Diplomatic Pouch / May 3, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Two young American peace activists — one Jewish, the other Muslim — discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict for more than two hours on Apr. 14 without once resorting to name-calling, insults or accusations of distorting the truth.
Not exactly par for the course when it comes to the Middle East. But that's the way it should always be, say the two men at the center of this debate.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is executive director of J Street, a Washington-based Jewish nonprofit group that calls for an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank while supporting a two-state solution. He squared off against Salam Al-Marayati, the Iraqi-born executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Maria Jessop, senior program officer with the U.S. Institute of Peace, moderated the discussion, which took place at Georgetown University and was attended by 110 spectators.
"Only in America could Muslims and Jews have a debate like this on a Catholic campus," said Al-Marayati. "Neither of us is wiping out the other. There's none of that happening in America, which provides an opportunity to have this discourse that we really can't have anywhere else in the world."
Ben-Ami agreed: "There's this desire to own the truth, to ensure that the blame on the other side is greater so that we look better than they do. I think that's a huge mental barrier. Nobody is ever going to own history."
Al-Marayati, whose organization has been in existence since 1988, said this kind of interfaith dialogue can only work if both sides agree not to try to convert each other.
"I'm not a Zionist, and I don't expect him to convert me," he said, looking in Ben-Ami's direction. "We respect each other's philosophies, and that's very important. Most people who are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel don't get that. They say, 'let's have dialogue,' but then they expect the other to adopt his views. We must remove that obstacle by accepting each other for who we are."
Ben-Ami, whose J Street last week marked its second anniversary, said the current situation on the ground remains quite bleak, and that any decision by Israel to adopt a viable two-state solution will require a "massive change of course" in current policy.
"There will have to be a rollback of many settlements, and a movement of the security barriers to the actual border. The most important thing that has to happen is a mental change," he said. "The Israeli people still support the concept by a two-thirds majority, but they've given up a lot of hope that it can be done."
Al-Marayati told his audience that many Muslims are afraid of discussing the Middle East, even within their own interfaith groups.
"Personally, I've had to deal with the fear factor in so many ways, starting with my would-be appointment to the National Commisson on Terrorism back in 1998. It was made by Richard Gephardt, who at that time was the House minority leader. He had to rescind the appointment because of pressure from three or four pro-Israel organizations. That hurt America, not to have a Muslim on that commission. I hear countless similar stories from people who don't get this or that position because they don't pass that litmus test."
But Al-Marayati added that "we as Muslims cannot get angry and emotional about that, and start attacking the Jewish community. In my opinion, it's only one segment of the Jewish community which has that view."
Ben-Ami agreed, saying that "a majority of American Jews want dialogue" with their Arab counterparts here in the United States.
"We have many thoughtful, intelligent and rational people who are relatively moderate. What J Street is trying to do in the pro-Israel, pro-peace community is activate more moderates to join, people who would not say you can't be on a national commission because you're a Muslim," he said. "The problem is that such people are already working on things like global warming, world hunger and civil rights."
But U.S. leadership in this effort is critical, said Ben-Ami, especially since the first year of the Obama administration has essentially been "wasted" when it comes to Middle East negotiations.
"The United States has a critical role to play," he said. "The parties involved will not figure this out if left to themselves. I'm a strong believer that the U.S. has to be the party at the head of the table, not simply serving tea. We've got to be knocking heads, enforcing timetables, making it serious. But the United States is only going to do it if the political leadership feels there's support for this."
Asked by one Georgetown student if J Street would endorse a bill to slash aid to Israel by one dollar for every dollar it spends on building Jewish settlements in occupied territory, Ben-Ami didn't hesitate to say no.
"We would not," he replied. "There are now 300,000 settlers in the West Bank. I don't think that kind of activity is going to encourage the Israelis to feel confident in making the sacrifices needed for peace. It would only cause a greater sense of 'bunker mentality.' Peace will be made when Israelis feel secure enough to make that peace. So we don't support putting that aid at risk."
Al-Marayati said Jewish settlements in the West Bank are jeopardizing the idea of two separate countries for Israelis and Palestinians.
"They are making it impossible to have a continuous, sovereign independent Palestinian state on the West Bank," he said. "As a result, many Palestinians are saying there's only one way to go, a one-state solution. But we are for a two-state solution."
On the other hand, he said, "I'm not here to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. I'm here to promote understanding between Muslims and Jews so that we can create a constituency for the peace process."