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Between Two Stools

One of the most urgent needs of the politicosphere is to find ways of conceptualising issues which go beyond the well-trodden trenches of ancient, intractable feuds. It’s not easy.

Here is Elie Weisel, the iconic moral witness of the Holocaust, on the necessity of taking sides, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented…When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

And, located on the other pole, is W B Yeats, one of the great English poets of the 20th century, before World War 2 “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

So which is it? Can we find a path between mindless “passionate intensity” and the cowardly irrelevance of “neutrality” in  the great issues and conflicts of our time and place, bearing in mind that any philosophic position we take is legitimate also for our enemies? If the solution to this conundrum were easy, human conflict would be history… which it most definitely isn’t.

The problem with “passionate intensity” is that it cannot be maintained forever and leads into blind fanaticism or to exhaustion and surrender. But “conviction” is the fundamental necessity for action; without it we become pale shadows irrelevant to the real world. To a significant extent Israel and its allies have been able to integrate these two poles, but we must remain ever alert against slipping into the orbit of  one attractor or the other.

In the spirit of this introduction I want to direct your attention to an special article which recently crossed my desk. It comes from an Israeli academic, Menahem Milson, a specialist in Arabic Literature, who kept detailed notes on his interactions with a variety of Palestinian notables in the wake of the 1967 war. He retrieved and collated them in 2010 and then  published them in the Israeli journal “New Directions”. They now have recently been updated and republished in Mosaic in the form of a long essay which provides a nuanced and fascinating insight into the mindset of the elite of that society nearly 50 years ago.

The first point to note is that Milson was able to establish genuinely friendly personal relations with a number of Palestinian academics, authors and professionals remarkably soon after a conflict in which their side had been comprehensively defeated.

Their mutual personal respect and even affection comes through despite massively different political perspectives. Whether this is still possible is debatable, though I suspect it may be at certain levels and within certain circles. But, as will be shown, it is far from clear that such limited pockets of interpersonal goodwill have any impact on the apparently increasingly polarised “street” and inspissated conflict dynamics on either side.

What then can one gather then from this sequence of anecdotes?  One point that struck me, was the different modes of expression and perception of the two sides. Westerners, including the secular elites of Israeli society, are brought up in a “problem-solving”, “compromise”, pragmatic culture, especially since the devastation wreaked by the 20th century wars and revolutions. Westerners are thus highly attuned to the costs and unexpected bad consequences of “zero-sum” dynamics and tend to seek solutions which yield acceptable, though individually sub-optimal, outcomes to both sides.

This is not true of the fundamentally tribal and honour-based society of the Arab-Muslim world in which ‘loss of face” and “sacred” values dominate intellectual discourse and their narratives at all levels. This was shown repeatedly in the discussions and interactions between Menahem and his Palestinian friends.

For instance, in one telling episode Menachem recounts a public meeting in Boston at which one articulate and passionate speaker for the Palestinian cause, after listing all the “atrocities”, humiliations, oppressions and deceits they had been subjected to by the Israeli-Jewish interlopers, concluded that they still offered the Israelis a single state in which Jew, Muslim and Christian could live in peace and reconciliation.

When Menahem pointed out that elsewhere the same speaker had written “There can be no stable peace in the Middle East until all of Palestine is Arab once again”; “what was taken by force can only be restored by force”, the speaker replied  “I wrote that pamphlet in one of my more poetic moments; it was written in a poetic mood. As everyone knows, Arabic is a poetic language, so I had to write my statements in the spirit of the language.”

Were those the words of a bare-faced, calculated liar, as most of us would conclude? Or did the speaker believe both the “reconciliation” story when it suited him in front of a Western audience and the “uncompromising defiance” narrative when speaking to his own side? And, if that is true, how can one rely on agreements with adversaries whose positions are entirely context dependent and for whom the language of mutual compromise is the mark of a coward? The same people who see “Arabism as the embodiment of honor, hospitality, and courage (and), as for  Islam, its essence was a spirit of tolerance.”

 The author, remarkably, concludes “Still, like many in Israel, I continue to maintain that Israel must uphold the principle of a two state peace settlement because it is the only solution that is both just and internationally recognized. Although it does not seem feasible at present, I am convinced it can become so if and when a Palestinian leader emerges who, like Anwar Sadat in 1977, openly and unequivocally declares his readiness to make peace with Israel and to end the conflict in return for Israeli territorial concessions. Such a move, there is reason to believe, will transform the political scene on both sides.

 The conclusion is remarkable since nothing that the author experienced, despite the personal affection and respect, indicated that the Palestinians were ready to reconsider their narrative of dispossession by foreigners without roots or claims in the region? Nor is there any indication that the different mindsets and cultures can be reconciled by a “peace treaty” which puts its trust in optimistic reliance on goodwill and paper guarantees.

In short, the majority of Israelis who demand strategic depth and the dominance of security considerations as preconditions to any form of political settlement is powerfully reinforced by this essay. Yes, a new Palestinian leader could indeed help to break the deadlock, but more important may be regional political realignments and cultural change within the Palestinian community itself. Those are topics for next time.

In the meantime, Menahem Milson does us a service by providing the enemy with a credible human face distinct from the shallow ideologies that demonise them as devils or glorify and romanticise them as heroic victims. A plague on both ideologies. “Conviction” will be better served by playing to the best values of Western democracy and not descending to the level of the ignorant and fanatical “street” on either side.

In the end Israelis will live together with people both like and unlike themselves and not with cartoon characters out of propaganda handbooks. Who said that pragmatic realism is not compatible with respect and integrity? Hopefully these lessons can be factored into Israeli-Palestinian relations while circumstances evolve towards a new dispensation.  We wish them the best in this awesomely challenging and uncertain task.

It is worthwhile reading Milson’s essay in full.

Mike Berger




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