Finding a way out of the box

I searched back in 2000 for the perfect way into this war of attrition so that I could hear and even begin to understand the truths of two ancient peoples.

A Palestinian man hangs a Palestinian flag atop the ruins of a mosque, during a snow storm in West Bank village of Mufagara (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian man hangs a Palestinian flag atop the ruins of a mosque, during a snow storm in West Bank village of Mufagara
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I read about Israel and Palestine every day. I have now for over 16 years, which I recognize is a drop in the bucket in this seemingly endless conflict. I live 8,000 km away and yet I have focused enough attention on this so-called foreign war that it has brought me to the Knesset and the Mukata in search of understanding and seeds of peace that I could share with others. I have been involved in bringing peacemakers such as Rabbi Menachem Froman, Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, Gershon Baskin and Gila Svirsky to the United States to share their insights and provide a little hope in a battle that appears hopeless to increasing numbers of people there and here.
I searched back in 2000 for the perfect way into this war of attrition so that I could hear and even begin to understand the truths of two ancient peoples, with the hope of garnering information that would be important to share to educate others. I found Leah Green and her MidEast Citizen Diplomacy Delegation which was in the process of formally becoming the Compassionate Listening Project. I believed then and believe now in the power of dialogue to help each of us walk in the garden of our enemies and come out with new knowledge and the formulation of a process that enables me to return seeking more.
I had started a local Jewish-Muslim- Christian dialogue group, New Hope for Peace, that brought me in close proximity to Muslims and a Palestinian American for the first time. From then to now I have attended the weddings of two imams and another dear Muslim friend and I have no problem writing to connect them and many of their good works to our larger community, while understanding the challenge of Islamic extremism in Israel and well as here in America.
I got on an airplane and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in March 2001 and on the next day, my first in Israel, visited a city planner in French Hill, the muktar of Issawiya, a spokesperson for a yeshiva on the Mount of Olives and spent an hour in Gilo looking beyond the wall at Beit Jalah and then east at Har Homa. My little interfaith delegation, which was about half Jewish, spent time in Hebon, visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs, sat with the Palestinian governor of Hebron, viewed a museum honoring those killed in 1929, prayed at the gravesite of the rabbi who was the grandfather of a member of our delegation and spent a night with Palestinian families. But we began by attending a showcase of photos of martyrs presented by members of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which will remain etched in my mind along with the knowledge of the terror they unleashed. It was not a fair introduction to the situation and as a Jew at times I knew I had been thrown headlong into the lion’s den. But we worked through much of the anger and pain that we witnessed, heard and felt and tried to move forward.
Seven year later in 2008 I brought my own Delaware Valley Interfaith Delegation to Israel/Palestine, led once again by Leah Green, and it inspired everyone and frankly changed the lives of many, no doubt including yours truly. In 2009 I got to spend a week at the side of Rabbi Froman when we brought him to meet George Mitchell, US envoy for Middle East peace at the State Department, to a meeting on Capitol Hill and then to speak along with his friend Sheikh Manasra at Temple University on “The Role of Faith in Middle East Peace.” I listened and learned from his words and his passionate faith, as well as from his silences.
I just read a piece by Michael Cohen in this newspaper that speaks about hope and the need to look at the conflict and its solution through the lens of identity in place of the four final-status issues. At a time when the entire Middle East is in the grasp of chaos and the government of Israel is in a daily battle to defeat a growing “knife intifada” as well as expanding international reproach it is difficult to accomplish anything positive. And yet the PA continues to work with the government of Israel to put down violence across the West Bank in spite of the ongoing incitement by politicians and pundits on both sides. The Christian Science Monitor basically says that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his international critics are in a pissing contest (my phrase), that bodes ill for Israel, Palestine and peace.
For me the missing piece has always been an independent internationally sponsored dialogue process that is set up to operate beyond the two governments on its own track but with the formal blessing of both leaders (no matter how much arm twisting it requires). Israelis need to hear the stories of Palestinians in a respectful, facilitated environment and Palestinians in turn must listen to the stories of Israelis.
It must happen all over Israel and the West Bank and even in Gaza until in time a new group of Palestinians and Israelis emerges that is prepared to work for peace together based on the truths of two peoples beyond the Walls and the policy of anti-normalization and the warning signs that keep people apart. I don’t believe peace can be imposed on either people. But it can be nurtured by a hopeful, patient international community that allows a number of its public and private leaders to carry this idea all the way to fruition.
The author is president of ICMEP; Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace, an NGO based in suburban Philadelphia.
He can be reached at ld.snider@