Palestinian-Jewish Dialogue: Try Again!

By Zeina Awad | 2001-10-01 12:00:00

I have been involved in Palestinian-Jewish dialogue for the past six years. During the first five years, I co-founded and co-ordinated Montreal and Toronto's dialogue groups. I witnessed the evolution of dialogue from a radical and dangerous idea into the subject of various articles and a model for other groups. I have travelled across North America to speak to Jewish youth who have never met an Arab before or know nothing about what it means to be a Palestinian. Over the past nine months, I have witnessed the slow death of both Montreal and Toronto dialogue groups, I have seen the Israeli left disintegrate, and I have been referred to - as are many Palestinians and Jews who still dare to work together - as a sell-out. Seven years of diverse and intense Arab-Jewish collaboration - including joint publications, joint youth summer camp programs and joint statements - have, for the most part, evaporated. What the latest Intifada has demonstrated most is that psychological changes amongst Israelis and Palestinians have largely been cosmetic. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis have surrendered their sacred cows, or havemade the crucial leap in their respective logic towards the soul-searching phase necessary for genuine social and political transformation. As a result, a taboo still hangs heavily on the issue, often preventing any candid discussion, as the "Middle East" is deemed "too sensitive." The interactions between the two communities are caught in a deadlock, as most discussions of the Israel-Palestine situation today seem to lead to a complete breakdown. Why, after seven years of genuine hope and intensive joint efforts, has this taboo not been broken? This may seem to be a simple question, but the answer lies in the complex dynamics of interactions between the two communities. To address it, dialogue cannot remained locked within the predominant narrative that represents the two people as homogeneous blocks in perpetual opposition to each other. Such a representation is shaped by the reductionism of conventional politics, and it gravely oversimplifies the complex group dynamics of the two. For example, the Madrid Conference in 1991 was delineated as the "beginning" of dialogue between the two peoples, following a period of denying each other's existence. Not so. Palestinians and Israelis have never existed as separate entities. Their fates have been intertwined from their first contacts with each other in the eighteenth century.

Palestinian Nationalism

While Palestinians already had a self-conception that is distinct from other Arab-speaking people by the turn of the 19th century, modern Palestinian nationalism, like other anti-colonialist nationalisms, emerged in direct reaction to the British presence and to Zionist settlement expansion. Zionist self-consciousness, on the other hand, while conceptualized in Europe, was realized, to a large extent, in reaction to "the Arabs" inhabiting the supposedly empty land. So from the beginning, the two sides' nationalisms have been constructed in relation to a rigidly constructed "Other." As such, the existence of the "Other" is a necessary prerequisite for the maintenance of each side's own identity and nationalism. It is against such a deeply complex background that the interactions and dynamics of the Arab-Jewish relations need to be located. Within such a framework, any reworking of One's relationship with the Other inevitably means a reassessment of One's own identity and self-definition, for One is defined diametrically to the Other. This is what political scientists refer to as "a zero-sum relationship" whereby one side's gain is the other side's direct loss. Mathematicians would refer to such a relationship as inversely proportional. In plain English, this means that the gains of one side directly equal the losses of the other side. Whatever term one may choose to use, the fact remains that Palestinians and Israelis have historically constructed rigid and static notions of each other that are premised upon the erasure of one another as a basis of one's own self-validation. This process has penetrated the psyche of both peoples - exceedingly so for the Israelis, as the oppressor will always disproportionately dehumanize its victim in order to rationalize the immorality of his/her oppression.

This does not mean, however, that the two communities were ever hermetically sealed from one another. In fact, contrary to the dominant narrative, when one reads about interactions between Palestinians and Israelis at the grass-roots level, one quickly realizes that the two communities are not clearly or logically delineated. For instance, the 1920s and 1930s saw various inter-communal exchanges between Muslims, Christians, and Jews across Palestine. These included friendships, artistic collaborations, and romantic involvements. Such human experiences, however, are regularly left out of the dominant narrative. Adding to the confusion is the fact that such interactions occurred simultaneously with settlements and violence - such as the 1936 Arab uprising, the 1919 Hebron massacre of Jews, and the campaign of terror waged against Palestinian civilians by Zionist militias in 1948 - thus making the story much more complex than has been told.

