Sitting in our apartment’s reinforced room, as the sirens went off in Modiin for the first time since – well, ever, actually – I was reminded of the old, disparaging definition of a liberal: “A conservative who’s never been mugged.” In other words, liberals are only liberals because they have never experienced the harsh, brutal reality that conservatives understand, and when liberals do finally experience that reality, they quickly discard their liberal values.
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So: was it true? What went through my mind as the sirens blared, as I ran upstairs, heart in my throat, lifted my sleeping daughter out of her bed, and carried her into our apartment’s reinforced room, with my wife and other two kids? As the five of us sat there, listening to the siren, assuming – hoping – that Iron Dome would protect us? What went through my mind as the protective bubble in which I have tried to wrap my children ever since they were born finally burst, as I saw the realization dawn in them, as it has dawned in every Israeli child, that somewhere out there, quite close by, there are people who want to kill them? Was this the moment that I would cease being a liberal, would wake up from my naiveté, would stop wanting to make peace with the Palestinians and finally realize that this is the Middle East, dog eat dog, kill or be killed?
These aren’t frivolous questions. One of the tragic realities of the current situation is that every time an Israeli is killed, more Israelis feel anger and hatred towards the Palestinians; and, of course, every time a Palestinian is killed, more Palestinians feel anger and hatred towards us. “Cycle of violence” may be a cliché, but it accurately describes how Palestinian terrorism begets violent Israeli response, which begets more Palestinian terrorism, and so on. This isn’t to make a moral equivalency, nor is it necessarily to condemn the current military operation. It is simply to note that when you feel under attack, the natural reaction is to blame and hate those attacking you, not your own leaders for putting you in this situation.
So: how to retain one’s liberalism while under fire? Should one retain one’s liberalism while under fire?
My own way of responding to the situation has been to focus on the following points:
1. Most Palestinians want to live in peace. They are held hostage by Hamas just as much as we are. This doesn’t mean to say that most Palestinians like Israel (they don’t), or accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (they don’t – more on that below), but it’s important to remember this core truth as a starting point.
2. As painful as this situation is for us, it is hundreds of times more painful for the Palestinians of Gaza, who do not have air raid sirens to warn them, reinforced rooms to run to, or iron domes to shelter them. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the rightness, wisdom, or specific tactics of Operation Protective Edge, we must retain our ability to empathize with the suffering of the ordinary Palestinians in Gaza.
3. The aftermath of this Operation will require a lot of rehabilitative work for the relationship between us and the Palestinians – even more than the vast amount that was necessary before. Many Palestinians simply hate us. In some cases, this is because of deep-rooted religious extremist fanaticism. But in many cases, it’s simply because, in their eyes, we’ve killed their friends, relatives, and innocent children; we have made their lives miserable; we prevent them from traveling beyond the confines of Gaza; and so on. Again, my point here is not to argue whether or not these Israeli policies are right or wrong, are justifiable, defendable, or not. It is to remind ourselves that in order to live in peace with our neighbors, we are going to need to talk with them, and in talking with them we are going to need to remember just how much pain and anger and understandable hatred they will have to overcome (as will we).
A considerable part of this rehabilitative work will revolve around the questions of mutual acknowledgement and recognition. Multiple research studies and surveys have shown that most Palestinians do not see Jews as anything other than a religion and therefore find it hard to understand the Jewish self-conception of peoplehood and consequent Zionist demand for national self-determination.
In that sense, Prime Minister Netanyahu is correct to put the “Jewish state” issue on the negotiating table. His strategy, however, is utterly misguided. Instead of demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and using the issue as an excuse to continue building settlements, he should be putting in place an extensive, broad-based program of dialogue between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians (both those who are Israeli citizens and those who live beyond the Green Line), with the goal of having both groups listen to, understand, and ultimately empathize with the other’s narrative. Without this kind of extensive people-to-people dialogue, which will have to take place through schools, youth groups, community centers, professional organizations, municipalities, and other contexts, we will never truly understand the Palestinians, and they will never truly understand us.
I don’t underestimate just how difficult and perhaps Sisyphean this task is. My experience of Arab-Jewish dialogue has taught me that the barriers are great, the distances between the sides are vast, and the narratives are often mutually exclusive. But I have also seen that with time, investment, and careful facilitation, breakthroughs can be made. To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war, said Churchill. I would amend: harder, more complicated, more emotionally painful, never perfect; but yes, better.
The Palestinian anti-normalization movement will also be a barrier to dialogue, and that’s why any large-scale national dialogue initiative will have to be accompanied by serious diplomatic steps and clear Israeli statements that will persuade Palestinians that this isn’t just another round of talk-and-build-settlements. I doubt that our current leadership is capable of making these moves, but these are the moves we should be calling for.
Being a liberal doesn’t mean that you have to condemn Operation Protective Edge; but it does mean that despite and along with the painful situation we have all found ourselves dragged into, we need to be clear and constant about how to break the cycle of violence in the future; to remember that most Palestinians want peace, to empathize with and acknowledge the terrible pain and suffering that Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, have endured, and to demand of our leadership and theirs that as soon as a ceasefire takes place, we all embark on a long-overdue process of dialogue, mutual understanding, empathy, acknowledgement and recognition, leading towards a two-state solution. Otherwise, all these deaths, on both sides, will truly be in vain.
Dr Alex Sinclair is Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. He lives in Modiin, Israel. The views expressed in this article are his own.