The Neighbor’s Mirror

Most Israelis want a two-state solution but believe that it will not happen. Are we truly doing everything in our power to break the existing deadlock?

Peace (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Peace (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
IN MID-FEBRUARY, WHEN THE Mubarak regime was overthrown, I wrote a letter to the Egyptian people. I wrote to them as a neighbor, not as a politician. I wrote to them as a human being who yearned that our lives together would be peaceful and that their revolution would be a blessing for them and for all of humankind.
In the letter, while I spoke as an Israeli, I tried not to see developments solely through the narrow prism of whether or not they might be good for us, but also from their perspective and to welcome them, the Egyptian people and their new voice, into the neighborhood.
Truth be told, the regular audience for my blog are Jews. While in my soul I was reaching out to the Egyptian people, I didn’t think I was beginning a dialogue. We have been trained for so long to believe that there is no one out there. Rather I was reaching out to my fellow Jews to encourage them to begin using a new more inclusive language through which to view the events in the Arab world.
We have found an equilibrium through either cold peace or military standoff, which has given us a significant measure of security and stability. As a result, any change in the status quo, even if it clearly benefits the other, is viewed by us, myself included, with fear and suspicion. In taking this approach, however, we lower our expectations and accept things as they are, instead of raising the bar and striving for something better.
While survival and stability are nothing to scoff at, the truth is that we have settled for a mediocre reality in which pain and injustice permeate our neighborhood. I wrote to encourage our people to replace their fear of the change in the Arab world with hope.
While I am not naive about the potential dangers, I believe that the status quo is also inherently dangerous, and only if we have the courage to free ourselves from its anaesthetizing grasp can we and our children hope to have a better future.
To my amazement, I discovered that we Jews are not alone. I sent the letter out to the virtual world and over the same medium dozens of individuals from across the Arab world and, in particular, Egypt, reached out and responded. While some chose the tone of politics in the old key, the vast majority responded in kind and wrote as individuals filled with hopes and aspirations of their own.
They seemed to be genuinely surprised and thankful for the tone and content of the letter.
We know all too well how to debate each other in the political arena and even meet each other on the battlefield. It seems that as a result we feel quite alone and hunger to reach out. We hunger for our voices to be heard. If the Arab revolutions are Twitter and Facebook ones, then maybe our new friendships can start there as well.
One recurring theme in many of the letters was a criticism of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian people and a plea that we do something to rectify it. Under the rules of the old discourse, our response is pre-written. It speaks about Palestinian terror, Hamas, the Palestinian response to the offers made by prime ministers Barak and Olmert. It may even include statements as to the cynical exploitation of the plight of the Palestinian people by Arab leaders. Such responses, however, are dictated by the status quo and serve it.
In a conversation among neighbors, our goal should no longer be to be politically right. When one is alone, one can adorn oneself with accolades of beauty and morality.
When one’s enemies criticize, it is easy to deflect. But when a neighbor writes and puts up a mirror, it behooves us to take a look.
Have we as a society lowered our moral aspirations? Have our legitimate security needs and fears caused moral insensitivity to the legitimate needs and rights of the Palestinians as a people? Has one of the casualties of our war been our moral standards and principles? Most Israelis want a two-state solution with the Jewish and Palestinian people living side by side. At the same time, however, most of us believe that it will not happen. Are we truly doing everything in our power to break the existing deadlock? Are we demanding innovative policies and new ideas of our politicians, or are we happy with them as guardians of the status quo? When one is alone, one gets to answer these questions however one wants. When one hears the voices of others, however, even if one disagrees, it behooves one to listen. Part of the beauty of not being alone is in allowing oneself and one’s society to be open to criticism.
Maybe a revolution is possible here as well, a revolution of spirit, of hope and of morality.
I wrote a letter and discovered we are not alone. There is a new regional voice out there and we should be listening.

 Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in