Debating Palestine and Israel
Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Mary Grey
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code
FEW long-running international disputes can have produced as
much heated disagreement as the one between Israel and the
Palestinians. Furthermore, it has largely been a dialogue of the
deaf: few Israelis and Palestinians have ever exchanged views
person to person.
For the most part, debate has consisted of long-distance tirades
from both sides, fuelled by hatred, suspicion, and prejudice. So it
is a pleasure to find here a rare instance of calm and rational
discussion of the subject.
Debating Palestine and Israel takes the form of an
exchange of letters between Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, an ardent
supporter of Israel, and the Christian theologian Professor Mary
Grey, an ardent supporter of the Palestinians.
The letters are collected in 20 chapters, each focusing loosely
on an historical era or event, starting with the anti-Semitism of
the 19th century before passing throughthe 20th - the Balfour
Declara-tion, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel, the
establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and
much more - and continuing to the present day.
Simply as a record of the birth and growth of the
Israel-Palestine dispute, with many quotations from scholarship on
both sides of the fence, together with a timeline and maps, this is
an informative and interesting book. But the real value comes from
following the authors' thoughtful exploration of all the
contentious issues that have contributed to keeping this wretched
As the two correspondents move forward through the decades,
frustration creeps into their prose, as each recognises the
difficulty of convincing the other of a point of view. "Sometimes I
think you have not read my answer to you!" Grey complains. "You
write of the Arab States as 'wanting to wipe Israel off the map';
of the PLO wanting to liquidate Israel - ignoring my attempt to
highlight the humanitarian and social side of the argument."
Cohn-Sherbok retorts: "I read your last exchanges with care. You
stress the humanitarian activities of the PLO. I do not dispute
that the PLO had these social concerns. But the PLO's main
objective was to wipe Israel off the map."
Despite their sharp differences, the two authors emphasise
throughout the book their common desire to seek ways of reconciling
the differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
As the exchange of letters progresses, one senses that, while
they are honestly and conscientiously examining the many
controversial questions, they will end up agreeing to disagree on
most. In her final letter, Grey says that she is "very aware of
areas we have not discussed in sufficient depth as well as the way
I have failed to convince you of many points".
Cohn-Sherbok concludes that their joint wrestling over the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict mayhave "left our readers dazed and
confused. This is inevitable, I believe, since the Palestinian and
the Israeli narratives are utterly different."
There, in a nutshell, lies the whole problem. Debating
Palestine and Israel is an essential handbook for future
Middle East mediators, and for all who want to know why trying to
find a common narrative has led even our most skilled diplomats and
statesmen to walk away from the challenge, feeling, well, dazed and
Gerald Butt is the Middle East Correspondent of the