The poignancy of the human tragedy that defines the Israeli-Palestinian relationship was brought to Boise last weekend when two participants in the struggle shared their stories with an audience that was firmly in the grip of pathos, pain and sympathy. The speakers did not talk about politics, but rather their shared humanity and the desperate need for civil dialogue and a path forward that would protect human dignity. There was in this program a lesson for everyone interested in civic engagement.
Eight years ago, founders of the Center for Emerging Futures, including Whit and Paula Jones, initiated in Israel a program, The Global Village Square, that sought to gather Israelis and Palestinians in a single room to discuss their lives, including their fears, hopes and dreams.
The concept represented a lofty aspiration. Few were willing to participate. After all, many Israelis and Palestinians viewed one another as monsters, and those who would dare to participate feared for their physical and emotional security, not to mention reprisals from friends and family members who would regard them as traitors.
The initial meeting drew roughly 25 very courageous people for a wide-ranging discussion. By the end of the day, most breathed a sigh of relief.
They had concluded that they were not in the room with monsters, but with human beings on the other side of the fence who shared the same concerns, fears and hopes for themselves and their families. That first program inspired another and another, as the number of participants tripled. Last week, the CEF, in conjunction with Boise State University's Andrus Center for Public Policy, sponsored on campus the first program in the United States.
Two of the inaugural participants eight years ago, shared their stories with an American audience. Ibrahim Issa, born in a Palestinian refugee camp, joined his friend, Eden Fuchs, a retired Israeli Army colonel in exploring the human side of the tragedy that has engulfed two wary neighbors. Their stories were moving and inspired tears.
Eden spoke first. His family had survived the Holocaust, which took the lives and property of family members in Germany. They were left with nothing. When they moved to Israel, they acquired land, which allowed them the opportunity of making a fresh start. Eden, a very bright, introspective, and sensitive man, reflected on the performance of his duties in a 20-year career in the military.
He was very troubled, some might say, haunted, by a question. Was he a good man or a bad man? Was he a good man for the things that he'd done, or a bad man for the things that he'd done? The conflict between his integrity and sense of duty was raw.
Ibrahim spoke next. In 1948, his family owned land and were successful farmers. The partition of the land, however, displaced his family.
As he told the story, one day "authorities" came to the family home and ordered them to leave. Their land would be given to Israelis. The family moved to a refugee camp where, several years later, Ibrahim was born. As a young boy, Ibrahim recalled, his father told him: "We have nothing and so you must be educated so you can have a future." He followed his father's advice an earned a M.A. in chemical engineering.
After working very hard, for many years, Ibrahim acquired a house. One night, Israeli soldiers knocked on the door and ordered him out of his home.
They suspected that he possessed military explosives and ordered him to produce the explosives or they would demolish his home in ten minutes. Ibrahim denied the accusations. A search revealed nothing. Still, the soldiers demolished his home. Then, they took him to a building, where they tortured him for days, before releasing him, confident that he did not possess any explosives. Without a home, he and his family returned to a refugee camp to live.
The Israeli-Palestinian tragedy has claimed many casualties. Despite his losses and suffering, Ibrahim is not bitter. "There is no going back," he observed. "There is only going forward."
The commitment of Ibrahim and Eden to finding a path forward, for families on both sides of a seemingly intractable divide to interact and to engage in joint activities and business pursuits and, most of all, a dialogue on their shared humanity is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape.
Their commitment to civil discussion and civic engagement can light the paths of those in other lands, including America, where ideological foes refuse to engage one another in pursuit of remedies to the challenges that confront us.
David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.