How tolerant are you?

I gave a talk recently at Toastmasters, in Queenstown, New Zealand, about my experience travelling to the West Bank and my time in Bethlehem. What I found interesting is that even in a place as supposedly “tolerant” as New Zealand, the audience response is still subdued as regards Palestine, and way more “moved” by what happens to and in Israel. Admittedly, I was wearing a hijab or a headscarf.

 Anyway, here is my account of when I travelled to the West Bank from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, as given in a speech.

How tolerant are you? by Lucia Dore

 “What is your reaction to my wearing a hijab or headscarf? I notice some of you look surprised, are perhaps not sure how to react to me. Others are used to it.

I would be wearing my abaya now- that’s the long black gown- but I gave it to someone else to use and never got it back. Yes, it’s just like those books we lend to someone and don’t have them returned.

 My questions to you today are how tolerant do you think you are? Do you think that travel makes you more tolerant? Or is tolerance innate?

 In Queenstown we have to be tolerant, because there are so many people from different nationalities who visit this place. We seem to cope well if the foreigners are white America, English, Irish, Australian or Europe. It seems to be another matter when it comes to the Asians, Chinese in particular. Is this right? Is it just?

 In New Zealand, we seldom see black people, and many of you look aghast in the way you look at me now. We even have very few Maori here- the contrast certainly strikes me as soon as I reach the North Island. The people and the street names are often Maori.

 In thinking about travel and tolerance I wondered about whether and how travel had made me more tolerant- and add journalism into the mix as well.

 At this point I will declare some self-interest. I’m speaking from the perspective as a foreign correspondent, a financial journalist, and an editor, who was working and living in Dubai. But although I was based in that emirate I was head of a news wire service, then owned by the Financial Times Group, for the whole of the Middle East and North Africa.

 So I’m going to take you on a journey, telling you about one of my most profound experiences in the Middle East, one that not only allowed me to see how others lived but also allowed me to see that some broadcasters – one in particular- is way less “left wing” than is often perceived.

 What I’m going to speak to you about is my journey into Israel from Palestine, but ultimately from Dubai.

 In case you didn’t know, you can’t travel from the Gulf Arab countries to Israel– unless you get to Turkey and fly to Tel Aviv from there. So I flew to Jordan and took the bus, with about 200 other conference delegates from there. Tony Blair, George Mitchell and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Fattah party were there too,

 Since we were going to a conference in Bethlehem- this was in 2013 and it was probably about investment in Palestine- we were given VIP treatment. What a joke. Before border controls came into effect people travelled regularly from Amman in Jordan to Bethlehem, which took about 20 minutes. It took us about eight hours. Sitting next to me was an Arab diplomat from Abu Dhabi and a doctor who had not seen his mother in 40 years.

 Many of the people on that bus used the conference as a means of getting a visa, without ever having the intention of going to the conference. Instead, this was an opportunity to see members of their family, often parents, some who had not seen them since partition. They had never been able to obtain a visa to get over the Allenby Crossing. There were also a group of singers from Lebanon who were singing about “going back to their homeland”, the first time they had ever seen it, and how wonderful it was. (The fact that it was dry, and much more built up than Central Otago, including barbed wire fences, is beside the point).

 Actually, in the end I got tired of waiting for the bus to leave from passport control so I took a taxi from the Allenby Crossing through to Bethlehem. At the small B&B, where I met other people travelling to the same event, we talked and talked about the experiences we had had. One person told me about his colleague, a well-known lawyer in the Arab world working at a top law firm in Dubai, who had been detained at Tel Aviv airport and held in a cell for 24 hours. His family lived in Palestine and my lawyer friend told me it happened every time his colleague travelled there.

 At the B&B there was intermittent electricity and water, since it was turned on and off at a whim by the Israelis.

 Briefly, I just want to say that I was in Palestine/Israel when the Turkish flotilla was taking aid to Gaza. So security was high.

 Nonetheless, I went to Old Jerusalem and managed to get through Israeli security, but that was lucky. I was asked where I came from and handed over my British passport since I was using that at that time. (I am a New Zealander by birth but acquired a British passport after I had lived there for so long).

 The soldier with his gun, who looked about 17, told me I had a wrong visa and couldn’t cross the border. I was furious and answered back, saying I had a British passport. They were non-plussed with that answer, so I said I had NZ passport- to which they were very confused. He then asked my name. And once I replied “Lucia” he waved me through- “so much for not having a valid visa,” I thought.

 At this time, I was nearly in tears. I got on the local bus to go down to the Old City and the Israeli man next to me who knew I was upset said to me, “Not everyone is like that”. He also told me: “Just outside the wall, Palestinian houses are being demolished”, adding that not everyone was like the soldiers with whom I had an altercation. “We do not all agree with the government”, he said.

 What I learned is that tolerance is more than knowledge, or even education- although I think it is a prerequisite. It is feeling that tolerance, or intolerance, is required of both sides. And travel is one of the few things that make that possible.

So next time you see foreigners, don’t be put off; don’t be scared.

Everyone is the same; everyone thinks the same. They care for their homes; their tribes; their families.

So my call to you today is how tolerant are you?

I leave you with the words of Kofi Annan, former head of the UN.

 “Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated.”
Kofi Annan

I also urge you to “know your limitations. Get out while you can, whether you are in a job you don’t like or a place you don’t like.Tolerance is as much knowing about yourself, as it is other people."

Other quotations that I thought were powerful are :

 “Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” – Think of America”
Joseph Fort Newton, An American Baptist Minister, 1876-1950

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”
Jalaluddin Rumi

 “Religion is like a pair of shoes. Find one that fits for you, but don't make me wear your shoes.”
George Carlin

 “The highest result of education is tolerance”
Helen Keller


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Wednesday, 17 August 2022