Must Israelis and Palestinians Recognize Each Other’s Narratives to Achieve Peace?

In Northern Ireland, political peace was achieved without social reconciliation and integration. Is the latter necessarily a prerequisite for the former in the Israeli-Palestinian case? A Torah portion offers some wisdom.

Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor
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A paramilitary mural is seen on a wall in East Belfast in Northern Ireland, October 20, 2015.
A paramilitary mural is seen on a wall in East Belfast in Northern Ireland, October 20, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor

An Israeli, a Palestinian, a Swede and two former Northern Irish militants walk into a room. This is not the beginning of a joke, but that of a session in Belfast that I attended as part of an executive leadership program. The program brings together mid-career Israelis, Palestinians and international diplomats stationed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to learn about negotiation theory. And while its meetings generally take place in Jerusalem, the highlight of the year-long program is a trip to Northern Ireland to hear first-hand about the lessons learned from various stakeholders in peace processes.

What struck me about the Northern Ireland model was that despite having signed a political agreement in 1998 to end the violence, the country remains heavily divided, with greater segregation (and more “peace walls”) after the peace accord was signed than before. Professor John Brewer of Queen's University made a useful distinction between negative and positive peace. Negative peace takes shape with a political arrangement that transforms the conflict and leads to the absence of violence. Positive peace involves introducing elements of fairness, equality and justice that transforms society and ultimately leads to social reconciliation and integration. While the Northern Irish achieved a political solution that put an end to violence, they are far from securing the reconciliation and integration necessary for positive peace.

Netanyahu and Abbas. Credit: AP

Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland still faces major challenges regarding how to deal with the past, and what justice for the victims looks like. Tied up with these questions of justice and history lies the issue of competing narratives over what happened – and the capacity of each side to acknowledge (even if they disagree with) the story and perspective of the other.

As U.S. mediator George Mitchell once quipped, the Irish have an "inexhaustible locker of history.” So do Israelis and Palestinians. For them, questions surrounding narrative and history are at the heart of the conflict between two competing national movements. The program I was on encouraged the Israeli and Palestinian participants among us to leave our own conflict at home. But that was often easier said than done. Surrounded by absorbing content and fascinating people, I grappled with the question of whether we need a shared narrative to achieve either political or societal peace. And if not, can the sides at-least acknowledge that a different – even contradictory – narrative exists, without feeling threatened by it?

A few weeks before the Belfast trip, the weekly Torah portion related the Israelites long walk from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the Promised Land. As the Egyptian chariots pursue the fleeing slaves at the Red Sea, the Midrash relates a heavenly court case surrounding whether God should drown the Egyptians or spare them. The coup de grace that condemns the Egyptians arrives when God is shown a brick from Egypt that an Israelite child had been immured in. Had the Midrash ended there we could satisfy ourselves with the absolute importance of independence from oppression. But it doesn’t. Instead, as the Israelites reach the safety of dry land, leaving behind drowning Egyptian soldiers, God criticizes the angels who want to mark the great escape by singing His praises. “My children are drowning.” God tells them, “and you want to sing?” Even today, Jews only chant half Hallel (thanksgiving psalms) during the latter part of Passover because of the death of the Egyptians.

Amongst other things, I believe the text offers us a glimpse into the importance of maintaining competing perspectives on a people’s drive for independence, rather than choosing between the two. We often hear two contemporary positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One claims that because the Jews suffered and have a right to self-determination, we need not overly concern ourselves with the suffering of the other. The counter-argument says that if Jewish independence comes at the price of another’s pain, it is inherently illegitimate.

But I believe the Midrash suggests something different and more challenging. Pure justice doesn’t always exist. Sometimes (perhaps always), a people’s battle for independence causes pain and suffering to the “other.” And that doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of that freedom or make it “born in sin.” But nor does it mean that we can ignore the suffering of the other side. The text challenges us to hold onto both of those narratives – to believe that our people’s longing and ultimate achievement of self-determination was legitimate. And to simultaneously understand that – putting aside arguments in our own inexhaustible locker of “who did what to who when,” our self-determination came at a cost to another people.

Professor Brewer’s negative and positive peace may be different, but are mutually dependent. Without the space created by the absence of violence, it is almost impossible for the two sides to understand one another better. Yet without the greater social interaction that such understanding can bring, any political peace will struggle to be sustained. It remains unclear to what extent acknowledgement of a competing narrative is a necessary component of either type of peace or is simply “nice to have.” But the Midrash teaches us something very significant for initial steps towards reconciliation – namely that we can recognise another’s story without being disloyal to our own.

As violence continues, let us hope that this insight will lead us toward better days for all the people of the Holy Land.

Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He has previously worked as an analyst for the Reut Institute and the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Division and is currently Director of Research for BICOM. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and lectures and writes on topics of Jewish interest.



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