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.