Voices of Peace in Dialog

Similar Values, Differing Ways

Ada Aharoni, president of IFLAC, The International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace, Ehud Tokatly, author of The New Altneuland and of Community Democracy, and Asher Shla'in, author of Palistrael - all three appearing among the Peace Voices of our HopeWays - had an email-dialog on the path toward peace. Main excerpts are quoted below.

1. Ada to Asher:

I have read your interesting story - Palistrael, and wish it could be true.

The story is well written and is catchy, however, from my close interaction with our Israeli Arab citizens, at IFLAC: they have no intention of becoming Jews, or identifying with Judaism. They very much want to have equal rights and opportunities as Israeli citizens, while remaining Muslims, or Christians. If we accept them the way they are, and really want to be, and build bridges of culture and respect - then we have a chance for real peace.

It is a beautiful Aggada, but will remain an Aggada.

2. Asher to Ada:

I just wish to clarify one point about the Aggada.

That story never implied conversion of Moslems and Christians to Judaism - but it did speak of national unity, possibly based on historical background.

The alternative seems to be their identification with the Arab Umma.

In fact, I can hardly believe in peace without love (even if the anger and the hatred are present too).

3. Ada to Asher:

Thanks for your explanation. However, from my modest experience, the Arab citizens in Israel will always feel part of the Arab Umma, and we have to try to make friends with the general Umma too.

4. Ehud to Ada:

I followed your dialogue with Asher and, with your permission, I would like to add a small comment. I tend to agree with you that we need to design a peaceful future for our region, based on the diversity of our various ethnic, religious, cultural and other communities.

Personally, I'm quite skeptical about changing loyalties and identities, so deeply rooted in our country. I also doubt the wisdom of it. Common values need not contradict separate identities and diverse cultural and spiritual legacies. I believe in 'Diversity Within Unity', a principle that opposes melting pots, nationalistic regimentalism or dogmatic doctrines. My own approach is presented in HopeWays' Peace Voices. I would be delighted if you could take a look at my article and let me know what you think of it.

5. Ada to Ehud:

I am glad that you agree that we need to "design a peaceful future for our region, based on the diversity of our various ethnic, religious, cultural and other communities." I too, like you, am quite skeptical about changing loyalties and identities so deeply rooted in our country and in the whole region. I too doubt the wisdom of it, and agree with you that: "Common values need not contradict separate identities and diverse cultural and spiritual legacies". I (too) "believe in 'Diversity within Unity' "...

I have read your serious approach presented under the title 'Community Democracy'. Though I agree with the principle in general, it has raised the demographic question in my mind. If we do not have two separate States, in a short number of years the Palestinian/Arab population will become more than the Jewish one in the State of Israel. Because we are a democracy there is a danger that our Jewish State would then become a Palestinian State.

This is why I prefer they have a State of their own, and we retain ours, while keeping good relations and good fences between us. Anyway, I enjoyed reading and thinking with you about how to retain our Zionist home in such difficult circumstances.

The way IFLAC PAVE PEACE presents, of building cultural bridges of understanding and respect between the two people, is one of the ways that can prepare the atmosphere for solving the conflict morally, spiritually and ethically, however the concrete and material aspects have to be realistically solved too.

6. Ehud to Ada:

Thank you for your interesting comments and candid views. May I take the liberty of responding to some of your points, as it seems to me an important and inspiring dialogue. Since we seem to agree on many points of principle and share strikingly similar values, the main issue of difference appears to be of a more political nature. If I understand your position correctly, you seem to prefer the two-states model because of "concrete and material aspects" which "have to be realistically solved". In essence you are referring to the "demographic problem" that seems to contradict our democratic system. Many people believe that erecting "good fences" between us and our fellow humans would solve this issue.

In my view, realism is precisely the hurdle in this line of reasoning. Good fences, with or without bridges across them, have been tested in the last decade and their actual effects can now be examined in real terms, not in ideological or hypothetical exercises. Since implementing the Oslo accords, most Palestinians have lived under the PA's control. Physical fences were built around the Gaza Strip, and fences of fear prevented Israeli Jews from even crossing "Area A" zones. A maze of costly, geographically illogical highways were built for Jews to bypass Arab settlements, and Arab civilians had to stand in line for hours, or risk illegal entries, on their way to work with Israelis.

