I’m just back from leading a World Affairs Council seminar tour to Israel and the territories of the Palestinian Authority. This was an all-too-rare experience in which a group of open-minded Americans from across the country learned the perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians from many walks and stations of life.
What’s the takeaway? Well, surely no magic bullet “solution,” no underlying consensus to be dug out from the layers of fundamentally incompatible narratives filled with half-truths, false moral equivalencies, and sometimes outright misstatements of facts.
On the Palestinian side, we saw maps that include every inch of land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River labeled as “Palestine,” but not including the vibrant, world-class metropolitan area of Tel Aviv, as if the last 150 years had never happened.
On the Israeli side, we saw maps in which every inch of the land on which millions of Palestinians live today under a bruising occupation was labeled as “Judea and Samaria,” as if an assertion of a biblical entitlement to the land eliminates the rights of a people who have lived there for centuries.
Some on both sides know how to “solve” “the situation” — each would have the other side admit its crimes, surrender, and leave “their” land.
It seems hopeless. And before we merely chalk this up to the particularly tangled historical and psychological roots of the conflict in the Middle East, let’s take a look in the mirror at the Cold Civil War into which America now seems to have descended, a world in which our fellow citizens with whom we disagree are considered “un-American,” and only those who share our views are “real Americans”.
And look elsewhere around the world, from the crises over the unity of Spain and the “United” Kingdom, to the atrocities underway toward the Rohingya community in Myanmar.
It’s easy to see hopelessness as spreading in terms of an increasingly splintered humanity. Forces of tribalistic entropy appear to be on the upswing, while countervailing evolutionary forces of increased commonality seem in retreat.
But then there is this.
One of the stories our group heard was from a retired Israeli general, Nehemia Dagan.
I don’t present Dagan as an embodiment of “the whole truth.” His views on policy are as controversial as everything else in Israel, and the country practically overflows with retired generals with opinions. But the story of his that moved me isn’t about policy. It’s about first principles in human relations and how to imagine expanding the limits of policies.
Dagan told of being selected as one of Israel’s earliest helicopter pilots and being sent in 1963 for flight training in West Germany.
In 1963 the Holocaust was not a historical event, an experience of folks’ ancestors. It was only 18 years in the past, and still very much a living and lived experience.
This young Israeli lieutenant landed at an airbase in Germany that had been the headquarters of the Luftwaffe. Not knowing the geography perfectly, he was stunned that on his first flight, his route took him directly over the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
So this young Jewish man, born in what would soon be Israel, but with many family members murdered by Germans, in the very spot over which he now controlled a powerful weapon of war, was transformed by the juxtaposition.
And then something else happened that Dagan said changed him forever. He landed, stepped off the aircraft, and was greeted by a German sergeant who immediately, and appropriately, saluted a superior officer, Dagan, in his uniform emblazoned with the Star of David.
The symbol of the Jewish people, proudly worn by a young warrior on behalf of that people, was saluted in Germany, by a German soldier, less than 20 years after that soldier’s earlier counterparts were trying to exterminate the entire Jewish people.
The lesson for the general — and I think for us all in these times of great divisiveness — is that in human relations, anything is possible. With a firm will to do so, circumstances can be shaped in which any divide between our human tribes can be bridged.
Craig Snyder is president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Csnyder@wacphila.org