There are few subjects in American politics that stir the passions as much as the turmoil in Israel and her troubled existence in the Middle East. Israel’s history and the history of the Jewish people are so fraught with pain and terror that their situation is not like just any other. Jews have suffered centuries of persecution in Spain, England, Germany, Russia, back through the Middle Ages, back through time before Greece and Rome, even unto the Babylonian Captivity and Masada. All this history ultimately has led in our own century to the Holocaust, a horror matched in history perhaps only by Stalin’s purges of 20 million of his own subjects. All these centuries were therefore the explanation for, justified the need for, the establishment of a Jewish homeland and these facts make the case for such a homeland a special one, unlike any other. It is a case that is rooted in suffering and the support for it is passionate, driven at least by the desire to insure that such suffering does not happen again. There is also an echoing refrain, down through time, that Jews are separate, that no one else will defend them when the chips are down, and that they must defend themselves because they are alone.
On the other side, in the very area of this new Jewish state, Islamists have experienced a wave of people coming in to crowd them out of the territory that they have lived upon for 700 years and they are caught up in an endless search for artifacts, pots, ruined walls and stories from ancient times which will establish priority of title. Islamists see, in addition, that their way of life is wholly threatened by the package of western values which the Jews seem to them to represent, a package that is being implanted in their midst, forcefully, as they see it, at the point of a gun. Many Islamists believe that western commercialism, unbridled sexuality in public places, glorified individuality running to indulgence and selfishness, worship of false gods encapsulated in plastic, steel, and chrome, are all a kind of idolatry. They see western fascination with success in this life, rampant individuality, the lack of communal solidarity all as a threat to the teachings of Mohammad. They also believe that fundamentalist Christian crusaders, as in the 11th Century, this time using Jews as their front line, are invading their homeland, and once again, it is Muslims against the world. Or, that is, Islamists who would preserve the old ways, even like the Jews, feel separate and alone.
Survival of each culture and therefore all the people within those cultures seems to be at stake, and the case for the defense of each is a case to ward off extinction. Both sides make the case, therefore, with great passion.
Jews at one time in Western Europe were among the most learned in the whole of a feudal culture. The philosopher Maimonides laid the foundation for Thomas Aquinas, for example, and Jews were among the most sophisticated in finance and trade, laying the basis for modern capitalism. At the same time, it was through the libraries of Islam, the scholars and philosophers of Egypt and North Africa, that the works of Aristotle and Plato were carried up to Europe, or that is, it was through Islam that much of the wisdom of ancient learning was preserved and saved until a barbarous European feudalism could awaken and catch up.
Each of these two great cultures therefore played a brilliant role in the continuation of all that we have come to admire as civilized. The literature of Homer and the philosophy of Plato came to us down through Islamic scholars, the foundation stories of Adam and Eve, King Solomon, the rule of law, down through Jewish literature. Our society, our wisdom, our mythology, our law, our spirituality, would not be what it is today without both of these two traditions and therefore, again, to defend one or the other has the appearance of being a defense of civilization itself. The stakes seem very high.
As a result, when today, some commentator defends Hezbollah or Hamas he may be declared morally bankrupt by defenders of Israel and when another observer defends the Likud he may be called morally bankrupt by defenders of the Arabs. Increasingly, opponents or criticizers are not merely considered wrong, they are likened unto evil. That is the function of the word “terrorist.” It turns opponents from social reformers into evil doers who may be attacked without referring to law or process. Terrorists, in Bush-era parlance, are people whom it is all right to kill or jail or torture without due process. They are outside the law. It is not surprising, therefore, that both sides in the current dispute label the other as terrorists which brings with it a license to kill. Thus Ahmadinejad in Iran calls for the total elimination of Israel, and Israel justifies blowing up whole buildings of civilians in order to wipe out a few Hezbollah.
[If you come to see my play tonight, “A Nation Deceived,” in which Ed Asner will star, you will see how this same progression has unfolded at the highest levels of American leadership. The play is a drama related, of course, to all that is going on in Iraq and Iran. Ed Asner will play the lead, an old Colorado lawyer arguing for the tradition of law rather than the unbridled rights of government to attack. This is tonight and tomorrow, at El Museo, at 7:30 PM.]
We are in a season therefore when no one listens to anyone very well, when positions have hardened under the crust of details, recitations of facts piled upon histories of insult and horror, like layers of topsoil over the shale, over the bedrock, above the Vishnu Shist at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Someone wrote to me explaining Jewish history since 1213 BC, which was to him the Vishnu Shist. Someone else writes detailing the human rights abuses of the Israeli government jailing hundreds of prisoners indefinitely. Both sides want to present to me and to you, “the facts,” or “the truth,” as if to find that Vishnu Shist, the deep down layers of evidence that will settle everything. Everyone already knows something and everyone has an opinion that makes it hard to hear any other opinion.
Conversation on this subject therefore seems hemmed in by what we already know rather than driven by any need to explore what we do not know. Typically, we are not having dialogues about the future so much as lectures from the past. We are not bent on solving the dilemmas of water and housing, health care and security for both Israelis and Arabs so much as determining who has done what to whom and therefore the right, and the absolute necessity, to retaliate. The writer who presents the map of the area in 1213 BC wishes to make the case in terms of property rights, derived from original possession. The writer who presents the case against human rights violations wants to make the case in terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or UN resolutions. Neither writer is free; both are trapped in word prisons which prevent them from seeing new. Both are captured by their stories.
When I was a negotiator, mediator, in a war of ethnic cleansing in Armenia/Azerbaijan, in the 1990s, my team was one day led into the office of the VP of Armenia. He was a tall, good-looking man, and his office was quite magnificent. Crimson curtains, telephones everywhere, desks and long conference tables. The Vice President sat us down at one of these long tables and proceeded to explain to us the history of Armenia. He began in 340 AD. “These first churches were in Armenia,” he said proudly. “You can see them still down the road in Echmiadzin.” The Romans attacked these early Armenians for their apostasy and Christian superstition, but the Armenians held on. Down through the centuries they held on, serially, against the Romans, the Turks, the Russians, the Turks again in 1915 until finally, in the 1990s, the Azerbaijanis were now attacking them again, attempting genocide once more. This recitation of the whole history of Armenia took over three and one half hours. Our team sat quietly and listened, hour after hour. I have no doubt that every word that we heard was true. It was the same as the recitations of facts given today by Israelis and Palestinians, detail by detail, century by century and all these recitations may be true, though seldom is any of them complete.
Two weeks later, our negotiating team was in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. These two countries had been at war for about six years. Bloody stories of bombings and orphans and the wounded and homeless were all about us. Our team then received a call from the Vice President of Azerbaijan who had heard that we had met with the Vice President of Armenia. Would we come, please, immediately, to his office in the great government building at the top of the hill. We went there. We sat in another great chamber with crimson curtains and long tables and now another vice president told us the story of his people, how over the centuries they had never been accepted by intellectuals anywhere, how they had been attacked serially by the Iranians, the Russians, the Armenians, how they were poets and peaceful people, beleaguered on all sides and how the Armenians were now committing genocide against them. Again, I have no doubt that every word that we heard was true, and again, never completely true.
These facts, these histories, are often, as in the Middle East today, not only proof of identity and claims of right, they are also, tragically, a barrier to listening, or to learning, or to looking creatively for solutions. To understand that, one must acknowledge a little of the research from those who study conflict and conflict resolution, such as professor Lee Ross, out at Stanford University.
Professor Ross says, and I agree with him, that there is a progression of steps that conversations go through, from first dialogue all the way to the place where we describe the other side as evil.
1. Offer my opinion, because you are like me and reasonable.
2. Restate my opinion
3. Repeat my opinion, raise my voice. Shout. Increase the intensity.
4. Determine that you are corrupt, self interested, because you do not agree.
5. Declare the other fellow Evil. Be prepared to eliminate him.
Now the advantage of the story to the Armenians and the Azeris over the years has been, and is, that they do not have to go through the stages of conversation to reach the conclusion that the other side is evil. They can leap to step five immediately. And that is what has happened with the dialogue over Israel and the future of the Middle East. When a person weighs in with an opinion on Israel, or the Palestinians, both sides will at first try to judge whether that opinion is favorable or hostile. To be neutral is usually thought to be hostile. When one is identified as hostile, in the terrible situation of the Middle East today, advocates can jump to the fifth stage and declare any neutral or hostile person evil, meaning that the person ought to be eliminated.
One time I was in a negotiation in Tbilisi, then Soviet Georgia. The Georgians had suffered an attack by Soviet troops in the central square of Tbilisi. They were outraged and everywhere I went Georgians explained to me with fire in the eyes, that Russians were evil. Over a three-day period we sat in a bleak room with our coats and sweaters piled on. The heat was off, the windows were thin and we were in the midst of a brutal winter. Our team sought in our own ways to direct the attention of the Georgian revolutionaries to the needs of the people, for water, for stability, even for heat. At the end of one particularly long session when I thought to myself that I had been especially eloquent about the dangers of war and the tragedy of choosing violence over process, the leader of the rebel party leaned over to me and said, “Yes, Craig, all that is very nice. But what about justice and revenge?”
And so, in pursuit of justice and revenge, the Georgians went on and had their civil war and a great many people died. But in the end, someone had to come back to the table again and propose to make the parliament function, because only through discussion and process can real social healing occur. That of course is the role of parliaments, to bring opposing sides to the table, to find some alternative to riots in the streets. Parliaments do not assume agreement and harmony; to the contrary, they are premised upon the axiom that we are not in harmony and must find an alternative way to resolve conflict than to simply unleash the terrorists. The whole evolution of democracy is an evolution of non-violence, a recognition of the limits of violence. Eventually, after a bloody interlude, the Georgians came to understand this and have re-affirmed their process and set aside the false hope of justice and revenge at the point of a gun.
