Photo Credit: HaBeit
Yishai Fleischer at the HaBeit Conference

Recently, at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center a forum hosted by the Home/Bayit organization, had a candid and wide-ranging discussion on ways to solve the conflicts in Israel between the Israeli’s and Palestinians and create something new and better for everyone in the Holy Land.

The fact that discussion of volatile issues could take place in such an atmosphere of respect was even more impressive than the solutions proposed. Inon Dan Kehati is chairman and founder of Home/Bayit, and his insistence on respectful and open dialogue really worked. One panelist quipped, “how many conferences have you all attended where everyone stays for four hours?” The energy was hopeful despite the potential for rancor. The respectful atmosphere meant that each participant could express the nuances of their views, which lessened the potential for polarization.

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For example, Sami B Awad is a member of the Arab Christian community in Bethlehem, and one of the panelists. He indeed supports the BDS movement as a means to pressure Israel to address the grievances of the Palestinian population here, and decidedly not as an effort to displace or threaten Jews. He sharply criticized parts of the BDS movement for harboring antisemites who have no interest in Israel, but are joining BDS due to their distaste for the Jewish people. This he rejects outright, and in the strongest language. So as threatening as the actions of BDS can be to many, it was refreshing to see this nuanced approach.

We need more of that. And there was.

Sheikh Abu Khalil Tamimi of Ramallah has a bearing both regal and low-key. He rejects the mixing of religion and politics. He has studied under the Tablighi Jamaat movement, a pacifist Muslim movement founded in India nearly a century ago, which emphasizes the importance of one’s personal character improvement and rejects involvement in politics. True to his position, he maintains that it matters less whether there is one or two states, what is essential is freedom of movement for all people of the land in the entire land. Arab and Jew should be able to travel and live wherever they like. Rights for all, everywhere. And he added, “according to the Qur’an, the Jews will gather here in this land at the End of Days. And this is what we are witnessing!”

The Sheikh spoke in Arabic, with Sami B Awad translating. It was just part of the beautiful atmosphere of the evening – a Christian translating as a Sheikh quoted the Qur’an.

Oslo is dead was pretty much the consensus, the majority in attendance seemed to agree that a two state solution simply does not meld with the aspirations of the people actually living here. Both Arab and Jew love the entire Holy Land. Both Arab and Jew yearn for freedom of movement in its entirety, in the entire land. The concept of – “you go get your rights over there, and not here” was held up as a mockery of justice and a solution unacceptable to both Arab and Jew alike.

Freedom of movement for all, everywhere in the land

The desire for freedom of movement for all was echoed repeatedly throughout the evening by most of the panel. Ahmed Maswade, law student from Bir Zeit university and resident of East Jerusalem, put it this way, “I want Jews to be able to go to Hebron and Arabs to be able to go to Jaffa.” He does advocate for a Palestinian state, but with porous borders with Israel and one in which Jews can live freely. Sami stated, “it cannot be that the only way I can express my Christianity is on Christmas day in Bethlehem. I want to be able to visit Christian sites up in the Gallilee, and to visit the churches in Jerusalem.” Sheikh Abu Khalil Tamimi, trained to eschew both politics and state borders, echoed this need – and we heard the same expressed by Jewish leaders as well.

Rabbi Gabriel Reiss of the Lavi organization lives in the Judean Desert with his family. With his trademark gritty passion and big-hearted concern for all, he addressed the Arabs present by apologizing “on behalf for myself at least, because how, 60-plus years after the founding of the state of Israel, can there still be Palestinian refugees living in camps?” Applause stole some time off of his ten minute slot. An advocate for Jewish sovereignty in the entire land, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, sovereignty means responsibility for all inhabitants of the Land. Two state solutions amount to a certain schizophrenia, in which no leaders need take responsibility: the state of Israel can claim, why should we invest in areas that we are destined to give up? And leaders from the PA can claim, the occupation is preventing us from improving the lives of the Palestinians. That leaves people suffering in the middle. A one state solution would mean responsibility and a better life for all.

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen of Alternative Action echoed the call for sovereignty-cum-responsibility for the entire land by decrying the current water shortage in Bethlehem. “It should be considered an embarassment that anyone lacks water in the Jewish homeland.” Echoing the discussion about identity, he emphasized the importance of expanding the narrative of each community, so that all residents of the Land have a real awareness of the aspirations and experience of each other.

