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Sense triumphs in boycott row

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 universities.

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 leaders.

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 God.

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 institutions.

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 liberation.

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 conflict.

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.

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