Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
They are principled people. They say, “condemn the injustice and then we will talk to you.” Or they say “set forth your political vision and if it expresses what we hold to be true, then we can hold a dialogue with you.” Or they demand that we admit guilt and acknowledge culpability as a precondition to sitting down at the same table with us.
We see it all the time in the Palestinian–Israeli arena. Palestinian partisans demand that we condemn settlements or admit that settlers live on stolen land or that we come out publicly in support of the right of return. Advocates for Israel demand that the Palestinians condemn payments to the families of those sitting behind bars for anti-Israel crimes or that they recognize Israel as a Jewish State. “Afterwards we can sit and talk”, they say.
It happens at the highest level between national leaders, it happens between organizations, and it happens between individuals.
I understand it. As a settler peace activist, I know that my Palestinians brothers and sisters need me to show that I recognize their pain. They need to know that I acknowledge the injustice that they experience, that I support their legitimate national aspirations. They need to know that I hear them.
I get it. I do hear them. Deeply. But making public statements and taking public stands – or even private ones – is not always the way.
The meaningful statements that each side wants the other to make as a precondition to dialogue are unilateral capitulations to the other side’s truth. They are obvious and self-evident to one side but not at all to the other side. They may assuage the feelings of those who demand them but will alienate the constituency of the side that is forced to make them. They may open up the hearts of those who receive them, but they close down the hearts of the countrymen and women who are coerced into articulating them.
If we continue to demand that the Other see our truth before we sit down to talk, we may never sit down to talk. And if we don’t sit down to talk, the Other will never see our truth. For our truth to penetrate the hard shell of the Other’s one-sided identity, he has to first sit next to a human being, look into her eyes, feel her pain, hear the anguish and passion in her voice. Human rapport — and not public statements — is a precondition to empathy. When there is basic human empathy, the words fall on fertile soil in which their human meaning can begin to take root.
We have to sit down to talk without preconditions. And to talk does not mean to negotiate. It does not mean to speak in order to change someone else’s mind. Rather, it is to tell the story of who you are and then to listen deeply when she tells the story of who she is. It means to put aside insular self-assurance and to don the mantle of existential human vulnerability. It means to be fully open to the Other and to be ready to learn – and even to change.
At that point, the positions that we had earlier thought to constitute elementary human justice and fairness may now appear to us to be simplistic and naïve. The stands that we had demanded that the other take may turn out to be nothing if not the results of our own ignorance and one-sided perspective. After we really hear each other and even identify with the Other’s experience of himself and of ourselves, we may come to see that the truth is much more complex and nuanced than we ever knew.
We may even find ourselves relieved that the other side never came out with the one-sided statements that we had fought so hard to force it to adopt!