‘Geography has made us neighbors. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.’ JFK
Sitting in a security policy conference at a prestigious think tank in Switzerland, the discussion stemmed upon the regional threats in the Middle East. A professional colleague who knows I am from Israel turned to me and whispered, ‘You certainly don’t live in an easy neighborhood.’ I smirked in agreement. It is true. One attribute common to most Israelis is the phenomenon of geo-escapism. The term I first encountered in Ari Shavit’s latest book The Promised Land, in which he struggles with Israel’s triumphs, threats, and ultimately its survivability. Geo-escapism is a defense mechanism to ignore the fact of where Israel is geographically located in order to live a ‘normal’ existence. Geo-escapism alludes to ignoring the fact that our personal oasis is situated next door to unstable ground. As if we have an unruly neighbor on our block who does not groom the yard, park his cars on the lawns, and brings down the property of the whole block. And we look the other way.
I WOULD LIKE TO provide some tips for the population to tackle this phenomenon of geo-escapism; for one factor we can never change about Israel, is its geography. The politics can swing, demography will overturn and alter, yet, geography will remain a given. One tip would be to subscribe to the contrarian view. In finance a contrarian is one whom attempts to profit by investing in a manner that diverges from the consensus opinion. This can lead to peaks of profit. In science, contrarian research is focused on an issue rejected by the majority of scientists in the field. This can lead to revolutionary discoveries. Contrarian journalism is defined by articles attacking conventional wisdom. This method can uncover a new truth and educate the public.
My point is that even if just a handful of individuals adopt the contrarian view of where Israelis are living, it could very well lead to different revelations. Most of us like to look the other way, not learn about our neighbors next door, much less interact with them. Perhaps a force of habit, education, or non-tolerance among the public. There are, however, a few out there who view the region through different contrarian lenses.
There are some of us who learned the language and the historical narrative of the neighbor. There are others who venture out and cross borders whether for business or economic cooperation, humanitarian projects or simply garden variety tourism. It is a trickle in the population yet they exist. Some academics even are reaching out to help the minorities who are suffering in the region by supporting their fights in words and funds. This is interaction with realism. Yes, we are part of the region. Yes, the region is suffering. What can we do to alleviate this?
AFTER ALL, what we choose to ignore today, will inevitably land on our doorstep tomorrow. If we choose to ignore the extremities unfolding, the horrendous conditions of the refugee camps in our proximity, the unemployment of the youth bulge, it will sooner or later impact our life.
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There is a tendency to feel these problems are remote and distant, not our own challenges. After all, we have enough to worry about. It is waaaay over there across the seas and will not affect our daily lives. However, this is no guarantee due to some line drawn on a map.
My advice is to look for the common denominators. The Oxford dictionary provides the definition of commonality as the following: The state of sharing features or attributes: ‘a commonality of interest ensures cooperation’
The more we learn of the region, the more commonalities you find. And as we delve, ignorance and fear levels recede. There is room for cooperation in some industries, even today. For example, the Middle East Commercial Center (MECC) is a business leadership group initiated by the US Chamber of Commerce. They brought together 80 business and trade organizations from across the MENA to discuss how the private sector can work with governments to promote growth. The meetings took place in Jordan and Washington DC, plus an upcoming meeting in Cairo. This initiative is a huge advocacy of economic cooperation in the region despite the turmoil in political and extremist activities.
"There are some of us who learned the language and the historical narrative of the neighbor"
The logistics sector is an interesting one since it is essential in all periods: even in times of war and disaster, and of course in times of peace as well. Logistics is a vital sector in both calm and restless times. The logistical sector, by its nature, is in contact daily with ports, sea and air, interacting with the whole region. In order to fill the cargo and containers in an efficient manner, one needs to cooperate with other logistical companies. It is more feasible to bring back aircrafts full of cargo rather than empty ones as they traverse the region from the Gulf to Europe. There is much room for more cooperation to make this sector more productive and more profitable for all.
Another point of commonality is the climate which we share. We are all in a semi arid land and need to provide sustenance for our populations in the same difficult climate. Israeli agro technologies have been refined in the region to a state-of-the-art level. Drip irrigation, humidity measuring, automatic valves and controllers, automatic filtration, low discharge sprayers, low saline content water. All these are utilized to produce better quality, higher yield, longer shelf-life products. The cotton industry is benefiting from shorter growing seasons resulting in larger yields. Flower production uses greenhouses to optimize productivity using specialized plastic, films and ventilation. There are specially designed seeds acclimatized to the semi arid region. In short, all of the above are potential points of cooperation even during times of tension since populations need to be nourished no matter what.
The paradigm of Israel being an isolated country in the region is shifting. When there are Islamic jihadists in the region causing mayhem even to their own brethren, Israel will seem less of an enemy, no longer the cause or source of all trouble. As the horrendous IS videos are appearing in their grotesqueness, humanity is learning that there are extremes which need to be fought together. Israel may even by looked upon as a partner to combat and uproot this horrendous evil in the region.
The geopolitical map is in constant shifts as allies and rivals are born and collapse. More Israelis are urged to adopt the contrarian view. Become part of the realism of geography, don’t escape it; we will be better equipped to adjust to future threats and perhaps even turn them into opportunities.