American Jews and Palestinians Must Strive to Listen to Each Other

By Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat and Jeremy Ben-Ami
on November 2, 2016

J Street’s blog aims to reflect a range of voices. The opinions expressed in blog posts do not necessarily reflect the policies or view of J Street.  

Last month, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami engaged in a ground-breaking series of public discussion events on the West Coast with Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO Representative to the United States. In the post below, the two explain why they believe it’s deeply important to increase dialogue between the Palestinian and American Jewish communities, as part of paving a path forward toward a two-state solution and a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

Sometimes, simply having a conversation can be controversial.

As representatives of, respectively, the Palestine Liberation Organization and J Street, a major American Jewish pro-Israel organization, we know that the simple act of sitting down to speak together publically is viewed by some in our communities as unacceptable and politically risky.

Nonetheless, we believe this kind of engagement is of vital importance. That’s why we held a series of public discussion events last month in Seattle, San Francisco and San Jose.

As individuals, our personal backgrounds could not be more different. One of us was born in Jericho, in the West Bank, to a Palestinian family that has lived there for generations.

The other is the grandson of founders of Tel Aviv and the son of a right-wing Zionist who fought for the creation of the state of Israel.

We also have much in common. We are both middle-aged men and fathers. We want to leave a world for our children in which our peoples are working together for a better future, not fighting endlessly over the injuries and injustices of the past.

We want to teach them to live with curiosity and compassion, open to learning from and befriending those who are different from them.

We want to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

We know how the conflict must end – with two states: an independent and sovereign Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security. That is the common goal and the common future that we work towards.

We don’t underestimate the challenge of reaching this outcome. The devil is in the details – and there are many of them. But they can be worked out with good will and a spirit of compromise from both sides, and with the assistance and leadership of the United States and the international community.

We can get there. But only if we start down that road by demonstrating the courage to talk to one another.

Sadly, many Palestinian-Americans and Palestinian supporters have never heard from or engaged with an Israeli, or with representatives of the American Jewish community. Many pro-Israel American Jews have never heard a Palestinian relate their own experiences with the conflict or listened to their hopes for peace, dignity and a better future.

That unfamiliarity often mirrors the situation inside Israel and Palestine, where an increasing number of Israelis have never met a Palestinian, and where the only Israelis that Palestinians often meet are soldiers and settlers.

For some Palestinians and Israelis and their advocates here in the United States, there can be nothing meaningful or useful to discuss with a representative of the “other side.” They argue that meeting with those you have been fighting can legitimize their narrative, undermining our exclusive claim on righteousness and truth.

That leads to an increasing inability to recognize each other’s common humanity. It creates the impression of a zero-sum game. If “they” win, we must lose. For us to survive, “they” must be defeated.

In reality, the destinies of Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined. Neither can truly have peace, justice and prosperity while the conflict persists. Supporters of both sides need to begin to learn to view each other as partners for change, rather than as eternal antagonists.

We are not coming together for these conversations because we agree on everything. If we did, there would be nothing to discuss. But refusing to engage with those whose words may trouble or discomfort us is a recipe for continuing a cycle of mistrust and recrimination.

We have to make clear – Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians – that there is a bridge we can build between “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” positions that advances our shared quest for peace, security and freedom for the generations to come.

To build that bridge, we need to understand each others’ legitimate aspirations and concerns.