Two years ago, on one of my frequent trips to Israel, I spent a day traveling with a group of American Jews to Bethlehem, for the purpose of listening to Palestinians and learning about their work in community-building and conflict resolution. The trip was sponsored by Encounter, a remarkable program whose purpose it is to bring diverse groups of Jews to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians and learn about the daily reality of their lives.

In the emotional processing session after we returned to Jerusalem, one person after another (including those, like me, who had taken many such trips to the West Bank) wrestled with how utterly different the reality is on the other side of the Green Line. Life circumstances are radically different, as are perspectives on the conflict, its history, and its possible resolution. My friend Susan Cobin astutely remarked that the experience highlighted for her the necessity of knowing and attending to two very different realities, two different narratives, and two radically different analyses of the conflict, and holding them in mind at one time. She said it was like watching two different movies on “split screens,” simultaneously. This is extremely difficult to do, and it is absolutely essential if peace is to come.

Today I experienced the failure of a renowned Palestinian diplomat to see both screens before her eyes. I had looked forward to hearing Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a woman who has served as a Palestinian spokesperson, legislator, and negotiator, intimately involved in peace negotiations with Israelis for decades. I found her brilliant, eloquent, and erudite. But, at least in her talk today at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, she exhibited no ability whatever to see both “screens” in her mind. She spoke out of the Palestinian narrative, as well she should, but without even the slightest acknowledgement that Israelis see the matter differently.

Let me be clear. I find it deeply objectionable when anyone – Israeli or Palestinian, Jew, Christian or Muslim, speaks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without demonstrating at least a desire to comprehend that the two peoples have different realities, different stories, profoundly different ways of understanding the region in which they live. In my view, this failure of empathy, while understandable after decades of war, sorrow and hate, is the core obstacle to peace. I have become more and more convinced that every leader – and all responsible citizens - must cultivate this quality, and must never speak of one reality without at least attempting to acknowledge a different and legitimate truth on the “other side.”

I am very sad to say that I found Dr. Ashrawi’s presentation deeply disappointing in this sense. There is surely more work to do.

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An Outbreak of Civility

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Tragedy for Gaza and for Israel