The economy of peace in the Middle East is dwarfed by the economies of war. But at times like today, when the region is being suffocated once again by the overbearing weight of global power interests, even small stories that combine authentic experiences of real coexistence with critiques of its deficiencies can remind us of the cultural and economic potentials of such coexistence. “The Anteater and the Jaguar,” which is both a personal account and a book about the politics of intercultural co-existence within the wider context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, is such a story.
In its experiential dimension, the book is the personal account of author Rayek Rizek, who describes his life in the “Oasis of Peace,” a mixed Jewish/gentile settlement halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel. This autobiographical aspect for me only adds to the book’s credibility and to what it represents: contemporary history and a polemic. It is a polemic in which Rizek, while clearly calling for harmony, nevertheless criticizes all—Jews and others alike—as he examines the history of the Oasis of Peace and the successes and non-successes of this community, as well as the roots and effects of the conflict on his life in Nazareth, where he was raised as an Arab Christian.
In reviewing this book, I must mention at this point a personal connection: The author is my first cousin; his mother and mine were siblings in a close-knit family, which even today thrives in Nazareth and other parts of Palestine, as well as elsewhere. For me, this connection gives me every motivation to be an even fairer reviewer of “The Anteater and the Jaguar,” whose title comes from an Amazonian myth involving the carcasses of the two eponymous animals found locked together after their violent encounter. As the book’s subtitle implies, the question driving Rizek is whether it is the destiny of the Jews and the gentiles of modern Palestine to perish in such a pointless way.
Growing up as a middle-class Arab Christian in the state of Israel, the days of Rizek’s youth and his education were good—but tinged with something negative, due largely to Zionism and its antitheses. As an adult, he headed for the Oasis of Peace, whose residents are not required to adopt a specific ideology or bent, beyond tolerance. They live with others from different creeds, however, they are sending their children to the country’s only bilingual binational school (interestingly a key outreach tool as most students there are from outside the community).
As he engaged with the Oasis of Peace, Rizek describes his change in opinion from considering compromising to be a form of “giving in,” to accept for others what one expects for one’s self. The community, which was founded almost 60 years ago, is not described as a paradise—most individuals reportedly at some point consider leaving it—but it appears resilient, as Rizek describes it. Along the way, he notes interesting characteristics of community residents, including thefact that their disagreements are usually not defined nationalistically, but by more practical concerns, for example whether to privatize something. He says, however, that there always will be arguments defined by nationality—and that on some things you just must disagree.
The conclusion of the book argues that peaceful coexistence is possible in Palestine between Zionist settlers and the country’s original inhabitants. Rizek is in favor of unifying Israel and Palestine, along with Jordan. I agree: A democratic confederal state would be ideal. In any case, the book’s intellectual basis—which the author does not develop extensively—is that the real enemy is not a local Jew or a Muslim or other, but that all are victims: of imperialism, globalization run amok, or predatory capitalism. As the Americans are about to impose the Deal of the Century (in President Trump’s words) on Palestine, we should be wary of ham-fisted hegemonizing. In that regard, Rizek tells the story of my father who, then working at the United Nations headquarters in New York and technically made stateless after the emergence of Israel in 1948, was offered an American citizenship, which he refused, responding “Do you want me to exchange Palestine for a piece of paper?”