Somewhere In The Middle

January 2, 2014
BY Maayan Jaffe
Putting a human face on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process
Beth Shalom Congregation is spearheading area efforts to bring Jews and Muslims together to talk about pressing issues, such as Middle East peace. From left: Mandee Heinl and Art Abramson, both of the Baltimore Jewish Council; Ghaith al-Omari, American Task Force in Palestine; Rabbi Susan Grossman, Beth Shalom; and David Pollock, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (Provided)

Beth Shalom Congregation is spearheading area efforts to bring Jews and Muslims together to talk about pressing issues, such as Middle East peace. From left: Mandee Heinl and Art Abramson, both of the Baltimore Jewish Council; Ghaith al-Omari, American Task Force in Palestine; Rabbi Susan Grossman, Beth Shalom; and David Pollock, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (Provided)

“What we have now are politicians and not statesmen,” said Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal. “Statesmen [are people] who are ready to take risks for the long term — on both sides.”

Think Pericles of Athens, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill; for all three men, their bedrock of principles rested on the ideal of freedom with a vision of expanding liberty out to the common man.

Today, weeks after the death of Nelson Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist, Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders are still struggling to determine a path to peace. Three weeks ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Secretary of State John Kerry that if there was any delay in the release in the next round of Palestinian prisoners, he would “feel free” to take unilateral steps through international organizations, something the Palestinian Authority agreed not to do before entering renewed negotiations with Israel.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has insisted that talks cannot move forward without agreement of an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for 10 years following the signing of a peace deal.

So reports the media. So goes another round of negotiations — theater of the absurd for many watching from the sidelines.

Aside from the very real prospect of continued violence — in the last two weeks there have been nearly one dozen terror attacks or attempted terror attacks — and the loss of Israeli territory, also apparently at stake are the Jewish identities of America’s millennials, people such as day-school educated Tali Ruskin, 29, who told the JT that she disconnected from Judaism when she discovered there were two sides to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, that the Palestinians were real people and not the terrorists she had learned about growing up.

The recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews likewise showed a stark disconnect between the youngest generation and the Jewish state. Of those from ages 18 to 29, only 32 percent said that concern for Israel is “an essential part of being Jewish” as compared with an average of 50 percent of those in older age ranges. Sixteen percent of the younger cohort said Israel “is not important” to them at all.

During a recent presentation in Baltimore, Laurence Kotler Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis and director of the Berman Jewish DataBank at the Jewish Federations of North America, said there are many explanations for these numbers, among them the potential lack of a nuanced understanding of what is happening in the Middle East and a deeper focus by the younger generation on social justice and human rights, something for which — right or wrong — Israel has come under scrutiny.

In a separate interview, Israeli author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi explained that older generations were raised on an Israel that could do no wrong. Many young Jews, he said, are now focused on an Israel that can do no right.

Part of that is because the Jewish state sits halfway around the world, bearing little daily impact on American Jews’ lives. Media sound bites are the only connection. And a perceived Jewish lack of understanding for the other side can — and is — leading to a deeper disconnect.

But for Israelis and Palestinians, that tiny land, just about the size of New Jersey, is home. Israelis are not soldiers or settlers, but mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. Many Palestinians, similarly, are not terrorists or extremists, but people looking to put food on their tables, to live in equality.

“We are more similar than some protagonists like to admit,” asserted Palestinian Mazin Qumisyeh.

But peace does not sell papers.

“Extremists get preferential press coverage and in a lot of ways have disproportionately influenced the public idea space,” said Yale University Professor Bruce Wexler, formerly of Baltimore. “If the current peace talks fail, extremists on both sides will be emboldened, and the moderates on both sides will be disempowered.”

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