Volume 4 Number 8
Missing Ingredient for Middle East Peace
01 August 1991
Peace activists, especially when motivated by religious or moral convictions, must speak to our emotions - especially fear, anger and grief.
By Yehezkel Landau
In the aftermath of the Gulf War, diplomats are busy contriving formulas that might bring Israelis and Arabs together. Even if they succeed in getting the disputing parties to the same table, I have serious doubts about the likely results.
To focus on land, security or Jewish and Palestinian `right to self-determination' is to miss a critical factor underlying ArabIsraeli relations. Before concessions on territory or political control can be considered, deeper soul-searching is needed on the level of self-image and moral perception.
This entails a readiness to admit the harm done to the other side, to demonstrate repentance for that behaviour. This is a challenge that diplomacy tends to ignore - which may be why all the Middle East peace plans over the years have come to naught.
Peace activists, especially when motivated by religious or moral convictions, must speak to our emotions - especially fear, anger and grief. A `prophetic' stance makes a moral indictment of collective sins, whereas a`priestly' approach to peace-making seeks to mediate forgiveness through sacrifice.
In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, animal bodies were offered up as expiation for the sins caused by our animal nature. Now it is the territorial extension of our own bodies we are asked to sacrifice. Both Israelis and Palestinians are called to suffer amputation of part of their collective, symbolic bodies and agree to two independent states alongside each other in their common homeland. Too often `Israel' and `Palestine' are viewed as mutually exclusive. The inability to make space in one's heart for the other collective identity creates the necessity to deny its existence on the map.
The hardest and most essential sacrifice demanded for genuine peace is that of one's self-image as the innocent victim at the hands of a cruel enemy. If we can be led to see the contribution of our own people in the conflict, moral dualism can give way to a fairer assessment of responsibility for the tragedy.
Imagine how cathartic it would be if public figures in Israel said words like these:
`We Jews returned to the Land of Israel because we wanted to be masters of our own destiny. But you Palestinians saw us as foreign invaders instead of as children of the land coming back from forced exile. You demonized us and enlisted your Arab allies in the battle to "liberate" Palestine.
`In defending ourselves and our own interests, we projected onto you the demonic stereotypes that we carried home with us. We saw you as intent on genocide, something fresh in our memories. Our traumatic history and the intensity of the conflict prevented us from seeing that we were, and still are, a threat to you.
`The violence you waged against unarmed Jews has caused us great pain and anger, which we cannot simply wish away. Yet despite these strong feelings, we can empathize with you enough to understand and forgive your resistance to our homecoming.
`We hope you can forgive us for our violence against you, and for our failure to acknowledge our share of responsibility for keeping so many of you in exile from the land. Now let us together transform this legacy into a hopeful future, by agreeing to partition the land into two states for the two peoples who claim it and love it.'
Palestinians need to hear such language from Israelis. So long as Palestinian nationalism is burdened by anti-Zionism, it will not be able to develop its full creative potential. Similarly, for Israeli Jews to avoid their Zionist ethos becoming only a double negative, anti-anti-Semitism, they need to hear Palestinians use words like these:
`We Palestinians were the majority in Palestine when the Zionist movement began settling the land with European Jews. We resisted what you call the "ingathering of the exiles" since it meant the loss of our land and our political rights to people who were not even born here.
`Looking back now with greater compassion for your people's experience of persecution, and appreciating more your historic ties to the land, we can understand that you saw yourselves fighting a war of survival in a cruel world that never made you feel at home. This does not excuse the injustices we suffered, including the loss of our homes and fields and orchards in 1948, or the indignities and harsh repression under occupation since 1967. Yet we can forgive you for your selfinterested policies, and for the same nationalist excesses that we, too, have been guilty of.
`We hope you can forgive us for evoking the traumatic fears that haunted you thoughout your history. Beyond the arguments over whose claims are more valid, let us transcend the antagonism of the past and affirm mutual recognition of our respective national identities. Let us agree to divide and share the land so that both our peoples can live in freedom and dignity.'
This is not the kind of language that most politicians speak. Even religious leaders refrain from expressing this sort of confessional truth. But if individuals on both sides could encourage their leaders to speak in this way, the hurts and grievances might recede in the process of mutual forgiveness - from which can come the true inner peace and security that everyone longs for.
Such sacrificial heroism would effect a radical change in the dynamic of ArabIsraeli relations, with promising results in the diplomatic arena. The beneficiaries would be the Jewish and Arab children who deserve to inherit a more peaceful Middle East.
Yehezkel Landau is executive director of OZ veSHALOM, the religious peace movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and son.