The Possibility of Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue
by Dr. Tony Klug
May I first say how much I have appreciated attending this service this morning and what a pleasure it was listening to you, Ben, and seeing you so enjoying the occasion with your family and friends. Inevitably, at such a time, memories of one’s own barmitzvah – or batmitzvah as the case may be – are conjured up. When I was 13, a little while ago, I well remember how we tended to take certain things for granted, among them the expectation that the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbours would be resolved within a few short years. We have been badly disappointed, but I hope your generation, Ben, won’t be.
In a modest attempt to do something to make a difference, a small number of Jews and Palestinians living in Britain met in London roughly 20 years ago to try to bridge the hostile gulf that had divided the two communities for decades. Such an idea was considered quite radical at the time, even subversive, and some of those involved feared for their reputations within their own communities, on both sides. So it was agreed that the meetings would start off confidentially, and so it continued for the first six years.
In an effort to calm the initial tension, the kind Quaker facilitators generously handed around a plate of refreshments, only to feel slightly put out when no one touched the ham sandwiches. As we have heard, this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemini, explicitly prohibits the consumption of certain foods, notably pig meat. But so too does the Muslim Quran, in four separate verses. All of a sudden, these putative enemies, ensconced in one room, found they had something in common. One revealing discovery led to another and excited further curiosity. In this way, the well-meaning Christian hosts innocently achieved their aim of relaxing the atmosphere in a manner they could never have planned or anticipated.
The group’s monthly meetings were not academic seminars between dispassionate analysts searching for supposedly objective truths, but were more of the fiery encounter type between activists who felt personally involved in the enduring conflict between Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian.
We found we all had a great deal to say. The more difficult part was the listening. That took a little longer. And it’s probably fair to say we never really became truly expert at it. But most participants were genuinely keen to acquire an understanding of the others’ fears and hopes, their perceptions and aspirations.
We soon discovered that engaging seriously in dialogue can be a profoundly discomfiting experience, especially at first, in that it requires participants to reconsider deeply held convictions, about both themselves and their adversaries. But it is also a deeply humanizing process. It is, after all, easier to despise, humiliate and destroy an imagined stereotype than a fellow human being with feelings, frailties and hopes not so different from one’s own.
The main achievement, I would say, was the common recognition that there are not one but two historical perspectives and that it was vital to understand them both - even if one’s own was inevitably the more valid! We came to appreciate that the case for one side was not the antithesis of the case for the other; that a severe setback for one side was not necessarily a powerful gain for the other; and that rejoicing at each other’s grief was not just loathsome but ultimately leads nowhere.
As someone who has been involved in different ways with this conflict for the past 40-or-so turbulent years, I have come to appreciate the simple insight of an old adage, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that goes something like this: “If you were born where they were born and you were taught what they were taught, you’d believe what they believe”. Yet, if we are to be more than just the mechanical products of our own backgrounds - and if we want to make proper sense of the conflict - we need to be able to think and understand beyond our boxes.
I would like to share with you two other broad conclusions.
First, it is a self-evident truth that the two peoples are fated to live alongside each other. Neither is going away. If the Palestinians fail to gain their place in the sun, the Israelis will never be left in peace to enjoy theirs. Conversely, the Palestinians will never win their freedom if the Israelis are convinced it will be at their expense. Each holds the key to the other’s destiny. Thus, for its own sake and – of equal importance - for the sake of future generations, it is vital that the vilification by and of either people is brought swiftly to an end. This, I believe, is something we can and should all be vigilant about.
Secondly, the indefinite continuation of this tragic conflict is not inevitable. The animosity between these two small, long-suffering peoples has little to do with their respective religious beliefs or cultural traditions, which have much in common. Israelis and Palestinians have clashed – bitterly – because they have simultaneously aspired to the same piece of territory on which to exercise their self-determination. This is the root of the conflict. Everything else has been artificially superimposed. If the geographical circumstances had been different, it would not be so hard to imagine their relationship as more of one of alliance and mutual support. And maybe it could still be.
On the one side, all sorts of conspiracy theories and malevolent intent have been heaped onto the Zionist movement by its detractors, some of it giving off a familiar antisemitic whiff, not so different from that which played the decisive role in winning so many Jews to the Zionist cause in the first place. Conceptually, Zionism was a distressed people’s proud, if defiant, response to centuries of contempt, humiliation, discrimination and periodic bouts of murderous oppression, of which the Nazi holocaust was the most recent and extreme. The Israeli state was the would-be phoenix to rise from the Jewish embers still smouldering in the blood-soaked earth of another continent.
The motive was the positive one of achieving justice and safety for one tormented people, not the negative one of doing damage to another people. Yet, in effect, this is precisely what it did do, and at some point Israelis and their supporters around the world are going to have to come fully and openly to terms with this.
On their part, the Palestinians likewise did not set out to damage anyone. They merely wanted for themselves what – with considerable justification - they felt was their entitlement. While their Arab brethren were achieving independence in neighbouring countries, the Palestinians were paying a heavy price for losing out in the geo-political lottery, and still are. Dispossessed, degraded and derided, their original felony was simply to be in the way of another anguished people’s grand enterprise. Almost everything that has happened since then is in some way a consequence of this.
In sum, it is common for people directly involved in a conflict to feel passionately about their own cause and to see little or no justice on the side of the other. The challenge for the rest of us is do we merely line up with the side with which we instinctively feel an affinity, and ritualistically echo their mantras, or is there something more useful we can do? If we are to avoid the nightmare of perpetual, tribal-based, conflict, I suggest there is an important role to play across the communities in fostering understanding and helping both sides deal with the realities of today in a manner that is conducive to a peaceful and fair solution that accommodates the reasonable aspirations of both peoples.
If, alongside others, we take this path, it would at least give hope that you and your contemporaries, Ben, may be relieved of the future burdens of this terrible conflict that so affects and disturbs us all.
Mazeltov again Ben and Shabbat Shalom to you all.
Sermon delivered at Alyth Gardens Synagogue, 22 April 2006, by Dr. Tony Klug, to coincide with the Barmitzvah of Ben Joseph
Dr Tony Klug is a veteran Middle East analyst and writer. He was co-founder and co-chair of the Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue, trustee of the International Centre for Peace in the Middle East and has served as head of international development at Amnesty International. Currently, he is Senior Policy Consultant at the Middle East Policy Initiative Forum, vice chair of the Arab-Jewish Forum and is a founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights.