In February, Boston Partners for Peace began a book club series where several young Jewish professionals throughout Boston gathered to discuss Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbors” and the letters written in response to him by Palestinian readers. The program consisted of three meetings between February and March among three different groups in Somerville, South Boston and Brookline. I participated in the Brookline group and, after reflecting on our discussions, there were three noteworthy themes we came away with: the importance of empathy, how dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians might be structured, and what the role of American Jews in Israeli-Palestinian peace activism may be.
Yossi often talked about how Israelis’ and Palestinians’ different Israeli and Palestinian narratives are at the core of the conflict, and it is therefore important to understand and empathize with each other in order to prepare for a peace agreement. When we discussed about the role of empathy, we identified a couple of obstacles to what Yossi was striving for.
One is that empathy is a personal trait and not everyone possesses it. Indeed, if an Israeli or Palestinian lacks empathy as an individual it will be hard for them to listen to and empathize with the other side’s story. As a dose of optimism, though, empathy can be developed. I was one of two clinical social workers within our group and we brought up how there may be clinical interventions that can be used to increase people’s sense of empathy, and perhaps those interventions can be adapted and used for peace activism as well.
We also discussed why it may be difficult to empathize with your enemy. Even if one possesses a strong sense of empathy, that does not mean they can empathize with anyone. It is hard to listen to, let alone empathize, with those who you see as your enemy and, unfortunately, many Israelis and Palestinians may see each other that way. The simple solution may be to get more Israelis and Palestinians come to together to have dialogue, so they can see that the “enemy” is just another human like them and also has a narrative, which leads to the second theme we took away from our discussions.
One of the letters written in response to Yossi (published in the NYTimes) that we went over was written by Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh. In the letter, he said he felt “condescended” to by Yossi. We discussed that Raja may have felt condescended to because of the way Yossi conveyed his message. In his book, Yossi discusses both the Israeli narrative and the Palestinians narrative, perhaps in an attempt to show that he understands the Palestinian story and that they can be reconciled. However, we talked about how it may be condescending to hear someone else tell you what your narrative is. I would imagine an Israeli would feel the same way if a Palestinian wrote a book telling Israelis what their narrative is, regardless of how accurately it is described. We concluded that it may have been more appropriate if Yossi told his story as an Israeli and then ended by asking his Palestinian neighbors to respond to him by telling their narrative rather than telling it himself.
This point seemed to be reaffirmed in our third session where we were joined by Amir Qudaih. Amir is a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip who is studying engineering now in Boston and is writing a book about his life’s story. During the session, he told us about his life growing up in Gaza, his long journey coming to the US, and his experience in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. When I asked him how he thinks Israelis and Palestinians can better understand each other’s narratives, he said that they should simply sit down and hear the other side's story. In other words, rather than showing they understand the other side by describing their neighbor’s narrative, they should let the other side tell their own narrative, acknowledge it, and then tell their own narrative when it is their turn. That way, each side will feel they are both heard and in control of their narrative and therefore may become more open to listening to the other side.
Lastly, we discussed how Yossi’s book also had an American Jewish audience and how it connected with our role in Israeli-Palestinian peace activism. He talked about his life growing up as an orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, New York and how it was his dream to make Aliyah (move) to Israel. However, the average American Jew may not relate to that story. Many American Jews, including myself, attended a Jewish day school and lived a relatively secular liberal life where we preserved and appreciated our Jewish culture and traditions, but were not orthodox. We also felt it was hard for us to become involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace activism because we did not know much about the nuances of Middle East conflict or the Palestinian perspective until we entered college. For example, in our Jewish day schools, we learned what Tel Aviv and Haifa were, but not what Ramallah or Nablus were, and that may be what needs to change to better prepare American Jews to both talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and become involved in peace activism if they choose to when they head out to the real world.
As American Jews, we can play a vital role in Israeli-Palestinian peace activism. Our community is strongly connected to Israel and we can therefore help bring more Israelis and Palestinians together. However, it is also important for us to hear both people’s stories and learn more about how we can promote that concept of peace. We appreciated that Boston Partners for Peace gave us the opportunity to do just that and we hope they will continue to provide more programs like this in the future.