Peace with Realism

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The Failure of Dialogue

By Carlos

If long-standing adversaries are to make peace, it would be helpful for them to talk to each other - or so it would seem.

I have long held the hope for dialogue between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. I feel deep disappointment that there seems to be so little, and that things only appear to be getting worse. Why can't we at least talk to each other, and listen as well? We needn't expect to solve the problems right away - but at the very least, increasing our understanding of each other should be essential.

A personal experience has caused me to reflect on why efforts at dialogue have failed.

I mentioned to a friend of mine, whom I will call J, that I work with issues pertaining to the Middle East. On hearing this she told me she has her own very strong views on the subject. She said: "I know I can be very intolerent when it comes to the subject of the Middle East. I just have no patience when it comes to certain subjects."

I was curious to know her views, and we began a correspondence.

J told me she had an Arab friend who "opened her eyes" about the Middle East, and helped her see through the distortions in the American media. She wrote, "the thing that gets me the most enraged is the 'blind allegiance' to Israel" on the part of the United States Government, the American media, and the Jewish community. She pinpointed "the entire situation with the Palestinians" as a big reason "the Arab street hates us."

I pointed out that America does not support everything Israel does. Jimmy Carter certainly had no "blind allegiance" to Israel, the first George Bush canceled loan guarantees, the State Department has often been sympathetic to Arab interests, and so on. Many American Jews are also quite critical of Israel. J did not respond to any of this.

Instead she went on to question the very creation of Israel: It was a mistake to create Israel "in the middle of all these Arabs"; it was "a disaster waiting to happen." It was wrong to expect the Arabs to "simply accept Israel's right to exist."

I explained that there had always been Jewish communities in Palestine, even before the Arab conquest. It was not as though a Jewish presence was suddenly introduced there. In addition, thousands of Jewish refugees from Hitler had nowhere else to go, as well as thousands more Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries. Where else were they going to go? Both Jews and Palestinian Arabs had the right to live in what was not even a country then but a piece of the shattered Ottoman Empire administered at that time by the British. The only sensible and fair solution was a partition so that both communities could live side by side and determine their own futures. The Jews accepted the partition. The Arabs rejected it with violence and still reject it even to this day.

J had no response to my comments except to repeat her position even more forcefully. The "Palestinian" Jews had a right to be in Palestine, but it still made no sense to give them a country "in the middle of all those Arabs." By implication the European refugees had no business being there. "Now if we displace these people and put this enormous amount of European Jewish refugees there, it just isn't 'logical' to expect they would just be accepted. They were invaded. The Jewish refugees were not going to be accepted anywhere! To expect and blame the Arabs for not accepting it is just is not 'logical' to me. This was a recipe for disaster from the very start!"

What frightful logic this is. Since everyone else would have thrown the Jewish refugees out, one can't blame the Arabs for trying it! The refugees who survived the Nazis were "invaders." The Arabs were "displaced." "We" just "put this enormous amount of European Jewish refugees there." We should have known better!

As for "invaders" "displacing" the Palestinians: I granted that the situation of the Palestinian refugees was tragic. But this displacement occurred mainly during and after the war of 1948, which was declared and started by the Arabs. Many Palestinians left because their leaders encouraged them to do so - this is well documented. Others were victims of the war, but it was not a war Israel wanted. In addition, half the people of Israel are Middle Eastern Jews who were thrown out of Arab lands, and are as indigenous to the area as the Palestinians.

I asked J a simple question: "Where else would you have put the Jewish refugees? Europe threw them out. You don't want them in Palestine. What would you do with them?"

She could not or would not say. She just repeated herself: the Jews were stuck in the middle of all those Arabs and it was a disaster waiting to happen.

J went on to insist that the Palestinians are the "underdog" and that somebody has to speak for them. I pointed out that the Palestinians were not powerless. They had options. They rejected three good opportunities to acquire a homeland: the Peel Commission of 1937, the U.N. Partition of 1948, and the proposals resulting from Camp David 2000. They were exploited by their fellow Arabs, who refused to grant them citizenship and kept them in squalid refugee camps to use as proxies in their war against Israel, while in contrast Israel was absorbing Jewish refugees from around the world. The Palestinians also have no lack of people speaking on their behalf. Throughout the world their public relations campaign has been far more successful than Israel's, which is virtually nonexistent. With all the Arab countries as well as nuclear-ambitious Iran lined up against Israel, the status of "underdog" is certainly open to question.

I tried to meet her halfway. I granted that Israel's policies are certainly subject to criticism. The Likud Party has not served Israel well. The settlements policy had been a terrible mistake, which Israel is now beginning to realize. J was only too willing to agree with my criticisms of Israel. But she offered no criticism of the Arabs. There was no mention of Palestinian violence, of targeting civilians intentionally, or of the Arabs' repeated efforts to destroy the Jewish state.

So my efforts to find common ground came to nothing. In my final message to J I said that it has always been my deepest desire to build bridges between different groups of people, and that it is a great source of pain when I fail. Could we not continue speaking, to see if there is some way we might come together? Could we not at least agree that both sides have sinned? She responded by not only terminating the correspondence but the friendship as well.

