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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Can Brookline Talk About
Israel and Palestine?

Dennis Fox

March 28, 2002


At a recent forum organized by the liberal group Brookline PAX, panelists had the audience nodding, sometimes in amazement, at details of US policy following September's terrorist attacks. Despite widespread agreement with the critical tone, one theme caused particular discomfort: the insistence that activists focus greater attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One audience member objected to a panel member's departure from a straight pro-Israel line. Seemingly dissatisfied with the foreign affairs professor's response, the objector left early. No one else addressed the topic until finally I wondered aloud why Brookline's liberals find it so difficult to discuss in public what so many, in private, acknowledge is central.

No one responded to my question -- until afterward. Privately.

Again I heard variations of the familiar: Non-Jewish peace activists hesitate to criticize Israeli policy because doing so leads to baseless accusations of anti-Semitism. Jewish activists fear others will label them self-hating Jews, traitors to the tribe. It's just easier to champion other causes that generate less venomous responses.

Brookline's lack of public dialogue on the Middle East is neither inevitable nor universal. For example, a recent article in The Nation contrasted the US media's pro-Israel conformity with the diverse views debated in England, where civilian victims of Israeli force receive greater attention.

More to the point, even in Israel -- perhaps especially in Israel -- the media debate and criticize Israeli policy to an extent unthinkable in the US. Comments attacked here as anti-Semitic or traitorous are, in Israel, the stuff of mainstream discourse.

Unfortunately, Israeli peace advocates tell us, the American Jewish community's support for the most hard-nosed Israeli policies have always strengthened those who choose power over justice. The silence of the many Jews uncomfortable with Israeli policy has real consequences.

That's a good reason to bring the debate to Brookline.

Here's what I have in mind:

Members of PAX, other community organizations, and local Jewish groups should create a townwide discussion forum, in cooperation with Boston-area pro-Palestinian groups. We could begin with an evening panel. Participants might include someone committed to Israel's survival, someone committed to Palestine's creation, and someone committed to solutions that satisfy the legitimate needs of ordinary people on both sides.

We should also invite historians, legal specialists, and other experts, despite their own inevitable biases. History is inherently selective and subjective, but we can still seek mutual acknowledgment of key events. Only then does it make sense to assess conflicting interpretations of those events.

One danger is that any single forum risks polarizing rather than illuminating, especially if it's hijacked by people primarily interested in preventing the discussion from taking place.

So we should follow the opening panel with a daylong event or a series of conversations, with smaller groups of people willing to listen despite their conflicting allegiances. Academics and others who facilitate discussions between adversaries can help.

Will all this do any good?

Simply listening to one another, even understanding one another, cannot resolve every contentious issue. Mistrust on both sides runs deep, too often with good reason.

But I suspect we will all hear uncomfortable truths. And that's important. It's easy to list historical and current events justifying one's position. It's harder to respond substantively to the other side's list, to grapple with their best arguments rather than simply sneer at those we dismiss as superficial or erroneous.

More broadly, increased understanding can help reveal differing interests and value priorities and unequal access to power. Solutions aren't possible without addressing these significant, and ultimately most troublesome, concerns.

Discussion can also reveal diversity, of views as well as of people. When interaction humanizes both Jews and Arabs, it becomes harder to believe the dangerous stereotypes perpetuated by those on both sides who seek supremacy rather than resolution.

In the meantime, the website of Visions of Peace with Justice in Israel/Palestine, a Boston-area Jewish group with members active in the Brookline Jewish community, contains links to relevant sources. A section on Hot Button Issues dissects historical and contemporary claims.

That kind of analysis won't solve every problem. But it's better than making believe there's nothing to talk about.

Follow-up report on discussion forum

More on Israel and Palestine

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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