3 Peacebuilders Who Are Working To Bridge The Israel-Palestine Divide

27/09/2016 7:58 PM IST | Updated 30/09/2016 8:34 AM IST
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Muslim woman walking by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Stephen R. Covey, author of the hugely popular bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People wrote his final and probably most insightful (though somewhat overlooked) book shortly before he died—The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems. As the title suggests, the book explores a viable third alternative to the prevailing "your way vs. my way" approach to conflicts at home, at work, in society and around the world.

I watched my enemy trying to save my mother. It was a very important event in my life. For me it was one of many turning points from 'us or them' to 'us and them. Mohammed Dajani

In this book Covey suggests that all conflicts have their roots in a flawed paradigm which goes something like this:

I see only my side. I am right, therefore you are wrong. Because of that, I see you only as a representative of your side. I stereotype you. I thus defend myself against your point of view. As a result, I attack you. We make war on each other.

Covey contends that in order to truly establish lasting peace, we need to replace that simple but profoundly destructive paradigm with a new one:

I see myself, independent of "my side'. I see you not just in terms of 'your side' but as a human being worthy of respect. Instead of stereotyping you, I treat you with, in the words of the great psychologist Carl Rogers, "positive unconditional regard". As a result, I sincerely and genuinely endeavour to understand your point of view. I don't feel threatened by the fact that we see the world differently. Once we have established an atmosphere of genuine, mutual respect, we create the conditions needed to find powerful and creative solutions to our problems together – better than anything either of us would have come up with on our own.

Covey explores several compelling examples of people across all walks of life who have successfully managed to change their paradigm and find a "3rd Alternative". Three such remarkable people mentioned in the book are Mohammed Dajani, Ron Kronish and Margaret Karram. In a land deeply divided by religious strife and issues of ethnic violence, these remarkable people are showing the people of the Middle East a better way to live. Here are their stories.

Mohammed Dajani

The Washington Institute

Mohammed S. Dajani has illustrious ancestors and a radical personal history. In the year 1524, his family was given custody of King David's tomb by Suleiman the Magnificent—a charge they held with great pride all the way till the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Like many other Palestinian Arab families, the Dajanis were uprooted and like other Palestinians they too viewed this as al-Nakba, or "the Catastrophe". Dajani become part of the resistance and went on to become a powerful orator at the University of Beirut in the 70s. He urged massive crowds to rally around the cause of Palestinian liberation and went on to become lieutenant to Yasser Arafat, one of the main leaders of the resistance to the Jewish state.

"I believed for a long time that only force was the solution," says Dajani, till one day an event at an Israeli Defense Forces checkpoint changed his life forever. As Dajani and his family neared a long line of vehicles at the checkpoint, his elderly mother suddenly collapsed from asthma. Desperate to get his mother to a hospital but fully expecting the Israeli soldiers to be callous and indifferent, he asked the soldiers to please let them go through the checkpoint quickly.

To his great surprise, the soldiers immediately ordered an ambulance and transported his mother to an Israeli army hospital.

"That afternoon," he says, "I watched my enemy trying to save my mother. It was a very important event in my life. For me it was one of many turning points from 'us or them' to 'us and them.'"

The roots of the problem lie in the fact that Palestinian youth are growing up learning two lessons: that the only way to resolve conflict or differences is through a win-lose formula. Mohammed Dajani

His incredible change of heart led him to establish an organization called Wasatia to educate young Palestinians specifically against polarized thinking. The name of the organization comes from the word wasatan in the Quran. The term wasatia means "moderation". Wasatia is dedicated to moving beyond extremes toward a higher, more balanced approach towards life.

Professor Dajani explains, "The roots of the problem lie in the fact that Palestinian youth are growing up learning two lessons: that the only way to resolve conflict or differences is through a win-lose formula; and that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are not meant to coexist, let alone thrive together."

Dajani says it was the Israeli soldiers' unexpected kindness that led him to start his movement among his fellow Palestinians. His commitment to peace was further strengthened when Israeli doctors treated Dajani's father with kindness. He was being treated for cancer at an Israeli hospital. "The staff laughed and joked with him and didn't treat him as an Arab—that was an eye-opener for me," says Dajani.

But his efforts at building peace have not come without a price. In 2014 he took a group of young Palestinians who have been brought up to deny the reality of the Holocaust to see the death camps of Auschwitz. It was a profoundly moving experience for them and helped them to understand the history of the "Jewish oppressors" and see the world (and history) from their point of view.

