Sometimes a political event touches a nerve and requires a personal response. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president with a reputation for relative political moderation, addressed an august gathering of the heads of the states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He departed from his prepared text and had this to say about Jewish history and religion:
“… I don’t want to discuss religion or history because they [the context implies a clear reference to the Jews] are really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion. But if we read the Torah it says that the Canaanites were there before the time of our prophet Abraham and their [Canaanite] existence continued since that time, this is in the Torah itself. But if they would like to fake this history, they are really masters in this and it is mentioned in the holy Quran they fabricate truth and they try to do that and they believe in that, but we have been there in this location for thousands of years.”
The most disturbing aspect of Abbas’ words is that he was sincere. He believes this. Moreover, he ascribes monumental fraud — the vicious fabrication of history — to the Jews as a whole, past and present. And he said these things with an urgency that burst from him in the course of delivering a prepared speech. How confusing it is trying to understand the leaders on our region. On the one hand, Abbas calls East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine, while the Israeli government talks about the unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. One could make the case that Abbas is more pragmatic or moderate on this point. But then comes his hateful rhetoric. It is one thing to oppose the other side’s historical narrative in the context of national conflict and another thing to talk about the other side in generalized and defamatory terms.
As a result, we people of conscience need to make a decision. We can ignore Mr. Abbas’ outrageous assault on the Jewish people’s decency, ethnic history, and the Jewish religion. Or, we can take a public stand in opposition.
Some in the human rights community argue that organizations exist in Israel and the Diaspora whose purpose is to defend Jews and Judaism from this kind of assault. Our aim, they suggest, is both broader and more focused. We focus on human rights, not on the national conflict between ethnicities in Israel and the occupied territories. And we have broader concerns, in the sense that human rights issues arise wherever human dignity is under assault, so when you have a 50-year occupation, the human dignity of Palestinians is under attack all the time. That is where our priority should lie. There is where we should invest our energies. Let’s leave the defense of Jewish history and the Jewish religion in the third sector to the so-called “Jewish defense organizations.” Surely the boards of deputies, anti-discrimination leagues, the various committees and congresses, will know how to respond to Mr. Abbas’ speech. It’s their business, not ours.
But this will not do, for two reasons. First, human rights are indivisible. It will not suffice to take a firm stance against the kinds of Islamophobic utterances that pop up from time to time in the Israeli public square, but to turn a blind eye to profound expressions of anti-Semitism from senior Palestinian leaders. Our opposition must be to all bigotry, or we damage the credibility of our opposition to any prejudice.
Second, we need to understand the population of Israel a society that has endured more than its fair share of trauma. One reason the human rights organizations lost traction in Israel’s public square is that for about a generation now, we tend to speak in absolutes as if addressing an academic forum. But emotional intelligence tells us that we need to talk differently to people whose life experiences are different.
Israelis, both Jews, and Arabs would be peculiar indeed if they did not carry the impact of traumas inflicted on them over the generations of living memory. We need to communicate effectively with people whose grandparents may have been victims of the Holocaust, of Stalinist oppression or rampant discrimination and ethnic cleansing in the Muslim world. If they are Palestinian, they carry the traumatic results of the Nakba — the disastrous history of their people in the 20th century and of their mistreatment by Israel and by their Arab hosts and neighbors. Israeli parents may have fought in a half-dozen wars, faced down terror on a daily basis, not to mention the ordinary tensions of everyday life, traffic accidents, disease, economic hardship. It would be strange if effective communication with Israeli Jews did not require addressing the overarching concern they so often express — their safety and the safety of their families.
Here is an often ignored aspect of the peace process that teaches us much about how political leaders can address and persuade the public. It demonstrates that, when called upon by leaders they found credible, in ways that acknowledged their fears and assured them of their safety, Israelis overwhelmingly supported every withdrawal and every risk taken for peace over the last generation. Begin, Rabin, Sharon knew how to address the Israeli public better than do many in today’s human rights community. A traumatized society does not respond well to hectoring, especially if it is regularly the object of an internationally coordinated ongoing assault of delegitimization; but Israeli society has proven that it does respond and is willing to take risks when approached in the proper manner. People of conscience need to raise a voice of empathic understanding along side reprimand when we perceived human rights being violated.
If we, people of conscience, want to re-establish our credibility in Israeli society, we need to address Israelis the same way a compassionate caregiver treats a patient who is suffering. We need to convey that we identify with them. We share their concerns. Their fears are legitimate, not imaginary. Expressing ourselves in this way, we prepare the foundation for communication that has a chance of persuading the traumatized. Other ways of doing things may be self-affirming for those who use them, but experience shows that they are a waste of effort.