Dear Peter, come see the green shoots of Jewish and Palestinian coexistence

ITTAY FLESCHER: Peter Beinart’s dream is already a reality for thousands of Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren when they enter the gates of the Hand in Hand schools network

THE FIRST WRITTEN EXCHANGE of ideas between Jewish nationalists and Arab leaders in Palestine happened in 1899 when Yusuf Dia Pasha al-Khalidi, who was a former mayor of Jerusalem wrote to Zadok Kahn, the Chief Rabbi of France. Al-Khalidi said:

“Who can deny the rights of the Jews to Palestine? My God, historically it is also your country! However. since Palestine is already inhabited, Zionists should find another place for the implementation of their political goals… in the name of God let Palestine be left alone.”

The Chief Rabbi passed the letter on to Theodor Herzl, the founder of Modern Zionism, who wrote in response: “The Zionist idea, of which I am the humble servant, has no hostile tendency toward the Ottoman government. In allowing immigration to a number of Jews bringing their intelligence, their financial acumen and their means of enterprise to the country, no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result.

“The Jews have no belligerent power behind them, neither are they themselves of a warlike nature. They are a completely peaceful element, and very content if they are left in peace. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing to fear from their immigration.”

The arguments made for the legitimacy of both nationalisms haven’t changed much in the past 120 years. Many Palestinian citizens of Israel today still empathise with the anti-Semitism Jews endured that led them to desire a state of their own, but question why it is they who should pay the price for the horrific pogroms, farhud and even a Holocaust that was not committed in their name.


Many Israelis still believe, like Herzl did, that the Jews are not of a “warlike nature,” but a nation that can coexist with any neighbour when left in peace, as evidenced by the many offers made by Rabin, Barak and Olmert to end the conflict.

I was reminded of this exchange when I  read Peter Beinart’s essay last week, Yavne: A case for equality in Israel and Palestine. Delving into the valuable contribution Beinart made to resolve the differences that began with al-Khalidi and Herzl left me both inspired and despondent.

His choice of Yavne as proof for the viability of his visionary homeland and his exclusion of the Mizrachi experience from the Israeli narrative were both unfortunate choices. Further, his comments about Jewish Israeli fears of annihilation arising primarily through Holocaust memory rather than lived experience over the past 72 years erases the pain suffered by so many grieving parents.

Many Israeli Jews expressed concerns at Beinart’s vision, including prominent Israeli author Daniel Gordis, who wrote, “As heretical as this will sound to the Jewish universalist progressives who are Beinart’s minions, I care about both the Palestinians and the future of Judaism’s richness — but if forced to choose (which would not be the case if the Palestinian position was different), I’m going with the People I am blessed to be a part of.”

Dr Einat Wilf was more direct on Twitter, saying Beinart’s vision of a binational state would likely lead to “bloody mayhem and civil war.”

Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote, “Personally, I’d really love to live in Beinart’s new Israel-Palestine. It ticks all my boxes. But that’s just me. I can’t wait for his next essay where he explains how he’s going to come and persuade the rest of the Israeli-Palestinians they should go along with his idea.”

Pfeffer’s response neglects the fact that there are already large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians who are persuading their communities that there is nothing to fear from political and social equality on a daily basis.

The main weakness of Beinart’s argument for this writer was that his soaring vision, especially in the moving final paragraph, was written by an outsider with no skin in the game, not jointly by an Israeli and Palestinian. It was like reading Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, but with the speaker being a bureaucrat in Geneva, rather than a civil rights leader standing in front of 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial.

Beinart’s outsider status is relevant because his dream is already a reality for thousands of Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren every day when they enter the gates of the Hand in Hand schools network.

On my visit to the school in Jerusalem on Yom Hazikaron, I saw Jewish students commemorating fallen IDF soldiers, and Palestinian students commemorating the tragedy of the Naqba in separate rooms at the same time. Afterwards, they came together to read songs and poems about peace and coexistence. Neither gave up an inch of truth to their national narrative in the process.

During the 2015 stabbing intifada, when there was so much fear and hatred in the streets of this country, Channel 10 News visited that Hand in Hand school in Wadi Ara and asked the students what it was like being at a binational school during a time when there was so much violence outside.

The report took us into an alternative universe, showing an oasis of safety made by Jews and Arabs who have taught their children not to fear, or believe lies about, the other. None of this is fiction or fantasy, and it doesn’t just happen at the Hand in Hand Schools.

