Suppose Your or My Favorite Spiritual Leader were to
Speak on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

James Adler

In the July 31st edition of HSC I laid out what I consider my "best self" on the Middle East-- an effort at a "Thich Nhat Hanh-like" balanced approach--not in an arithmetical sense of balance, but in the sense of understanding and compassion for both sides-- except for bloodthirsty terrorism and contemporary colonizing.

Sometimes I stray (usually to the left) from this Thich Nhat Hanh-like center, but that center is where I've tried increasingly to find a grounding-- leaving the earlier far-left response after 9/11 that reached its high mark in 2002, to an effort at all-around compassion and understanding-- an understanding such as that of Israeli writer Amos Oz, and his view that it's now the conflict is a complex and so-far intractable one "between right and right."

Here are two columns that bring out the sort of sympathetic understanding to which I've come to aspire (sadly with inconsistent success):

First, a column of M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, from Nov. 11, 2005, called "Know Too Much About History."

At the time the column was first brought to my attention by my good friend Ernest Cassara.

Second, a column of Bradley Burston in the recent Oct. 13 Ha'aretz (the progressive and high-minded Israeli daily). His piece is called "Peace Never".  It is a sad assessment. But also a sympathetically understanding one.

Now hear them speak--   M.J. Rosenberg and Bradley Burston.

Perhaps the titles of their pieces should be combined-- "'Peace Never' -- Because They -- and We -- 'Know Too Much About History'".

IPF Friday (
Washington DC, November 11, 2005

Know Too Much About History (

By MJ Rosenberg

I recently saw a one-woman show about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which artfully illustrated that the issues dividing the two peoples today are rooted in their respective views of yesterday.

In "A Land Twice Promised," ( Israeli storyteller and actor Noa Baum portrays characters from both sides of the national divide who describe the same events in utterly different ways. Israelis and Palestinians told their stories to Baum and she, with changes in tone and gesture, transforms herself into each one, and tells their stories to us. The viewer shifts back and forth from sympathy for the Israelis, and then for the Palestinians, and ultimately for both.

The show is decidedly political without being biased. The politics derive from the events Baum's characters describe -- the 1947-8 war, the Six Day
War, and the Al Aksa intifada.

I saw the show in an audience that included Israelis and Palestinians. Representatives of both groups joined a discussion with Ms. Baum after the program and each side felt she had done their side justice, although each would have preferred a tad more of a tilt their way.

One thing Baum does not do, and cannot do, is to merge the two narratives into one. The Israeli characters have their point of view; the Palestinians have theirs. The two views can accommodate each other, but they are not going to become one.

That is why most of those involved in the quest to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace prefer to avoid history. It's much safer to discuss how a shared Jerusalem would be administered, or how Palestinians in Gaza could traverse Israel to get to the West Bank, than to discuss whose
claim to the land is more valid.

How wide is the gap in perceptions? At the Camp David summit in 2000 Yasir Arafat insisted that the Jewish Temple of ancient days was not in Jerusalem at all, but in Nablus. In his time, former Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir argued that there was no such thing as Palestinians; they were either southern Syrians or Bedouins, or just some kind of Arab in general.

Fortunately, the most egregious myths on each side are rejected by vast majorities of both peoples. But, according to a recent study called "Shared Histories" (published by the Harry Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development in Ramallah) there
continue to be immense gaps between the two sides on virtually every aspect of the conflict - even among moderates reconciled to the two-state solution.

In their introduction to "Shared Histories," editors Paul Scham, Walid Salem and Benjamin Pogrund acknowledge why those trying to foster negotiations consider it dangerous to delve into history. It is, after all, all too easy to become bogged down in claims and counter-claims, each buttressed by historical evidence of one kind or another -- much easier than coming to terms.

But the authors believe that Palestinians and Israelis "cannot attain a durable peace between them without some degree of understanding of each other's historical narrative."

They explain that an historical narrative is "how a society understands itself and others through history -- how it came into being, how it fits into the world, how it relates to enemies and friends. The historical narrative is truly the property of a nation as a whole; in fact, possession of an historical narrative is one definition of a nation. We believe that each of the two narratives can and must be enriched by a knowledge and understanding of the other."

So they set out to discern precisely what the competing narratives are. They did that through a series of 2-3 hour meetings with Israeli and Palestinians both in Jerusalem and outside Israel and the territories.