The visit, however, caused no small uproar amongst the fundamentalist Palestinians back home and cost him his position at Al Quds University. But Mohammed Dajani has no regrets. When asked if he would take students again to Auschwitz after what happened, he says "Yes, definitely, this will not stop me. On the contrary, I think that it should be done again. And that it should be done also with different sectors within the Palestinian society: religious leaders, journalists and educators."

Rabbi Ron Kronish

Rabbi Ron Kronish

Rabbi Ron Kronish is a rabbi with a difference. Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), he has dedicated his life to providing opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to listen with empathy to each other via structured, systematic and sustained dialogues.

"Palestinians and Israelis rarely meet one another in daily life," he says. "We are flooded with terrible media stereotypes of each other. Palestinians meet Jews mostly at checkpoints. They see the Jews there as soldiers who are part of an occupying army. To Jews, Palestinians are perceived as terrorists and Islam is considered to be a religion of death, which encourages suicide bombers."

It's a radical surprise to people who enter into dialogue with those they consider 'the enemy' to see that the others are actually human... Ron Kronish

To counter the prevailing stereotypes Rabbi Kronish regularly brings men, women, youth, young adults, educators, religious leaders from both sides together—people who can be catalysts for change in their communities—and helps them to get to understand each other. He says, "It's a radical surprise to people who enter into dialogue with those they consider 'the enemy' to see that the others are actually human and that each person has a unique story, which is usually also related to the larger religious and political conflict." Although the ICCI dialogues sometimes get heated and are often difficult, most participants stay the course once a deep need for empathic listening has taken over. These people want to understand one another and to see how they can learn to live together.

Margaret Karram

Working with Rabbi Kronish at the ICCI is Margaret Karram, a Palestinian Arab with a complex identity. She says, "I am an Israeli Catholic Christian Arab Palestinian."

As a child, Margaret suffered at the hands of Jewish children in her neighbourhood on Mt. Carmel. As if mirroring the adults, they regularly threw stones at her and called her names. One day when she came home crying as she often did, her mother who was baking told her to invite the Jewish children into the kitchen, where she gave each of them Arab bread to take home to their families. The Jewish parents in the neighbourhood reciprocated her thoughtfulness, and soon they were attending each other's feasts. And a peaceful and harmonious community developed in that little neighbourhood of Haifa.

At the age of 15, Karram met the Focolare Movement, a worldwide Catholic movement whose aim is to foster dialogue between different peoples and religions. Following her mother's example and inspired by the spiritual values of the Focolare Movement, Karram came to love her Jewish friends and, as a Christian, was determined to learn more about them. She went to Los Angeles for Jewish studies at the University of Judaism. For six months, the other students assumed she was a Jew, but when they eventually found out who she was, they were stunned. Here was a Palestinian Arab studying the Torah and Talmud alongside them! She explained to them that she was there to help close the gap between them and her people. "To do that," she said, "I have to know you."

After five years she graduated and returned to her homeland, an Arab with "a college degree in empathy." Margaret Karram lectures on Jewish-Christian-Arab relations. She is a bridge builder between cultures and lives to create dialogue and promote empathy.

Prof Dajani sums it up well:

"For conflict resolution and peace to materialize, empathy is an essential ingredient (in changing) the feelings of both people from hatred and enmity to compassion and understanding. Increasing empathy is a key goal of conflict-resolution programs. Some may argue this is easier said than done but with persistence, goodwill, and determination it can be done. In Ireland and South Africa, peace-building initiatives were not always successful but eventually, in Ireland a peace agreement was signed and South Africa witnessed the end of apartheid.

"Reasonable people brought themselves to consider the opposing side's perspective, and as a result could muster empathy and compassion for their suffering paving the way for reconciliation and peace... Building trust and empathy between Israelis and Palestinians may not be enough to achieve peace but at least it will open the channels of dialogue and reconciliation paving the way for peace and prosperity."

The leaders of India and Pakistan would do well to take note.


Interview with Mohammed Dajani, Wasatia Headquarters, Beit-Hanina, Israel, January 12, 2010 as mentioned in Stephen R. Covey's 'The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems'

Interview with Dr. Ron Kronish, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, January 7, 2011 as mentioned in Stephen R. Covey's 'The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems'

Interview with Margaret Karram, Wasatia Headquarters, Beit-Hanina, Israel, January 12, 2011 as mentioned in The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems by Stephen R. Covey

Memento Mori by Pablo Bartholomew

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