Monday, March 24, 2014

Overcoming Indifference: A modest proposal

I am not a pundit, nor a political scientist, but a scholar of religion and philosophy. I will not rehearse the reasons why we got here, as this would merely add another narrative to the many already out there. The past is well known, and how we got here is disputed.

I will speak, instead, to what I believe may be the best thing we, as outsiders, can do on behalf of Israelis and Palestinians. We should neither be indifferent to their strife, nor take sides in their political struggle, but rather we ought to strengthen the hand of international diplomacy and mediation. We can do so, as I will suggest, by thinking beyond the resolution of final status issues and by imagining a future that will leave both, Israelis and Palestinians, as winners.

To start with, I take my cue from something Elie Wiesel has said. According to Wiesel, worse than hatred is indifference.

This dictum is not easily understood and it requires careful consideration. Hatred, after all, is devastating. It is bred by resentment. It poisons relationships and forestalls dialogue. It locks us in debates with ourselves and it prevents us from seeing an outcome as satisfactory that does not leave our adversary diminished. Hatred breeds revenge, not coexistence. It obviates self-control. When it explodes it hurts innocents and bystanders as well. It burns us up on the inside. It always puts the one who hates in the wrong. How then can indifference be worse than hatred? What is indifference and how do we overcome it?

Indifference is the attitude of the bystander, and “bystanderism” is dangerous, even evil, because it tolerates evil. An inattentive public leaves government without oversight. It allows decision-makers to do as they please, while turning public inattention into tacit consent. Indifference means that we could care less who lives and thrives. It indicates that we have become inured to the suffering of others. That is why Elie Wiesel admonishes us to take sides, to raise our voices wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Does this also mean that we must take sides in a political conflict?

Many of us take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even though we may not be directly affected. In order to take sides, we must have adjudicated this conflict. We must have determined who is right and who is wrong. But how can we pick sides without exacerbating the conflict? We ought not to take sides prematurely if we wish to serve as honest brokers. As we become engaged and take sides in a political conflict we should at least also hear the other side. Audiatur et altera pars! To judge without having heard the other side means to yield to prejudice.

It seems to me that it is crucial that we learn to distinguish between engagement in the interest of resolving a political conflict and simply taking sides. The engaged outsider may have moved from indifference to engagement and advocacy. She is no longer a bystander. But being an engaged outsider can still be problematic. Uninformed engagement is futile and it may be detrimental. We may become addicted to conflict, or worse, we may become zealously desirous of justice without peace.

Addiction to conflict is fed by the media. Our engagement is often that of a mere spectator rather than an actor, a sports-fan in the modern arena of media-broadcast wars that have taken the place of the erstwhile circus of the Roman Empire. Like “Reality TV,” the news has a way of making us shudder, while allowing us to do so from a safe distance. We root for our champions, we want them to win, but it is not our own blood that is being shed in war, nor our own bones that are crushed by the ones we cheer. Meanwhile, we’ve turned into haters from a safe distance.

Worse than the spectator is the zealot. Zealotry is a form of self-righteousness. We must ask ourselves whether our interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is motivated by a genuine desire for conflict resolution and a lasting peace in the Middle East, or whether we simply want to be right. We may have overcome indifference, but we did so at the expense of measured and informed judgment. We may have put on ideological blinkers and replaced indifference with the fanatical engagement of the convert. What motivates that kind of zealotry?

Among the most viscerally effective motives of emotional engagement from afar are tribalism and stereotyping. We may root for the Israelis and we may wish for them to prevail over their enemies (thus reducing Palestinians to enemies of Israel) either because we are ourselves Jewish-affiliated, or because we share the evangelical Christian faith in the election of Israel and the Jews’ divine right to the land of Israel, or because we hate Muslims and Arabs, thus fuelling the conflict by an overwhelming fear of an “other.” Or we may root for “Justice in Palestine” because we see the Israelis as greedy, controlling, dominant, arrogant Jews, thus reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes, or because we see the “Zionist entity” as a colonial settler state, established at the expense of a native people, thus pressing this intractably idiosyncratic conflict into a general post-colonial schema that romantically ennobles terrorist violence as legitimate means in a struggle for national self-determination. Here too we may want to listen to Elie Wiesel, who says no human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has absorbed the attention of so many people for such a long time precisely because it plays into many stereotypes, some of which are deliberately exploited by savvy propagandists on both sides. Some of this attention is waning. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the violent dissolution of Syria, and the return of Egypt to military autocracy, the political future of Middle Eastern societies is being renegotiated, in many cases by appalling sectarian violence. In this context the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lost much of its luster in western media attention, which, as some observers have argued, may be an advantage and the main reason why the ongoing negotiations are still ongoing.

