Encounter Program in Bethlehem

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Last week on Wednesday and Thursday, I traveled to Bethlehem with Encounter, a program which brings diaspora Jews to meet with members of Palestinian civil society in the West Bank. Encounter sees itself as “seeding a cadre of Jewish leadership to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to heal internal Jewish communal rifts formed in its wake.”

The organization seeks to address what it sees as a lack of knowledge and understanding among diaspora Jewry about Palestinians and their perspectives in their ongoing conflict with Israel. By facilitating interactions, dialogue, and mutual respect between Jews and Palestinians, they hope to encourage deeper engagement by diaspora Jewry with the social and political aspirations of Palestinian Arabs. The first step in this process is bringing prospective Jewish leaders into face-to-face contact with members of Palestinian civil society who embrace peace, non-violence, and dialogue.

The trip I joined was the Bethlehem Tour for Jewish Leaders. Aside from the organizers and volunteer facilitators who were mostly rabbinical students in Israel for the year, the participants were mostly young liberal American Jews in Israel for a brief trip who are active in various American Jewish social justice organizations, J-Street, and Jewish educational and community institutions, as well as a handful of graduate students, myself included. Our many activities in the Bethlehem area included a driving tour of the city and Israeli security barrier, a visit to the Hope Flowers School in al-Khader, a meeting with a Palestinian activist in Walaje village, a tour of Osh Ghrab Park (near Shdema), numerous panels with Palestinian presenters who shared their personal narratives, experiences, and political beliefs, group activities with Palestinian peers, meals, small group discussions, davening, and an optional home-stay for the evening.

There are, of course, many ways I could write about my experience. I could go line-by-line through the itinerary and recall what each of the speakers had to say, what questions were asked, and how they responded. I took comprehensive enough notes that this would be possible. I could also mull over every detail, every fact and every inaccuracy, and the political implications and problems of each. However, I feel like this would be unduly burdensome and not terribly interesting. Rather, I offer my reflections here on what I saw as three primary themes “encountered” primarily by myself, but perhaps also by the speakers and others participants: humanity, responsibility, and reciprocity.

Humanity: If the Encounter program can play one critical role in fostering peace and understanding between Jews and Palestinians, it is in its facilitation of basic human contact between two sides that rarely do so. For those who believe that Palestinians are all anti-Semitic terrorists who seek nothing in life other than martyrdom and to drive the Jews into the sea, this trip would be a transformative experience. Similarly, if there are Palestinians who believe that Jews are nothing but Arab-hating imperialists who want nothing more than to steal their land and expel them from the country, they too would be transformed by meeting trip participants.

All hyperbole aside, however, this trip is instructive in that it demonstrates that normal human interaction devoid of hatred, anger, and perhaps even politics itself is possible between Jews and Palestinians. From drawing pictures with crayons with Palestinian children at the Hope Flowers School to playing icebreaking games and sharing meals with Palestinian peers, I was deeply moved that these are all people with whom I could share a workplace, live with in the same neighborhood without fear, and genuinely develop meaningful friendships.

Perhaps it is an obvious point, but there is nothing like simple conversation to discover one and another’s common humanity. Our experience contrasted markedly with what one might expect from the newspaper headlines. The Palestinians we met were not (or at least did not admit to being) members of Fatah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad. They did not express wishes to commit violence against Israelis nor did they express animosity to us as Jews. Rather they came across as ordinary people struggling with living in a difficult situation, both as imposed by Israel and, to a lesser degree, the Palestinian Authority, as conditioned by their own culture and society.

I was particularly struck by the presentation given to us by the director of the Hope Flowers School. She couching her presentation in terms of the difficulties faced by the school given its location in Area C (full Israeli military and administrative control) and the affect of Israeli security measures during the Second Intifada in dramatically diminishing the number of pupils who were able to freely travel to and attend the school. Yet most of her talk centered on the challenges of teaching a curriculum promoting peace, non-violence, and human rights in a highly politicized society. She also discussed the school’s efforts to ensure adequate education for physically disabled and emotionally disturbed children who, she expressed, are underserved, excluded, and marginalized in the public Palestinian schools. Moreover, she placed a special emphasis on women’s rights. A particular example given was how the school has interceded on behalf of girls whose parents pull them out at an early age and force them to marry. It was not until the trip organizers explicitly requested that she return to the topic of “the occupation” that she shifted focus. In short, Palestinians, like Israelis and all other human beings, have day-to-day concerns which have little to nothing to do with their sense of political injustice vis-à-vis Israel.

Our experience also clearly contrasted with what the Palestinian participants themselves described as their day-to-day interactions with Israelis, whom they negatively view as either occupying soldiers or encroaching settlers. One speaker on Thursday shared his observation that Palestinians rarely distinguish between “Israelis” and “Jews” when expressing their grievances. When stopped at a checkpoint or arrested, she said his friends talk about what “the Jews did to them” and not the Israelis. One should probably should not be content with Palestinians successfully making this distinction alone. Indeed, if Israelis were to take about what “the Arabs” or “the Muslims” did to them as opposed to “the Palestinians,” it would be no less offensive.

