21 August 2007

21 August 2007 - 40 years of failed dialogue

I’m often complaining that discussions among human rights groups tend to be one-sided, moralistic, and inimical to an exploration of the fundamental issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be better, I often argue, to adopt an approach more geared towards conflict resolution and dialogue. I was reminded yesterday that such discussions can be just as unproductive than the confrontational kind.

The Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture—in which I’ve recently published a quirky article about the “Northern Ireland option”—held a discussion yesterday on Jerusalem. The focus was the history of the city’s development in the forty years since “reunification,” and the prospects for the future. One speaker was Palestinian, the other Israel, but they disagreed on little.

The Palestinian speaker, a filmmaker, began by saying that she cared deeply about the city, then launched into a distorted, almost comical account of Israeli intentions in 1967, claiming that Ben-Gurion wanted to destroy of the Old City and fly the Israeli flag above the Dome of the Rock. (She was later corrected by an audience member, who pointed out that Ben-Gurion was not in power in 1967 in any case.)

Her basic argument was that Israel has succeeded in creating physical “facts on the ground,” such as the security barrier and Jewish neighborhood (she called them “settlements”) in East Jerusalem. However, she claimed that Israel had failed in its alleged effort to control Palestinian demography. The wombs of Palestinian women, she suggested, had defeated Israeli efforts to make the city Jewish instead of Arab.

Despite her “care” for the city, this speaker seemed to see the future of Jerusalem as a kind of zero-sum population game. No doubt, there are Israelis who feel the same, and this mutually impoverishing vision has indeed driven Israeli policy in the city for quite some time. But she seemed locked into the confrontation, even suggesting that any Palestinian culpability in the conflict was a response to Israeli actions.

The Israeli speaker, a former Knesset member, promised to be “extremely brief” but then spoke for about twice as long as her Palestinian counterpart. She argued that the integration of the city had, paradoxically, reinforced its inequalities; and that now, Israel was attempting to divide the city in order to maintain Jewish demographic supremacy. Jews and Arabs, she claimed, never interact as equals.

I found her presentation stunning in its denialism. What Jerusalem is she living in? I wondered. Not the integrating Jerusalem of today. Also, the issue of inequality is a red herring. When two populations with unequal resources interact after being separated from one another, there might well be greater inequality, but the real question is whether the more disadvantaged group benefits in absolute terms.

Here I think there is no doubt that life in East Jerusalem is much better today that it was 40 years ago. Things have undoubtedly changed for the worse in the part of East Jerusalem that lies beyond the security barrier, but that is not, as both speakers assumed, part of a demographic plot. Rather, it is an unfortunate feature of an anti-terror strategy that has improved life in this city immeasurably.

Not once did either speaker mention the terrible impact of suicide bombings in the 1990s and especially in the second intifada, and how the hated security barrier had restored calm and optimism to Jerusalem. I had the feeling that both of them were simply of an earlier generation, one that had come of age in a simpler time of more comfortable moral certainties and that had failed to grapple with today’s challenges.

Both speakers mentioned that Jerusalem has become a poorer and more religiously extreme city, but neither of them identified any real causes or solutions. It occurred to me that the city’s economy would recover if more secular, skilled people started moving back, and that encouraging them to do so might only require simple (though controversial) changes like allowing public transport to run on Saturdays.

The most constructive idea I heard—and it was one that nearly everyone else in the room disliked—was the idea of giving sovereignty over the city’s holy sites to God, and having them be governed by a council of religious representatives. The woman who suggested this idea took it to fanciful extremes, but it struck me that a bicameral council that dealt with mundane matters in a lower chamber could work.

Overall, the discussion was a failed dialogue between people of a mostly left-wing persuasion who actually disagreed deeply on fundamental issues but struggled to maintain a façade of consensus. I left feeling rather disillusioned, imagining that what the city really needed was visionary leadership that was sensitive to the different communities and willing to do what is needed to make the place work.

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