A Plea for Empathy and Moderation in the Middle East

As a Palestinian, I have much admiration for those Israelis who have expressed empathy for the Palestinians’ suffering and have demonstrated against the war. On the other side, some Palestinians took to social networks to raise their voices in opposition to missile attacks from Gaza against Israeli civilians. Fostering this kind of understanding was exactly the aim of a project I took part in to take 30 Palestinian students to visit the Nazi concentration camps at Krakow and Auschwitz, and 30 Israeli students to visit the 1948 refugee camps in the West Bank. Both expeditions were intended to advance learning and demolish walls of hate and enmity, and were giant steps on the path of peace and reconciliation. But I soon experienced a backlash; in June, as a result of the initiative, I was forced to resign from my post as director of Libraries and the American Studies Institute at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. The reaction only made me more aware of the dire need to continue promoting similar ideas, values, and knowledge—so necessary for peacemaking—to the next generation of Palestinian leaders.

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Palestinians and Israelis may have different views of the conflict, but they have the same questions on their minds: Is the hope for a peace settlement unrealistic? Have we, on both sides, become so addicted to conflict that we cannot live without it, or do we just not want to make the sacrifices required for peace and reconciliation?

We need to learn from the past and take heed of the present in order to build for the future.

One important lesson Palestinian students learned from visiting Nazi concentration camps is that the Holocaust did not occur overnight, but rather was preceded by a long period of anti-Semitic incitement. They learned that genocides take place in two stages. The first is incitement against the target group using rhetoric that demonizes it and blames it for all the ills in society, to pave the way for the next phase, which is the actual implementation of the killing, torturing, and massacring of innocent civilians. As a preventive measure, governments, organizations, and individuals need to take action when incitement starts. This is why it is so important to empower moderates by drying the swamps of violence in order to undermine extremism. The goal of Israeli diplomacy should be to tap into the silent outrage among Palestinians about the suffering of Palestinian civilians, and their disapproval of Hamas’s strategy of armed conflict, which has achieved so little at such cost during the last month of violence. The goal of Palestinian diplomacy should be to tap into the empathy Israelis feel for the plight of Palestinians civilians.

Finally, the world’s empathy for the human suffering in both Israel and Palestine should encourage democratic governments, such as those in the United States and the European Union, not to remain bystanders—not to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, but rather to be pro-moderation, pro-democracy, pro-peace, pro-reconciliation, pro-humanity. In this way, they can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine simultaneously.

Israel has repeatedly let its military superiority dictate its policies toward the Palestinians. But the use of force exacerbates radicalism on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the diplomacy and dialogue that would empower moderation remain an afterthought. With innumerable failed peace initiatives, a worldwide backlash against its government’s continued use of excessive military force, growing Islamic militancy throughout the Middle East, and spreading anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe, Israel’s future looks bleak. The country is meanwhile losing sympathy among young people in the U.S. and Europe; opinion polls show that young Americans are much less likely to support Israel’s current actions than older ones are, and European youth have joined the Muslim community in many anti-Israel demonstrations against the war in Gaza. In my view, Israel’s survival is more threatened by its own use of arms than by Hamas missiles.

Ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis both want their children to live in peace and enjoy the kind of normal life that can only be achieved by peace. This is the direction leaders should take—to lead us from conflict to peace, from despair to hope, and from intolerance to reconciliation.

A friend asked me recently: “Why are you still advocating moderation in times of radicalism, calling for peace in times of war, and promoting reconciliation at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other and the death toll is rising on both sides?” My response: “You are thinking of the present, and I am investing in the future.”

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Mohammad S. Dajani Daoudi is a political scientist and the founding director of Wasatia, a moderate Islamic initiative based in Palestine.

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