December 10, 2005

The Quest for Peace
by NEIL CAPLAN. The Gazette. Montreal, Que.

Jennifer Miller provides a balanced description of the motives and inner fears of Israelis and Palestinians, while Alan Dershowitz calls for a Palestinian state

By Alan Dershowitz
John Wiley & Sons, 246 pages, $29.99

By Jennifer Miller
Ballantine Books, 261 pages, $34.95

These books are about two different aspects of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. One is about - and takes part in - the battle being waged between committed pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists seeking the sympathy and support of public opinion and governments around the world. The other examines the psychology and emotional baggage of the people caught up in this tragic protracted conflict, with special emphasis on the young. The two works are vastly different in tone, inspiration, content and prescription. While Alan Dershowitz focuses on public-relations tactics and geo- political strategies for winning Israel's struggle for acceptance and, ultimately, peace, Jennifer Miller deals with the motives and inner fears of both Israelis and Palestinians. While both books recognize how bitter and seemingly insoluble the conflict is, both authors nevertheless manage to find grounds for mild optimism.

Ever the consummate advocate, media-savvy lawyer Alan Dershowitz continues in this book where he left off in The Case for Israel (2003). The style is brash and polemical, drawing on freshly culled evidence of Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism around the globe. The author presents evidence seeking to incriminate Israel's many opponents in government, media and academe for their gratuitous hatred and their devious agendas aimed at demonizing and delegitimizing the Jewish state. Repeatedly, he denounces the double standards employed by do-gooders critical of Israel who refuse to apply the same exacting criticism to Palestinians and Arabs, or to other countries, large and small, that outperform Israel in the abuse of human rights.

All this is to be expected from an attorney whose brief is, after all, to defend his client and to discredit witnesses for the prosecution. Nor does Dershowitz shrink from attacking the integrity of his detractors, especially Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Alexander Cockburn. Fans may well delight in Dershowitz's skill at scoring points against his opponents, but non-partisan readers may be less impressed, given that his well-researched ammunition is selectively chosen and presented for maximum effect with the help of obvious rhetorical devices.

Whatever the impact of Dershowitz's indictment of the forces arrayed against Israel and against him personally, most readers will be struck by an unexpected positive thrust of this book: namely, his arguments that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can nonetheless be resolved, and that the only workable solution is one that includes the creation of an independent Palestinian-Arab state. Dershowitz generally endorses the late-2003 proposals for a two-state solution advocated by a team of prominent non-governmental Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers (the "Geneva Initiative"), conditioned by reciprocal steps to be taken by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in accordance with the "Road Map" issued by the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union) earlier that same year.

While the feisty and outspoken Dershowitz may remain anathema to many liberals who cannot accept his views on targeted killings and the use of torture, The Case for Peace makes a strong liberal- democratic appeal for pragmatic compromises that will disappoint most of Dershowitz's right-wing supporters in Israel and the Jewish diaspora. For, parallel to his condemnation of anti-peace attitudes among pro-Palestinian supporters abroad (e.g., "hard-left" academics whom he calls "more Palestinian than the Palestinians"), Dershowitz also denounces evangelical Christians and other die-hard fundamentalist supporters of "Greater Israel" (Eretz-Yisrael ha- Shlema) for being "more Israeli than the Israelis" in their ideological rejection of the territorial and other compromises that democratically elected Israeli officials are prepared to make.

Jennifer Miller's personal journey into the heart and guts of the conflict is as tentative, sensitive and modest as Dershowitz's case is shrill and confident. The daughter of a member of the Middle East negotiation team inside the U.S. State Department, Miller absorbed some insights into the conflict thanks to her father's privileged position, but she experienced it more directly with young people involved in the Seeds of Peace program. (See website: www.seedsofpeace.org)

Inheriting the Holy Land is the product of time spent meeting with both highly placed and lesser-known Israelis and Palestinians during 2002-2005, and especially visiting with Seeds (as the graduates of the program are known) - who have returned to their home environments after having first met "the enemy/other" in the controlled setting of a summer camp in Maine at various times since 1996.

Miller provides a judicious assessment of the successes and limitations of this unusual experiment in youth reconciliation and dialogue (whose organizing principles are similar to those of McGill University's Middle East Project in Peace Building and Civil Society, which offers courses for social workers who are brought here from, and then return back to, the region).

As she writes about her own voyage of discovery (at times comparing her quest to Monty Python and the Holy Grail or to National Lampoon's Vacation), Miller displays an engaging innocence and self-consciousness. More than once we find her facing harsh real- life situations among Palestinians and Israelis that force her to disclose, un-learn and/or revise beliefs and opinions formed during her growing-up as a sheltered, well-to-do, liberal American Jew.

Far from being a Pollyanna-ish or leftist pitch for peace and reconciliation, Miller's conversations with Israelis and Palestinians introduce us to real people, warts and all, slow to open up their hearts and expose their vulnerabilities. In encountering her questions, they wrestle with contradictions, ambiguities and uncertainties, and sometimes express brutish feelings about each other.

Her chapter on portrayals of "the other" in Palestinian and Israeli textbooks is refreshingly balanced, going beyond the usual simplistic accusations of negative stereotyping and willful promotion of hatred. On this topic, as on other matters, Miller has filled some of the gaps in her own knowledge with careful research, thus providing readers with useful, balanced and generally accurate background perspectives with which to judge the conflicting "facts" and arguments presented by the Israelis and Palestinians she interviews.

Readers will also appreciate her sensitive and respectful presentation of divergent viewpoints within each community, realistically avoiding misleading perceptions based on every issue being reduced to "(all) Israelis" vs. "(all) Palestinians." Her chapters on Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel, orthodox vs. secular Jews, the settlers of the Gush Etzion bloc, and the Israeli army are particularly good, disclosing many complex and perplexing attitudes, and raising important and disturbing questions rather than registering facile judgments.

Without providing us with definitive answers, these two very different books offer important insights into how the conflict on the ground in Israel/Palestine may one day be resolved. Comparing the two raises the question: Will a solution come from the top or the bottom? Will it be the result of a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough when a key negotiator or leader "sees the light" and takes a big risk for peace? Or will it come about painfully, slowly, in fits and starts, only after educating the next generation or two of young people for peace? Perhaps the two are interdependent.

When all is said and done, the real issue is not how to win the media and campus debates over who's right and/or the best way to bring about an end to the 120-year-old conflict over the Holy Land. These polemics are secondary to the real conflict on the ground, which continues to be marked by deep festering grievances, fears, hatreds, despair and mistrust of the kind so poignantly exposed by Jennifer Miller. Unfortunately, these very human obstacles to peace are not easily removed.

Neil Caplan teaches humanities at Vanier College and history at Concordia University. He is coordinating a symposium on Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives, to be held March 19-21, 2006.

(See website: peace.concordia.ca)