Arab-Jewish Dialogue: Is there a Purpose?
The word dialogue inherently bears a soft, constructive meaning that few people would quibble about. Dialogue is surely better than arguing, unquestionably better than fighting, and absolutely necessary if we are to have any success whatsoever in connecting with others on common ground, be it our neighbor, children, partner, or mother.
Add two seemingly opposite (and loaded) adjectives, Arab-Jewish, to the word dialogue and suddenly it’s a whole new ball game. Now, this new concept comes with luggage of stereotypes, biases, and even a touch of racism at times. Allow me to explain.
For starters, let’s see why the addition of these two seemingly innocent words, Arab and Jewish, causes such an uproar when used together. The knee-jerk reaction is that these two words are diametrically opposed. In reality this could not be further from the truth, not ideologically or practically.
Arab, as per a dictionary definition is “a member of a Semitic people originally from the Arabian peninsula and surrounding territories who speaks Arabic and who inhabits much of the Middle East and northern Africa.” Jewish, as per the same dictionary, is defined as, “of or relating to Jews or their culture or religion.” So Arab defines an ethnicity whereas Jewish is linked to the religion and/or culture of Judaism. Arabs are a multifaith people, they are Muslim, Christian, and yes, there are even Jewish Arabs. However, when we use that loaded term “Arab-Jewish” we are really comparing apples and oranges.
Many in the West have reduced the entire conflict in the Middle East to this superficial Arab-Jewish paradigm. Palestinians, who are the part of the Arab people at the forefront of the conflict with the State of Israel, have never, to this day, claimed that their issue is one against Jews. As a matter of fact, Palestinians have historically gone out of their way to explain that their quarrel is with the ideology of Zionism as embedded in within the practices of the State of Israel and Israel’s military occupation. Palestinians have no quarrel with Jews because they are Jews. It is not the Palestinians who have tried to equate Israel with only Jews. How could they, given that Palestinians--Muslim and Christian--make up over 23% of the citizenry of the State of Israel, although they are discriminated against institutionally in myriad ways?
So, as terminology, this “Arab-Jewish” mix is not so accurate. I believe that what most people really mean is “Palestinian-Jewish Israeli,” or so I hope. But, for the sake of discussion, let’s ignore the semantics and look at the issue at hand, dialogue between two communities that are in conflict over a piece of land called Palestine/Israel. Is engaging in dialogue worthwhile? Is it worthwhile for over 60 years? If the positions are not known by now, will more dialogue clear things up? I do not mean to disparage these questions; they are serious ones.
I can recall growing up in Youngstown, Ohio and every so often engaging in an Arab-Jewish dialogue session. Many times we came together during difficult times. I can remember, e.g., during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982; following the Sabra and Shatila massacre during that same invasion; during the first intifada; and at other times when emotions were running high. I know the two communities across the US also engaged, immediately following the 9/11 tragedies. During all of these encounters the goals were the same: remind our respective communities that violence breeds only more violence, and that choosing to respond with common sense and education was more important than taking revenge. For the most part it worked.
Meanwhile, at times the dialogue was not crisis-oriented, but rather a proactive attempt to engage the two communities to better understand one another. This was not limited to the US but happens also here in Palestine/Israel, where there is always a theme of “people to people” events, as dialogue is frequently referred to here. The lessons of over 20 years are rather revealing. Palestinians, regardless of their religion, and Jews, regardless of their position toward Israeli politics, are stunningly similar. As a Jewish American friend of mine in New York, Adam Neiman, recently wrote, we are “loud, stubborn, passionate and opinionated.” I agree.
Things become difficult when the actions of the State of Israel are inserted into the middle of the discussion. Many supposedly mainstream Jewish leaders blindly fall into trying to defend the indefensible: dispossession, discrimination, and military occupation of another people. Palestinians, as can be expected, refuse to be subjects of another state’s search for their place in the world. Such a debate, after six decades of an increasingly bitter reality, could perhaps be best understood by reference to the law of diminishing returns.
What is worth dialoging about today, just as much as yesterday, is something that is very dear to Jewish communities – social justice and equality. There is no logical reason why dialogue groups should not be taking a side in the conflict in the Middle East, not the side of Palestinians or Israelis, per se, but the side of ending the 44 years of military occupation, finally letting Palestinian refugees return home, supporting both societies to respect the equal right of the “other,” and supporting the stopping of violence, all kinds of violence.
If I’m asked to choose between dialoging and fighting I will always choose dialogue without a blink; but if I’m asked to choose to fight or to dialogue with a counterpart who simultaneously is fighting my presence or funding such efforts by others, then my choice would be very different: not to fight, but to resist, and not violently, but nonviolently.
Let’s all dialogue on how to join forces to bring common sense and human and civil rights back into focus, for Israelis, Palestinians, and even Jews and Arabs wherever they may be.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business development consultant from Youngstown, Ohio living in the Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994) and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.