A Civil Dialogue About Israel – Really

My brother, Robert K. Lifton, a former president of the American Jewish Congress, frequently writes op-ed pieces about events in Israel that are published in the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and other media. His articles also go out to a large list of people that includes American Jewish leaders, international figures, former classmates, and friends and relatives. A few weeks ago he wrote a piece called “A New Approach for Israel: An Israel Peace Initiative.”

In it he suggested that with peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians at a stalemate, Israel should seize the initiative and spell out the terms and conditions of a peace deal it is prepared to make with the Palestinians that would result in a two-state agreement. In principle, he wrote, most Israelis support separation from the Palestinians and a two-state solution, but there have been so many dead ends in the past that people have given up hope of achieving those goals.

A new approach in the form of a peace initiative coming from Israel, he argued, would preclude efforts by the United States or other nations to put out their own plans for resolving the conflict. It would also place responsibility on the Palestinian leadership to respond publicly by accepting or rejecting the plan so the world would know the choice it had made. Presumably such an Israeli plan would embody many of the terms former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert had presented to the Palestinian leadership in the past — Barak in 2000 and Olmert in 2005 — but modified by present-day realities and security needs.

I responded privately to my brother’s article, and we had some back and forth. But while we were e-mailing one another, I kept hearing clicks on the computer indicating new messages. It went on all day after I’d gotten back to my own work, while I was eating, talking, reading. People on Robert’s list were responding, not only to him but to all, and suddenly there seemed to be a great cyberspace forum taking place, from one end of the country to the next, and from one end of the political spectrum to the other. These were not the kinds of short comments one frequently sees on blogs. These were long, thoughtful responses, reflecting many points of view, yet written with enormous respect and civility, reacting to my brother’s article and to one another. Some excerpts:

“You make a great deal of sense,” wrote a well-known community leader. “The longer both sides dwell on the past, saying they’re right and the other side is wrong … there is every assurance that the impasse as well as the hatred will … grow more dangerous for all concerned.”

“I join in support of the two-state solution,” wrote another. “…The problem we face now is that while a majority of Israelis is prepared to agree to a long-term two-state solution, the Fatah leadership … is not prepared to give up the “right of return” and insists on the mass migration to Israel of the so-called ‘refugees,’ which includes the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who sought refuge in 1948.”

“I concur,” another leader said, then launched into his own ideas. “If, in small steps the Israelis reached out for initiatives that would start to defuse the conflict and demonstrate that Israel respects and would have good will toward the Arabs, perhaps over time the animosity which makes a resolution impossible would abate and the two-state solution could be achieved,”

“We’re all more or less on the same page,” observed another, before presenting his views: The world “must totally clamp down on Palestinian incitement and corruption. It must let them know that any attempt to go to international organizations will utterly fail. It must never tolerate violence as a result of frustration.”

All day and into the next responses kept coming. And contrary to the vitriol we have become accustomed to in our contentious community, as much as they disagreed, these respondents seemed to appreciate each other’s opinions and to seek common ground. “Sometimes we just need to change the conversation,” one of them said, “especially when playing the same tapes over and over is clearly not working.” They changed the conversation, not only in content, but also in tone, and it struck me how exhilarating it was to “hear” that tone about a subject that for most of us raises the peak of passions.

I think of Theodor Herzl’s image of the Chanukah menorah. Each of the lights, he implied, represents a different viewpoint or political position. But when they are all lit, as they are on the eighth night of the festival, they symbolize the unity of the Jewish people. All lit, they can spread their light outward, to the world. And we don’t even need cyberspace for that!

Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir. 

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.