Dear Inroads editors,

As I read through the coverage of the Israel/Palestine issue in the Winter/Spring 2005 issue of Inroads, I found considerable irony in an exchange between Leila Mouammar and Nada Sefian in their conversation with Arthur Milner (“Two Canadian-Palestinian views”). Leila expressed the view that Arab-Jewish dialogue groups are for beginners, their usefulness limited. Doing little to address power imbalances, they compel Arab members to patiently lead Jewish members by the hand to reasonable positions, even while they show disdain for Palestinians’ basic human rights. Nada – who is a colleague of mine in the Shalom/Salaam dialogue group in Montreal – countered that with maturity comes patience and much better results. I fully agree with Nada’s response. However, an unfortunate illustration of Leila’s position is found in the issue itself where we see two distinct sides, two solitudes, each seemingly unaware of the other’s contentions, both talking to their own kind. Indeed, the articles from the Jewish side defending Israel, filled with historical references used to affix blame, appear oblivious to, if not dismissive of, Palestinian grievances and aspirations.

Simon Rosenblum (“Why is there no Israeli-Palestinian peace?”) claims that the wars Israel fought were defensive, and cites a body of literature to bolster this view. In Shalom/Salaam we generally discourage the resort to such historical accounts simply because they get us nowhere, if the true objective is mutual accord or understanding. And it should go without saying that such accounts can be countered with equally compelling ones from the “other side.” In an atmosphere conducive to listening to both sides, Rosenblum’s point would be lost. The essential point of the mature variant of dialogue being: choose a more helpful narrative.

Let me then put Rosenblum’s thesis another way. What if the Arab states had won the 1967 war? The nightmare which haunts Israelis is, to use the well-worn phrase, that “the Jews would be driven into the sea.” In the shadow of the Holocaust, the Israeli perspective that a defensive posture needs to be so aggressive may be understandable. In reality Israel won the war because of superior military might and planning. This superiority is even greater today, but the point is, many Jews do not feel any more secure. So where do we go from there?

Rosenblum’s point that such discussions should never take place in a vacuum can be turned around. For the fears of being driven into the sea do not account for Israeli policy allowing nearly 250,000 settlers, many of them expatriate American Jews recently converted to the religious life, to illegally purchase or otherwise confiscate Palestinians’ land. Nor can it justify the way Israel has administered the conquered territories, to say nothing of the new pro-settlement rhetoric that these are not “occupied” but rather “disputed” territories. This type of polemic strikes fear into the heart of Palestinians every bit as wrenching as the Israelis’ fear of being driven into the sea. It recalls their “Nakbah,” their disaster or tragedy, in which Palestinians were forced from their homes, in 1948 and since. Mature dialogue dispenses with hierarchies of claims and conventional appeals to moral superiority and creates an atmosphere where Arabs, as well as Jews, feel comfortable stating their case, and if not always agreeing, then certainly empathizing with the “other” side.

Neutrality, propaganda and scholarship

Compounding the irony, Rosenblum, along with Howard Stein and Noemi Gal-Or (“The debate on Canadian campuses”), look at the other side and see lack of reasonableness. Rosenblum refers to the Palestinian right of return as a nonstarter in peace negotiations. But then he also argues against the position of, as it turns out, not just the former chief of Israeli intelligence he mentions (Ami Ayalon) but also a second one he does not mention (Yehoshafat Harkabi, in his 1989 book Israel’s Fateful Hour), that realistic peace negotiations should be based not on mistrust or the iron fist but on assumptions of good faith and mutual understanding. Both turn their attention to helping create a Palestinian state toward the end of establishing stability and security in the region for both parties, not just one.

The facts Rosenblum refer to, such as the oft-cited 97 per cent Israel offered the Palestinians, have been effectively contested in Tel Aviv University media scholar Daniel Dor’s Intifada Hits the Headlines. Dor skillfully separates fact from myth, exposing a narrative which convicted Palestinians in the Israeli press, and his book is a must-read for anyone convinced this is such a cut-and-dried matter.

Stein and Gal-Or, while pointing to many Palestinian student outrages on Canadian campuses, invoke the example of Daniel Pipes – the leading proponent of an all-out war on Palestinians – not being permitted to deliver a speech at York to underline their support for “democracy and the spirit of scholarship.” Pipes’s organization Campus Watch encourages students to spy on professors not in appropriate sympathy with Israel. He has been criticized as leading a campaign of intimidation and smear tactics, yet he is described blandly as the director of a think tank which defines and promotes American interests in the Middle East.

Stein and Gal-Or contend that while both sides use propaganda liberally, the Palestinian side uniquely violates tenets of academic freedom by intimidating Jews and interfering with the right to speak on Canadian campuses. Citing the invitation to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak at Concordia, they refer to Martin Himel’s Global TV “documentary” Confrontation at Concordia to bolster their position. Some observations on this matter are in order.

