NEW YORK — Can you handle some positive news about dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians?
Like many of us, I suspect, I tend to discount reports of progress on the Mideast peace front as naïve or exaggerated. But I was impressed on hearing of the recent work of a longtime friend, Hillel Levine, an ordained rabbi and sociology and religion professor at Boston University, who is a veteran Mideast observer with no illusions about the level of mistrust between Arabs and Jews or the mounting tensions in the region.
During a brief stop in New York earlier last month, he described the work of the International Center for Conciliation (ICC), a nonprofit NGO he founded in 2001. He spoke of the “great developments largely ignored by the media” taking place now in Israel on the grassroots level between small groups of Jews and Arabs, which gives renewed hope to establishing positive relationships on a personal and communal level.
Levine’s colleague, Anuradha Desai, executive director of the ICC, noted, “these are little rays of light [because] we are a small operation, but we have learned that people want to tell their story and they want to be heard.”
In May, the ICC formed a partnership with Ossim Shalom, an Israeli professional organization of some 1,600 social workers, and held an initial workshop for 26 experienced
facilitators, both Arabs and Jews, training them in the ICC’s method of “historical conciliation.” The facilitators, in turn, are convening ongoing discussions for small groups around the country.
The premise here is that “while conventional wisdom holds that peacemaking requires leaving the grievances of the past behind and focusing on current, common interests,” according to the organization’s literature, the reality is that the past must be explored, discussed and understood on both sides before any progress can be made.
The failure of the Oslo agreements to lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace on a national level underscores the weakness of a strategy that involves high-level deliberations on next steps but ignores the emotional history of communities, families and individuals on both sides.
Levine is passionate and articulate in speaking of his pro-bono work, in which “pained memory” is used as a means of creating empathy in a society. It’s a formula he has employed in Cambodia, India, Japan and Korea since he founded the ICC in 2001.
“Our approach to developing reciprocal and functional relationships,” he explains, is by dealing with society “from the bottom up, not from the top down,” so that participants hear the grievances of “the other.” That way, through guided workshops, people stop pointing fingers and start seeing each other as humans, whether or not they accept their adversary’s narrative.
Resistance to such efforts remains strong, but the discussions have yielded positive results, leading to improved cooperation, Levine says. As an example, he related how the ICC and Ossim Shalom have created workshops in six diverse “hot spot” Israeli communities, coupling sustained dialogue with a sustained community improvement program to re-enforce the notion that open discussion can lead to concrete action.
In one case, the group visited a rundown Arab cemetery and agreed to work together to restore it as a sign of respect.
In another, the facilitators dealt with how Israeli companies should be sensitized to Arab workers’ feelings on Israeli Memorial Day, when nationwide sirens call for a moment of silence to honor Israel’s fallen soldiers.
“We need to reframe Yom HaZikaron [Memorial Day] to recall that many lives were lost on both sides and that those people need to be honored,” Levine says, stressing the importance of balancing personal as well as political values in a pluralistic society.
While the ICC is not a Jewish group per se, Levine says that as a rabbi, he struggles with Jewish texts and sees pluralism as a Jewish value. And he is critical of what he calls “the pessimism that polarizes the American Jewish community” when it comes to Arab-Jewish dialogue, noting that when he speaks to Jewish federations or foundations in seeking support, “their common wisdom is that it doesn’t work.”
“The past has to be addressed,” he maintains, before real progress can be made. “We have to be concerned with the voice of the victim.”
Levine is no stranger to speaking out against the Establishment or citing Jewish values to redress perceived wrongs. A New York native and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary under Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he always seemed ahead of his time, visiting the Soviet Union and advocating for Soviet Jewry in the early 1960s, before there was such a movement. He spoke for Ethiopian Jews well before their plight was widely known, and he helped pioneer the chavura movement. And it was Levine who symbolized the student protest at the 1969 General Assembly of the Jewish federations, speaking to the delegates about the need to make Jewish education a top priority, a revolutionary demand at the time.
When I first wrote about him 30 years ago, some associates described him as “a prophet,” and a close friend of his told me: “Hillel has no patience; it’s his best and worst quality.”
But over the years he has learned to take the long view in working toward conciliation, one conversation at a time, whether it be in facilitating dialogue between Koreans and Japanese about the Korean “comfort women” forced into slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II, or helping Cambodian villagers get “unstuck” from their memories of the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Levine says history and geography have pitted Jews and Palestinians against each other in the Mideast, and that Americans, and particularly American Jews, need to be engaged in the kind of advocacy that will ease the pain on both sides. “This is not a time for Jews to disassociate from Israel” because of Jerusalem policies they may disagree with, but rather to “intensify our efforts to establish a more civil society.”
Losing hope is not an option, he says. Beyond honest dialogue, what choice is there?
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. The column previously appeared in The Week.)