It is this lack of respect for the efficacy of process, this giving up on process which has driven both Israel and Hamas and Hezbollah to war. Both can recite grievances at great length that have been done to them, and both have national and religious stories which justify exactly what they are doing. As a negotiator, I have tended for the most part to stay out of these long iterations of who did what to whom in 1213 BC or in 340 AD. I have never found them of much use. Instead, sometimes I let them vent for awhile and then ask, “Well, it is your war. How is it working?” When the bombs are falling, the lights are off, the heat is off, that is a pretty useful question. War does not turn the lights on. War destroys the lights. Sooner or later someone catches on and then they begin to talk.
There are two kinds of language in these talks. One is the language of legal rights and war to enforce these rights. The right to make preemptive attacks, falls in this category. Israelis urge this right. The right to have 600 prisoners released falls into this category. Muslims urge that right. They say they are held illegally and tried using force to try to free them. The right to build new settlements; the right to have an independent Palestinian state; the right to have a Jewish state; the right to a Middle East without a Jewish state, all fall into this category. These rights discussions are usually debated in terms of the facts. They might be facts about who came first, as in 1213 BC, or lived here for 700 years before World War I, or who committed which atrocities first and who therefore has what rights which flow from these horrors. Rights, facts to support those rights, and war to enforce those rights, go together as a bundle.
These are the terms of most of the debate today and for the most part, couched in these terms, the outcome is a rule established by force. The outcome is as apt to last as long as those enforcing it have the power to do so, and the outcome is subject to the weaknesses of any solution imposed by force. Any outcome created in this manner will last about as long as any empire might last. Give it a couple of centuries. Such solutions are never permanent.
The other language of discussion might be in terms of healing, or compassion. It is a language curiously missing from the Middle East debate. Instead, both sides are concentrating on using force to establish rights permanently.
I spent four years in discussions about who had a right to a certain territory within Azerbaijan which was mostly inhabited by Armenians. The territory, called Ngorno Karabakh, might be independent, might belong to Azerbaijan, might belong to Armenia. For four years representatives of the two countries debated, negotiated, discussed rights of refugees and rights to return. For four years we made no progress. It was all about rights. War had ravaged the region and ethnic cleansing occurred, driving every Armenian out of Azerbaijan and every Azeri out of Armenia. The claims to own and control the territory were endless and the histories, as I have said, went back to 340 AD. We learned a great many facts and legal theories. One side said that the controlling law was that part of the famous Helsinki Accords which said that every people shall have a right to self determination. “It is the law,” said the Armenians, supporting their brethren in Karabakh. The other side argued that the Helsinki Accords established the supremacy of the principle of territorial integrity; no country should have its boundaries changed. “It is the law,” they said as they claimed Karabakh. Both sides relied upon international law, and both were right. So no progress was made.
Then one year we began to look at who was really at the table. One was a head of an environmental institute. Another was a playwright. Another was a physicist. Another a journalist, another a member of the Armenian parliament, another a representative of the president’s office in Azerbaijan. When the conversation turned from what rights they had, or their countries had, and they began to focus on how they could work together on air pollution control, or addressing the traumas of children shocked by war, or schools, or physics exchanges, suddenly there was a breakthrough. They did not ever solve the problem of how to deal with Ngorno Karabakh politically. But they did begin to work together. Suddenly the negotiations became fruitful.
The key was the shift from rights based discussions to the question of “Is there any useful thing we can do together, whatsovever?” When they began to look to the future and to their real, personal problems and the abilities which each of them claimed, the whole atmosphere changed from debate to collaboration. It took four years to get to that point. But when that point was reached, collaboration was possible.
The issues between Israel and her neighbors include boundaries, refugees, settlements, work permits, corruption, broken promises, religious expectations, terror and retribution, to name only a few. War is too blunt an instrument to parse out and address one by one such a puzzle; bombs and rockets do not weigh subtle differences, address trade offs, or explore alternatives. War controls territory, yes, and that’s about it. But war does not control, and cannot, the stories in people’s minds that tell them who they are and why they are here. When the stories say that the other side is evil it is the stories that are the problem, not the boundaries. War is wholly incapable of resettling refugees, establishing work permits, addressing political corruption in Palestine, healing broken promises, discovering religious similarities or even remotely addressing the stories of mistrust and betrayal. We have work to do to rebuild civilization and militarization is not the same thing. If we are building, we cannot build a house with a jack hammer.
I do think that there is a natural exhaustion that occurs when people are at war and eventually people of good will in each camp are apt to come to the table. There will be a new Camp David or a new Oslo process and it will eventually turn the lights back on because these long term conversations are the only thing that can build discrimination between what is serious and what is minor, between what is legal and what is demanded by the heart. Only conversation can discover goodness in the other and only process therefore, peaceful process, is likely to bear fruit in the Garden of Eden once more.