On the day of Shimon Peres’s death, my neighbor Natan Meir stood before 100 Jewish and Arab interfaith activists and spoke of Peres’s vision for peace. Natan’s wife Dafna was murdered that year by a Palestinian youth from the neighboring village of Yatta who penetrated our hometown of Otniel. Nonetheless, Natan chose to speak not about where Peres’s vision has faltered, but about the buds of hope. Despite the reality of bereavement to which he awakens each morning, Natan believes that the heart of the majority of the Israeli and Palestinian community — even in the difficult region in which he lives — is filled with the will to live together in peaceful coexistence. I too hold this belief, but the big question looms: What is the way?
Peace from the Ground Up
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the widespread assumption is that we must first arrive at a political solution and only after can we begin to heal the neighborly relations between the two sides. This approach is based on the idea that as long as there is conflict and enmity, suffering precludes any healthy relations. However, it is this very disconnect between Jews and Arabs — walls of hatred, fear, and distrust – that obstruct the ability to reach an agreement. This disconnection is the real problem, and we must grapple with it first and foremost. Through many years of activism in the region and countless meetings, I have learned just how much interfaith meetings – authentic human encounter – can create a common language and consciousness of interpersonal connection. The Interfaith Encounter, the Abrahamic Reunion, and Roots are just three of the many organizations pursuing the grassroots goal of encounter.
The Sufi mystic Jalāl Rumi once said, “Out there — beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing — there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” It is in this field that I believe peace will flourish.
Exclusively pursuing peace through political channels has another drawback. Until there is a signed agreement in place, no progress is made in other arenas. Moreover, whenever the process reaches a dead end, the deadlock begets violent outbreaks such as the Second Intifada that erupted in September 2000, after the failed attempts at Camp David. On the other hand, working from the ground up, grassroots efforts from within the community, forges a path wherein every step can improve the atmosphere and in so doing improve the living conditions for both sides. Human encounter, in which relationships of mutual respect and admiration are created, is not only a means of arriving at peace but is itself the precise peace we aspire to spread to all inhabitants of this land.
Nevertheless, the political realm cannot be ignored, and there must be a vision to aspire — “Without a vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 9:18). A vision is as essential for the future as it is for the present — to orient our path in the here and now, to offer a goal along the horizon, a reason for hope. But what is it that we are striving for? For me, the answer was born out of an encounter.
“Oslo Was Missing Fundamentals”
The Hebron Hills. Together with my students I am sitting in an enormous and magnificent tent. Before us are baskets overflowing with fruit, a generosity characteristic of traditional Arab hospitality. Out of respect for the Jewish guests, consideration has been given to the dietary laws of Kashrut. Our host, the leader of one of the largest clans in Hebron, looks at the students and directs his words principally to them. “We, the adults, have failed. You need to repair.” The sheikh continues to enumerate the reasons for the failure to achieve peace. In his opinion, the failure is the result of two basic errors in the principles of the Oslo peace accords.
“The basic understanding of Oslo was that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is not mine. Is it not possible to say ours?” asks the sheikh before immediately continuing onto his second point. “Oslo was missing fundamentals,” he emphatically declares. He explains that because the process was disconnected from the religious and ethnic background of the two nations, it therefore lacked essential foundations. While listening to his words, I could not help but hear an echo of the central claim of my teacher and colleague Rabbi Menachem Froman about the conflict, “If religion is part of the problem, then it must necessarily be part of the solution.”
The fundamentals about which the sheikh spoke allude to what in my eyes is the cardinal question to ask in navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Are we working towards connection or separation? This question touches on issues of territories, relations between the populations, and definitions of identities.
For decades, Israeli society has been grappling with the question: Do we seek two states or one state, a Jewish state or a binational state? There is both value and cost to each of these options on a variety of levels. Despite good intentions, the tragedy of the internal Israeli discourse is a poisonous culture of dialogue that prevents complex and nuanced discussion of the question. When each side sees solely the value of their approach and the price of the alternative, the conversation is quickly poisoned. The inability to recognize complexity distances us from each other and from a solution. Acknowledging the great complexity enables us not only to change our internal discourse but to think in new ways about the value and price of each and every component of the equation, to think in terms of connection and separation.
A Two-State One-State Solution
From within the current stalemate has emerged a proposal that attempts to incorporate the value of both two states and one state while minimizing the price of each solution. The proposal is a confederation, the existence of two states unified under one collective political entity. Every person would simultaneously be a citizen of their respective nation as well as a citizen of the confederation.
An example of the proposal that currently exists in the world is the status of citizens of Germany and France, each a sovereign country realizing the national aspirations of its people. Concurrently, French and German residents are part of a broader political entity, the European Union (EU), which enables a joint economy, open and free borders, and an array of shared institutions presided over by a parliament and presidency.
In the Israeli-Palestinian context, the creation of such a structure would permit each side, through free and open borders, meaningful access to the adjoined country’s territory, providing essential connection for each nation to the entirety of their homeland. Jews would have a link to all of Israel and Palestinians to all of Palestine. The open borders would enable all residents to freely visit sites throughout the confederation as well as a tangible presence of each people in the partnering country. Palestinian residents living on the Israeli side could maintain Palestinian citizenship and vice versa. In terms of consciousness, both nations would be included in one broad polity that includes the entirety of the land.
