During the past three summers I have taught a course for international students at the Hebrew University under the title “Narratives and Realities” which is co-sponsored by the Hebrew University and the International Institute of Leadership of the Histadrut.
The students come from many different countries and they range from undergraduates to retirees and diplomats. Teaching this class is an opportunity to share insights and knowledge I have gained over the past 40 years of working to build bridges between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. It is also an opportunity to revisit and highlight a more academic focus on Israeli-Palestinian developments.
The course is not a comprehensive historical recount of the conflict. I am not an impartial academic, but rather an activist, a player and participant and an advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the “two states for two peoples” formula. As a non-neutral Israeli Jewish citizen, I take extra care to ensure that the students receive a wide range of positions, explore the issues in conflict deeply, and examine how we moved from conflict to peace process agreements, back to bloody conflict and now, perhaps, back into a peace process. We explore the agreements that were signed between Israel and the Palestinians (six agreements), how they were negotiated, how they were or were not implemented, what went wrong and what can we learn from the failures. We also explore possibilities, risks and hopes for the future.
It is not an easy task to teach about an active and acute conflict. It is particularly difficult to do so within the conflict arena and from within an institution which is clearly identified with one side of the conflict. The students will visit settlements, will meet with Israeli government officials, they will hear from Israeli army officers. They will also meet with Palestinian activists and officials, including an academic and some students from Gaza.
Recently, in the opening session for this summer, we discussed the difficulty of understanding the news from the conflict. On both sides there are multiple sources reporting the news from different perspectives – both within each society and of course across the conflict lines.
The very same events are reported from entirely opposing perspectives; often it is difficult to discern that they are reporting about the same event.
Today we had two guest speakers – an Israeli, Orthodox settler rabbi and a Palestinian official with years of experience in negotiations. During the Q&A the Israeli speaker mentioned the Israeli perspective that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to come to the table and negotiate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Palestinian speaker said that Abbas has been speaking for 12 years about his desire and lifetime goal to make peace with Israel and never gets anything from Netanyahu in return. It was as if we had opened up newspapers in Hebrew and in Arabic and read about the same event – but described in two very different realities. That was a very good lesson for the students.
Even if the two speakers could present excellent versions of the two mainstream narratives – the Israeli-Jewish- Zionist story and the Palestinian-nationalist story, they could never fully represent the complexities and the depths of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, conflict, peace process and genuine chances for peace.
In my attempt to focus some thinking on the narratives that the students heard, I wrote the following words on the board: Recognition, Rights, Religion, History, Victimhood and Victimization. Most Palestinians do not, or cannot, recognize the complexity of Jewish identity and usually refer to Jews solely as a religious group. My identity as a Jew is primarily being a son of the Jewish People – a civilization, a nation, an ethnic group, history, heritage, culture – and not only a religion.
Many Israelis believe that Palestinians are a fabricated people, not a real nation with a legitimate national identity; a people that was only created by others to oppose Jews and Zionism. Many Israelis, just like former prime minister Golda Meir, claim that there is no Palestinian people – even several current members of Knesset make this claim. Recognition of identity is first and foremost a subjective understanding of who one is and then their ability to gain recognition by outsiders of that identity.
This is relevant and necessary for both Jews and Palestinians.
The rights discourse is over the “right” to be recognized as being connected to the same piece of land between the River and the Sea which some call Eretz Yisrael and other call Palestine. Rights are also the legalities and legitimacies within the framework of international law – or the rules of the game that govern and regulate the way in which states interact. Both Israel and Palestine are members of the international community and seek to play active roles within international institutions. Both parties are signatories to international conventions and are member of international organizations and associations, both within the United Nations and within other international frameworks. Their participation is voluntary and by choice and when a state joins such international frameworks, associations and conventions, they are essentially voluntarily giving up part of their sovereignty.
They willingly do so because being part of the community of nations is important and provides far more benefits than losses.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a religious conflict between Judaism and Islam, although some work very diligently to make it so. It is a territorial-identity conflict with very strong religious elements and consequences.
Voices of religion within the conflict tend to be more extreme rather than moderate and in general, the more moderate religious voices within the conflict seeking interfaith dialogue and understanding tend to be marginal within their own establishment communities.
Both sides seek to assert that their history is longer than that of the other. Jews claim 3,000 years of constant attachment to the land, Palestinians claim that they are descendants of the Canaanite peoples that Joshua and the people of Israel conquered following 40 years of wandering in the desert. There is no way possible to convince the other side that their version of history is wrong. My question is how can we teach history to our children with a clearly defined enemy who has repeatedly tried to destroy us and constantly kills us and at the same time, teach them that peace might also be an option? These are some of the issues that we will confront in this course over the month of July. It is also what I have tried to confront and present in my weekly column here in the The Jerusalem Post since February 2005.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. www.ipcri.org