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Peace – like persuasion – depends upon encountering the other

This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.

In the echo chamber of Twitter, I noticed a recent viral thread asking the question “what radicalized you?” Israeli journalist Gilad Halperin gave a two-word answer: “meeting Palestinians.”

Gilad, like many of the dwindling members of Israel’s peace camp, is an alumnus of people-to-people programs, specifically London City University’s “Olive Tree Program,” which was run by the greatly missed Professor Rosemary Hollis, who passed away earlier this year. Professor Hollis, reflecting on the program which awarded scholarships to exceptional Israeli and Palestinian journalists, remarked, “if you can get enemies to learn from each other — not to agree — that can be valuable.”

This simple observation — that a meeting of minds requires, well, a “meeting” — is inherent to how we have persuaded opponents to re-examine their perspectives and resolved large and small conflicts for millennia.

Yet we have also recently constructed walls, both physical and social, that increasingly render such persuasion impossible.

With “security” as the rationale, the least violent decade in Israel’s history has also coincided with the greatest number of physical impediments to Israeli-Palestinian encounters on the ground. The Alliance for Middle East Peace and our members have found it increasingly difficult to secure permits for peace builders with “security” often cited despite — pre-COVID — 50,000 Palestinian laborers working in Israel illegally on a daily basis, many circumnavigating the separation barrier to do so.

One Palestinian peace activist I have worked with for over a decade has never once been issued a permit to enter Israel. His only encounter with Israelis who live a twenty-minute drive from his home, separated via a Kafkaesque system of walls, permits and restrictions, is at conferences thousands of miles away.

Too often, what little Israeli-Palestinian contact remains is used by advocates of Israel to paint a grossly distorted picture of the conflict, gilding it with images of children playing soccer or music together. While these sorts of encounters are important — often as an initial step toward more substantive activities later in life — such caricatures greatly miss the nature of and the grounds for most Israeli/Palestinian encounters, while also sapping Palestinian agency to engage in them, undermining their legitimacy and transformative power.

Unfortunately, this Israeli state-sanctioned policy of preventing or weakening of such encounters has a willing accomplice on the Palestinian side, via the inconsistently applied concept of “anti-normalization.” The Alliance for Middle East Peace Regional Director, Huda Abuarquob, herself living under occupation in Hebron, a place where Israeli/Palestinian daily interaction is perhaps at its most grotesquely unjust, co-authored a piece in Ha’aretz with my predecessor Joel Braunold, which explains the norm in greater depth. In it they write:

“While the argument for anti-normalization is intellectually coherent, it is ultimately self-defeating. How, for example, will those who seek a full right of return for Palestinian refugees but refuse to allow them to engage with Jewish Israelis who reject the idea, succeed in convincing the Israelis that it is a viable option? How do they expect two conflicting parties to empathize with one another’s narratives when neither side has the opportunity to learn of the other’s struggle on a personal level? And how can they break the victim-perpetrator cycle if they do not seek an end to the victim-perpetrator identities?

The charge of “normalization” can be thrown at any Palestinian meeting an Israeli for any reason. At its most dangerous extreme are examples such as the continued illegal detention of Rami Aman — founder of the Gaza Youth Committee which is a member organization of Alliance for Middle East Peace — designated a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International as he now passes 100 days of imprisonment in Gaza for the “crime” of conducting a Zoom call that included Israeli participants.

However, the overwhelming majority of charges of anti-normalization carry social rather than physical penalties, with some of those who most actively police the debate also advocating a one-state solution. They marry their legitimate, if less than simple, call for a single binational state with a refusal to talk to the very humans with whom they must negotiate and cohabit that same state.

Israel’s Consul General Dani Dayan is leaving after four years. What has he learned? He talked to editors-in-chief Jodi Rudoren and Andrew Silow-Carroll, of the Forward and the Jewish Week, about American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. Watch here.

As the recent furor around Peter Beinart’s essay in Jewish Currents, and the spirit of this series “On Persuasion” both demonstrate, the idea of one-state deserves to be taken seriously. Reality demands it. But it is difficult to take its advocates seriously if they refuse to engage in even the most minimum level of contact with the people who they must negotiate and share such a fragile demos with.

For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dialogue with the other — even if it is only in order to forcefully disagree — is an essential tool, if not to resolve the conflict, then certainly to mitigate the growing racism and dehumanization that fuels it. Almost half of Jewish Israeli high schoolers do not think Arab citizens should be allowed to vote. 82% of 11th and 12th graders think there’s “no chance of reaching a deal of some sort” with the Palestinians, whom they have almost certainly never met or discussed the topic with.

By way of contrast, 80% of the young Israelis and Palestinians who participated in the “History through the Human Eye” project, led by the ALLMEP member the Parents Circle Families Forum, reported greater willingness to work for peace. More than three out of four reported increased belief in the possibility of peace and reconciliation.

Anecdotally, we also know this to be true. Show me an Israeli or Palestinian who is dedicating their lives to ending this conflict, and more often than not they will have had a seminal experience of contact with the other at a formative age, often via these programs. More of these encounters and programs will create more of those same activists, and perhaps more voters willing to incentivize politicians to pursue peace. We know that these programs change lives, but we’ve never allowed them to happen at the sort of scale that could change whole communities or the politics that flow from them.

The conflict in Ireland, where I grew up, would never have been resolved without the daily, multifaceted interaction — and the persuasive potential inherent within it — that exists in even an unjustly shared space, as Northern Ireland was for most of the 20th century. Nor would it have happened without the work of joint civil society projects, many of which provided the intellectual underpinning and the social infrastructure upon which peace was built. That is why ALLMEP has been advocating for over 10 years for a radically scaled international fund to do just that, based on the International Fund for Ireland that helped to seed some of those very same programs, starting twelve years before a peace agreement was reached.

As part of this long-running campaign, and thanks to the leadership of Chairwoman Lowey and Congressman Fortenberry, the House of Representatives passed the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act last month, historic legislation delivering unprecedented funding for Israeli-Palestinian peace building and Palestinian economic development. If successfully enacted, it would provide $250 million over five years in order to radically scale programs furthering peace and reconciliation in the region.

With so few tools at our disposal proven to work, and after two decades of abject failure in elite-level diplomacy, this is a project we owe to the youth of the region after our lofty, unfulfilled promises of peace. With the right resources, relationships and foundations, perhaps they, together, can persuade each other and succeed where we have failed.

Ultimately, as we are discovering in domestic politics in the United States and Europe too, as every debate begins to take on the zero-sum contours of Israel/Palestine, you cannot persuade someone of the justice of your cause unless you are willing and able to encounter them. You may not end up agreeing. In fact, you probably won’t, certainly not at first. But you are much more likely to emerge seeing the other as a full member of the human race, entitled to absolutely every right and responsibility that you are too.

In 2020, in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere, that self-evident truth is no longer something to be taken for granted. But it remains a prerequisite for peace and democracy and a bedrock value of any just society worth its name.

John Lyndon is the executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.


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