My experience with J would not be significant if it were unique. But it is not unique. I have witnessed many dialogues just like this one. Without exception, the only side willing to criticize itself or to see any merit in its opponent's position was the Jewish side. The response from the Arab side invariably has been self-righteous contempt and dismissal, using any Jewish self-criticism as justification for their hatred of Israel. I don't believe Israel should be immune from criticism. But I cannot help feeling, in light of the many and well-known atrocities committed by Arabs over the years, that anyone who condemns only Israel and who bristles at the mere suggestion that the Arabs might be at least equally responsible, suffers from a deep moral flaw.

There is something intensely irrational about people's attachment to the Palestinian cause. It usually comes with a passionate hatred of Israel that is beyond the reach of reason. People who feel this antipathy are impervious to any information that does not support it. It doesn't matter what historical facts one may present to them: they ignore the facts in favor of strong feelings they seem unable to question. I tried to walk the extra mile; I expressed my own serious criticisms of Israeli policies, and asked only for a dialogue. I got nothing back.

I have a friend, Asher, an Israeli, a very kind and sensitive man who feels deep anguish over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He too wishes to build bridges through dialogue. He has recorded a series of dialogues with his Palestinian friend Khalid. The results are similar to my encounter with J, only more so.

These dialogues are reproduced in full on Asher's web site. I would just mention some highlights.

In this correspondence Khalid denies Israel's right to exist, compares Israelis to Nazis and the Gestapo over and over again, takes liberties with history and even promotes historical falsehoods, and accuses Israel of doing precisely what the Palestinians do: intentionally killing civilians, especially children, and taking pleasure in their deaths. Not even once does Khalid mention a single offense from the Palestinian side.

Asher's responses are very different. While refuting Khalid's exaggerations and distortions, he nevertheless tries repeatedly to reach out in a spirit of reconciliation. He is willing to criticize Israeli policies and actions. He tries to build a connection based on the recognition of mutual suffering:

I was bothered by the idea that you might let go of our dialogue, and I'm glad you didn't.

I guess I am aware of your terrible reality, and I care for you, although I am sure I can't grasp it in full, not because I am Israeli, but just because I am not in it as you are.

I see our discourse less as 'argument' and more as sharing.

* * *

I do not deny criminal activities done by at least some settlers. I hope more of those will be brought to justice. The comparison to Gestapo, which is a police organ is even technically wrong - but I can accept it as a way to express your anger.

* * *

Our army is far from being morally infallible. I condemn much of its behavior during the years of occupation (rather than the occupation itself). What I refer to is the current violence. I find the source of it not with the victims but with the plot to cause one's people to suffer adult and child casualties, in numbers and pictures which will suffice to mobilize international support for one's political aims.

* * *

Summing up the manner in which each of us conducts our dialogue up to the present, I do see a clear difference between our respective ways. I have made an effort to respond openly to any significant point raised by you, even when it caused me to admit faults of "my side." You, on the other hand, have indulged in selective reference, ignoring real challenges, sometimes quoting me off the context, and repeating points to which I had already referred, as if they are brand new.

And it is true. For Khalid, Israel is the "aggressor" and Palestinians are the "victims," and that is all there is to it. Khalid even defends the Palestinian dehumanization of Jews, calling it merely a reaction to what Jews have done and completely omitting Arab atrocities committed against Jews since long before the state of Israel was formed. For Asher, both sides have suffered and both sides need to acknowledge the other's suffering. Asher sees the pain of the other. Khalid sees only his own pain.

It has been this way in virtually every meeting of the two sides that I have witnessed. I hear no expression of regret that innocent Jews have suffered and died; I see no attempt to reach out to Jews as human beings. Virtually all attempts at outreach have come from the Jews. Many Jewish groups show sympathy and concern for the Palestinians: the Tikkun community, Rabbis for Human Rights, B'Tselem, and many others. There are also many centrist Jews like me who hope desperately for a true dialogue. We are willing to respect the reality of Palestinian suffering, but we want in return some acknowledgment of the Arab contribution to maintaining the conflict.

Dialogue cannot go just one way. The sound of one hand clapping cannot be heard. If members of only one side reach out to the other, there will never be peace. The futile but not atypical one-sided "dialogues" described in this article - multiply them by millions, and there will never be peace.

Each side must recognize that the other is human, or there will never be peace. Unfortunately, there are systematic efforts throughout Arab culture to demonize Jews, portraying them as horned devils and "apes and pigs," the seed of every evil in the world. This no doubt contributes to the unwillingness of the Arab side to give an inch in dialogue. There are certainly other complex factors as well. But they are not excuses. Both sides have progress to make in seeing the other's humanity. But so far the willingness to do this, as well as the capacity for self-criticism, have been virtually non-existent among the partisans of the Palestinian cause.

Israel has often wondered whether it has a partner for peace. I am wondering whether we even have a partner for dialogue, both within the Arab community itself and among those who defend Arab violence as some form of legitimate "resistance." Jewish prophetic tradition makes self-criticism mandatory, and Jewish self-critics are not hard to find. Arab self-criticism, on the other hand, is as elusive as peace. Can Arabs and their sympathizers find anything in their traditions to enable them to meet their Jewish adversaries on common ground? Will we ever see the day when both sides will say sincerely to each other: "I am here and I am listening" - "There is no doubt that we each have a right to exist" - "I may not fully agree with you, but there is merit in what you say" - "I feel sorry these things have happened to you, and I wish that I could change them" - "Although you have hurt me and shed my blood, I still want to reach you as a human being"?

I am ready to say these things. I am waiting for my Arab counterpart.

April 2006

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism