When a Handshake Isn’t Just a Handshake

Handshake photo taken from Wikimedia Commons. (In public domain.)

I don’t know about you, but I shake hands with people all the time, and I barely even think about it. Sure, I’ve heard the potential origins of the handshake as a sign of peace, indicating that neither person is holding a weapon. But in our society, shaking hands is as common as, well… a handshake. Most of us clasp hands with others multiple times on a daily basis.

But last week, a handshake that may or may not have taken place highlighted just how delicate and sensitive life can be in the Middle East. And a few days later, I received a comment on a blog post that I’d written entirely innocently, that drove this point home on a more personal level.

By now, many of you have heard the story of the Israeli-Iranian “handshake.” At an international tourism fair in Madrid, Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov was greeted somewhat warmly by the Iranian officials, and potentially even shook hands with his Iranian counterpart. This handshake made headlines in all the major news sources, and that fact alone should highlight how sensitive life in this area can be.

As I read the headlines and articles on the topic, I remember thinking, “Really? That’s newsworthy?!” I couldn’t believe that a simple handshake between two adults, no matter their political affiliations, could actually be worth reporting on the news! But, of course, I was clearly being very naive. When government officials of countries like Israel and Iran meet, they are supposed to act not as individuals, but as representatives of their governments. And if the countries do not have diplomatic relations, the people can’t even act civil to each other. That’s why Syrian officials gave Misezhnikov the proverbial cold shoulder at the fair.

But what really shocked me was the Iranian reaction to this “news story.” Not only did they vehemently deny that the handshake (or even a meeting) took place, but they went so far as to declare the news item as Israeli propaganda. Quoted here, the Iranian response:

The official news agency IRNA stated that the “Zionist regime published a blatant lie in order to distract global attention from its crimes in Gaza” in 2009.

“The Zionist regime is illegitimate and trying to promote their interests by issuing such news,” foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said today, according to the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency. “The Islamic Republic and Iranians despise Israel. The Zionist regime officials are aware of such feelings, therefore they try to conduct psychological warfare.”

So now, the handshake is much more than just a handshake. It is an act of war! But the truth is, this is a serious issue, as silly as it seemed to me on first glance. This was brought into stark relief for me when I read this tweet as I followed the story on Twitter. From Golnaz Esfandiari: “@dudi_cohen thanks. Poor guy, he might lose his job.”

This also might seem like a joke to some, but it isn’t. Just about a month ago, there was another news item about an Iranian official accidentally being civil to an Israeli, that time a foreign relations official for the Iranian football federation. Unfortunately, following what was apparently an honest mistake, the official was forced to resign!

My point in looking at these stories is that when it comes to the Middle East, there is very little that can ever be left as the innocent acts they are often intended to be. Nearly everything is perceived to be weighted with political intent, even when people just want to discuss things without mixing it up with politics.

I saw this point more clearly on a personal level after I wrote this post that I labeled as a “Short History of the Land of Israel.” My whole point in writing that post was simply to create a primer, delineating the various eras over the Land of Israel’s history. This way, if in some other post I mention that something is from the Byzantine Period, or was built by the Mamluks, or lasted from the Hellenist Era through the end of the Roman Era, anyone could look back at the History of Israel post and know what I was referring to.

But among the many responses I received via Twitter and Facebook was one that sarcastically commented how fascinating it was that I wrote the entire post and didn’t even mention the word Palestine once. (I am not going to link to the person who made the response, since I have not asked his permission, and I fear it may lead to unwanted flaming. But if he later tells me it is okay, I will be happy to do so.) I was a bit upset by his response, primarily because I didn’t even see how it was relevant to the post I wrote.

