Ishmael and Isaac: Two Blessings or None

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December 1, 2000
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Stephen P. Cohen

Peace is not the property of one political faction or another. It belongs neither to the left nor to the right. It is not a stick with which one subgroup of Jews can beat another. Peace is not just the political choice of Rabin or Barak.

Peace is the only strategically viable and humane path if Israel is to survive in a land inhabited by two stiff-necked peoples; in a mostly Arab Middle East straining for a vision of its own future; in a global system where there are at best 15million Jews amidst a world where the 1.3 billion Muslims are asserting themselves in history. Those multimillions consist of an explosive majority of young people with no visible hope of a good life, unless good governments chart paths to an affirmative identity based on development rather than a negative identity based on confrontation.

Pragmatism around security issues – cooperation not as choice but as necessity – applies far beyond the literal prevention of a specific act of terror. Its wider application must be understood not only by the Israeli police and army, but the larger world. The United States must develop and deploy the intelligence, knowledge, and information to help willing Arab and Islamic leadership become effective governments that provide the context for these millions of young Arabs and other Muslims (including Iranians, Turks, Pakistanis) to become young men and women with hope and a future of productive work, secure families, and good citizenship. We must do so before attacks are launched.

Israelis and Palestinians: Peace Through Distrust?

  • We could not trust that Palestinian self-interest would sustain them in the pursuit of peace and supersede their desire to do us harm. They could not trust that our self-interest in peace would overcome our belief and practice that our best security lay in controlling them, and therefore we would ever really end occupation.
  • We saw gradual withdrawal as a prudent way of testing their intentions; they saw our tentative often delayed withdrawals as a thin cover for maintaining military control while seizing more land for settlements, and building more roads to better dominate them.
  • We developed our Torah colonialism arousing in them hatred not only of settlers but of their – our – religion; they spewed forth their unique mix of jihad/third world anti-Israel venom, which made us see them first as haters and only secondarily as seekers of a just national existence.
  • We fantasized that they could overlook the military and security controls we would maintain and the chunks of land and water we needed for national consensus; they imagined we could overlook a few incidents of terror here and there, and their constant iteration of our perfidy.
  • We thought we could soft-pedal their basic demands and need for an agreement that would include integrity within their historical narrative; they thought we could soft-pedal their “reservatio mentalis,” their withholding full affirmation that Israel exists not only as a fact of power but as a value of historical justice, as our legitimate national narrative.

We tried hard to cover these deep chasms with written legal agreements, but the Jewish street and the Palestinian street made that impossible. Now we will have to work the slow way, the deeper way, with deeper pain and/or deeper change. A slower, more painful truth within both societies is emerging: we cannot cut corners. Israel cannot have peace and maintain a hidden domination, and independence must mean just that for the Palestinian State; they cannot have peace with Israel and continue to hate the very idea of Israel as a Jewish State.

As active, committed American Jews, we were engaging in a historic mistake. We were constructing a renaissance of American Jewry with only an instrumental relation to Israel. Israel was a venue for an instant inoculation of being Jewish for young American Jews. It was not the core of the living Jewish saga. We were forgetting that Israel carries our name and as such our identity is derived in part by its unfolding story. We were very upset by the pornographic violence caught on CNN. To end the pornography, however, we cannot just stop CNN, we must end the violence itself.

So we reflect in Sh’ma and elsewhere. Too much self-justification, not enough mourning the dead, all the dead. Too much repetition of what we always believed and still do; not enough rededication to doing better and more effectively what we believe must be done; not enough of what we will do to convince others, to talk to others who have different beliefs. Too much analysis of what they did wrong and/or what we did wrong and not enough understanding of this deadly system that we have created together and that we perpetuate together and that we must dismantle together.

We speak too much about what people of the Middle East should change; not enough of what Jews and Muslims and Jewish Americans, Israeli Americans, Palestinian Americans, and Arab Americans must do. We must not import the conflict into the United States. Rather, we must turn our mutual contempt here into a model of how to disagree without hatred, how to work carefully toward respectful pluralism through debate and discussion. We must urge the United States to continue its role as world leader in resolving this conflict and helping the parties do what they must do together.

American Jewry must put Israel and its core problems of living next to the Palestinian nation and with Palestinian Arab citizens at the center of our imagination and efforts. We must be Israel’s partner not only in an acute crisis, but also in resolving chronic crises. Our American Jewish experience of a living pluralism must be brought to the core of the future of Israel. We developed our institutions in a context of much external suspicion and internal differences of opinion; we treat others as rivals while still working with them as coalition partners; we shape a Judaism that enhances the lives of Jews while also maintaining respect of the wider community; we build a consensus for action and not a paralysis of inaction.

Nothing less is worthy of this proud, powerful, and more Jewishly creative community of Jews who are Americans. Israel needs us to be both imaginative and proactive. Our passive yea-saying has not been the best we can offer, to Israel or to America. Let us sanctify our name, Israel, There will be two blessings, one for us and one for the Other, or the curse will fall on us both.

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Dr. Stephen P. Cohen has pioneered Track Two Diplomacy - behind the scenes efforts in bringing Arabs and Israelis together. He founded the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development in 1979 to act as facilitator and private intermediary in peace-making and peace-building, and has served as its President ever since. He also currently serves as the National Scholar of the Israel Policy Forum. Dr. Cohen served as a behind-the-scenes confidant of Moshe Dayan and President Sadat in the launching of the peace process. He created the first secret official negotiations between Israel and the PLO years before Oslo. Dr. Cohen comments regularly on Middle East affairs on radio, television, and in newspapers.

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