The results are startling, without being surprising.

The Israeli and Palestinian narratives barely converge at all.

For example:

  • Israelis base their claim to Eretz Yisrael on the grounds that they are descendants of the "ancient Israelites" and "never gave up their relationship to the land, despite their expulsion" 2000 years ago. Palestinians view Judaism as a faith, like Christianity, "with no inherent tie to a particular land. Jews are not a nation but a community of believers."

  • Israelis view Zionism as "an authentic response to the persecution of Jews over millennia..Jews did not come as colonizers, but rather as pioneers and redeemers of the lands, and did not intend to disrupt the lives" of the Palestinians. Palestinians view Zionism as standard issue European colonialism "directed towards robbing Arabs of their ancestral land. Arabs were systematically expelled by Zionist settlers from the beginning."

  • Israelis view Palestinians as "largely undifferentiated from the inhabitants of much of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan..Palestine was never a separate state and Jerusalem was never a capital." Palestinians believe they are the descendants of the Bible's Canaanites and Jebusites and "were there before the Israelites" arrived. They have constituted a majority of Palestine's inhabitants since Biblical times.

  • Israelis believe their state was legitimized by international diplomacy, starting with the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the United Kingdom stated its backing for a Jewish state in Palestine. Palestinians view the Balfour Declaration as proof that Israel is a product of European imperialism.

  • Israelis point to their acceptance of the United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947, which would have divided the land into a Jewish and a Palestinian state, as evidence of their readiness for compromise and desire for peace. Palestinians believe the United Nations "had no right to give away any part of their homeland."

  • Israelis note that their forces were vastly outnumbered in the 1948 War of Independence and that it "bordered on a miracle that Israel survived." Palestinians respond that although Arab states had a far larger combined population, the Israeli "armed forces outnumbered all the Arab armies" and not surprisingly prevailed. Then there is the refugee issue which remains as relevant and divisive as ever. Israelis say that the Palestinians were not expelled.

  • Israelis argue that the refugees fled as they were ordered to by their own leaders. Israel was justified in "preventing them from returning" or else "Israel would be destroyed by a hostile Arab internal majority." The Palestinians respond that beginning in 1947, the Israelis "began to expel Palestinians from their home, and cite the Deir Yasin massacre committed by the Irgun. They argue that the Israelis "recognized that a Jewish state could not exist until most Arabs were expelled."

  • Israelis say that they have repeatedly offered peace but will never permit the refugees to return because a refugee influx "would lead to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, which has been the Arab goal since 1948." Palestinians insist "there can never be a settlement without Israel recognizing its guilt [for the refugee problem] and providing appropriate redress."

And on and on.

Looking at that catalogue of fundamental differences, it is hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians have come as close to agreement as they have.  But at the Taba negotiations of 2001, the last remaining gap was over the status of the Temple Mount (what Arabs call the Haram al Sharif). The fact is that most of the differences cited above are not particularly germane to the issue of finding a solution that works. Peace does not require agreement on history.

The French and the Germans still disagree over the history of Alsace-Lorraine, the struggle over which has cost countless lives over the centuries. But Germany and France are allies nevertheless. The same applies to dozens of other international conflicts, now resolved even though the historical narratives of each remain in conflict. It even applies to the United States as any visit to historical sites in the South will demonstrate.

It is not necessary - nor is it possible - to reach a single common historical narrative in order to reach an agreement. If it was, there would be no agreements.

But one thing is necessary.

The authors of "Shared Histories" put it like this: "Before any attempt can be made to merge them, the separate, distinct, and in many cases contradictory narratives must be recognized, respected and understood by both sides. Both sides consider respect for their national narratives as respect for their legitimacy....This respect must be demonstrated as part of
a peace process."

For example, Palestinians need to recognize that, although it had nothing to do with them, the Holocaust is very much part of the Israeli historical narrative and must be respected as such. Israelis need to recognize that the establishment of Israel -- for them, one of the great moments in history -- represents for Palestinians a naqba or catastrophe.

Palestinians need to respect the fact that Israelis feel endangered even though, to Palestinians, it is clear that Israel is infinitely more powerful than they are. Israelis cannot dismiss the refugee question as irrelevant.  For Palestinians, the loss of their homes in what is now Israel is a continuing tragedy. Israelis need to recognize that and deal with it in ways which do not jeopardize their own security or their future in a Jewish state.

