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Israel-Palestine: Focus More on Talking and Less on the Politics of Talk

02/07/2014 12:16 EST | Updated 04/09/2014 05:59 EDT

There's been a lot said lately about the difficulties experienced by those who'd like to engage in honest conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether the focus has been on the policy effects of Prime Minister Harper's wilful indifference to Israeli culpability, the question of whether it's anti-Semitic for a non-Jew or for international organizations to criticize the Israeli state, or on community dynamics stopping Jews from publicly criticizing Israel, the shared concern is that dialogue that's so desperately needed just cannot happen.

These concerns are far from new, and they're also only half true.

The Jewish community in Canada didn't even concentrate on Israeli politics until the Six Day War in 1967. Resulting, however, from the fear that Israeli Jews were facing a second Holocaust, as well from a new confidence that was born out of decisive victory in the war, Israel was officially adopted by the Canadian Jewish mainstream. With awareness of the risks inherent to navigating a rough and complicated political terrain, an Israel-focussed identity grew to mean that Canadian Jewish organizations would unequivocally accept policies enacted by Israel's government of the day.

With UN Resolutions calling for Israel to exchange land won in war for peace with its Arab neighbours, the rise of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, and the sentiment that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were an obstacle to peace, Israelis mobilized peace and human rights movements, with activists and organizations openly challenging their government's policies.

While substantial dissent materialized in the American Jewish community during this time, Canadian Jews with critical views didn't tend to speak up. When even Zionist groups like Canadian Friends of Peace Now did organize events to debate Israeli policy, this was frowned upon and discouraged by mainstream organizations.

I encountered resistance to talk openly about Israel when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta. In 1991, as Co-President of Hillel, the Jewish Students Association, I and two colleagues decided to organize Jewish-Arab dialogue on campus. We found no one who identified as Palestinian at the time, but with Lebanese, Saudis, and Egyptians, we convened a series of meetings, one of which was promoted as being open to the public.

Souring our excitement, the local Jewish Federation coolly refused to recognize and endorse our work. A law professor told me I should join the PLO. And, on the day before the public event, I received a phone call from a chemistry professor who, after realizing he couldn't convince us to cancel, concluded the conversation by saying that Arabs would tell us one thing to our faces but then say the exact opposite to each other when we were no longer together.

The dialogues were intense, meaningful, and challenging. They even led to a smaller group of Jewish and Arab women who met for a while to continue discussing the Middle East. Reflective, however, of the politics of talking Israel-Palestine in the Jewish community, we faced heavy pressure not to do it. We were made to feel as though we were traitorous Jews who, by merely wanting to sit down and talk with Arabs, were selling out the existence of the State of Israel.

The Oslo Peace Process was the last serious political effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The death of Oslo, 9-11, Israel's and George Bush's successful equation of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians with Osama bin Laden and terrorism, the construction of Israel's security wall, and the continued expansion of Jewish settlements have mostly been accompanied by years of growing international disengagement. Today, the will for political involvement appears to be moribund, the Israeli peace movement is said to be dead, yet peoples' desire to talk more freely appears to be surging.

Talk is needed, especially to revive questions and possibilities that were once part of everyday political discussion. The Oslo process was flawed, but in that time, politicians, journalists, and citizens were forced to talk about whether Jerusalem could be shared, whether a limited number of Palestinian refugees could return to Israel, whether other countries could accept Palestinian refugees, whether settlements could be evacuated, whether Israel could take partial responsibility for the conflict, and whether Israel could be a state for all its citizens. These were hard questions, but they needed to be answered if Oslo's goal of a two-state solution was ever to be realized.

With calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions growing louder by the year, it's not entirely true that no one's talking now. Yet, since many of the activists that propose these tactics to tackle "Israeli Apartheid" reject Zionism, this talk tends to deflect the challenge that a political resolution cannot work if it doesn't sincerely engage the fact that there are two legitimate national movements whose interests must somehow be reconciled.

So, on the one hand, there's real pressure directed against Jews and non-Jews who want to talk about joint Israeli-Palestinian responsibility to solve the conflict. And, on the other hand, much of the talk that does take place, either supportive of or against Israel's status as a Jewish state, is too abstracted from concrete reality to be credible as discourses to solve the problem. Where to go from here?

It's understandable that recent actions of Canadian politicians and Jewish community leaders have led many to express frustration over what they see as stifled debate. And, there's real anxiety and pain that's caused by being wrongly called an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. But, the range of logical parameters for a resolution to the conflict have been known for some time, and in the absence of serious media and government engagement, it's time we move from dissecting the politics of talk to doing more substantive talking about mobilizing the politics and the political actors who are needed to forge constructive and just change in Israel-Palestine.

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