On Oct. 4, hosted an academic celebrity, Paul Mendes-Flor.
A wide cross section of the community came to hear him speak about Martin Buber's theology of dialogue as it applied to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
It was the most incoherent lecture I have ever attended.
Forget that Mendes-Flor’s lecture pages were scrambled and some were missing. The speaker’s premise seemed to be (he never clarified this) that the reason Israelis and Palestinians have not made peace is that they have not engaged in trustworthy dialogue.
Mendes-Flor, on the other hand, demurred that he had been participating, even organizing, dialogues between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews for some twenty years. I wanted to jump up and ask, “So what good has it done?”
Dialogue—the art of serious human encounter—creates a profound experience between the individuals involved in the honest and open exchange of personhood. It is not the solution to geo-political problems.
The key to the failure of the presentation came, for me, when Mendes-Flor stated, with pain in his heart, that with the creation of Israel, 450 Arab villages disappeared. I don’t doubt the correctness of his statistic.
Nor do I doubt the pain this reality has caused the human beings who used to live in these villages. But Mendes-Flor left out a key fact—the United Nations, when it created Israel in 1948 (mostly in the Negev Desert) also created a Palestinian state (in the fertile north) and internationalized Jerusalem. The Jewish response was to dance in the street. The Palestinian response was to flee their villages so that the armies of the surrounding Arab nations could invade and drive the Jews into the sea.
It wasn’t the creation of Israel that led to the disappearance of 450 Arab villages; it was the rejection of a Palestine on only part of the land of Britain’s mandate territory that led to the disappearance of these villages.
I embrace Martin Buber and I am sympathetic to Mendes-Flor’s desire for dialogue among enemies. But the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to create a two-state solution is not for lack of dialogue; it has to do with larger geo-political forces and subtle practical issues that the ideological battles fail to take into account.
Ideology often governs how we organize facts... but I was amazed that Mendes-Flor did not even explain to the students at Lafayette who Maratin Buber was or why he had an ongoing literary and philosophical debate with Gandhi over the nature of post-holocaust Zionism.
He failed to explain his own ideology and spoke as if there were no other factors governing the conflict in Israel. When a grown up present posited that he could not imagine Israel giving up its settlements (implying that there could never, therefore, be a settlement with the Palestinians) Mendes-Flor failed to challenge such thinking or offer an alternative view.
(There were no settlements in 1948 when the Palestinians rejected even a tiny Jewish state. There were no settlements in 1967 when the three famous "no"s came out of Khartoum: "No recognition; no negotiation; no peace.")
Of course much as changed since Khartoum and many Palestinians want to prosper alongside Israel. But Israel withdrew from Gaza and got nothing but rocket attacks in response.
And Israel offered to accept a Palestinian state in the West bank withdrawing some settlements and swapping equal areas of land for others—to create a Palestinian state on land equivalent to pre-1967 boundaries and also to share governance over Jerusalem--but Palestinians, or their leaders, are not yet prepared to accept this. (The last time Arabs controlled east Jerusalem they used Jewish gravestones to make latrines.) Mendes-Flor’s presentation raised many questions for me.
I would have asked Mendes-Flor about the settlements protecting aquifers that Israeli agriculture could not survive without. Would a Palestinian state guarantee the sharing of this precious water?
I'd have asked him about a possible American pledge to Egypt and Jordan to guarantee an unarmed Palestine--no army, no air force. When the Palestinians accept that one difficult condition for a settlement they'll have their state. Maybe not fair but that's geopolitics. The surrounding Arab countries do not seem to want a Palestinian state that could destabilize their own countries.
Jordan controlled the West Bank from 1948 until 1967 and did not create a Palestinian state. (Jordan, in fact, is itself, a Palestinian state—created by Britain out of the huge majority of the original Palestine mandate. Britain’s original plan was to create a state for Palestinians in what became Jordan and then keep that tiny part of what remained of “Palestine"—today’s Israel—for itself to control.)
In family therapy we say that if one child seems taller (i.e. more powerful) than a parent, it's probably because he or she is sitting on the shoulders of the other parent. Likewise with Israel and Palestine. They are clients of larger political patrons. When we don't understand something in family therapy we "go wider (i.e. look at factors outside the nuclear family--grandparents, work, affair, etc.) Likewise, one has to "go wider" to understand the Middle East--America's interests, Iran's interests, now Turkey's interests...
To tell students that there's no peace simply because there hasn't been enough dialogue is a message from La-la land. Instead of "going wider" to understand context and explain the many forces at work Mendes-Flor went narrower--even though his own admitted years of working at dialogue have produced bubkes.