How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: The Importance of Understanding the Other Side if You Truly Want Peace
This guest post is the first of a two-part series about the predominant cultural and historical narratives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, intended to provide insight into frequently held mindsets on both sides. The author, Beirut and Beyond board member Steve Phillips, will be giving a presentation on these issues, the backstory of the land, and the evolution of this conflict at a Beirut and Beyond event on February 22nd. Come hear how the situation today is not a mystery, but has predictably resulted from a combination of factors, and join us in the discussion of a humanitarian response from a Christian perspective. All are welcome, regardless of faith.
For as long as I’ve known it, I’ve never liked the term peacemaking. I’ve never considered myself a peacemaker, or aspired to be one. I’ve also never stopped to ask why, either. But of late, it has occurred to me that perhaps this is simply an issue of semantics. As a lawyer and confessed geopolitics junkie, one thing tends to stand out to me when I observe humans in conflict – not just that they disagree, but that they usually misperceive what the other side means or why it says/does a particular thing. On the global stage, those misperceptions can come with serious gravity. For that reason, I’ve been obsessed with translation – not of language, but of culture, sentiment, and history – as a means to understanding conflicts and a prerequisite to resolving them beneficially. And lately, it occurs to me that perhaps such translation is actually the heart of peacemaking.
But translation is dangerous. In the course of helping one side understand why the other acts as it does, deep suspicions almost always arise about whether the translator or mediator is secretly biased and angling for the other side. The thought develops that if someone isn’t completely, utterly, and without question for your side, then they must be completely, utterly and without question against you and for the other side. This irrational behavior, known as conflict neurosis, prevents people from objectively viewing their situation and leads them to do and say things that they might not do, were they instead looking at things from arm’s length. All of a sudden, a neutral party can become distrusted and even a target.
This happens to people even when they aren’t actually part of the conflict themselves, but nevertheless strongly identify with a particular side, even if the conflict has never personally touched them. So, in my mind, there is no chance for peace between two people, let alone two people groups, until they each begin to understand not the perceived meaning of the words coming from the other side, but also the intended meaning of those words. Equally importantly, they must also learn to understand how the other side perceives their words and actions. The failure to do this tends to start a downward spiral.
Nowhere does this dynamic seem more active and destructive than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And what I’d like offer in this post and the next is my perspective on how each side views the situation and the other side. What follows below is not my own view of the situation, the Palestinians, or the Israelis, but rather my observations about how they appear to view these things. Let’s start with the Israelis; I’ll talk about the Palestinians in the next post.
Israel is a modern state created in 1948 to be a homeland for all people of Jewish ethnicity. Roughly 25% of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish, so here we’re looking at the Jewish Israeli narrative, and to do so properly, you have to go way back…all the way to 77AD. That’s when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, the center of Jewish religious and cultural life. From that time until 1948, others dominated the land. Following the Romans came a long succession of foreign Muslim rulers and European crusaders. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the British ruled. Through all this, Jews never completely vanished from region, but they were widely dispersed across the Western Hemisphere and were only a small minority in their ancient homeland. Then, in 1947, the United Nations partitioned the land, with part set aside for a Jewish homeland, and part for a Palestinian state. For Jews, this was a long-anticipated homecoming to a land few living Jews knew, but almost all venerated as their true home. At every Pesach (Passover), the words “next year in Jerusalem” were spoken with a sense of both loss and hope.
What people often miss here is the importance of what happened to the Jewish people in the 1,870 years before Israel became a state. For centuries, Jews were victims of genocide, social oppression, discrimination, and violent pogroms. Long before the Nazis ever conceived of the Shoah(Holocaust), Jews around the world knew their history as one of a displaced people, unable to return to their ancestral and spiritual homeland, and frequently the most despised and threatened of minority groups in their own lands. So when Hitler and Stalin began their genocides, it was far from the start of Jewish persecution. It was, rather, the culmination of more than one thousand years of persecution.
What lesson did the Jews learn from all this? You are hated. By everyone. When they come to kill you, no one will stand up for you, at least not soon enough. If you want to be safe, you have to do it yourself. You can never, ever rely on anyone else to protect you. Because you know what happens if you do that – you will be wiped from the face of the earth. And all of this for one reason – you are a Jew.
This is why today you hear Israeli politicians speak so frequently of existential threats to their country – because the history of the Jewish people is in some ways written on a parchment of existential threats. So when Israel was formed, it was not only to be a safe refuge for any Jew who wanted to immigrate, but it was quickly viewed as the sole safe refuge, and the absolute number one priority of the State became preserving its own existence. The thinking goes like this: Without Israel, we will never be safe. While there are many threats to us here, it is better for us to brave them than to be citizens of other nations, where we cannot trust the government to protect us from those who would kill us. Therefore, in Israel, the saying “never again” is not mere aspirational language; it is national sentiment, state doctrine, and military creed.
So consider, then, how it might sound to an Israeli Jew (or a non-Israeli one) when foreign leaders say Israel should be wiped from the face of the earth. Or when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat proclaims that, “to Jerusalem we go, martyrs by the millions.” Or when an editorial in an Arab paper threatens Jewish blood running in the streets. For Jewish Israelis, the blood is not theoretical. They hear an existential threat. Period, full stop. They want to kill us, just like almost everyone else in history.End of story.
It doesn’t matter if you or I think Iran, the PLO, or Hamas is or was a true threat to Israel, because there is not really a debate in the Israeli national psyche in these situations: We’ve been there before, in Germany, in Poland, in Russia – and were slaughtered. We’ve fought wars here, where our existence was far from secure, where Egypt, with its massive army, caught us by surprise and nearly had its way. We are not waiting around to discuss the finer points of what was said and what is technically possible for our enemies – we are going to protect ourselves and our state at all costs, until you learn not to threaten it. We are not going to die. We mean business.
There are so many other important dynamics in this conflict, but I think on the Israeli side, there isn’t a dynamic with a stronger and farther reaching effect than this: The mindset that says,we have been in grave danger for centuries and continue to be in grave danger today; we cannot trust anyone else to keep us safe; and we need to be kept safe, because everyone around us would kill us in a heartbeat if they could.
Now, some readers may think, “That’s not true – they aren’t in as that muchdanger – they have an amazing military” or “They have the United States as their ally – they don’t need to worry.” The key thing, though, is how they perceive their situation. It could be accurate or distorted, but it doesn’t matter. Humans make decisions based on how they perceive reality. And for there to be peace in the Holy Land, for there be any reconciliation, it has to start with each side understanding the how its own words and actions are understood through the cultural/historical lens of the other, and how that lens shapes the things the other says and does. Practically speaking, the moral of the story is that if you can’t understand what triggers your enemy, you’ll never know what might be done to get them to back down, to seriously talk peace with you and be truly invested in that process. And you’ll probably just continue to make the problem worse.
Human dynamics like this are universal, so in the coming weeks, I’ll share a similar set of thoughts about the predominant Palestinian narratives.