THE DECISION on Thursday by the Association of University Teachers to
reverse its boycott of two Israeli universities should be welcomed as a victory
of common sense over nonsense.
Freedom of speech and support for those who are dedicated to the pursuit of
truth are basic values of academic life. These are undermined by boycotts of
The same applies to the proposal to divest from Israel by some churches. It
would be far more constructive to invest in the many Israeli and Palestinian
organisations working for peace and reconciliation in the region.
Disengagement would only serve to weaken the positive developments that have
taken place since the death of Yassar Arafat last year — such as the expected
Israeli pullout from Gaza, and noticeable improved relations between political
However, the controversy does raise the question of how interested onlookers
should respond to a situation of conflict, whether between Israel and the
Palestinians or between students and their teacher in the classroom.
The Hebrew Bible is a good place to start, because it teaches that good
relations between people are dependent upon close personal encounters. The
prophets were experts in this, and Isaiah powerfully commends Israel to enter
into a personal relationship with God stating: “come now let us reason
together” (Isaiah 1.18).
This provides the basis for a successful dialogue, in which one partner
speaks to the “Other”, with full respect for what the “Other” has to say. This
is never less than personal, and can develop in such a way as to be extended to
a group and even to communities.
Martin Buber, in his exposition of the I-Thou relationship, maintains that a
relationship with God is truly personal when there is not only awe and respect
on the human side, but when we are not overwhelmed in our relationship with
This has implications for human-human dialogue, too. It means that two
people must meet as two valid centres of interest. We find it all too easy to
relate to others in a casual way, with a lack of concentration on the reality
and good of the Other. Outsiders to a conflict, if they are to make a positive
contribution, must demonstrate an understanding of the concerns of both sides.
IN THE MIDDLE EAST, a series of failures on both sides contributed to the
collapse of the peace process. On the Palestinian side, virtually nothing was
done to develop a mentality of peace. The language of hatred and violence
continued unabated in the media, in educational programmes and in religious
On the Israeli side, there was a failure to understand the pent-up
frustration of the Palestinians. There had been a lot of talk about progress,
but to many Palestinians, especially in the refugee camps, such statements rang
hollow, and Israel was viewed as the sole culprit for their sufferings.
Palestinian Christians should also have played a constructive role.
Patriarch Sabah has made statements urging reconciliation, but no programme has
been established to inculcate a new attitude of peace.
It is not too extreme to state that the Palestinian Church has faced a
serious theological crisis since the establishment of Israel. Palestinian
liberation theologians ask, with some justification, their fellow Christians
not to ignore the Palestinian people, their loss of homeland and struggle for
Yet the problem remains that some Palestinian liberation theologians are
politically partisan, hostile to Jews and Judaism, and naïve about the
possibilities of dialogue with increasingly militant Arab Islam. A negative
attitude towards Israel on the one hand, and an uncritical embrace of a radical
Palestinian liberation theology on the other, are unhelpful in overcoming
In fact, they are as obstructive to a peaceful solution as are extreme forms
of Zionism, held by some Jews and Christians, which view any action by Israel
as wholly positive.
An interested and informed onlooker should realise that the truth lies
somewhere between the two. The territorial distances between the Palestinians
and Israelis are much smaller than the emotional gap between the two peoples.
Today, the biggest problem is a lack of trust. Israelis are still angry with
the Palestinians for rejecting the Camp David proposals in 2000, and returning
to the use of terror. Palestinians are angry with the Israelis because they
live in poverty, under the constant threat of violence.
A story is told about an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader meeting
God, and asking whether there will ever be peace in the Middle East in their
lifetime. “Of course there will be peace,” says God. They looked relieved.
“However,” God continued, “not in my time.”
One hundred and twenty years after the beginning of modern Zionism, a
peaceful solution seems some distance away. Yet, in their hearts, both Israelis
and Palestinians know that good neighbours are better than good guns.
Dr Edward Kessler is director of the Centre for the study of
Jewish-Christian Relations in Cambridge.