As the Education Director at Kids4Peace Jerusalem, I have facilitated hundreds of programs on a weekly basis for the past two years, that seek to imagine what true equality could look like in this holy city. As a member of the Alliance for Middle East Peace Network, I have met with hundreds of other NGOs in the peace field that do the same work every day, reaching tens of thousands of people through their programs, camps, seminars and festival celebrations.

There are also mass movements on both sides of the wall, such as Standing Together, Zazim, Ta’ayush, Taghyeer and Gaza Youth Committee that combine their social activism with political advocacy directed at their own leaders in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza.

A strong sense of nationalism and pride in one’s history and religious identity doesn’t have to mean a rejection, as Gordis tried to assert, of my neighbour’s right to justice and equality.

He ignored the fact that Beinart’s concern for the future of the Palestinians is motivated precisely in order to preserve Israel’s spiritual character, and a desire to ensure that Zionism does not become another tool for asserting Jewish dominance.

The Amal-Tikva initiative to support civil society peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians captured this tension beautifully in its recent report, and explained why peace need not be a zero-sum game. Its finding was echoed  by Dr Khalil Shikaki, director of of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, who said the public is not an obstacle to peace on either side, yet both the Israeli and Palestinian public are not driving forces for peace, either. “The people are not taking the lead to demand progress from their leaders. Public opinion in both Palestine and Israel is therefore not an impediment to an agreement but it will not drive one forward without a significant change of circumstances.”

From another angle, Israeli academic Dr Micah Goodman states that most Israelis and Palestinians he has encountered fall into two categories. Either they believe  the conflict can be solved with extraordinary risks and costs, or they believe  the conflict can be managed and the status quo sustained indefinitely.

Goodman proposes a third option of gradually shrinking the conflict, with the hope that as the pieces of the conflict get solved gradually, the bigger picture elements will become more solvable.

The common denominator of both arguments is the belief that both societies can be convinced that equality is possible without the threat of destruction. In the words of Amal-Tikva: “by eliminating tangible elements of the conflict bit by bit. As peacebuilding initiatives succeed in this plan, peace will feel more achievable and therefore become more achievable.”

I  saw how this could happen when I led a group of 12 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers from Kids4Peace to Belfast last summer in partnership with ReThinking Conflict. Through a week of meeting with politicians, former fighters, prisoners, bereaved families, and many Catholic and Protestant teenagers who only know of a Northern Ireland that exists after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, we showed them that maybe, peace could be possible here too.

These shifts in thinking don’t just happen in peace organisations in Jerusalem. From the wards of our hospitals where the mostly Palestinian medical staff at Hadassah Ein Karem, Makassed and Saint Joseph Hospitals cared for the mainly Haredi corona patients over the past months, to the streets of Jerusalem where Jewish activists protest weekly demanding Justice for Iyad Al Hallak, acts of solidarity with the other can be found everywhere.

On a larger level, there also needs to be a change in thinking when it comes to how money is spent in the region. For too long, the biggest beneficiaries of foreign government spending in Israel and Palestine have been armies and militant groups.

Organisations that promote compromise and dialogue often struggle to support their programs, a situation that the Alliance for Middle East Peace is trying to reverse through the creation of a “Middle East Partnership for Peace” fund to radically increase the scope of people to people programs.

Ultimately the best way to be part of the change is for well-meaning people who want to see a just solution to live here and/or support those who have been living the values of coexistence and mutual respect for generations through their words and deeds.

I see this every day in my hometown. Jerusalem is a city-state where the one thing the Zionist, Haredi and Palestinian population of this city all have in common is their overwhelming opposition to a two-state solution that would divide the city.

Whether we finally end up with a two-state, confederation, federation or bi-national state is less relevant to people here than the question of whether that solution upholds the value of equality in planning, access to holy sites, policing, education and most importantly security for all.

Dreams of equality for all minorities will remain as unlived visions on op-ed pages if people refuse to believe they can become realities. Let’s not fall victim to despair; that emotion has caused us enough suffering already. To anyone who wants to see real equality, now is the time – more than ever – to be a part of the movement for change.

Photo: Kindergarten in the “Gesher al HaWadi” Hand in Hand School in Wadi Ara (Hand in Hand Facebook page)