Politicians can’t solve every problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

May 24, 2017
Trump-NetanyahuPresident Donald Trump Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Journalists and pundits are having a field day with the ironies swirling around President Donald Trump’s dialectic on ending terrorism, delivered last week to the leaders of nearly 50 Muslim nations during his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Not least was his effort to single out Iran as the primary funder and fueler of terror while ignoring Saudi support for a vast network of madrasas teaching Wahhabism, an extremist sect of Islam. Also unmentioned by Trump was a reminder that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers — plus mastermind Osama bin Laden — were from Saudi Arabia, a country one former U.S. ambassador described as the “ideological and financial epicenter” of “theofascism.”  

But there was another more significant omission in Trump’s prescription for combating terror. You can drive out terrorists from a country physically, but how do you drive hatred from their heart? What do you replace it with? 

“Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding and the false allure of their craven ideology will be the basis for defeating them,” Trump said.

The president deployed his vision for combating terrorism mostly through the prism of  “hard power”: a top-down leadership approach that ostensibly involves international diplomacy, military might, policy-making, spying and the international banking system. He’s the American president, after all, and that is his purview.   

But is there an alternative?

Perhaps Trump didn’t want to get too specific about a more grass-roots approach because that would creep too eerily into Saudi funding of madrasas and offend his “gracious hosts.”

But hard power can go only so far. The pursuit of violent conflict and economic warfare does not lay the foundation for a profound cultural shift that would offer viable alternatives to would-be terrorists. Trump himself said he does not wish to “impose our way of life” on any other nation. But in one sense, our way of life — upheld by a liberal education — is exactly what is needed.

When it comes to the world’s most intractable conflicts — and Trump’s framing of the fight against terrorism as a “battle between good and evil” certainly qualifies — hard power must be met with partners in social change.

So let’s pivot to another seemingly insurmountable conflict, the one between Israel and Palestine. Last week, while Trump was en route to the Middle East, a group of scholars and teachers from that region headed to Los Angeles for the conference “Learning the Other’s Past,” organized by Professor David N. Myers, chair in Jewish History at UCLA.

The focus of the conference was an Israeli-Palestinian educational partnership, PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East), which produced a “dual-narrative” textbook teaching Israeli and Palestinian histories “Side by Side,” as the volume is titled.

At a certain point, the creators of the project reasoned, the only way to bridge the chasm that divides Israelis and Palestinians is to expand educational possibilities. Palestinians need to understand the Jewish imperative for statehood in their ancestral land and learn about the Holocaust. Likewise, Israelis need to recognize Palestinian claims to the land and understand how Jewish statehood triggered a Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.” 

Hard power can go only so far. The pursuit of violent conflict and economic warfare does not lay the foundation for a profound cultural shift that would offer viable alternatives to would-be terrorists.

“For me, the theory of change that really resonates most powerfully is bottom-up, people to people, community by community, school to school,” Myers told me. “That’s the kind of work that culture and education and the arts and history can promote in advance, [and which] seems to stitch together the fabric of a meaningful nonviolent coexistence.”

Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can negotiate borders, sovereignty, holy sites and settlements. But no amount of dealmaking can undo the fear, hatred, distrust and resentment that have built up between two peoples for more than a century. Only individual contact with the other side — and The Other’s story — can do that.

It is a shame and a disgrace to “hard power” that both the Israeli Ministry of Education as well as the Palestinian Ministry have banned the dual-narrative textbook from public school curriculums. A daring few are teaching it anyway, as are several other countries. The overwhelming resistance within Israel and Palestine to teaching this broader narrative, one that encompasses multiple perspectives, is a cynical attempt to entrench future generations in a protracted conflict.

It also proves that education is just as threatening as violence: Knowledge can inculcate one-sided, nationalistic ideology or it can unlock human empathy and understanding. A madrasa can be a gateway to God — or hell.   

The process of unraveling a narrow worldview, especially if one’s identity depends upon it, is always fraught.

I asked Myers, an observant Jew and a lover of Israel, what it’s like to sit in conference rooms listening to Palestinians tell stories of Israeli-inflicted pain. How does he hold his love for Israel in the same heart that aches for the suffering on the other side?

“It’s the great challenge of my life,” Myers said. “I wake up in the morning obsessed with the question, and I go to bed at night obsessed with the question. I have a deep, searing, powerful, emotional connection to [Israel], the people, the culture, the language. And yet, it often tortures my soul.”

The only solution is reconciliation, empowering people through knowledge.

The writer Adam Thirlwell teaches that power is “always an assault on individual integrity” and thrives when there is “communal blur.”

If that’s the case, Trump’s words in Saudi Arabia were sadly out of focus.

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