Now then, what has this reality shown? Has the last decade reduced violence? Are hostility, hatred and fear curtailed on either side of the fence? Is our country a safer place today? Moreover, has the demographic "problem" in Israel been solved, even slightly improved? May I suggest that separation between the two populations has so far yielded only more bloodshed and anguish, less democracy on both sides, more fanaticism in our region? Many explanations have been voiced as to "why" it happened, a mutual finger pointing, accusations, excuses and rationalisations. But they don't matter. Reality has shown that the model does not work.

Realism also stands between the demographic issue and the separation model. Can anyone realistically suggest a way of creating two viable territories with two homogenous populations? How is this to be achieved without a massive operation of ethnic cleansing - of Jews, or Arabs, or both - a huge deportation of human beings? Moral considerations aside, which army is capable of uprooting hundreds of thousands civilians? Which economy can resettle such numbers?

If 1.2 million Arabs are left inside Israel, and almost half a million Israeli settlers (including East Jerusalem, which is an occupied territory according to all nations apart from Israel), the Jewish majority may be lost two or three decades later than predicted for the entire country - and then what?

Even if we erect the Chinese Wall between us and a peaceful, independent Palestinian state, our democracy will still have to face our own Arab citizens. (I trust that you do not propose deporting Arab Israelis). The very term "Jewish majority" seems to many a crude violation of democratic principles. How then are we to treat non-Jews? Would you agree to have two Palestinian states - one ethnically cleansed of all Jewish presence, and the other "a state of all its citizens", with an Arab majority within several decades?

In my opinion, this issue is largely ignored in most public discussions. I would like to suggest an alternative approach. We live in a new reality, while most of our institutions and ideals were shaped in the 19th Century. Unlike many 20th Century ideologies, democracy is not a singular, rigid doctrine. Rather, it is an evolving cultural package of values that flexibly adapts to changing circumstances.

Prof. Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University has coined the term: "We (Communitarians) are highly democratic, but not majoritarians". Indeed, many recent thinkers have pointed out that the current emphasis in many democratic societies has shifted from the national ethos to stressing individual civil liberties and human rights of minority groups. I only take one step forward: let us adopt the highly democratic model of federalism, and omit one aspect that in many cases has become less relevant to post-modern reality, namely, the territorial demarcation of the "member states". Let us then call them by their real name: Communities. The Community Democracy may better serve the real needs of democratic societies in the new era. Zionism too may be forced to rephrase its values. I still believe in the prime Zionist goal: a Jewish State! But what makes it Jewish? Have Italians lost their identity because they use Euros now? Are the British less proud of Shakespeare because London has become a rich mosaic of a great multitude of ethnic, religious and cultural communities?

Indeed, we see Italians and Britons who prefer to march with hate banners and a growing racist fringe in various Western parliaments. But how come that some Israeli liberals voice similar sentiments? If the existence of "the others" in our midst is seen as "a demographic problem", or a threat to our own identity, then how strong is our identity?

Israel, I believe, is the home of the Jewish People. Beyond that symbolic statement, Jews should ask what makes them Jews. In my proposed model, each community would be free to define its own path and values. Reality in our country is not by any means dual, but rather multi-cultural. There is no realistic way of according freedom along territorial lines to all the communities that flourish in our wonderful country. Chopping up our land into minuscule fragments may only produce a truly horrific labyrinth of ghettos and yield more depravation and anger.

I believe that non-territorial federalism may prove more democratic, more humane, more peaceful, more Zionistic, even more suitable to the lofty ideals of Islam and Arab patriotism - but above all - much more realistic. It requires no change in loyalties and ideals, no population transfers, no brutality or force. Providing we offer an honorable option, in good faith, no cheating or stalling, I believe that most Arabs would prefer to live in real freedom, ruling their own communal lives, just like any other Jewish or Gentile community, than to live in the PA corrupt dictatorship.

Having praised my own model, I would like to sum up by contradicting myself... I truly believe that no single model represents the one-and-only magic formula to achieving a better future. My work with HopeWays reflects my deep conviction that no solution may be found without sincere attempts to seek innovative alternatives to the old, tested, and failed policies. In HopeWays I hope to find as many alternative ideas as humanly possible. The more the better. We may find out in the end, that serious creative design efforts can provide practical solutions that would better address the issues than rigid, ideological theories.

