In an interview with PBS in 2002, Israeli author Amos Oz defined tragedy as "a clash between right and right." Indeed, a clash between right and wrong would be rather boring, lending itself to an easy solution. In the bitterest conflicts, both sides argue over who is right and who is wrong. Because of how painfully they have been wronged, each side is unable to see beyond their own victimhood. What they fail to see, however, is that the past has passed. When so much pain has been inflicted, recognizing the wounds of your enemy can be the only way forward.
A remarkable study by anthropologist Scott Atran and psychologist Jeremy Ginges went by virtually unnoticed when it was published in 2009. The two researchers interviewed 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life, asking them what a peace settlement would require. The results were astounding. It was not material or pragmatic concessions—border changes, the end of settlements, monetary compensation, and the right of return—that pushed Israelis and Palestinians towards peace. Rather, it was the simplest and seemingly the easiest action: a symbolic apology.
Radicals who refused money or land concessions were significantly more inclined to accept deals that involved symbolic gestures by their enemies. Mousa Abu Marzook, Hamas’s deputy chairman, when asked about a potential Israeli apology, stated, “Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that.” Benjamin Netanyahu, president of Israel, when asked if he would accept a two-state solution along 1967 borders if all Palestinian groups recognized the Jewish right to an independent state, said: “O.K., but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations.”
Apologies do not end wars, but in a conflict as stagnant as the one in Israel and Palestine, respecting the sacred and symbolic promotes progress on the material. The current peace process is entrenched in a utilitarian, tit-for-tat calculus: Give Israel this, then you must give the Palestinians that. In reality however, the pragmatic concessions are the most superficial. Amos Oz notes that, “a conflict begins and ends in the hearts and minds of people, not in the hilltops.” The hilltops are rallying points, symbols of a deeper conflict: the belief that the enemy is not like us. They do not and cannot think like us. The real stumbling block in this conflict, then, is the unwillingness to admit wrong.
In 2009, I spent two months in Israel and Palestine. Most of that time was spent living and working in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. I tried to learn as much about the conflict as possible from as many perspectives as possible. At Tel Aviv’s airport on my way home, I was detained by Israeli authorities after they noticed the Arabic dictionary in my backpack. After two hours of interrogation and a thorough strip search, I was blacklisted from Israel for suspicious activities and sent home.
As a freshman at Harvard, I began writing articles on Israel and Palestine. I joined Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, helping organize events and meetings to raise awareness on the Palestinian plight. After a year, I stopped writing articles and left PSC. I am not a defeatist nor am I afraid, but I refuse to preach to the choir. My articles earned me praise from those who already agreed and hate from those who didn’t. But what really saddened me was the “I know I am right” attitude that I experienced in PSC and its pro-Israel counterparts. Of course we are right. The problem is that the other side believes something different and believes it is right, too.
Japanese author Haruki Murakami spoke some curious words concerning the humanity of the enemy: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide.”
On one level, the wall and the egg are metaphors for power versus weakness, for bombs and tanks versus unarmed civilians. More deeply, however, the metaphor sees each human being as an egg, a unique soul in a fragile shell struggling in face of the high wall of life. The wall is the struggle against the imperfections of the time and place in which we are born, imperfections that threaten to crush and kill each and every one of us.
Israel and Palestine are a couple proclaiming the same self-fulfilling prophecy: “My enemy hates me! The wall is too big!” Tensions rise and a fight breaks out between the angry couple. The prophecy is fulfilled. But the prophecy reeks of loneliness. Israel and Palestine are nervous lovers who have not yet come to grips with the weakness and humanity of the other. Peace begins in the mind. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. Were this page big enough, I would repeat it forever.
Felix de Rosen ’13 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.