Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.

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thoughts on Palestine/Israel

April 24, 2009

I recently read City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor. It was an interesting book, that made a mostly successful attempt to humanize the conflict in Palestine/Israel by presenting the 20th-century history of Jaffa through a focus on the stories of several Jewish and Arab families. You can read my full review here, at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany; here I want to discuss some thoughts the book triggered.

I was reminded of how the conflict stems from not only from the direct interactions in the Palestine/Israel region, but from the centuries-old histories of each group. Jews lived in diaspora for hundreds of years and have frequently been persecuted, with the Holocaust the worst of it. This cultural history informs how they behave and what they believe today. In order to understand the conflict in the region it is important to understand this history as well. This goes well beyond what was presented in City of Oranges, but he does manage to convey this point to some extent, at least with regards to more recent persecutions: he relates the stories of individual Jews who came to live in Jaffa from Europe during the 1930s, when the Nazis were beginning to persecute them.

I knew generally speaking that there has been almost constant conflict in Palestine/Israel in the 20th century, but City of Oranges really made this clear. I feel more strongly than ever that they are stuck in a cycle of violence that must be broken out of. Each side continues to take actions that antagonize the other side, and continues to refuse to address the painful history. City of Oranges humanizes the conflict, and humanizing is the only way that peace will eventually be reached. Each needs to come to terms with their painful histories and learn to see the other side as human. They need to aknowledge the harms they have caused, in a way that allows the other side to reach a sense of closure. Peace is not going to be reached through continued violence, nor through negotiations and concessions that do not address the many-faceted and painful historical factors informing the conflict.

I did not realize the extent to which the British caused problems in the Middle East. Their power-hungry era of colonization is to a great extent responsible for destroying the (somewhat precarious) balances of relationships between multiple cultures in the region. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Jews and Arabs did live in relative peace in Palestine before the British Mandate. Unfortunately, there is no way to turn back history. Instead, we must work to heal the past and build a future in which once again Jews and Arabs can live together in peace.

The history of Jaffa and the individuals that LeBor interviewed demonstrate that it is possible for people of different religions and cultures to live together in a community. Peace will not happen by ignoring or shunning “the other”; it will happen only when people from different cultures can see each other as human.


Working towards Israel-Palestine peace

February 8, 2009

Perhaps some of the ideas I proposed in my post “Violence is not the solution” are not so far off. I was inspired to read an article in my local newspaper this morning about a couple who lived in Israel and Palestine for many years and now do peace work in the region:

The couple, who moved from Israel to the Foothills west of Boulder in 1994, are planning a three- to four-week trip to Israel next month to present their conflict resolution training to peace workers at Neve Shalom, an Arab and Jewish cooperative community outside Jerusalem.

I looked up Neve Shalom and it sounds like an incredible community doing important work. The name means “Oasis of Peace” and their homepage defines them as:

A village, jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, that is engaged in educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two peoples.

They have many wonderful projects, and one that caught my attention is The School for Peace, which has programs for adults:

Our goal is to develop participants’ awareness of the conflict and their role in it, and enable them to probe and construct their identity through interaction with the other; our orientation is shaped by the quest for a truly humane, egalitarian and just society.

Their staff facilitates encounters that stress dialogue in a safe environment. Reading about this program, I feel that this is the sort of work I would like to do: facilitating dialogues and deep, meaningful interactions between people. Some people from the program have written a book about their approach, Israeli and Palestinian Identities in Dialogue: The School for Peace Approach, by Rabah Halabi and Deb Reich. I definitely want to read it!