That the Palestinians with whom we spoke might be beginning to make some distinctions based on their positive experiences with Encounter groups, however, might offer some hope for the future. If the engagement of American Jewry is a humanizing experience for Palestinians, so much more so might Palestinian engagement with Israelis be a critical element toward resolution of the conflict. Numerous programs like this already exist such as Combatants for Peace and Eretz Shalom. Encounter too has a program which it began recently which visits only Areas B and C around Bethlehem, thereby skirting restrictions on Israeli travel into areas under Palestinian Authority control (Area A). Other than our walk around the separation barrier which encloses Kever Rachel, there is no part of our trip which Israelis could not experience by not entering Area A.

Responsibility: There is a general ethos in Israeli society, that as the victims of Arab aggression, there is little space to discuss how Israeli actions might have had a hand in cultivating Palestinian hatred toward them. Israelis point to a long litany of Arab actions against Israel: pre-state Arab violence against Jews, the rejection by the Arab states of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, bellicose diplomacy toward and conventional and guerilla attacks against Israel, the 1967 Khartoum Resolution of the Arab League, and continued terrorism against the Jewish state and its citizens. This is all often taken as evidence not only that the Arab world does not seek peace with Israel, but that violence by Arabs against Israel and Israelis has nothing to do with Israeli behavior toward them.

If a group did not cause the hatred and violence committed against them, one might argue that they are freed from any responsibility to ameliorate the conditions under which such hatred and violence developed. While this attitude has lost much of its popularity in the past two decades, it remains an important element of Israeli public opinion. If this approach is prevalent among Israelis, this trip taught me first hand that it too is alive and well among Palestinians. As with the stereotypical Israeli, many of the Palestinians with whom we met denied that a meaningful link might exist between Palestinian behavior and Israeli actions against them.

I saw this as being expressed in two primary guises: victimhood and resistance. In the narratives we were told, victimhood was traced back to the founding of the State of Israel, the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) which began the “sixty-three year occupation.” With regard to Palestinian refugees and their displacement, the speakers, without fail, claimed that Israelis expelled their families from their homes, never suggesting that any may have left voluntarily, at the behest of advancing Arab armies, or merely out of fear.

At least one speaker, when prompted by participants, expressed her family’s discontent when living under Jordanian rule seeing the Jordanians, as the British and Ottomans before them, as “foreign occupiers. Another speaker, a resident of one of Bethlehem’s refugee camps, born in Kuwait and having also lived in Jordan, Lebanon, and France to name but a few locales, expressed his belief that things are worse for Palestinians in Lebanon than they are in the West Bank. That said, there was no criticism of the Arab world for their hand in rejecting the 1947 Partition Plan and very little in terms of their contemporary treatment of Palestinians or engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Blame for the Palestinians’ current predicament, then, was distributed between two parties: the Israelis and the “politicians.” For example, I asked one speaker on Wednesday what went wrong in the peace process and why there is still no resolution today. His response was that “no one” among Palestinians today believes that Israel is negotiating in good faith. According to him, Palestinians see the Oslo Accords as a ruse by Israel to expand settlements, increase the Israeli military presence in Palestinian populated areas, increase roadblocks, and limit their freedom of movement. Nowhere did his response include a mention of terrorism, suicide bombings, or regular pronouncements by Yasser Arafat that Oslo was a means to continue the war against Israel by other means as a contributing factor in the breakdown of talks or the Israeli actions which he argued demonstrated Israel’s lack of interest in peace.

For the more evenhanded speakers, blame certainly went to Israel, but also toward the politicians on both sides. Many expressed the belief that both Israeli and Palestinian political elites have very little interest in peace, but rather wish to secure their own power and position vis-à-vis rivals. The more optimistic of those expressing this point of view voiced their belief that if peace will ever come, it will only be through dialogue between ordinary people, that is through the direct interaction of Israeli and Palestinian civil society. The more pessimistic claimed that, as ordinary people, they had no ability to influence the beliefs, policies, and actions of politicians, and therefore so no benefit in trying. On the whole they too believed in dialogue but doubted its efficacy in changing facts on the ground.

There was a recognition by most if not all the speakers that violence has been a “unproductive” or “counterproductive” means to advance Palestinian national interests, although at least one did assert that Palestinians still have a right “under international law” to employ violence to end the occupation. However there is a great distance between asserting that a violent strategy is suboptimal to achieving one’s objectives and understanding that Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians might be responsive to that use of violence.

