The Middle East: Toward I – Thou

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Not Long ago, Martin Buber urged us to move beyond the human tendency to see others as objects.
In a just published book, Padraig O’Malley probes beneath the surface of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. His book, “The Two-State Delusion ” provides insights into the human reality driving this conflict. It is a welcome addition to the many books on the subject because the road to peace has produced 60+ years of frustration. None of these well-intentioned efforts have achieved their objective.
So one has to ask why. Padraig details critical data points which provide significant insight into the answer to that question. At the ground level — the level of human reality — there are huge problems to be overcome before an overarching solution can be achieved. Given the states of mind of the various parties involved, a much different approach than the ones used to date is required.
Let me briefly illustrate:
· Each side has its own version of the nature of this conflict, one is focused on the Holocaust and the other on the Nakba. These dueling narratives “develop a stranglehold on the political and cultural life in both communities and ensure, for better or, more often, for worse, that the past virtually dictates the future.” Current reality supports this viewpoint.
· The Palestinian narrative encompasses two opposing perspectives, that of Hamas and Fatah. Eyad el-Sarraj, a noted psychologist who had extensive contact with both Fatah and Hamas leaders, bluntly stated: “What you have to remember … is that they hate each other. This is no siblings’ rivalry… To my regret, I have to say that I believe that the level of distrust between Hamas and Fatah is bigger than the level of distrust between Israelis and Palestinians.”” (p. 133)
O’Malley points out that Israel would never sign off on a peace agreement that would allow free movement from Gaza to the West Bank because of its distrust of Hamas, which, if it gained power over both, would quite possibly create a larger force targeted against Israel.
· “Every Jewish Israeli interviewee in a position to know affirmed that senior PA/Fatah leaders in 2008-09 practically begged Israel to finish off Hamas not for Israel’s gain but for Fatah’s.* Hamas knows about that treachery (as it labels it)” (p. 145)
· If that weren’t bad enough, consider this: “In 2012 the UN reported that unless immediate measures were taken to address a plethora of problems, Gaza would be unlivable by 2020. After the 2014 war, it was close to having reached that benchmark.” (p. 124)
Now consider the matter of refugees — Israel takes a very hard stand on their right of return. O’Malley further notes: “the increasingly hard-line, uncompromising attitudes of Israeli Jews reveal the demographic shifts toward right-leaning populations, especially among the ultra-Orthodox in West Bank settlers.” (p. 218). Regarding the changing demography to a more dominant Orthodox population, one demographer – Amon Soffer at the University of Haifa — offers this observation: “If my grandchildren, secular children, will be ready to stay in Israel in a religious country, they will not be able to drive on Saturday; they will not be able to swim in the beach, in a bikini,” says Soffer with a laugh. “The dressing will be like the ultra-Orthodox Jews, with thousands of other restrictions; I’m not sure they will stay in this environment. Israel is going, deterministically, to be an ultra-religious country. I don’t know about the ultra-secularists, whether they will accept it, or will they take their luggage and go to the airport.” (p. 271)
Next reflect upon the economic viability of a Palestinian state. From the World Bank’s perspective it is not yet ready to stand on its own. It is unknown when that reality will change. “Gaza’s jobless rate is among the most severe in the world and a “reversal of deepening poverty and a dependency among ordinary people in Gaza is unlikely” concludes a UN report. (p. 252).
O’Malley concludes: “All the issues we have addressed … continue to pose insurmountable obstacles – the power of the narratives still subsumes everything in its path. Moreover, unaddressed and rarely mentioned has been the underlying dynamic driving the conflict: The ethos of conflict has over the decades become a catalyst for an ethos of hatred.” (p. 280, bold added)
Indeed, Obama’s senior adviser on the Middle East, Robert Malley, recently acknowledged that the US government does not feel a peace agreement is possible in the foreseeable future. Earlier, Yossi Beilin, in an interview with Padraig, echoed a similar concern.
Such observations can produce a feeling of despair, leaving in its wake a belief that the problem can never be solved.
I think not.
Most conflicts occur because of a superficial understanding of “the other”. The world has no shortage of insane behavior in this regard.
Padraig brings clarity to that insanity.
An Initial Step
President Rivlin recently acknowledged some of the issues that must be addressed in order to preserve the very character of Israel. The time for intervention has quite possibly never been better because this is a state that could either self-destruct or lose its Zionist identity. Consequently, it may soon be open to a new approach to resolving the conflict.