I responded and said that I did mention the word “Palestina” in reference to Hadrian’s renaming Judea with that name, and also said that the only time I felt the word might appropriately be applied to the Land of Israel was during the British Mandate period. This was not a satisfactory response for him, and I engaged him in a generally civil conversation about the topic. He felt I was being intellectually dishonest, and was essentially collaborating with Israeli government attempts to whitewash over the history of the Palestinians. I disagreed. But in the efforts of intellectual honesty and openness, I’d like to share here part of my response to this gentleman, so that you know where I am coming from both with that post, and with this blog in general:

You may note, that my post was primarily a description of the various eras that delineate periods of time in the history of the Land of Israel. I did not discuss most of the significant events in the history of the land. I did not go into the various Canaanite tribes that predated the Israelites’ arrival here. I did not discuss the various substratifications of the Jewish people when they were here. I did not go into what any subgroup did while living here. My “Short History” had to do with creating a framework by which other postings that include mention of a period could be understood… You’ll also notice that nearly every period I discussed is named for, and references almost exclusively, the people that were ruling the land at the time. Not the people who were living there, in most cases. At no point in time were the Palestinians ruling the land of Israel (or greater Palestine for that matter), which is why I didn’t see fit to mention them.

My mention of “greater Palestine” here is a reference to our prior discussion about British Mandate era Palestine, where the piece of the former Ottoman Empire that the Brits were temporarily managing, and which was referred to as Palestine, included both what is now Israel, and the much larger piece of land that is now Jordan. The person with whom I was corresponding also mentioned a lack of respect for the Israeli tourism industry in general, and I responded as such:

In terms of the tourism industry here, and the manner in which it presents the conflict, I do not believe or agree that there is any uniform attitude towards how the Arab-Israeli conflict or the status and situation of Palestinians here is presented. I know tour guides from across the political spectrum who present the information as they see it. None of them partner in any way with the government, nor do they take their marching orders from the government. As for myself (and the main way this has been presented by the instructors and administration of my course), politics has no place in a tour. When I discuss the Land of Israel, I discuss the history, the culture, the food, the agriculture — the totality of the land. And yes, that includes the contributions, histories and heritages of all the people who have lived here or affected life here. Jew, Christian and Muslim. Pagan, Bahai, and Druze. Canaanite, Philistine and Edomite. Roman, Assyrian, Babylonian and Greek. Mamluk, Ottoman and Crusader.

I include this piece of my response because I want you all to note that: I hate politics and do not enjoy talking about it. When I give a tour, I don’t bring in political commentary. That is not why you are coming to Israel and taking a tour. And since i don’t find political discussions/arguments to be particularly “fun,” it wouldn’t be in keeping with my moniker were I to include such topics in my tours.

But I think the main reason I was so disturbed by this interaction is that as much as I hate politics, and as much as I want to avoid discussing it, I’ve come to realize that I can’t help but engage with it. I thought I was writing a simple innocent post, but like two people shaking hands across international lines, my words angered someone else despite my lack of intent. My very existence as an Israeli tour guide will automatically be making some kind of statement, even as my place of residence makes statements beyond my intention.

Not only do I live in Israel, a country whose name alone evokes strong feelings and opinions (both positive and negative) in many people around the world. But I actually live on the Green Line itself. I don’t live in East or West Jerusalem. I live on what was “No Man’s Land” between 1948 and 1967. And though I make no statement other than relating that fact, nearly everyone who reads that statement will probably make a value judgment of some kind as soon as they read it.

I also realize that my politics will always come through somewhat, no matter how much I try to hide them. The very words we choose, the facts we relate and leave out, automatically will be connected to our biases. And we all have biases. Yet, by purposely not discussing my politics, I also know that my views are almost certainly going to be misinterpreted. And that upsets me.

It is my hope that nothing I write on this blog will ever be construed as a political statement of any kind. And most importantly, I hope that no one is ever offended by things I write. I believe our purpose on Earth is to connect with each other, not focus on what makes us different. And being a tourguide in a land with such history and significance (and by extension this blog) is one of the ways that I hope to connect with the world’s people.

Hopefully, in the not too distant future, a handshake will actually be just a handshake.

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