7. Ada to Ehud:

Thank you for your honest and thoughtful response. If I understand your message correctly, the model you are advocating is based on Israeli - Palestinian "democratic communities" living side by side and respecting each other; and each community takes care of its population according to its traditions and moral and cultural values. It can be understood, but not explicitly stated, that the communities will be living in a State and it is obvious that the lives of the populations will be strongly dependent on the attitudes and policies of that State. You are not stating who will be governing that State except for the mention that the PA is not desirable for the Palestinians. We thus remain with two alternatives: (a) the State of Israel as it is now and which is elected by the Jewish population and by a small part of the Palestinian population, those with Israeli citizenship (b) a new State elected by all the Israelis and all the Palestinians. I do not think you suggest the alternative (b), as it would be a bad alternative. If the Palestinians become a majority, this government may decide to end Aliya of Jews and promote instead the Awda of Palestinians, Sheikh Yassin could be director of the legal authority, Arafat could replace Yaalon etc.

So we remain with alternative (a), different communities under the government of Israel. The problem is that this alternative is likely to lead to instability, especially if the Palestinian population becomes a majority. It is inconceivable that the majority would not be allowed to have a government representing them, a minority government would be unacceptable not only by the Palestinians but also by the International community and by most of the Israelis. It would only lead to an apartheid state as we saw in the past in South Africa.

A TWO STATES SOLUTION, with the following characteristics can be a practical and desirable solution.

(1) The Jewish State (according to the Israeli model today), will have a Palestinian minority (the Palestinians that have already an Israeli identity, and possibly some others if acceptable by the Israeli authorities). The State will have a Jewish character, a Hebrew culture as the major culture, links with the Jewish world abroad etc. However, the Palestinian minority will have equal and full rights as Israeli citizens, and all the possibilities to develop their culture and to flourish side by side with the majority. In these circumstances, the "democratic communities" system you suggest would be highly desirable.

(2) The Palestinian State could have a sizable Jewish minority. These would consist mainly of the Jewish population in settlements that do not wish to resettle in Israeli territory, and would agree to become part of the Palestinian State, in the frame of an agreement with Israel. The general character of this State would be Palestinian; however, the full rights of the Jewish minority should be assured

(3) It is in the interest of the two states to develop strong links between them. The problems they will be facing cannot be solved otherwise. They will be using the same water resources and the same environmental problems. They will have to cooperate in economic initiatives in agriculture, tourism, trade, cultural enterprises etc. It is important that they feel the common initiatives are desired by both sides and not imposed by only one of the sides. It is desirable that both sides conduct their affairs and behave according to the "democratic communities" model.

(4) In conclusion, I think that in the long run we will get to the essence of the "democratic communities." However, we have first to separate to be able to achieve this much sought after model. I am afraid that if we don't achieve the separation, according to the Two States Model (advocated today by the Road Map and the Sharon Government, and representing an important window of opportunity) - Israel in a short time will tend to be overrun and will unfortunately be in danger of disappearing. This would be "haval meod" as we have worked so hard and lost so many lives in the building of our State. That is why we have to be wise and realistic.

8. Ehud to Ada:

I suppose we could develop this discussion forever (well, if not forever, at least for quite some time...) Speaking for myself, I'm rather enjoying this frank exchange, as I sense it is based on plenty of good will, a fairly rare commodity in today's market...

The debate seems to currently heat up around the "two-or-one-state" question (see Ari Shavit's piece in HaAretz about Hanegbi and Benvenisti). I would like to suggest that this is not the best question we can ask at this moment in history.

In my view, we are stuck.

Many of us wish to help creating a new reality, whereby we could somehow end the bloodshed, achieve justice for all humans, strengthen democracy and learn to respect all cultures. But our main problem, I truly believe, is that we are stuck with 19th Century Western concepts. One most typical of these is the notion of duality, which I shall not elaborate on at the moment, but I can do so at a later stage if you wish. I simply suggest that we try to replace the dual pattern with a more flexible, perhaps more Oriental view that advocates multiplicity.

Indeed, if one formulates the problem as "Jews Versus Arabs", then the potential solutions, as in all binary formulae, are very few. However, as soon as we introduce another variable, if not more, we may gain two things: (a) we shall have more potential solutions to the riddle, and (b) we are more likely to accurately address reality, which is almost never "0-1", "Black Or White", "Me Or You".