Rivlin notes that there are four distinct and before long roughly equivalent “tribes” that will make up the nation of Israel. Currently, these are: “A large secular Zionist majority, and beside it three minority groups: a national-religious minority, an Arab minority, and a Haredi minority.” The three minority groups are growing and could achieve parity with the Zionist majority in the not too distant future. Since each group is different and does not communicate with the others, it will be like having four different nations under one flag without a common philosophy and sense of purpose to guide them.
This situation brings us to the subject of this particular segment. I believe that this is an opportune moment to begin a significantly different – when compared with past efforts – process of communication for both the Palestinians and Israelis. It may now be in the interest of all parties to work together to create a viable future. Such an approach could generate creative solutions that were heretofore unthinkable.
The core problem: How Do We Get These Disparate Parties to Talk to Each Other?
This is obviously not a trivial matter. Let me provide an illustration of the problem from the not-too-distant past as well as an approach to addressing it. The strategy can be used regardless of whether the problem occurs between individuals, tribes, or states. The major barrier to effective communication stems from the fact that we tend to create “myths” about our “adversarial other.”
To highlight a critical component of this approach, I will use an example that references an earlier point in time.
The date is June 13, 2002; the subject is Camp David. Benny Morris, in the New York Review of Books, interviews Ehud Barak who provides the following explanation for the failure of these talks:
They are products of a culture in which to tell a lie…creates no dissonance. They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purpose and that which doesn’t. They see themselves as emissaries of a national movement for whom everything is permissible. There is no such thing as “the truth.”
Whether or not this is a true statement is not the issue for me. The statement captures a tendency that is not unique to Barak. We all react to an adversary who is not behaving as we expect and therefore we frequently create myths about the nature of that person’s motivation and integrity. Just recently, one of our presidential candidates labeled Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” While the remark was controversial, his popularity did not suffer, even though, when initially confronted, he offered no proof for his statement.
The Challenge: Dealing with Difference:
We do not handle it well. We all too often jump to conclusions based on limited or inaccurate data, especially when we find their behavior irritating.
In the course of normal human interaction, we typically don’t challenge those impressions. We consider them truths. In the case of the prime minister of a country, the damage that flows from such a false impression can be substantial.
In the current situation in the Middle East, the matter gets very complex because these myths can become institutionalized in government policy, in what is taught in schools, in how people are treated at checkpoints, etc. etc.
Therefore, we need to start addressing such misperceptions as quickly as possible. There is a way to do this that is relatively simple and easy to remember, but extremely powerful. It greatly reduces the probability of an explosive confrontation and can often nip a problem in the bud.
Addressing our misperceptions:
Let me illustrate.
Ehud Barak is a very intelligent man. His statement above does not rise to the level of insight that he has exhibited in other contexts. It is easy to see how it might interfere with his ability to effectively work with Yasser Arafat.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we are Barak. Let’s assume that Arafat has taken a position that will derail the goals of this particular peace effort. Let’s say he refused to discuss even the possibility of jointly managing the Temple Mount. We find his posture totally unreasonable and entirely too rigid, especially considering that we feel that we have bent over backwards to address his needs.
We believe that the Temple Mount is critical to our plan for peace. Without it, we go nowhere.
We get angry and tell him in no uncertain terms what a fool he is. He erupts in like manner and walks out of the conference.
Let me suggest another approach,
… one that is more respectful of Arafat and one that offers a template for handling similar problems with others.
This is so simple it’s absurd that it is not utilized more often. It does, however, make great personal demands on us. During a heated confrontation, this may be the last thing in the world that we would want to do
The process begins with three words. Before I give you those three words, however, let me stipulate a preliminary step.
Let’s replay the scene above making the following changes.
After hearing his position on the Temple Mount, you are so angered by his response that you refuse to speak to him unless you absolutely have to.
What you need to do at this moment is psychologically challenging: you need to change your attitude. This is the hardest part of the process. It forces you to counter your negative reaction and begin to think of him in as positive a way as you possibly can. Your challenge – and this is huge – is to assume this Arafat’s point of view as if it were your own.
Start to identify those positive qualities that you have occasionally admired about this individual. Think of his previous contributions to the peace process.
Recall his close relationship with Uri Avnery, the first member of the Knesset to meet with Arafat. Remember that at a crucial point in the early 1980s he was willing to meet with Rabin, even though Rabin would not even consider the possibility. Recall also that in the 1970s he approved meetings with Uri Avnery by two of his key representatives – Said Hammami and Issam Sartawi. Both were subsequently assassinated. Remember also that Uri Avnery, shortly after meeting with Said Hammami in 1975, was almost killed outside his apartment in Israel by a knife wielding assailant.
Recall also the price paid by Rabin after Oslo.
So now, in a different frame of mind, perhaps, use the three words to address your question to Arafat:
“Help me understand… why you won’t consider our proposal for the Temple Mount.”
