From Prophecies of War to Possibilities of Peace: Building Bridges Between Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians

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By Julia Chaitin

No going back: Letters to Pope Benedict XVI on the Holocaust, Jewish-Christian Relations & Israel.

Carol Rittner and Stephen D Smith (Editors) 2009. Quill Press.


The past, as we know, is an inseparable part of us; it ties us to the histories of our family, our nation, and our people.  The past is etched in our genes, helping make us who we are, or what we might become. It contains potentials for making us great singers or leaders, or for hating others because their religion or ethnicity differs from ours. The past not only affects our physical health, such as whether we are at high risk for heart disease, but also our psychological health, such as whether we will carry within us scars of trauma experienced by our great grandparents, grandparents or parents, who were victimized by others, or whether we will harm others, as perhaps our elders did. The past can steer us toward destructive ends, but also provides roots for development and new beginnings. The past does not determine what our futures must be, but it often has a clenching hold on us from which we must struggle to be free.

We Jewish-Israelis love to invoke our pasts. Every year, during our holidays and holy days, we ‘remember’ our escape to freedom from ancient Egypt where we were enslaved; our dispersal in the Diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple, and our expulsion from Christian Spain in 1492.  The Holocaust, our most traumatic past, is part of everyday Israeli discourse – we are constantly reminded of the horror, and how the only way to ensure our survival is by remaining militarily strong. Our numerous Israeli wars have supported this notion, and they too, are repeatedly remembered and commemorated

Our past makes living securely in the present and envisioning a trauma-free future, difficult. Too often, we Jewish-Israelis often (re)act to events as though we were still living in that past. Our collective memory, reinforced by our fear-based discourse of our past, colors the way we view all ‘others’. And so, we do not separate Palestinians from those who persecuted us and nearly succeeded in destroying us long ago. We conflate the Palestinians with past perpetrators who held great power over us when we were stateless, unwanted in our Diaspora ‘homelands’.

Due to fear of annihilation, we perceive Qassam and Grad rockets (which have killed people, and terrorize and harm hundreds of thousands of innocent people living within their range), as an existential threat. In our legitimate fear of these immoral attacks, we ‘forget’ that we have one of the strongest armies on earth, that has harmed millions of Palestinian people who, like us, have done no wrong. We ‘forget’ that this conflict has two sides that are suffering. And while we are acutely aware that Palestinians must bear their responsibility for keeping this war going, we ‘forget’ that we must bear our heavy responsibility as well.

By not untangling these different conflicts/persecutions, we engage in poor decision-making, and become enmeshed in a highly emotional cycle of fear and hate. Instead of employing higher-level mental capabilities to find a sustainable resolution to this conflict, we react from our ‘hot’ emotional system that is triggered by fear and that responds with anger and aggression. We believe that all Christians and Muslims are against us. We hold the skewed perception that our neighbors are only evil and will never accept us as partners in this land.  This leads us to build separate roads and to erect walls that create ghettos not only for them, but for us as well (albeit, larger ghettos with fewer restrictions). It leads us to legislate laws that prohibit us from being able to cross the borders and meet over coffee. This fear-based conflation leads us to separate, yet ever-connected existences that are consistently re-rooted in deindividuation and dehumanization of the other.

This destructive cycle is etched into our personal, familial, and collective lives. We Jewish Israelis see ourselves as the perpetual victims, who continually live in a danger zone. As characteristic of people suffering from post-traumatic symptoms, we remain hyper-vigilant, always on the look-out for the enemy, whose only wish is to drive us into the sea or disperse us among the nations of the world, making us into unwanted wanderers on this earth.

We have become human self-fulfilling prophecies, which further entrap us in the vicious cycle of fear, hatred and war.

If this is our ‘legacy’, how do we build bridges of co-existence with the Palestinians? How do we move from fixation on victimization, toward a complex understanding of ourselves and our ‘others’ that holds the potential for a more peaceful, less frightening future? How do we move from distrusting all others, who are not “us,” to viewing them as potential co-creators of this future?

The key to this change is rooted in the human mind, spirit and soul. All people possess innate needs and drive to create community and to be part of a larger collective that gives meaning and purpose to life. Aggression is only half the picture of humanity; the needs to connect, to create and grow are also part of who we all are, regardless of the haunting realities we have lived. The question, therefore, is what actions can facilitate the movement and growth we so badly crave?

The answer is through dialogical communication; people-to-people processes rooted in justice and equality; and tenacity, especially during the darkest of times.

When considering communication, we find that people talk, a lot; however we rarely listen. We engage in numerous and complex verbal and non-verbal behaviors, but this communication is often poorly disguised monologue, as we tend to be caught up in what we are saying or in mentally phrasing the biting response to the other’s ‘nonsense.’  We are veteran, yet failed communicators, with little experience of truly being in dialogue.

Dialogue, that addresses the crux of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in honest and brave ways, is crucial for conflict resolution and reconciliation, especially given that we two peoples have been caught up in rhetoric, not conversation, for decades. One powerful kind of dialogue that can cut through the strongest barriers of hate and fear is the dialogue of personal storytelling and reflection. This is a dialogue that empowers both speakers and listeners, for it encourages confrontation with the most difficult of issues in a way that supports joint honesty, complexity, sharing, reflection, growth and creativity. It is a dialogue that offers the hope of eventual acceptance and forgiveness, for once people share the tales of their lives with their ‘enemy’ – a depth of understanding becomes possible that had been previously hidden by rhetoric and misunderstandings.

When Israelis and Palestinians speak with one another about their day-to-day experiences, and reflect on the meanings these experiences have for them, they begin to reach new perspectives on this ‘intractable’ conflict that evade communication that is stymied in positions and interests. By offering Israelis and Palestinians opportunities to share the stories of their lives, the ‘other’ becomes more of a person, less of an enemy; the ‘other’ becomes a potential neighbor, not only an ‘occupier’ or ‘terrorist.’  Dialogue may ‘only’ begin as words, but it has the power to become new ways of living. Dialogue cannot ultimately solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but it is essential for its true resolution.

For such dialogue to succeed on the social, as opposed to purely interpersonal, level, it needs to occur in widespread, long-term people-to-people grassroots endeavors. This means that we Jewish-Israelis must meet, again and again and again, with our Palestinian neighbors, in joint activities that have relevance for both peoples. We need to repeatedly see that there are people on the other side who are partners in this process, who do not yearn for our destruction, and who are committed to joint peace-building actions. These people-to-people processes must strive to engage as many people as possible: old and young, men and women, religious and secular, right wing and left wing, professionals and laborers, rural and urban dwellers, everyone. We need to create many opportunities to bring people together in endeavors that speak to their needs, promise full involvement, and no manipulation. We need to harness the many civil society organizations that exist, to work together, and to offer counter solutions to the military ‘solution’ that has so miserably failed us.

Finally, in order to put our pasts to rest, and to co-create this new reality, we need tenacity and inner strength not to give up, even during military operations and terror attacks, and changing Israeli and Palestinian governments that lack the courage to take the necessary steps toward a just peace. We need resolve, but we cannot do it alone.

Your Eminence, we need your help. We need you to put out the clear call to Roman Catholic leaders and followers throughout the world to directly support us in these endeavors, so crucial for our survival. We need you, Your Eminence, to commit the Church to working together with us on these initiatives so that we ALL – Christians, Jews and Muslims – can become freed from our dark pasts and become human self-fulfilling prophecies of peace.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What specific roles can the Roman Catholic Church play in furthering peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians?
  2. How can the Roman Catholic Church, with Pope Benedict XVI at its helm, build bridges of peace between Catholics and Jewish-Israelis?
  3. Is there a way to get past the animosities of the past between Jews and Catholics? What are the obstacles and what are possible ways for overcoming these challenges?
  4. How can civil society and grassroots initiatives further dialogue between Jews and Catholics, in Israel and abroad?

Recommended Reading:

Bar-On, D. (editor). Bridging the Gap: Storytelling as a way to work through political and collective hostilities. Hamburg: Korber-Stiftung.

Bickerton, I.J. & Klausner, C.L. (2006) History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, A (5th Edition). Prentice Hall.

Buber, M. (1996). I and Thou. New York: Touchstone.

Rosenberg, M.B. (2005). Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.

Julia Chaitin, Ph.D.
Dept. of Social Work – Sapir Academic College and
The Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development