Are Israelis Truly a Peace-seeking People?

In her new book, Dr. Dalia Gavriely-Nuri examines the concept of peace and how it manifests in Israeli language and culture.

The yearning for peace, purportedly one of the fundamental components of Israeli society and culture, takes several forms: prayer (“May He who makes peace in the supernal regions bestow peace upon us and upon all Israel”), Zionist statements (the Scroll of Independence), songs and more.

Yet when it comes to action, the pickings are slim and fairly tenuous. It was only in 1979 that Israel signed a peace treaty with one of its neighbors, Egypt, and 15 years later, in 1994, with Jordan. Although the peace treaties with both countries are honored, relations with those countries are described as a “cold peace,” which means, for all practical purposes, the absence of war.

Dr. Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, a senior lecturer in political science and communications at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and a researcher at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, describes the gap between thought and action in her book, '“Peace' in Israeli Political Discourse" (published in Hebrew by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University).

Q. You say that the meaning of the concept of peace, which most of us see as something positive, can also be negative and aggressive.

“As I see it, the concept of ‘peace’ is mainly the product of political and cultural constructions, far beyond its dictionary meaning. In my book, I investigated the various uses of that word in speeches by leaders and statements made in the Knesset. For example, the word is used a great deal in negative contexts such as ‘the torments of peace,’ ‘the price of peace’ or, as Abba Eban said: There is no peace without tears.”

Q. You mention one of the most often-used expressions in Israeli rhetoric, and you describe it as a mythical metaphor for peace: “Our hands are extended in peace.” What did you discover about that saying and what it represents?

“For me, this metaphor symbolizes the cliched and automatic way that peace has taken root in Israeli discourse. It was first mentioned in the Scroll of Independence, and since then it has appeared in almost every speech by an Israeli leader. To a large extent, the purpose of using it is to give us a positive national image as a peace-loving people, while at the same time giving the speaker a positive image by demonstrating his sensitivity to one of the most important values for the international community: the value of peace.”

Q. What well-known examples best explain that gap?

“The continuation of the metaphor of the hand extended in peace is often the hand that is sent back empty. The Israeli desire to make peace is met with a foe who refuses to accept the proposal. Golda Meir repeated this rhetoric in 1956 and [Israeli politician and former Knesset Speaker] Dov Shilansky did the same in 1982. Generally speaking, the purpose of using the word ‘peace’ so often in a political context is to strengthen the image of the speaker as a peace-seeking person who belongs to a peace-seeking nation. For example, in his speech at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated the word ‘peace’ 44 times. Usually, the demonstrative use of the word ‘peace,’ which contributes to the perpetuation of war, is not the exclusive province of the right wing. Yitzhak Rabin once said: ‘Our hand will always be extended in peace, but the fingers will always be on the trigger.’”

Q. In cultural aspects such as language, can Israeli culture be compared with other cultures involved in conflict?

“Researchers of discourse believe that words have the power to create and influence reality. I am part of a small group of researchers in Israel and abroad who, together, are finding linguistic, cognitive, cultural and political constructions that help preserve the state of war and sabotage peace all over the world. It saddens me that there are almost no researchers in Arab countries taking up the challenge and shedding light on what is happeining there [in this field].”

Q. Has there been any change in the world of Israeli concepts that describe states of war and peace?

“In our political discourse, peace still has an abstract meaning, along the lines of the wolf will lie down with the lamb from the prophets, or something more spiritual such as the prayer that begins ‘May He who makes peace in the supernal realms.’ We still have Memorial Day, and we also have the custom of marking the anniversaries of various wars. On the other hand, we have no Peace Day. Who remembers the date of [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and exactly when the peace treaty with Egypt was signed?”