For Israel, such a solution would prevent the social and humanitarian disaster of uprooting tens of thousands of people from their homes, as the context of confederation can create conditions for continued Jewish presence in the West Bank, historic Judea and Samaria. For Palestinians, a confederation would enable involvement and partnership in the Israeli economy, without which a Palestinian state would likely become a third world country, a concern I have heard many times from Palestinian leaders themselves.
While a confederation does not obligate open borders, in our case it is a necessary condition. Just as there is value to open borders, there is also a price: the risk of illegal immigration, crime, and terror — problems known to be threatening the EU and leading to England’s decision to withdraw. Between Israel and Palestine, these fears would largely exist on the Israeli side. Thus, the confederation would be obligated to provide a response in the form of joint security bodies that would monitor and oversee the issue. Moreover, without governmental organizations at the confederate level, such as a joint security force to handle hate crimes, it is hard to imagine sufficient conditions that would enable Jews to continue to live on the Palestinian side. Yet without this presence, Israel would need to proactively defend itself with more restrictive borders and returning to inspection of Palestinians entering Israel.
Among the supporters of the confederation idea is retired Knesset member and minister Yossi Beilin, who recently published an op-ed in the New York Times endorsing this approach. He attributed the idea to Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini from the early days of Oslo. Beilin tells that he initially raised the proposal of a confederation between a Palestine state and Jordan. Husseini smiled at him and said, “Confederation yes, Jordan no.” Yair Hirschfeld, another architect of Oslo, also promotes this approach. In addition to these political leaders, a number of organizations, such as Two States One Homeland, share such a vision.
Most of the activists and supporters of this idea come from the secular left. However, in my opinion, it is precisely those Jews and Arabs with intrinsic religious and ethnic identity who have a great deal to gain from this proposal. It is they for whom detachment from the places of their national ethnic heritage would be most difficult.
A Unifying Identity
To me what is most exciting about the confederation proposal is the nature of the connection unifying those living within it.
There are two ways to create a connection between people. The first is through casting aside all identity so that dissimilar identities do not divide us. The second by deepening our respective identities to uncover elements which unite us.
John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” sees the absence of religious, ethnic, and national identities as the key to peace and fraternity amongst humanity. Perhaps it is true that if Jews and Arabs were replaced with identity-less people, finding a solution to the conflict would indeed be easier. However, in Israel this is not the case.
Fortunately, there is another way that can connect people from within their different identities. National identities, the newest identity both for Israelis and Palestinians, are hard to bridge. However, just as religious ethnic identities have the power to divide, so too they have the power to unite. Jews and Muslims both believe in, love, and pray to the same God. The Koran grants special status to Jews as Ahalul Kitab, People of the Book. Jewish rabbinic literature similarly values Islam for its belief in the unity of one God. Regarding ethnic identity, both Jewish and Arab tradition recognize the other as descendants of Abraham. These deeper layers of identity allow us to create an inclusive identity, which is incumbent upon us to nurture.
While the idea is simple, the challenge lies in its implementation. Symbols currently at the heart of the conflict can be transformed into a basis for unity. Each year I participate in an event called The Jerusalem Hug, in which Jews and Arabs, including hundreds of Palestinians, create together a human circle in order to hug the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, representing our desire that Jerusalem unify us rather than divide us.
It is important to acknowledge that this vision is not attainable in the short term. Rather, it is the having a goal that gives us a horizon towards which to steer. The first steps towards a realization of the vision needs to focus on teaching an education of tolerance and connection, prevention of incitement, and human encounter between the sides.
In my vision, the name of the confederation will express its essence. For example, the name European Union speaks to a collective continental identity reflective of certain cultural and cosmopolitan values. Similarly, we must unite into an Abrahamic Union (AU) that expresses both the ethnic point of contact between Jews and Arabs, and the religious connection between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We are all children of Abraham.
At the base of the religious foundations of the AU, there is an additional, no less important element. As a religious Jew, I read the visions of the prophets and await their fulfillment. The return to Zion, an intrinsic part of our dream, has been realized. And still there are unfulfilled aspects of their words yet to materialize. The prophets envision restored relations between the Jewish people and humanity, connections based on the holiest dimension of reality — the religious realm. The Temple Mount is envisioned as “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). It is the power of this yearning for collective human siblinghood than can counterbalance the limiting ideology of nationalism.
Not long ago, I visited an Arab school in the Galilee village of Rameh. I asked the children why they thought that everything that happens in Israel captures headlines all over the world. Why the global obsession? They answered, “They know it all began here, and therefore everyone feels that whatever happens here is connected to them.” The Book of Isaiah speaks of the role of Israel in the end of days as “a light for all nations” (49:6). We can understand this prophecy in our context not as a declaration of arrogance, but a goal for which to strive. In a word so filled with conflict, especially between people belonging to the Abrahamic religions, peace between Jews and Palestinians could give hope to the world.