During May two speakers of international renown came to Portland to speak about the peace process. As part of its Food for Thought Symposium series, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland brought scholar and author Yossi Klein Halevi to town for a free talk at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center on May 12. A senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to The New Republic, Halevi’s talk was titled “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Forging a Peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” His 2013 book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Book of the Year Award from the U.S. Jewish Book Council. His first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, was published in 1995. In 2001 he published At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, who founded Encounter to help the Jewish people transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was in Portland May 9-11 as a scholar- in-residence at Havurah Shalom. A Conservative rabbi who graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, Weintraub is an educator, facilitator and trainer working to transform conflict in the face of entrenched divisions. She is the author of several articles addressing Jewish war ethics and has lectured and taught on four continents. At Havurah Shalom, she spoke on her work at Encounter, how Jewish texts can influence public policy work and ways to help those with divergent perspectives reframe the con- versation around the Israeli-Palestinian “conundrum.”
To allow both speakers to share their wisdom with a broader audience, we asked both questions about their presentations and perspectives. Their replies have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Does the topic of your Portland talk refer to: Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians just get along? Or, Why can’t the Jewish people get along to pursue that peace?
It refers to Israelis and Palestinians. The internal Israeli schism between left and right has actually eased in recent years, with the emergence of a centrist majority that is both a little bit right and a little bit left. Centrists agree with the left that the occupation is a long-term existential danger for Israel, but they also agree with the right that a Palestinian state, created under current conditions, would be an immediate existential threat. And so most Israelis are in effect stymied against themselves.
Israeli-Palestinian efforts to reach a two-state solution seem to be at an impasse. Are you optimistic for any solution in the near future, or do you believe resolution is a more distant prospect?
There is zero chance of an agreement anytime soon. The Palestinian leadership will not give up on the demand for refugee return to the state of Israel (rather than only to a Palestinian state), and they are unwilling to offer the psycho- logical reassurances the Israeli public needs – for example, recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state (or of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people). On our side, there is no majority willingness at this point to redivide Jerusalem – not necessarily for historic reasons but because of fear that Hamas would take over a Palestinian state, and we could find ourselves “sharing” Jerusalem with a an organization committed to Israel’s destruction. Israelis simply won’t be convinced that this can be made to work under present circumstances. The most that could be hoped for, at least for now, is an interim agreement that would end the Israeli occupation over most of the territories, but not include greater Jerusalem and a few other areas. The fate of those areas would be negotiated at a later time, presumably when greater trust could be developed. That will not happen anytime soon.
What do you believe American Jews can do to help move toward either of those goals?
American Jews should convey to the Israeli government that there is little support in the American Jewish community for continued settlement building and that this is destructive for Israel’s future, for a future peace process and for Israel’s standing in the world. But that message will only be heard by Israelis if they believe that American Jews share the concerns and anxiet- ies of an overwhelming majority of Israelis about the daunting security problems Israel faces. I want American Jews to be part of the debate over Israel’s future. But that can only happen if Israelis feel they can trust American Jews to understand the complexity of Israel’s dilemmas. A simplistic “peace now” ap- proach only erodes the credibility of American Jewish criticism of those Israeli policies that should be criticized.
If people take away only one message from your talk in Portland, what do you hope that will be?
Complexity, complexity and more complexity. The ideologues of right and left trivialize our agonizing dilemmas, our struggle between morality and security. To be a healthy people, we need Jews who are multidimensional, capable of holding multiple and even conflicting truths about the conflict in their heads.
Anything else you want to emphasize?
Delighted to be celebrating Independence Day with the Portland Jewish community (though it’s a long way from Jerusalem).
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub: The Jewish Approach to Human Rights
Is there a difference between “resolving the conflict” and “the peace process” in today’s Middle East?
Successful “conflict resolution” will require a peace agreement, not just an evolution of “facts on the ground” or unilateral measures on the part of either party. No unilateral solution will result in long-term reduction of violence, secure borders, local and international recognition, and civil and political rights for both peoples. But I am of the school that “while leaders sign agreements, people make peace.” Political leaders will not have the courage to “pay the price” until their people better understand the deals, compromises and trade-offs that will be necessary to reach a viable agreement. And our respective peoples won’t understand the compromises required until they understand and recognize each other’s historical experience, current needs and aspirations.
Are you optimistic for any solution in the near future, or do you believe resolution is a more distant prospect?
History is full of surprising breakthroughs. Nonetheless, I do not believe “the ground is prepared for peace.” Each side longs for recognition – from each other and from the world – for their aspirations, legitimacy and suffering; yet so many lack or have been hardened against basic empathy for the others’ historical experience, needs and intentions. A viable political peace process doesn’t require us to embrace the other’s narrative wholesale. It may require both parties to gain enough recognition for the others’ experience to get why neither party can embrace the others’ view of history, nor abdicate its own. To get that the other party can be a partner for peace without undergoing an ideological conversion.
What do you believe American Jews can do?
Seek complexity. Go on tours with people who contradict each other. Read multiple sources until you’re dizzy. If you think you know who the bad guys are, listen to them and try to stand in their shoes. At the end of such a process, advocate for your vision, still extending recognition to all parties. … understanding is not the same as agreement. Demand that our elected officials and opinion leaders here in America do the same.
If people take away only one message from your weekend in Portland, what do you hope that will be?
We need hearts big enough to hold the contradictions and claims, anguish and fears of multiple parties to this conflict if we are to direct our people’s destiny toward our greatest hopes rather than our greatest fears. Whichever party any of us is most sympathetic and connected to will only know security, peace and dignity when the other party knows it too.
Anything else you want to emphasize?
We need to pursue the thinking of those who think differently than us, including those we see as endangering peace and security or fueling violence, those we see as naïve or war-mongering. We need collaborative conversation through our disagreements to find the wisest lessons and outcomes – rather than to seek out evidence that delegitimizes our counterparts, which is how most political debate operates in this country. We are indelibly involved in this conflict, as Americans and as Jews, like it or not. The quest for peace in the Middle East will take all of us. It will take left-wingers and right-wingers, settlers and anti-occupation activists, Christians, Muslims and Jews. I started my career working primarily on peace between Jews and Palestinians. I’ve increasingly realized peace is going to take wider social transformation and the cultivation of deep respect and understanding within the Jewish community, and within the Palestinian community, every bit as much as between our peoples.