Rabbi Yishai Fleisher is spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron. He combines a sense of humor with a broad knowledge of history and law. His humor is admittedly tinged by a certain sadness; he explained that he is part of a movement of those holding on tightly to what they value most, and feeling under constant threat from many directions. “We are like roots, holding on tight, and roots are not always pretty.”

“Hebron!” He teased, throwing out that word to the audience, “what do you think of when you hear that word? Settlers, land-grabbing, violence? What we should think of is – this is the place where my forefathers and foremothers are buried….Think about it – the members of Hebron have a religious ideology, are armed, you would think we would be shooting every day and we are not.” And later on, attorney Jonothan Kittub, Palestinian Christian and human rights activist, decried the way the residents of Judea and Samaria have been portrayed in the media. “In order to push Oslo, the efforts of the settlers had to be put in a negative light.” An unfair portrayal he rejects outright.

And for even more nuanced views, Attorney Kittub decried ‘puppeteering’ in the form of democracy. He put it bluntly – people do not need a “parliament,” they need the representation and civil rights, not some body that marginalizes anyone who disagrees. We do not need a “state,” we need self-determination, not a sham government.

Palestinian self-determination is still part of the vision of the Arab panelists who were present, but this would not come at the expense of freedom of residency and movement for all. Their vision is that two states would have porous boundaries with Jews living freely in Judea and Samaria, and Arabs within the ’67 borders, members of both populations free to travel and work where they wish.

A representative of J Street represented her view against the occupation of Judea and Samaria very aptly, and it was moving to hear her family’s personal story which proved her love for the state of Israel and heartfelt concern that the state live up to democratic principals. When members of the Arab community from Judea and Samaria expressed willingness to live under Jewish sovereignty, as long as citizenship and civil rights were granted, she did not capture the nuanced mood of the evening. Israel must withdraw from those territories was her final word, no compromise. This was, in her words, in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state. Good for Inon for inviting her and really living up to freedom of dialogue among different views; I was taken aback at her inflexible stance. That may change.

What she was hinting at was preserving a Jewish majority within the green line – what Yehuda HaKohen refers to as “demographophobia.”

Demographophohia

Activist Emanuel Shahaf mentioned that now that Israel does not rule Gaza, we need not fear a demographic threat. Jews will remain in the majority, even including Judea and Samaria. Murmurs of of disagreement with his basic premise followed. Yehuda HaKohen has spoken against the whole concept of “demographic threat”, stating that neither side should fear a member of the other population having this or that number of babies. We need a paradigm that jettisons this fear.”Demographic threat” is the main reason some want to relinquish Judea and Samaria – it is to remain in the demographic majority within the green line. Population numbers as a factor in democracy just does not work in the middle east. It may seem generous to give up territory, but this really means giving up people – we do not want to know from you, go get your rights over there and not here – not real generous after all. Many in fact actually want to live in harmony, together.

Jonothan Kittub added that given Jewish sensitivities about security, no matter what the demographics, Jews need to run the security establishment. This was a perfect example of someone who was able to conceptualize what is essential to another community – the expanded narrative that Yehuda HaKohen is advocating for. We can create paradigms that are uniquely suited to the fabric of middle east culture. One is the need to embrace overlapping identities and an expanded narrative. And fears of a “demographic threat” have to be jettisoned.

Inon Kehati graciously gave me the floor to propose the concept of Muslim and Jewish religious courts that will work in parallel and unison to adjudicate conflict and to guide our peoples philosophically. The courtroom of the media will be replaced by the adjudication of G-d fearing leaders who will rule on the issues and rumors that divide our peoples. I am quite serious – the first meeting of Sheikhs and Rabbis is scheduled in a month’s time!

This was but one example of efforts to acknowledge the Other, an effort we were all making that evening, despite our differences, getting towards a unified narrative that will serve all peoples that dwell in the Land.

Finally.

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Rebecca Abrahamson is active in cultural diplomacy, has traveled in this capacity to Istanbul and Cairo, co-hosted a conference on making the UN Resolutions for a Culture of Peace into law at the Knesset, and is editor of "Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims." She is married to Ben Abrahamson, who is also active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue and cultural diplomacy, and busy with her children and grandchildren.