Israeli-Palestinian Discussion Fixates on Civility

From left: Hershel Richman, Lee Bender, Rabbi Beth Janus and Harris Devor | Photo provided

The heads in the audience at Germantown Jewish Centre Jan. 7 bobbed up and down, left to right, as wide as the issues discussed in front of them.

The panel discussion, “Israeli Palestinian Conflict: What You Think You Know May Be Incomplete — Or Wrong,” included four panelists: Lee Bender, co-president of the Zionist Organization of America’s Philadelphia chapter; Harris Devor, head of AIPAC’s Philadelphia chapter; Rabbi Beth Janus, local J Street board member and head of the local J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet; Hershel Richman, local J Street board member and supporter of the New Israel Fund; and moderator Judge Abraham Gafni.

Though the panelists are affiliated with various Jewish agencies, their participation showcased their personal views, which were not necessarily representative of those organizations.

The discussion, sponsored by the Germantown Jewish Centre Men’s Club, prepped the more than 100 tense attendees for the talk with an explanation about sensitivity and civility.

Prior to the event, panelists asked each other questions to present to the audience as to best illustrate their views with thoughtful, concise answers. Questions varied from the debate over settlements, if and how Palestinians are willing to recognize the State of Israel and come to peace negotiations, the controversy over the expected move of the U.S. Embassy to West Jerusalem, and what Israel could have done differently in communicating with Palestinians.

(By the second question, one woman grabbed her coat and left.)

But perhaps the most pertinent question was the last: How do the panelists view the conflict’s end goal?

Surprisingly, they mostly agreed on what they want for the future of Israel — it’s just the matter of how to get there.

Janus urged others to not dwell on the past when it comes to peace talks.

Janus said she is for a two-state solution, with Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side. She’s not optimistic, based on the current state of affairs, of that happening soon, but she doesn’t see any other way of negotiating peace.

“We should listen to the military experts in Israel more,” she noted, referencing the documentary The Gatekeepers, in which former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, explain the organization’s successes and failures since the Six-Day War. “We need to defer to those military experts more.”

Richman said the present Israeli government does not reflect Jewish values and rather emasculates Palestinians.

“The really big issue is to appreciate the fact that there are two dialogues: the Jewish dialogue and the Arab dialogue,” he said. “There are people on both sides who are sincerely interested in a peaceful two-state solution, and that we should do everything we can to encourage them to do what they have to do to change their respective governments so they can have leaders who can in fact effectuate a peaceful solution.”

But he hopes people realized that the discussion surrounding Israel can be done civilly. “There is legitimacy to a wide range of points of view,” he said, “and people are now hopefully aware of the range of points of views, and they can make more intelligent decisions about what they believe.”

Bender stood by his motto: “Israel wants peace, but our rights and security first.”

“The onus is not on us anymore to relate peace. We tried to. We’ve extended our hand,” he said fervently. “We have to put the onus on where it is and where it lies, and that’s with the Palestinian Arabs, and we have to consider them as responsible actors — not treat them as children. If they came to the table and wanted genuine, true peace, Israel has extended its hand, but not at the expense of our rights and our security.”

Devor took a more analytical approach. He argued for two states that are secure and peaceful, though he doesn’t see that happening any time soon with the current perspective of Palestinians.

“The reality is you can’t ignore the facts on the ground,” he said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “basically says, ‘I’ll sit down with [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] anytime, any place, and negotiate a real deal.’ Other than offering to do that, I don’t know if the other side refuses to take up the challenge. I don’t know that Israel can do much more.”

After the panelists spoke, a handful of questions from the audience were posed, though Janus said it wasn’t the back-and-forth discussion she hoped for.

“This wasn’t a dialogue,” she added. “It’s really important that as Jews we talk about Israel. We are so terrified to talk about Israel because it is so divisive, and I think that is really a mistake. As difficult as it is, and I am always pushing for civil discussion, we need to discuss this. We can’t sweep it under the rug.”

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