I did appreciate that several of the speakers made a point of saying that they feel it is their responsibility to address Israeli “fear” of Palestinians. They argued that so long as Israelis believe that the Palestinians seek to harm them, they will be resistant to making peace with them. This, of course, is one objective of dialogue. When one can recognize the humanity of one’s partner in conversation, one may be less inclined to assume they have any particular intentions, good or bad. To engage in dialogue, however, does not necessarily mean or perhaps even require that one take responsibility for one’s own hand in shaping one’s own predicament. Nor does it necessarily mean recognizing that one played an important role in creating such fear in the first place.

As one person in our group pointed out during our Sunday night debrief, there seems to be a constant competition between Israelis and Palestinians to assert the severity of their suffering. As if suffering were a zero-sum game where if one were to prove they has suffered more than another, then the other had not suffered at all. In ending this vicious rhetorical cycle, committing to non-violence and dialogue are both important first steps. So too would recognition of each other’s suffering help heal wounds of the past. However, this process might be eased considerably if each side were to recognize that it too had a hand in creating or perpetuating the fears and suffering of the other.

Reciprocity: Among the conditions considered by most observers to be integral to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the principle of reciprocity and mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. Put another way, sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians may only be possible when each recognizes that the other has much a right to this land as they do themselves. It was with regard to this theme that I was most disappointed by our Palestinian speakers. Although I was universally impressed by their frankness and honesty (with a few very notable exceptions), their commitment to non-violence and dialogue, and the emotional depth of their personal narratives, I was deeply troubled by their attitudes toward the existence of a Jewish state of Israel.

By way of background, it must be said that both Israelis and Palestinians have been reticent to support the other’s aspirations for statehood. According to surveys conducted on behalf of the INSS, Israeli support for a Palestinian state has grown considerably since the initiation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but peaked at 61% in 2006 and has decreased since. Although this is definitely more than 50% +1, popular support is far from overwhelming (See figure below). Similarly, a recent American poll found that although Palestinian support for a 2-state solution has now reached 60%, only 23% of Palestinians accept that “Israel has a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people,” while two-thirds prefer the alternative statement that “over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.”

israeli-support-for-palestinian-state

While the State of Israel may be a physical reality today, polling here and elsewhere strongly suggests that a sizeable majority of Palestinians reject this as an acceptable political status quo. This was a message which I felt bled through in almost every presentation, particularly those which had any prescriptive political content. Attitudes on the “two-state solution” ranged from strong skepticism to outright rejection, while the expressed preferred resolution was nearly always a single democratic state with equal rights for all of its citizens.

Although this approach may be appealing to western liberal-minded activists, detractors have argued that ignores the region’s history of intercommunal conflict, competing historical claims to territory, and the existence of two nationalist movements which are, at least in part, predicated on privileging one group over the other. Activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, have regularly reflected that such a state is, given demographic projections of a Palestinian majority between the river and the sea, primarily a means for erasing the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

And herein lies the conundrum: whereas Israeli public opinion seems to support the emergence of a Palestinian state in order to secure the continued existence of an Israeli one, Palestinian public opinion seems to support the two-state solution insofar as it will lead to the dissolution of an Israeli one and a single Palestinian one in its place. So, do you, the speakers, support the existence of the State of Israel alongside a State of Palestine? A particularly detailed response was given by a Palestinian businessman who has been very involved in the economic development of Palestinian Authority controlled areas.

He differentiated between Palestinian recognition of an Israeli state and a Jewish one. In terms of the former, he argued that Israel is a basic fact with which Palestinians must contend. Recognition of Israel as a state is “water under the bridge” which he contended was integral to the PLO’s declaration of independence in 1988 and to Israeli agreement to negotiate with Yasser Arafat in the Oslo process beginning in 1993. However, when it comes to Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, this is impossible. “How,” he asked, “can you ask those who are refugees to recognize a discriminatory state by definition? This is not going to happen.”

This statement and many others like it I heard over the course of the trip are pretty easy to take on face-value. People who have suffered at the hands of a state should not be expected to respect or recognize the legitimacy of its institutions. This approach makes particularly good sense if the objective of the aggrieved party is to change the state from the inside-out as a resident and citizen. However, as almost all our speakers asserted, their interest is not in becoming equal citizens of Israel (particularly as currently defined), but in exercising their inalienable right of national self-determination.

The challenge, of course, in making such a demand is that it requires reciprocity. If you as a national group are entitled to self-determination, so too must the group from which you wish to be emancipated. If the demand is that a separate and independent state should rise peacefully alongside Israel as a fulfillment of Palestinian national aspirations, it must be coupled with an end to further claims against Israel. Just as a Palestinian state will demand full Israeli recognition of the legitimacy of their governing institutions and the inviolability of the character of their domestic society, so too must Palestinians reciprocate with Israel.

