Palestinian-Jewish Encounters of the Rigged Kind

Jewish-Palestinian dialogue organizations offer feel good encounters that do not serve the cause of peace.

On 2 August 1990 Iraq launched a full scale invasion of Kuwait. Conservative estimates place the number of Kuwaiti civilian deaths at over 1000; additional military casualties increased the death toll considerably. If only before that horrible war the citizens of Kuwait had displayed the moral fortitude to journey to Iraq and had met with average Iraqi citizens. Perhaps in making the effort  and coming to recognize their shared humanity the resulting Gulf War could have been avoided.

Sam Bahour is regular featured speaker at Encounter programs. He is affiliated with ‘Al Shabaka’ (a group which opposes all PA negotiations with Israel), and has signed the Stuttgart declaration calling for a one-state solution.

Sam Bahour is a regular featured speaker at Encounter programs. He is affiliated with ‘Al Shabaka’ (a group which opposes all PA negotiations with Israel), and has signed the Stuttgart declaration calling for a one-state solution.

Absurd? Perhaps, but switch Iraq for Palestine and Israel for Kuwait and the above premise is peddled by at least a half dozen well funded Jewish/Palestinian dialogue outfits.

Encounter is one such organization that takes North American Jews on trips to Palestinian controlled areas (PA) to meet with carefully selected locals.

Encounter solely recruits those whom they identify as “Jewish leaders” for their choreographed interactions with  Palestinian counterparts. As Encounter explains “Underlying all of Encounter’s work is the core belief that innovative strategies for peace will be created only when influential stakeholders in a conflict have opportunities to meet one another.”

But these “innovative strategies for peace” may be encumbered by realities on the ground.

The human rights monitoring consortium, Freedom House identifies the Palestinian controlled territories as “Not Free”, placing the PA in the same category as nations like Iran, Syria and Sudan. 

According to Freedom House Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s term expired in 2009 but no presidential elections have since been held nor are any planned.  Journalists who criticize the PA or Fatah face arbitrary arrests, threats, and physical abuse. Palestinian Christians have experienced intimidation and harassment by radical Islamist groups and PA officials. Protests against PA policies are generally disallowed and forcibly dispersed.  

There are reportedly hundreds of administrative detainees currently in Palestinian jails. Alleged collaborators [with Israel] are routinely tortured. In Palestinian Authority military courts  trials are often summary and occasionally result in death sentences.  Palestinian Authority statute prohibits the sale or transfer of land to any Jewish person at penalty of death.

Encounter participants being shown the

Encounter participants being shown the “Israeli Apartheid Wall”. Photo Credit: Encounter Programs

The ability of any Palestinian other than those in the uppermost hierarchy of the entrenched leadership to influence policy is zero to none. Thus any influencing being done is one way, and it is not Palestinian society that is to be influenced.

Despite the repressive tactics used to crush dissent, nothing is taken for granted in these PA sanctioned Encounter kumbaya sessions.

According to one Encounter attendee “The Jewish participants spent the entire time listening to Palestinian views. There was never an opportunity by Jewish participants to even briefly explain the Jewish/Israeli narrative. Indeed, such ‘counter narratives’ were explicitly forbidden by the program organizers.”

There was never an opportunity by Jewish participants to even briefly explain the Jewish/Israeli narrative.

This is freely acknowledged by Encounter who explain that “By design, we are not a dialogue orga­ni­za­tion.” Rather than provide a safe forum for a much needed true sharing of perspectives, Encounter expects Jewish participants to “listen to and absorb Palestinian narratives and claims”.  In this way “participants expose themselves to viewpoints that they formerly may have disdained. The experience enables them to integrate these new perspectives rather than defend against them.”

The foundational premise of Encounter, that American Jews somehow “disdain” the Palestinian viewpoint is in and of itself prejudiced, offensive and not fact based. While many disdain terrorism and the deliberate targeting of civilians, acts that are incontrovertibly associated with both Palestinian leadership factions, Hamas and Fatah, American Jews for the most part see Palestinians as potential partners for peace. In fact American Jews are significantly more optimistic than the U.S. general public that a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully.  According to the recent Pew Poll 61% of American Jews say Israeli-Palestinian coexistence  is possible, compared with just 50% of the American public overall.

American Jews for the most part see Palestinians as potential partners for peace.

In the controlled monologue described by an Encounter participant “Not one Palestinian, when discussing their long-term vision for the region, advocated a two-state solution, nor expressed any empathy for Jewish aspirations.”

Not one Palestinian, when discussing their long-term vision for the region, advocated a two-state solution.

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum. Photo Credit: HNT

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum. Photo Credit: HNT

This experience differs a bit from that of Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, Senior Rabbi of Mercer Island’s Herzl Ner-Tamid Congregation. In a recent article he shared in Seattle’s JTNews Rabbi Rosenbaum was encouraged by his ability to persuade one of the Encounter participants, a young Palestinian named Hashem, to at least consider that Israel may have a right to exist as an independent Jewish state.

Rabbi Rosenbaum shared that “When it was time for questions, a member of our group asked Hashem, “What is your dream for the future?”  “A bi-national state,” he responded. It was like icicles had entered the room. A bi-national state is a recipe for the destruction of Israel.”

It turns out, Rabbi Rosenbaum explained, that Hashem’s advocacy for a one state solution was based on his assumption “that if there were two states, neither side could enter the other one. He, for example, would never be allowed to visit Jaffa.”

The irony of this supposition is that any Israeli who inadvertently stumbles into the Palestinian territories risks the most horrible of outcomes, while Israel allows Palestinians entry into Israel with  less hassle than the average American would receive trying to enter say Russia, China or India. 

After Rabbi Rosenbaum posited to Hashem “What if there were two states, one with a clear Jewish identity and one with a clear Palestinian identity? You could visit Jaffa, and an Israeli Jew could visit Hebron. Would that be compatible with your dream of peace?” His Palestinian counterpart was generously willing to entertain the idea of Jewish self determination.

Hashem’s unexpected flexibility softened Rabbi Rosenbaum’s initial skepticism “I was ready to give up on Hashem and walk away on the basis of two words  he used in a sentence [bi-national state]. But because I hung in there a little longer, I found out that our differences were not irreparable.”

For every Palestinian like Hashem who was moved to ponder  a two-state solution, how many Jewish participants in the controlled Encounter environment leave with a new or fortified willingness to consider the suicidal one state solution?

This writer has also experienced the intoxicating rush of direct dialogue with those who wish my people to disappear. At a recent anti-Israel event at the University of Washington I engaged in a similar encounter with two self identified Palestinians. With the sharing of perspectives I could literally feel the rush of endorphins flooding my brain as we endeavored to find common ground.

Once the high wore off I realized that my contact with the Palestinian students would make no more difference in ending this awful conflict  than a dialogue between average Kuwaiti and Iraqi citizens could have prevented Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are not responsive to the will of the masses unless that will is accompanied by brute force. As we learned from recent events in Egypt (and in Hamas run Gaza for that matter), even the use of such force is no indicator that the resulting regime will be any more enlightened.

Should dialogue and contact between Jews and Palestinian Arabs continue? Of course they should, just as they do every single day in Israel; in grocery stores, hospitals, private homes, buses, parks, malls and workplaces. But staged, controlled and strongman approved “Encounters” serve only one side of the conflict, the side that wishes for Israel to cease to exist.

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