues of conflict reach far beyond the results of competition of who won and who lost. We are all both winner and loser. Governmental policies are not all good or all bad. It demands that we all embrace situations of struggle and sit with the reality of those who battle and campaign for justice and fair treatment. When we do, the compassion of the human heart has a way of reaching out and finding a way when there seems to be no way so that all children can fulfil their destiny.
I share this extended story regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it is so connected to how we teach kids to build community even through Little League. As long as we emphasize scoreboard champions we will continue to produce “us vs them” results which will become like a tributary to a greater deprivation experienced the world over that I am in and you are out. As long as this continues the prospect for peace in our world is dim.
Recovery from addiction reflects Little League and the greater world at this point. When we maintain a “totem pole” mentality about whose addiction is worse than others we fuel the very existence of “us vs them”. Most sex addicts that I treat struggle to identify there behavior as sex offending because of the association with rapists and child molesters. But the truth is that everybody offends in some way. However, I believe that community is safest within the context of accountability. In principle, if I am accountable to you and you are accountable to me, we could hold each other responsible to eliminate hurtful behavior. In this way we would make our community more safe by avoiding an “us vs them” mentality.