Respect for each other's view of history will not produce peace. But without that respect, and the attempt to span the many breaches, peace will never be achieved.

Like it or not, history counts.

[The views expressed in IPF Friday are those of MJ Rosenberg and not necessarily of Israel Policy Forum.]


Ha'aretz Daily (
Tel Aviv, Israel
Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

Peace Never

By Bradley Burston

A little over 40 years ago, in another one-issue corner of the world, in another place that was too stiflingly hot, too historically traumatized, too politically paralytic to comfortably support human life, it was the question of racial segregation that occupied every cell of the resident subconscious.

So overwhelming was the issue, that protest signs and lapel buttons for opposing sides needed bear no more than a single word. For civil rights activists, Now was more than enough. For segregationists, it was Never.

If the past week is any indication, we here in the Holy Land can now make do with even less. At this point, a little under 40 years since the war many believed would be the Mideast conflict to end all Mideast conflicts, Never appears to be the only button left.

Unlike its well-established dovish counterpart, the Peace Never movement does not have mailing lists, officers and offices, a familiar logo, researchers, a website.

Nonetheless, Peace Never can boast wide support on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Given the bleak diplomatic and security landscape, it is safe to say, and easy to comprehend, that sizable numbers of onetime believers in peace, among them adherents to Peace Now, have tacitly decamped to Peace Never.

For many, the allegiance to Peace Never is nothing new. For some, Jew and Arab alike, secular intellectuals, religious fundamentalists, white collar or blue, Diaspora or domestic, the ideology of Peace Never is a congenital given: There can never be peace between Jews and Arabs in historical Palestine, and thus there never will be.

For others, among them, politicians, settlement activists and real estate developers, Peace Never serves an additional, functional role. For them, Peace Never means no conceivable need for future concessions. Peace Never assures that life can go on as it is, forever.

In a wider sense, there has always been something about Peace Never that appeals to Israelis and Palestinians both. Something about Peace Never makes many on both sides feel righteous, empowered, it gives them a stronger sense of self, of belonging, of historic mission, of place. It is not only the primordial pleasure inherent in the understanding that Real Men Never Make
Peace. After all, women are very well represented among the fanatics on both sides.

The appeal also comes from this firm belief: If our side says Never long enough, the other side will eventually cave, and our side will be the winner who takes all.

On the Palestinian side, the primary exponent of the Peace Never movement is currently Ismail Haniyeh. In a speech that saw him faint from the combined effects of a Ramadan fast and the Gaza City heat, Haniyeh felt it so crucial to stress that Hamas would not recognize Israel, that he said it three times in succession.

On the Israeli side, the sudden leader of Peace Never is none other than the Chameleon of Cremieux Street. It was only two months ago that Ehud Olmert predicted that Israel would leverage a victory in the Lebanon war into a further withdrawal from the West Bank. By this week, his transformation was such that the prime minister was talking partnership with Avigdor Lieberman, perhaps the standout segregationist of the Israeli far-right.

Does the popularity of Peace Never mean that there will never be peace? Ironically, no. Just listen to Hamas' purported chief rejectionist, Khaled Meshal, quoted this week as saying he could live with a Palestine along the pre-1967 war borders. Lieberman, also, has been expansive in drawing possible lines for separate states for Israel and Palestine.

In the interim, though, who can blame the convert to Peace Never? How much can you expect believers in peace to take?

Our militaries, Palestinian and Israeli, have beaten peace to a pulp. Year after year, we cluster bomb it from the air, suicide bomb it from buses, pick it off with sniper rifles, pulverize it with Qassam after Katyusha after Fajr after Zelzal. We settle it to death. We strangle it with walls, we crush it with bulldozers, we smother it by refusing to recognize the other side, talk to the other side, budge from our mental bunkers.

You can't blame many believers in peace for giving in and going to Peace Never.

How many years can you be expected to hold your breath, waiting for change, demonstrating for change, voting for change?

How many peace plans can you watch go unaddressed? How many special envoys, Secretaries of State, Gulf state princes, can you watch leave with that same look on their face?  How much fury can you swallow? How much disheartening can you stand? How many generations have been raised hoping that the next will be the first not to go to war?

How many years can you hold your breath?

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 16, 2006