I recently reviewed another of Himel’s films, Jenin, Massacring Truth, for Nada’s offshoot dialogue group. I was asked to do so because of my expertise in identifying the use of propaganda techniques. A cursory analysis of the film turned up some 50 points of contention, one of them certainly being Himel’s pose as an objective filmmaker “explaining” the criteria by which neutrality, fairness and balance are determined. This is now a common technique, resorted to, for example, by the Fraser Institute in its newsletter On Balance and by the Fox News channel. As Himel himself put it, the objective in this game is to create a “first impression.” This is exactly what his films do, especially with audiences in the dark about the “facts on the ground” and the Palestinian side’s grievances, motives and intentions.

In his film on Concordia, Himel normalizes the invitation to Netanyahu from the Jewish student group Hillel, thereby ignoring what Netanyahu represents not only for Palestinians but also for many Israelis, and for Jews everywhere who favour peace negotiations. Netanyahu is remembered as the demagogue who nearly single-handedly scuttled the Oslo agreements and whose incendiary rhetoric, many believe, led directly to the virulent demonstrations against, and finally the assassination of, Yitzhak Rabin, the hawk turned dove who was his political rival. Even from reading the coverage of the Concordia affair in the Montreal Gazette, one would suspect that Hillel students recognized how provocative the Netanyahu invitation was and undertook it with a “poke-in-the-eye” attitude. So the event cannot be described in neutral terms, especially in light of the self-righteous, unconditional support of the settlers’ movement that both Hillel students and Netanyahu have expressed.

The worst part of these incidents has to be the way religious symbols are turned into political symbols. Stein and Gal-Or refer to people being spat on because they were wearing skullcaps. My observant Jewish colleague in Shalom/Salaam tells a story about a recent visit to the Palestinian territories. At one point, after a talk, the only Jew in the room, he is at first uneasy until a young Palestinian man comments that he has never before seen a Jew wearing a skullcap and not carrying a gun. This is the ultimate tragedy of this new holy war: not only is religion not separated from politics, but it is often deliberately intertwined with it, becoming both a casualty and a weapon of war.

Entrance, stage right

Rosenblum’s use of the term leftist was striking in its dismissiveness. In our dialogue group, an Arab member supports the Iranian revolution. Another member is an observant Jew who despairs that “the people of the book” no longer pray to only one God but today worship a new deity: Israel. Another member is a lifelong Zionist who often shares his perspective of tolerance, which is intertwined with his experience on a kibbutz. For him, Israel was founded on socialist principles, and he is a passionate supporter of its right to exist. A Palestinian woman courageously reaches out to Jewish and Israeli women, forming a coalition to bring peace and reconciliation. She is equally critical of Israeli policies in the occupied territories and of the PLO’s corruption and the duplicitous politics of many Arab governments. A Lebanese member recently lamented that his daughter was hurt by intolerance shown her by Jewish girls who stopped being her friend when they found out she was Arab. Are they all leftists?

Another member lived and taught in Israel for 14 years. He willingly fought in the 1967 war, believing it truly to be a defensive war of survival. But he became dismayed, depressed and highly critical shortly afterward when he noted how quickly and gleefully the Israeli side reneged on its solemn commitment to set an example by not taking advantage of the spoils of war. Is he a leftist? I myself am an admitted agnostic when it comes to Zionism and Judaism. But the prospect of innocent Israelis dying in suicide bombings or as a result of any other fallout deriving from this conflict horrifies me. I have close friends who have children reaching draft age. I fear for them and for what service in the territories will do to them: its dehumanizing effects (on both sides) have been well catalogued. I also feel entirely at home among my Arab friends and colleagues. And I can see no reason why Israel, through neglect or out of spite, should deny basic land and water rights to Palestinians. Am I a leftist?

No doubt the answer to all these questions could be “yes,” leaving the impression, certainly mistaken, that only left-wing Jews hold or should hold these positions. As misbegotten as such assertions are, they are also self-defeating of the cause of peace as they are self-fulfilling of the causes of war and mutual contempt.

The benefits of dialogue

In the wake of the riotous confrontation on the Concordia campus, Shalom/Salaam held a public dialogue in a room famous for exchanges of insults and accusations. Our point was to bring our message of “double empathy” to the campus. We intended, by our example, to create a public space, another kind of holy place in which partisan accusations would be shamed into silence, at least for a moment. As much as this was only one event, it was enormously successful. For what became apparent, as we had hoped, was that an alternative to aggressively and spitefully choosing-up-sides was quickly taken up. In the short time since our intervention, some have noted a marked change: a refreshing openness on the part of traditionally conservative and partisan organizations such as Hillel and the Canada-Israel Committee and expressions of interest in meeting, in a cordial way, with Arabs.

