Saturday, February 19, 2011

They Were Enemies, And They Were Friends

A pivotal moment in Sandy Tolan's extraordinary book The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, And The Heart Of The Middle East occurs in chapter nine, when Bashir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi (shown here in a recent photo) come face to face in July 1967. She's an open-hearted young Israeli from Bulgaria who's performing her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces; he's an attorney and Palestinian activist living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank city of Rahmallah.

More to the point, Dalia and her family are living in the house Bashir's father had built for his family in the 1930s in al-Ramla, Palestine, about 12 miles south of Tel Aviv. Most of the town's Arabs left or were driven out during and after Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

After June 1967's Six-Day War, Bashir and two cousins return to al-Ramla to see the the town they'd left as children. With some trepidation, Bashir knocks on the Eshkenazis' door. Dalia, who's alone in the house, smiles and welcomes in three strangers, three nervous-looking Arab men. This profoundly moving moment seems to embody all the emotional power of Abraham welcoming the three strangers before his and Sarah's tent in the book of Genesis.

Dalia's instinct to trust ("'As soon as I saw them,' she remembered, 'I felt, Wow, it's them. It was as if I'd always been waiting for them'") enables the whole narrative of The Lemon Tree to take shape and then to teach. Tolan's meticulously researched and balanced book is as good a primer on the roots of Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we're likely to get, especially because he uses Dalia and Bashir's stories to make sure the reader doesn't forget the authenticity of the dreams and grievances nursed by both sides. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has asked all its members to read The Lemon Tree this year. At St. John's, some of our once and future pilgrims, including Monica Swanson, had done so already. We eagerly took up the challenge and are now halfway through our study.

One thing most of us won't be able to do when we're done is participate in the popular ritual of identifying the Middle East's moment of original sin. There are far too many choices -- antisemitism, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, the Arab uprising in the 1930s, the failure of Palestinians to accept partition, the Six-Day War, Arab terrorism, West Bank settlements. Tolan hasn't touched on it yet and may not, but if we're scripturally inclined, if we like we can go all the way back to God's mischievousness in giving Canaan to Abraham and his followers even though people lived there already.

If you're stuck in an intractable problem or bruised relationship, if everyone's pointing fingers and no one can decide who's really at fault, what do you do? Friends remind me that often there is a right and wrong, there should be a winner and loser, there must be judgment and punishment. But increasingly it seems as though we're apt to demand judgment too hastily, give up too quickly on dialog and relationship, and resist acknowledging our own accountability.

Thankfully, Dalia and Bashir avoided such temptations. In chapter nine, Tolan recounts their first three meetings, two in al-Ramla and the third when Dalia persuades a friend to drive her to Ramallah so she can reciprocate Bashir's visits.

It's January 1968. The Israelis have just let him out of jail, where they'd interrogated him about the strike he organized among his fellow Palestinian attorneys. He's a potential Palestinian fighter, she's serving in the IDF, and they disagree completely on the recent history of their peoples. On paper, they have nothing in common besides their humanity. As Dalia tells Tolan later:
[T]his was an amazing situation to be in. That everyone could feel the warmth and the reality of our people meeting, meeting the other, and it was real, it was happening, and we were admiring each other's being, so to speak. And it was so tangible. And on the other hand, we were conversing of things that seemed totally mutually exclusive. That my life here is at their expense, and if they want to realize their dream, it's at my expense.
Tolan continues:
Each had chosen to reside with the contradiction: They were enemies, and they were friends. Therefore, Dalia believed, they had reason to keep talking; the conversation itself was worth protecting.
A preachment indeed to families, communities, Americans, and the Christian church from the front lines of the world's most difficult political conflict.


MK said...

Great post, thanks for putting it up. When I read about people in much more difficult circumstances than most of us live under here in the U.S. who can connect that way, it really makes me wonder why our public discourse has become so heated. By contrast, some of us Americans sure seem like big babies some times. I think that's because there are too many people who are vested in keeping dialogue at a cartoonish level rather than urging them, as you do, to rise above that and to aim higher and to do some heavy lifting.

