Somewhere In The Middle

Out Of The Box
That is certainly the perspective of Palestine-Israel Journal’s Schenker.

“Despite the extensive media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of this comes in sound bites as immediate reaction to daily events on the ground, generally from the perspective of one of the sides only,” he said. “There is, therefore, a need for means of communication that can increase each side’s exposure to and understanding of the other and promote sober and meaningful exchanges between the two peoples around central issues.”

The quarterly journal is staffed by a joint team of Palestinians and Israelis working from a single office in East Jerusalem. In order to ensure that the views of both sides are equally reflected, the journal employs two editors-in-chief and two managing editors. Its editorial board is composed of 22 journalists, academics and other intellectuals, also equally divided between Palestinians and Israelis.

“All of us believe that the future lies in cooperation and working together to resolve the conflict,” said Schenker. “Channels of communication must
be opened for academics and other intellectuals, opinion-makers and policymakers, grassroots organizations and activists to voice their views and take part in the public debate for a democratic and just solution to the conflict.”

Schenker said he sees few, if any, other Jews in East Jerusalem, the far less developed area of the city. In his ride to work, he often schmoozes with taxi drivers, who he believes have their fingers on the pulse of Arab society.

“They ask me where I am going, and they all know my colleagues. And we start to have political discussions. They say to me, ‘If only we had peace how things would blossom, it would be so good for all of us. If only we had strong leadership,’” related Schenker. “There is a general sense of frustration and pessimism. They don’t see hope. They don’t see or believe that Israeli officials really want to negotiate peace. And they don’t believe the Palestinian leadership can.”

In Baltimore, out-of-the-box efforts at communication and dialogue have been challenging people’s preconceived notions.

Beth Shalom Congregation in Howard County has been running a Carnegie Corporation-funded program called Talking About Israel, which, in conjunction with the Baltimore Jewish Council, has brought together Muslim and Jewish leaders to talk civilly about Israel, Palestine and peace.

This year’s program ran from Nov. 5 through Nov. 24 at the synagogue, and a future event is to be held at a Howard County mosque.

Rabbi Susan Grossman spearheads the project. She told the JT that there are three levels to interfaith dialogue: The first step is just coming together, having face time together. Her synagogue, for instance, hosts a Christian-Muslim-Jewish concert on Martin Luther King Day.

“It is nice to get together, but it is not very deep,” she said.

A second level is discussing what different faiths have in common, and this is what the synagogue did in 2012, presenting Jewish and Muslim scholars, one at a time, to talk about their faith. In 2012, if topics such as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process arose, moderators were asked to move on.

“We were not ready to have that conversation yet,” said Grossman, “but we promised we would have that conversation.”

In 2013, four evenings of dialogue and debate between four Muslim and four Jewish thought-leaders tackled those questions.

Jeff Rubin, director of communications at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a member of Beth Shalom, helped make the arrangements. He said the speakers were both idealists and realists, both optimists and pessimists.

“It was a real eye-opener for everyone in the room,” he said, noting that the audience was equally divided between Muslims and Jews.

Ghaith Al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, was one of the speakers. Every opinion poll in the last 15 years has shown consistent support on both sides for a two-state solution, he pointed out in an interview. But over the last decade there has been a continual hardening in the polls; while each side wants peace, neither those in the Jewish community or the Muslim community believe those on the other side are committed.

“What we have are people not trusting each other,” said Al-Omari. “This reinforces the need for each society to interact with the other society. If you don’t know the other society firsthand, you stereotype.”

Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar says those who love Israel cannot afford to “sit back and watch how the Israeli right … is undermining  the hope for peace.” (David Stuck)

Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar says those who love Israel cannot afford to “sit back and watch how the Israeli right … is undermining the hope for peace.” (David Stuck)

Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, who spent time in East Jerusalem this past summer, agreed.

“I went to two community centers … where kids come after school for art, music and sports,” she said. “But in addition to those usual activities, they are teaching the kids about conflict resolution, about nonviolent solutions to problems.

“We have this image in our minds of Palestinians teaching their kids hatred against Jews, but that is not what I encountered at all,” she continued. “This is something below the radar for American Jews; we don’t even know these places exist.”

Her daughter, Tali, similarly noted that in more than a dozen trips to Israel in her youth, she never met a Palestinian. In camp and then in college, when she heard the word “occupation,” she was confused; she couldn’t envision what that meant. When she studied the issue, she started distancing herself first from Israel and then from her Jewish identity.

“It was just too much, I couldn’t even gothere,” she said.

Then one summer she traveled on a human rights mission through American Jews for a Just Peace.

“That was my first time ever going into the West Bank, which is totally messed up. … It shook me at my core. It is one thing to be like, ‘there are checkpoints and there is this wall.’ But it feels totally abstract. When you are there and you are going through it and you experience it — you just can’t put it into words,” said Ruskin. “It was the first time in my life I got to meet Palestinian people, and they became human to me.”

Describing herself as pro-peace and anti-occupation, Ruskin, who continues to visit Palestinians and volunteer on their behalf, claimed that what she sees in the territories does not jibe with the Jewish value of tikkun olam. She said that it was only when she was able to separate Zionism from Judaism that she was able to settle her religious quandary.

Jacob Bogage of Olney, Md., a sophomore at the University of Missouri, is more pragmatic. He views the process of the establishment of the State of Israel as inherently unjust.

“But we can’t rewind the tape. So you have to live with the situation on the ground,” he argued. “I cannot in good conscience tell people everything was executed the right way or is being executed the right way.”

Bogage noted that this struggle impacts his Jewish identity, and he questions if he can be both a Zionist and someone who desires equal rights and humanitarian justice around the world. These ideas can coexist, he said, but he often feels that this is not the lens through which his American Zionist peers see the situation.

“The way a lot of American Jews approach Zionism is through a what’s-best-for-Israel prism as opposed to what is best for Israel and its neighbors,” he said, noting that in some cases this causes him to disengage from the dialogue. “Any disagreement about the issues going on in that region can be volatile. It makes you stop and think.”

Also, read:
Status Quo, Viable?

Obstacles To Peace: What makes it so difficult to achieve?
The Numbers
Take Action For A Different Future


Maayan Jaffe is former JT editor-in-chief

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