Israelis & Palestinians still deny each other’s core identities

Editors’ note, Dec. 20, 2023: Originally published in the Jerusalem Post in July, 2022, as “Israelis and Palestinians must acknowledge each other’s identity,” and posted by us in May, 2023, it remains remarkably pertinent in a profound way to the epic violence of this moment.

It is republished with the permission of the author and the Jerusalem Post. The author, Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura (an environmental NGO that engages Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians in projects of mutual interest), and at Bennington College in Vermont. What follows is a slightly abridged version:

Here in the Holy Land, the unraveling of “norms” between Palestinians and Israelis has accelerated. Not that “normal” should be used to describe the stagnant status quo.

The headlines of this conflict, the attention-grabbers, spotlight the violence. With so much focus on the violence, it is easy to forget that violence is a symptom and not the cause of the conflict.

The cause of this conflict is the inability of the two sides to reach an agreement that addresses the national aspirations of both peoples. One of the reasons this has not been resolved is because too many Israelis and Palestinians hold maximalist views. Many Palestinian and Israeli maps show complete national ownership by their respective side of all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, with no room or recognition of the other.

Related, Israelis and Palestinians are unable to acknowledge core facets of each other’s identity. The mutual denial of historic claims by both parties, including the destruction of historical evidence, only builds mistrust. Hundreds of Palestinian towns have been demolished and built over by Israel, and to this day, Palestinians eradicate evidence on the Temple Mount where King Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples stood. 

Diplomat Shlomo Ben-Ami who was part of the negotiations in 2000 reminds us that Israel offered Palestinians full sovereignty for the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. However, the Palestinians refused to confirm “the site is sacred to the Jews.” Adding to, and related, is the failure by Palestinians and Israelis to recognize each other’s pain –- both physical and psychological.

To undo these dynamics is extremely difficult. For Palestinians to affirm Jewish history and connection to the land implies legitimizing Zionism and the return of the Jews. While that conclusion may be true, it does not mean Palestinians must condone or agree with everything that has been done in the name of Zionism. 

By the same token, Israeli acceptance of the Palestinian connection to the land could be read as a condemnation of Zionism. There could be that implication, but such a statement endorsing the Palestinian connection to the land does not erase the Zionist connection.

Undoing the knot that will allow psychological and physical scars to be addressed requires not only each side seeing the pain of the other, but the difficult burden to own one’s own complacency and responsibility for the other’s pain. In addition, there is the fear that the legitimacy of one’s own pain will be reduced by the admission of one’s responsibility for the pain of the other.

The Misuse of Religion

Another trigger for the deterioration is the growing misuse of religion. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primarily between two nationalisms contending over the same piece of land. Religion has always been a subordinate element. However, with growing intensity in recent years, as we witnessed this spring at the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, theology has become a trigger for unholy violence, with ripple effects beyond the site’s 37 acres.

Related, both sides deliver too many bad faith messages. The Hamas charter continues to state, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Repeated Israeli building and land confiscation in the West Bank leaves less and less room for a viable Palestinian state.

Recent preaching by an imam on PA TV called for “the destruction of the tyrannical Jews.” Religious Zionist Party chair Bezalel Smotrich told Arab-Israeli Knesset members they “are here by mistake – because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.” “Death to the Arabs” and “Muhammad is dead” were chanted during the Jerusalem Day march through the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Not to be outdone, Palestinians have used the Battle of Khaybar – recorded in the Koran as a place where Muhammad and his followers massacred and expelled Jews – as a rallying call.

It is not only that this conflict is taking on a more religious tone, but the religious models being used are the more violent examples from Judaism and Islam. Let’s be very clear. These people are not being religious; they are using a narrow interpretation of these religions to justify their violent tendencies. Akin, there is also the need to better utilize the religious voices of tolerance and bridge-building.

Palestinians and Israelis are stuck on a stage made ripe by encounters that bring out the worst in each other: humiliation felt by Palestinians at the hands of Israeli police and the army; fear experienced and felt by Israelis; violent and hateful rhetoric employed by Israelis and Palestinians; and the ripple effects of violence and death.

When fear, intimidation, hate and incitement are the only headlines, they become the sole reality that Palestinians and Israelis feel is possible.

Pushed aside by those headlines is a different but very real reality. In Jerusalem, for example, spaces shared between Palestinians and Israelis are increasing. This says nothing of the work of the 150-plus Israeli and Palestinian civil society NGOs of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, such as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where for more than 25 years, long-term personal and professional relationships emerge.

The transformative effect of Israelis and Palestinians changing course through mutual confirmation of each other’s history and desires, as well as pain lived and pain inflicted, should not be underestimated. In fact, it is essential. We need passion with compassion.

Until that takes place, the issues of Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees stand little chance of resolution. Palestinians and Israelis can continue in the familiar state of affairs or take the necessary, difficult steps to change the path –- a path they are destined to walk together.