On Gaza … wisdom for the way forward

My friend Eboo Patel offers wise counsel on breaking out of our current solution deadlock in two recent posts at On Faith. The full posts are included with permission below the jump, and are available at the On Faith blog as well …
Here … and here
Status Quo vs. Solution for Middle East
I spent much of the weekend communicating with Muslim and Jewish leaders on the recent crisis in Gaza. Here was my basic question: “Have you reached out to leaders in the other community to find a solution to the conflict?”
Here was the most common answer: “I’d love to talk to people in the other community. Can you give me the phone numbers of folks who agree with our position? If they’ll appear with us at a media event, or put their name on our press release, that’s even better.”
That’s a perfectly understandable instinct, but it doesn’t lead to a solution. It’s just a continuation of the logic that has led us here.
As I stated in my previous post, the rules of rhetorical engagement for Muslim and Jewish organizations regarding the Middle East were set long ago. I’m starting to think of these as the Status Quo Rules for Middle East Engagement. If you like the status quo, these rules are for you.
Rule No. 1 is use the current crisis to advance your narrative. If you’re Jewish, that story involves words like “security”, “terrorism”, and “right to exist”. If you’re Muslim, it includes terms like, “humanitarian crisis”, “occupation” and “disproportionate violence”.
Rule No. 2 is talk about how bad it is where your people live. If you’re Jewish, that means highlighting the number of Hamas rockets fired into Israel and the number of lives lost and disrupted in cities like Sderot. If you’re Muslim, it involves talking about the prison that is Gaza and the disaster that is the West Bank.
Rule No. 3 is blame it on the other side. If you’re Jewish, that means pointing at the violent and belligerent defiance of Hamas. If you’re Muslim, it means talking about the suffocation of the blockade in Gaza and the occupation in the West Bank.
Following these rules makes perfect sense for the parties involved because just about every one of their talking points is true. Hamas is violent and belligerent. The blockade and occupation is suffocating. Life in Sderot is rife with fear. Life in Gaza does feel like a prison.
Here’s the only problem: the Status Quo Rules have not, and never will, lead anywhere but the status quo.
If we are going to move from Status Quo to Solution, we’re going to need a whole lot of courage and a different set of rules. People are going to have to come up with the courage on their own, but let me offer a set of “Solution Rules” for Muslim and Jewish organizations regarding the Middle East.
Rule No. 1: Make your first phone calls to the people who disagree with you on the current situation, but who agree with you on the basic outlines of a long-term solution – two states, with security and dignity for all. That’s a Coalition for a Solution, creative and courageous enough to get people’s attention. This means, difficult as it might be, resist the instinct to use the current crisis to find more people who will wave signs for your side, show up at your rallies or sign on to your petitions. That logic serves mostly to further prolong the conflict. Instead, use the spotlight on the Middle East to reach out to those on the other side who have the courage to play for a long-term solution and say, “Look, the status quo is untenable for everybody. It’s time for a different set of rules.”
Rule No. 2: Acknowledge the real issues on the other side. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress, models this in his recent press release when he says that he has been in Sderot and has “seen firsthand both the physical and emotional destruction caused by the rocket attacks”. That acknowledgment doesn’t take away from something else that Ellison says – which is that conditions in Gaza are “unliveable”. It merely means that Ellison has the eyes and the heart to imagine life on both sides of the fence.
In Status Quo Rules, recognizing the challenge on the other side makes you a traitor. In the Solution Rulebook, it makes you a true patriot, because it’s the fastest way to build trust with the people you have to build peace with.
Rule No. 3: Recognize that certain players who claim to be on “your side” are part of the problem. The truth is, you don’t want them on your side anyway. They are dangerous and destabilizing to your community. When peace is finally made with the other side, your first battle is going to be against them. Hamas is a destructive force to Israelis, and a destructive force to Palestinians. Muslims should feel no obligation to defend them. The militant settlers are murder to Palestinians, and also murder to Israel. No Jews should feel like they have to defend them either.
Rule No. 4: The politics of the Middle East is about where your family is. If your family is in Sderot, it is unbearable. If your family is in Gaza, it is also unbearable. Talking about whether scattered Hamas rockets are the equivalent of precision Israeli air raids, or whether Islamist rhetoric is as bad as Israeli occupation is logical but irrelevant. Logical because you can write press releases for your side using such talking points, irrelevant because it doesn’t build a bridge to the other side, which is the only way to a solution.