Peace, like war, creates its own justifications. Why deny the right of return to Palestinians a priori, when a frank discussion may reveal that many who do not desire to return to Israel may accept a peace proposal that does not leave the impression that the other side still insists on holding the upper hand? Why not expend energy, as academics, to find common causes rather than irreconcilable differences? Cogent arguments today so often, de facto, favour war. In a period of jingoistic assertions, dialogue, as imperfect and impractical as it may seem, can bring together two peoples, otherwise too unfamiliar with each other, who can then discover reasons to find ways to share, not just land and history but, best of all, each other’s good company. One could dismiss such an outcome as merely the product of wishful thinking and polite talk – except that it is already a demonstrated and practical possibility.

— Stephen Block

The Authors Reply

Dear Inroads editors,

Stephen Block makes quite a few unfounded accusations about me: (1) that I dismiss the “left,” (2) that I am oblivious to Palestinian aspirations and (3) that I dwell on the history of the conflict and abuse that history to justify Israeli occupation. A few words of defence, if I may, and then I will conclude on the central issue.

In regard to the first claim, Mr. Block might be surprised to learn that I have spent all of my political life (more than 30 years) as an active democratic socialist/social democrat. The mainstream left is deeply divided on the Israel-Palestine issue and my views clearly represent one side of that divide.

The second claim is nothing short of preposterous. Since the early 1970s I have been prominently identified with those Zionist forces that felt, for reasons of both justice and stability, that the Palestinian people should have a state of their own alongside Israel. That state should come into being as soon as the Palestinians demonstrate a bona fide commitment to a permanent two-state solution, and Israel should take serious measures to encourage such a future.

Finally, my article only briefly touched on the history of the conflict and was dedicated to understanding why the Oslo peace process failed. While I believe that Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza can end only as a result of a successful peace process, I never have supported the building of Israeli settlements in the territories. That said, almost all of those settlements would have been removed if the Palestinian leadership had of signed on to the Clinton proposal a few short years ago.

Mr. Block asks: why deny the Palestinian “right of return” to Israel a priori? The answer is one that both Palestinian and Zionist moderates living in the region understand perfectly well: because the insistence on it will continue to sabotage the chances of reaching an honourable two-state agreement based on essentially pre-1967 lines. It’s that simple, and not to recognize that is to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

—Simon Rosenblum

The Authors Reply

Dear Inroads editors,

Our article is not a defence of Israel but a plea for the return of democracy, scholarship, civility and respect to campuses. In fact, the name of Block’s group, Shalom/Salaam, is what we seek.

We did not look at “the other side and see lack of reasonableness.” We looked at both sides and used the incidents we did because they represented what actually occurred and not because they arbitrarily supported one side. Rather than baselessly accusing us of “looking at the other side” differently, Block should have provided factual examples from “the other side” that we may have overlooked. Furthermore, our purpose was not to judge the reasonableness of either side, but to categorize the unreasonable behaviour on Canadian campuses and to suggest remedies.

The rhetoric used to discredit Pipes, Netanyahu and Himel mystifies us. Our article is about protecting Block’s right to express such opinions in a civil setting while according others with differing opinions the same right. Our article in no way supports the views of Pipes or Netanyahu. It merely supports their right to be heard. They should not be prevented from speaking on campus, nor should protesters be prevented from protesting peacefully. Protesters cannot operate in a totalistic manner to determine who has the right to free speech.

Whether Himel’s film about Jenin contains propaganda is irrelevant. Neither the documentary nor Jenin is mentioned in our article. Furthermore, we quoted Himel only once and that quotation comes from a newspaper, not a documentary. Anyway, are Himel’s comments only acceptable when Block cites them but not when we do? Himel describes a large anti-Semitic (not anti-Israel) poster carried by Concordia protesters, which had wide media coverage. The only propaganda was the poster’s depiction of the classical libel of the Jewish world conspiracy and control of money. Block’s attempt to discredit Himel rather than deal directly with the quotation is tantamount to shooting the messenger rather than addressing the message.

Block laments religious symbols becoming political symbols regarding the people spat on because they were wearing skullcaps at Concordia. Defending those who spat on Jews because Palestinians in the territories had “never before seen a Jew wearing a skullcap and not carrying a gun” is absurd. This is Montreal! These are university-educated people! Most of them are not even from the Palestinian territories; they are Canadians –carrying a large anti-Semitic poster of a Jew wearing a skullcap but not brandishing a gun.

Briefly, our reply to Block is: “You are missing the point!” Our concern is the lack of a civilized and honest culture of debate on Canadian campuses when it comes to discussing Israel. That’s all.

— Noemi Gal-or and Howard Stein