This is what “painful concessions” for peace are all about: disavowing grievances and settling for less than one’s full demands. First steps toward such recognition require not only that each accept that each is a contemporary political fact, but also that neither is going to disappear any time soon. Perhaps once each side understands that neither is going up in a puff of smoke, they can move toward a more meaningful level of recognition where the faint hope that the other will disappear is replaced by an active interest in living together.

Conclusions: For Israelis and Palestinians to form a true and lasting peace, it will likely require a deep commitment to exploring and understanding each other’s mutual humanity, shared responsibility for their own situation and that of the other, and reciprocity through mutuality: where one side’s gain is not the other’s loss.

So what does Encounter add to the picture?

I firmly believe that the model of interaction facilitated by Encounter offers great promise for developing relationships of friendship, trust, and respect between Jews and Palestinians. It is these bonds which will must serve as the foundation of any efforts to engage in peace-building between these two communities. Empowering diaspora Jewry to bring the personal narratives of Palestinians home to their communities abroad is important in developing a more respectful picture of the other and perhaps nurture a less polarized vision of Jewish engagement with Israel.

Yet it is not diaspora Jewry who ultimately must resolve the conflict. Israelis are still largely missing from the picture. Palestinians who meet with diaspora Jews may come away with a more positive image of Jews and Judaism in general, but the experience does nothing to alter their image of Israelis as merely “soldiers and settlers.” Perhaps Encounter’s new Areas B+C trips will begin to address this deficit.

I am similarly concerned that Encounter does not reach a broad enough audience of diaspora Jewry. If the participants on the trip I attended are any indication, Encounter very successfully attracts self-described “liberal progressive” American Jews but fails to reach more politically conservative and religiously traditional voices. The latter audience is important not only because they too would benefit from “encountering” Palestinians, but that Palestinians and liberal progressives would benefit from “encountering” them in an environment which encourages open conversation and active listening.

In terms of responsibility and reciprocity, I found that many of the Jewish participants in Encounter felt this experience was important because of the deficits in responsibility and reciprocity which they have observed on the side of Israelis and/or their Jewish communities. Their engagement with Palestinians will no doubt give them a broader perspective with which to address them when they return to their homes abroad. Of course, this is still only half of the equation.

There remains the issue that Palestinian participants themselves admitted to only limited meaningful claims of responsibility and offered very little in the way of reciprocity. Many speakers strongly urged the participants to work hard to pressure Israel to end the occupation in order to “save her from herself.” However, few appeared willing or able to cede meaningful ground in terms of accepting the agency of Palestinians in prompting Israeli actions which they find to be obnoxious and offensive. Similarly, the demand that Israel respect their national aspirations was hardly matched by a recognition that Israelis too have legitimate national aspirations, although they may conflict with their own. For those participants who do believe that their should be a State of Israel as well as a State of Palestine, this is an uncomfortable clash of values.

It is not Encounter’s mission to change the minds of its speakers nor is it to advocate on behalf of Israel. As a matter of design, the trip highlights Israeli iniquities against Palestinians and implicitly charges participants to incorporate the resulting criticism of Israel in the discussions with which they engage in their communities upon their return home. So when it comes to exploring the tensions in the ideologies and arguments of the presenters, the program is unsurprisingly muted. Encounter does, however, express a mission of facilitating a broader, deeper, and more meaningful discussion as to the roots and branches of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This requires challenging not just Israeli narratives but Palestinian ones as well.

At times, I felt that collective efforts to honor Encounter’s well-intentioned communication agreement hindered the asking of questions which truly challenged the speakers to articulate their visions for conflict resolution and peace. This was especially true when their vision appeared to clash with what has become the “mainstream” American Jewish visions for peace, namely two states with secure and recognized borders to fulfill the national aspirations of both peoples with no further claims. If my experience is any indication, the Encounter program is quite weak is in its lack of open engagement with these apparent tensions.

Despite its weak points, I am really happy that I went on this trip and I would unreservedly recommend it for anyone who is able. If you wish to understand someone and for someone to understand you, perhaps nothing is better than engaging in honest discussion. Encounter, between its large group presentations and individual level interactions with Palestinian peers, provides just such a framework.

I readily admit that I have not left the experience with a rejuvenated hope in the prospects for peace. The obvious gaps between the visions for peace shared by our Palestinian speakers and those of most Israelis even on the far left with whom I have met appear at times to be unbridgeable. Yet I do leave with greater optimism about the possibilities for Jews and Palestinians and even Israelis and Palestinians to meet and explore their mutual humanity. This will not automatically lead to peace by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a critical first step.

2 Responses to Encounter Program in Bethlehem

  1. jeff says:

    Superb- You delineated what is often missed

    You found room for understanding and some gaps that ought to be filled

  2. […] final point, however, is a particularly salient one. Why, ask Palestinian leaders and members of civil society, should we recognize a Jewish state, which in fact already exists? The problem, they insist, is not […]

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