Unclenching the Fist

By Danny Iny

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like most others, is adversarial. The issues involved raise a barrier between the two sides (sometimes metaphorical and ideological, sometimes very real and physical). We deal with the ‘enemy’ when necessary, but it’s always impersonal and generalized. It’s never ‘Walid’, always ‘the Palestinian from the village’, never ‘Tomer’, always ‘the soldier at the checkpoint’. No names, no faces, only uniforms and keffiyehs with an increasingly sinister expression. Epithets and stones are hurled over the barrier, and we shake our collectively clenched fist in a gesture of frustration and refusal to just go away.

“What do you expect,” an Israeli might ask, “what other choice do we have? They blow up our children, shoot at commuters going to work. They raise their children to hate us.”

“What do you expect,” a Palestinian might ask, “what other choice do we have? We were thrown off our land, made into refugees, and look, the settlements continue to grow.”

The Palestinian and Israeli repeat their litanies, standing on opposite sides of a barrier and impotently shaking their fists. Neither hears the other, and does not understand why he himself isn’t heard. An observer might wonder how anything can be expected to change.

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Dialogue is important. It’s important because conflict is, by its very nature, adversarial, and “you can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.” (Indira Gandhi) Dialogue is how we can unclench our fists and sit down to work out our differences.

Dialogue isn’t easy. Speaking from experience, I can say that it involves a lot of work and a lot of disappointment. It requires tedious effort like doing research to back up facts that you know are true, but that won’t be taken at face value without a citation. It means that your paradigms and values will be challenged on a regular basis, and that you will have to examine them rationally and respond in a way that makes sense to the person you’re talking to; this can be a frustrating, unsettling and exhausting experience. You will engage in a long process, during which you will think you’re getting someone to understand your point of view, and that you’re developing a common language. You will risk offending the beliefs and values of your dialogue partner, and your own values and beliefs will be offended. On more than one occasion you will discover that your partner hasn’t been brought anywhere, and neither have you; you’ve both humored each other, hoping to use it as a vehicle to get your point across, and at the end of the road you realize that you’re right back where you started.

Given all of these realities – and idealistic as you, or I, may be, you must recognize that they are realities – it’s easy to wonder whether dialogue is worth the effort. In fact, I have often heard the argument that dialogue is not only unhelpful, but detrimental; that it involves recognition and empowerment of someone who may be decidedly hostile to your beliefs, that it creates a moral equivalency between two sides that are not morally balanced, and finally that it is simply a waste of time, that nothing will come of it.

Despite all of the trials that are a part of dialogue, I sharply disagree with the above statements. While dialogue involves personal recognition of someone whose views are different from your own, this in no way changes the fact of their existence or the persistence of their beliefs. The argument that dialogue creates moral equivalency, part of the larger idea that ideological concessions must be made just to create a common language, is simply false. In all of my experience talking about these issues with people who disagree with me, I have never (to my knowledge) given anyone the false impression that I agree with a position or argument, when in fact I don’t; learning to respect someone else’s moral arguments does not necessarily make them equivalent to your own. I have never been forced away from any ideal of what I feel is right, and while I sometimes felt that my ideological center had lost its anchor, it has always been a temporary sensation that passed once I had mentally worked out and assimilated the new ideas and arguments that I had heard into my own way of seeing the situation.

The greatest benefit of dialogue is insight; insight into the arguments, feelings and ideologies of the other side. It is the feelings and ideologies that are especially valuable, which – unlike the arguments – are much harder to glean from other sources. Dialogue also leads to another type of insight: insight into one’s own beliefs and values. Having to explain and defend your point of view means that you have to examine and refine everything you believe. In the process you will come to understand most of your beliefs much better than you previously did. You will also come across some positions that you will discover do not make sense, regardless of how strongly you may feel about them. These beliefs will be discarded; this is for the best.

There is also the benefit of friendship, which is often found hiding in unexpected places. A good case in point is Fadi, who I met at a lecture given by Ali Abuneimah about a one-state solution. We began meeting to debate the issues raised in the lecture, and even though we’ve outgrown (some of) those issues, we continue to debate every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the process have discovered a plethora of unrelated common interests and built a foundation of mutual understanding and respect. We both recognize that while we may not agree with the other, there is usually a logical consistency there that cannot be turned on its head by a slogan or sound-byte, and that cannot be summed up in a simple caricature. We grow less and less confident of our ability to sway the other’s ideology (though we both maintain hopes that the other guy will eventually come around), but we continue to debate the issues. The debate is always respectful and friendly, and at the very least, it provides insight into the mentality of the other side, and helps us each refine and clarify our own positions.

Most important is the practical benefit of steps taken towards a resolution to this conflict. With every dialogue partner, I rediscover the extent to which people are only familiar with their part of the conflict; be it their heritage as refugees, their family’s memories of the Holocaust, their experiences living in the Arab world or as activists here in North America. They know their position and history, and know it well, but it’s a small part of the whole picture, and this conflict won’t be resolved without addressing all of its constituent parts. If we don’t talk to people who disagree with us, then forget about addressing these other points of view – we won’t even know that they exist! On the bright side, increased understanding expands exponentially in a sort of ripple-effect, as we pass on our new insights to the people around us and they do the same. And in this era of communication times measured in milliseconds, the ripples can travel very far and very fast.

Clearly, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. That said, however, the drawbacks are almost assured, while the benefits most definitely aren’t. This is because a failed dialogue is much easier, requiring much less effort, creativity and flexibility, than a successful one.

So what are the ingredients of productive dialogue? Respect, genuine curiosity and patience, in that order. Without respect, you will get nowhere. Many people will talk at you, regardless of how you feel about them, but almost nobody will talk with you if you don’t show respect. If people feel that you’re only talking to them to make a point, then they will do the same. Similarly, if you’re not genuinely curious and interested in understanding what someone else believes, they will usually pick up on it, and most people don’t appreciate this type of manipulation. Moreover, given the uncertain, difficult and frustrating nature of any process that aims to change someone else’s mind, you’re likely to end up disappointed. Finally, patience. Dialogue is not an event, it’s a process, and – as stated above – it’s a lengthy one. So as not to get discouraged, one must recognize, from the outset, that building the trust and respect that dialogue requires takes time, and coming to grips with point of views that are jarring to your world view takes even more time. Such is the cost of doing business.

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As I’ve said, dialogue isn’t easy. In my view, though, anyone who is passionate about this conflict – and claims to want to see the conflict resolved – but refuses to participate in dialogue, is either fooling themselves or the people that they’re talking to; that is, either they don’t really want the conflict resolved (and I don’t believe many people fall into this category), or they are deluded by the adolescent fantasy that the other side will eventually give up, go away or be completely overrun. Ironically, this fantasy is also a result of not engaging in dialogue with the other side; if you don’t know what the other side believes or why they believe it – if you only know your own narrative’s caricature of the ideology of the other side – then you are unlikely to see any logical consistency in the ideologies of those who disagree with you. It wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility, if this were in fact true, for everyone on the other side to simply wake up one morning, and realize they are wrong. They would lay down their arms, write a collective letter of apology, and all remaining differences would be quickly resolved.

This hasn’t happened in the last hundred years, and I’m willing to bet it won’t happen in the next hundred, either. We might infer that either the Jews or the Palestinians are, for the most part, collectively insane or exhibit some racially systemic moral bankruptcy. Such a conclusion, of course, is not only wrong, but also incredibly racist and patronizing. More likely, there is some merit to the arguments of more than one side.

The only way for us to find the merit to these arguments is dialogue.