Arafat responds: “Because it would cost me my life.”
What just happened to your anger? Now ask why this is so.
This marks a potential point of entrance into the other’s world view and just might lead to constructive dialogue on the great issues that separate. The goal here is not refutation, rather it is clarity of understanding. When we understand what drives another person’s behavior or choices, then that provides us with insight as to how we can protect them from their worst fears, if that is a viable option. Probably the first step is to search for someone who understands both points of view. Failing that, the above approach can initiate dialogue.
Perhaps by removing the fear, all things become possible.
Those three words mark the beginning of an approach that can dramatically impact how we feel about a perceived adversary.
NONJUDGMENTAL INQUIRY takes us places we simply don’t expect. I’ve tested it over the past 28 years with others in the midst of intolerable work conditions, marriages on the brink of disaster, and also against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’ve given you a brief sample of it here. Its power amazes me to this day.
Used appropriately, it just might help cement key relationships, creating a bridge across great differences of perspective. If nonjudgmental inquiry could become the standard for dealing with volatile situations, a level of rapport and compassionate empathy just might become possible, thus paving the way to achieving Rabbi Lerner’s vision for the many different interest groups involved in this conflict.
Menachem Daum, in his documentary “Hiding and Seeking“, urges us to switch our focus from a need to be right to a search for the “divinity within” each and every one of our perceived antagonists. In so doing, we just might be able to resolve our differences in a manner that reflects our highest ideals. I believe that everyone wants to do the right thing, but all too often something horrible happens along the way. Maybe a change in approach can have a dramatic healing effect.
For Rabbi Michael Lerner (“Embracing Israel/Palestine“) …
Too often the debates over the terms of a peace agreement focus only on political and geographical considerations. The real peace process we do need, however, is a process of transformation in the way that each side views the Other. Any peace treaty that does not generate a campaign in each of the communities (including their respective diasporas) to understand the legitimacy of each side’s historical narrative and their own needs for security and justice is bound to be a failed peace treaty. (Kindle loc 4588)
To that end, he has laid out a very detailed strategy in his book Embracing Israel/Palestine. Lerner shows that this conflict is one manifestation of the struggle between two world-views: one teaching that human beings are fundamentally selfish and will seek domination over the other at all costs, the other teaching that human beings have a deep inclination toward love and generosity. Both of these are in all of us, sometimes the one shaping our view of reality and other times the other, and for that reason, in every religion and every secular worldview as well. The task of peace-makers is to push societal energy away from what he calls the worldview of fear and domination and toward the worldview of love and generosity. While Lerner argues that Judaism, Islam and Christianity all have messages within them that could strengthen the love and generosity side, it is unlikely that that side will predominant in either the Israeli or Palestinian camp until it first predominates in the West. So Lerner empowers each of us to focus on building public support for a Global Marshall Plan to end domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education and inadequate health care as a first step toward popularizing the worldview of love and generosity. Just as the success of the women’s movement in the West has had profound consequences in legitimating feminist ideas in Israeli and Palestinian society, Lerner believes the same can happen when generosity and love are accepted by Western societies as the only rational way to achieve “homeland security.” The globalization of that idea must be the aim of US foreign policy–which you can help make happen by joining the efforts of Tikkun’s Network of Spiritual Progressives–and when that happens it will be possible for all sides of this struggle to embrace each other’s needs with open-hearted desire to achieve a win-win.
We always feel we know the thought process of our adversary, but we never fully do. It is time to understand the combatants in this conflict at a deeper level. For a glimpse of what that dialogue might look like, watch Menachem Daum’s “Uncommon Ground: Struggle for a Palestinian Shtetl
Precedents do exist. For the past few years Padraig O’Malley’s Forum for Cities in Transition has been held in major problem areas and has included key representatives from the following cities: Baghdad, Belfast, Craigavon, Derry-Londonderry, Haifa, Jerusalem, Kaduna, Kirkuk, Mitrovica, Mitte (Berlin), Mostar, Nicosia, Ramallah, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Tripoli, (Lebanon). Its mission? To bring “together protagonists from divided societies. Its guiding principle is that one divided society is in the best position to help another.”
For more details, go to Kindle for a booklet entitled: “Had Enough? Three Words to Change Your World … from anger to dialogue.” For the local access TV series on this conflict, click here: Vimeo: Journeys to Peace #1; Journeys to Peace #2; Journeys to Peace #3; Journeys to Peace #4

Read Rabbi Lerner’s book Embracing Israel/Palestine Order it at (it’s a perfect holiday gift for Christmas, Chanukah or just the winter holidays, as is a subscription to Tikkun which you can order at