Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House to talk about restarting the peace process.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
In the days leading up to Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, announced that it would seek a bill in the Knesset banning Palestinian citizens of Israel — now 20 percent of the population — from commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe), their way of marking the founding of Israel, which involved the expulsion or flight of some 750,000 Palestinians.
Thousands of Palestinians — in the occupied territories, in Israel and in refugee camps all over the Arab world — ignored Yisrael Beiteinu's bluster and turned out for Nakba Day rallies, insisting on the right of refugees to return to their homes, a demand that is anathema to the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. In a speech in the stadium at the northern Israeli city of Kafr Kana, Raed Salah, the chairman of the northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, declared, "We are the ones who will remain on our land; it is the occupation that will soon disappear." Speaking of the occupation, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians in the territories as soon as possible, as any delay would bring about a binational state, which she called "a strategic threat, no less menacing than any other threat."
The fact is that even aside from the occupation, Israel is already a binational state — increasingly, a multicultural state — albeit one that is dominated by one ethnic/religious group. What if, instead of talking past one another, Jews and Palestinians were to take a step toward admitting this reality by acknowledging the other's historical narrative and trying to live together? It turns out that some are doing this, and in very interesting ways. I recently attended the sixth annual "Independence Day/Nakba Day" gathering near the northern city of Haifa, a two-day workshop organized by Arabs and Jews "designed to respect and commemorate the pain and loss on both sides." Sponsored this year by Beyond Words, a nonprofit organization that empowers Arab and Jewish women to work for social change and peace, the event featured a history lecture, recollections of the 1948 expulsion from Ramle by a Palestinian who experienced it and of the Holocaust by a survivor, personal testimonies of loss in a common grieving ritual, and breakout workshops, as well as music, dance and prayer.
It may be hard for Americans to comprehend just how threatening such an event is perceived in Israel — by both Jews and Palestinians. Many of the former find it nearly treasonous that on two consecutive days considered nearly sacred — the Day of the Fallen and Independence Day, when throughout the country everything comes to a screeching halt for two minutes as sirens sound — fellow Jews would go out of their way to acknowledge those who consider the time of Jewish national liberation to be a catastrophe. And just as many Palestinians are no less irritated that their dispossessed brethren, who endure continuing discrimination as second-class citizens, would commune with a people who celebrate what is for Palestinians a time of defeat and expulsion. But that's just the point: the participants don't presume to furnish a "solution" to the conflict, nor do they expect to synthesize the two vastly different national experiences into a unified whole. The idea, rather, is that in a society where the two opposing narratives almost completely negate the legitimacy of the other, simply to come together, to listen to the other, to accept the other's narrative as at least somewhat legitimate, is a crucial step in the healing process necessary to ending the conflict.
Another bridging of the narratives is being carried out by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), a nonprofit established in 1998 by Palestinian and Israeli researchers whose "purpose is to pursue mutual coexistence and peace-building through joint research and outreach activities." A particularly noteworthy PRIME endeavor is the "Dual-Narrative History Project." Co-directed by Professor Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University and the late Professor Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University (Bar-On's mantle was recently inherited by Ben-Gurion's Professor Shifra Sagy), the goal is "to 'disarm' the teaching of Middle East history in Israeli and Palestinian classrooms" by developing, with a group of Palestinian and Israeli historians, textbooks that have parallel historical narratives, Israeli on one side of the page and Palestinian on the other, to be taught to high school students. There's a blank space in the middle of each page for student comments.
The goal of the textbooks is to expose to each student population the history of the conflict as seen through the eyes of, and as taught by, the other. The project believed that at this stage of the conflict, the sides are too polarized to be able to produce a single narrative. But the hope is that in educating each side about the other's history, they will "break down stereotypes and build more nuanced understandings." So far three books have been produced, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, covering key periods, including the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the 1948 war, the 1967 war, the first intifada and so on. The remarkable thing about this cooperative venture is that it got started at the height of the second intifada, a time of extreme violence when it was difficult for the program directors just to meet, let alone produce a textbook that highlighted fundamental differences. The books have been used on both sides, exposing hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli high school kids to a different narrative, although neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian education ministries have given official approval to the books.
A third attempt to bridge the gap between the two peoples is Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality. Based in Beer-Sheva in Israel's southern Negev Desert, the Hagar Association has established a bilingual preschool and kindergarten in an attempt to overcome the extreme segregation of Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. The people of Hagar believe that "creating such a shared bilingual educational framework can promote knowledge and understanding of the 'other's' heritage, religion and customs, and thus help to bring about positive change in the region." The school has equal numbers of Arabs and Jews, and every class has two teachers, who give instruction in Arabic and Hebrew. This is almost unheard of in Israel, where as a general rule Palestinian and Jewish kids attend different schools. Until the founding of Hagar, there was not a single school in the South where Jewish and Arab children could learn together (25 percent of the Negev population is Arab). But Hagar's goals extend well beyond that of bilingual, high-quality education for kids; the community brings together parents and other members of the Beer-Sheva community in a broader social network that includes picnics, adult language instruction, and artistic and other cultural events. This partly comes from an understanding that the education of children should be a community-wide effort, but also from the recognition that overcoming barriers of segregation and mistrust requires a multifaceted approach that integrates all areas and ages of life, including work, education and cultural and leisure activities. Hagar has had to overcome many difficulties, not least the upsurge in mistrust stemming from the recent Gaza military operation and Hamas rocket barrages, which reached Beer-Sheva. One testament to Hagar's success is that the bonds formed over the past two years were not broken by the bloodshed; indeed, Hagar is now expanding its program for the 2009-10 school year to include first grade.
Certainly none of these cooperative efforts can be a substitute for peacemaking on the diplomatic level — a step made all the more difficult by an obstructionist Israeli prime minister. In his first meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu refused to support a two-state solution, instead calling for limited Palestinian self-government, insisting that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and making no promises to limit growth in settlements, let alone withdraw them. Resolution of the conflict is impossible without addressing its root causes: a brutal Israeli occupation and ongoing colonization now in its fourth decade in the territories, and systemic, legally sanctioned discrimination in Israel proper. But grassroots attempts to cultivate the seeds of cooperation can help further the larger goal, and make the transition to genuine peace more bearable.