That's especially the case as some of the issues just seem to be largely beyond the control of government (Democratic or Republican) to control, as we debated this morning in the unions thread, which developed into a Palin thread. From where I sit, many of the most contentious issues go back to how people develop their values, whether they feel struggle to control their impulses or are able to speak frankly at the most vulnerable moments to those in their lives to make choices that don't lead to more painful ones later. That applies in moments of intimacy as much as in family budgeting.

What you posted here just brought home for me how little we seem able to do with all the advantages we have in this country. We're not divided by forces that threaten to wipe us out or exile us away from our homes. Some of our issues would be less heated if we just stopped yelling at each other (or listening to angry demagogues) and took some moments to think about why an issue that registers strongly for one voter doesn't for another.

I once saw a psychologist describe something called an empathy deficit and explain how people can work to overcome that. Much of what is presented these days as Manichean struggles between good and bad on public policy really just is people looking at issues differently and comeing "from a different place," as I do on some of the issues that motivate social conservatives to vote but never affect me at the ballot box.

I think if there were more places in the virtual world where people could gather, as the woman and men in your essay visited with each other, and just found a safe haven for talking (similar to what you've created here at The Episconixonian) to explain how they view issues, a lot of the rhetoric in the U.S. on social and fiscal issues would cool down.

It doesn't have be us versus then black and white conflicts devoid of nuance, and probably wouldn't be, if people would tune out the pompous demagogues who thrive on conflict and posturing and instead talk to each other. As I once advised someone who was blathering on about stereotypes in an historians' forum, "go out and talk to your neighbors and colleagues, both those who vote as you do and those who don't." They're not nearly as scary as the angriest right and left wing demagogues paint them as being. If people can do that under much worse circumstances in the Middle East, why can't we?

Thanks for providing a safe haven in the virtual world similar to the two homes described in your essay.

Fr. John said...

What a gracious post and comment, Maarja. Many thanks.

It made me think of what sometimes happens on my Facebook page, where I link some of my blog posts. A number of our church members and some of our students are "friends," so my rule (unenunciated but strictly enforced) is that discourse be no more contentious that what one would expect in my living room with children present. As a result, I've had to delete perhaps a dozen comments by friends who resorted to ad hominem rhetoric, usually accusations of hypocrisy or hidden motives.

Knowing the people involved, most of whom are pretty bright, I think I understand why they sometimes resort to the nuclear option, but my speculations about their motives would be as inappropriate as theirs about others.

Far more often, FB debates are intense but polite, such as one that occurred today and yesterday about U.S.-Iran policy between a conservative Orange County friend and center-left NYC friend. They disagreed, but neither said anything personal or insulting about the other. I found myself marveling at their counter-cultural civility as well as the fact that they were debating at all (since without the watering hole of Facebook, they'd never have met).

It also reminds me of the times I've resorted to the sophism of personal disparagement. The best conversations occur (on-line and in person) when people are confident of their POV without being too emotionally invested. My bias is that being rooted in the peace of a mature spirituality helps. If you know you're safe, you can risk being wrong in a discussion and even being open to what you might learn from an opponent.

So why do we descend into incivility? Ego, pride, arrogance, woundedness, a lack of empathy (reaching epidemic levels, as you suggest) -- but mostly fear.

MK said...

Thank you for your great response to my comment. Apologies for the typos in mine, I often have more typos in comments I post at the end of the day than I do in the morning when I am fresh and wide awake!

Your point about speculation as to other posters' motives is very well made. I've engaged with people of various political viewpoints in different forums, some for years. I'll never be certain why they view some things as they do because the forums are limited to the topics at hand and don't enable one to see how someone was raised, what they've experienced in their personal or professional lives, and what has shaped them. It would be presumptious for anyone to call someone else out as hypocritical on anything they write under such circumstances. Better to counter their points or debate politicians' tactics than resort to ad hominems.