There must be a better, more meaningful way of overcoming indifference, one that does not simply identify or descend into unthinking partisanship. Overcoming indifference clearly ought not to mean that we become vocal spectators devoted to the victory of the party we want to win. The call to overcome indifference may ask of us to restore humanity to both, top-dog and underdog, as severally-wronged parties locked in a conflict that defies all easy solutions and that requires more, rather than less, of an effort and a great deal of imagination in order to be resolved. In this case, it requires us to remain engaged despite media fatigue, despite extremely low expectations on both sides, despite the fact that progress will be incremental and the end result might not fully satisfy anyone, and certainly not immediately.

This I believe is what Secretary of State John Kerry has attempted to do and it is what an engaged public, including ourselves, ought to be supporting. This would mean to fight our own indifference toward the tedious work of diplomacy now ongoing. We may be fascinated by grand gestures and telegenic moments, such as the famous handshake between former enemies Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. As profoundly uplifting as that moment was, it clearly did not last. We need more than handshakes between leaders.

What is needed today is public support of the diplomatic initiative and a richly-imaginative approach to move Israelis and Palestinians beyond a zero-sum game to a place where either side can see themselves as having won without having to vanquish the other.

What does this mean more concretely? How can we imagine an outcome where both sides win? The following ideas may stimulate our collective imagination and help us steer the conversation on Israeli Palestinian negotiations in a more productive direction. These ideas are based on the assumption that settling the national conflict is really only the beginning, not the end, of the future of Israel, Palestine, and the wider region.

On the issue of borders:
  • Wherever national boundaries are drawn, borders need to be open for trade and exchange, tourism and labor.
  • Natural resources cross national boundaries and need to be jointly administered.
  • Historical boundaries may not coincide with political borders. In the interest of the future of historical research, archaeological work, and history-based tourism, the region needs to be open and scholars and institutions need to collaborate in securing and displaying the remnants of the regions many pasts.

On Jerusalem and holy places:
  • Jerusalem, a border city, must be open to both its Israeli and its Arab residents and equitably serve the needs and interests of both populations.
  • There is no reason why it should not serve as the symbol and functioning capital of both a Palestinian and a Jewish state in historical Israel/Palestine.
  • At the same time, Jerusalem can serve as a world-heritage site of pilgrimage and a model of green tourism, open to all.
  • The Holy Basin in Jerusalem, the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s tomb and other holy places should get joint stewartship and guardianship, based on both historical precedent and pragmatic considerations.

On demography and character:
  • The status and future of Palestinian refugees will entail initiatives and measures of good will on all sides, including the State of Israel and its neighbors. Ideal and reality will not be fully reconcilable here, and part of a restoration of the historic imbalance will entail symbolic and real gestures as in other cases of past atrocities and their rectification. Israel’s official recognition of the Palestinian refugees will be part of this. Though painful, this is not a unique problem. It can be resolved if there is the political will on both sides to resolve it.
  • There will continue to be a lively debate on what it means for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state. This debate can be real and lively only if it gives full voice to Israel’s minorities, including its Muslim Arab minority, which may well be growing. A strong society, especially one grounded in the values of biblical law and prophecy and the Jewish historical experience should be able to tolerate this debate and to tolerate vocal minorities.
  • The idea of a judenfrei Palestinian state is unworthy of Palestinian history and its secular commitments.
  • The future may well depend on the ability of both societies to sustain the form of two separate ethnic nation-states within one historic territory (and in conjunction with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan), while simultaneously promoting strategies of trans-national co-existence and co-development.

In a political conflict, everyone is a victim. To overcome indifference here means to take the side of hope. Hope, as Elie Wiesel teaches, is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.

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