The sad truth of the Middle East conflict is that many Muslims and Jews agree that the Solution Rulebook makes sense to them, but when the crisis escalates and hits the front page (like now), the old logic takes over and Muslim and Jewish organizations revert to the Status Quo Rules.
But here’s the really sad truth. Every day is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and a humiliating subjugation in the West Bank. And every day is a security crisis in Sderot and tightening fear in Israel.
And all the well-meaning organizations following the Status Quo Rules, thinking they are serving their side, are really only prolonging the crisis.
US Jews, Muslims Need New Playbook
The Council of Islamic Relations calls the Israeli attack on Gaza a “disproportionate and counterproductive … massacre”. Its homepage features a photo of a bombed out building in Gaza with a panicked official ushering civilians to safety.
The American Jewish Committee’s homepage has a picture of Palestinian militants in ski masks holding guns next to a video of AJC Executive Director David Harris speaking of the “intolerable situation” Israel faces and how it had “no choice” but to bomb Gaza.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council is calling the Israeli air strike “brutal” and is helping raise money for Palestinian victims.
The Union for Reform Judaism calls the bombing “necessary” and is raising money for Israeli victims.
All pretty predictable, all pretty familiar.
Responding to a crisis in the Middle East is old hat to most American Muslim and American Jewish organizations. All they have to do is call up old press releases and fundraising letters, change a few names and dates, and they’re good to go. The playbook was written several decades back.
On the one hand, who can blame these organizations for hitting repeat? After all, they have clear and strong loyalties, and large and vocal constituencies. Circling the wagons and ringing the alarm bells has satisfied their respective sides for as long as anyone can remember. The proof shows up in the bank account during fundraising season, which happens to be right now.
Yet as I was reading through websites and press releases researching this column, I couldn’t help but notice something eerie that Muslim and Jewish organizations had in common: the mutual sense that the situation is even worse now than it was before. The Jewish organizations talked about the broader range of Hamas rockets. The Muslim organizations talked about the higher number of Palestinian casualties.
So let me get this straight. Both sides are saying that they need to be supported now more than ever. Both sides are congratulating themselves for contributing to their respective causes. Both sides are saying the situation is getting worse.
All of this adds a morbid new twist to the age-old proverb: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. The status quo in the Middle East is bad enough, and should make us all reflect on our approaches. But if the situation is actually deteriorating for everyone (which seems to be the one thing that Muslims and Jews can actually agree on), shouldn’t we tear up the old playbook and try something else?
One of my favorite quotes is Susan Sontag’s observation: “Whatever is happening, something else is always going on.” And amidst a lot of the same old, same old – there is something distinct taking place that is worth paying attention to.
Muslim and Jewish organizations once considered it a matter of pride to engage in a communications blockade of organizations “on the other side”. The basic line I’ve heard from both sides is, “We can’t talk to people we have such fundamental disagreements with.” And so interfaith groups break apart. Friendships between Muslims and Jews are strained. And we revert back to shouting our own talking points louder and louder.
But, slowly, it seems that some people are realizing that increasing the volume on your own talking points and trying to drown out the other side is not a strategy for getting to a solution.
A senior American Jewish official told me yesterday “Jews and Muslims in America should be modeling positive relationships here, and hoping that pattern offers a way forward over there.”
I emailed with senior officials of the Islamic Society of North America yesterday and they expressed a similar sentiment. In fact, point five of ISNA’s press release on the Gaza situation says the following: “Engage in informed dialogue with other Americans, especially Jewish Americans, so that religious differences do not become a source of civil discord and division ….”
My guess is that the idea of continuing positive engagement with people on the other side is probably gaining ground within Muslim and Jewish organizations, although it’s still very much a minority attitude (inertia is a powerful force).
And so we’re looking at a very small step towards a potentially big win.
The win isn’t just a rewriting of the respective playbooks that Muslim and Jewish organizations use when the Middle East conflict heats up. It’s the recognition that, if we want to actually solve the conflict, Muslim and Jewish groups should be writing a new playbook together – because they’re on the same side.
The first phone calls Jewish and Muslim officials should make when bombs explode over there are not to organizations within their own religious community, but to reasonable people in the other community.
The first line should be, “I’m on the side of coexistence, and I bet you are too. What public statements can we collectively make, what press releases can we cooperatively issue, which helps the side of coexistence defeat the demon of conflict?”
That’s a play that could change the game.