The dominant narratives have also relegated to the back burner opinions and standpoints that do not conform to their own notions. For instance, the message of various prominent members of the leftist Zionist community, such as Albert Einstein and Martin Buber, who cautioned against what they perceived as the divisive and ultimately immoral option of an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine, have been excluded from the dominant story. More recently, Women in Black and other women's groups in Israel have been relegated to the Israeli ideological margins, despite the fact that their protests have gained them worldwide recognition and a Nobel prize nomination. The silencing has taken the form of inadequate media coverage and misrepresentation of their alternative narrative. Censorship in the Palestinian camp silences Palestinian voices - most famously that of Edward Said, Palestinian-American activist and academic - that do not conform to the PLO's grand narrative. Instead, we are presented with one-dimensional, mythical, and violent grand stories that feed directly into Israeli and Palestinian conceptions of each other and, in turn, of themselves. It is impossible to overstress the detrimental psychological effects this has had on the ability of the two to engage in an honest, constructive exchange. Instead of open interaction, North American Palestinians and pro-Zionist Jews are involved in a deadly competition as to who has had the longer history of victimization. A typical exchange-turned-sour between the two follows the following pattern: the Palestinian traces his people's history of dispossession and colonization at the hands of each successive Israeli government. The Zionist retorts by evoking the Holocaust, Russian pogroms and other "highlights" in the long history of Western anti-Jewish persecution. This is more than enough to fairly warrant a Jewish homeland, the Zionist argues. Plus, the Zionist hastens to add, Palestinians keep on bringing up how Israel has affected Palestinians, but why don't they ever talk about how the Arab regimes have treated them? And before the Palestinians talk about human rights, why don't they look at how Arab regimes treat their own citizenry today? To this the Palestinian routinely replies that the Palestinians would not have been subjected to all of that, had they not been dispossessed by the Zionists.

Dialogue Degenerates

I cannot keep track of the times that "dialogue" has degenerated into such an exchange similar to the aforementioned. This outcome reflects the inability of both to question what they have been taught, for any questioning inevitably means a profound self-reassessment. For the Israelis, acknowledging the destructive effects of Zionism on Palestinian society requires questioning of their values, beliefs, and self-definition. Palestinians, for their part, are challenged to address the issue of their treatment at the hands of Arab governments. They have not accounted for the fact that Arab regimes' handling of the Palestine Question - including their own Palestinian leadership - may actually be partially responsible for the modern Palestinian plight. By not acknowledging this, they fail to apply to their own leaders human rights standards that they demand of the state of Israel. Israelis, on the other hand, fail to account for their responsibilities toward stateless and occupied Palestinians by immediately posing the history of anti-Jewish persecution as a moral justification for the dispossession and subjugation of millions of Palestinians. By not addressing the crucial link between the creation and maintenance of an exclusively Jewish state and the subjugation and dispossession of non-Jewish communities in Israel-Palestine, pro-Zionist Jews effectively erase the Palestinians from their logic. Amidst such madness, historical occurrences that are in no logical way related such - as the Holocaust and the dispossession of Palestinians - are somehow construed in a coherent manner that leaves the dominant narrative intact. Accountability is replaced by blame, and energies are wasted. What happened in the aforementioned hypothetical, yet realistic, "dialogue" is that Palestinian and Israeli interactions become deadlocked in a competition of who has suffered more throughout history. This self-victimization taken to its most suicidal, yet logical, conclusion. In the case of North American pro-Zionist Jews and Palestinians, the geographic distance from Israel often means that the individuals have either never been to the place in question, or - as in the case of Zionist Jews - have never experienced the atrocities present in Palestinians daily lives. This only contributes to the construction of a mythical Israel and Palestine, thus rendering impossible any critical assessment of one's self and people. Dialogue has no chance. Clearly then, dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis comes with highly charged emotional baggage. The two people have effectively become each other's internal demons. Hence, dialoguing with the "Other" is, in fact, dialoguing with a part of One's own psyche that is best left buried, because One cannot engage this deep part of one's self without reassessing one's own identity. Such a self conception is rigid, yet vulnerable and weak. It risks breaking like glass under the slightest pressure. Change poses an existential crisis for both peoples.

The Way Out

The way out is through collective self-examination by both peoples. There is an urgent need to critically assess the notion of Israel as a Jewish state. This notion is exclusive, racist, and absurdly removed, given Israel's demography, from reality. Israelis need to open up their country for scrutiny, as other democracies are opened up for examination and scrutiny.

Palestinians need proper organization and mobilization. Failure to organize and to learn the political language of North America where we, as Palestinians, currently live, is our biggest collective weakness, especially in light of our levels of education and our access to capital. If anything, our collective experience has shown that education and capital are only tools. We are the builders. Israel will not be able to forever sustain both its apartheid system in the Occupied Territories and its internal caste system, and the Palestinians cannot forever keep repeating the same mistakes. Palestinians and Israelis need to acknowledge that their fates are so intertwined that they have become politically and economically closer to each other than the Israelis would like to be to America or Europe and than the Palestinians think that they are to other Arabs and Muslims. They share a love for that land called Israel-Palestine. It is time for a reassessment of their respective nationalist discourses, which have become antiquated and counter-productive. Here, the role of North American Jews (Zionist and non-Zionist alike) and Palestinians cannot be possibly be overstated. We have more access to resources and information than any other society. We must take advantage of our privilege as North Americans and utilize it for the greater goods of our respective communities. This is the only way for both peoples to get off the current path toward collective suicide.

Zeina Awad is a Canadian peace activist.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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