More specifically, I suspect that describing the social, political, economic, ethnic, religious, ideological and spiritual reality in this part of the world, with its immense complexities and vast multitude of communities, along the lines of two clashing national claims to a given territory, is both inaccurate and unproductive. It should almost inevitably produce erroneous and harmful answers to the question. The problem, then, is not the shallow answers. The problem is the poor question.

I have come to believe that there are neither "majority" nor "minority" in our reality. There are only minorities, many of them. There are no "Israeli-Jews" as opposed to "Arab-Palestinians". They simply do not exist outside the elegant halls of international conventions and diplomatic meetings. For I personally have more in common with a Druze IDF soldier when we discuss the kitchen roster on our next service as two aging reservists - than with a Jewish "patriot" who has used some contacts to evade his duty. I have more in common with my Moslem friend when we both seek a quiet room for our sundown prayer, than with my secular Israeli brother who has no patience for my sudden disappearance in the middle of an important meeting. And so on and so forth.

Even if one accepts the national self-determination ideal - which I still do as a Zionist - the 150-200 year old notion of territorial integrity and national sovereignty must be re-examined to better suit the complex reality of our times. I think that the civilised world is certainly marching toward a less national future (notably, in the case of the EU). But I do not propose an anti-Zionist or post-Zionist direction... As soon as we see another nation succeed in voluntarily surrendering its statehood, handing over its sovereignty to an alien political entity, and remaining alive, I would be willing to discuss similar arrangements for the Jews. But until then, we may as well look after our little Jewish state.

However, having a national state does not necessarily imply preserving its centralised system. The 'Community Democracy' model offers an opportunity for preserving both national self-determination and multi-cultural liberty. It is based on an undoubtedly democratic, well-tested model: Federalism.

Think of the State of Israel as the UCI - 'The United Communities of Israel'. Imagine that the Knesset and Government would deal only with federal matters, just like Congress and the President do in America. All the other issues would be handed over to local authorities, communal institutions and voluntary organisations. Just like California has different laws and policies than Virginia's, our various communities could enjoy autonomous status within a perfectly democratic system. The question of "majority-minority" does not arise in this model. In reality, there are many more Arab identities than the "national Palestinian" one, many more definitions to the "Jewish-Israeli" identity than the official wishy-washy compromise. There is nothing undemocratic about a federal state. Quite the opposite: Ideas that border on racism, apartheid and deportation emanate from the faulty, outdated model of a single national identity for all citizens of the state. Ethnic purity, implied by the term "A Jewish Majority", is closer to fascism than to either democratic or authentic Jewish values. And I say this as an Orthodox religious Jew, if we must use superficial labels.

My 'Democracy Community' model differs from the US constitution only in one dimension: the US "member states" are defined geographically, whereas I propose a federal constitution that will allow any community - whether territorially based or not - to enjoy an autonomous status. The same constitution should also declare very clearly that the UCI embodies the fulfillment of the Jewish nation's right of self-determination. But just as an individual in Zurich can share his/her Swiss patriotism with the people of Geneva (and most of them are very much so!), even if s/he cannot even speak their language, so can we all learn to express our multiple identities through a multitude of socio-political organisations.

I know, it's hard to imagine such a reality. Especially when the bombs go off again, barbed wire is still cutting our Land, and the dominant tone is that of hatred and extremism. But if we don't try to change the question, to address the complexities and retain a measure of realism and sanity, we are highly unlikely to build bridges toward a better future. Mind you, the fact that most political officials across the globe are stuck with the "Solomon's Trial" paradigm, does not impress me as more realistic. History shows, I believe, that powerful individuals and institutions are capable of making fatal mistakes, and that profound change in behavioral and intellectual patterns is often a slow and painful process. I just hope it will not be too painful this time.

I hope some of this makes a little sense…

9. Ada to Ehud:

...As to our discussion, you write beautifully, I am impressed by your serious, honest and deep idealism, and your learned views and knowledge. I can indeed imagine a change in our world and in the relations between people and nations in the candid way you describe. May it be! This we have in common, we are both idealists and dreamers. However, many realities, as we know, started with dreams.


Readers are invited to join this dialog.

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