Opinion

Middle East peace talks: Why there's hope the bitter divide can be bridged

A university seminar involving Palestinian, Israeli, and American students showed us that even passionate disagreement can be surmounted with a universal language of democratic moderation and mutuality.

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a misnomer. The real political chasm actually runs down the middle of both societies, dividing them into separate camps of conflict and peace.

The camp of conflict, for instance – both in its Israeli and Palestinian versions – is driven by a visionary messianism, the rejection of liberal values, a politics of violence, and the cult of death. This common zealotry has imposed a zero-sum reality of “all or nothing” on everyone else, including those majorities in both countries who would prefer to live together in peace.

A common language of peace

The Israeli and Palestinian peace camps also share a common language, one of mutual recognition, shared values, and national co-existence. As direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis get under way today in Washington, it’s vital that these peace camps speak to one another in that common tongue. And amid widespread cynicism over America’s role in brokering these talks, it’s also essential for all parties to understand why the United States can act as a sincere agent for peaceful change.

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This is hard to do over the drumbeats of hate and enmity.

But it is possible to create conditions that promote dialogue across the bitter divide. We know, because we witnessed it during a university seminar on democratic culture that we simultaneously offered to Palestinian, Israeli, and American students.

The content of the seminar is the history of American democracy, discussed, debated, and interpreted by students in their respective classrooms during the past spring semester at Al Quds University, Tel Aviv University, and Oberlin College, through a common textbook, video-conferences, and a shared website. In July, all three classes then gathered at Oberlin where they continued to explore, face-to-face, the foundations of moderation, civility, and tolerance.

Essential brokers

Americans once again proved to be essential brokers in our efforts to speak to one another, hosting the summer workshop and raising the funds that made the project possible. But American mediation went much deeper this time. It was now based on nearly 250 years of their own national experience, which provided Israelis and Palestinians alike with historical lessons on how to grapple with seemingly unbridgeable differences, create institutions that encourage the peaceful resolution of conflict, and develop public values based on mutual acceptance and respect. These were not just matters for philosophical reflection, students learned, but practical methods for building a decent public life.

The history of American democracy is not, of course, an unqualified success story. Nor did anyone pretend it was.

Students began the course by learning that while “all men are created equal,” white male property-owners were far more so. They saw how bigotry and arrogance resulted in a bloody civil war between 1861 and 1865. They read about the arrest and conviction in 1918 of trade unionists peacefully protesting the government’s support for one side in the Russian civil war. They studied the Supreme Court’s decision of 1944 justifying the mass internment of citizens of Japanese descent. And they read the “Southern Manifesto” issued in 1956 by southern members of Congress who opposed attempts to end the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.

Learning from mistakes

But what most impressed us about the accumulated effect of these American failures was how such mistakes were recognized, and how the nation resolved not to repeat them.

Truthfully, it was difficult to know if Israelis and Palestinians would be able to study such subjects together, and what they would take from the experience. Certainly, they have distinct civic traditions themselves.

Israel has practiced parliamentary government since its founding 62 years ago, and boasts an independent judiciary that protects a basic set of civil rights formally guaranteed to all citizens regardless of race, creed, or religion.

Palestinians, in contrast, have yet to declare their independence. After 1948, most of their governing institutions functioned outside the territorial borders. Only since the Oslo Accords of 1993 have they drawn their legitimacy from popular elections in a Palestinian “Authority.”

There are other differences as well. American politics and culture provoke considerable suspicion, if not outright hostility, within Palestinian society, including in academic circles. American democracy largely appears there to be a contradiction in terms because of America’s ongoing support of an Israeli occupation that prevents Palestinians from establishing political sovereignty over their own land and assuming social responsibility for their own lives.

A Palestinian professor of American Studies thus finds himself having to work hard to counter this enmity, balancing it with recognition of the seriousness with which Americans discuss such notions as liberty, freedom, and equality.

In Israel, the pedagogical challenge is strikingly different. There, the United States is commonly perceived to be a most worthy model of emulation, whether because of its system of government, its free market economy, or dynamic popular culture. An Israeli professor of American history thus often finds himself struggling to balance such adoration with a more critical account of failed hopes and unkept promises.

What kind of common language, then, would our students speak once they were divided into teams and assigned with preparing group presentations on a central issue of democratic life?

Intensive sessions

The fact is, no one had time to wonder. Two intensive, strained, fretful, and fruitful weeks of study followed, devoted to such problems as the role of lobbies in the political system, the responsibility of the media in ensuring citizens’ access to information, the justifiability of preferential treatment for minorities, the limits of legitimate protest, the affect of boycotts on public life, the possibility of creating a democratic foreign policy, and the private morality of public officials (the last project comparing recent sex scandals in each of the countries).

There was no lack of a shared language, in other words, just as there was no lack of disagreement and debate (that often crossed national boundaries). All these subjects proved highly relevant to both of our societies, at once underlining common political realities as well as differences.

Ultimately, however, what was most important was not the democracy being studied by the students, but the democracy that they themselves created in working and arguing and listening to each other, and ultimately in cooperating on a final project that had to embrace (sometimes acute) differences of opinion.

This is what made our seminar a true practicum on peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, under the auspices of America’s own rich experience with the dilemmas of democracy.

The stakes of our seminar do not compare to what is presently on the table at the direct talks now under way. But the lesson still applies: For peace negotiators on both sides to effectively represent their interests, they must speak to one another in a universal language of democratic moderation and mutuality, one that will bring out the best of both their respective national traditions.

Mohammed Dajani is the founding director of the American Studies Center at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Michael Zakim is a member of the history department at Tel Aviv University.

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