I've largely been spared personal attacks in my debates with people on the Internet. Sometimes, I have run into trollish behavior. My worst encounters have been with the man in a history forum who sneered in response to a post where I talked about exhibits, archives, and historians that at most he would hire me to curate urinating cats in his apartment. He is a hard right conservative who lives in Canada and from what I can see a very strong supporter of Israel.

Although I generally don't post comments on that site about the Middle East (a complicated topic for which to find solutions, as you point out), something about me has made that man decide to go after me. In a more recent exchange about Richard Dreyfuss's post about civics education, when I posted a comment agreeing with Dreyfuss that we need more civics classes of the type I once had in school, he lumped me in with Katie Couric and said of civics classes that "retired presidential librarians" (which I'm not, of course) could sit in a corner and take attendance. (Clearly a putdown on many levels. Why not say I could be involved in class discussions, instead?) Whether it is the fact that I am a woman or an Independent that annoys him, he often "debates" in a way as to show contempt for the me. I tend to think such belittlement hurts rather than helps his cause. My response tends to be, "why not show more confidence in conservatism, it actually has some reasonable principles?"

Other than that, I've been pretty lucky. I hold strong views on certain topics such as talk radio and cable, both of which I think have coarsened discourse and weakened our ability to talk to each other as Americans. Given our blessings of liberty and opportunity, I have trouble understanding why people appeal to others' baser rather than nobler instincts. I've heard Roger Ailes say he runs his operation as he does based solely on bringing in the viewers but as I wrote in my "The Wrong Guy" post at my blog, a David Gergen would have served the nation and the GOP and the network better.

Where incivility occurs, on the airwaves or on political blogs, I think it stems from just the reasons that you cite at the end of your post. We need people willing to say, "no, there's a better way." I'm glad you are willing to do the heavy lifting of guiding others towards the high road instead of falling instinctively onto the low road.

Anonymous said...

I take exception to your statement that Lemon Tree was, “meticulously researched and balanced.” The personal story of Dalia and Bashir's relationship is indeed noteworthy. But Tolan’s historical "context" for that relationship is distorted. He repeats Palestinian propaganda without question and reduces Israel's claim to the land of Israel as remedy for the Holocaust. He also glosses over the fact that the Palestinians and other Arabs tried to snuff out Israel at its birth, one unfortunate result of which was the expulsion of Bashir from his childhood home. Launch a war (of extermination, incidentally), lose it, and then think that the expulsion of Arab residents of Ramla from their homes justifies ANY behavior to return to those homes in a singular state called Palestine. This is the thinking Tolan tacitly endorses. In Tolan’s telling of the story, Dalia and Bashir do, however, unwittingly exemplify one essential truth about the conflict: The Jews of Israel are willing to share the land; the Palestinians are not.

Rachamim Slonim Dwek said...

To the Blogger: What you havent told your readers, and perhaps are not even aware of is that the entire story is a lie. Bashir al Khariri is the PFLP Poltiburo Director. The PFLP, or Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is a terrorist organisation. Among other things, in November of 2014 it had 2 members enter a synagoguge in Jerusalem and attack elderly rabbis deep in prayer from behind with meat cleavers and a pistol. 5 died as did a sixth man, a Druse traffic policeofficer who attempted to stop the carnage. al Khairi himself is responsible for personally committing acts of terrorism such as the February of 1969 Supersol and British Consulate bombings in Jerusalem. He personally obtained and distributed the explosives and components as well as signing off on the targets. 2 students were murdered only because they were Jews.

Dalia Eshkanazi, now surnamed Landau became a pariah among Israelis when she became al Khairi's lover and his stooge. Her centre for co-existence is a front organisation for the Israeli Communist Party and sadly, foreigners such as yourself get sucked in by pie-eyed propaganda. Please research issues before posting about them. As we see with your other comments your post has served to further propagandise.