The Years of Dialogue

The memoirs by Stephen P. Cohen and Debbie Weissman reconstruct an optimistic time when dialogue prevailed in political and religious spheres, and resolution of ancient grievances seemed just beyond the next handshake.

In America in the late 1950’s and into the 1960s, Judaism and Christianity would come to be defined in political space by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, marching together in Selma; the image we carry of that day in late March, 1965, is now as iconic and out of reach as Norman Rockwell’s covers on the Saturday Evening Post. In the cultural sphere, the same spirit was reflected in early fictions by Philip Roth, Grace Paley and Saul Bellow celebrating what I call the “urban congregation,” where Jews and Christians came together to create something uniquely American: an amalgamation that respected difference by laughing lovingly at one’s own pretense, while embracing the divine image as a progressive and collective human enterprise.

In Israel, in the meantime, from the 1960s through the mid-1990s, neither Christianity nor Islam was much on the radar since the emergence of Palestinian ethnic and national consciousness embraced both, and since most of the Jewish population was not yet gripped by messianic fervor and exclusive claims, even if they didn’t know or care much about the other “Abrahamic” religions (they still don’t). Indeed, what we refer to as “fundamentalist” or evangelical discourse was not yet—or not again—a powerful force in America, in Israel or in Palestine and the Arab world. The Cold War that defined the second half of the twentieth century had carved the world into competing forms of government and incompatible social contracts to which religious claims and sensibilities were subsidiary.

The years between the Six Day War and Menachem Begin’s ascent to power in Israel in 1977 would prove to be a lost decade for dialogue, negotiation and compromise. But even as Begin and his coalition partners reintroduced an antiquated discourse based on Jewish martyrdom and theological claims, leading inevitably to racist exclusions, they did not immediately colonize the minds of the majority of Jewish Israelis or preclude political compromise; the seesaw of our expectations for a peaceful resolution of what had become the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” kept us buoyant until Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

That period, from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, filled with vision and hope, was also the time when many of us came of age and discovered our own vocations and passions. A few brave people, including Stephen P. Cohen and Debbie Weissman, put themselves into that middle space where dialogue can happen and compromise can be achieved. Disclosure: I count the authors of both books under review among my friends. The friendship with Steve was nurtured in our living rooms in Cambridge and Jerusalem; with Debbie in classrooms, conference halls and prayer spaces, in demonstrations on pavements and sidewalks in the (bleeding) heart of Jerusalem. Both writers recount their journeys and the opportunities they seized or created to help break down the barriers between separate political or faith communities. Neither of these authors is a professional writer—but both are individuals who have made a difference “on the ground.” It is for that reason these volumes make for compelling reading.

The sadder of the two volumes is the story of the dialogues and negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, brokered for a time by one solitary American Jew. In a mere 96 pages, The Go-Between discloses what could have been, what almost happened, and what finally failed. Steve Cohen, who died last year, was an intrepid warrior for peace who always stayed in the shadow of the public stage where adversaries postured and sparred with each other and their own constituencies in the arduous and prolonged effort to find common ground. Steve’s narrative starts where so many of our stories began, as students or newly-minted academics: “I was a young professor at Harvard when the Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973.” Trained as a social psychologist, Steve boarded a plane to Israel, volunteered with the IDF and talked with terrified, traumatized soldiers at the front in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights.

For the next three decades, Steve used the skills he had learned and some he invented to bring political adversaries together and keep them in the same room until a compromise, or at least a pledge to have the next meeting, could be reached. His narrative is related in measured, even understated, prose. Forging relations with and then between the major parties to the Israel-Palestine conflict—from Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, to Arafat and Abu Mazen in the virtual and real spaces of Palestine, from King Hussein of Jordan to President Hafez al Assad of Syria, from Ezer Weizman to Peres, Dayan and Rabin in Israel, from American diplomats to State Department representatives in the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton –Steve quietly gained confidence as a nonpartisan outsider who had not only access to the warring parties, but also the wisdom to know what was possible at every stage and the professional skills to get there.

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Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 3:65-69


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