Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not All Efforts to Communicate Fail

It did not take me long to recognize that yesterday's meeting between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu embodied, rather than reversed, all those symptoms of a failure to communicate that I discussed yesterday. We may appreciate Obama's cool demeanor in the face of crisis, but he is still no Cool Hand Luke! Nevertheless, if we are to believe Roane Carey's latest blog post to The Notion, communication at the grass roots level may be beginning to get beyond those impediments that made the exercise documented in To Die in Jerusalem so futile. Consider the context and example set by the opening paragraphs:

In the days leading up to Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, announced that it would seek a bill in the Knesset banning Palestinian citizens of Israel--now 20 percent of the population--from commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe), their way of marking the founding of Israel, which involved the expulsion or flight of some 750,000 Palestinians.

Thousands of Palestinians--in the occupied territories, in Israel and in refugee camps all over the Arab world--ignored Yisrael Beiteinu's bluster and turned out for Nakba Day rallies, insisting on the right of refugees to return to their homes, a demand that is anathema to the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. In a speech in the stadium at the northern Israeli city of Kafr Kana, Raed Salah, the chairman of the northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, declared, "We are the ones who will remain on our land; it is the occupation that will soon disappear." Speaking of the occupation, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians in the territories as soon as possible, as any delay would bring about a binational state, which she called "a strategic threat, no less menacing than any other threat."

The fact is that even aside from the occupation, Israel is already a binational state--increasingly, a multicultural state--albeit one that is dominated by one ethnic/religious group. What if, instead of talking past one another, Jews and Palestinians were to take a step toward admitting this reality by acknowledging the other's historical narrative and trying to live together? It turns out that some are doing this, and in very interesting ways. I recently attended the sixth annual "Independence Day/Nakba Day" gathering near the northern city of Haifa, a two-day workshop organized by Arabs and Jews "designed to respect and commemorate the pain and loss on both sides." Sponsored this year by Beyond Words, a nonprofit organization that empowers Arab and Jewish women to work for social change and peace, the event featured a history lecture, recollections of the 1948 expulsion from Ramle by a Palestinian who experienced it and of the Holocaust by a survivor, personal testimonies of loss in a common grieving ritual, and breakout workshops, as well as music, dance and prayer.

It may be hard for Americans to comprehend just how threatening such an event is perceived in Israel--by both Jews and Palestinians. Many of the former find it nearly treasonous that on two consecutive days considered nearly sacred--the Day of the Fallen and Independence Day, when throughout the country everything comes to a screeching halt for two minutes as sirens sound--fellow Jews would go out of their way to acknowledge those who consider the time of Jewish national liberation to be a catastrophe. And just as many Palestinians are no less irritated that their dispossessed brethren, who endure continuing discrimination as second-class citizens, would commune with a people who celebrate what is for Palestinians a time of defeat and expulsion. But that's just the point: the participants don't presume to furnish a "solution" to the conflict, nor do they expect to synthesize the two vastly different national experiences into a unified whole. The idea, rather, is that in a society where the two opposing narratives almost completely negate the legitimacy of the other, simply to come together, to listen to the other, to accept the other's narrative as at least somewhat legitimate, is a crucial step in the healing process necessary to ending the conflict.

How different this all is, and how much more positive, than the confrontational stances behind all the actions in To Die in Jerusalem! For that matter the mere fact that the noun "Nakba" has become acknowledged within Israel is progress, which makes the grass roots resistance to the intransigence of Yisrael Beiteinu an even more hopeful sign. Perhaps To Die in Jerusalem and the rise of Yisrael Beiteinu remind us that it really can be darkest before the dawn and that a sun may yet rise through the basic will of a fundamental desire from those who have suffered so much on both sides of a century of offenses.

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